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"Mirrours More than One": the Hall of Elizabethan Mirrors in Spenser's The Faerie Queene

In early modern Europe, mirrors were all the rage. The advent of glass mirrors in the twelfth century brought with it a proliferation of mirrors both physical and metaphorical, leading Herbert Grabes to dub the period from 1200 to 1700 “The Age of the Mirror” (4, 14). For half a millennium, mirrors abounded: in decoration, in fashion, in scientific inquiry, and—most pertinently for my argument—in literature (5). This phenomenon was most pronounced in England, where it reached its peak during the century spanning from 1550 to 1650 (12), a period that neatly bestrides the first publication of Books I to III of The Faerie Queene in 1590.

Accordingly, mirror metaphors feature heavily in Spenser’s epic, especially in the proems to the first three books, where they are used in direct address to the queen. While the first proem uses the term in the sense of “exemplar” (OED), featuring the queen herself as a “Mirrour of grace and majesty divine” (4.2), by the second, it is Spenser’s poem that becomes a “fayre mirrhour” in which Elizabeth may “behold thy face / And thine owne realms in lond of Faery” (4.7-8). Finally, by the third proem, the book has become not just a single mirror, but “mirrours more then one” in which the queen may view aspects of herself (5.6). The poet names only two of these “mirrours” explicitly: Gloriana to represent “her rule” and Belphoebe “her rare chastitee” (5.7-9). However, use of the ambiguous phrase “more then one” suggests not merely a pair, but a multiplicity of mirrors.

Although unnamed by Spenser, these additional reflections appear throughout the poem, and could be deemed necessary to portraying a figure as complex as Elizabeth, a woman whose rule proved so problematic to her contemporaries that it required justification through an iconography that portrayed her as simultaneously inhabiting a myriad of contradictory roles: virgin, mother, lover, goddess, Protestant queen. As Spenser writes, no “life-resembling pencill” could portray the queen, nor “choicest witt / … [her] glorious pourtraict figure playne” (Proem III.2.2, 3.6-7). However, this is not as the poet flatteringly states, merely because of the queen’s “perfections” (2.5), but because her impossible identity in no way resembled life, nor could it be figured plainly in any single woman. Therefore, Spenser instead presents his most prominent reader not with a single looking glass, but with a complex hall of mirrors, some flattering, like the directly identified Gloriana and Belphoebe, and some more critical.A closer examination of Book III reveals at least two such additional mirrors, used to focus critical attention on the queen’s decision to remain single and childless.

Perhaps The Faerie Queene’s most prominent mirror of Elizabeth is neither the invisible Gloriana nor the peripheral Belphoebe, but the chaste knight Britomart, around whom the third book centers. Although unmentioned in the proem, she plays major roles in Books III to V, and while the now popular image of Elizabeth in armor at Tilbury seems to have been an invention of later biographers (Frye 96), many other parallels exist between her and Spenser’s “martial Mayd” (ii.9.4). Both are royal virgins and heirs to the thrones of their fathers, and Britomart hails from the Tudor homeland of “Britayne” or “Wales, rather than England” according to A.C. Hamilton’s footnote (i.8.7). Most significantly, Britomart exemplifies the virtue around which Elizabeth’s iconography was constructed and routinely defeats male knights in single combat due to “The secrete virtue of that weapon keene” (i.10.5-6). Although literally, this weapon is an enchanted spear, its “secrete virtue” seems to connect its power to her chastity, and therefore to what Susan Frye aptly describes as “the royal mythology that the Queen’s chastity made her invulnerable to male threat,” an idea that was particularly prominent after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, two years before the initial publication of The Faerie Queene (106).

Beyond these parallels, which alone may seem merely to establish Britomart as a virtuous ancestor of the queen, Spenser describes his chaste knight in language that clearly and specifically hearkens back to the language used to address Elizabeth in the proem. For example, when Britomart lifts her visor in Malecasta’s castle, Spenser’s first description of her face is a comparison to “fayre Cynthia” (i.43.1), the virginal image used by Ralegh to describe the queen in his poem “The Ocean to Cynthia,” a conceit praised and then borrowed by Spenser in the proem (4.6, 5.5). This repetition of language from the proem occurs again in the third stanza of the second canto

Of warlike puissaunce in ages spent,
Be thou faire Britomart, whose prayse I write,
But of all wisedom bee thou precedent,
O soueraine Queene, whose prayse I would endyte,
Endyte I would as dewtie doth excyte;
But ah my rymes too rude and rugged are,
When in so high an object they do lyte,
And striuing, fit to make, I feare doe marre:
Thy selfe thy praises tell, and make them knowen farre.

While praising Britomart for her martial skill and power, this passage reiterates the chief regret previously stated in the proem, that the poet cannot so “prayse” the queen for her “wisedom” without “marring” her perfection through imperfect portrayal. Although seeming only to distinguish Britomart from Elizabeth, the one representable and the other “too high an object” for representation, this statement also draws commonalties between the two. Each is a prime example of female virtue, the one possessing physical power that can be made visibly manifest, the other a more abstract, intangible virtue of the mind. Both are exemplars, similarly regal and pure, the chief difference being that Britomart’s virtue can be portrayed by the poet, who bizarrely concludes that Elizabeth should “Thy self thy praises tell, and make them knowen farre.” This seems an uncharacteristically impertinent—or even downright lazy—suggestion coming from a poet whose tone can elsewhere be described as worshipful, devoting stanzas of description to the indescribability of the queen’s virtue and offering her “mirrours,” however imperfect, for her pleasurable observation of that virtue. Here instead, he seems to simply throw up his hands and leave the work of praising the queen to the queen herself.

One possible explanation for this seeming anomaly is the mirror trope already employed by the poet. Having already established his book in the proems as a mirror for the queen, with her own person and kingdom reflected in the text, “in lond of Faery” (II.4.8) and stated that he may only render the queen’s portrait “in colourd shows… / And antique praises vnto present persons fit” (III.3.8-9), the poet may imply here that although he “Cannot [her] glorious pourtraict figure playne” (III.3.7), he can provide an allegorical representation of the queen. Therefore, while Spenser cannot describe Elizabeth straightforwardly, the queen tells her own praises in the sense that her own reflections—including Britomart, a tangible representation of Elizabeth’s intangible virtue in statecraft, physically confronting enemies and threats with great success just as Elizabeth did less directly in her rule—express her virtues in a way that Spenser himself cannot when speaking of Elizabeth directly. In this way, the poet employs Elizabeth’s self—or many selves—to “tell” and spread her praise.

However, it is not merely for the purposes of praise and the propagation of patriotic Elizabethan iconography that Spenser employs a variety of mirrors for the queen. These mirrors allow the poet to express simultaneous praise and criticism, both taking advantage of the authority and importance to be gained through contribution to the cult of Elizabeth and employing it to offer a measure of covert commentary on both court and queen. As Louis Montrose writes in his discussion of Ralegh’s role as “idolator” to Elizabeth as Cynthia, engaging in a chaste mock-courtship with the queen and distributing her image among Native Americans in the form of gold coins, the “subtle foregrounding of the politic subject’s agency in sustaining [the monarch’s] authority [was] to the mutual benefit of his sovereign and himself” (“Idols” 139). While the queen benefitted from her devotees’ contributing to her semi-divine royal image, those devotees gained a part in creating that image and therefore both prominence and a degree of influence. Also according to Montrose, Spenser took advantage of this tactic, emphasizing his own agency in the creation of the Cult and Elizabeth’s authority itself by tracing the queen’s ancestry to his own creation, Britomart (“Spencer” 935). Therefore, even in the seemingly flattering guise of mirroring Elizabeth’s virtues for her, Spenser is establishing his own power as a key engineer of the queen’s all-important political image. More subversively, he is also constructing her as he sees her and as he wishes her to be seen.

Along this vein, it becomes apparent why Spenser leaves many of his Elizabeth mirrors unmentioned. Although some of these unnamed mirrors, such as Britomart, appear unambiguously flattering, others such as Acrasia, cited by Montrose as an emblem of Elizabethan courtly excess (“Spenser” 930), and Radigund, suggested by Andrew Hadfield as a tyrannical mirror to Britomart (62), are unambiguously sinister. Additionally, on second glance, even seemingly uncritical mirrors tend to raise some provocative questions. For an illustration of this, one needs look no further than the example of Britomart in Book III.

Although Britomart resembles the queen in a number of ways, especially her chastity, she is dramatically different in one crucial regard: her quest to fulfill her “heuenly destiny” (III.iii.24.3) by coupling with Artegall and bearing a line of illustrious kings to inherit their kingdom as Merlin prophecies. In comparison, the queen was already 47 by the time of The Faerie Queene’s first publication, putting her well past the likelihood of bearing children before her death and creating a great deal of anxiety about the future of the succession (Hadfield 62). The contrast between the queen and her counterpart could not have been lost on contemporary readers and seems especially calculating, considering that as John N. King points out, “Belphoebe is a strong woman who conquers enemies and hunts, [yet] Spenser passes her over to make… Britomart his chief personification of chastity” (64).

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While elsewhere in the poem, it seems that the Spenser does not overtly identify some mirrors with Elizabeth because they are too pointedly critical, it would also appear that the conspicuous absence of Britomart from the proem’s brief list of Elizabeth figures is a criticism in itself. Much like the queen in all aspects but the crucial question of marriage and succession, Britomart is what Herbert Grabes would describe as a “corrective ‘mirror.’” By providing a view of the desirable qualities that the queen does not possess, rather than the good or bad qualities she has, the chaste knight provokes comparison between herself and Queen Elizabeth... and perhaps more than a little tension, too. This tension carries beyond the third book, all the way into the fifth, of which Andrew Hadfield questions whether perhaps it is Britomart rather than Radigund who is the antitype of the queen in their climactic battle (62). Although Radigund is portrayed as the usurper of men’s power, in contrast to the lawful queen Gloriana (V.v.25-6), who unlike either of them, is actually identified as Elizabeth, both Radigund and Elizabeth will die without children—unlike Britomart, progenitor of the Tudor line (62).

As further evidence that Spenser’s third book may have been critical of the queen’s celibacy, privileging companionate love and procreation over perpetual virginity, it should be remembered that virginal Belphoebe is not allowed to stand alone as an example of virtue, but instead has a mirror in her twin sister Amoret. Both are born of an immaculate conception of the nymph Crysogone “withouten paine,” having been “conceiu’d / Withouten pleasure” ( They are also both adopted by goddesses, with Diana raising Belphoebe in “perfect Maydenhed” ( and Venus bringing up Amoret in “goodly womanhed” ( Although both are thus portrayed as virtuous, it is noteworthy that Spenser felt the need to provide Belphoebe with a twin at all. It would seem that beyond merely selecting Britomart rather than Belphoebe as the representation of chastity, Spenser has to use the pointed juxtaposition and exemplary purity of Belphoebe and Amoret to reinforce the idea that virginity is in no way a purer state than that of chaste love. In fact, in the first edition of Books I through III, the Book of Chastity ends with the triumph of Amoret embracing her lover Scudamor in perfect bliss as an envious Britomart looks on, the poet noting that “her self oft wisht like happinesse” (III.xii.43-7). Although Spenser acknowledges virginity as a legitimately virtuous state, the book upholds chaste love as the preferable state, foregrounding it as Britomart’s destiny and concluding the book with Amoret’s ultimate fulfillment.

The preceding has merely been a brief account of some of the mirrors of Elizabeth present in The Faerie Queene, with particular focus on Book III, whose concerns with chastity and succession seem directly and obviously central to the persona and affairs of the queen. However, evocations of Elizabeth are woven throughout the text for those who seek to find them, from the virginal princess Una, guide of holiness, clad in Elizabeth’s favorite black and white to the sensual Acrasia, presiding over a pleasure garden whose excess and artificiality would put the royal court to shame. Some, like Britomart, possess a striking number of clear parallels to the queen. Others, like Amoret, are reflections of reflections, presenting alternatives and critiques to other images of the sovereign.

Linda Gregorson seems to propose the best model for interpreting these figures. According to Gregorson, the mirror or “likeness” in Spenser is “no mere compendium of idealized likenesses and counterexamples” but rather a fragmented “likeness-with-difference” (20). In fact, “The best of mirrors… gives back an oblique and permeable likeness, so that its realm is one of opportunity rather than entrapment” (20). In short, rather than guiding the way for us, Spenser’s mirrors and likenesses require thought and effort to interpret, with each reader “inventing a path” amongst images (20).

Works Cited

Grabes, Herbert. The Mutable Glass: Mirror-Imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and English Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. Print.

Gregorson, Linda. “Emerging Likeness: Spenser’s Mirror Sequence of Love.” The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic. Cambridge: Cambridge UP (1995). 9-46. Print.

Hadfield, Andrew. “Duessa’s Trial and Elizabeth’s Error: Judging Elizabeth in Spenser’s Faerie Queene.” The Myth of Elizabeth. Eds. Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Print.

King, John N. "Queen Elizabeth I: Representations of the Virgin Queen." Renaissance Quarterly Spring 43.1 (1990): 30-74. JSTOR. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.

Montrose, Louis M. “Idols of the Queen: Policy, Gender, and the Picturing of Elizabeth I.” Representations Autumn 68 (1999): 108-161. JSTOR. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.

---. “Spenser and the Elizabethan Political Imaginary.” ELH Winter 69.4 (2002): 907-46. JSTOR. Web. 15 Aug. 2011.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Eds. A.C. Hamilton, Hiroshi Yamashita, and Toshiyuki Suzuki. 2nd ed. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson (2007). Print

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