Thursday, October 10, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Queen Elizabeth Falls Ill

The Gatehouse at Hampton Court Palace. Picture shared for public use on Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1562, the twenty-nine year-old Queen Elizabeth I fell ill at Hampton Court Palace; her physicians determined that she had contracted *smallpox.

Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, had only been on the throne a for a mere four years before she was struck with the illness that had proven fatal to so many of her subjects. The health of the Queen was an issue of national security; should the young, unmarried Protestant Queen die without issue or without naming an heir, England would be plunged into chaos once again, with rival claimants battling for the throne.

Queen Elizabeth, much to the dismay of her Councillors, named her favorite, Robert Dudley, as Protector of the realm. Elizabeth understood that her subjects and Councillors could view this appointment as proof of her perceived illicit relationship with Dudley, so she declared that, "as God was her witness, nothing improper had ever passed between them". Would Queen Elizabeth, preparing to possibly meet her maker, have lied about the nature of her relationship with Robert Dudley? I would argue, given its timing, that this statement was genuine and void of a political agenda.

A dashing portrait of Robert Dudley. Attributed to Steven van der Muelen, 1560-65. The Wallace Collection. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney was the sister of Robert Dudley and a close, trusted friend of the Queen. She personally attended to the Queen during her battle with smallpox, and because of the exposure,  she herself became afflicted. Like her Queen, Mary survived, but her body was badly scarred as a result of the pock-marks, and she retired from court life soon after. In gratitude, Queen Elizabeth provided Lady Sidney with a pension.

A portrait of Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney. Attributed to Hans Eworth, circa 1550-1555. Petworth House, The National Trust. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Queen Elizabeth dealt with the pock-marks in her own way, applying white, lead-laden makeup to cover the scars and give her already pale skin a youthful, virginal appearance. This makeup became part of her iconography as "The Virgin Queen".

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in a frame sporting her white face makeup, c.1589. By an unknown artist.

(*Smallpox has a long and tragic history; it has destroyed entire populations, and it has been used as a weapon, particularly by conquering Europeans against indigenous populations in the Americas. Smallpox still exists today, largely in the third world.)