Final Years: Death and Legacy





Henry VIII left an iconic image for posterity, as our most recognisable English king, but his daughter Elizabeth was the first great master of royal public relations. She staged a brilliant metaphorical show in which her England became an Eden and she, spectacularly dressed and bejewelled, was Gloriana, a Faerie Queen. By November 1601, she had ruled for forty-three years and was nearing the age of 70. Her health was failing and the cares of state were as pressing as ever; many loyal friends and advisors had died and she was prone to bouts of melancholy.

Against this background, she delivered a historic speech which came to stand as a symbolic end to the reign of Elizabeth I. It was heard at Whitehall Palace by Members of the House of Commons, who knelt before her expecting to be addressed on economic issues.

The purpose of a sixteenth-century Parliament was to introduce new laws by passing Acts and to raise money in the form of taxes. It was only called when the monarch wished and could be dismissed at any time. During Elizabeth’s forty-five-year reign, Parliament was called just ten times and her Privy Councillors were always present to control proceedings. However, in 1601, Elizabeth decided to use the occasion for another purpose: to express her love for her country, to tell them that it would be her final Parliament and to make clear how she wished to be remembered. Most of those present had lived all their lives as Elizabethans and many wept, sensing that she was speaking to them for the last time. The oration was so powerful it became known as her ‘Golden Speech’ and it was printed and reprinted in the seventeenth century:

And though God hath raised me high, yet this I account the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves. … It is not my desire to live or reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.

Elizabeth’s notion of monarchy differed from her predecessors; she wished to serve her people and she claimed to have sacrificed her own personal desires for their sake. She held the love of the majority of her subjects and was rewarded with the popular epithet of ‘Good Queen Bess’. The greatness and glory of the Elizabethan age are her enduring legacy.


Back in 1558 the Count de Feria, envoy from Philip of Spain, had written of Elizabeth the princess, ‘She is very attached to the people … and very confident that they take her part.’

As queen, she pursued a deliberate propaganda policy to ensure this popular loyalty should thrive. In prayers, ballads and speeches the English people were constantly reminded of their loving sovereign lady, who would lay down her very life for their care. The devoted relationship between queen and people was a regular theme in her oratory. She showed her compassion for the poor with charity and she went among them to touch for scrofula, a skin disease known as the ‘king’s evil’ which it was thought could be cured by the monarch. When in procession, she might stop when a poor person tried to give her flowers or listen to petitions along the way, in well-publicised gestures. By making her people love her, Elizabeth felt safe. They would not only cheer her, with shouts of ‘God save your Majesty!’, but also protect her against assassination, rebellions and critics of her regime. To gain this adoration she had to show herself, parading in splendour through the streets of London or sailing on the Thames with music, gun salutes and fireworks. Her regular summer progresses allowed her to visit her nobility and gentry (at their expense) while showing herself to the common people in other parts of the country. All her life she cultivated the common touch and made a point of going amongst her people, much to the concern of her Privy Council. Even at the age of 69, she was still appearing openly for her Accession Day celebrations in November. Although it was a risk to her personal safety, Elizabeth considered it essential that she be seen in public, as Gloriana in all her magnificence.


Robert Peake the Elder (?), Markus Gheeaerts (?), Collection of Sherbourne Castle, Dorset

Elizabeth I is depicted as a guest at the marriage of Anne, youngest daughter of John, Lord Russell, to Henry Herbert, eldest son of Edward Somerset, Earl of Worcester.

The marriage took place at St Martin’s Ludgate, a medieval church situated adjacent to Lud Gate and the Roman Wall on the hill leading up to St Paul’s Cathedral. The church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but the registers recording this marriage, on 16 June 1600, were saved. It was also noted by John Chamberlain, the son of an ironmonger whose inherited fortune meant he did not need to work. Between 1597 and 1626, he wrote long letters to friends abroad to inform them of events of the day. He was a moderate in matters of religion and politics and recorded social history, including the marriage depicted in this painting. He wrote to Dudley Carleton, 1st Viscount Dorchester, ‘We shall have the great marriage on Monday at the Lady Russell’s where it is said the Queen will vouchsafe her presence.’ Elizabeth’s appearance at the wedding was confirmed by him in a letter written after the wedding, dated 24 June: ‘the Quene was present, being carried from the waterside in a curious chaise.’


The Queen is carried by her armed guard and flanked by courtiers, while spectators watch the pageantry.

Elizabeth is wearing a white embroidered gown and is seated under an elaborate canopy sewn with flowers that has been mounted on a ‘curious chaise’ to raise her above the throng of people. She is almost 66, so her fresh complexion is not true to life; it is the mask of youth that Nicholas Hilliard had devised for her around ten years earlier. The open-style ruff leaves her throat and chest revealed, a fashionable style for unmarried women. The same design is worn by the bride, Anne Russell, a favourite maid of honour to the Queen and one of Elizabeth’s last maids, who arrived at court in 1594. The other ladies are wearing full ruffs that probably indicate their married status. Although Anne is wearing white, a white wedding dress was not traditional at the time; generally, the bride had a new dress made or wore her best clothes in her favourite colour for the occasion.

Their route is lined with men holding halberds – weapons with blades at the end and sides. These soldiers are members of the Queen’s Gentlemen Pensioners, a group of around fifty men appointed on Christmas Eve 1539 by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. Formed as the ‘nearest guard’ to follow the monarch into war, in peacetime they exhibited their sporting prowess under the direction of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, in this case, George Carey, 2nd Lord Hunsdon. (Carey is mentioned in connection with the miniature Elizabeth I Playing a Lute, fig. 5.) He holds his white staff of office and walks ahead of the Queen. On ceremonial occasions, the Gentlemen Pensioners provided an escort to keep the crowd at a safe distance.

The Queen’s Knights of the Garter go before her and can be recognised by their short black, embroidered Spanish cloaks and the insignia of the garter worn on their left legs. As mentioned previously, a Knight of the Garter is the most senior order of knighthood in the English honours system, to which only the monarch can grant membership. Behind the Queen are three grooms of the coach wearing white ruffs and tight-fitting black caps, their red and gold uniforms emblazoned on the front with the Tudor rose and crown.

The Earl of Worcester, father of the groom, is the bald-headed man in pink, with white stockings, at the centre of the painting. He is holding a pair of gloves that might be a gift for the bride, or perhaps for the Queen? Worcester is the most likely candidate to have commissioned this work, between 1601 and 1603, but unusually there are no arms or family insignia in the painting to confirm his patronage.

The bridegroom is Worcester’s eldest son, Henry, the third bearer of the litter, wearing white and walking in front of his bride to be. He is recognised by his distinctive upturned moustache. Almost all Elizabethan men wore facial hair as evidence of masculinity; in fact, none of the gentlemen in this group is clean shaven.

Gilbert Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who was appointed a Knight of the Garter in 1592, walks before the Queen. Wearing green, he holds the Sword of State, one of the most significant items of royal regalia, which is traditionally carried before the sovereign, point upwards, to represent the monarch’s power to preserve right and peace.

The Elizabethan letter writer Rowland Whyte was postmaster to the court and employed by Sir Robert Sidney ‘to relate to him what passed there’. He records: ‘The preparation for this feast is sumptuous and great; but it is feared that the house in Blackfriars will be too little for such a company.’ However, all seemed to go well: ‘The gifts given that day were valued at £1,000 in plate and jewels at least, the entertainment was great and plentiful, and my Lady Russell much commended for it.’

Artistically, this work has a distinctly Elizabethan look, different in style from the art that went before and from that which would follow. Queen Elizabeth ruled over a religiously divided country and there were also vast differences between the social classes: the aristocracy, both new and old, the merchants and the manual labourers. Pageantry, chivalry and honour held a universal appeal for all levels of society and as the age progressed, this noble code that had its roots in England’s medieval past became a recognisable Elizabethan cultural style.

It is a large picture in oil on cloth that is 7ft 5in. long, with figures that are 15/16” high. It has been reduced in size, so it may have contained even more portraits, making it unique among English painting of this period. The perspective is not true, but the important aspects of the work are the detail, the portraits and the depiction of Elizabethan pageantry. It is not known where the picture originated but most likely it was produced for the Somerset family home of Raglan Castle that was destroyed by Parliamentary forces in 1646, during the Civil War.

With most art historians deciding between Robert Peake the Elder and Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, the identity of the artist is in dispute. Peake was a native artist, born in Lincolnshire around 1551. He was the only Englishman in a close group that included Marcus Gheeraerts, John de Critz and the miniaturist Isaac Oliver, making an attribution complicated. However, Peake appears to be the most likely painter of this spectacular picture.


Elizabeth ruled a realm of extraordinary range and vitality, from the splendours of court life, the dashing adventurers, the bustling capital and the flourishing ports to the squalid poverty of town and country alike. Most of our enduring images of the Elizabethans derive from the splendour and not the squalor, but it was also a time of violence, superstition and disease.

The contemporary historian Sir Thomas Smith described the structure of the English nation in De Republica Anglorum, published in 1583. At its head stood the Queen, followed by four groups: gentlemen (including aristocracy), citizens, yeomen and ‘the fourth sort of men which do not rule’. The latter included craftsmen, day labourers, poor husbandmen and retailers who held no political or economic power but made up the bulk of the ever-growing population. Within this structure, a tiny elite lived through a period of brilliance in exploration, literature and music. There were also increased opportunities and social mobility for the middle classes, who began to commission portraits of themselves and their wives to hang in their new houses, which now boasted the novelties of chimneys and glass windows.

But life had become increasingly hard for the vast majority who still lived and worked on the land, processing virtually everything they ate, drank and wore from their own raw materials. Only a very small proportion of people lived in towns, probably not more than one in twenty. There were regular epidemics of plague, mortality rates were high, winters were colder than today and the common people endured very poor living standards. Elizabeth’s subjects were overwhelmingly youthful as most people simply did not reach old age. Life expectancy was around forty years, although very high infant mortality contributes to this low average.

The gentry increasingly converted their arable land into pasture for sheep, to produce the country’s chief economic asset, English wool. But the enclosing of the land added greatly to the misery of the poor, many of whom were evicted, and beggars became a feature of Elizabethan life. The authorities tried to ban vagabonds from urban areas but this was difficult to enforce. There was lawlessness both in town and country areas, for which punishments were savage. More than 6,000 persons were executed at Tyburn alone during Elizabeth’s reign and whipping or branding were common. In 1598, the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, a rival of Shakespeare, was arrested for manslaughter of a fellow actor. Because of his ability to read from the Bible in Latin, he claimed ‘benefit of clergy’ and was tried by a more lenient ecclesiastical court. The Biblical passage traditionally used was the third verse of Psalm 51, known as the ‘neck verse’. Jonson avoided hanging, but among his punishments was the branding of his left thumb.

The nation suffered particularly badly in the 1590s from inflation, unemployment, population increase and bad harvests, leading to a loss of public morale. The average wage for an agricultural worker had risen from 4d to 6d a day but its purchasing power had fallen by 40 per cent since the beginning of the century. Disastrous harvests between 1594 and 1597 doubled the price of wheat, far more ordinary people were unable to support themselves and starvation became a real prospect for many. Elizabeth’s image, as the loving mother of her people, was thus undermined, for not everyone alive in the last decade of her reign would say they lived in a golden age.


The final years of Elizabeth’s reign were blighted by these economic problems and accompanied by mounting criticism from a younger generation at court. By the 1590s Elizabeth was old enough to be the grandmother of most of her courtiers, who began to consider her out of touch. ‘She imagined,’ wrote Francis Bacon a few years after her death, ‘that the people, who are much influenced by externals, would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels, from noticing the decay of her personal attractions.’ This reflects the tone of the last decade, when her control over political and economic forces began to falter. War with Spain dragged on, with fear of a second Armada, while uncertainty over the succession loomed large.

It was also the decade in which the great names of literature entered their maturity and the English theatre reached its peak. At this point, mythologising Elizabeth as a goddess came to its height. Her painted portraits became increasingly less realistic and more like icons, while the 1596 proclamation ordered destruction of any ‘unseemly’ pictures showing her true age. She was dependent on her jewels, wigs and cosmetics and yet, the more her looks faded, the more her courtiers praised her beauty. In the last decade of her life, she appeared to believe her own myth, accepting the attentions of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who paid court to her like a lover. Essex was the stepson of her first love, Robert Dudley, and appointed Master of the Horse on his stepfather’s death – an important post, close to the Queen. She also gave him lucrative concessions, including a monopoly on imported sweet wines, which became his main source of income. Elizabeth was charmed by this handsome young man, thirty years her junior. They flirted, danced and played cards together but the ambitious Essex was not content to be merely an ornament of court. Bold, temperamental and impulsive, he wanted to win glory in the war against Spain, political success on the Privy Council and the ultimate prize of succeeding Lord Burghley as chief councillor. This long-term objective was frustrated by the very able Robert Cecil, who emerged from his father’s shadow in 1596, becoming Secretary of State and taking on a growing share of government business. The younger Cecil was very small in stature and hunchbacked, due to scoliosis; Elizabeth called him her ‘Pygmy’. Slight and unattractive, he lacked all the swaggering charm of Essex and political life at court became dominated by the bitter rivalry of these two very different men. They both had their own spy networks and were individually in secret correspondence with James VI, each hoping to secure power in the next regime.

Elizabeth and Essex had a tempestuous relationship; on one notorious occasion, she cuffed his ear, prompting him to half draw his sword on her. The Earl was proud and insolent, taking many liberties, which the Queen usually forgave because she loved him. She appointed him to senior commands and, although in 1596 he distinguished himself by the capture of Cádiz, his military exploits were generally unsuccessful. After Essex’s desertion of his command in Ireland in 1599, he burst into the Queen’s bedchamber at Nonsuch Palace to defend his actions: a shocking act of disrespect. He had also seen the grey hair and wrinkled face of the Queen without her wig and make-up. Her indulged favourite had finally overplayed his hand.

Elizabeth had Essex placed under house arrest and the following year deprived him of his monopolies. In February 1601, a combination of mounting debts and ambition led him to make a desperate, foolhardy attempt at rebellion together with other disaffected nobles who were jealous of Cecil’s faction. Prior to their uprising they arranged a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II, about the deposition of a monarch governed by evil advisors. But few rallied to their support and the insurrection failed. Essex was tried for treason and executed on 25 February 1601, privately within the Tower of London. He was 34 years old when his head fell to the executioner’s axe. For all his public love of Elizabeth, the Earl had privately mocked her as ‘an old woman … no less crooked in mind than in carcass’. The betrayal of her last great favourite was both political and personal and she felt it.


Unknown English artist, c. 1610, oil on panel, private collection, Corsham Court, Wiltshire

‘To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it.’

Elizabeth I

This posthumous Jacobean portrait shows a careworn Elizabeth in a contemplative pose, seated at a table. Two plump cherubs hover above her, their left hands carrying away the trappings of earthly power: her crown and sceptre. Above them floats a laurel wreath, a symbol of nobility, triumph and victory. But this Elizabeth is the opposite of the warrior queen who vanquished the Armada in 1588. The menacing figure of Death, the enemy she can never defeat, looks over her left shoulder, clasping an hourglass with all the sand collected at the bottom. Old Father Time has fallen asleep at her right with his sickle and a broken hourglass is overturned on the table. His work is done and death has arrived.

Now the mask of youth has fallen away and we see the Queen’s face, modelled on her death mask. This is Elizabeth at her most human: an exhausted, frail old woman with deep lines under her dark Boleyn eyes and her right hand supporting her head. She has given her life and energy to the cares of the realm for so many years and the weight of the burden she has carried is apparent in her face.

Her left hand clutches the Book of Common Prayer, illustrating her religious conviction. Her thumb marks the place at which she has paused in her reading, a motif used half a century earlier when Guillaume Scrots painted her as a princess with a finger placed inside her devotional book. While the messengers of God have removed the symbols of her power, her religion remains with her, not only present but in use.

There is a glow to the figure of the Queen, reflected in the silver of her gown and soft ruff, while Time and Death are in deep shadow. Elizabeth looks deeply sad, reflecting the melancholy of her later years as death gradually robbed her of her closest advisors: Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham and her beloved Robert, Earl of Leicester, had gone and then a series of deaths among her close female friends caused her great sorrow by the end of 1602. Just as in her Coronation Portrait the viewer was invited to see the body politic along with the body mortal, the Queen’s ailing body here may be interpreted as a tired and blighted regime. The skeleton figure of Death might represent the threat of starvation facing many of her subjects in the 1590s.


This posthumous Jacobean portrait shows a careworn Elizabeth and the melancholy of her old age. Father Time appears on the left and Death on the right.

Conversely, while the image shows an unavoidable surrender to death and Elizabeth’s awareness of her dying body, it can also be viewed as a triumph of eternity over time. The painting was probably created in the 1620s when there was a revival of interest in the Tudors and a decline in the popularity of Stuart rule. The figure Time and Queen Elizabeth are depicted as a pair in mirror image, with their heads in their hands. They have a connection, perhaps representing Time and Truth (the daughter of Time). Elizabeth will live on, in the nation’s memory, as a great queen and the heroine of the true Protestant religion. In her accession portrait we were shown the body politic in preference to the body mortal. Here we are shown her aged human body, which will die, but her legacy will continue long after her death. The Accession Day celebrations continued well into the eighteenth century, with Elizabeth venerated and effigies of the Pope and the Devil being traditionally burnt on that day.


‘She feeling some infirmities of old age and sickness retired herself at the end of January to Richmond.’

Richard Baker, Chronicle of the Kings of England

As Elizabeth aged, she continued with regular exercise: riding, hunting and taking brisk morning walks in her Privy Garden. She had always loved dancing and it was reported that she practised Galliards (a very energetic style of dance) every day. The Queen celebrated her 69th birthday in September 1602 and her health remained fair until the autumn, when a series of deaths among her friends plunged her into depression. She spent Christmas at Whitehall and was suffering from a cold in January when she decided to journey through bad weather to her favourite palace of Richmond, for better air. But her appetite diminished and by March she had collapsed onto cushions in her Privy Chamber, refusing to go to bed and sitting motionless for hours. Finding it impossible to take nourishment, Elizabeth grew increasingly feeble and eventually lost the power of speech. She died on 24 March 1603 between two and three in the morning, probably of bronchopneumonia. So, the Tudor dynasty ended in the palace of her grandfather Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, who had also died at Richmond. According to the royal chaplain, Dr Henry Parry, it was a ‘good death’, as ‘hir Majestie departed this lyfe, mildly like a lambe, easily like a ripe apple from the tree’.

Elizabeth’s embalmed body was carried downriver at night to Whitehall, on a barge lit with torches. Her coffin was taken to Westminster Abbey on 23 April, watched by Londoners who lined the streets to say their farewells and mourn their dead queen. The crown passed to a foreigner – James VI, King of Scots. He was male, Protestant and the father of two healthy sons. The dazzling Tudor age was at an end.

In 1606, James commissioned a large monument for Elizabeth and her half-sister Mary, in the north aisle of Westminster’s Henry VII’s Chapel. The childless daughters of Henry VIII lie together, in one grave, although it is only Elizabeth’s recumbent effigy that rests upon the tomb. This was made by sculptor Maximilian Colt and painted by John de Critz. The railing around the monument, decorated with the Tudor emblems of portcullis, fleurs-de-lys and roses, also bears witness to the other half of Elizabeth’s inheritance: the falcon badge of her executed mother, Anne Boleyn.


Tudor rule ended in 1603 but it would not be long before Englishmen looked back with nostalgia to the days of ‘Good Queen Bess’. Elizabeth had recognised that a monarch should rule by popular consent and the love of the people. Cecil said, ‘She was the wisest woman that ever was … so perfect in the knowledge of her own realm.’ Her queenship was founded on wise council and she worked in harmony with Parliament. It was a good strategy that her Stuart successors failed to follow. A contempt for Parliament and public opinion would lead to disaster in the reign of Charles I, who followed his grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots, to the block. In the 1650s Godfrey Goodman wrote of Elizabeth, ‘After a few years, when we had experience of the Scottish government, the Queen did seem to revive; then was her memory much magnified.’

The Tudors were adept at handling propaganda, and none more so than Elizabeth I. So effective was the promotion of her image that, over the centuries, she has come to symbolise the national character, the beginnings of the English Church, the navy and the empire. Her England was virtually alone in late sixteenth-century Europe in averting religious war and it was headed for expansion.

Many factors contributed to Elizabeth’s success, not only as a great English monarch but also as one of the greatest Britons in history. These include her intelligence and grasp of public relations, along with her ability to choose trusted advisors and to listen to them. Her father, Henry VIII, had destroyed his two most able ministers, but Elizabeth kept her best men. William Cecil, his son Robert and Francis Walsingham were among a number of shrewd, talented individuals who devoted all their energies to the Elizabethan regime. They preserved the Queen’s life and her forty-five-year reign provided stability, allowing for the flourishing of English literature, led by Shakespeare, and the seafaring prowess of adventurers likes Drake and Raleigh.

The Elizabethans also witnessed the beginning of imperialism and the rise of the English language. The Queen’s moderate stance shaped the Church of England and the defeat of the Spanish Armada is regarded as one of the most significant military victories in English history. Although Elizabeth followed a largely defensive foreign policy, her reign raised England’s status abroad, building a new self-confidence and sense of sovereignty.

Historians have generally not been critical of Elizabeth, but it has been suggested that her habit of procrastination avoided problems rather than solving them. In foreign policy she was perhaps too cautious, giving very limited aid to foreign Protestants and failing to provide her commanders with the funds they needed. But the most serious criticism of Elizabeth is the uncertainty she caused by failing to provide for the succession or name an heir. Due to the religious divisions in the country, there was a real chance of civil war if she died suddenly.

Towards the end of her reign, economic problems certainly weakened her popularity but Elizabeth would always be remembered as a charismatic performer in the theatre of her court and a determined survivor in an age of violent religious turmoil. A long reign is an achievement in itself and a good way to ensure a lasting reputation.

Elizabeth I was a woman who achieved greatness in spite of her gender and she has been viewed as a role model for leaders of either sex. In government, she was more moderate than her father and siblings and far more lenient to transgressors. Elizabeth had been on the receiving end of royal power herself, in her sister’s reign, and she didn’t sign death warrants lightly.

She may have acquired royal status by accident of birth but she kept the crown through an array of personal skills which included being a great orator and possessing charisma. This queen may have lacked the prodigy of the Stuarts, but she occupies a starring role in her nation’s story. By the time she died, she had reigned longer than any monarch in 200 years. An entire era of history belongs to Elizabeth.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!