From the moment Elizabeth I was born on 7th September, 1533, her situation was a complex one. She was a girl for a start, and her father, Henry VIII, was after a boy. So much so, in fact, that he’d turned the religious world upside down to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (mother of Elizabeth’s older half-sister, Mary) annulled. To what end? So he could get rid of Catherine because she was pretty much past child bearing age, and marry Anne Boleyn so that they could then work away at creating a male heir.

Aspects of his plan worked very quickly, however one key element was found to be awry. And unfortunately for Elizabeth, not only was she missing important bits of anatomy, she was also born to an unpopular mother who was blamed for all the upheaval with the church. A scenario that makes or breaks really, and her mother eventually lost her head over it.

Pandemics, plague, and the pox

It’s probably unnecessary for us to remind you that the current Coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore many concerns and anxieties across the world. The ease of travel and the globalised nature of our economies have made a tiny thing like a virus very easy to transmit quickly. But though the Elizabethans didn’t have the benefits of 21st century luxury living that many of us have now, they were no strangers to epidemics. Plague raised its ugly head frequently, and so did the dreaded pox.

London suffered its worst outbreak of smallpox four years into Elizabeth’s reign. She was only 29 years old, and though all monarchs feel their vulnerability from time to time she will have felt hers very acutely. She was female, without an heir, and unmarried. Her father had left a country riven with religious fury and she had enemies everywhere. So when Elizabeth retired to her bed with aches and a fever in the autumn of 1562 the hawks and vultures will have been circling.

To set the scene a bit further

Notwithstanding Henry VIII’s radical decisions, however, Elizabeth was still one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe. She’d supported her father’s Protestant cause and had overturned the changes her sister, Mary, had made before her. She was a woman with clout, therefore, but one with a weakness; she was unmarried and no longer a spring chicken. Eligible bachelors had been knocking on her door and her advisors had been very keen up to this point for her to pick one.

Frustratingly for them, though, Elizabeth knew her own mind, and she’s believed to have only had eyes for a certain Robert Dudley. But there was a problem; Dudley had nothing to bring to the table. His recent wife had died under mysterious circumstances (the finger pointing at him), he had no particular wealth or power to add to her existing pot, and he was below her rank.

An autumnal ailment boded ill

And so, when Elizabeth fell ill in mid-October, her court held its breath. Was this simply a bad cold, or was it something far worse? An eminent German doctor was sent for and he swiftly diagnosed smallpox. Elizabeth, perhaps fearing the inevitable mayhem that would ensue if she died, for smallpox had a 30% mortality rate, buried her head in the sand and refused to accept his opinion. However her health then declined very rapidly, and within a short time the dreaded rash had begun to appear on her hands.

Having been eradicated in the second half of the last century, it’s hard for many of us to appreciate quite how terrible such a diagnosis was. Smallpox was a disease with no cure other than prayer, or for those wealthy enough… the red treatment; a Japanese process that entailed wrapping someone in a red blanket in order for them to benefit from the curative nature of red light. People who were ‘fortunate’ to survive it were left to live the rest of their lives horrifically scarred. And thus we can only imagine the depth of concern Elizabeth was feeling; at this point, she either faced death or the loss of her beauty. And trite as it might sound, the latter was of great importance to a monarch needing a worthy suitor at a time when female beauty was deemed to be an indication of a woman’s virtue. Anything that would affect her ability to produce an heir was a threat.

Indifferent to rank and status, however, the queen’s illness progressed to the point where she even fell temporarily into a coma. Aesthetic concerns became the least of the country’s worries. If she were to die without an heir, civil war of the bloodiest kind was bound to erupt. With such a cloud looming, the Privy Council were at significant odds with each other regarding who should be put in line for succession. The queen’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, was a natural hereditary contender but she had vehement Catholic sympathies. Catherine Grey, Lady Jane Grey’s sister, was a Protestant alternative. Her sister had been queen for nine days and she was a descendent of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister. According to the then 1544 Succession Act, she was actually the one with the best claim. However, she had also been previously ensconced in the Tower of London for having married without Elizabeth’s permission. There were no obvious candidates.

As was her way, though, Elizabeth took matters into her own hands. There was one person she trusted above all others; Robert Dudley. He was the one who would be able to settle the issue of succession and save her beloved country from warring ruin. She thus ordered that he be made Lord Protector of England and granted him a very generous income. Knowing that his position would be plagued by questions, however, she also took the opportunity to declare that their relationship had never been of an improper kind. With many question marks still remaining in many heads, it was the best she could do to help him fulfil his duty.

Makeup for a monarch

Fortunately, though, her health turned a corner. And with the immediate threat of turmoil averted, her concerns then reverted back to her original situation. She was still a single queen needing an heir, so her skin had to be protected at all costs. Word was put out that she’d not been badly affected by marking, how true this was we’ll never be sure. However, a measure of concealment was still required, and the white lead makeup for which she is so well known, became a signature trait.

Did this help to solve her situation? It is well documented that the answer is a resounding no. Elizabeth never married. Perhaps she was just too loathe to ever part with any of the power that she had as a monarch. When she eventually died in 1603 aged 69, though, of what is now some suspect to have been blood poisoning caused by the lead in her makeup, the country truly lamented her demise. With her loss, the period in history that is known as the Golden Age came to an end. But it cannot be denied that her legacy as one of the most powerful single women in history is to still provide inspiration to many women even now.