Imagine this… Your dad kills your ma, your childhood is mental, your legal guardian’s husband nonces you up, and your sister has you thrown in the tower on charges of treason. Then, when you eventually take the throne yourself, you get the fucking pox. Welcome to the pure bullshit that is the early life of Elizabeth I.
On the night of 10th October, in 1562, Elizabeth, now 29 years old, was convinced she was coming down with a cold. With a distinct lack of Benylin in the Tudor period, she decided to do the most British thing in the world and have a hot bath. Obviously that didn’t work because: a) it never does and; b) she actually had smallpox, not a cold.
Pox had been rife at court, with a high proportion of the female courtiers contracting it – so it shouldn’t have actually been a surprise to anyone when Elizabeth started to display symptoms. As soon as the spots started to appear, the Privy Council began to shit themselves.
Elizabeth had only been on the throne for 4 years, and had no heirs. This presented an enormous problem as the new protestant Queen had just about managed to quieten down the catholic gobshites that sought to depose her, and now it looked as if one of them might be eligible to swoop in and inherit her crown. Plus, The past hundred or so years had seen England dragged through the Wars of the Roses; the shitstorm that was Henry VIII’s obsession with having a male heir; religiously reforming the country so he could wet his dick; followed by a series of two-minute Tudor monarchs (Edward VI, Jane Grey and Bloody Mary), and now this. How much more could the people take?!
As Elizabeth’s fever roared, and she became more and more sick, she asked the Privy Councillors to make her BFF, Robert Dudley, the Lord Protector of England, and give him an annual allowance of £20k (aprox.£4million these days). Gossip had been rife around court about these two. Everybody thought they were secretly shagging, and expressed concern about Elizabeth wanting to marry beneath her station. Furthermore, Dudley’s wife had recently been found dead in suspicious circumstances, which some say Elizabeth had been involved in. There was no fucking way the council would agree to him being top dog. Elizabeth knew this and went out of her way to make sure her last days would be spent maintaining that nothing untoward had happened between them and upholding her virginity – though this claim was slightly weakened by the fact that she had also paid off Dudley’s groomsman to shut his gob about the coming and goings in Dudley’s bedchamber.
The Privy Council didn’t have much choice as the Queen wasn’t dead just yet, so agreed to Dudley’s new rise to power to save face in front of the dying Queen, but the actual consensus was ‘fuck that, there’s not a chance… we’ll just wait till she’s dead and then thrash it out between ourselves’. There was no way the council was going to let that little upstart take the role they all craved. Plus, there were contenders around with a better claim to the throne – Mary Queen of Scots being one (though that was never going to happen either). The council now had some big decisions to make and with a mortality rate of 30%, they hardly even entertained the idea that the Queen could actually recover.
Meanwhile Elizabeth, who was being nursed by Lady Mary Sidney (Dudley’s sister), drifted in and out of consciousness. The Spanish Ambassador wrote to Phillip of Spain to inform him that his ex-sister-in-law was potentially on her way out, and William Cecil was called to council at midnight to come and sort shit out. There were no known cures for smallpox at the time apart from prayer, which is clearly not a recognised protocol by the World Health Organisation, and only a slightly better suggestion that drinking bleach could cure Covid. Elizabeth was treated with barley water and poppy seeds, and wrapped in red sheets (to reflect the pox… obviously). Miraculously, she started to recover.
The Privy Council quickly pulled out their fingers and made Dudley a member, and started setting to work minting a commemorative coin to celebrate the Queen’s recovery and the near miss with yet more civil unrest. Although Elizabeth survived smallpox, she didn’t come away unscathed. Her face was heavily scarred and the beauty she had been renowned for throughout Christendom had been compromised. Elizabeth now had to rely on heavy lead and vinegar based makeup to hide her scars, which ironically poisoned the shit out of her, and led to yet more disfigurement, but that’s a Tudorial for another time.
Elizabeth had it mild compared to her pal Mary Sidney. Mary also survived, but was so severely affected by the disease that her husband described her as ‘as foul a lady as the pox could have left her’. What a fucking charmer eh?! No wonder Elizabeth never married. She did however go on to rule pox-free for another 41 years; hiding her scars and rebranding herself with the thick, white make-up she was famous for – the absolute trademark of the Virgin Queen.
You can read about the mysterious death of Robert Dudley’s wife here: https://thetudorials.com/2015/09/08/september-8th-1560-murder-suicide-or-the-accidental-death-of-amy-robsart/