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 seen above in a copy made by Henry Bone in 1815 (for auction at Bonhams San Francisco 18 March 2013 estimate $6,000-$9,000), 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.
So here is another possible contender for the symbolism of the serpent. The Stuart embroidered panel above shows Orpheus playing his lyre in the centre field. At each corner a woman holds devices symbolizing the 4 cardinal virtues. Working clockwise from top left these are depicted as Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Fortitude. As you can see Prudence holds a serpent signifying self control and the the ability to judge between actions appropriate to the situation presenting itself at any given time. From what we know of Elizabeth, this signification must be the strongest candidate explanation for her conscious association with a serpent.