Elizabeth I: the monarch behind the mask

Anna Whitelock looks beyond Elizabeth I's carefully crafted image as an all-conquering Tudor beauty and finds a balding, frail woman, scarred by pox, crippled by headaches and plagued by bouts of depression

This c1610 painting shows an elderly Elizabeth. The queen used "gems and pearls" to divert attention from her decaying body, says Anna Whitelock. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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.

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