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The Death of Queen Elizabeth I: Was She Poisoned?

I am an art historian and have a Master's degree in English literature. My interests include popular science, language and folklore.

The Faerie Queen

The Faerie Queen

The Faerie Queene

We are all familiar with the iconic image of Queen Elizabeth 1 of England, who reigned between 1558 until her death in 1603. Her portraits show a slight body lost in extravagant dresses, and magnificent white ruffs framing the pale face. At whatever age she is portrayed, a red wig covers her head, decorative pearls nestling among the curling locks. To the average fustian-clad Tudor peasant, ravaged by manual labour and all of the ills of the time, she would have seemed extraordinary, almost ethereal. It is no wonder that the monarch inspired the poet Edmund Spenser to write his eulogy, The Faerie Queen. What the Queen’s adoring subjects were unaware of was what Elizabeth had to do to maintain her image, and of how doing so may have shortened her life.

A Sound Genetic Background

Queen Elizabeth 1 was born on December 7, 1533 and died on March 24, 1603. During the time that she lived, the age of just over 69 years was a not inconsiderable one. In fact, Elizabeth lived longer than both her half-siblings, for example, Edward 6, who died at age 15 and Mary Tudor, who was carried off by uterine illness while still in her forties. In fact, it was Mary’s unexpected death that paved the way for Elizabeth to become the monarch while she was but 25. Throughout her life, Elizabeth enjoyed good health. Aside from a bout of smallpox at the age of 29, she ruled her kingdom robustly until the autumn of 1602. Her rude health was unsurprising. Her half-siblings aside, Elizabeth had a sound genetic legacy. She was descended from the formidable Elizabeth Woodville, who had borne 12 children, a century earlier. Her grandmother, Elizabeth of York had given birth to four children, and her father Henry VIII had outlived his elder brother, Prince Arthur. But although Elizabeth had survived smallpox, a huge killer in the sixteenth century, the illness may have contributed indirectly to her sudden health failure in the autumn of 1602, when she began to show signs of anxiety and depression

Powdered Pigments

Powdered Pigments

Spirits of Saturn

Smallpox had left Elizabeth with a scarred face and with bald patches on her head. Her diplomatic duties meant that she had to look wholesome to visiting princes and other important people - ironic to think that those iconic red wigs may have been obligatory rather than optional. But the wigs were most certainly harmless; it is unsettling to think that to achieve the desired fashionable looks, Elizabeth may have spent the remainder of her life – over forty years - covering her face in ceruse or “Spirits of Saturn”, the make-up of its day. The problem was that ceruse was a paste made of poisonous white lead. The Roman architect and writer Vitruvius describes the effect of lead upon the skin: “the natural colour of the body is replaced by a deep pallor”. To make matters more sinister, the rouge of the time was vermilion powder, a compound of sulphur and deadly, poisonous mercury. Elizabeth's portraits show a very white face with a faint blush in either cheek, which was most certainly artificial.

Poisoned Over Time

The symptoms of lead poisoning include joint and muscle pain, headaches and stomach pain, moodiness and loss of concentration. The frightening thing is that the absence of these symptoms does not mean that poisoning is not taking place, since the symptoms occur only when the lead in the blood has reached critical levels. Like lead, mercury is a toxic heavy metal. Symptoms include fatigue and headaches, cognitive loss, hallucinations – and death. Could toxicity by these metals in the autumn of 1602 have reached such critical levels that they caused Elizabeth’s moodiness and strange behaviour in the weeks before her death, that is, her refusal to get into bed although she was seriously ill? If she had actually used the cosmetics, this would not be unlikely, since years of lead-based ceruse would have thinned Elizabeth’s skin, accelerating the leaching of deadly mercury from her rouge, into her bloodstream.

The Demise of Gloriana

Of course, those paintings could always have been creative fancy: maybe contemporary artists were required to portray her in that flattering way? If Elizabeth’s pale looks were indeed “natural”, it is still possible that she died of toxicity. Contemporary accounts from the last days of her life report that the monarch was reluctant to remove her finger from inside her mouth, as if something were bothering her. Elizabeth was her father’s daughter in that she loved to indulge at mealtimes. Although we envision her as the wasp-waisted lady in her portraits, her favourite food was sugar, a luxury in Tudor times. Rumour had it that she cleaned her teeth with honey. In the Middle Ages, honey was credited with anti-bacterial properties, which it actually has. But honey is also a sugar, deadly to tooth enamel. A diplomat visiting her court reported that: “her teeth are very yellow and unequal”. But Elizabeth resisted all attempts to get her to a dentist, possibly from fear of contracting a blood infection like the one that had afflicted her father since he had suffered a leg injury and eventually, that caused his death. Tooth abscesses were common in those days, infections between the gum and the tooth that, if they get into the bloodstream, can make a subject very ill and in extreme cases, cause death. Could it be that Gloriana, whose army defeated the Spanish Armada and became one of England’s most popular queens, was finally defeated by a tooth infection? It is a sobering thought.

Sources

Elizabeth 1 by Richard Rex, Temple Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2003

The Ten Books on Architecture by Marco Pollio Vitruvius.

© 2018 Mary Phelan