Elizabeth I’s trademark red tresses, porcelain-like skin and crimson lips made her arguably one of the most striking monarchs in British history. And it’s a look that remains iconic even today – thanks to countless media interpretations. But the carefully curated image known as the “mask of youth” hid many dark secrets, and it may have even contributed to the queen’s death.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII’s much-maligned second queen Anne Boleyn, and she nearly missed out on the throne altogether. But when the former finally came to power, she was determined to do everything possible to hold on to it. And in a man’s world, that meant Elizabeth needed to remain beautiful – whatever the cost.
The Renaissance movement was gaining popularity in England when Elizabeth was on the throne. Furthermore, she played an important role in its development as a patron of the arts and literature. Though the queen was also influenced by the beauty ideals associated with this era, and she strove to recreate them throughout her life.
Characteristics such as a pale complexion, light hair, red lips and sparkling eyes were all considered highly desirable during the Renaissance. But it was not an easy ideal to maintain in a time when rampant illnesses and diseases could easily leave a woman disfigured. So, how did Elizabeth and her contemporaries create such a flawless appearance?
For the woman known as the Virgin Queen, one answer lay in the thick, white makeup that she painted religiously over her skin. And this ritual became even more integral to retaining her beauty and power as she grew older. But the look that would come to define her also concealed at least one brutal truth.
Elizabeth was just 25 years old when she became Queen of England. Some six years previously, her half-sister Mary had taken the throne as the country’s first female monarch. Though little had changed in the male-dominated court by the time the crown had been passed on.
English society was intensely patriarchal at this time, and women were still considered the property of their husbands. So, an unmarried woman like Elizabeth had to be truly special if she wanted to succeed. Luckily, she was considered a beauty in her youth and is thought to have used her feminine charms to her advantage at court.
Elizabeth was courted by some of the most powerful men in Europe after her coronation. And she frequently teased her subjects with the possibility of such a liaison, though she never committed to one. Instead, she filled her court with handsome men – a habit that launched many rumors about the so-called Virgin Queen.
British historian Dr. Anna Whitelock told the BBC website History Extra, “Elizabeth’s contemporaries believed that beauty amplified female power, and so they regarded the queen’s splendour as confirmation of her claim to the throne.” Therefore, maintaining an attractive physical appearance was integral to the queen’s success. And she went to great lengths to convince the country of her beauty as it began to fade in later years.
Probably the most iconic part of Elizabeth’s carefully cultivated appearance was her strikingly white skin. At the time, such a trait was regarded as highly desirable – believed to signify fertility and youth. According to some, the appeal was also one of class and position, as a tanned countenance tended to indicate a life of manual labor.
Elizabeth strove to maintain a dazzling white complexion, and in order to achieve this she used a concoction known as Venetian Ceruse. This mixture was created by combining lead with white vinegar and was exceedingly toxic – especially when worn for long periods of time.
Many women of the time would wear this mixture on their faces for days at a time before finally washing it off. And when she died, even Elizabeth herself was wearing a layer of makeup some 1-inch thick. Today, we are more knowledgeable about the dangers of lead poisoning, but in the 16th century most people were unaware of the risk.
But Venetian Ceruse didn’t just coat the skin in toxic lead; it also left the wearer’s complexion looking wrinkled and grey. And to top it off, it’s likely that Elizabeth used the same method to remove the mixture as many other women of her time – a concotion which contained mercury.
Of course, mercury is also toxic, and using it as a cleanser would have damaged the skin even further. It’s unknown whether or not Elizabeth herself applied it, though there were many other bizarre beauty practices common during her reign. For example, some women took to bleaching freckles and other imperfections with an alarming concoction of turpentine, mercury and sulfur.
What we do know, however, is that Elizabeth definitely used at least one more toxic substance in her regular beauty routine. She reportedly used black kohl to line her eyes in order to create a dramatic look. This is actually a practice that continues to this day, though many have expressed concerns about its safety.
In Elizabeth’s time, kohl was made from powdered antimony – a substance that has been known to cause harmful side effects. To complete the look, women used drops made from a poisonous plant called deadly nightshade to dilate their pupils. Apparently, this had the desirable effect of giving the eyes a bright, sparkling appearance.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth also followed the fashion for plucking her eyebrows into high, arched lines, and painting her lips a vibrant red. According to experts, this color was created with a mixture of plant dye and beeswax, while the queen’s cheeks were sometimes rouged using animal products.
But there were some aspects of Elizabeth’s appearance which she struggled to hide with clever makeup as she grew older. Her love of sweet treats meant that she was plagued by black, decayed teeth in later life. But she was so beloved by her subjects that even this became an unlikely fashion trend, according to Royal Museums Greenwich.
So as we’ve seen, Elizabeth adhered to – and had influence on – the trends of the day. Though her choices were about more than simply fashion. At 29 years old, the queen was diagnosed with smallpox, a feared disease which Encyclopaedia Britannica notes killed almost a third of the people it infected at the time. Thankfully, Elizabeth ultimately survived, but her life was forever changed.
According to records, Elizabeth was taken ill with a high fever in October 1562 at London’s Hampton Court Palace. The eminent physician Dr. Burcot declared that the queen was suffering from smallpox, but she refused to accept the diagnosis at first. In fact, she reportedly preferred to dismiss him as incompetent rather than accept the truth.
But the queen’s reaction to her diagnosis was not surprising; Elizabethan England was terrified of smallpox. At the time, the infectious disease had surpassed the plague to become the most-feared contagion in Europe. Smallpox would actually not reach its peak until hundreds of years later, but the monarch had every right to be concerned.
According to experts, the early stages of smallpox were categorized by a fever and pains before progressing to its next stage. And this next part was probably the most worrying for a queen so concerned with beauty. The condition would later cause patients to break out in disfiguring lesions on the skin.
Those who survived smallpox would still have the scars from the skin lesions, and these would remain with them for the rest of their lives. There was also no known treatment or cure. And it remained a feared condition until as late as the 1960s, when some 12 million people were recorded as contracting the disease, according to News.com.au.
Elizabeth, for her part, continued to deny that she had smallpox and her condition continued to deteriorate. Burcot was then eventually summoned to her bedside for a second visit. This time, it seems, the queen reluctantly accepted the diagnosis. In fact, Whitelock noted that she responded in a particularly dramatic fashion.
“God’s pestilence,” Elizabeth is reported to have cried. “Which is better? To have the pox in the hand or in the face or in the heart and kill the whole body?” For a while, it seemed as if the ailing monarch would find out for herself. Over the course of several days, her condition worsened, and she eventually struggled to speak.
For Elizabeth’s devoted courtiers, the situation was bleak; it appeared likely that their beloved queen would die. Worse still, there was little in the way of medical treatment available. At the time, physicians believed that the illness was the result of imbalanced humors – or liquids – within the body.
The Four Humors theory posited that the human body was made up of yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. The philosophy was inspired by ancient Greek scholars and it held great sway in 16th century England. Furthermore, it provided a slither of hope for the physicians helpless against the ravages of smallpox.
Doctors subsequently attempted to redress this humor imbalance in order to treat smallpox. In Elizabeth’s case, that meant using a red cloth to envelop the queen in the hope that this would heal the scarlet lesions. At the same time, her devoted servant Lady Mary Sidney apparently performed a constant ritual at the royal bedside – ensuring a ready supply of water and tea.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s ministers began to make plans for the succession. As the queen had no heirs, there were fears amongst her Protestant supporters that the throne of England would pass to the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. But Elizabeth began to recover before an alternative option could be proposed.
Elizabeth’s health eventually returned, though she was left permanently scarred by the smallpox that nearly took her life. Unfortunately, Lady Sidney fared even worse. She also contracted the disease thanks to her lengthy vigil at the queen’s bedside. And although the servant also recovered, she is said to have been left permanently disfigured.
In fact, Lady Sidney was so ravaged by smallpox that her own husband was disgusted by her appearance. According to the Tudor Society website, Henry Sidney wrote in his memoirs, “I left her a full fair lady in mine eye at least the fairest, and when I returned I found her as fowl a lady as the smallpox could make her.”
And the smallpox was a political disaster for Elizabeth. Up until falling ill, she had relied on her beauty as a way to wield influence and power in a society dominated by men. But now, with her face permanently scarred, how could she continue to project the image that she had so carefully cultivated over the years?
Elizabeth apparently began religiously covering her face in Venetian Ceruse in order to cover up her scars. In fact, she was rarely seen without it. And it still characterizes every interpretation of the Virgin Queen that has appeared on stage and screen several centuries later.
At court, only the women who were part of Elizabeth’s inner circle ever caught a glimpse beneath the makeup. And the queen’s real face grew ever more horrific as the toxic lead concoction destroyed her skin. But those in the know remained silent, and Elizabeth’s reputation as a beauty remained largely unsullied thanks to her fittingly named “mask of youth.”
But Elizabeth’s carefully crafted look slipped on at least one occasion. One day, tired of being kept waiting, Robert Devereux – the Earl of Essex and once the queen’s favorite – barged into the royal chamber. There, he caught sight of the monarch before her makeup had been applied.
According to History Extra, Devereux was so disgusted by Elizabeth’s true appearance that he told jokes about her to his friends – cruelly referring to her “crooked carcass.” In fact, some believe that this incident was the motivation behind his execution in 1601. However, he had also been plotting against the monarch, so this seems reason enough in itself.
Elizabeth then became even more reliant on her white makeup to hide her true appearance as she grew older. At court, meanwhile, she restricted the other ladies to dresses of simple black and white, while she would appear in gowns of the most vibrant colors – ensuring that all eyes were always on her.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that Elizabeth was doing something right. The hugely popular queen was dubbed Gloriana and celebrated for her successes against threats such as the Spanish Armada. And even today, Elizabeth is remembered as one of the greatest rulers to ever take the English throne.
Unfortunately, however, Elizabeth’s outlandish beauty routine may also have caused her death at the age of 69. As she grew older, her hair began to fall out, and the queen was plagued by fatigue, memory loss and digestive problems. Today, a modern doctor would recognize those symptoms as signs of lead poisoning.
So, did Elizabeth’s obsession with projecting a flawless image eventually prove her undoing? Before passing away, she did not grant permission for her body to be examined – meaning we cannot be certain what caused her death. Over the years, this move has fed the flames of many rumors, such as the idea that the monarch was not actually a virgin, or even a woman. But it also means that experts cannot prove what many suspect: that it was vanity which ultimately led to the queen’s demise.