After the controversy he stirred up with his last post, I am happy to welcome back David Field to talk about Elizabeth on this anniversary of her formidable speech at Tilbury. David is a writer of historical fiction who is coming out with six Tudor-era novels this year (for you mystery lovers, he already has a great series – the Esther and Jack Enright Mysteries). Hope you enjoy – and there are more details about him following the post…
To her adoring subjects she was ‘Gloriana’ – the ‘Faery Queen’ – the warrior princess whose admirals were about to send the Spanish Armada packing, and who on this day in 1588 appeared before her own troops at Tilbury, clad in part of her father Henry VIII’s old battle armour in order to proclaim that ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.’ She might also have added that she had the troubled mind of someone upon whom the pressures of life had left deep, indelible mental scars that became more obvious as her body began to fail her.
I do not claim any qualifications in psychology, but after a career spent in the criminal law I’ve learned to recognise deep and disturbing undercurrents flowing beneath a seemingly serene stream. Like a swan, people beset by insecurity can appear to be floating quietly on the surface, while paddling madly underneath in order to maintain their external calm. And it is a matter of record that in the final few weeks and months of her life, Elizabeth 1st of England was behaving strangely, even for someone whose royal status excused some eccentricity.
Her weird behaviour was not, of course, made public at the time, and we know of it only because of records left by those closest to her as her days darkened and her life span came to its natural end. Most notable among these were her Senior Ladies – women such as Elizabeth Throckmorton, Lady of the Privy Chamber during Elizabeth’s final year, and Catherine Carey, Countess of Nottingham, a lifelong attendant of Elizabeth’s, a good friend to her, and wife of Howard of Effingham, who had commanded England’s defeat of the Armada. There were also more menial servants who were not above a bit of gossipy tittle-tattle below stairs, and it is from all these sources that a picture emerges of a once powerful and much-feared monarch in terminal meltdown.
She began by standing upright in her chambers for hours on end, staring at the wall and refusing to speak. She ignored all entreaties to be seated, and eventually her attendants took to lining the floor with cushions for when – inevitably – she finally fell down through sheer physical exhaustion, exacerbated by the fact that she was refusing all food and drink. Even when they managed to get her to bed, she seemed lost to the world, and her few brief and sporadic communications suggested that she had begun to hallucinate.
It is not difficult to map the events in Elizabeth’s life that had brought her to this pass, and had obliged her to maintain a stern and self-composed public image that hid a pitiful insecurity. We may begin with the execution of her mother Anne Boleyn when the young and impressionable ‘Lillibet’ was less than three years old. She was not required to witness it, of course, but what girl of that age was ever equipped with the mental fortitude to be advised that her mother had just had her head cut off on the order of her father? The same loving father who had Elizabeth declared a bastard, and who for a substantial period of her developing years cut her off from the succession.
This taint of bastardy was never expunged in the eyes of the Church of Rome, and was to provide much of the justification of the later persecution of Elizabeth by Catholics. Her former brother in law Philip of Spain, her distant cousin Mary Stuart of Scotland, and finally the Pope who excommunicated her and invited her enemies to take her off the chessboard of English politics – they all used her alleged illegitimacy, as the daughter of a whore and suspected witch, to justify their plots to unseat her. If Elizabeth was of a temperament that left her vulnerable to paranoia, then those would have been its primary causes, insofar as rational reasons are ever required for mental illness.
It might have helped had she received strong emotional support from her family and friends. But older half-sister Mary resented her beauty, her popularity, her light-hearted youthful exuberance and her Protestant Reformist religious beliefs. Far from hugging her little sister to her bosom when she most needed it, Mary accused her of immorality with two high-born noblemen, and of being the person behind at least two plots against her throne. Elizabeth was confined to the Tower, and later to house arrest in a decaying medieval ruin, on false suspicions of seeking her half-sister’s downfall. More fuel for Elizabeth’s paranoia.
Nor was it safe for her even to enjoy the natural beauty of her teenage years. At an age when most pubescent girls are vulnerable to ‘crushes’ (‘pashes’ in modern parlance), Elizabeth fell under the spell of the handsome, charismatic and almost paedophilic Thomas Seymour, with whom she flirted, and perhaps first experienced physical desire for a mature man. When this ended in tears and recriminations because Seymour was married – to the former Queen Catherine Parr, no less – Elizabeth was decried, again by half-sister Mary, as being as big a whore as her late mother, and this may well account for the fact that in later life Elizabeth was constantly fighting a losing battle against allegations of promiscuity that all but forced her to hold in check her natural desire for her lifelong friend Robert Dudley, a handsome courtier who worshipped the very ground she walked on. So we can now add sexual repression to the other difficulties Elizabeth had to surmount during the forty-four years of her troubled reign.
By the time she ascended the throne of England, Elizabeth had learned that her beauty could command the hearts of her subjects, as well as the men around her in her daily life. Then, aged twenty-nine, when women of that era began to regard themselves as past their sell-by date, cruel Fate struck another blow, in the form of a dose of smallpox that left her with the predictable facial scars, and led to a gradual but irretrievable hair loss.
Her remedy for covering the scars in order to perpetuate her beauty may well have added to her mental health issues in later life. In keeping with the fashion of the times she smeared her face with ‘Venetian Ceruse’, a potentially lethal combination of vinegar and white lead, which would also have intensified the hair loss. Symptoms of lead poisoning include confusion of thought processes, loss of appetite and mood swings, all of which were reported by those who had access to the royal chambers in the final year of Elizabeth’s life.
The final blow to her stability came with the deaths, during a very short period, of almost everyone upon whom she had relied to keep her nation afloat and her mind at ease. First came the death of William Cecil, her trusted adviser since her days as a mere queen in waiting during the reign of Mary; this had been preceded by the death of her beloved Robert Dudley, the man she had known since childhood, and who would always remind her of the beauty he could still see beneath the ceruse. Then came the death of her closest Lady since the demise of her bosom companion Blanche Parry – the Countess of Nottingham, Catherine Carey.
The final death that Elizabeth mourned had been on her own order, when she had been obliged to send her close favourite of her declining years, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and stepson of Robert Dudley, to the scaffold for his rebellion against her, following years in which he had flattered her with assurances of her undying beauty. In the words of one close observer, ‘her delight is to sit in the dark, and sometimes with shedding tears to bewail Essex.’
Even her death itself was not without some mystery. It was reported by the Marchioness of Northampton, who was attending her as her life ebbed away, that Elizabeth made her swear that no physicians would be allowed to examine her body after her death. At the time this was put down to the obsession of a lifelong virgin who wished to retain her modesty even in death, but more recent theories for this request have ranged from the fact that she was not after all a virgin, to the most bizarre of all – that she was actually a man!
Another possibility might have been that she was in the final stages of syphilis, acquired from either of her parents, neither of whom had led exactly chaste lives. One long-term effect of untreated syphilis (and of course there was no cure in those days, centuries before antibiotics) is dementia, and this might explain the bizarre behaviour of this previously self-possessed and sternly formal woman in the seventieth year of life, most of which had been spent hiding her insecurity behind a facade of outward confidence.
About David Field
David was born and educated in Nottingham, England, and even as a school student he loved to combine English with History. This former hobby became a new career when he retired after fifty years as a lawyer, and took to writing historical novels on a fulltime basis. By then he had emigrated to Australia, where he now lives with his wife on the borders of New South Wales and Queensland.
David has written a series of six novels set in the Tudor period, all of which will be published by Sapere Books during 2019, and which between them cover the entire era, from the early life and accession of Henry Tudor right through to the final days of Elizabeth 1st. The fifth and sixth in the series, ‘The Queen in Waiting’ and ‘The Heart of a King’ relive the life of this most enigmatic of English monarchs.
If you like my posts, you’ll love my books! The Path to Somerset is the latest in the Seymour Saga – have you read it yet? (Will you please review it?) Click on the photo to be taken to Amazon.Com: