England,  ER,  Western Europe

The Last Days of Elizabeth I-   End of an Era

The Allegorical Portrait with Father Time is by an unknown artist
The Allegorical Portrait with Father Time is by an unknown artist

Gloriana seemed to go on forever, but the woman underneath was growing tired.  The uprising and execution of her favorite Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, had taken its toll on her.  Elizabeth was watching all of her companions of youth passing away and being replaced by their children.  She remembered the death watch over her sister, Mary, and how the courtiers rushed to Elizabeth’s camp even before she drew her last breath.  She was determined not to let that happen, and kept her cards close to her chest as always and refused to name a successor.  However, seeing her friends die and knowing she was at the end of a long road sent Elizabeth into a severe depression.

In January 1603, Elizabeth moved to Richmond Palace, saying it was the place she could “best trust her sickly old age”.  She dismissed all her younger ladies and had only her old friends around her.  The ones who had been with her through thick and thin.  The ones she could trust.  Her health deteriorated in the passing months and her depression deepened.  She refused all ministrations from her doctors even though she told them “I am not well”.  Elizabeth stood for hours staring into space, refusing to lie down.  Robert Cecil, the son of her great counselor William Cecil, insisted she go to bed, and in an old flash of temper she snapped, “The word ‘must’ is not to be used to princes…little man, little man.  Ye know I must die, and that makes ye so presumptuous.”  

As her condition became worse, her ladies spread cushions on the floor and Elizabeth finally was persuaded to lay down on them.  They say she passed into delirium and was haunted ghosts from her past and guilt over the executions of Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Essex.  By March 23, 1603, the Queen who had always been a great orator was unable to speak although she was still conscious and alert.  Her ministers gathered around her makeshift bed on the floor.  She had still not named an official successor.  They asked if it was to be James VI of Scotland, and she made a gesture of a circle around her head like a crown in assent.  Archbishop Whitgift came to her bedside and spoke of the joys of heaven that awaited her, and Elizabeth squeezed his hand.  That night, the Queen fell into a deep sleep and died in the early hours of March 24, 1603.  It was described by witnesses as “mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree”.  Lady Scrope took the sapphire ring from the Queen’s finger and dropped it out the window to her waiting brother, Sir Robert Carey, who rode hell for leather to inform James VI he was now James I of England.

The doctors did not know exactly what Elizabeth died of.  It has be theorized as a bronchial infection that turned to pneumonia, strep which turned into a peritonsillar abscess or poisoning from the white lead makeup she used.  Contemporaries thought the Queen could have shaken off this last illness, but she had lost the will to live.  She was old and lonely and her friends and loved ones were no longer here.  Plus her charisma was powerful, but an old woman could only command the hearts of the young for so long, and she knew it.  It was time to go.

The death of Queen Elizabeth 1st by Paul Delaroche (1828) Photo Credit- Google Images
The death of Queen Elizabeth 1st by Paul Delaroche (1828) Photo Credit- Google Images

Her death was announced to the London crowd the next morning to an eerie silence.  Elizabeth had died on the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin, fitting for the Virgin Queen.  Her reign had also last to the last day of 1602.  The Tudors used the Julian calendar and the New Year was celebrated on March 25.  Elizabeth made sure the Tudors had every last second of the year before handing England over to the Stuarts.

There was no post mortem at the Queen’s request. A few days later, the Queen began her last journey. She was taken by water to Whitehall, and laid in state, before being taken to Westminster Hall. There her body was to remain until the new King gave orders for her funeral.  On April 28, 1603, Elizabeth had her funeral and it was as magnificent as she could have wanted.  Her coffin was carried by six knights and topped by an effigy complete with crown and scepter   When the crowd saw the effigy they openly wept.   Witnesses said, “Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads and gutters, that came 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, neither doth any history mention any people, time or state to make like lamentation for the death of their sovereign”.

Elizabeth was gone.  It was the end of an era.


Sources are available on request