Was Queen Elizabeth I Killed by her Poisonous White Makeup?
Queen Elizabeth I was one of the most successful, celebrated queens in British history. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn , she came to the throne on November 17, 1558, following the death of her older half-sister, Mary I. While her rule is well known for ushering in a golden age, Elizabeth herself is also known for her distinctive makeup. Her makeup gave her an iconic look, but it also may have been the thing that killed her.
A Dance with Death
In 1562, when Elizabeth was still in her late 20’s, she came down with a violent fever that left her bedridden. Upon being examined by doctors, it became clear that Elizabeth had contracted smallpox. Smallpox was an extremely deadly disease that first infected humans approximately 12,000 years ago and continued to do so on a regular basis until the invention of the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner in 1796. At the time of Elizabeth, it killed around 30% of the people infected.
Was Queen Elizabeth I killed by her makeup? Source: Public Domain
While the disease wreaked havoc on Europe, killing many monarchs, it did not kill Elizabeth. Despite surviving, Elizabeth did not escape unharmed. She was left with many scars and blemishes on her skin. Elizabeth was known to be a little vain and would have any portraits of herself she didn’t like destroyed. One visitor to her court stated: ‘When anyone speaks of her beauty she says she was never beautiful. Nevertheless, she speaks of her beauty as often as she can’ (as cited in Johnson). The marks and blemishes left by smallpox must have left her with a desperate need to cover them up.
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Elizabeth I’s Makeup Routine
In her youth, Elizabeth had used a lot less makeup, but following her battle with smallpox, she began applying more makeup, creating what we think of today as her iconic look. During the Elizabethan era, white, pale skin was considered incredibly beautiful by the English upper class. In an article by historian Paige Reynolds, she notes that Elizabeth knew that ‘she herself was being judged.’ She backs this claim up by citing a speech Elizabeth made where she states, ‘The eyes of many behold our actions; a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish quickly noted in our doings.’
Luckily for her, there was a popular makeup available in the 16th century called ‘Venetian Ceruse’. This was a highly sought-after skin whitener by the European aristocracy due to its high quality and it was frequently used to conceal scars. It was made with vinegar and white lead sourced from Venice that gave women an incredibly pale look. The lead, however, was poisonous. Over time, Venetian Ceruse caused hair loss and skin fading, two things Elizabeth suffered from as she got older.
A contemporary portrait showing Elizabeth I towards the end of her life. It may have been based on an image taken from life. Elizabeth I is shown wearing a richly jewelled dress, head-dress, and veil. ( Public Domain )
To make matters worse, Elizabeth got her iconic red lips through the use of cinnabar. Cinnabar is a mineral containing mercury. Mercury poisoning can cause memory loss, depression, or in extreme cases, death. Unfortunately for her, when Elizabeth began wearing a wig following her hair loss, the wig was dyed red with even more mercury. It is not exactly surprising that by the end of her life, she was reported to be in a state of deep depression.
Perhaps the worst thing about Elizabeth’s beauty routine wasn’t the makeup itself but how long she left it on for. The Venetian Ceruse was left on for a week with daily touch-ups, leaving plenty of time for the lead to soak into her skin. When it eventually came time to remove the makeup, things somehow get even worse. To remove it, she used a mixture of eggshells, alum, and even more mercury. This would only worsen the effects of the makeup that was killing Elizabeth.
Was Elizabeth I Killed by her Makeup?
Elizabeth I’s beauty was said to have faded badly with time. Her self-consciousness about her image only caused her to use heavier make-up, which in turn worsened her appearance. This may be why she had such a great love for incredibly elaborate dresses and exorbitant jewels. Francis Bacon, a British philosopher and statesman wrote at the time ‘She imagined that the people, who are much influenced by externals, would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels, from noticing the decay of her personal attractions’ (as cited in Morrill, 2022).
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As already mentioned, she was in a state of deep depression by the end of her life. She refused to have a mirror in any of her rooms. Along with her poor physical health, she showed signs of declining cognitive ability and delirium. Despite this, her stubbornness pushed her forwards. She refused to rest and reportedly stood for hours upon hours, perhaps afraid that if she were to sit down she would never get up again. She likely knew how frail she was and feared that her death was close. She refused to let doctors physically examine her, possibly because she feared the worst.
A genuine and realistic c.1595 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. ( Public Domain )
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she was right. Having named her successor in James VI of Scotland, she died quietly on March 24, 1603. The causes of her death are hotly debated, but many strongly suggest she died because of the toxic build-up in her body as a result of her decades-long use of makeup. Others believe she died of cancer or possibly of pneumonia that developed as a result of a simple bronchial infection.
Unfortunately, because she didn’t allow doctors to examine her, nor did she have a post-mortem, it is impossible to say for certain what killed Elizabeth I. Regardless of whether or not her makeup killed her, what it has certainly done is helped to make her one of the most iconic and revered monarchs to have ever lived.
Top Image: Queen Elizabeth I as depicted in the film Mary, Queen of Scots. Credit: Focus Features
By Mark Brophy
Greenspan, J. 15/5/2020. The Rise and Fall of Smallpox. History. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/the-rise-and-fall-of-smallpox
Johnson, B. Elizabeth I – A Life in Portraits. Historic UK. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Elizabeth-I-Life-in-Portrait/
Morrill, J.S. 20/3/2022. Elizabeth I. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-I
Reynolds, P.M. 2010. George Peele and the Judgement of Elizabeth I. Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 Vol. 50. No. 2. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40658430?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Ridgway, C. The death of Elizabeth I and possible causes of death by Alexander Taylor. The Tudor Society. Available at: https://www.tudorsociety.com/the-death-of-elizabeth-i-and-possible-causes-of-death-by-alexander-taylor/
Thomas, L.M. 2020. Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners.
7/2/2020. Queen Elizabeth I Biography. Biography.com. Available at: https://www.biography.com/royalty/queen-elizabeth-i