The Tudor Society

21 March – Elizabeth I takes to her bed

On this day in Tudor history, 21st March 1603, a dying Queen Elizabeth I finally took to her bed.

Elizabeth I had been queen since November 1558, but now she was dying. She had deep-rooted melancholy, couldn't sleep and was refusing to eat. She spent her days lying on cushions in her withdrawing chamber. But on 21st March, she was finally persuaded to go to bed.

Find out more about these last days in this talk.

Here's last year’s video from 24th March for more details on Queen Elizabeth I’s final days and death, and also some of her achievements as queen:

Also on this day in Tudor history, 21st March 1556, Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was burnt at the stake for heresy in Oxford. Find out more in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:


On this day in Tudor history, 21st March 1603, a dying Queen Elizabeth I finally took to her bed.

Elizabeth had been deeply depressed following the death of her close friend and lady, Katherine Howard, the Countess of Nottingham on 25th February, and was feverish and had trouble sleeping at the beginning of March 1603.

When Sir Robert Carey, the countess’s brother visited the queen at Richmond on 19th March he found her sitting on cushions in one of her withdrawing chambers. When he entered, she took him by the hand and said, “No, Robin, I am not well”, and gave 40-50 sighs. He described her “melancholy humour” that was “too deep rooted in her heart” for him to do anything about. Soon, she stopped eating, but refused to see a physician. An anonymous contemporary recorded how the queen “could be prevailed on neither by entreaties, arguments, nor artifices, to take the least medicine and scarcely sufficient nourishment to support life” and went on to say that “She could get no sleep whatever. Dreading her bed, she sat up whole days supported by pillows, mostly awake, and speaking not at all.”

Her coronation ring had to be sawn off as it was digging into her flesh, and historian J E Neale writes of how this “was a symbolic act; as though her marriage with the realm was to be destroyed.” And there was a new monarch waiting in the wings: the son of Mary, Queen of Scots: King James VI of Scotland. On 19th March, Robert Carey wrote to James, telling him that Elizabeth would not live more than three days, and on 20th March, he sent a draft proclamation of James’s kingship.

On 21st March 1603, the day of the Countess of Nottingham’s funeral, the queen’s physicians and privy council sent for the countess’s husband, Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham and Lord High Admiral. By this point, the queen had, according to Robert Carey, “remained upon her cushions four days and nights at least”, although de Beaumont recorded that she’d been sitting on cushions for ten days. Everyone was concerned. Nobody could persuade her to go to bed, but, according to Carey, on 21st March 1603, his brother-in-law the Lord Admiral was able to get the queen to bed “what by fair means, what by force” Elizabeth would never leave her bed. Although, she seemed to rally at first, asking for meat broth, Carey described how, on 23rd March, the queen “grew speechless”. Although she couldn’t speak, she was able, “by signs” to call for her council and then “by putting her hand to her head when the king of Scots was named to succeed her” chose James VI of Scotland to be her successor, which he did on 24th March when Elizabeth died.

At least during her final days the queen was comforted by religious men she trusted, men like John Whitgift, her Archbishop of Canterbury and the man she called her little black husband, and also the Bishop of London, Bishop of Chichester and other royal chaplains. In fact, Elizabeth wouldn’t let Whitgift leave. John Chamberlain recorded that the queen “would not suffer the archbishop to depart as longe as she had sence, but held him twise or thrise when he was going and could not indure both by reason of his own weakenes and compassion of hers.” John Manningham recorded how she hugged his hand when he spoke of heaven, but would not let the archbishop speak of her surviving to have a longer life. She knew she was dying and appears to have been ready for it.

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