The Death of Queen Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen of England who famously defeated the Spanish Armada, died on March 24, 1603 aged 69. In her last decade, the Queen, who was extremely beautiful in her youth, had become a shadow of herself. She was almost bald having lost a significant amount of her hair. Majority of her teeth had fallen out, and the Queen experienced memory loss and depression.
Good Queen Bess, as she was popularly called, categorically forbade any post-mortem to be conducted. Therefore, the cause of her death was masked in a thick layer of mystery for many centuries. However, historians and medical experts today have looked at those symptoms that she suffered in her later years and have come out with some possible causes of the Queen’s death.
Below, World History Edu takes a quick dive into the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the monarch who famously defeated the Spanish Armada.
Summary of Good Queen Bess’ reign
Catapulted to the throne English throne in 1558, Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, ruled over a very prosperous and stable kingdom. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth’s more than four-decade reign, which is often referred to as the Elizabethan era, witnessed the growth of arts, science and literature.
The Queen and courtiers created a viable environment for literary greats like Sir Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe to flourish. This Golden Age was also marked by great exploration and voyages into uncharted territories, with Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh being just a few examples of those renowned English explorers of the time.
Perhaps the most defining moment of her 45-year reign came when her English navy defeated the Spanish Armada (in 1588), which at the time was undoubtedly the most feared naval force. England under Elizabeth not only dominated the sea, the kingdom was turned into a major world power in a number of spheres, which in turn fueled the English Renaissance.
Elizabeth’s declining health and later years on the throne
Beginning around her last decade on the throne, she was plagued by a number of health problems, which were compounded by the fact that many of her closest and trusted advisors had died, including Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532-1590), William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-1598) and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601). The latter, a politically ambitious English nobleman and general, was once a favorite of the Queen but later got executed in 1601 on charges of treason. With many of those old guards of her early reign gone, she became withdrawn from the affairs of her government.
The Queen’s advisors were increasingly getting worried because the ailing monarch still hadn’t named a successor. The victory over the Spanish Armada and incessant conflicts with Spain had put enormous strain on the royal coffers. Increased taxes and a poor harvest of the late 1580s turned her from a beloved monarch to a slightly disliked one. Her courtiers’ intensified repression of Catholics around this time added even more pressure on her. She tried to ease the pressure by use propaganda to win back the hearts of her people.
Elizabeth’s futile attempt to remain forever beautiful
Throughout her life, she was known to love sugary things. The fact that she missed many of her dentist’s appointment meant that she suffered from a lot of tooth decay and loss. So bad was dental problem that people struggled to understand her when she spoke.
Furthermore her skin was terribly scarred by a bad case of smallpox that she suffered in1562. To keep up royally good look, she resorted to using more and more makeup as she aged. However, it was very obvious that the Queen had been ravaged by the passage of time. This point is perfectly summarized by words of the famous English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who described the English monarch as one who had been surprised by time.
The fact of the matter is that no amount of makeup or skin ointment of 16th century could mask the Queen’s fast fading beauty. Regardless, her courtiers and advisors never missed an opportunity to heap praises on the Queen. For example, she was known in her later years as Astraea or Belphoebe. The latter title, which translates as “beautiful Diana”, was the name of a character in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 poem The Faerie Queene. She was also known as Gloriana, the eternally beautiful queen in Spenser’s poem.
Elizabeth’s deteriorating health gradually caused her to lose her grip on power
Within a space of about three years, Elizabeth lost two of her most trusted advisors – William Cecil in 1598 and Robert Devereux in 1601. Those deaths, as well as the death of her close friends Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham in 1603, worsened her already poor health. By this time, major decisions concerning the kingdom were being taken by the head of the government, Robert Cecil, who was William Cecil’s son.
Cecil was instrumental in getting Elizabeth to warm up to her Scottish cousin, the young James VI of Scotland. Although she did not publicly announce James as her successor, she had indirectly expressed her wishes that the English crown be passed on to James upon her death.
March 24, 1603 – Queen Elizabeth passes on
In early March 1603, the Queen moved to her Richmond Palace residence in hopes of recovering from the bout of depression she had suffered following the death of her friend Catherine. Unfortunately, she remained very restless and even prevented her physicians from examining her. Out of fear of dying she refused to lie down or even rest. She once snapped at Robert Cecil for telling her to rest. Therefore, her ladies-in-waiting placed soft pillows on the floor just in case she fell down. In the end, the deeply melancholic monarch decided to lay on the cushions while her courtiers and advisors surrounded her. By this time, it was apparent that the Queen was in her final moments. Archbishop Whitgift was invited to pray by her side.
Just before she slid into the land of the dead, she is said to have motioned (with a gesture of her hands) to Robert Cecil, confirming her desire to have James succeed her to the throne.
Queen Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603. She was aged 69. Her councilors, led by Robert Cecil, proclaimed James her successor that day. Like her half-sister Queen Mary I (also known as Bloody Mary), Elizabeth was interred in the same vault in Westminster Abbey.
The elites of the Elizabethan era obsession with having snow-white skin
There was once a time in English history when the aristocratic elites and the ruling class would put on several layers of makeup to whiten their face in order to distinguish themselves from the “commoners”, who were generally tanned due to the long hours spent laboring in the sun. The Elizabethan era (i.e. 16th century) was one such time – it was a time when the paler one’s face looked the more distinguished and prominent the person was in the society. Having a porcelain skin was a way to communicate not just nobility, but also a kind of earthly perfection.
Did you know: The use of mercury or lead-based beauty products goes all the way to the BC era, particularly in ancient Egypt and ancient Rome?
Cause of death
Queen Elizabeth I of England, as it was common among the elites of the Elizabethan era, had a makeup palette that was basically made of dangerous elements of the periodic table. The fashion trend among the upper class back then was to have very pale white skin. Elizabeth I, the English monarch who was known as the Virgin Queen, was no different. As a matter of fact, it’s been said that she had up to an inch-thick of makeup smeared on her face in her later years. Since her makeup and other beauty products contained very harmful elements, particularly lead, historians have theorized that that this famous English monarch unknowingly poisoned herself for the sake of beauty.
Blanc de ceruse de Venise – the Mask of Youth
For many decades, Elizabeth had consistently used a thick-layer of makeups to make herself appear young and beautiful in terms of the 16th century ideal for women. The lead-base makeup mixed with vinegar was called Venetian ceruse (also known as the Spirits of Saturn). And to make matters worse, she used a mercury-based lipstick and makeup remover. According to experts, that substance literally ate away at her flesh.
Today, we know that mercury and lead are two elements on the periodic table that should never be exposed to the human skin.
Overexposure to lead is one surest way to have irreversible health problems, particularly skin problems, depression, irritability, hair loss, and brain and kidney damage. The Queen suffered almost all of those problems towards the end of her life.
In the 1970s, art historian Sir Roy Strong coined the term the “Mask of Youth” to describe the illusion of youthfulness that Elizabethan era elites pursued.
Today, we know for a fact that prolonged exposure to lead is definitely fatal. America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that lead, a cancer-trigger in humans, causes high blood pressure and reduced fertility. Perhaps the latter symptom is the reason why Elizabeth never had a child.
Did you know?
- Queen Elizabeth, a woman obsessed with remaining forever young in the eyes of her people, also made sure that her painted portraits made her look youthful and full of life. Beneath all that façade, the Queen was very much inching closer to her death. She was not the young and beautiful monarch anymore.
- As a result of the smallpox that she suffered in 1562, Elizabeth wore wigs to cover her baldness. She also plastered her face with inch-thick layer of makeup to cover the wrinkles and burns she had in her autumn years.
- According to Elizabeth Southwell, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth’s corpse burst in her coffin. Some historians have theorized that the excessive use of mercury and lead all throughout her life filled her body with so much toxic, causing it to burst. A counter argument is that the coffin was perhaps sealed too tightly. In other words, the coffin became like a pressure cooker and then caused the corpse to burst with gases.
- There have been other theories that suggest that Elizabeth died of pneumonia or cancer.
- Egg whites were commonly used in Elizabethan time to make the skin tighter, look soft, and prevent freckles from appearing.
- Elizabethan era women could go several days before wiping off their mercury-based makeups.
- About forty years after Elizabeth’s death, the scientific community classified Venetian Ceruse (also known as “the spirits of Saturn”) as toxic substance.
- It was also a known fact that Elizabeth wore a coronation ring that over the years corroded into her flesh. The English monarch never took off of the ring. She died a few weeks after her physicians removed the ring.