The Tudor Society

10 October 1562 – Elizabeth I catches smallpox

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

  • 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 40 comments Go To Comment

  1. J

    Very interesting

  2. L

    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. C - Post Author

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

      1. L

        yes, indeed ….

    2. G

      Mary Sidney wurde durch das Pflegen von Elizabeth erst krank. Sie hatte eine so enge Verbindung zu ihr, dass sie es auf sich genommen hat, selbst durch die Pocken entstellt zu werden.

      1. A

        Why do you write in German on the English website?

        1. W

          why do you only reply about a language somebody writes in when it’s not about languages do you have nothing to do but criticize someone instead of a comment on the topic ?

  3. C

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

  4. R

    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.

    1. N

      Can you die from small pox

      1. C - Post Author

        Not now, as it has been eradicated, but, yes, it was a killer.

      2. C

        Smalll pox killed over 90% of the indigenous populations of North and South America. Wikipedia states between 20 & 60% of people infected died, with 80% of children dying. It was a lethal disease.

  5. D

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

    1. C - Post Author

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

      1. S

        Isn’t it true that Queen Elizabeth thereafter would always break court protocol & go, herself, to see Lady Mary, rather than ordering Lady Mary to come to see her?

        1. C - Post Author

          I’m not sure, perhaps so.

  6. L

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

    1. C - 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.

      1. S

        In later years the Queen wore white lead make up on her face (up to an inch thick) to hide the scars left behind from the small pox. The lead from the make up she wore slowly poisoned her causing her hair and teeth to fall out. She also suffered from digestive problems, fatigue and memory loss.

        1. J

          I think the stories of Elizabeth being heavily scarred are myths. All the biographies I have of Elizabeth that mention scarring say the scarring faded

        2. s

          no the all wore that then. her scars were not bad (it’s written)

        3. A

          An inch thick would practically be impossible, methinks you meant a milimetre thick.

  7. R

    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. S

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

    1. A

      Really!! That you for that rid-bit. I also have an interview in the court of Elizabeth the first … I know Shakespeare had Othello as a black English man.. but, what about black men in her court, or Asians? I only wonder because I have been watching the 2018 Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth the first… the newest movie.. and I see differences in both ladies courts than history has relayed…

      1. A

        That should say interest no interview…

        1. A

          It would make total sense with the moors going into Spain in 700AD and also the Ancient Romans had many African Roman soldiers… that most likely were in Britannia when the Romans first went there with Caesar and again under Nero…

      2. A

        It’s unlikely there was the level of racial diversity the 2018 film portrays. Historical sources had no reason to hide interesting or remarkable information about courtiers, racism not being as developed then as it is now, as there were few people of obviously non European extraction spread throughout the nations of Britain. Courtiers often came to court through high birth, rank or service to the monarch. While there may well have been some people who were obviously not of European
        extraction, there would not have been many visible.
        Furthermore, Othello wasn’t a black English man, he was a North African Moor and the story was set in Venice.

  9. R

    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.

    1. A

      That makes so much total sense… hummm wow, just to think it was just the way your DNA succumbed or not….

  10. m

    very interesting never knew queen Elizabeth had small pox

  11. T

    Actually, Elizabeth went to visit Mary Sydney At Hampton Court when she stayed there after the smallpox ordeal. Elizabeth saw her every day while she was there.

  12. S

    Surprised no mention has been made of Sybil Penn, Lady of the Bed Chamber, who also nursed Elizabeth through the small pox and died of the disease on 6th November 1562. She was buried at the nearby village of Hampton and her ornate tomb with rhyming epitaph survives.

    Mary Sidney retired to live at London Stile her home in modern day Chiswick, close to Kew Bridge. Her brother, Robert Dudley, had a large house across the river at Kew. The cellars of this house are to be found under the 17th century house now called Kew Palace in Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

    1. c

      Where did you get this information about Mary Dudley living at Stile! Do you have any links to back this up please as I am doing in in depth article on Mary Dudley and this is the first mention of Stile House? or any retirement, not as we know it. she went to Wales and then Ireland following smallpox and had further children so all this about her being retired from society is not true.

  13. C

    Wish we had known the history when visiting Kew Gardens A year ago!

    1. T

      Wow! How Unlucky!

  14. D

    Oh wow! So sad to have smallpox!!!

  15. J

    What a horrific thing that Mary Queen of Scots had to indure!

    1. I

      It was Mary Dudley Sidney, Elizabeth’s close friend and Chief Lady of the Bedchamber

  16. A

    Phillipa Gregory is another great author on the Tudor period.

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10 October 1562 – Elizabeth I catches smallpox