The portraits and dresses of Queen Elizabeth I are a maze of symbolism and symbolic motifs, many of which would lead us a merry dance into blind alleys. The important thing is that they do demonstrate that symbolism was all important, and that embroidery employed a silent language which, like ancient oracles, could be interpreted with a certain amount of intended ambiguity. We have looked before at the serpent which can signify wisdom on one hand or deception on the other. In the Rainbow portrait by Isaac Oliver of 1600, there is no doubt at all that we are intended to see the serpent on Elizabeth's sleeve. It could be a symbol of wisdom..... or it could be her birth sign. Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533 which makes her, like me, a Virgo. Recent historical research has sought to part the curtains on Princess Elizabeth's early bedroom life and it appears that claims to her virginity are in serious doubt.
In this earlier Hardwick portrait commissioned by Bess of Hardwick in 1599 of Nicholas Hilliard (Bess is also said to have embroidered this skirt), serpents are again to be seen. Perhaps there were rumours and innuendos about her purported virginity in her own life time, and perhaps this is her response - a queen born under the sign of Virgo is a Virgin queen! The serpent is the symbol of Virgo in Chinese astrology...as her astrologer, Dr John Dee, who cast her charts would, no doubt, have told her.