From her coronation on 15 Jan 1559 to her death on 24 Mar 1603, she ruled for forty-four years. What was her life like behind the scenes?
She was not part of the modern Renewal Movements, as defined by this website, but the Reformation, which she supported, renewed Christian doctrine.
This post skims the surface of the main personal events and lifestyle preferences in those years. Her motto was semper eadem or “Always one and the same.” Did she live up to it?
The next post, Part 7, will cover her relationships. This one is about her inner chambers and her personal court.
Let’s begin with one genealogical table to get the big picture.
The dynastic storyline is not complicated. The Tudor monarchs died out because Elizabeth never married and produced an heir. She was England’s virgin queen.
Please click on her grandfather Henry VII’s post for many more genealogical tables that go back the Plantagenets.
Henry VII (offsite).
- Early in her reign, she said her colors were black and white—black for constancy and white for purity. As her reign progresses, she also chose red (blood and power), yellow (sun and fruitfulness), green (youth and hope), and blue (amity or friendship).
- Her father and sister employed a “fool” named Will Somers, who actually had a mental handicap—they viewed things differently back then. He was no in Elizabeth’s household, so he probably died. She employed another one, William Shenton, when he was listed in the household accounts in 1574 and 1575; he received a garish hat of taffeta, with lace and feather trimmed with gold spangles. Obviously for comedic effects.
- The smallpox also led to her losing most of her hair and her face becoming pockmarked, which could be overcome with a wig and heavy makeup. She just passed her thirtieth birthday. Humiliating.
- However, historian Tracy Borman (2016) says that the claims that she was bald comes from an earlier twentieth century biographer who deduced that since she wore a wig, she must have been bald. In an image on the frontispiece on a 1569 prayer book, her hair is not a wig; it is strained back from her temples and pushed into a net. Even if she were wearing a wig, it is a false conclusion to say she was bald. It was simply the style of rich women.
- But it is probable that her hair turned prematurely gray
- Clothing? Fabulously embroidered and richest fabrics, as seen by the many paintings and prints. In the last four years of her reign, she spent £9,535 on her wardrobe (just short of a £1 million (about $1.3 million).
- Why such expense for clothes? Early on in her life, Lady Bryan, her mistress who took care of her while her father went about his business, she begged Thomas Cromwell, for better clothing: “For she has neither gown nor kirtle nor petticoat nor linen for smocks, nor kerchiefs, mufflers nor begins [night caps]” (qtd. in Borman, 2016, 330)
- There is no evidence that Elizabeth attended any of the public theatres—she probably did not. Too degraded for the queen to appear in public places like those. Plus, she could pay for the company of actors to come to court, and she did.
- One of the emblems was embroidered into her shawl she wore over hear breasts, which was bare, sat a hideous black spider, which appeared to move.
- Other symbols: bejeweled serpent (meaning wisdom), pelican (piety), spires (church and pointing heavenward), rainbows (celestial promises).
- Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570 and declared her deposed, so Catholic plots to assassinate her surged forward. So William Cecil, her right-hand man, politically speaking, told the household staff to check the clothes for poison which might be embedded there; in the perfumes, where it could be mixed in; and in the food—she had attendants who were food tasters.
- Her makeup consisted in various chemicals, like saffron and sulphur powder—very expensive. It was also very toxic. Her face, neck, and hands were painted with ceruse (white lead and vinegar) to achieve the palest complexion. This distinguished her from women whose skin was tanned by the sun. To contrast her white skin, she painted her lips with red paste made of beeswax, cochineal and plant dye. Her eyes were lined with kohl.
- Further, she tried to keep her face wrinkle-free by making a paste of curd skimmed off posset, a creamy drink made from milk mixed with sugar (bad!), wine or ale. She used a cleansing lotion made from two freshly laid eggs and their shells, burned alum, powered sugar, borax and poppy seeds ground with water. Mercury and antinomy were also used in cosmetics, but are poisonous.
- Some of the concoctions were so toxic that they actually damaged the skin. Lead is very toxic.
- Throughout her reign, she went on numerous progresses. The queen’s belongings required 400 wagons. About 500 courtiers and servants accompanied her. She often rode horseback or in a carriage, recently introduced from Holland.
- On her progresses, she often visited the earl of Leicester, Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire. The earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, put on many skits and shows—men dressed up and greeted her with addresses of knightly courtesy or men and women dressed like Romans or Greek gods or goddesses.
- She went to church on Sunday and then danced afterwards. She was not a restrictive Christian. She danced the popular La Volta. The female partner leaped up, and at her height he twirled her around.
- In one year of her reign, records show that the royal kitchens brought in 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 1,870 pigs, 1,240 oxen, 760 calves, and 33 wild boars.
- She was an excellent rider or horseman (horsewoman). She went out hunting, and an attendant would offer her the knife, so she could cut the deer’s or boar’s throat. She got in on the kill.
- She like bear-baiting and kept bears for that purpose.
- Tudors did not wash their hair often, except in cold water. So they had to freshen Elizabeth’s hair with spices and other fragrant aromas.
- Dressing procedure, done by her ladies, which could take a few hours: (a) first a smock of linen, next to her body, for linen was a breathing fabric, so hygienic to boot; (b) quilted whalebone (later named a corset); (c) farthingale (hooped or padded petticoat) and a nightgown, temporary, just to protect her from the cold while she was being dressed; Robert Dudley gave her one as a gift, in 1585; (d) linen understockings and knitted silk stockings (or hose), which were shorter than men’s, tied in place on her legs; (e) shoes were tied with a double knot, which were more practical than stylish—no high heels, but flat; (f) hair: it was no longer frowned on to go without pious head coverings or hats; hair could be uncovered, and Elizabeth went for it; she was proud of her long auburn hair. Dressing and undressing turned into a ceremony of sorts.
- At the end of the day, her ladies undressed her, reversing the dressing steps. They took off makeup, using almond paste, which scoured better, as they unpinned her hair. They did this sometimes late into the night. Undressing also turned into a ceremony of sorts.
- Incidentally, her ladies and maids and attendants followed the English style, not using a lot of caked on makeup (unlike Elizabeth who did, just to hide her pockmarks and wrinkles as she got older). A Venetian ambassador wrote about it and praised the absence of overuse of makeup and contrasted this with Italian women who plied on the cream, tinctures and paints and even tinted the teeth. He preferred the English style.
- She had a sweet tooth, so dental care, done by her maids, included rinsing out her mouth with fresh water imbued with cinnamon and myrrh. During the day, she chewed herbs. She used toothpicks to get food particles out. Robert Dudley, her favorite, spent much money on disposable ones, because one must never use a knife or fingers to get food out. The queen’s recipe books recommended cloves for cleaning teeth—and cloves alleviated any pain.
- One period in 1575, she had a roaring toothache, and the only recourse was to take it out, but she refused. Robert Aylmer, Bishop of London volunteered to go first for one his healthy teeth. He did, and she was grateful and had the dentist take hers out. All was well.
- Soot was effective in removing teeth stains, and so was vinegar boiled in honey; her ladies rubbed it on her teeth with fine cloth.
- Tudors did not bathe much because it was believed bathing opened up the pores, which made the bather susceptible to air-borne diseases. However, Elizabeth bathed more than most, about once a month, whether she needed it or not. She had a specially made “hip bath,” which meant big enough to sit in, but not lie down in. She would be washed by her ladies with cloths soaked in water from pewter bowls. She dabbed herself with perfumed oil of rose and musk.
- She sometimes wore perfume of her own making, like sugar and marjoram and powder of the herb benjamin.
- Let’s step back and look at the big picture. Keeping her public life separate from her private one maintained her authority. It wouldn’t do for the public to see her in a “diminished” glory—as just a woman. Only her most private and trusted ladies were permitted to see both.
- It was a deep honor for them to be employed by the queen. She hired only the best and longest lasting ones from early on in her reign. They did not resign, and they were (usually) not dismissed. They often stayed until their passing. Then the position was passed on to the ladies’ own families. So Elizabeth’s private attendants, servants, maids of honor, and intimate ladies turned into a closed shop.
- A dynastic threat emerged. Lady Catherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane, Queen of Nine Days, married Edward Seymour, son of the late lord protector of Edward VI, without Elizabeth’s permission. Any heir they produced could have a claim to the throne, if Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was denied it.
- Elizabeth reacted furiously and confined them to the Tower. Catherine gave birth to a son, while in confinement. Catherine lost the marriage document and could not remember which clergyman married them. So her son was declared a bastard. She died in the Tower seven years after her arrest.
- Mary Grey, another younger sister to Queen of Nine Days, was a dwarf; she married a commoner 6’8”. Elizabeth confined them too, though they posed no threat to the throne.
- Back to her personal life.
- She sometimes wore Anne Boleyn’s falcon badge (Anne was her beheaded mother).
- Elizabeth was no “morning woman,” by her own admission. She allowed only her most intimate female servants to see and dress her. Nonetheless, she liked to take morning walks before the full dressing process began, which could take hours.
- In 1581 and throughout the 1580s, the queen requested that her tailors let out her dresses, altering them to accommodate her weight gain. Her shape was changing.
- On a personal note, her health: she might have been becoming depressed in her old age, with wear and tear from her reign
- The wear and tear got to her when these prominent ministers died: William Cecil or Lord Burghley from 1771 (d. on 4 Aug 1598, though his role was greatly reduced from illness); Francis Walsingham (1590); Sir Christopher Hatton (1591); Robert Dudley (1588); and Lord Hunsdon (William Carey, who had married Elizabeth’s aunt, Mary Boleyn, d. 1543).
- In her old age she had crippling arthritis in her right hand and arm, which prevented her from writing. But sometimes she experienced remission from it, so she could write.
- As she aged, she lost control of her court. Examples follow.
- Elizabeth Southwell, a maid of honor, asked for time off because of her leg. Actually, she got pregnant by a certain Mr. Vaviso.
- Elizabeth (Bess) Throckmorton had an affair with Sir Walter Ralegh, the man who gained renown by exploring the New World. He was a great favorite of the queen.
- Ralegh flirted with several of the queen’s ladies and bedded some. Bess got pregnant and demanded he marry her. He secretly did. The scandal broke out, and the queen threw them both in the Tower.
- Writing letters, he begged her to release him from prison where he could no longer see her “fair hair” and “pure cheeks.” Bess did not repent, however. She liked the idea of being married to the most eligible man at court. Elizabeth released him, but not her at first. Bess’s infant son died in 1593. Elizabeth released her two months later, but the lady never saw the privy chamber again and had to retreat to her estates in Wiltshire.
- Another of the ladies, Elizabeth Vernon, got pregnant by the earl of Southampton, a notorious playboy. He found out and agreed to marry her. The queen found out too and consigned them to Fleet Prison. She allowed them their freedom, eventually.
- As the queen aged, she wore lower cut tops, where her breasts showed. Visitors noticed. French ambassador de Maisse observed that “one could see the whole of her bosom” (qtd. in Borman, 2016, 366). Was she proving to the world (and herself) that she was still sexy?
- Duke Virginio Orsini of Bracciano, arrived at Whitehall Palace on Twelfth Night in 1601. He had had a scandalous affair with his cousin Marie De’ Medici on her journey from Italy to marry Henri IV of France.
- During the festivities at court, Elizabeth offered to dance with the duke, though she was sixty-eight. One dance she liked was the galliard, an energetic dance that required jumps and hops, yet Elizabeth could do it. She wanted to project a good image of herself and her reign.
- At the same festival, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, including playwright William Shakespeare, put on a production, probably of Twelfth Night, though this is debated because, among various reasons, a main character is count Orsino, duke of Illyria.
- As she went to open Parliament in Oct 1601 she stumbled as she got out of her coach. She would have fallen, if some gentlemen had not caught her.
- A harsh blow hit when her closest female friend Kate Carey, countess of Nottingham, died of the “fits” at her London home on 24 Feb 1603. She was about fifty-seven. Elizabeth fell into a deep melancholy.
- Men grew tired of Elizabeth’s rule. They flocked northward, when they found out that James VI, King of Scotland, was about to be the next monarch of England (James I in England, the first king of that name).
- See the post Her Passing, below, to find out more.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE TUDORS AND REFORMATION SERIES
Elizabeth I, Part 6: Personal Life
RELATED (posted offsite at Live as Free People)
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