Thank you to Tudor Life regular contributor, Rioghnach, for asking this question:
“Claire’s most recent chat on the subject of smallpox during the Tudor era has piqued my curiosity.
Elizabeth’s portraits always make her skin look flawless. Obviously, this was not the case, but I can understand why her painters used tact and diplomacy in their works. Does anyone actually know for certain, what Elizabeth actually looked like under the layers of white lead etc?”
Although there are many portraits of Elizabeth I painted in her lifetime, it is impossible to use them as evidence of what the queen really looked like, particularly towards the end of her reign, because portraits of a monarch at this time were not meant to be accurate representations, they were propaganda.
Elizabeth was twenty-five when she came to the throne in November 1558 and she ruled until March 1603, when she was sixty-nine, but let’s have a look at some of the portraits painted late in her reign, when she covered her greying and thinning hair with wigs and used layers of ceruse to make her “mask of youth”.
As part of Gareth Russell’s book tour for “A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I”, I’m delighted to welcome Gareth to the Tudor Society today, which is his home from home anyway! I hope you enjoy his article and please see the bottom of this post for details on how to enter the giveaway for a copy of his wonderful book. Over to Gareth…
Elizabeth I’s decline began in her moment of apotheosis. The defeat of the Spanish Armada coincided with the death of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. In the middle of the victory celebrations, the Queen received the news that her childhood friend-turned-adult-love had passed away and she was heartbroken. It has long been surmised that Elizabeth would have married Leicester had he not already been married and his first wife, Amy Dudley (née Robsart), had not then been found dead in circumstances that looked suspiciously like murder or suicide. However, during a bout of serious illness when she thought she was about to die, Elizabeth made a point of denying that she had ever taken Leicester into her bed, no matter how much she loved him. Despite mountains of speculation then and since, there is in fact no firm evidence at all to suggest that Elizabeth I was not a virgin as she claimed. The risk of pregnancy, the loss of her reputation, death in childbed or yielding her authority to a man made celibacy by far her safest choice. We will never know, of course, what happened every day and night of her life, but it is worth pointing out that it should not be taken as axiomatic, as it too often is, that Elizabeth Tudor lied about her life-long virginity.