Death of a Queen

 

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.

Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex

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.

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday Queen Bess!

 

queen bess 2

If you read my blog regularly you already know about my big obsession with Queen Elizabeth I.  Born on this day, September 7, 1533, she was one of England’s greatest monarchs, successfully ruling for forty five years.

Bess, however, started out as an unlikely candidate for the throne. She was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn. With a shaky upbringing that included her dad Henry beheading her mother Anne when Elizabeth was just three years old, the girl went in and out of favor with the King.  Her title changed often. The precocious child  was aware of this, often questioning her caretakers:

“For why yesterday I was the Princess Elizabeth and today only Lady?”

red head

When Henry died, Bess was third in line for the crown. Her brother Edward became king at the tender age of nine and ruled until his untimely death just six years later. Her older sister Mary then reigned for five years. Mary, a devout Catholic, was often at odds with Elizabeth, a staunch Protestant. When Mary died in 1558, Bess  finally took the throne.

The new queen was twenty five years old, highly intelligent, tall, red haired, lovely and possessing much of her father’s strong will.  Her status (bastard or not a bastard?)  was still considered questionable. Nonetheless, Bess became a much beloved monarch.

Fun facts:

Elizabeth served time in the Tower of London, arrested for treason after she was wrongly accused of plotting to overthrow her sister Mary. It was, ironically, Phillip of Spain, Mary’s husband, who pled for Elizabeth’s release.  His intentions were not entirely noble, as he knew his own wife was sickly and he planned to gain favor with Bess and wed her after Mary’s inevitable death. Needless to say, Bess refused him.

Her nicknames were Gloriana, Good Queen Bess and The Virgin Queen.

The Virgin Queen was also an astrological Virgo! She had many typical characteristics of the sign — pragmatism, good money management, discretion and concern for others.

Although most historians agree that Bess actually was a virgin, she had a long romantic involvement with her courtier and horse master Robert Dudley. This caused rumors and gossip. However, although there was great anticipation  for her to be wed, Bess never married and produced no heirs. (At least not any legitimate heirs that we know about.)

The whiteness of her skin, as it appears in many portraits, was achieved through a makeup combination of eggshells and lead. (Yes lead! Its effects were apparently unknown at the time.)

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I of England Elizabeth 1_original.j

She spoke Latin, French, German and Spanish.

She loved sweets. One of her favorite foods was sugar coated violets. Her dental health suffered because of this and Bess eventually had a mouth full of rotten teeth.

queen bess 4

Regarding her so-called marriage plans, Bess was a master at bait and switch. She would often ‘consider’ marriage proposals, but only to gain political favor with a particular country. Once peace was established, she would send suitors on their merry way.

Bess often claimed she was ‘married to England’.  She proved this to be true in her political actions. She once even tried to arrange a marriage between her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and her own love interest Robert Dudley — because she wanted Dudley to serve as a spy and keep track of the Scottish queen’s activities.

dudley and scots

This suggestion caused the insulted Dudley to leave court in a huff.  He then married Lettice Knollys,  Bess’ lady in waiting,  and did not speak to Bess for years.

What exactly was Queen Elizabeth’s aversion to marriage? Consider the circumstances.  Her own father beheaded not only her mother, but also her cousin (Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife) and several other kinsmen. Her relationship with Dudley was wrought with scandal and threats to her power. Sleazy Phillip of Spain tried to worm his way into her affections for political gain.  My guess, she only ever equated marriage with danger. She saw it as an institution that threatened her realm and her life.

Bess was a lover of plays and supported Shakespearean drama.  She herself was a musician, accomplished at the lute and virginals.

play on

She, along with her secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, created the most notorious spy operation of Renaissance England.  Walsingham undermined several plots to overthrow Elizabeth, including a Catholic scheme involving Mary Queen of Scots.  Bess’ network of spies, which included Christopher Marlowe, often were turn coats — former Catholics who switched sides but remained savvy to Catholic networks and thus reported plans to Walsingham.

Bess was such a good spymaster,  she even wore dresses to advertise the fact! Note this famous portrait:

queen bess 2

Upon closer examination, we see that the detail of the fabric is decorated with tiny ears and eyes! This was to send the symbolic message: “I see and hear you” and more importantly “Don’t betray me.”

queen bess 1

She never quite gave up her obsession for Robert Dudley. After her death, a letter was found among her most private belongings, hand written by Robert, with a note from Bess labeling it his last letter to her.  She is said to have called out his name on her deathbed.

Elizabeth is still considered one of England’s best monarchs. Her great accomplishments include defeating the Spanish Armada, restoring prosperity to the realm and keeping relative peace in the country despite great religious divides. She died in 1603 of natural causes.

Elizabeth I has been portrayed by some of the world’s finest actresses, including Flora Robson, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Anne-Mare Duff. This fun montage gives a sampling, hope you like it!

Happy Birthday Bess!