Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth I’

elizabeth death bed


In the spring of 1603, Elizabeth had been Queen for 44 years, and it was clear she would die without an heir. Robert Devereux (1566-1601) had been executed on Tower Green on 25th February 1601, and this appears to have had a huge impact on Elizabeth who is reported to have missed him a great deal.  Some writers say she may have feared she was losing her hold on state affairs.  Elizabeth must have felt very much alone as many of the men she had loved, and who had shared her life, had gone.

March 1603 – the Queen is fading

In March 1603 Elizabeth was described as being unwell and seemed depressed.   She took up residence in one of her favourite palaces – Richmond – close to the River Thames.   She refused to allow herself to be examined, and she refused take to her bed – standing for hours on end.  As her condition deteriorated her ladies-in-waiting spread cushions on the floor, and Elizabeth eventually lay down on them.  The painting shown below depicts this scene beautifully.  Elizabeth lay on the floor for nearly four days – mostly without speaking.

The death of Queen Elizabeth 1st : Paul Delaroche (1828)

The death of Queen Elizabeth 1st : Paul Delaroche (1828)

She grew weaker and weaker until her servants insisted on making her more comfortable in her bed.   Elizabeth’s Councillors gathered around her bed, and it is said that gentle music was played to soothe her.

Cause of death?

Elizabeth had not named yet named a successor, but she made a sign to Robert Cecil which he took to be an indication that she wished James to succeed her to the throne. Death finally came on 24 March 1603, and she is said to have yielded ‘mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree’.

Elizabeth was buried without post mortem so the cause of her death remains unknown. She is generally believed to have died of blood poisoning, possibly caused by her white make-up – ceruse – a mixture of white lead and vinegar; the lead in the make up being highly poisonous. It is also possible that she simply died of old age.

At her funeral on 28 April, the coffin was taken to Westminster Abbey on a hearse drawn by four horses hung with black velvet

At her funeral on 28 April, the coffin was taken to Westminster Abbey on a hearse drawn by four horses hung with black velvet

Elizabeth’s body was embalmed and laid in state in a lead coffin at Whitehall – having been carried from Richmond to Whitehall at night on a barge lit with torches.  On the day of her funeral on 28 April the coffin was taken to Westminster Abbey on a hearse drawn by four horses robed in black velvet. In the words of the chronicler John Stow:

“Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads and gutters, that came out 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”

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Over one thousand official mourners joined the funeral procession; and this crowd was swelled by the many Londoners who watched the procession go by. The coffin was covered with a purple velvet cloth, purple signifying royalty. The coffin was covered by a large canopy which was held by six Knights of the Realm. On top of the coffin was placed an effigy of Elizabeth, as she would have appeared dressed in the finest of clothes. The effigy was so life-like it made onlookers gasp. The chief mourners were all dressed in black – in cloth which varied according to their rank.

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This long procession wound its way to Westminster Abbey where Elizabeth was first buried in the vault of her grandfather, King Henry VII.  Her successor, James I, erected the large white marble monument to her memory in the north aisle of the Lady Chapel at a cost of £1485, and her body was moved to it in 1606. Elizabeth I was the last monarch buried in the Abbey to have a monument erected above her.




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winters gibbet by night. Amblekingrat on flickr (Click image)

winters gibbet by night. Amblekingrat on flickr (Click image)

I took a quick  look through the posts we have made so far on this blog and noticed that a great many of them refer to the cultural achievements of Tudor times. This period saw an extraordinary flowering of music, poetry, literature, painting and the theatre. However, these times are also remembered for the savage treatment that offenders could recieve, and this post examines the subject of capital punishment.


Death by hanging was the most commonly used form of capital punishment. This was imposed upon those convicted of murder and manslaughter as well as a range of other crimes. In 1563, Queen Elizabeth’s government passed an anti-witchcraft law making it a capital offence to cause the death of a person by witchcraft. Although we often think of burning at the stake as a Witches punishment it was far more common for hanging to be used in these circumstances. A witch could be imprisoned for a first offence of harming a person but this would become a death penalty for a second offence. As well as witchcraft, other offences were punishable by death such as buggery, rape, and stealing hawks.hanging

The condemned person was usually placed beneath the gallows on a horse drawn cart, once the rope was around the neck the horse was led away and the person left to hang (sometimes a ladder was used as per the illustration ). This method of hanging often meant the person died slowly of strangulation, as a mercy people were sometimes allowed to pull on the victim’s legs to hasten the process. In more recent times great care was taken to ensure that the execution was quick and efficient (this film gives some information).

Off with his head!

In the case of offenders from the nobility the penalty was to be beheaded. This would often take place away from the public eye, in London of course this meant execution on Tower green within the walls of the Tower of London. In the case of Anne Boleyn, a specialist swordsman was brought from France for the occasion to ensure that the death was a quick one. Thomas Cromwell however was not so fortunate. The executioner was incompetent and the first axe blow cleaved into Cromwell’s skull. There were reports that it took several blows to remove his head and rumours were that this had been arranged on purpose.


Burnt at the stake.

Heretics were sentenced to death by burning at the stake, a punishment meant to symbolise the flames that awaited the sinner in hell. Although used throughout the Tudor period it reached a peak during the reign of Mary I where an estimated 200-400 people died this way. Revulsion at this penalty is said to have hardened the resolve of many people against Catholicism and the memory of these executions was kept alive by the very popular book called ‘Foxes book of Martyrs’. Even this horror was not enough for some offenders.


Hung, drawn and quartered.

People convicted of high treason could be sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered. This punishment which was first developed in the time of Edward the first was a particularly brutal event. The term ‘drawn’ has a couple of meanings, firstly it refers to the way that the condemned persons were tied to a hurdle and drawn through the streets, usually tied head down behind the horse.hung-drawn-quartered

Once upon the scaffold the person was hung until nearly dead. Upon being cut down their ‘privy parts’ were cut off before their innards were ‘drawn’ from them (ideally whilst still alive) – these were thrown upon the fire and the person was then beheaded. After this the person would be cut into quarters and these parts were displayed prominently as a warning to others.

The illustration below dates from 1616 and shows the old London Bridge – if you look at the tower at the entrance to the bridge on the Southwark side of the river you can see the heads displayed on spikes above the entrance.

London Bridge 1616 : Claes Van Visscher

London Bridge 1616 : Claes Van Visscher

The death penalty today – facts from Amnesty International

See also our earlier post Anne Boleyn &  ‘Tyburn Martyrs’



See also:

Death penalty information center

Medieval life and times : Execution

Ultimate top ten lists – execution

Wikipedia capital punishment

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Anne Boleyn has captured the popular imagination down the centuries.  Her marriage to Henry VIII has been seen as the culmination of a passionate encounter which brought about the reformation of the church in England – and the birth of Elizabeth I.
She is said to have utterly captivated Henry VIII whilst he was still married to Catherine of Aragon.  She is described as having a large mole or goiter on her neck, and a sixth finger on one of her hands. The Venetian ambassador said she was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world’.
If we believe these records, something about her so captivated Henry VIII that he pursued her relentlessly.  She rejected all his advances to make her his mistress.  Henry’s passion forced him to seek the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon – even though this meant a break with the Pope and a dispute with the Emperor Charles V.

Love letters from the King

Vatican Library by Lawrence OP on Flickr

Vatican Library by Lawrence OP on Flickr (click)

Seventeen of Henry VIII’s famous love letters to Anne Boleyn exist.  Oddly enough these are now held in the Vatican Library. Only one of Anne’s love letters to the king has survived. The contents of the letter suggest it was written in late summer/early autumn of 1526.

It belongs only to the august mind of a great king, to whom Nature has given a heart full of generosity towards the sex, to repay by favors so extraordinary an artless and short conversation with a girl.

Inexhaustible as is the treasury of your majesty’s bounties, I pray you to consider that it cannot be sufficient to your generosity; for, if you recompense so slight a conversation by gifts so great, what will you be able to do for those who are ready to consecrate their entire obedience to your desires?

How great soever may be the bounties I have received, the joy that I feel in being loved by a king whom I adore, and to whom I would with pleasure make a sacrifice of my heart, if fortune had rendered it worthy of being offered to him, will ever be infinitely greater.

The warrant of maid of honor to the queen induces me to think that your majesty has some regard for me, since it gives me means of seeing you oftener, and of assuring you by my own lips (which I shall do on the first opportunity) that I am,
Your majesty’s very obliged and very obedient servant, without any reserve,

Anne Bulen.


Henry and Anne married in 1533. The future Queen Elizabeth I was born the same year – it appears Anne may have been pregnant when they married.  Henry was angry to find his child was a girl, however supporters of Catherine of Aragon were delighted, believing this was God’s verdict on the marriage.  In 1536 Anne gave birth to a boy – however the child was born dead.  Later that year Henry accused Anne of adultery with five other men.  These men – along with Anne – were then executed.


The execution of Anne took place on 19 May 1536 at 8 o’clock in the morning.  It was the first public execution of an English queen.
The account of Anne Boleyn’s speech at her execution was recorded in the Annals of John Stow. The account mentions the ‘hangman of Calais’ who was brought to London for the execution:

“All these being on a scaffold made there for the execution, the said Queen Anne said as followeth: Masters, I here humbly submit me to the law, as the law hath judged me, and as for mine offences, God knoweth them, I remit them to God, beseeching him to have mercy on my soul; and I beseech Jesu save my Sovereign and master the King, the most goodliest, and gentlest Prince that is, and long to reign over you, which words she spake with a smiling countenance: which done, she kneeled down on both her knees, and said, To Jesu Christ I commend my soul and with that word suddenly the hangman of Calais smote off her head at one stroke with a sword: her body with the head was buried in the choir of the Chapel in the Tower”

Myths about Anne

There were many who celebrated this execution.  After her death a number of myths sprang up about Anne. Many of these stories had their roots in the writings of Roman Catholics committed to deposing Elizabeth I and re-establishing Roman Catholicism in England.. Nicholas Sander, one such recusant, born c. 1530, in his De Origine ac Progressu schismatis Anglicani (The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism), published in 1585, was the first to write that Anne had six fingers on her right hand.  Physical deformities were interpreted as a sign of evil, and it is unlikely that Anne Boleyn would have gained Henry’s romantic attention had she had any.

History seems to have been kinder to Anne Boleyn.  Eric Ives in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn writes –

‘across the centuries is the impression of a person who is strangely appealing to the early twenty-first century: A woman in her own right—taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage.<

Anne Boleyn has captured the popular imagination down the centuries.  Her marriage to Henry VIII has been seen as the culmination of a passionate encounter which brought about the reformation of the church in England – and the birth of Elizabeth I.



See also:

Anne Boleyn at Tudorhistory.org

BBC website


Annes birthplace Hever castle

Wikipedia entry

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“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms” Queen Elizabeth I – 1588
Cate Blanchett in the film ‘Elizabeth’ – a powerful national myth?

r as long as I have been trying to understand the history of this period I have found myself reflecting about the similarities with our own times – take the picture and the quotation above. (NB you can hear this speech recreated in a sound file from the Imperial War Museum)

For many English people, Elizabeth’s words still have meaning.  The national idea of England as being alone and surrounded  by potential enemies runs throughout our history – arguably it is as current an idea now as it was in Elizabethan times.

From the outset,  (see previous post) Elizabeth faced problems and threats, from both within and outside the country. England was closely faced with hostile powers in Ireland, Scotland, France and the Netherlands. Spain, the greatest power of the day was hostile and keen to support any anti-English moves. Quite frequently during Elizabeths reign, England felt itself embattled and surrounded. I love these lines from Shakespeares Richard II which for me say something about how people felt:

“This royal throne of kings,

this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty,this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in a silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Feared by their breed and famous by their birth”


White cliffs of Dover (courtesy of Kev on Flickr : click image)

It seems clear that this idea of England being alone and embattled was well established in Tudor times – what about more recent times? – take a look at the start of “Dad’s Army”. I used to love this (1970’s) sitcom about the British Home Guard – an army composed often of older men or those thought unsuitable to fight in the regular forces.

My own Grandfather Francis McCabe was in the Home guard,  I remember his stories about how they had been tasked to stop German tanks coming up the Bristol road into Birmingham. They had no proper weapons and it seems unlikely that they would have been able to do very much from their base at Selly Oak toilets and the Great Oak pub!

Winston Churchill is of course famous for this speech which needs no introduction .. ( a slightly unusual take on it – see what you think?)

This history of fighting against the odds has served England well in the past. I am not sure about how well this ‘fits’ now and what effect this has on relations with our neighbours today?

  • I think that the rest of Europe sometimes sees us as being a bit jingoistic and hostile to foreigners.
  • Some of our politicians define themselves by their opposition to European integration. (Co-incidentially, a recent leader of this political party was born in Birmingham at around the same time that my Grandfather was preparing to defend it!)
  • How much does a percieved ‘foreign’ threat serve to justify restrictions on freedoms?

Arguably, current concerns about the extent of an internal threat from Islamic fundamentalists and the need to clamp down on this is really reminiscent of Elizabethan moves against Catholics – but more of that at a later date.

What do you think? – I know that most people who visit this site come from outside the UK ( I really hope that we make you feel welcome too!) – try the poll below.


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It was completely inevitable that a Tudor themed blog was going to end up discussing aspects of the TV show “the Tudors”. You will no doubt be aware that for a variety of reasons this caused a bit of a stir – this piece by Clemmie Moore in the Daily Mail sets the scene nicely.  Perhaps I will go into our opinion of this program at a later date but I thought I would touch upon the subject of breasts for this post.


I had been looking at an illustration in R.E. Pritchard’s book ‘Shakespeare’s England’ and came across a picture of a wealthy and well dressed lady. The image was taken from the Roxburghe ballads – I was interested to note that the dress the woman is wearing is so low cut as to expose her breasts. As copies of this are freely available online (and are well worth browsing through if you have a spare hour or two) I had a look at some of the images, I have reproduced a few of them here.

As you can see – it is quite clear that the women depicted are either showing a great deal of cleavage (left) or have completely exposed their breasts. What is going on here? Could ‘The Tudors’ actually be more accurate than we have given them credit for?


There is a suggestion that it was not uncommon for women to bare their breasts in public and that the fashion for doing so was adopted following the example set by women from the upper classes. Liza Picard discusses women’s dress in her book ‘Elizabeth’s London’ and covers the issue of Tudor attitudes towards the display of female breasts.

Apparently, the French ambassador was surprised to see Queen Elizabeth I with her bosom completely exposed. Picard goes on to say that reformers deplored this fashion and saw exposed breasts everywhere. Exactly what they really saw may be uncertain though as what is considered ‘indecent’ tends to vary from person to person?


I wonder though, about the extent to which images from the ballads can be taken as evidence for frequency of breast exposure? It is quite well known that putting a half naked woman on the front of a magazine is likely to increase it’s sales. I was (briefly) tempted to call this post something like ‘Warning! Naked Tudor breasts exposed’ – I suspect it would have increased our hits! but how many people would have come back and do we really want/need lots of hits from people who surf the net looking for breasts? (see this re this subject).

I think it is likely that the publishers of the ballads were just as aware that sex sells and this is the reason they include lots of half naked women? I also wonder about how acceptable it really was to show breasts? I don’t recall seeing any painted portraits of Queen Elizabeth or other court ladies with exposed breasts – unless anyone can correct me about this?

This post has also been featured on this website which is well worth a look.

See also Tudor breasts exposed again & a tribute to the Clash’




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