The Tudor Society

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

Allegorical portrait of 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.


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