Unhealthy Times of Queen Elizabeth I
October 17, 2018
During this very week in October, 456 years ago at Hampton Court, Elizabeth came down with a worrying fever. A notable German physician was sent for and upon his examination Dr Burcot diagnosed smallpox. The Queen dismissed him for a fool – and sent him away for incompetence.
However, just after midnight on October 16th as the Queen’s health was in significant decline – the doctor was called once again to Hampton Court to find the Queen’s hands had broken out in a rash. Dr Burcot’s second examination confirmed his first pox.
By Marcy McCall MacBain
One of the greatest success stories for the World Health Organization is the end of smallpox, which it assisted in eradicating by 1980 through a worldwide vaccination program. Rewind several hundred years, the heroine of our story enters: Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth I, the only daughter to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, became Queen of England in 1558 at 25 years of age. Possessing attributes of youth, beauty, and wit, Elizabeth established a reputation as a confident, discerning leader, and the first-ever unmarried Queen.
During this very week in October, 456 years ago at Hampton Court, Elizabeth came down with a worrying fever. A notable German physician was sent for and upon his examination Dr Burcot diagnosed smallpox. The Queen dismissed him for a fool – and sent him away for incompetence. (Weir 1998; Whitelock 2013)
However, just after midnight on October 16th as the Queen’s health was in significant decline – the doctor was called once again to Hampton Court to find the Queen’s hands had broken out in a rash. Dr Burcot’s second examination confirmed it was smallpox.
’Tis the pox,’ he replied, at which Elizabeth moaned,
‘God’s pestilence! Which is better? To have the pox in the hand or in the face or in the heart and kill the whole body?’
(Quote from Whitelock 2013: pp. 68)
The Queen’s risk of dying was high: 30% of those who contracted smallpox would die from it, and nearly all would have some form of scarring from the skin lesions. The notion for inoculation against smallpox is believed to have been initiated in Turkey and written about in British text by Lady Montague in the early 1700s. British physician and researcher Edward Jenner advanced the concept of vaccination as he used the hand of a milkmaid, Sarah Nelms, to inoculate a young boy from cowpox in 1796. (Riedel 2005)
Back in the Elizabethan era, however, the treatment protocol included two things: a belief in divine intervention and work to balance the body’s humors. The Queen’s medical team wrapped her in a scarlet cloth – believed to allow the red light to heal the rash and underlying disease. Lady Mary Sidney, a loyal attendant, stayed with the Queen to attend to her daily needs – ensuring her comfort along with sips of water, tea and good wishes.
Over the next 10 days the Queen made a full recovery, but was left with damaging scars on her face. Elizabeth believed her beauty was part of her power – and so masked her imperfections using a venetian ceruse, a mixture of vinegar and lead. She also used strong red pigments on her lips that contained additional heavy metals.
In the midst of natural aging, there are reports that Queen Elizabeth treated her rotting teeth with an herbal mouthwash, and would treat her melancholy episodes with a rhubarb detoxification regime that included boiled nuts and seeds. (Whitelock 2013)
However, it was her foundational mask of lead that is believed to have poisoned the Queen to death. Elizabeth I suffered extensive hair loss, mental disorientation, memory loss, fatigue, and digestive problems in her later stages of illness – all signs and symptoms of lead toxicity. The Queen died at 69 years of age.
WHO Smallpox Information
Riedel, Stefan (2005): “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination”
Weir, Alison (1998): “The Life of Elizabeth I” New York: Random House, p.134.
Whitelock, Anne (2013): “Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court” London: Bloomsbury Publishing, pp. 65-72.
The Unhealthy Times of Kings and Queens, Blackwell Hall, Bodleian Library’
Dr Jeffrey Aronson, Ms Lara Heneghan, Dr Marcy McCall MacBain, and Professor Carl Heneghan (Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, Nuffield Dept of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford)
Carl Heneghan is supported by The National Institute for Health Research School of Primary Care and The NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.
15 September 2018 — 11 November 2018
Venue: Blackwell Hall, Weston Library (Map)
Monday to Friday 8.30am-5pm