CaseStudy 1: Elizabeth’s Smallpox

Elizabeth 1

Queen Elizabeth 1 in her coronation robes. Painted by an unknown artist, c. 1600.

On the 10th of October in the year 1562 the queen of England Elizabeth 1 fell gravely ill. At the age of 29 the queen had contracted the smallpox in one of the worst outbreaks in England in her reign, this sent her counsellors into a flurry and the queen was practically begged to name a successor. To us in the modern world where smallpox has been eradicated this reaction may seem extreme, but with a 30% mortality rate Elizabeth’s counsellors had ample reason to worry. The queen was taken ill at Hampton Court Palace with what was originally thought to be a bad cold, however this early symptom quickly developed into a severe fever and the verdict was clear, smallpox.

The only known prevention that was used against smallpox during this period was prayer and pious living, no surprise then that many died and those that survived were often blinded. The disease was particularly dangerous for infants. Infant mortality rates ranging as high as 90% this is one reason why infants were baptised early. Smallpox displays a number of symptoms including aches, nausea, a high fever and most notable of all a blistering rash containing puss, the rash first appears on the face, hands and feet then quickly spreads throughout the rest of the body. If the patient survived for twelve days they generally lived, though more often than not suffered horrific scarring.

Variola Virus

The Variola (Smallpox) Virus

For many ordinary people there was no cure for smallpox. However Elizabeth 1 was subjected to the most up to date treatment by her physicians, the red treatment. Elizabeth was wrapped in a red blanket the theory being that the red light cast by the material was able to weaken the symptoms or even completely cure the smallpox. This rather outlandish cure was first suggested in Europe by Gilbertus Anglicus in his medical text Compedium Medicinae. Fortunately Elizabeth recovered with what was reported to be only minor scarring, though it is thought that this caused her to wear a thick layer of lead paint to hide the scars for the rest of her life.

A more usual outcome of smallpox is evidenced in the case of Lady Mary Sidney a lady-in-waiting to the queen, who helped attend the queen during her illness and consequently contracted the disease herself. Although Mary too survived she was badly scarred, Sir Henry her husband described the outcome of her illness in a manuscript describing his service to the crown (Memoir of Services), written in 1583.

“When I went to Newhaven [Le Havre] I lefte her a full faire Ladye in myne eye at least the fayerest, and when I retorned I found her as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her, which she did take by contynuall attendance of her majesties most precious person (sicke of the same disease) the skarres of which (to her resolute discomforte) ever syns hath don and doth remayne in her face, so as she lyveth solitairilie sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo [like a night-raven in the house] more to my charge then if we had boorded together as we did before that evill accident happened.”

So bad was the scarring that Mary remained a recluse separating herself from her family and did not attend court as frequently, it is perhaps because of this seclusion that a myth developed stating that she wore a mask for the rest of her life. As to the queens reaction to the disease we have little knowledge except to say she wore a wig and painted her face with lead paint. There is record of one incident in 1599 when the queen was 66, where the queen’s ‘favourite’ Robert Devereux (2nd earl of Essex) entered her chamber at Nonsuch Palace before she had hidden her scars beneath a thick layer of lead paint. Understandably, she was most upset with him and had him confined to his chamber with the comment ‘an unruly beast must be stopped of his provender’ (his confinement was also due to the fact that the queen had expressly forbidden his return to court). Her displeasure at him may have partly caused his rebellion in 1601.

Lady Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney, lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth 1. Attributed to Hans Eworth, c. 1550-1555

Thankfully the queen survived to reign over what is even now known as the ‘Golden Age’ of English history.

The whole populace rejoiced at Elizabeth’s recovery from the smallpox and coins were struck to celebrate her survival.

Commemorative Coin

A commemorative coin celebrating the queens recovery from the dreaded smallpox.

But what if she hadn’t survived? What if there was no ‘Golden Age’?

When the queen died on the 28th of April 1603, she was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey, a life-like effigy adorning her tomb. John Stow a historian who was in attendance recorded that:

“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 a remarkable queen and her reign will forever be remembered as a ‘Golden Age’ of English history.


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