On the 24th March of 1603, Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, died at Richmond Palace. She ruled England for almost 45 years. Often called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the second queen regnant in England, one of England’s most well-known monarchs, and the greatest ruler of the Renaissance era. She was never married and did not have children (at least not officially), becoming the last Tudor monarch, who was succeeded by King James I of England and VI of Scotland.
The final years of Queen Elizabeth’s life were filled with melancholy. She mourned for her deceased loyal friends and supporters, including William Cecil, Baron Burghley, who passed away in 1598. In 1601, Elizabeth ordered the execution of her former favorite – Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, whose death brought more sorrow to her. It seems that the queen regretted Essex’s execution, grieving for him and at times sitting in dark chambers; maybe she also grieved over her own fading life and the deaths of those people who she loved and who had predeceased her.
By the 1601-1602, Elizabeth’s health was deteriorating, and her subjects did not anticipate her to live for longer. On the 30th of November 1601, the queen made her last appearance before Parliament and spoke her famous speech that was considered the end of her great era. She said:
“There will never queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects, and that will soon with willingness venture her life for your good and safety, than myself. For it is not my desire to live nor reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had and may have many princes more mighty and wise sitting in this seat, yet you never had or shall have any that will be more careful and loving.”
In March 1603, Queen Elizabeth retired to one of her favorite palaces – Richmond Palace, probably wishing to die there. She was nearing seventy years old, which very old by the standards of the time. She was in a state of deep and unwavering melancholy for quite some time. In the days preceding her death, Elizabeth spent time in her chambers, resting on her bed and propped upon luxurious silk cushions. She declared that she was feeling unwell, but the queen refused to fetch a royal physician. The courtiers were becoming exceedingly worried about their queen.
Robert Cecil, the son of William Cecil and Elizabeth’s principal advisor after his father’s death, paid a visit to the queen. According to contemporary sources, he said:
“Your Majesty, for the sake of the people, you must go to bed.”
Elizabeth did not even reply due to her unwillingness to talk or due to her exhaustion. Soon John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, came to the queen’s apartments and asked her to retire to bed, but she remained silent. It must have been a profoundly heartbreaking picture for those who could see Elizabeth in her last hours: she was like a fading flower, whose noble color and vitality were gone. Finally, the queen was persuaded to rest on her cushions on the floor. For two days, she did not speak. During the next several days, Elizabeth rested in silence. Her attendants were terrified and begged her to permit them to move her to her bed, but she was shaking her head.
The queen’s days were numbered, and her councilors were concerned about the successor. When they assembled near their Gloriana, she made a small sign when Robert Cecil mentioned King James of Scotland, which was enough to start the paperwork. At last, Elizabeth fell into a deep sleep and died in the early hours on the 24th of March 1603. For a short time, the courtiers watched and waited, guessing whether she was still alive. It was Archbishop Whitgift who came to her quarters to pray and noticed that the queen was not breathing. Such were the last hours of the last Tudor monarch, whose demise marked the end of the Elizabethan era and the Golden Age.
John Manningham, a lawyer and diarist, wrote of the queen’s passing:
“This morning, about three o’clock Her Majesty departed from this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree… Dr Parry told me he was present, and sent his prayers before her soul; and I doubt not but she is amongst the royal saints in heaven in eternal joys.”
Due to the lack of proper medical knowledge in Tudor period, Queen Elizabeth’s physicians might have had no clue as to why her health was deteriorating. Historians debate over the reasons of Elizabeth’s death. A popular belief of her contemporaries was that she became ill and died of blood poisoning. Elizabeth was fond of make-up, and she used the white lead and vinegar mixture, which might have been toxic and dangerous for life if it was constantly applied to the skin. She could have died of bronchial infection that turned into pneumonia, or of something else.
When Elizabeth’s death was announced, the people of England fell into deep mourning for their beloved queen. The coffin with queen’s body was delivered from Richmond to Whitehall. On the 28th of April, her coffin was carried to Westminster Abbey on a hearse drawn by horses draped in black velvet. The coffin was swathed in a sumptuous purple cloth, topped with the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I with a sceptre in her hands and a crown on her head. A canopy above the coffin was supported by 6 knights, and behind the hearse was the Queen’s Master of the Horse, leading her palfrey. The chief mourner was the Marchioness of Northampton who headed the funeral cortege that consisted of all the peers of the English realm; everyone was in attired in black.
Chronicler John Stow was an English historian and antiquarian. He also wrote a series of chronicles of English history. He described the funeral of Queen Elizabeth I:
“Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads and gutters, that came out to see the obsequy, and when they beheld her statue lying upon the coffin, there was such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man.”
The funeral of Queen Elizabeth I was grand, but it was one of the saddest events in England’s history because she was truly a great monarch. She was put to eternal rest in the vault of her grandfather, King Henry VII. Later, in 1606, her remains were moved to her present resting place – a tomb in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, which she shares with her half-sister – Queen Mary I of England. King James I of England – her successor and the only son of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – spent over £11,000 on her lavish funeral, and the white marble monument was erected upon his orders. The tomb is inscribed with the words:
“Consorts both in throne and grave, here we rest two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in hope of our resurrection.”
All images are in the public domain.
Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville