In 1586, Queen Elizabeth I declared: “We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed; the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.”
Elizabeth’s “doings” – the state of her health, her actions and behaviour – were the subject of international speculation. Her ‘private’ life was of ‘public’ concern. Her body was held to be one and the same as England. The stability of the state depended on the queen’s wellbeing, chastity and fertility.
An elderly, unmarried queen with no heir raised fears. Over the course of her reign the physical reality of Elizabeth’s weak, female and ageing ‘natural body’ had to be reconciled with the unerring and immortal ‘body politic’. As we’ll see over the following pages, the ‘real’ Elizabeth grew ever more estranged from her public image.
Hiding the ugly truth
Elizabeth’s ladies spent hours preparing the ageing queen’s pocked face for the public. Elizabeth I, the all-glorious queen of magnificence and spectacular display, was celebrated for her ageless glamour, her white flawless skin and sumptuous clothing. She was hailed as an iconic, unchanging beauty whose appearances at court before ambassadors and other visitors were greeted with wondrous praise, celebrated in plays and poems and immortalised in countless portraits.
Elizabeth’s contemporaries believed that beauty amplified female power, and so they regarded the queen’s splendour as confirmation of her claim to the throne. Yet over the five decades of her rule, the young and nubile Elizabeth, with her pretty face, red hair and slender physique, aged into an old woman with wrinkles, a reddish coloured wig to cover her balding hair, and black, rotten and foul-smelling teeth.
The marks left by smallpox, which despite the queen’s protestations were definitely there, together with the lines and wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, were skilfully hidden with layers of caustic cosmetics – pungent white lead and vinegar. It was the job of Elizabeth’s trusted ladies to administer to her withering face and ensure she was ready to face her public. Yet the use of lead over time ate into her skin, making it grey and wrinkled, and so she would have to wear the lead base even more thickly. As Elizabeth aged, more vivid colours were applied to her cheeks and lips.
Elizabeth wore a garish vermilion, also known as cinnabar, which gave an intense red colour. However, vermilion was mercuric sulphide and so every time Elizabeth licked her lips she ingested this toxic substance and may have begun to experience symptoms of mercury poisoning, including lack of co-ordination, sensory impairment, memory loss, irritability, slurred speech and depression.
The wigless, derobed, unmade-up queen should never have been seen by any except her trusted ladies. Yet in September 1599, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, broke all the rules and stormed into the queen’s bedchamber at Nonsuch Palace “where he found the queen newly up, the hair about her face”. Elizabeth had just a simple robe over her nightdress, her wrinkled skin was free of cosmetics and, without her wig, Essex saw her bald head with just wisps of thinning grey hair “hanging about her ears”. This was the unadorned reality of the queen’s body, and the earl would pay the ultimate price for his tendency for such impulsive behaviour (he was executed for treason in 1601).
The mask of youth that Elizabeth’s ladies had to daily create was also represented in portraits, while the fiction of the queen’s eternal beauty was sustained by officially sanctioned face patterns. Any portraits that revealed a true likeness were to be destroyed.
Was she really a virgin?
Elizabeth’s carefully crafted image of chastity couldn’t drown out the gossip about her sex life. From her youth, Elizabeth was championed as an embodiment of chaste maidenhood and so a highly desirable marriage prospect. As she aged and moved beyond her childbearing years, but remained unmarried and childless, Elizabeth was styled ever more spectacularly as the Virgin Queen. She had sacrificed herself to the realm, and her body, fused with that of the state, remained impregnable. In countless images she is adorned with pearls symbolising chastity, and is represented as the vestal virgin Tuccia in portraits, and the Virgin Mary in pageants, images and other entertainments.
Yet from the earliest months of the reign there was much talk at home and abroad that the queen was behaving in a manner that challenged this image of chastity. Foreign ambassadors’ reports are full of intimate details such as Elizabeth’s supposed sexual liaisons with Christopher Hatton and the Duke of Alençon.
Yet it was Elizabeth’s relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, that got most tongues wagging. No sooner had she ascended the throne than courtiers were exchanging scandalous gossip about the queen and earl’s night-time liaisons.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the c1560s. Rumours of his night-time liaisons with the queen set tongues wagging across Europe. (Bridgeman Art Library)
Of course, it was only Elizabeth’s women who knew the truth; only they could vouch for her chastity. But while they were quick to defend her publicly, they might very well censure her in private. Early in the reign, Kat Ashley fell on her knees before the queen in the royal bedchamber at Hampton Court and implored her mistress to marry and put an end to the “disreputable rumours” of her relationship with Dudley. Ashley declared that rather than see these rumours spread she would have “strangled her Majesty in her cradle”.
Women at the time were thought to possess more voracious sexual appetites than men and so contemporaries found it hard to believe that any woman past puberty could remain chaste of her own free will, especially if she lacked a husband to provide an outlet for her sexual energies. The king of France would jest that one of the great questions of Europe was “whether Queen Elizabeth was a maid or no”. The courts of Europe were abuzz with gossip about her behaviour.
By refusing to allow the queen’s corpse to be opened and embalmed on her death, the ladies of the bedchamber were likely acting to prevent a postmortem examination that may have raised further questions about her virginity. In so doing they, and her councillors, may have been performing a final act of loyalty to their Virgin Queen by allowing her to remain regina intacta.
Fainting fits and toothache
The Tudor superwoman was prone to bouts of ill health from puberty. Any sign of weakness in the queen’s body threatened the stability of the realm itself. Elizabeth and her councillors were always at pains to stress her health and vigour. She would dance with ambassadors, go on annual summer progresses, lead the chase when hunting and spurn the need for medicine. Yet, while Elizabeth lived to be an old woman, she often experienced ill health.
From the moment of her accession, there was talk that thequeen had a weak constitution and ambassadors reported rumours that she was “not likely to have a long life”. Since puberty she had regularly suffered from poor health, ranging from indigestion and occasional fainting fits, frequent and intense headaches, to insomnia and eyestrain.
An engraving shows Elizabeth I hawking. Her love of hunting was seen to confirm her vigour – and also that of her nation. (Alamy)
Elizabeth was extremely short-sighted, which must have made even the simplest daily tasks, not to mention the great occasions of state, a real challenge. Thanks to her love of sweet things she often suffered from toothache. She also suffered with a leg ulcer which for a time made her lame and a target of French mockery.
When a “cunning bonesetter”, a surgeon, told Elizabeth that an ache in her arm was caused by a “cold, rheumatic humour” (rheumatism) and might be treated by applying ointments, Elizabeth was indignant. One source describes how she banished the surgeon from her presence and was “most impatient to hear of any decay in herself, and thereupon will admit no help of physic or surgery”.
Elizabeth also suffered from amenorrhoea, irregular menstruation, and her surgeons would regularly open a vein in her ankle or her arm from which to draw blood and so bring her ‘humours’ back into line. Rumours circulated that this was proof that she was incapable of having children and would therefore never marry.
Foreign ambassadors bribed Elizabeth’s women for information about her life, and their reports home are full of intimate details such as her light and irregular periods. Even the papal nuncio in France had a view on Elizabeth’s menstrual cycle: “She has hardly ever the purgation proper to all women.”
Stories that Elizabeth was physically incapable of having sex had been commonplace for years. Ben Jonson among others later claimed that the queen had “a membrane on her which made her incapable of man, though for delight she tried many”.
Yet the security of the Protestant state rested upon Elizabeth’s ability to produce heirs. William Cecil, the queen’s principal secretary, would stress the “aptness” of the queen’s body to bear children and insisted that she remained healthy and fertile.
Gloriana's fragile mind
Behind the tough rhetoric lay a troubled woman prone to insomnia, and scared of the dark. In August 1588, as the Spanish Armada threatened the shores of England, Elizabeth made her famous oration at Tilbury before her forces. In a rousing display of courage, and a call to arms, Elizabeth assured her troops of her commitment and valour, climaxing with the famous words: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
Victory followed shortly afterwards, and Elizabeth was celebrated as an English heroine who stood firm to protect her nation. She was lauded in celebratory ballads, in commemorative medals, prints and portraits.
Yet while the court and country celebrated victory, the queen confined herself to her bedchamber at St James’s Palace, locking the door and ordering her ladies away so that she might grieve alone. Just weeks after the Armada victory, Robert Dudley had died. Elizabeth had lost her greatest love, the man whom she had grown up with, had become infatuated with and adored.
According to the report of a Spanish agent, the queen remained in her bedchamber refusing to speak to anyone “for some days”, as her anxious women and councillors gathered outside. Finally, as concern for the queen’s state of mind grew, William Cecil ordered that the doors of her bedchamber be broken down.
She may be renowned for her strength and defiance but Elizabeth was scared of the dark. She would rely on the companionship of her trusted women at night, her bedfellows, to comfort her. When, in 1576, Dorothy Stafford, the queen’s regular bedfellow, broke a leg in a riding accident, Mary Scudamore, another trusted intimate, was hastily recalled to court. As the Earl of Sussex wrote to her, “her majesty shall not in the night have for the most part so good rest as shall take after your coming.”
A portrait of a woman thought to be the queen's "trusted intimate", Mary Scudamore. (National Portrait Gallery)
Following Mary Queen of Scots’ execution, Elizabeth had sleepless nights and vivid nightmares. After her former favourite, the Earl of Essex, was executed in 1601, Elizabeth suffered bouts of depression that drove her to seek sanctuary, away from the public glare of the court, among her women in the privy chamber.
When Sir John Harington, her godson, arrived at court he was shocked by what he saw. His letter to a friend paints a vivid picture of the unmasked queen. “So disordered is all order,” that she had not changed her clothes for many days, she was “quite disfavoured, and unattired, and these troubles waste her much.”
She now kept a sword close by her and, as Harington described, “constantly paced the privy chamber, stamping her feet at bad news and thrusting her rusty sword at times into the arras [tapestry] in great rage.
“She walketh out but little, meditates much alone and sometimes writes in private to her best friends.”
Going down with a fight
The dying queen used "gems and pearls" to divert attention from her decaying body. In late October 1601, Elizabeth opened what was to be her final parliament. The queen was now in her late sixties yet rose spectacularly to the occasion and gave a rousing speech praising her people for their love and loyalty to her and reaffirming her commitment to them.
However at the opening ceremony her frailty was evident: her ceremonial robes of velvet and ermine had proved too heavy for her and on the steps of the throne she had become unsteady on her feet and would have fallen, “if some gentlemen had not suddenly cast themselves under that side that tottered and supported her”.
Elizabeth now struggled to maintain the dignity of her royal office. There were signs that her memory was fading and this, together with her failing eyesight, meant that she found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on state business. Letters now had to be read out loud to her and when some courtiers arrived to pay their respects, she had to be reminded of the offices that she herself had bestowed upon them.
This c1610 painting shows an elderly Elizabeth. The queen refused to go to her deathbed for days. (Bridgeman Art Library)
Yet still the queen would rally when she needed to. Shortly after arriving at Richmond in early 1603, despite reports that she had begun to “grow sickly”, she entertained the Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli. After many hours of preparation, Elizabeth appeared resplendent and “with the confidence of a younger woman”. She was adorned with a “vast quantity of gems and pearls upon her person”. It was an ostentatious and, to some, an absurd sight. As she aged, she imagined, observed Sir Francis Bacon, “that the people, who are more influenced, by externals, would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels, from noticing the decay of her personal attractions”.
Yet the signs of the queen’s decrepitude were hard to ignore. Another ambassador described how such was the decay in the queen’s teeth that many had fallen out so that “no one can understand her easily when she speaks quickly”.
Elizabeth soon fell into a deep melancholy and became increasingly unwell with a swelling in her throat. By March, as the ulcer in her throat burst, her condition deteriorated. She had stopped eating and bathing, and refused to be undressed or put to bed. As one courtier reported, she “had a persuasion that if she once lay down she should never rise” and so the queen “could not be gotten to her bed in a whole week”.
Determined not to go to her deathbed, Elizabeth “sat up for whole days, supported by pillows mostly awake and speaking not at all”. The once iconic beauty now spent her final days lying on cushions on the floor. Finally, as she weakened further, she was carried to bed where in the early hours of a March morning she died, just short of 70 years old.
Dr Anna Whitelock is a historian, author and broadcaster. She is a Reader in Early Modern History and is Director of the Centre for Public History, Heritage and Engagement with the Past at Royal Holloway, University of London.