Illness has always brought out anxieties and concerns in victims and those around them – never more acutely when the patient is a monarch. Elizabeth I’s near-fatal illness of 1562 exposed how vulnerable England was with a female monarch with no children on the throne. A brief two-week illness threw the governance of the country into confusion and offers us a fascinating insight into Elizabeth’s own priorities and relationships.
In the autumn of 1562 Elizabeth was heading towards the fourth anniversary of her accession and was one of the most powerful women in Europe. She had returned the English Church to the Protestant faith and was being courted by the most eligible bachelors in Christendom. Marrying one of these European suitors would help to ensure the strength and security of England through their power and prestige. However, Elizabeth continued to be followed by rumours that she wished to marry one of her own subjects, the charismatic Robert Dudley. Her council were horrified at the prospect, as the Queen would be marrying beneath her rank, gaining no additional riches or power from the marriage. And of course there was also the small matter that Dudley’s wife had recently died in suspicious circumstances, her husband coming under suspicion!
In mid-October Elizabeth was at the luxurious Hampton Court Palace distracted with the matter of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland, when she fell ill with a fever and chills. She added a swift conclusion to a letter to Mary and indulged in a hot bath to ease her symptoms.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, this was not a mild illness, and on consultation with doctors, she was diagnosed with smallpox. It had been circulating around the court and a number of female courtiers had fallen ill, although most had survived, so far. There was no cure for the malady and 30% of adults who contracted it would die. Sufferers experienced aches and fevers, headaches and sore throats, but the most sure indication of the disease was the pus filled sores which appeared all over the skin of the afflicted. For those who survived the illness, these pox would usually leave severe scarring, and for those treating the victim, contact with the scabs represented the most likely way of contracting the disease.
Elizabeth was ill for several days before these marks began to erupt on her skin, first as small spots, but developing into blisters which scabbed over. Tended to by her closest female attendants, Elizabeth also enjoyed the ministrations of the doctors of the court, who subjected her to the ‘red treatment’. A Japanese treatment, in use in Europe since the twelfth century, it involved wrapping the Queen from the neck down in red cloth. It was believed that the cloth would prevent severe scarring of the skin, which Elizabeth feared greatly. She was aware of the importance of her own image and beauty – female beauty was considered a sign of virtue and, more immediately she was 29 and seeking a husband. She was fearful that the pox marks would impede her ability make a match in the future, something which was vital to secure an heir to the English throne.
However, these cosmetic concerns were the least of her worries as the illness progressed and she fell into a coma. There was a very real concern that she would die, not quite four years into her reign, leaving the country without a monarch, and vulnerable to a bloody and violent civil war. Less than 100 years since the Wars of the Roses, England was fearful of being left without a clear line of succession, and as Elizabeth was the last of Henry VIII’s children, it was unclear who would reign after her. Her privy council were divided, supporting a variety of different candidates.