Queen Elizabeth I is one of the most famous, beloved, and studied monarchs of all time. Basing her persona on the Virgin Mary, she tried to recreate the image of the forever young and pure Tudor queen for 44 years of her reign. Her persona inspired a cult of personality in portraits, poetry, and literature, in which she is frequently portrayed as a virginal goddess figure and as a heroine of the Protestant cause. Iconography that exalts Elizabeth and her reign as the “Golden Age” of England is common, portraying it as the time of flourishing drama and the plays of William Shakespeare, the seafaring prowess of England in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and Sir Francis Drake’s expeditions. Others portray her as a short-tempered and indecisive ruler who depended heavily on advisers, ignored economic and military problems, and whose popularity clouds her actual legacy.
Whatever your opinion of her is, one thing is certain: Elizabeth is one of the most famous rulers of all time. The last of the Tudor dynasty, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, she ruled from 1558 until her death in 1603. She succeeded her half-sister to the throne and established the English Protestant Church, which evolved into the Church of England. Though Elizabeth was also accused of being vain, overly cautious, vacillating, and prejudiced, ultimately she was successful as queen. She brought the classic Tudor concept of having a strong rule to the shaky English throne and, after the short reigns of her two siblings, brought some much-needed stability for the kingdom.
Here are 15 of the most shocking facts about Elizabeth I, the infamous virgin queen.
15. She Loved Sugar a Little Too Much
As it turns out, the Queen had a major sweet tooth. It wasn’t uncommon for the wealthy in the Elizabethan era to have a kind of sugar addiction. They were the only ones who could afford sugar, so of course, they ate it constantly. Queen Elizabeth, however, took it to a whole new level, even putting sugar on her salads and in her wine. She enjoyed sweets so much that eventually her teeth rotted and most fell out or had to be pulled. Since this made her face rather gaunt, she stuffed her cheeks with a cloth to make them look more plump. The cloth, too, had to be perfumed because her breath smelled like death. She also brushed her teeth with honey, which didn’t help.
It’s funny how we’d imagine a peasant in Elizabethan England as having awful teeth, but in reality, a nobleman would probably have worse dental hygiene than a man who farmed his lands. Of course, lower class teeth weren’t magnificent in this period of history, but upper-class people had more tooth decay thanks to sugar being considered a luxury.
14. She Was A Child Prodigy
Elizabeth was an extremely bright child. From infancy until about age six she received her early education from a governess named Kat Ashley, a well-educated woman, but when Elizabeth was around four or five years old she was running out of things to teach her. Elizabeth spoke Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Welsh fluently by age eleven. As a fun note, she didn’t really have a reason to speak Welsh, so she probably learned it by choice since her family was Welsh.
Some of her work from around this time still exists. In 1544, when she was eleven, Elizabeth gave her stepmother Katherine Parr a manuscript she had written herself. It was a book called Prayers and Meditations that Katherine had written, but Elizabeth translated it from English into Latin, then French, and then Italian. Her tutor Roger Ascham is said to have remarked that Elizabeth had “the intelligence of a man.”Though languages were her passion, she studied the classics, history, geography, theology, geometry, grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, logic, dancing, sewing, embroidery, horsemanship, and archery. Those would have been typical for a royal child of the sixteenth century, but Elizabeth stands out because she excelled at all of it.
13. The Last of the Tudor Dynasty
Queen Elizabeth never married and never had any children. For this reason, she is sometimes known to history as the “Virgin Queen.” Because she produced no heirs despite several potential suitors, her family line ended and she was the last of the Tudor dynasty. As a typical representative of absolutism, during her reign, the central administration was greatly strengthened. She rule lasted from 1558 to 1603, which is sometimes referred to as the “Elizabethan era,” the era of Shakespeare’s plays, Sir Francis Drake’s trips to the American continent, and the famous clash with Spain over rule of the seas which ended in the destruction of the Spanish Armada.
After her death, the title went to the King of Scotland, James VI, who became James I of England but continued ruling Scotland. The two nations remained separate but continued having the same monarch, eventually uniting to become the modern day United Kingdom.
12. She Was Never Meant to be Queen
While many consider Elizabeth I to be one of England’s greatest monarchs, she should have never gotten anywhere near the throne. Elizabeth was born a princess as the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn but was removed from the line of succession when Henry decided to have Anne’s head chopped off and their marriage was declared invalid. This was only reinstated thanks to the intervention of her last stepmother, Katherine Parr.
By the time of Henry’s death, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne, behind her younger brother Edward and her older sister Mary. But in one of the greatest ironies of history, the son that Henry VIII had been so obsessed with having only reigned for six years before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 15. Her sister Mary did not fare much better, and her five-year reign was violent and catastrophic. She had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake and was given the nickname “Bloody Mary.” After her death, Elizabeth assumed the throne.
11. Torture Was Widely Used
Torture was more widespread under Elizabeth I than any other English monarch. Elizabethan tortures were excruciatingly painful and barbaric and was used to extract confessions for crimes. Crimes themselves were met with violent, cruel punishments witnessed by many hundreds of people. Women did not escape torture during this era, either, though nobles were automatically exempt in most cases. During the religious conflict that gripped England in the 16th century, the rack was often used against Catholic or Protestant adherents, depending on who was on the throne at the time.
Under Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, torture was also frequently used, and the Tower of London became infamous throughout the world. Some of the tortures used included whipping, branding and burning with hot irons, pressing, boiling in oil, water, or lead, starvation in a public place, and the cutting off of hands or ears. The Wheel, thumbscrews and the Scavenger’s daughter were all infamous methods of Elizabethan torture. Beheading was considered the least brutal of execution methods and was usually given to those of noble birth.
10. She Was Implicated in a Possible Murder Case
Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester was the court favorite, close friend, and suitor for the hand of Elizabeth I for many years. When Dudley’s first wife, Amy Robsart, was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her house, at first glance it looked like she had been pushed or thrown down. Elizabeth’s extremely close relationship with Robert was very well known: they were friends since childhood and many thought and still believe that they had a sexual relationship while Elizabeth was Queen. Meanwhile, Robert and Amy were married as teenagers and, like most marriages within their social class, theirs was arranged. Once Elizabeth became Queen, Robert was permanently installed at court, but there was nothing she could do about his marital status. The Queen’s jealousy didn’t help when Amy turned up dead with no witnesses, and neither did rumors that Robert was planning to divorce her.
Ironically, when Amy died, Robert was free to marry the Queen, but the resulting scandal of the mysterious death ensured it would never happen. Even though the coroner’s jury’s verdict ruled it an accident and historians consider the idea of murder unlikely, popular rumors that he arranged his wife’s death haunted him throughout his life not just in England, but throughout the royal courts of Europe. Marrying him was more impossible than ever as she would be risking rebellion in her own country as well as trouble with foreign relations. Robert didn’t remarry for 18 years afterward for Elizabeth’s sake, and when he did his new wife, Lettice Knollys, was banished from court.
9. She Had A Terrible Temper
Though she was accused of being a bastard, there is no doubt that Elizabeth was Henry VIII’s child, particularly when it came to the gruffness she and her father both shared. Elizabeth was known for her impatience and horrible temper. She swore and cursed, and was known to slap, pinch, and prod ladies-in-waiting and allegedly threw a slipper at one of her courtiers. Her poor servant girls would have gotten the worst of her horrible temper, since they were the ones closest to her. The Queen had a very, very sharp tongue that it was said she inherited from Anne “I sometimes wish that all Spaniards were at the bottom of the sea” Boleyn.
One story about the Queen’s lashing out at will says that when Mary Shelton married James Scudamore without seeking Elizabeth’s permission, which was doubly offensive both as a noble marriage and as a part of the Boleyn family, Elizabeth laid into her with “liberall bothe with bloes and yevell words,” throwing a candlestick at Mary which subsequently broke her finger.
8. She Suffered Sexual Abuse
Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving 13-year-old Elizabeth an orphan.But Elizabeth was a particular favorite of her stepmother the now dowager Queen Katherine Parr, so within months of Henry’s death, Elizabeth came under her protection.Katherine soon remarried Sir Thomas Seymour, the maternal uncle of Elizabeth’s brother, King Edward VI. Thomas was envious of his older brother’s position as Lord Protector for the nine-year-old king. Since he couldn’t control the king, he got the next best thing, the widowed queen. Elizabeth lived with Katherine and Thomas at their country estate for around a year. Thomas, who was twenty-five years her senior, apparently took a liking to Elizabeth, if only for her position as the favorite sister of the new king.
After a few months, Thomas became a bit too familiar with Elizabeth, developing a habit of sneaking into her bedchamber in the early hours, climbing into bed with her, tickling her or touching her too intimately. Elizabeth’s governess Kat Ashley voiced her disapproval, but there was nothing either of them could do, as Thomas was the master in his own house. Elizabeth started to make a point of being awake and fully dressed before he could barge in on her. Eventually, it’s believed Katherine found the two in a compromising position, possibly an embrace, and Elizabeth was sent away (she and Katherine reconciled before her death). Eventually, Thomas Seymour finally got himself into enough trouble to be arrested when he attempted to kidnap the king. After his arrest, his actions with Elizabeth came into question, and there was even a rumor that Elizabeth was pregnant by him. Elizabeth was interrogated on her dealings with him for weeks, but she never admitted to anything.
7. The Pope Declared Her Illegitimate
On April 27, 1570, Pope Pius V issued a papal bull with some pretty strong language against the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, calling her “the pretended queen of England and the servant of crime’, saying she had usurped the crown of England and the place of supreme head of the Church of England and brought kingdom “to a miserable ruin.” It goes on to call Mary “the lawful queen” and saying Elizabeth has “embraced the errors of heretics.” Even more inflammatory are the passages saying the faithful “are compelled by necessity to take up against her the weapons of justice,” and saying her followers have incurred the sentence of excommunication. The bull goes on to declare that the nobles, subjects , and people of Elizabeth’s realm who have sworn oaths to her are absolved from such oaths and duties to obey her orders, and say that those who continue to do so are also risking excommunication.
It was basically the Pope giving Catholics the green light to overthrow Elizabeth and put a Catholic on the throne, though this would never happen. Truth be told, the papal bull probably didn’t bother Elizabeth much, since from a young age both her and her sister were declared illegitimate heirs and even referred to as bastards by their own father.
6. She Kept A Secret Portrait of Her Mother
Curiously, Elizabeth never spoke of her mother Anne Boleyn, who was ripped from her life when she was only two years old after Henry ordered her executed. There are no recorded instances of Elizabeth speaking of her publicly, but there’s little doubt she must have occupied the Queen’s private thoughts, and there is a piece of evidence that she treasured her mother’s memory.
When Elizabeth died at her palace in Richmond in 1603, Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth, went to remove her ring from her finger in order to prove to James VI of Scotland that she was dead and he was now king. She had worn it a long time, so they had to carefully file it off. Once the ring was off they noticed a tiny clasp. It was a locket ring, and inside were two miniature enamel portraits, one of Elizabeth circa 1575, and one of an unnamed woman in a French hood. The unnamed woman bears a striking resemblance to many of the paintings of Anne Boleyn.
5. She Was a Fashion Icon
Ask anyone what they associate with Queen Elizabeth I and one of the first things you’re bound to hear is her outrageous clothes; in fact, the word “wardrobe” actually derives from her giant collection of dresses. Elizabeth was absolutely obsessed with fashion. In private, she mostly wore simple gowns, but when she went out, the Queen dressed to impress. Clothes were a status symbol in Elizabethan England and keeping the Queen dressed better than anybody else was an important symbol. No one was allowed to dress more magnificently than her; she once chastised a lady-in-waiting for wearing clothing that was too rich because it was nicer than her own gown.
A lot of her gowns were mix-and-match, with the sleeves, bodices, skirts, kirtles, and stomachers completely detachable, so she technically never wore the same dress twice. Her outfits were gorgeously embroidered with colored threads and decorated with precious gems, including diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. She also had 628 pieces of jewelry, though pearls were her go-to because they symbolized her virginity. Elizabeth was always meticulous with her appearance, and as she aged the ritual of dressing her became increasingly elaborate; it was said that it took her ladies-in-waiting four hours a day to complete the ceremony of dressing and undressing her.
4. Used White Makeup Made With Lead
Of course, Elizabeth was never fully dressed without her signature white makeup. In her early years she wore a modest amount of makeup, but after she contracted smallpox in 1562, she became self-conscious about her appearance and wore quite a lot to cover the scarring on her face. Paleness was valued as beauty at the time, and Elizabeth wore many layers to complete the “mask of youth.” She would typically paint her face, neck, and hands with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar), her lips were colored with a red paste (made from beeswax and plant dyes), and she used eyeliner made from kohl.
Of course, it’s common knowledge now that this white lead make-up was very bad for her health, as it slowly poisoned her. Famously, the Countess of Coventry literally dropped dead at age 27 from excessive makeup wearing. The fact that Elizabeth lived to be 69 probably means she didn’t wear the makeup constantly, but only when making public appearances.
3. There Were Rumors (That Persist) That She Was a Man
It’s a conspiracy theory that started recently. The theory goes that the real Princess Elizabeth was sent away from court in 1543-44 when she would have been about 10 or 11 years old due to an outbreak of plague in London.Despite this precaution, Elizabeth died of the fever anyway. Her governess and other servants, fearing the wrath of her father Henry VIII, attempted a hasty cover-up. They could not find a fair skinned, red headed girl of the right age or appearance in the area to pass off as Elizabeth, so instead, they used a boy, one of Elizabeth’s supposed playmates. Because Henry was so distant from his daughter, he didn’t catch on to the deception and neither did anyone else. And so the secret of the real Elizabeth’s death and the male imposter were never revealed, and therefore Elizabeth I was really a man in drag for 59 years.
This is also called the “Bisley Boy” theory. It seems to have first gained traction after Bram Stoker (of all people), the famous author of the novel Dracula, wrote about in a chapter of his book Famous Imposters dedicated to the “Bisley Boy” theory. The legend has been surprisingly enduring, despite the complete lack of any evidence. It likely has its roots in misogyny, since it’s basically used to explain why Elizabeth never married and was an effective ruler on her own.
2. There Are Misconceptions Surrounding Her Birth
The portrayal of Elizabeth’s birth in a lot of movies and television productions shows her birth as a hideous disappointment that destroyed her parents’ relationship. But despite popular belief, Henry was more relieved than anything. Obviously, he wasn’t thrilled about Anne bearing a daughter, but the fact that she survived and the baby was perfect and healthy was a relief. The pregnancy was not easy for Anne and she was apparently close to death at one point. In fact, Henry actually prayed Anne would have a miscarriage just so her life would be spared. If anything, Elizabeth was proof that Anne was fertile and could have healthy babies.
The fact that Elizabeth was a girl was a disappointment (Henry was so sure they were having a boy there were jousts planned in celebration of the birth of a prince, but they were cancelled because it turned out to be a princess), but Henry was proud of Elizabeth being a healthy child with the Tudor look, and carried her around at court functions to show her off. Anne too was delighted with Elizabeth, and made a point of spending as much time with her as possible, even though as the royal heir she would have typically been handed over the nursemaids almost immediately after birth.
1. Portrayed in More Films Than Any Other British Monarch
Queen Elizabeth I has been portrayed more often in film and on television than any other British monarch, perhaps more than any other monarch, period. Among the actresses to portray her, the first was Sarah Bernhardt in Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth (1912), a French silent film. Then Bette Davis played Elizabeth twice, the first in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and the second time in The Virgin Queen (1955). Jean Simmons portrayed her in Young Bess (1953), and many other famous actresses followed, including the iconic portrayal by Glenda Jackson in the BBC television series Elizabeth R (1971).
Perhaps inspired by the Bisley Boy legend, Quentin Crisp, a man, took the role in Orlando (1992), and more recently Cate Blanchett played the Virgin Queen twice in Elizabeth (1998) and again in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). Judi Dench won an Oscar for her brief but memorable portrayal of the Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Helen Mirren took on the role in the TV miniseries Elizabeth I (2005). The time-traveling Time Lord Doctor Who has also bumped into Elizabeth on multiple occasions, in episodes airing in 1965 and 2007.