Queen Elizabeth I of England died on this day, March 24, 1603. She had reigned for 44 years, one of the longest reigns in the history of English monarchs. She was the second female to ever take the throne in England, the first being her sister Mary who ruled for only five years.
Bess was born on September 7, 1533 — thus making her nearly 70 years old at the time of her death. This was REALLY OLD by Elizabethan standards, a time when plague and disease ran rampant, not to mention poor nutrition, excessive labor, wars and general hardships. The average person only lived to be about 38 years old. Monarchs, of course, had access to the best lifestyles and health care.
Bess’ death was caused by a combination of things.
Having survived a bout with smallpox in 1562 which had left her skin very scarred, the Queen took to using a cosmetic covering which was made of eggshells and lead. (Yes LEAD!) This could not have been healthy! This concoction lent to the appearance of her unnaturally white skin, considered fashionable at the time.
But what were the long term effects of these applications? Symptoms of lead poisoning include abdominal pain, headaches, irritability, memory problems and inability to have children. (Hardly worth the fashion statement!)
Also, Bess’ teeth, by all accounts, were rotten. King Henry IV of France, after having audience with her, reported: “her teeth are very yellow and unequal … and on the left side less than on the right. Many of them are missing, so that one cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly.”
While we now know that dental health greatly aids in preventing disease, this was not the case in Tudor England. Bess, along with her father Henry, enjoyed excessive sweets. Bess, however, did not reach Henry’s status of obesity.
The French King also said of Elizabeth: “her figure is fair and tall and graceful in whatever she does; so far as may be she keeps her dignity, yet humbly and graciously withal.”
Nonetheless, no one can escape Father Time, and by 1602 the Grim Reaper was on his way.
In the winter of 1602 Bess had caught a chill after walking out in the cold air. She complained of a sore throat as well as aches and pains. She retired to rest in her private apartments, but would not go to bed, staying awake for days on end. Elizabeth knew she was not well, yet she refused to see her doctors. When her chief adviser Robert Cecil told her that she must go to bed, she snapped “Must is not a word to use to princes, little man!”
Some of her contemporaries believed she could have recovered had she been willing to fight off her illness. Elizabeth, however, seemed to have a death wish.
For a number of years the Queen had been suffering from some form of of mental instability and depression. This was apparently caused by the stresses of the monarchy and the many fickle decisions she had made, which toyed with people’s lives. (And perhaps it could have been the LEAD…) In the course of her reign Bess had been responsible for several deaths which left her guilt ridden and paranoid. The most noteworthy of these was the beheading of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom she had executed after the Scottish Queen was caught in a plot to overthrow Bess.
Another death that agonized her was that of Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, who had once been Elizabeth’s favorite courtier.
In 1601 Essex lost his head after he tried to raise a London rebellion against the Queen. Although she had ordered the execution, it was reported that afterward Bess was known “to sit in the dark, and sometimes with shedding tears to bewail Essex.”
To make matters worse, as often happens in old age, Bess had lost, and greatly missed, a number of her dearest friends. She never overcame the untimely death of her one true love, Sir Robert Dudley (also stepfather of Essex) whom she had decided not to marry.
Her closest adviser and father-figure, William Cecil, Lord Burghley (whom she had dismissed from office after the agonized decision of beheading Mary Queen of Scots) had now passed away as well.
Elizabeth was no fool. She knew her popularity could not last forever, and she had always depended upon the love of her people. An aged and feeble queen could not hold the hearts of England’s youth. A new day was dawning with the discoveries in the New World, as well as expanding trade and commerce. The country was looking for young, fresh leadership.
As Elizabeth’s condition deteriorated, her favorite clergyman, the Archbishop Whitgift of Canterbury was called to her side. Whitgift reported that the Queen was at this point unable to speak, but she held onto his hand. The Archbishop tried to encourage her with words of recovery, but she made no response. However, when he spoke to her of the joys of Heaven, she squeezed his hand, as if in anticipation of the after life. By this time it was clear to all of those around that Elizabeth was dying.
There was, of course, the question of Succession. As the famous Virgin Queen, Bess had never married and bore no children. There were several descendants of the York and Lancaster bloodlines who had potential claim the the throne. The most likely of these was Elizabeth’s cousin, King James of Scotland who was favored by her Privy Council. The question was once again put to the Queen on her deathbed. The Privy Council urged her to sign the succession document. She did not.
Elizabeth took her last breaths in the wee hours of the morning, March 24, 1603. John Manningham, an Elizabethan lawyer and diarist, wrote: “This morning, about three o’clock her Majesty departed from this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree…”
For the sake of the peaceful transition of power, it was later announced that Elizabeth had gestured in agreement for James to succeed her. Chief adviser Robert Cecil then took it upon himself to make arrangements for the transition.
During her reign, Queen Bess’ accomplishments were many. She defeated the Spanish Armada, protected the realm against a number of foreign entities, brought peace to her previously divided country and restored the prosperity that her father Henry had depleted. She also created an environment where the arts flourished, including drama which elevated Shakespeare to superstar status.
She was called Gloriana, The Faerie Queen, The Virgin Queen and Good Queen Bess. To this day, the time of her monarchy is considered a Golden Age of Great Britain.
She once said: “To be a king and wear a crown, is a thing more glorious to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it.”