Sunday, November 22, 2020

Elizabeth I: The Final Days of the Great Queen

by Nancy Bilyeau

On Wednesday, March 18, 1603, as the defeated Hugh O’Neill, rebel leader, made his preparations to surrender in Ireland, Queen Elizabeth, victorious monarch, resided with her court at the Palace of Richmond. The royal household of some 1,700 people had moved there on January 21st in “very foul and wet weather.” For her entire reign, Elizabeth favored Richmond, a handsome castle that loomed over the Thames like a dense forest of turrets, because she relished the privacy its park afforded for the vigorous walks she always craved. It felt warmer within, compared to her other river castles, and this was an unusually cold, damp winter. “The sharpest season that I have lightly known,” wrote John Chamberlain, a London gentleman.

'The Rainbow Portrait' of
Elizabeth I in 1600
It was not a realistic depiction.

Some say that in the past the Queen ordered the court there with frequency so that, out of sight of gossips, she could pay visits to a neighbor of Richmond: John Dee, the scholar and necromancer who spoke to angels through special mirrors and divined the future through communing with the dead. He had advised Elizabeth since the beginning, selecting a coronation date that was most propitious. Dee was still alive in 1603 but had finally fallen out of favor with Elizabeth. The times had waxed for hardheaded Puritans and waned for wizards casting spells.

But now a certain tension, a dread made up of fear for the future and a morbid excitement, filled every corner of Richmond. There was no celebration over the defeat of O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, after years of war. The sixty-nine-year-old Queen was ill—just how ill was the question. After surviving a serious bout with smallpox when she was twenty-nine, Elizabeth enjoyed good health. Some attributed it to her “abstinence from wine and temperate diet,” so unlike her father in that respect. Arthritis plagued Elizabeth as well as recurring toothaches and a leg ulcer, and she’d always been bedeviled by headaches, but overall Elizabeth’s vigor impressed all who observed her, whether it was a Londoner peering from a distance or a foreign ambassador conversing with her in Latin, French, or Italian.

Passionate for dancing, she executed the most complicated steps well into her sixties. The preceding April, she entertained the Duke of Nevers with a “costly banquet, and opened a ball with him, dancing a galliard.” Afterward, the duke kissed her hand—and her foot. She detested all mention of her age and told the French ambassador, “I think not to die so soon, and am not so old as they think.” Dressed in all her finery and jewels, wearing a wig a shade of red not found in nature, she still dazzled, though up close one could see her teeth were rotted, the unhappy consequence of her weakness for sweets.

When a noticeable change came over the Queen the winter of 1602-1603, it was first perceived in her mood, rather than her body. She was alternately listless and short tempered. John Harrington, her godson, tried to cheer her up by telling the sort of joke she’d always liked in the past, but she waved him off, saying, “When thou dost feel time creeping at Thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less.”

Robert Carey, a cousin of Elizabeth’s who did not often reside at court but was close to her nonetheless—she’d once paid a large debt of his, and later took offense at his choice of wife, both distinct signs of partiality—saw a startling change in the queen when he came to Richmond. “I found her in one of her withdrawing chambers, sitting low upon her cushions,” he wrote in his memoirs. “She called me to her, I kissed her hand, and told her it was my chiefest happiness to see her in safety and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, ‘No, Robin, I am not well,’ and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs.”

An 18th century drawing of the Palace of Richmond
An 18th century drawing of the Palace of Richmond

It was obvious to everyone that the Queen was seriously depressed. The French ambassador wrote that she did not sleep more than a few hours a night. Some said that she seemed preoccupied with the downfall of Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex. He was a handsome, posturing, adventurous, and fatally ambitious aristocrat, thirty-two years her junior, whom she’d flirted with and indulged. Essex was executed in 1601 because, after botching his command of the Queen’s army in Ireland, he returned to England without permission and, feeling misunderstood and then threatened, led a London rebellion against the Queen that soon fizzled.

Throughout the crisis, the Queen remained remarkable cool. The crisis passed, Essex lay headless in the Tower of London’s straw, and she rallied herself, nine months later, to deliver her Golden Speech to Parliament.

But the Essex episode took a toll. Many were startled to see her keep a sword nearby in 1602. Harrington wrote that she “constantly paced the privy chamber, stamping her feet at bad news and thrusting her sword at times into the arras [tapestry] in great rage.” A contemporary wrote that “she was the torment of the ladies who waited upon her.”

Other people besides Essex preoccupied her. Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, her Irish “arch traitor,” bedeviled the Queen. During John Harrington’s visit in February of 1603, “she had the Archbishop ask me if I had seen Tyrone. I replied, with great reverence, that I had seen him with the lord deputy [Essex]. She looked up with much choler and grief in her countenance and said, ‘Oh, now it mindeth me, that you are one who saw this man elsewhere.’ And she dropped a tear, and smote her bosom.”

Who did she weep for? For Ireland, which had suffered so grievously? Or was it for herself, over a memory lapse at her godson having seen Tyrone in the flesh already? Harrington had no idea.

When the illness came, it seemed only a chill, then developed into a cold. She had “swellings of the throat.” The illness slowly took grip. As the Queen struggled, in mind and body, she received sad news. Katherine Carey, the older sister of Robert Carey and the Queen’s close companion, her lady of the bedchamber for more than forty years, died on February 20th.

Portrait thought to be of Katherine Carey

Elizabeth had suffered other losses of those close to her. The most grievous were William Cecil, her chief councilor and right hand for many years, and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, the only man some say she’d ever loved. When told in 1588 of Dudley’s death, she locked herself away for days.

The Careys were special. Elizabeth rarely spoke of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and never her execution when Elizabeth was not even three years old. Some of her deeply private feelings about her mother can be guessed at by the loyalty and affection, the trust she felt for her cousins on the Boleyn side, in particular the children and grandchildren of Mary Carey, the sister of Anne Boleyn. Though there are few mentions of Elizabeth’s activities in childhood, it’s possible the Careys gave her unconditional support while she lived under a cloud due to her mother’s ignominy.

A glimpse into the heart of a young Queen Elizabeth comes through a story revolving around Katherine Carey. Her councilors, her court, the foreign ambassadors, everyone talked about the Queen’s seeming infatuation with Robert Dudley, whom she’d known since childhood and now appointed her Master of Horse. Whenever the two spoke to each other, others watched, and gossiped. One day, Dudley, a superb athlete, horseman, and hunter, planned to shoot at St. James Park, and Elizabeth disguised herself as Katherine Carey’s maid so that she could watch Dudley, unobserved.

Elizabeth I at the time of her coronation

Decades later, it was Katherine Carey’s death that sent the Queen spiraling into depression, what the French ambassador described as a “deep melancholy” of “many tears.” Earlier in February, it was discovered that Elizabeth’s coronation ring “had so growne into her flesh, that it could not be drawne off.” The ring, which she wore on her wedding ring finger, was sawn off. This, wrote Camden, “was a sad presage, as if it portended that the marriage with her Kingdome, contracted by the ring, would be dissolved.”

Elizabeth’s cold worsened. In early March the Queen suffered a fever, her throat and stomach burned, and she felt “continual thirst.” She sat on cushions on the floor, saying little and refusing food. “The Queen grew worse and worse, because she would be so,” wrote Robert Carey.

Another court observer wrote that the Queen “sleepeth not so much by day as she used, neither rest by night. Her delight is to sit in the dark damp; sometimes with shedding of tears.” Elizabeth would not go to bed or eat, she would not change her clothes. The latter was particularly uncharacteristic for the fastidious Elizabeth. The Earl of Northumberland wrote, “For twenty days she slept very little. Since she is growing very weak, yet sometimes gives us hope of recovery, a few hours after threatens us with despair of her well doing. Physick she will not take any.”

Another contemporary wrote the Queen had seen herself as a ghostly form in “a light of fire” and was terrified of another nightmare. There were other whispers that the Queen believed if she went to sleep, she would not wake up. “She feareth death.” The crisis made the palace tremble as one. Robert Cecil, the Queen’s principal secretary and the son of her greatly mourned William Cecil, knelt before her and begged the Queen to do as her physicians asked.

She refused.

On March 18, the French ambassador wrote, “The queen is already quite exhausted, and sometimes for two or three hours together, does not speak a word. For the last two days, she has her finger almost always in her mouth, and sits upon cushions, without rising or lying down, her eyes open and fixed on the ground. Her long wakefulness and want of food have exhausted her already weak and emaciated frame, and have produced heat at the stomach, and also the drying up of all the juices, for the last ten or twelve days.”

There was only one man still alive who might be able to persuade the Queen to take to her bed. Cecil sent for him, in desperation, and when the word rushed through the palace that Charles Howard, the Earl of Nottingham, had arrived, there was a sigh of relief.

Charles Howard was the Queen’s cousin, too, but not of Boleyn blood. Anne Boleyn’s mother was a Howard, and that grand, proud, brave and foolish family played an important part in many Tudor dramas. Some Tudors found the Howards fatally attractive. Henry VIII took as his fifth wife Catherine Howard, still a teenager, and was so besotted with her, an ambassador wrote he could not keep his hands off her. But for Catherine, as with so many Howards, it did not end well. Margaret Douglas, the king’s niece, had secret affairs of some sort with not one but two young Howard men, behavior that landed her in the Tower of London. The Earl of Surrey was executed by Henry VIII in his final year. The 4th Duke of Norfolk was beheaded for treason by Elizabeth in 1572. The fanatically Catholic Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel and the Duke of Norfolk’s son, was imprisoned for ten years in the Tower for conspiring against the Queen, before he died, wasted away, in 1595.

Charles Howard,
Earl of Nottingham

Yet the Howard family was as divided in religion as many other English families. Charles Howard, like his father, was a staunch Protestant, both men completely loyal to Elizabeth for her entire life. The Earl of Nottingham enjoyed a rare quality in the factional, backstabbing court: he inspired universal admiration. He was not only the Queen’s first cousin but also the Lord High Admiral who had commanded the English navy when the Spanish Armada sailed to invade and conquer in 1588.

Cecil had hesitated to summon him before this time because Katherine Carey was Howard’s wife; her death sent him into solitary retreat for a fortnight. Theirs was a strong, fruitful marriage of many years standing. But he roused himself that March day—his Queen, his cousin and friend, needed him again.

Elizabeth’s nearing the age of seventy aroused admiration in her century and our own. It is sometimes assumed that this was freakishly old because of the shorter life span in the early modern age. But it was high infant mortality that cut a swathe in lifespan; some people, particularly those with regular access to fresh food and air, did reach old age.

Still, the Tudors were not known for their longevity. Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Edmund Tudor, died of disease at twenty-six. Her grandfather, Henry VII, died at fifty-two. No monarch in her family made it to sixty beside herself. But the Howards had a tough streak. The third Duke of Norfolk was thrown into the Tower in his seventies, freed by Queen Mary, and survived long enough to lead soldiers in her defense before dying at eighty. Elizabeth was part Howard.

The man who passed through the curved archway of the red-brick gatehouse of the Palace of Richmond that day had his complexities. The Earl of Nottingham was a vain man. A portrait of him when young shows reddish hair, neat features, and a beard trimmed with exquisite care, a feathered cap sitting just so atop his well-shaped head. He had his portraits commissioned with frequency. At the age of eighty-three, in a grand finale, he was painted by the Dutch master Daniel Mytens the Elder, wearing a gold embroidered skull cap and elaborate Garter robes of white and red velvet, carefully parted to showcase his legs in white hose, his shapely octogenarian calves.

It was another Howard-commissioned artwork that drew Elizabeth’s acquisitive instinct the preceding year. She made a small summer progress in the vicinity of London, a round of visits of her favorites. One of those houses, naturally, was the London residence of Charles Howard and his wife, Katherine. On display was Howard’s commissioned set of sumptuous tapestries depicting the victory over the Armada. Each of the ten tapestries was fourteen feet tall, woven with gold and silver thread.

At many of her visits to houses of the nobility, in London or in the country, Elizabeth dropped heavy hints when she saw something she liked. Pressured, the heartsick owners delivered “gifts” to the Queen’s palace. Agnes Strickland, her Victorian biographer, wrote, “It is expressly noticed that, on her visit to the Earl of Nottingham, she was disappointed, because she was not presented with the costly suit of tapestry hangings, which represented all the battles of her valiant host with the Spanish Armada.”

The amount that Howard paid for the tapestries is some eighty-seven times what the average Londoner earned in a year. Throughout history, the haves and the have-nots regard each other across a divide, but it was a savagely deep chasm in the twilight of Elizabeth’s reign. It has been estimated that two-fifths of the population in the late 16th century lived below subsistence level. The number of people in England had doubled in a century, far too many for its resources. When a bad harvest struck, as happened repeatedly between 1590 and 1603, it was a disaster. People went hungry, and there were reports of starvation deaths. Disease, the partner of starvation, struck, particularly influenza. Bubonic plague also stalked the population, causing such terror in London that the Globe Theatre was closed in 1603.

More than anything else, the financial demands of war drained the English economy. It is difficult for some to comprehend the fatigue and depression suffered by Elizabeth I because her reign is often accepted as one of peace and prosperity. But England was enmeshed in near-constant war from 1585 onward. By 1602, there was 300 percent inflation. When she died, Elizabeth left the country in debt by £420,000.

The Queen was no war monger. But the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 and her execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 put her on a collision course with Catholic Europe and specifically Spain. Those who served in Elizabeth’s navy in the Spanish wars suffered a shocking fate. To save money, Elizabeth refused to pay most of them after the Armada triumph. Charles Howard, their commander, paid some of them from his own accounts, but it was not enough. Some died in the ports after returning.

As for the Irish wars, very few Englishmen wanted to serve. The jails were emptied to fill their ranks, and periodically men were rounded up and forced at gunpoint to leave for Ireland. Thirty thousand English soldiers died in the Nine Years War in Ireland, although more from disease than in combat. Dysentery was the most common killer.

"Arch Traitor" Hugh O'Neill,
the Earl of Tyrone

It is unknown if most English families had heard of the recent deaths of so many Irish families in the famine orchestrated by Lord Mountjoy to crush support for Tyrone. The English may have been informed by Protestant colonists who returned to England, those who survived, for some were murdered by Irish rebels. The best-known colonist is Edmund Spenser, the poet author of The Faerie Queen. In 1598, his home was burned down by forces led by Hugh O’Neill and he ended up in London, where no one took up his cause. While celebrated for his poetry, he had “always wrestled with poverty,” Camden wrote. In January 1599, Spenser was dead. 

While ambassadors and courtiers—and biographers ever since—have struggled to identify the specific reason, in her last weeks, for Elizabeth’s enervating despair, the question was dwarfed by a more pressing one in 1603: Who would succeed her? There was no officially named heir to the throne of the childless queen. Today, knowing that it was the Scottish King James VI who came next, it is difficult to appreciate the anxiety that obsessed people in the late 16th century, building to a crescendo of panic in 1603.

James VI had Tudor blood; he was descended from Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Many, though not all, thought that he would come next. Certainly James wanted to be king of England, and he fumed in Edinburgh over Elizabeth’s refusal to formally name him as heir.

Not only did she decline to designate any heir her entire life, Elizabeth never wrote a will at all, unlike her grandfather, father, half-brother, and half-sister. Due to an avoidance of the specter of death that reached the pathological, she would not take legal steps to provide for a peaceful succession for England, even knowing that in the 15th century England was torn apart in bloody disputes over the throne.

Elizabeth identified herself with her father, Henry VIII. She gloried in the fact she resembled him more than her half-sister Mary with her height, her bright red hair, her ability to give a brilliant speech extemporaneously, and her capacity for charm. It may give one pause, since her father had her mother executed, but she always spoke of him with respect. “I may not be a lion, but I am a lion’s cub and I have a lion’s heart.”

Yet she defied her father’s will, both in law and in spirit, over the all-important matter of the succession. Henry VIII had not wanted the descendants of Scotland’s James IV to succeed. There were centuries of strife between the two kingdoms. He very deliberately placed the children of his other sister, Mary Brandon, next in line after Elizabeth. That group included the doomed Lady Jane Grey, but there were others. Elizabeth, however, hated her Brandon cousins, in particularly Jane’s sister, Catherine. They never had her support. Indeed, Catherine spent some of her adult life in the Tower of London.

Henry VII, the family patriarch, had not wanted the Stuarts to follow the Tudors either. Although it was his idea, Henry VII had some last-minute doubts about the wisdom of marrying his oldest daughter, Margaret, to James IV. It seemed a remote possibility, yet he worried that all his other descendants would die without children, and Margaret’s potential Stuart offspring could prevail. However, he decided to go forward with arranging the marriage, reasoning that “should anything of that kind happen, and God avert the omen, I foresee that our realm would suffer no harm, since England would not be absorbed by Scotland, but rather Scotland by England.”

James VI of Scotland

Margaret Tudor married James Stuart in 1503. Exactly one century later, their great-grandson James VI was poised to take the English throne. What deepens the irony is that the severed, rotting head of James IV, killed in the Battle of Flodden after he declared war on the English, was most probably lying within the vicinity of the Palace of Richmond as Elizabeth sickened, to the despair of the court.

At Flodden, the Scottish were defeated by armies led by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and later Duke of Norfolk. James’s corpse was embalmed and sent on to London. The monastery in Sheen was chosen to house the coffin until it was decided what to do with the vanquished king. Richmond Palace was called “Sheen” before being renamed after the earldom once held by Henry VII, and the monks kept the name. Monasteries often served as burial places for inconvenient royal corpses, as the world realized with the discovery at the Franciscan friary in Leicester of Richard III.

But Henry VIII never got around to arranging the burial of his brother-in-law, James IV. At some point the Sheen monastery adjoining Richmond was dissolved as part of Henry’s attack of the monasteries. Some say that James IV’s coffin was shoved into a woodshed. According to antiquarian John Stow, in the reign of Elizabeth, “workmen there for their foolish pleasure hewed off his head.” No one is sure what happened to James IV’s remains after that.

It is doubtful that Charles Howard knew that James IV’s head had become something of a football on the palace grounds as he arrived at Richmond. The three families of Tudor, Howard, and Stuart were intertwining yet again.

Howard had ridden through a London filled with fear, for by the middle of March, the news of the Queen’s worsening health had leaked. For some Londoners, this was a period of unearthly quiet. She had been their queen for forty-four years. Most people in England did not remember a time when she was not their ruler. Her illness “wrought great sorrow and dread in all good subjects’ hearts.” An English Jesuit imprisoned in the Tower, Father William Weston, wrote that “a strange silence descended on the whole city, as if it were under interdict and divine worship suspended. Not a bell rang out. Not a bugle sounded—though ordinarily they were often heard.”

In reality, a great deal of frantic activity had commenced. The navy was alerted, the ports were closed. The watches over “discontented persons” were stepped up, unlawful assemblies outlawed, potentially dangerous “Papists” were thrown into jail. The Venetian ambassador reported that five hundred vagrants were seized in taverns and confined. The Queen’s jewels were locked in the Tower, not too close, one assumes, to the cells of the potentially dangerous Papists and other troublemakers.

Howard did not write memoirs or describe in letters his encounter with Elizabeth. But according to contemporary accounts, he found her in a bad state. She told him, “My Lord, I am tied with a chain of iron around my neck. I am tied, I am tied, and the case is altered with me.”

It’s not known how many hours it took, but Charles Howard, through friendship, through appeal to reason, through the bonds of family, finally broke through. “What by fair means, what by force,” wrote Robert Carey, but the old earl was able to get the old queen to take to her bed.

The kitchens prepared broth for the Queen; the Archbishop of Canterbury was sent for; Elizabeth’s musicians played softly to try to soothe her.

The Queen did not speak to anyone. Reports circulated that she indicated through “signs” that she would like to see her privy council. When they appeared, “by putting her hand to her head, when the king of Scots was named to succeed her, they all knew he was the man she desired should reign after her.” This dubious story of designation of James was not challenged by anyone at court. Cecil had already begun a secret correspondence with Edinburgh.

Elizabeth turned her face to the wall. At about two in the morning on March 24th, she died.

One courtier wrote, “She made no will, nor gave anything away, so that they who came after her shall find a well-furnished house, a rich wardrobe of more than two thousand gowns, with all things answerable.”

The Tudor age was over.

* all images courtesy of Wikipedia.


Nancy Bilyeau, a magazine editor, is the author of five historical novels. Her debut, The Crown, is being discounted by Simon & Schuster to $1.99 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for the month of November. Her website is


  1. Very interesting... I thought I knew all there was to know about Elizabeth I, but the part about Charles Howard coaxing her off the floor was something new! Great writing, as usual, by Nancy Bilyeau.

  2. Delightful article ... thanks. I'm surprised they didn't all have pneumonia every year in those cold, draughty places. I remember the living room fire did not heat the living room when I was a child. You practically had to sit in it to be warm, and I lived with chilblains from hot water bottles.

  3. Fascinating detail and captures the ambiance in an engaging depiction of a succession drama and family trauma of one of England's greatest Queens. Bilyeau's writing style is historical accuracy with realistic down to earth humanization that is relatable and a highly enjoyable teachable read. Well done.

  4. Fascinating, Nancy! As I read, I kept envisioning Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in the "Elizabeth R" BBC series from the 70s.


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