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All Posts, P&S History

The Illnesses of Elizabeth I

Author guest post from Laura Brennan.

During her lifetime Queen Elizabeth I, (1533-1603) faced many and varied dangers and death could have been the outcome for many of them, but illness and the lack of medical understanding of her era was also a major danger and not just for the Queen of England. Death was a constant presence to those in the 16th century, infant mortality was high, just getting through childhood was an achievement in some of the poor parts of society, although this was by no means exclusive to the poorer sections of society. Her father Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon could testify to fertility, prenatal problems and high infant mortality rates and she had access to the best help available at the time.

Late Tudor life spans were no where near as long as todays modern life expectancy. Looking at the average age of people is inaccurate as the high infant mortality rate brings the age down. Most healthy adults, who had access to a varied diet could live for 40-60 years. Of course as with today there are individuals who lived shorter and longer lives than and other factors including genetics played their part. Women faced dangers in pregnancy and child birth children while men faced dangers of on the battle field during times of war. Everyone regardless of age, gender or socioeconomic class all faced the danger of pandemics and plagues.

The fact that Elizabeth reached the grand age of 69 years old, is a good achievement, but this did not mean that she did not suffer from bouts of serious illness, poor health and even near death experiences during those 69 years of life. We do not have much information about Elizabeths childhood regarding her health but she appears healthy and well educated in the last years of her fathers reign. It was her half siblings Edward VI and Mary I, who were far more sickly than she seems to have been.

We first see signs of illness in Elizabeth during the reign of her older half sister, ‘Bloody’ Mary. There had been a deep set rivalry and dislike between the sisters going back to Elizabeths birth and the way their father treated Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon due to Elizabeths mother, this animosity continued into the next generation. One of the biggest issues between the sisters was their opposing views on religion, Mary was Catholic and Elizabeth was Protestant. and as a Protestant Elizabeth had cause to fear Mary as she persecuted Protestants burning them at the stake – hence her nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Protestant plotters schemed to remove Mary and replace her with Elizabeth, who ended up in the Tower of London, in the rooms her mother Anne Boleyn. This must have been exceedingly stressful and after her release, Elizabeth would claim illness when she was summoned to her sisters court. The physical symptoms of extreme stress and anxiety can manifest in many forms including nosebleeds, migraines, dizziness, physical stomach and gut issues, as well as chest pain and an increased heart rate. The fear Elizabeth must have endured towards her sister must have been extremely intense.

After takes the throne, Elizabeths next health scare is the closest she came to death due to illness. On 10 October 1562, Elizabeth is said to have complained of feeling unwell. Nobody at this point suspected the queen of having smallpox as she was missing the infections recognisable rash. In an attempt to feel better, the queen requested a bath. Over the next six days, she grew sicker until on 16 October, she was so ill that she was unable to speak. Both her doctors and counsellors started to prepare for the worst possible outcome; no one expected Elizabeth to recover.

In an attempt to help the queen, a German physician of some note was called to examine her. His name was Kranich Burchard, popularly known as Dr Burcot. Burcot wrapped Elizabeth in red cloth and placed her close to a raging fire. Within two hours, she was able to speak again. By the 25 October, the queen was starting to attend to the business of state again. Her physical scars from her smallpox were minor and were easily concealed using early forms lead laced make-up. This make up would possibly cause consequences to her health after years of use.

One such issue was in relation to her dental health. Lead poisoning would have contributed to the poor health of her teeth and caused some of them to fall out. It was a fashion amongst the rich of Tudor society to colour their teeth black as a sign of their wealth. Sugar had been available tin England since the 13th century but only accessible to the rich. By the 16th century, it was easier to access, but still very expensive and Elizabeth, it is said, had a very sweet tooth. Sweetmeats were sugary desserts and included things such as candied fruit and marzipan. both were said to be the Queens favourite.

Dental hygiene was limited to nonexistent but some weather people cleaned their teeth with such items as urine (yes you read that right!) and honey which is just as corrosive and bad for teeth as sugar! The queen’s breath was so bad in later life, she used to stuff her mouth with scented hankies when meeting important people to attempt to mask the smell of her decaying teeth and bad breath.

It is also said that Elizabeth suffered from short sightedness – this is not surprising as we know her father, Henry VIII, wore glasses help him read and it is an hereditary condition. There is however rumours, in a small abbey museum in Perci, umbria, that a local Italian surgeon travelled to England, in 1588, to perform cataract surgery on the queen of England in great secrecy.

Cesare Scacchi the younger brother of the Popes surgeon, Dante Scacchi, travelled to the English court to operate on both of Elizabeth’s eyes. The operation was carried out at 4am. It is said the Italian surgeon inserted a fine gold needle into each of Elizabeth’s eyes and scraped the cloudy film obscuring the queens vision away. This was a time with no anaesthesia and Elizabeth had her hands secured to the arms of a chair while someone held her head firmly still. iI took the queen 9 days to heal from this surgery resting in a darken room with herbal poultices on her eyes.

As mention earlier Elizabeths mental well being was often under strain even after the death of her sister. She is documented in having a changeable temperament and flying into rages and depressions, this can be seen after the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and also during the long days of the Armada, Elizabeth is said to have suffered from restlessness and insomnia as well as nightmares when she did fall asleep.

The queen was relatively active in the months leading up to her final illness. We do not know the exact cause of that last illness, as the queen refused to see her medical professionals. Elizabeth’s decline had started in February 1603, when news reached the court that confidante, long term friend and lady-in-waiting, Catherine, Countess of Nottingham, had died. The countesss mother had been Anne Boleyns sister, Mary who had been Henry VIII’s mistress. Rumour around court was that the queen and the countess may have been in fact half sisters as well as cousins. The countess had been in Elizabeths service for forty-five years. This news brought about insomnia and loss of appetite and Elizabeth became restless. The physical symptoms of her last illness were not particularly serious, one of which seems to have been a throat infection however, mentally it looks like the queen had started to relinquished her will to keep living. She had previously refused to get into her bed fearing she would never get out again. Eventually, after much persuasion, she did get into bed for the last time, on 22 March, 1603.

On the evening of 23 March only those closest to Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, were with the dying Elizabeth, who did not seem to fear dying as she held the elderly Archbishops hand during prayers together. She slipped in and out of consciousness during the night and died peacefully in her sleep between 02:00 and 03:00 on 24 March 1603. Tudor age was over.

Elizabeth I – The Making of a Queen is available to order here.