Elizabeth I Contracts Smallpox: How Her Illness Changed Her Appearance

by AlexandriaIngham

The portraits of Elizabeth I don't show her true appearance. When she was 29, she contracted smallpox and it led to changes in her flawless appearance.

When you look at portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, you wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She is portrayed as a beautiful, intelligent and strong woman every single time. The truth is that many portraits of monarchs and the people who surrounded them were “Photoshopped”. In other words, the artists made some subtle (and in Elizabeth’s case, not so subtle) changes to make everyone look perfect.

From October 10, 1562, Elizabeth I didn’t have the flawless skin that portraits show. On this day in Tudor history, she contracted smallpox, a disease that was often fatal in the 16th century. While she recovered, there were reminders of the illness that she suffered.

Elizabeth I Contracts Smallpox

On October 10, Elizabeth started with a cold but it soon became much more serious.

The young and beautiful Lady Elizabeth TudorOn October 10, 29-year-old Elizabeth I was taken ill. At first, it seemed like it was just a bad cold but her temperature soon increased and it was clear that it was the more serious illness called smallpox. It is a virus that didn’t have a cure for back in the 16th century. There is now a vaccine for it and has pretty much died out in the Western World thanks to medicine.

It causes a rash to appear along the skin and can lead to the hair falling out. This is what happened to Queen Elizabeth. However, the Virgin Queen was lucky not to be left too disfigured—she was able to cover most of the scars with makeup. Her nursemaid, Lady Mary Sidney, wasn’t so lucky. After contracting the disease from the queen, Lady Mary was left so badly scarred that her husband wrote about how disfigured and ugly she was (charming!).

Lord Robert Dudley Becomes Lord Protector of the Realm

Elizabeth put the one person she could really trust in charge of her country.

Elizabeth needed someone that she could trust in power. That job fell on the one love in her life: Lord Robert Dudley. It was during this time that Robert was clearly supportive of Mary Stuart’s claim to the English throne and supported the Protestant lords in Scotland. It could be seen as quite surprising that Elizabeth would put so much trust in him knowing this but he also had England’s—well, the Protestant’s—best interests at heart.

Did Robert use this time to try and marry the Queen of England? That is unlikely. He did love Elizabeth but he knew deep down that she was independent, strong and would never marry. There is certainly no doubt that he wanted to marry the queen though. It probably wasn’t just for the fact that he would be King of England—after all, he didn’t want to marry Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, despite knowing that he may one day become king. He wanted to marry her for love.

Elizabeth I’s Near Death Experience

Elizabeth almost died at the age of 29. How would history have changed had Mary, Queen of Scots become Queen of England?

Mary, Queen of Scots may have become Queen of EnglandVery little is actually written about Elizabeth’s time of suffering with smallpox. All that is known is that people feared she would die. In 1562, the best person eligible for the throne was Mary, Queen of Scots, but Elizabeth didn’t want her cousin to become queen. Henry VIII never wanted that to happen either, but Frances Grey had already pushed her chances by working with John Dudley to place her daughter on the throne.

Did this experience make Elizabeth thing again about not having an heir? That is unlikely as she never named an heir until her eventual death in 1603. She did offer Mary, Queen of Scots a chance until Mary married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Elizabeth feared that England would become the Catholic state that her half-sister, Mary I, had created. The queen had fought hard to find a balance and create some sort of peace between the two Christian religions.

Documentary about Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I’s Appearance After Smallpox

Elizabeth was very conscious of her appearance after her illness. So much that she caused her death to hide the changes!

The appearance of Elizabeth I did change after her bout of smallpox. There were some scars left over and she did lose some of her hair. She became extremely vain after this, hiding her scars with makeup and wearing a wig for the rest of her years. Understandably, she was just 29-years-old and wouldn’t have expected to start losing her hair at this age. She was also Queen of England and had to look the part.

The queen’s makeup consisted of vinegar and white lead for her face (it’s worth pointing out now that her cause of death was blood poisoning, partially due to the lead in her makeup). This was minimal in her younger years but very thick after her smallpox. She used rouge on her lips and then egg white with red dye for her cheeks.

Elizabeth made sure that people saw her the way she wanted them toHer teeth did rot as she aged, despite trying to care for them. The dental care was minimalistic at the time and Elizabeth had some teeth removed. However, you would never be able to tell that from the paintings! She would also have rags stuffed in her mouth so that her cheeks didn’t look hollow, as she was slim built.

Not all the vanity was due to her smallpox outbreak; however, that did lead to the focus on her facial and hair appearance. Elizabeth was very modern for her time and focused on fashion, very much like her mother, Anne Boleyn. She encouraged the people at court to dress well and loved her jewels, clothes and boots.

Elizabeth was not the only Tudor to suffer from smallpox. Her half-brother, Edward VI, contracted the disease sometime in 1552. That is possibly something that led to his death in 1553, when he likely died of TB. Luckily for Elizabeth, she managed to fight the infection and went onto reign for another 41 years without any other serious illnesses.

Updated: 10/10/2013, AlexandriaIngham
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AlexandriaIngham on 06/17/2014

I always wondered the same thing, Kari.

Kari on 06/16/2014

This is fascinating. I had wondered if there was a more practical purpose to her iconic makeup. It's really neat to see that there is.

AlexandriaIngham on 10/11/2013

Thank you! There is just so much that is often pushed under the rug, so to speak. I hope I can dig some more out in my research to share.

AbbyFitz on 10/10/2013

Very interesting. The Tudors have always been a fascination of mine. It's nice to read about little known things about them.

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