The death of Elizabeth I and possible causes of death by Alexander Taylor

Tudor History Tours with the Tudor Society

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I is one of England's most well-known monarchs. She was the daughter of the infamous King Henry VIII and his second wife the illustrious Queen Anne Boleyn, who was executed when Elizabeth was just two years old.

Elizabeth reigned for almost forty-five years and was the last monarch of the Tudor Dynasty, having died childless. Her reign is famous as ‘The Golden Age’, for its blooming of the arts with the origins of Renaissance drama and for producing the most famous playwrights of the era, such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

This article will encompass the final years of Elizabeth’s life and her possible causes of death.

During Elizabeth’s final years, with her health gradually deteriorating, close friends passing away and beauty fading, she started to suffer from bouts of melancholy and what we would call in the 21st century, depression. In 1590 the queen lost one of her closest attendants, the elderly Blanche Parry. She was the queen’s chief gentlewoman of her privy chamber and keeper of the queen’s jewels, a highly respected position. Blanche had known Elizabeth since she was a child and was exceptionally regarded in her service, being
treated as a baroness with gifts of material luxuries and land. In 1598, another of Elizabeth’s close friends passed, her adviser William Cecil. Cecil had been a devout supporter and confidant of Elizabeth since her youth. The queen was devastated at the loss of these important figures, which thus furthered her reclusion and rendered her out of touch with the court she once dominated. An unforgettable moment that would change Elizabeth’s life would be the execution of her former favorite, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, on the 25th February 1601. Only a year into a new century, Elizabeth was compelled to execute Devereux. He had been tried
before the peers of the country, charged with high treason and exposed as a traitor for planning a rebellion which included planning to kidnap the queen.

The month is January 1603. Elizabeth is visibly unwell and in an unrecoverable state of melancholy and has decided to retire to her favorite residence of Richmond Palace. According to Tracey Borman’s Elizabeth’s Women, Richmond was the chosen establishment because it was where the queen could ‘best trust her sickly old age.’ During the queen's final months at Richmond she associated herself with ladies that were loyal, dependable and who had been in her service for many years, women such as Helena von Snakenborg, Marchioness of Northampton. During this period, Elizabeth refused to consume enough food or drink and this led to her becoming physically emaciated. Her ladies were becoming exceedingly worried and tried to persuade her to allow a physician to examine her, but the queen vehemently refused on several occasions. Only weeks later, Elizabeth was grief-stricken by another ghastly piece of news, the death of her long serving lady, Katherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham. The Countess had served the queen for almost 45 years until her sudden death, which seems to have been the breaking point of Elizabeth’s mental state. According to court contemporary Anthony Rivers, the ‘queen loved the countess well, and hath much lamented her death, remaining ever since in a deep melancholy that she must seemeth to be overtaken.' (Borman, 2009, p389.)

By February 1603, Elizabeth was mourning the loss of her friend. Although frail, depressed and almost seventy years of age, the queen retained her stubbornness and authority. She refused to rest and stood for hours upon hours. No matter the persuasion from her attendants, the old queen would not take rest, perhaps she was lamenting her impending death. The queen’s ladies became so worried they eventually spread out pillows on her bedchamber floor in order for the queen to sit upon if she decided to do so. During these uncomfortable final days the queen became disarranged and disordered, with feelings of guilt and regret over the execution of her late cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. According to Sir Robert Carey ‘She shedd many teares and sighs, manifesting her innocence that she never gave consent to the death of that queene.’ (Borman, 2009, P389.) She began to be plagued by ghostly vision’s of people she had previously known, including the late Scottish queen, and her throne rival Lady Katherine Grey, whose son Edward had a claim to the throne.

It soon became obvious that the queen was dying. Her ill-health mixed with a delirious and depressed state of mind drew her death closer and after almost constant persuasion by Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, she finally made the decision to retire to bed. Not long after, with the queen resting in bed in a senseless condition, the elderly Archbishop Whitgift was instructed to come to her bedside and pray for her immortal soul. He tenderly informed the frail queen of the joys that awaited her in heaven. Finally, on the 24th March, 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died. Her body was taken from Richmond to Whitehall Palace where it was held and watched over for three weeks before
her lavish and imposing funeral. Elizabeth had died in her seventieth year and left an everlasting legacy.

There are a number of possible causes for Elizabeth’s death. A popular belief is that Elizabeth gradually became ill and died due to blood poisoning. This could be through the use of the popular lead-based make-up of the era which Elizabeth was so fond of. These deadly forms of make-up were extremely toxic and dangerous to use and could cause death if continually applied to the skin. Another illness that deteriorates the body is cancer, which could have developed over the final year of Elizabeth’s life. Her death could have even been a simple bronchial infection that later developed into pneumonia due to the queen’s advanced age and weak immune system. There was no way for any of Elizabeth’s physicians to give a direct cause of death, ultimately because they didn’t know and she didn’t allow anyone to examine her, nor did she have a post-mortem.

Whatever caused the death of England’s renaissance queen, Elizabeth’s death was certainly hastened by her ailing mental health. She was suffering severely with depression and melancholy that led to her becoming isolated and a figure far-removed from the queen of her earlier year and the icon we view her as today.

Sources

  • Borman, Tracey (2009) Elizabeth’s Women. The Hidden Story of The Virgin Queen. Published by Vintage Books.
  • Weir, Alison (2009) Elizabeth the Queen. Published by Vintage Books.
  • Biography.com ‘Queen Elizabeth 1st Biography’ Website. Accessed 10th March 2015.
  • Tudorhistory.org ‘Elizabeth’ I. Website. Accessed 10th March 2015.

There are 41 comments Go To Comment

  1. Melanie Taylor /

    She would have hated this portrait. Old, decrepit, clearly contemplating her demise, knowing the Grim Reaper never left anyone behind.

  2. Lorna Wanstall /

    Melanie, I’m not entirely sure if this is true, but I believe Elizabeth had made a plaster cast made of her head. She was a very active woman, and sitting around for hours on end, whilst the painter drew a sketch of you etc, was not one of Elizabeth’s favourite pastimes.
    I also think there is perhaps a touch of vanity in there too. She didn’t want people to see the old Elizabeth, and I totally agree Elizabeth would have gone balastic at the above portrait.
    This head model she alledgely had made was of the young vivacious, beautiful young woman she once was. The dresses were of course real I can only assume that they had someone of similar stature and build to stand about for hours on end or the dress was put on a dressmakers doll, whilst the artist sketched his outline. As I said I don’t know if it is true or not, but to me at least it does seem to sound like something Elizabeth would do.
    As for what killed Elizabeth, it’s really quite possible that she just gave up. After the death of Robert D she was never the same, and the death of his stepson (on her order) who perhaps helped her to cope with the greif she felt of R.D’s death was perhaps the exclaimation point on just how useless she had become.
    I’m actually wondering if the smallpox she caught early in her reign may have played a part in her death? Again I’m not sure but I believe smallpox can re-occur. Perhaps the cold she caught, triggered the smallpox to have another go at her, and this time it finished her off.

    1. Leigh Barth /

      I realize I’m posting this 9 months late, but you are mistaken. As an RN, I’ve never heard of a case of smallpox recurring decades afterward. Generally, surviving an attack confers permanent immunity.

      Of all the possibilities given for Elizabeth’s cause of death, I’d say that the likeliest would be lead poisoning, especially with the reports of what sounds like hallucinations. Most likely these were neurological symptoms. As for pneumonia, yes, she might have been frail; however, a) there were no contemporary accounts of coughing or other symptoms, and b) for most of her life she was a very athletic outdoors person. This would have contributed to granting her resistance from contracting such infections.

      1. Amy /

        Spot on, I think.
        In addition to the lead poisoning… you have to remember her family tree. Not the most mentally sound group of folks. I’m a huge Tudor history buff, I LOVE King Henry the VIII… he was completely bat$hit though.

  3. Beth Gunter /

    Melanie, if I’m not mistaken, this portrait was not painted until after her death. And, I have seen the plaster cast of her face. It was certainly done when she was a younger woman.

  4. Anna Walsh /

    The painting was done after her death – I think it was 1604 and I have read somewhere that the painter was keen to establish himself with the new (to England) Stuart dynasty hence why it does not depict the ‘golden age’ of Elizabeth’s reign. This is what I use it for with my students anyway so I hope I am not too far off the mark.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      Yes, I’ve seen it dated as c.1610 and c.1622, so definitely after Elizabeth’s death and I don’t think she would have wanted to have been depicted like that during her lifetime. It is a beautiful painting though.

  5. caitlin /

    i agree with you all she would have hated that portrait so it must have been done after her death i think she died of blood poisoning as that is most likely.

  6. maggie O'Brien /

    trying to find out if Bess actually left a Will?

    1. Caitlin /

      yes i completely agree with you it would be wonderful if she had left a will or maybe had some secret children or something!

  7. Pingback: FDA to Limit Lead in Cosmetics, But Why Is It There in the First Place? – You-Blog.Club /

  8. Leah /

    She still managed to live to be 70 years old. That’s pretty good considering her guilt, depression and possible gradual led poisoning. I am watching the 2007/8 movie Elizabeth right now and I think they did an excellent job of recreating the Elizabethan era. She was a fascinating woman, considering everything she’d been through since her young womanhood. I am amazed that she survived until 70! I can’t imagine living under such circumstances… never knowing who you could truly trust and then losing those that you could trust in your old age. I think Queen Elizabeth I did a splendid job considering everything she was up against at home and abroad.

  9. Leah /

    She still managed to live to be 70 years old though. That’s pretty good considering her guilt, depression and possible gradual lead poisoning. I am watching the 2007/8 movie Elizabeth right now and I think they did an excellent job of recreating the Elizabethan era. She was a fascinating woman, considering everything she’d been through since her young womanhood. I am amazed that she survived until 70! I can’t imagine living under such circumstances… never knowing who you could truly trust and then losing those that you could trust in your old age. I think Queen Elizabeth I did a splendid job considering everything she was up against at home and abroad.

  10. Laura /

    Oh god… her face looks so demented in that pic 0_0

  11. Diana Wojnisz /

    I have always thought maybe she died from ovarian cancer. It is thought, from what I’ve read, that her half sister died from ovarian cancer ( the bloating that was mistaken for a pregnancy not once but twice). It would make sense that she didn’t want to lie down– the increasing ascities makes it difficult to breath easily when the person is laying flat. As for the delerium and confusion– maybe the cancer had metastasized to her brain. Just a thought. Too bad we will never know for sure.

  12. neshia cassity /

    Elizabeth had bad teeth. And then she had no teeth so along with the lead poisoning her teeth and gums could have been added to her health concerns.

    I don’t think she had to have a chronic condition to die at 70 years of age. 70 in 1603 is like 150 now. Her best companion dying right after her chief supporter was just too many too close who were her advisors and well as her peers.

    She suffered from out living her best friends, her true love, her step-son, and yes, her faithful advisor. They had all gone before her and she was left with a bunch of silly folks who did not have her trust or her heart.

    Like all real ladies she knew when it was time to go. She was using up her strength and knew what she was doing. When “her eyes” Dudley
    passed she pulled the same stunt but Cecil would have none of it and threatened to break down the door of her bedroom. She came out of her bedroom but was in mourning for Sir Robert for the rest of her life. .

  13. Ana Gomez /

    I admire Elizabeth the I st- she must have felt very lonely and physically frail! Ovarian cancer ? How can one be sure considering that at that time she probably never had a proper examination of herself –

    1. Michelle /

      Exactly. That what I thought too, that she must be felt lonely for years and was unsure of her future life. So sad. I’ve admired her too. Wish she let the physical doctor to exam her & gives her something to feel better and save her life in time, though.

      1. Caitlin /

        I suppose we will never know what happened it could have been anything. I she had not been so heartbroken that she could not think straight at least not to look after her self. The story is so sad, she was such a great and inspirational ruler and person. It is possible she was physically ill and maybe even suffering from depression so her body cold not heal its self on its own and she wouldn’t let her self be helped. At least she still lived to a reasonable age for her time.

    2. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      It’s hard to know what it was but it was a pretty good age for that time, although her great uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, lived to the age of 81.

  14. Michelle /

    I watched her Queen Elisabeth I on a movie from Amazon on a based true story. In my opinion, She was just heartbroken many times from lost her beloved family member, close friends, young male lover partner that have caused her depression became developed in her state of mental, isolated for a long time. I think, she just can’t handle from keeping losing people that she have known and can’t trust anyone which is hard on her life. Sound like to me, she didn’t take care of herself, even she just thinking about others mostly, but not to herself. That’s so sad. I wish she will let the physcial doctor to exam her & give her medication to under control her illness to save her life.

  15. Elle /

    Did it ever occur to anyone that she just…died?

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      There’s always a reason for death, whether it’s heart failure, cancer, a stroke… Natural deaths of an old person are still always caused by something.

    2. Zilla /

      I agree. Most people at that time didnt live beyond 45. She was in her 70’s thats 150 years old by todays standards!

    3. Ann Marie Lamb /

      Of old age? 70 then is like 96 years old now so I concur!!

  16. Miranda Bradbury /

    I believe the portrait above was painted during the revival of the cult of Elizabeth I, when the populace was disappointed with James’s rule and looking backward to the days of Gloriana. The date is uncertain; some sources citing c. 1610, others c. 1620-22. The triumph of death and time over all of us has been an artistic motif for centuries and would not have been unusual. She might not have liked the portrait but she would have understood it. There’s debate among several sources as to whether the portrait is a tribute or a mockery, most appearing to come down on the side of a tribute.

  17. Onno Kosters /

    According to one of the experts on Elizabeth’s Secret Agents (BBC2, today), the painting dates from her life. “The Queen was so furious about it that she never allowed it to be displayed.”

  18. Lily /

    I don’t understand. When did blood poisoning come into play?

  19. Lily /

    I don’t understand. When did blood poisoning come into play? All it says is she’s delirious and depressed.

    1. Amy /

      Blood poisoning = Sepsis
      A great number of things can cause bacteria in the blood stream, infections of any variety. Even the “treatment” of bleeding someone which was so popular at the time could give her an infection that could spread. Her disorientation and behavior leading to her death seem indicative of such an infection.

    2. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      There are various theories about her death, one being blood poisoning/sepsis which can be caused by a number of different things, including pneumonia,
      abdominal infection, kidney infection and bloodstream infection. In those days, they obviously didn’t have antibiotics so even a minor infection could become serious and life-threatening. Some people believe that her use of lead make-up may also have contributed to her death by poisoning her blood.
      Elizabeth had been depressed for some time, she was grieving for close friends she’d lost and she may well have had underlying health issues that added to her depression.

  20. Graham Appleyard /

    My own belief is that she died of malnutrition caused in part by depression as pointed out and also the fact that she had a body image problem. The is most evident in her speeches where she refers to herself as “a weak and feeble woman”. The fact also that she need to stuff cloths in her cheeks to stop them sagging inwards another sign of extreme weight loss. This would eventually lead to heart failure, as in Karen Carpenter’s case.
    I also believe that Elizabeth had an inferiority complex the size of Mount Everest! So nobody could convince her that she was beautiful. She would just say to them “I had that reputation years ago”. But she was always beautiful and a blond too. The red hair is a myth.
    None of the paintings do her justice. Even when she was in her 50’s one ambassador said that “she could compete with a girl of 18 for grace and beauty.”
    These days it is possible to see a woman well into her 60’s be extremely beautiful and as a result young men of 18 will chase after them!
    However historians are mostly old men and therefore can never see a woman such as Elizabeth as beautiful in her 60’s. So they call it a cult.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      She was very depressed as she had lost quite a few close friends in those last years so perhaps she didn’t eat well, it’s hard to know. However, I don’t believe that she had a body image problem or that she viewed herself as weak and feeble, that’s not the Elizabeth that comes through in her speeches.In her Tilbury speech, she said “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too” so she was saying that although she was a woman, and therefore society viewed her as weak and feeble, she wasn’t weak and feeble, she was the same as a king, like her father. Women in those days were viewed as weak and feeble.

  21. Khadija /

    No-one, not even in the 1970s series Elizabeth R, ever states that on her last day or days, she tore herself out of her deathbed to receive a delegation of dignitaries saying: “we shall die afterwards”. Source: ‘The Mutation of Death’ vol.3, p7, the first page of ch. 2, by SatPrem, ISBN .0-938710-17-6.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      Does the author cite a primary source for that at all? Thanks!

      1. Khadija /

        According to SatPrem, this was told to him by his guru, known as ‘The Mother’ of the Auroville/Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry, India. This is as far back as I know.

        1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

          That’s not a primary source. In my historical research, I only go on what the documents say, what people who were at the royal court at the time say. Thanks though.

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  23. RealTudorLady /

    This portrait shows a very sad old lady, the shadow of death hangs over her and she has none of the glorious disguise, red hair, the wonderful clothes, but you see Elizabeth as she really was in the last few years of her life, when she can no longer hide. It is a sad and real look into the soul of the woman who had ruled England for over 40 years, in her late 60s, old for Tudor times and it is a very human Elizabeth.

  24. Marthe /

    Although she seem weary in this painting I think she still looks beautiful.

  25. Rose /

    I do not think she looks beautiful,but is that what has us wrighting about her today? Not!! She is an inspiration then, now & tomorrow. She has been quoted by a commenter above, and as such she will live with us and those too to come forever. She WAS beautiful but YOUTH is beauty, however she transcended that.

    On a side note, I think it is great that a mother had her two daughters learn with her , both on a learning point, more importantly on a bonding point!.
    I am grateful to know of Queen Elizabeth I & have her in my life as inspiration!

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The death of Elizabeth I and possible causes of death by Alexander Taylor