10 October 1562 – Elizabeth I catches smallpox

Tudor History Tours with the Tudor Society

elizabethatprayerOn 10th October 1562, twenty-nine year-old Queen Elizabeth I was taken ill at Hampton Court Palace, with what was thought to be a bad cold. However, the cold developed into a violent fever, and it became clear that the young queen actually had smallpox. Just seven days later, it was feared that the Queen would die. Fortunately, Elizabeth survived the disease and was not too badly scarred, although her friend Lady Mary Sidney, who nursed Elizabeth through the illness, was terribly disfigured by the disease. In his Memoir of Services, Mary's husband, Henry Sidney, recorded the effect nursing Elizabeth had on his wife:

"When I went to Newhaven [Le Havre] I lefte her a full faire Ladye in myne eye at least the fayerest, and when I retorned I found her as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her, which she did take by contynuall attendance of her majesties most precious person (sicke of the same disease) the skarres of which (to her resolute discomforte) ever syns hath don and doth remayne in her face, so as she lyveth solitairilie sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo [like a night-raven in the house] more to my charge then if we had boorded together as we did before that evill accident happened."

It was while Elizabeth was recovering from the illness that she ordered her council to make Robert Dudley protector of the kingdom, and she made it clear that "as God was her witness nothing improper had ever passed between them."


Image: Elizabeth I at prayer, from the frontispiece of her personal prayer book, 1569, shared on www.marileecody.com

  • On This Day in Tudor History, Claire Ridgway.
  • A Viceroy’s Vindication? Sir Henry Sidney’s Memoir of Service in Ireland, 1556-78, ed. Ciaran Brady.
  • Queen Elizabeth I, J.E. Neale, Chicago Review Press; Reprint edition (August 30, 2005), p.121.

There are 12 comments Go To Comment

  1. John Phillipson /

    Very interesting

  2. Leslie /

    Poor Lady Mary Sidney, caring for Elizabeth while she was sick herself. Sounds like it really left her debilitated since I’m sure she was not able to rest.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      Yes, it’s such a sad story. What a loyal servant though.

      1. LINDA FOX /

        yes, indeed ….

  3. Ceri Creffield /

    Mary Sidney was Robert Dudley’s sister – there must have been a doubly strong bond because of that.

  4. RealTudorLady /

    Interesting and moving article. Poor Mary Sydney, what devotion. I saw in a program quite some time ago that Elizabeth I doctor had her wrapped up in lots of red linen as he believed that this would draw the heat and fever out and cure her. She did recover but did the thinking have some reason or was it luck? The modern experts had no idea but one thought that the strong colour may have had some affect, although what he had no idea. I am fascinated about the history of smallpox and when you think that we only found the vacation by accident, the cow dairy maids recovered from smallpox, so we made the vaccine from their blood. Mary Sydney took a great risk but one that was loving and from duty. She was lucky to survive, but what a terrible cost, her beauty and her desire for life or company gone. The letter is very moving. Thank you.

  5. Diane Warsinski /

    So interesting and so moving. Did Mary Sydney ever have a special acknowledgement? Thankyou

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      No, I don’t believe so, she would have been seen as doing her duty to her queen.

  6. Lola Blanche /

    I was under the impression that she lost her hair & never grew back.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      I’ve never heard of her losing her hair. I expect it thinned as she grew older, like many women’s, but she was recorded as having her “hair about her face” when Essex strode into her chambers uninvited and before she was properly dressed and ready in late 1599.

  7. Rose Pendleton /

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading this. I am interested in Queen Elizabeth as I have just finished reading The Royal Diaries series by Kathryn Lasky if anyone is interested.

  8. Sharon /

    Rose: Read anything by Alison Weir and Sarah Griswold…..they are experts on the Tudors…both non-fiction and fiction. Brilliant.

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10 October 1562 – Elizabeth I catches smallpox