Queen Elizabeth I was a great historical figure, but like all great historical figures she tends to be a little bit sanitized. Forget interpretations from the likes of Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren: the real Elizabeth was cruder, dirtier, meaner and a whole lot uglier. Plus, she was living in a cruel and violent time, which made for cruel and violent laws. Here are 20 facts about her that, if found in the average textbook, would have brightened up many a dull history lesson.
20. The makeup she wore could have helped kill her
Aristocratic Tudor ladies liked to wear a face-whitening powder called Venetian ceruse, and Elizabeth I used it constantly. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to her at the time, the lead-containing cosmetic was very poisonous. Indeed, historians have speculated that it may have hastened her death.
19. She took a bath just once a month
A Venetian ambassador once allegedly said of Elizabeth, “She bathes once a month, whether she needs it or not.” This sounds remarkable to us, but Tudors believed that submerging one’s self in water was dangerous, and so they rarely did it. Indeed, Elizabeth’s once-monthly bath would have been seen as an extravagance.
18. She was afraid of dentists so let her teeth rot
Elizabeth’s love of sugar gradually caused her teeth to go black, but she refused to have a dentist examine her. One of her bishops even tried to calm her nerves by having his own tooth removed in front of her, but the Queen still said no. Her teeth simply continued to rot… and some even fell out.
17. She was imprisoned by her half-sister
Before Elizabeth was crowned, her half-sibling “Bloody” Mary sat on the throne. There wasn’t much sisterly love there, though, because as soon as Elizabeth was suspected of plotting against her, Mary had her thrown in the Tower of London. She spent only eight weeks there, but they were torturous ones.
16. She hated the idea of marriage
There were men whom Elizabeth loved. Indeed, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was among them, but unlike most women of her day, she wouldn’t be wed. “If I followed the inclination of my nature, it is this,” she once said, “beggar woman and single, far rather than queen and married.”
15. She used astrology to guide her
Just like many people today, Elizabeth I was a big believer in astrology and took advice from an astrologer and occultist called Dr. John Dee. Indeed, it was he who chose the date for her coronation, based on the pattern of the stars.
14. She wore a ring with her mother’s picture hidden inside
King Henry VIII not only had Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn executed for treason when Elizabeth was just two, but he continued to slander her long after she had died. Yet the young Elizabeth believed in her mother’s innocence and thereafter wore a ring with her mother’s picture hidden inside. In fact, she kept it on until she died.
13. She had to be the center of attention
No mere lady-in-waiting would ever upstage Elizabeth. In fact, all the Queen’s attendants were required to don white or black and quietly fade into the background. It seemed to have the desired effect, too, as after Elizabeth asked one guest if he thought her ladies were beautiful, he quickly responded, “I cannot judge stars in the presence of the sun.”
12. She nearly died from smallpox
In 1562 the young Queen Elizabeth fell sick with smallpox. The now-eradicated disease was extremely serious, and her councilors panicked. They panicked yet more when she named Robert Dudley, her possible suitor, as Protector of the Realm. But Elizabeth survived and so prevented an all-out war for the throne.
11. Her father was actually expecting a son
King Henry VIII, like his daughter, was a firm believer in astrology. So when stargazers told him his new baby would be a boy, he believed them… only to be sorely disappointed. What’s more, he’d already had birth announcements made to say “prince,” so an extra “ss” had to be added.
10. She owned one of the first wristwatches
Queen Elizabeth possessed a wristwatch given to her by – who else? – Robert Dudley. It was very possibly the first one in England, and it was encrusted with diamonds and pearls. No wonder historians have long suspected that Elizabeth and Dudley were far more than friends.
9. It took two hours for her servants to dress her
Queen Elizabeth’s image, a major political tool, took a lot of work to perfect. Indeed, the Tudor wardrobe was a complicated thing, involving lots of layers and colors. So, on an average day, it could take up to two hours to fully dress the Queen. We can’t imagine that would have been an easy job!
8. People implicated her in a mysterious death
Whatever truly went on between Elizabeth and Dudley, it was a subject of great gossip in the Elizabethan court. This increased tenfold when Dudley’s wife was found dead in strange circumstances. Indeed, the Queen found herself having to distance herself from him to avoid rumors that the two of them had had her killed.
7. She was the most painted person of her time…
Subjects of Queen Elizabeth I loved her so much that they would request portraits of her to hang in their homes. Therefore, by the time she died in 1603, the Virgin Queen was the most painted person in the world. Indeed, a lot of paintings of her still survive today.
6. …but she would have paintings she didn’t like destroyed
Queen Elizabeth kept a tight rein on how she was portrayed in paintings. Most artists who drew her had to follow a “pattern,” which is why so many pictures of her look alike. But not all artists did this, and so, in 1596, Elizabeth ordered all “unseemly” portraits to be destroyed.
5. She was neglected as a child
Such was his disdain for his daughter that Henry VIII didn’t even bother to go to her christening. And he neglected her in other ways, too. At one point, Elizabeth’s nurses even had to write to his secretaries to request new clothes – the overlooked little girl was being dressed in items far too small for her.
4. She invented the gingerbread man
Believe it or not, the concept of the gingerbread man as we know it can be traced back to Elizabeth I. She would have gingerbread cut and designed to look like visiting guests, in order to amuse them. And the idea soon caught on and remains popular to this day.
3. Later in life, she had all her mirrors destroyed
Elizabeth clearly had a vain streak, and it’s said that once she reached old age she had all her mirrors smashed. Why? Because she couldn’t stand to look at herself. Indeed, one of her ladies-in-waiting wrote in 1607 that “all those [mirrors] which had before flattered her durst not come in her sight.”
2. She was thinking about Robert Dudley on her deathbed
Elizabeth never married, as we know, but there’s little doubt that she loved Robert Dudley very much. He had died in 1588, and it’s very possible that she had the last letter from him to her placed by her bed as she expired. Furthermore, it’s said that as she took her last breath, she called out his name.
1. She was the oldest ever monarch when she died
Life expectancy in the Tudor era wasn’t high – only 35, in fact. Indeed, if disease didn’t get you, the executioner’s axe just might. But Elizabeth lived to be 69. And when she passed away in 1603, she was the oldest ruler in British history, a record she held until King George II surpassed her in 1754.