On 24 March 1603, in Richmond Palace, London, her favourite residence, Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, died just 6 months short of her 70th birthday. Hers had been a glorious reign, she had been the indomitable defender of the Protestant faith, the victor over the Spanish Armada, the Shield of England. She had placed the safe-keeping of her country and her people over her personal happiness. At least, according to the Tudor propagandists she had.
For forty four years she had ruled England and most people had never known another Monarch. Such was her presence that to the people her death was unthinkable. It also soon became evident to the people who served her that death was equally unthinkable to Elizabeth herself.
In truth, the Golden Age of Elizabeth had long passed; a series of failed harvests had made famine commonplace, continuing conflict with mainland Europe disrupted trade, crime and vagrancy were on the increase whilst the constant fear of Catholic incursion from nearby Ireland along with the imposition of ever harsher laws saw the gallows busier than ever making England an anxious and fearful place.
Elizabeth would always be the nation’s Virgin Gloriana but the lustre of her crown was becoming increasingly tarnished. The people knew that she was old and ailing and they were desperate for change but the death of Elizabeth would not just be the passing of a Monarch but the end of an era.
The death of a ruling Monarch was always an anxious time and that anxiety was not eased by the refusal of the childless Elizabeth to name a successor. Her Chief Minister Sir Robert Cecil had been working for some time to secure the succession for James VI of Scotland, but fearing the Queen’s reaction if she found out he’d had to do in secret. Elizabeth’s adamant refusal to contemplate anyone succeeding her opened up the prospect not only of a dynastic crisis but possible civil war and for the weeks leading up to her final illness London had been in a state of virtual lock-down.
For years now her friends and close advisers had been dying: Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, her childhood friend and long-time favourite had passed away in 1588, the year of the Armada. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who had been Chancellor throughout her reign and was in many respects her surrogate father, had died on 4 August, 1598.
The loss of Dudley and Cecil were devastating blows to Elizabeth. She and Dudley had been so close since childhood that it had been assumed by many at Court that they were lovers. She had relied upon William Cecil not just for political advice but also emotional support.
Even the man who had dedicated himself to her personal protection, and of whom she was never particularly fond, her Spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham had died.
In early 1601 she had been given little choice but to execute her young suitor, the Earl of Essex for treason. Elizabeth had always had an eye for a pretty young man and a weakness for flattery. Essex adored her, or so he said. She was the most beautiful woman in England, or so he said. He showered her with affection and fine words. When it was reported to her that he’d said in private “her word is as crooked as her carcass,” it wounded her deeply.
But it was the death on 24 February 1603, of Catherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham her closest companion that plunged her into a deep depression from which she would never recover.
Elizabeth was aware that she was unwell and that it was serious. She did not believe her doctors when they told her the illness would pass and that she would soon be back to her old self. It seemed to some that her spirit had been broken. She now banned all talk of the Succession, though the Court whispers were that her Crown would soon pass to King James VI of Scotland, but the very fact that he was the son of her old nemesis Mary Queen of Scots was just too much for Elizabeth to bear. No one was allowed to even whisper of her possible passing. The subject was taboo.
Elizabeth was ill with a constant fever and a swelling of the throat that made it difficult for her to speak but she would no longer permit her physicians to examine her. She wouldn’t undress and she wouldn’t go to bed. Indeed she refused to sleep at all, fearing that if she did so she might never wake. Instead she would stand for hours on end in complete silence refusing to speak to anyone or answer any questions. Now and again she would slump in a chair or her ladies-in-waiting would place cushions on the floor for her to lie down on but her eyes never closed. She appeared to be lost in her thoughts, in a world of her own but those attending her never doubted for a moment that she was aware of what was happening around her and listened to every word said.
The Queen was dying, but she would go neither willingly nor easy to her death.
Elizabeth’s mood had been sullen and morose ever since the death of the Countess Nottingham and her Godson Sir John Harrington who had visited her the previous November remembered how she would stab the drapes in her bedchamber with a knife believing there to be conspirators and assassins lurking within. She would speak of evil deeds being done behind her back. He described how she was plagued by self-doubt and endured recurring nightmares. How she was haunted by her execution of Essex and Mary, Queen of Scots. In the case of the latter she was convinced that she had committed an offence against God.
One of her ladies of the bedchamber Elizabeth Southall described her of being haunted by visions of her own decaying corpse and how later her body was so full of noxious vapours that it exploded in its coffin.
Elizabeth was indeed a frightful sight, she was gaunt and thin, the makeup ever more elaborate remained a constant, she had lost much of her hair wearing a wig at all times, most of her teeth had gone and she had taken to holding a perfumed silk handkerchief to her mouth.
But her physical decay had been made all the worse by the loss of that natural brio and love of life that had made her appear ever young to those who met her. This had been the case for many months, long before her final illness, and it was said that she had aged a great deal in a very short time.
On 23 March 1603, Elizabeth slumped into semi-consciousness. Now too weak to argue her attendants were at last able to put her to bed.
As the hours passed her breathing became increasingly heavy, slow, and intermittent, and musicians were brought in to play soft music as various dignitaries gathered around her bed.
As Archbishop Whitgift said prayers and some people quietly wept, Elizabeth slowly fell into that deep sleep from which she would never wake. It was said that she died peacefully to descend to heaven accompanied by angels:
“Mildly like a lamb, like a ripe apple plucked from a tree.”
As Elizabeth breathed her last, her people breathed a sigh of relief. Yet for all the trauma of the last decade of her reign, the dashed hopes and increased impoverishment, she was loved still and her funeral was a grand affair attended by more than a thousand official mourners as the city was draped in black and the Church bells tolled the doleful ring of death.
The Old Queen’s subjects lined the streets of London to watch her funeral cortege pass by, some wept, others looked on in awe and as her body was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey people acknowledged that she had been unusual, she’d had her foibles, but she had kept the peace, kept England safe, but that perhaps she had reigned for too long.
Following Elizabeth’s death James VI of Scotland did indeed succeed to the English throne and without violence just as Robert Cecil had worked so tirelessly to ensure but within forty years of the Virgin Queen’s passing the Stuart Dynasty would be mired in civil war, a conflict that would end with the execution of the King and the abolition of the Monarchy itself.