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."

Members can find out more about Elizabeth I's experience, other important people who caught it, and about the illness itself in my Claire Chats video talk.


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 14 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.

  9. RealTudorLady /

    I heard years ago that her doctor wrapped her in red cloth for days and this had some role in her healing. A more natural explanation would be a genetic immunity marker in her DNA and that she was one of those who naturally recovered. Her father recovered from a mild version of smallpox but wasn’t marked. Her mother lived through the Sweat as did other Boleyn and Howard relatives. There is a new theory in epidemiology today that we lived through the plague and other killer diseases or rather our ancestors did and our genetic immunity built up over the generations and the gene to beat serious disease came with it. M cells I believe the documentary called them, but don’t quote me. I can always check. Anne Boleyn became inoculated against the Sweat and associated viral diseases but her cells were also strengthen and passed on to her daughter. Henry was of strong disposition as he overcame malaria, small pox, some weird kind of Tudor flu and tertiary fever, all killers. The theory is a combination of both markers that built up her parents immunity were passed on, her own immune system became strong and she could fight this off. Our ancestors who survived serious disease could pass on a strengthened immune system allowing later generations to defeat these killers. Of course a number of other factors also have to be considered, such as understanding of medical knowledge, cleanliness, inoculation and our environment. However, some diseases simply died out and the immune system theory is part of the reason. Elizabeth had good strong genes and was able to survive. It scarred her for life, unfortunately, but she lived on, under a mask of white paste and a red wig.

    Poor Mary Sidney, caring for Elizabeth, terribly marked, her beauty gone. She was a loyal lady.

    There was a political fallout soon after this illness. Catherine Grey, her cousin married without her permission and was imprisoned with her husband Edward Seymour. Part of the problem was that many saw Catherine as the heir to the throne, she was also the sister of the unfortunate but condemned traitor, Lady Jane Dudley and she was more Royal than Elizabeth, according to several supporters. Elizabeth had a dubious pedigree, because legally she was illegitimate. Henry’s marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, was doubtful according to her enemies and Catherine Grey was considered legitimate. This brush with death brought the succession sharply into focus and when you consider that this unsanctioned marriage by a member of the Royal family, without permission, it was alarming to Elizabeth. Elizabeth refused to relent and has been seen as cruel because of her reaction, but from her point of view and that of her advisers, this was treason.

  10. merwin /

    very interesting never knew queen Elizabeth had small pox

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10 October 1562 – Elizabeth I catches smallpox