MOA: The thrill of historic discovery in our own backyard

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The installation of a rare 1593 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at the Museum of the Albemarle reminds me that, just when you think there is nothing left to discover, you find a queen.

The circumstances of this discovery are well known to those that have followed the story. However, if you remember when the portrait hung in the Elizabethan Gardens’ gatehouse then you may be wondering how it went unnoticed for so many years. The simple answer is that extraordinary finds are often hiding in plain sight.

It just takes the right person to ask a question. Thousands of visitors to the gardens have walked past this, let’s be honest, rather unflattering depiction of an aged Elizabeth. Yet it was not until 2008 that an East Carolina University professor took notice.

Like all good discoveries things move quickly and today this portrait sits on display in the museum’s main gallery Our Story. Visitors should look for the painting near the beginning of the exhibit in the Maritime section. Located here are items such as a breastplate and a collection of coins dating to the late 16th Century Elizabethan era.

Why is this painting significant and how does it relate to our region? There are numerous surviving portraits of Queen Elizabeth I throughout her reign. What makes this painting unique, and perhaps the reason it went unnoticed, is how uncomplimentary it is of her.

During the late 16th century England began to exert its influences throughout the globe. Known as the Golden age in English history, the Elizabethan era (1558-1603) hit the shores of North Carolina in 1584 when ships financed by Sir Walter Raleigh landed at the Outer Banks. Raleigh receives most of the credit for this exploration, but it was Elizabeth who allowed it.

England’s rising global influence began earlier with Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry the VII. Henry founded the Tudor Dynasty after his army defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He reigned for close to 24 years and was succeeded by his more famous son Henry VIII.

Henry VIII is best known for his many wives but his real impact, the English Reformation or separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, was his true lasting legacy.

Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry and his second wife Anne Boleyn, came to power in 1558. She ruled until her death in 1603. With no heir, James VI became King in 1603 and the Tudor Dynasty came to an end.

The portrait on display here at the museum reminds us of several things. First, it shows us that there are more fantastic discoveries yet to be made in our own backyard. This historically significant portrait sat quietly in a gatehouse until someone took notice.

Next, it represents the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

Finally, it represents one of the most influential women in history. Elizabeth I helped shape our modern world with many of her actions and decisions.

Clay Swindell is a collection specialist with Museum of the Albemarle.