The portrait miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) appears to have been the first English artist to make medals in any numbers. Not surprisingly, the first English medals closely resemble painted miniature portraits, both in appearance and function.
The medal was probably originally a costly gift from Elizabeth, Queen of England and Ireland (1558-1603), herself to a favoured courtier or a political ally. Presents of this kind were often made of miniatures. The laurel tree on the reverse is labelled with the royal monogram ER (for 'Elizabeth Regina'). The legend translates as 'Not even danger affects it', a reference to the legend that laurel was immune from lightning. This is likely to be emblematic of Elizabeth's resistance to the dual threat of Catholicism at home and, in the years leading up to the Spanish Armada, Philip II of Spain abroad. The piece was hung with drop pearls.
The attribution of the medal can not be doubted. Hilliard was apprenticed in 1562 to Robert Brandon, a goldsmith like Hilliard's father. His first surviving miniature of Queen Elizabeth I is dated 1572. In 1584 Hilliard, and the Sergeant Painter, George Gower, tried to gain the monopoly of production of the Queen's portraits. Although they failed, Hilliard and his workshop painted her miniature many times using the so-called 'Mask of Youth' pattern, very close to the portrait on this medal. That Hilliard was capable of modelling as well as painting is suggested by records of his collaboration on the Second and Third Great Seals of England: in 1601 Thomas Harrison, who had worked at the Mint some time previously, was interrogated about his possession of 'Her Majesty's picture in metal' a work by Hilliard which was gradually and treasonably dissolved in 'a kind of sublimate which had eaten into the metal', a portrait 'made about the time that Mr Hilliard did make models for the great seal...'.