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6 Interesting Facts About Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I became the Queen of England in 1558 and reigned for forty-five years. Though this famous queen has cropped up in many recent films and television shows, there are still many people who don’t know much about her fascinating life.

Historians often describe the Elizabethan Era as a ‘Golden Age’ of English history. However, the queen’s triumphs were balanced with plenty of tribulations, including religious tensions, the threat of the Spanish Armada, and a near-fatal disease.

1. Elizabeth Nearly Died From Smallpox

A painting of Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1562 (Wikimedia Commons)

Smallpox was deadly during the sixteenth century. There was a high mortality rate associated with the disease, especially amongst women and the elderly.

Elizabeth noticed the symptoms on the 10th of October 1562, and less than a week later, she was so ill she couldn’t even speak. Her advisors and physicians were terrified, for the disease had already claimed the lives of other members of the English Court.

The Privy Council called a meeting to discuss the situation. They were unable to reach an agreement and feared the political upheaval that would take place if the queen died. A civil war was a real possibility.

Thankfully, Elizabeth recovered from the disease and was back to her royal duties by the end of the month. She even managed to preserve her complexion, which was lucky, as smallpox usually left people with scars.

2. Elizabeth Had Dental Problems

A painting of Elizabeth I by William Segar, c. 1585 (Wikimedia Commons)

Compared to many other people from her era, Elizabeth took good care of her personal hygiene, taking advantage of the bathrooms at Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle.

But she wasn’t so good at looking after her teeth. Elizabeth — like many kings and queens — had a fondness for sugar. She enjoyed candied violets, sugar loaves, and marzipan, which was her personal favorite.

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Elizabeth did her best to mitigate the damage by using toothpicks and even mouthwashes, which included substances like myrrh, cinnamon, and rosewater.

Sadly, this wasn’t enough to prevent the problem. Elizabeth’s teeth became black and yellow towards the end of her life, and some of them had to be removed because of the pain.

3. Elizabeth Executed Her Cousin

A painting of Mary, Queen of Scots, by François Clouet, 1558 (Wikimedia Commons)

Family feuds and power squabbles were key aspects of the Tudor era. Whilst Elizabeth wasn’t as bloodthirsty as her evil half-sister, she certainly wasn’t afraid to execute her enemies.

Given Elizabeth was a Protestant, the English Catholics didn’t like her. Indeed, they wanted her cousin Mary (who was the Queen of Scotland) to rule over both England and Scotland as a Roman Catholic monarch.

Determined to prevent a Catholic uprising with Spanish support, Elizabeth imprisoned Mary for nineteen years, causing her to suffer rheumatism due to a lack of exercise. Then, when the Babington Plot (a Catholic scheme to execute Elizabeth and replace her with Mary) was unveiled in 1586, the queen was left with no choice.

England’s conflict with Spain played a role in Mary’s demise. Spanish King Phillip II was planning to invade England and impose a Catholic monarchy. The Spanish Armada sailed to England just a year after Mary’s demise.

Mary was put on trial and sentenced to death in February 1587. Unfortunately, the executioner messed up the first swing, accidentally lodging his axe in the back of Mary’s head. He soon rectified his mistake, and Mary was no more.

4. Elizabeth Was Friends With Francis Drake

A painting of the English defeating the Spanish Armada by Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1796 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Francis Drake was a well-known seaman during the Elizabethan era, and — despite his brash reputation — he developed a close bond with the queen.

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To describe Drake as a pirate might be a stretch too far for some historians, but he wasn’t afraid to carry out unprovoked attacks on Spanish ships, especially when they returned from the Americas with lots of treasure. Elizabeth, who disliked the Spanish for their Roman Catholic beliefs, did nothing to stop these attacks.

Indeed, the queen was fond of Drake, captivated by his easy rapport and all-purpose, never-give-up attitude. He regularly advised Elizabeth on naval matters, and he even gave some of his stolen treasures to her.

Drake also took part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Alongside several other English commanders, he defeated the Spanish fleet and cemented himself as one of England’s greatest naval heroes.

5. Elizabeth Was A Powerful Speaker

A painting of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, c. 1585 (Wikimedia Commons)

During the Elizabethan era, there was a cultural boom in poetry and plays that included famous names like William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser.

Elizabeth was also skillful with words, especially when it came to delivering speeches. In August 1588, for example, she delivered a speech to the English troops assembled at Tilbury, Essex:

‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think it foul score that Parma or Spain or any Prince of Europe should dare invade the borders of my realm …’

The above extract is just one section of the speech, but the entire delivery was loaded with powerful imagery. And the same can be said of what historians now call the ‘Golden Speech’, another famous speech that Elizabeth offered to Parliament in November 1601.

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6. Elizabeth Always Claimed She Was a Virgin

A painting of Elizabeth I by Johannes Corvus, c. 1575 (Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth II hated the idea of having a husband, and it’s easy to see why. Her mother had been beheaded by Henry VIII, and her half-sister’s marriage to Philip II of Spain was disastrous.

Instead, Elizabeth believed she was married to her people and her country, and as time went on, comparisons were made between Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary. Symbols like the crescent moon and the pearl — which were both associated with the Virgin Mary — were soon linked to the Queen of England too.

Walter Raleigh, the famous English explorer (he also took part in the fight against the Spanish Armada), actually founded an overseas colony in America and called it Virginia in honor of the Virgin Queen.

Though historians are divided about whether or not Elizabeth really was a virgin for her entire life, she certainly didn’t have any children. Consequently, when Elizabeth died in 1603, James VI of Scotland became England’s new monarch and ruled over both countries concurrently.

Sources

All the Queen’s Men: The World of Elizabeth I (2011) by Peter Brimacombe

The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age (1991) by Christopher Hibbert

Elizabeth the Great (2000) by Elizabeth Jenkins

Elizabeth I (2006) by David Loades

Kings & Queens of Britain’s Golden Age (2007) by Charles Philips

Elizabeth I (2002) by Anne Somerset