Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I

D.G. Hewitt - January 19, 2019

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth suffered from smallpox as a child and had scars for the rest of her life. The Royal Family.

11. FACT: Elizabeth was a sickly child and was unwell for the remainder of her life, even though she tried to cover up her weaknesses

From an early age, Elizabeth realized that, in order to survive in a man’s world, she needed to present herself as tough and unshakable. And, for the most part, she succeeded. However, the impression she gave was a mask covering the reality. According to some recent biographers of the Tudor queen, Elizabeth suffered from bad health from childhood, most notably with a bad case of smallpox. And as she got older, her health only got worse. In the end, the queen of England was a frail old lady using every possible trick to cover up the truth.

Ironically, it was her attempts to hide her frailty that most likely caused the Queen’s health to decline so rapidly in her later years. Each morning, she would apply bright red blusher to her face and neck to hide her wrinkles and her smallpox scars. This was made from mercuric sulfide. So, every time Elizabeth licked her lips, she would have been slowly poisoning herself. As we now know, mercury poisoning affects the brain, causing slurred speech, memory loss and a lack of coordination. And, of course, the worse she looked, the more toxic make-up her ladies-in-waiting slapped on her every day!

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth’s enemies tried to question her reputation, tainting her as a man-eater. Wikimedia Commons.

10. MYTH: Elizabeth, like Catherine the Great, was promiscuous and took a number of her male court favorites into her bed

From middle-age onward, Elizabeth I actively encouraged the popular perception of herself as ‘the Virgin Queen’. However, not everyone was convinced the monarch was quite as chaste as she said she was. Both during her reign as well as in the years following her death, rumors circulated that, far from being a virgin, Elizabeth was a wildly promiscuous woman, with a voracious sexual appetite. Above all, it’s alleged that she took the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Leicester, as well as Robert Devereux and Sir Walter Raleigh to bed with her.

According to most scholars with deep knowledge of Tudor England, it’s highly unlikely that even the Queen would have been able to conceal an affair and keep it secret. It’s true that she did have male favorites, and while the accounts of the time do reveal that Elizabeth not only liked to surround herself with handsome young men, but she also gave them nicknames and openly flirted with them. What’s more, she was also a keen dancer and loved foreign, more risqué dances, such as jigs from Italy. However, there’s simply no evidence to suggest that the queen invited her favorites or dance partners into the royal bedchamber.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth always wanted one of her ladies to be beside her during the night. Pinterest.

9. FACT: She may have been all-powerful, but Elizabeth I was afraid of mice and terrified of being alone in the dark

As Queen of England, Elizabeth’s power might have been absolute, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t human. Indeed, just like everyone else, the monarch suffered from fears and phobias. The records do show that she was terrified of mice. According to accounts from certain members of her court, whenever she spotted a tiny rodent, Elizabeth would climb up on a chair or any other easily-reached piece of furniture and call for her guards. She would only come down once the offending mouse had been killed.

As well as her fear of mice, Queen Elizabeth I also suffered from a crippling fear of the dark. It’s possible that this started in childhood and was almost certainly made worse by the time she spent locked up in the Tower of London. Elizabeth was so scared of the dark that she refused to sleep alone. Each night, one of her trusted ladies-in-waiting would be ordered to sleep in the Queen’s bedchamber. According to one famous episode, when Elizabeth’s usual bed companion, a lady named Dorothy Stafford, broke her leg in a horse-riding accident, the monarch demanded that another friend, Mary Scudamore, be fetched at once. Her trusted ally the Earl of Sussex was undoubtedly well-rewarded for ensuring Scudamore reached the royal bedchamber before dark.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth adored the Earl of Leicester, but did they really have a secret child together? Wikimedia Commons.

8. MYTH: The ‘Virgin Queen’ had at least one secret, illegitimate child, probably fathered by her cousin and one true love, the Earl of Leicester

Even now, many people refuse to accept that Elizabeth I was happy without the love of a man. Ever since she was a young lady, rumors concerning her love life – and, indeed, sex life – have abounded. And, according to some, not only did Elizabeth not die a ‘virgin Queen’, she even had a child out of wedlock. Moreover, she conspired to keep the illegitimate son or daughter a secret all her life. Above all, it’s alleged that her close friendship with her cousin Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, had produced a child.

Upon her coronation, Elizabeth argued that having children would just be a distraction. She said: “Do not upbraid me with miserable lack of children, for every one of you, and as many as are Englishmen, are children and kinsmen to me.” But more compellingly, most historians agree that it would have been almost impossible to keep any pregnancy secret. Elizabeth lived her life in a bubble, with no real privacy. What’s more, it’s believed the King of Spain – a Catholic keen to undermine Protestant Elizabeth any way possible – had spies in the English court, including maids who would check the royal bed sheets to ensure the monarch was menstruating.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth II planted a new tree on the site where Elizabeth I learned of her fate. Pinterest.

7. FACT: The legend that Elizabeth was sat under her favorite oak tree when she was informed she had become Queen is most probably true

Many legends regarding royals are believed to be, if not completely made-up, then certainly exaggerated. However, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Princess Elizabeth was indeed stood underneath a mighty oak tree when she learned she was Queen. The tree in question stood in the grounds of her childhood home, Hatfield House, just outside of London. It was some distance from the palace, making it a favored spot for the Princess when she wanted to enjoy some rare solitude with her beloved books.

According to the accounts of the time, Elizabeth was with her closest ladies-in-waiting and sat under the tree on the afternoon of November 17 1558. A rider from London had to ask the Hatfield Staff house where she was. When he did find her, he informed the young Elizabeth that Queen Mary I was dead. She would inherit the throne. What’s more, though the coronation wouldn’t be for another two months, Elizabeth assumed the powers of the monarch there and then. Sadly, the actual tree died and was removed many years ago, though another oak has been planted in its place, with a plaque explaining the historical significance of the location.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth had a wild temper, as her servants often found out the hard way. The Spectator.

6. MYTH: Elizabeth was quiet, calm and rational, unlike her hot-tempered famous father

In some movie depictions of Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch is portrayed as calm and collected at all times. Even when she is shown to be displeased, she nevertheless keeps her cool, preferring a look of contempt or understated but sharp put-down to a full-on tantrum. However, by all accounts, such an image of Elizabeth is highly inaccurate. She was, it should be remembered, the daughter of King Henry VIII, a man not known for his patience and gentleness. Similarly, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was independent and often outspoken – qualities that at first attracted Henry and then repulsed him. It seems their daughter inherited her fierce temper from both her parents.

From the available evidence, it seems that Elizabeth’s fits of temper were relatively frequent, and always unpredictable. She especially hated hearing bad news. According to one account, when her private surgeon advised her that a chronic pain in her arm was the result of a “cold, rheumatic humor”, she interpreted this as a sign of aging. She was livid and banished the surgeon not only from her sight but from the royal court. As she continued to get older and suffer health problems, including a crippling leg ulcers, she became even less patient with her underlings, and her temper tantrums became more frequent and more violent.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth suffered from terrible oral health, caused largely by her candy habit. Daily Mail.

5. FACT: Elizabeth had black teeth, and far from being embarrassed about it may even have smiled at foreign dignitaries with pride

Not one of the many portraits made of Queen Elizabeth show the monarch with black teeth. After all, the artists were always keen to show their subject in the best possible light – to do otherwise might have seen them thrown in the Tower of London. But that doesn’t mean Elizabeth had excellent oral health. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are a number of examples of visiting ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries commenting on the state of Elizabeth’s teeth. According to most accounts, while she had a full set – quite an achievement for the 16th century – her teeth were almost completely black.

But while today such blackened teeth might be the cause of shame, for Elizabeth and other European royals, it was a source of pride. According to the accounts of the time, the Queen had a notoriously sweet tooth and was especially fond of candied violets. She ate so much sweet stuff that, inevitably, her teeth started rotting from a relatively young age. But since only the rich could afford snacks made with sugar imported from the New World, black teeth were widely-regarded as a status symbol and an indicator of not just great wealth but also cosmopolitan tastes.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
The Queen loved theater, but the theory she was a great playwright is just wild speculation. Pinterest.

4. MYTH: Elizabeth was educated, literary – and even wrote Shakespeare’s plays but let the Bard take the credit

From the mid-19th century onward, certain literary – and some not-so-literary – critics have argued that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write most of the works attributed to the Bard. That is, it’s thought that he could have taken credit for another writer’s work. Among the names most commonly put forward as the ‘real Bard’ are Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere. However, the argument for Queen Elizabeth writing plays such as Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing has also been put forward – and it’s a theory that, whatever the evidence presented to the contrary, refuses to go away.

Much of the doubt surrounding the authenticity surrounding Shakespeare’s plays may be down to simple snobbery. After all, he was from a relatively lowly family from small town Stratford-upon-Avon. In comparison, Queen Elizabeth was well-educated, well-read and, according to her tutors as well as to the many diplomats and dignitaries she corresponded with over the years, she was an excellent writer. However, there is zero evidence that the literary monarch actually wrote plays or fictions of her own, let alone allowed Shakespeare to take credit for her work. What’s more, several of Shakespeare’s plays were released in he months and years after Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth is entertained by the leading occultist of the age, John Dee. Wikimedia Commons.

3. FACT: Elizabeth had a fascination with the occult and even invited astrologers and seers into her inner circle

Elizabeth I may have been a well-educated lady with a keen interest in science, but she also had a fascination with the occult and magic. By the standards of the 16th century, however, this was perfectly normal. At that time, there was no contradiction between having a scientific mind and a passion for reason and at the same time placing faith in astrology. However, Elizabeth was unique among English monarchs in that she surrounded herself with mystics and self-proclaimed seers. Chief among them was John Dee. The most famous occultist of the age, Dee was personally invited to the royal court by Elizabeth. She read his key work, Monas Hieroglyphica, and wanted him to explain it to her personally.

Dee was by no means the only practitioner of magic or astrology in Elizabeth’s close circle. She would regularly welcome visiting occultists to her palace, granting them an audience and allowing them to read her star charts or try and predict her future. Notably, such was her faith in astrology that she even ruled that she was to be officially crowned Queen of England on 15 January 1559, a date specifically chosen for her by Dee. At the same time, however, Elizabeth was a devout Christian and helped place the Protestant Church at the heart of the English state.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
Elizabeth took great pride in her appearance, though her vanity probably poisoned her. Wikimedia Commons.

2. FACT: Elizabeth was vain and her determination to stay beautiful became more intense as the years passed

Queen Elizabeth might have been well-educated and highly intelligent, but she also possessed great pride in her appearance. How other people thought she looked mattered a lot to the monarch. As a young woman, she didn’t need to make much of an effort to impress. According to the accounts of the time, Elizabeth was one of the most-desirable young ladies in all of Europe, and not just due to her social status and wealth. However, as the years passed and her youthful beauty began to fade, the Queen worked extra hard to hold onto her reputation as being blessed with both brains and beauty.

According to the accounts of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth needed a long time to get ready each day. She would line her eyes with charcoal and her face, hands and neck were then painted with a mixture of white lead and vinegar. And, of course, like many ladies of the time, she wore a wig every day. What’s more, Elizabeth was always determined to be the most eye-catching woman in the room. She would always dress in colorful gowns made from rich materials, while she would insist that her ladies-in-waiting would only wear plain black or white gowns.

Facts and Myths From the Life of Queen Elizabeth I
When Elizabeth welcomed the Dutch ambassador, she spoke in his own language. Wikimedia Commons.

1. FACT: Elizabeth I was a genuine a polyglot, capable of speaking 10 languages like a native

Over the centuries, England has been ruled by monarchs of varying intelligence. But Elizabeth I was almost certainly one of the kingdom’s most intellectually-blessed rulers. She was well-read, especially for a woman in the 16th century. What’s more, her reputation as being an expert in languages is well-deserved. According to the records, Elizabeth was a true polyglot and her expertise in a number of different tongues helped her rule over a divided kingdom and negotiate directly with foreign allies and potential enemies.

As a young girl, Princess Elizabeth learned Welsh from her nanny and mistress. She was then taught French, Latin, Greek and Italian by her private tutor. Such an education would have been pretty standard for a girl of her social standing at the time. On top of this, however, Elizabeth could speak Spanish, Dutch, Scottish, Irish and even Cornish, bringing her total up to 10. Notably, foreigners commended the Queen for her linguistic skills. For instance, when Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, the Ambassador of Venice, visited England in 1603, he and the Queen conversed in Italian. He remarked “she possessed these languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue.”


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Elizabeth I: Reputations and Reconfigurations.” History.ac.uk.

“Queen Elizabeth I, facts and myths.” Royal Museums Greenwich.

“Was Elizabeth I England’s cleverest monarch?” Almost History, November 2012.

“Was Queen Elizabeth I A Man?” History Answers UK.

“7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Elizabeth I).” History Extra.

“Elizabeth I’s love life: was she really a ‘Virgin Queen’?” History Extra.

“Did the Virgin Queen have a secret love child?” Daily Mail, June 2006.

“Elizabeth I: the monarch behind the mask.” History Extra.

“Queen Elizabeth’s Oak: A Tree of Legend.” Royal Museums of Greenwich.