24 March 1603 – Death of Elizabeth I

The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England by Paul Delaroche
The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England by Paul Delaroche

On this day in history, the 24th March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, died at Richmond Palace.

Elizabeth I’s death was the end of an era in so many ways: the end of England’s Golden Age, the end of a long reign (over 44 years) and the end of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudor line died with the Virgin Queen and it was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England and who began the House of Stuart in English history.

Here is a primary source account of Elizabeth I’s last days, written by Sir Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth, son of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, and grandson of Mary Boleyn, in his memoirs:

“I took my journey about the end of the year 1602. When I came to court, I found the Queen ill disposed, and she kept her inner lodging; yet she, hearing of my arrival, sent for me. I found her in one of her withdrawing chambers, sitting low upon her cushions. She called me to her; I kissed her hand, and told her it was by chiefest happiness to see her in safety, and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, ‘No, Robin, I am not well,’ and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days; and in her discourse, she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs. I was grieved at the first to see her in this plight; for in all my lifetime before, I never knew her fetch a sigh, but when the Queen of Scots was beheaded. Then, upon my knowledge, she shed many tears and sights, manifesting her innocence, that she never gave consent to the death of that Queen.

I used the best words I could, to persuade her from this melancholy humour; but I found by her it was too deep-rooted in her heart, and hardly to be removed. This was upon a Saturday night, and she gave command, that the great closet should be prepared for her to go to chapel the next morning. The next day, all things being in readiness, we long expected her coming. After eleven o’clock, one of the grooms came out, and bade make ready for the private closet; she would not go to the great. There we stayed long for her coming, but at the last she had cushions laid for her in the privy chamber hard by the closet door, and there she heard service. From that day forwards, she grew worse and worse. She remained upon her cushions four days and nights at the least. All about her could not persuade her, either to take any sustenance, or go to bed. The Queen grew worse and worse, because she would be so, none about her being able to persuade her to go to bed. My Lord Admiral was sent for, (who, by reason of my sister’s death, that was his wife, had absented himself some fortnight from court;) what by fair means, what by force, he got her to bed. There was no hope of her recovery, because she refused all remedies.

On Wednesday, the 23d of March, she grew speechless. That afternoon, by signs, she called for her council, and by putting her hand to her head, when the king so Scots was named to succeed her, they all knew he was the man she desired should reign after her. About six at night she made signs for Archbishop Whitgift and her chaplains to come to her, at which time I went in with them, and sat upon my knees full of tears to see that heavy sight. Her Majesty lay upon her back, with one hand in the bed, and the other without. The bishop kneeled down by her, and examined her first of her faith; and she so punctually answered all his several questions, by lifting up her eyes, and holding up her hand, as it was a comfort to all the beholders. Then the good man told her plainly what she was, and what she was to come to; and though she had been long a great Queen here upon earth, yet shortly she was to yield an account of her stewardship to the King of kings. After this he began to pray, and all that were by did answer him. After he had continued long in prayer, till the old man’s knees were weary, he blessed her, and meant to rise and leave her. The Queen made a sign with her hand. My sister Scroop knowing her meaning, told the bishop the Queen desired he would pray still. He did so for a long half hour more, with earnest cries to God for her soul’s health, which he uttered with that fervency of spirit, as the Queen, to all our sight, much rejoiced thereat, and gave testimony to us all of her Christian and comfortable end. By this time it grew late, and every one departed, all but her women that attended her.

This that I heard with my ears, and did see with my eyes, I thought it my duty to set down, and to affirm it for a truth, upon the faith of a Christian; because I know there have been many false lies reported of the end and death of that good lady.”

After Carey had left, Elizabeth slipped into a deep sleep and died peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of the 24th March. Diarist John Manningham recorded her actual death:-

“This morning, about three o’clock her Majesty departed from this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree… Dr Parry told me he was present, and sent his prayers before her soul; and I doubt not but she is amongst the royal saints in heaven in eternal joys.”

RIP Queen Elizabeth I.

Now, I could carry on being sad and morbid, but as I was reading the moving accounts of Elizabeth I’s death, I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate her life, rather than just focus on her death. She was an incredible woman and there are many people around the world who admire her, but why?

For me, I must admit, that part of the attraction is that she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and as I read more about Elizabeth I see glimpses of her mother in her. As I read her letters and speeches I am blown away by her way with words, her wit, her intelligence and her skills of diplomacy. When I look at the events of her life and reign, I am overawed by the challenges she faced and how she overcame them. When I consider the status of women in Tudor times, I am amazed by Elizabeth’s achievements, and when I read the words of her friends and advisers I am struck by the respect and love they had for a woman who could be incredibly spiteful at times. She was a formidable woman and queen and deserves to be remembered as such.

Originally posted on The Elizabeth Files.

Notes and Sources

  • Sir Robert Carey’s Memoirs, edited by John Boyle, 5th Earl of Cork, in 1759, and by Sir Walter Scott in 1808, quoted on Elfinspell.com

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31 thoughts on “24 March 1603 – Death of Elizabeth I”
  1. So Claire, why don’t you make research on her, Elizabeth I, as you did for our beloved Anne Boleyn? On what you just said about her life, her speeches, her letters, the similitarities with her mother: what a wonderful world of research that would be!
    Thank you, thank, thank you in advance.
    Mariella, from Italy

    1. Hi Mariella,
      I used to research Elizabeth too, hence The Elizabeth Files, but I found that I just didn’t have time to research and write about both women and run two blogs. I wouldn’t be doing either of them justice if I divided my time between the two. I do love and respect Elizabeth though. Thanks!

  2. Love everything about the Queens and Kings of England. Only had a brief time in London for 2 days and want to get back to visit Hampton Court and other museums of these great rulers. I did get a chance to visit and tour Westminster Abbey and see the graves and hear the history of this abbey. Did get to the Towers and saw the jewels and where Anne Boleyn was beheaded and see her cottage that Henry VIII built for her. Took a bus tour around London and had lunch at a restaurant in Trafalgar Square. Now I want to get back to London and visit Lady Di’s resting place, the Maritime museum where Admiral Nelson’s uniform is displayed. Would love to see the paintings that George V bought from Canaletto paintings hang in Buckingham Palace – although I don’t think they open this area to the public. I want to ride the Eye. My son just visited London for a meeting and he loved the city. He lives in Germany so he can go for a long weekend with his family. I am encouraging this. Oh I wanted to tell you I just purchased 2 books – by Hilary Mantel – Bringing up the Bodies and Wolff Hall. Thank you for this opportunity.

  3. Dear Claire, this is the first time I write a comment here, even though I’ve been a reader of your blog for some time now. Thank you for this, I wholeheartedly agree we should remember Elizabeth for the woman she was in life, not for the time and moments of her death. She definitely was Henry and Anne’s daughter and it is indeed incredible how she gained the love and respect of her subjects and the respect of the world even when she was a woman (for those days) and also a heretic and a bastard to some eyes (she is no such thing to me, never was and never will be). I truly admire her way with people and the fact that she overcame so many obstacles until she got what was her by birthright, the chance to rule, and for me, out of all the Tudors, she was the best, followed closely by her sister and grandfather.

  4. I agree, Claire, remember her death but celebrate her life.

    I’ve been reading about Elizabeth since my teens, from historical romance to in depth studies of her life and reign, yet it never struck me that she died just after the anniversary of the First Act of Succession and the Declaration of the Validity of her parent’s marriage by Parliament. How extraordinary!

  5. Dear Claire I also love and admire Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth. I too believe she definately inherited much from both her parents. From Anne her determination and single mindedness from both of them something of some firey temper and her love of the arts and sport and from her father the ability to win the love of the common people whilst also winning the love of many of the gentry. Also I think she inherited from Anne her flirtatiousness and make herself desirable to men. I admire Elizabeth and her mother very much I have a keen interest in the whole Tudor period and find your website very informative and interesting.

  6. To this day, Queen Elizabeth I has always fascinated me growing up.
    I first saw Glenda Jackson play her on a PBS Telly Soecial& in movie Mary Queen of Scots. After seeing these programs, my Auntie bought me books on her and the Tudor history. Who knew? That as an adult I grew up wanting to be a Historian of Tudor History.
    In 1993., I graduated with a BA in Tudor History. Even though some of my books are over30 yrs ago! I still reread them, ElizabethI still fascinates!

  7. What a sad, sad day for Elizabeth’s people, country, friends and relatives!!! And how things must have changed greatly with the new Kings reign. I have several books about Elizabeth. She was, without doubt , as intriguing and inspiring as her mother.

  8. I have no great love for Elizabeth I for many reasons whicn remain personal but I do admire her. I am always moved by the stories around her death, and feel great pity for her when she began to refuse food and drink, almost as if her body and mind are giving up and preparing for death and welcomed it. I also feel a bit sorry for her ladies, trying to make her comfortable and at one point she stood in the middle of the room for hours and refused to lie down, sit down, or move. They must have despaired for her mind as well as her declining health. At last they managed to get her to lie down on cousins and rugs and prop her up in the chambers, which were obviously warmed with the fires and things, but they must have still wanted her to get into bed where they could attend her more comfortably. However, I can well understand her not wanting to go to bed; personally I do not want to die in bed either and have a faourite spot in the house I would want to be made comfortalbe in during my last days. May-be this was her favourite place; perhaps she thought she was immortal and death would depart from her, may-be like a lot of old people she just wanted everyone to stop fussing and to be left in peace. I can also understand her not wanting to take any remedies, as they were most likely making her worse in any event or doing her no good. Taking no food worries me a little as my mother in law has not been eating properly for days and says that she has. She is so thin now that we have to get intervention to assist us to get her to eat; it is heartbreaking and she is just fading away. Elizabeth sounds the same. She sounds as if she will not accept food as the end has come ands she just wants to fade out peacefully, but as anyone knows not eating causes its own medical problems and that statvation is a terrible way to die. I am not saying my mother is doing this, we are getting her to eat a little now but I can imagine what the ladies around Elizabeth must have gone through as she gave up eating all of the time. Even when she took a little she turned her face to the wall and gave up. But then there is a school of thought that says we know when the end is and come to a point in our lives when we accept and prepare for death and nothing can stop that process. It is sad for our loved ones but there is a terrible thing to see and although Elizabeth may have been in peace inside, she could not have been free from fear or from pain. I find her last days very sad and upsetting, even though as a person I do not agree with many of the things she did to my Catholic brothers and sisters, but I would not wish this sort of lingering and sad death on anyone.

    May God have mercy on her soul. Amen.

    1. I can appreciate Catholics do not admire Elizabeth I, but what did she do to you that was personal? That makes no sense. This is like me thinking Mary I insulted me because she burnt Protestants but that is not the case. Just please clarify banditqueen.

      1. I don’t believe anyone should have to justify their opinion of any historical person and therefore your request is refused.

        I believe the comment I have made is actually quite sympathetic if you actually bothered to read it, beyond the first few words.

        A lot of people have mixed feelings about historical people, it is not always something we can explain, especially when studying them. However, I believe you will find that unlike many of the comments which often appear on these sites, as a historian I use the original sources and attempt to keep focus. Her death was a very difficult one and I feel a great deal of sympathy for her.

  9. Claire, thanks so much for this excellent post. My knowledge of Anne Boleyn has increased tremendously due to your blog, and as a result I’ve also been inspired to learn more about Elizabeth’s amazing life and successful reign. I think the best qualities of Henry and Anne appeared in their daughter Elizabeth, truly the greatest English Queen.

  10. Excellent article. I believe it was a great comfort to the Queen to have had her great-grandnephew in attendance close to her time of death. Surely his account has his respect and warmth of feeling embroidered all throughout the words. Lovely.

  11. Even as historians we have people we don’t particularly like from history, because we know enough about them from sources and I think it is reasonable for anyone to have negative or positive opinions depending on how you interpret those sources. I don’t particularly like Elizabeth because I find more negative things in her character and actions than positive. I do, however, still try to be as balanced as possible and weigh the evidence.

    1. Yet you give Mary I a free pass for everything she did to Protestants. Kind of hypocritical in my opinion. Had Elizabeth been Catholic and Mary Protestant I doubt you would feel the same way.

    2. Read about the deaths Mary’s victims suffered. Quit defending her, and quit honoring her as ‘mother of Christ, OUr Lady of Lourdes, our lady of Guadalupe.’

      1. I have studied the works on the Protestant and Catholic martyrs which is probably more than you or your friends have done and unlike Angry Protestant I don’t feel the need to take history personally. Nobody can ever condemn the way people treated each other on political or religious grounds 400 or 500 years ago but it was over 400 years ago and we have moved on. It is, however, important to understand the background to such things, that there was more to the person responsible and that they were not the only ones who enacted ruthless policies. There are actually a lot of differences in the way heresy was prosecuted to treason or alleged treason and the monarchy was more personally involved. I would likewise recommend to you the work by Bishop Chandellor on the martyrs under Henry Viii and Elizabeth and Eamon Duffy on the reign of Mary. I would further recommend the works by Linda Porter, Anna Whitelock, Professor Edwards and Susan Duran on both Queens. I have studied the contemporary sources on these women for several years and am aware of the writing of John Fox and his critics in their proper light.

        I have never given Mary or Elizabeth a free pass, but kept my comments balanced and in perspective rather than much of the hysteria one gets from people who have never studied the subject and enjoy having a go at people who have and display better knowledge than themselves.

    3. Hey banditqueen i am glad Elizabeth killed Catholics. You never helped the poor protestants Mary Tudor killed.

      1. That comment was not made by me but shows how ridiculous some people are on here from time to time. Wishing anyone dead is totally uncalled for and demonstrates my own comments are totally justified.

    4. Banditqueen why do you have such double standards on Mary and Elizabeth? Because your Catholic faith renders you incapable of objectively studying history?

      1. I report history, not propaganda, and I don’t have a double standard, persecution is always unacceptable and unlike most people here you will find my posts balanced, fair, based on sources, not personal feelings, based on balanced and many years of research and stemming from years of research.

  12. Sorry, Claire, you do not have time to maintain both the ABF and EF;( What a fine article omn the “little red wench”! Thank you!

    1. The server that the Elizabeth Files website was on had a corrupted disk and there were problems with the backup too, so I ended up losing the Elizabeth Files website, unfortunately. My time is split between this blog, running the Tudor Society and doing my videos, plus my tours! Busy busy!

  13. this is one of my favorite posts yet. For Elizabeth to do what she did, as well as she did, when women were thought of as totally inferior to men is nothing short of a miracle. I’m not too keen on her handling of the Queen of Scots situation……. thinking there could have been some ‘protesting too much” on her part; as if she were in on it. That is the only big flaw, to me. All people, not just women, can learn so much from her strength and perseverance, her sharp mind, etc. I actually put one of her ” rules” into practice whenever i’m undecided about something “when in doubt, do nothing.” Just sit back and observe, see how things develop. Her hesitation may have been a psychological quirk, but i use the behavior just the same, to avoid making a hasty and regrettable decision. At any rate, this is the first time i’ve ever seen this contemporary account of QEI’s death and it’s fantastic. I am so glad to read it and thankful that you’ve provided it. What else have i missed ???

  14. Elizabeth I lived by her wits and her intellect alone. She was lucky to have her mother’s charm and innate knowledge of making herself the focus of an audience. Her acuity with finances reminds me of Henry VII, and her steadfast resolve of Margaret Beaufort.

    When it came to ordering the execution of the Queen of Scots, it was a ‘her or me’ situation, and Elizabeth I was never going to place second as long as she drew breath. Her dramatic reaction was acknowledgement that she hated that it had to happen, but happen it did.

    I so wish The Elizabeth Files website had survived its tech-glitch!

  15. Elizabeth showed much of the determination she had exhibited in life during the long and lingering days leading up to her death. She refused to move from cushions to her bed, she even chided Robert Cecil when he said she must go to bed : “Little Man, Little Man, one does not say must to Princes”. However, her death was one which was very difficult and long suffering. Elizabeth may have been more comfortable on the cushions she chose such was the pain she was in. However, she did move to her bed and turned her face to the wall and died.

    As with all great monarchs we must be as balanced as possible when assessing her life and we can only do so briefly here. Elizabeth was not the disappointment to her parents Henry Viii and Anne Boleyn as some historians claim, in fact her father was quite pragmatic about it. He was of course a little concerned that she wasn’t the much promised son, but he was fond of Elizabeth and spent time with her. He was, however, to wane in that pride as it looked increasingly unlikely that she would be joined by a brother. That initial favour changed to distance and some neglect after the execution of Anne Boleyn. Anne had been a very attentive mother, spending time with Elizabeth even during audiences, making certain she had plenty of clothes and visiting her as often as possible. There is unfortunately no contemporary evidence to support the claim that Anne wanted to feed Elizabeth herself and it would have definitely have been unusual if she had said this. Royal babies were handed to a wetnurse to feed, who had given birth themselves to healthy children and who were carefully selected.

    Henry did return to his affection for Elizabeth after his son was born and she is recorded as being often at Court especially during the Queenship of Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr. Like Mary, though, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate by Parliament but they were both restored to the succession in 1544. Elizabeth experienced a mixed bag under her half brother Edward and her half sister Mary. Surprisingly she learned much from her sister, good and bad and their relationship was not always one of enemies. Mary had shown Elizabeth a good deal of affection growing up and treated her well enough in the early part of her reign. It was the plot by Thomas Wyatt the Younger which strained that relationship. Elizabeth was suspected by members of the Council of having knowledge of his intention to remove Mary and put Elizabeth on the throne and Mary was advised to imprison her own half sister. Mary rightly took no chances and Elizabeth was confined to the Royal Apartments at the Tower of London in 1554. After Mary rallied her people against the rebels and he was defeated Wyatt did exonerate Elizabeth. She was eventually released on 19th May 1554 to house arrest and then to Hatfield. Under Edward she had been questioned several times on suspicion of supporting her stepfather Thomas Seymour in his mad conspiracy and his wish to marry her. On the other hand there is some evidence, extracted not under torture but under threat that Seymour may have tried to seduce the 14 year-old girl in an abusive way.

    Elizabeth learned to be ruthless from her father and her sister. However, she didn’t show the amount of mercy to traitors that Mary had done but she did show reluctance to sign the death warrant of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth attempted a policy of not toleration but moderation towards Catholic families who remained loyal and a middle way in religious politics. It didn’t work and probably could never have worked. A series of events brought about the inevitable laws which saw hundreds of Catholic martyrs hung drawn and quartered or dying in prison. A change in Pope meant a harder stand towards Elizabeth and her beliefs, a series of rebellions by the Northern Lords and the arrival on her doorstep of Mary Queen of Scots all contributed to the draconian laws which followed 1569. Her treatment of the Northern rebellion, resulting in 700 executions, more than her predecessors had killed in any single act of retribution caused the Pope to issue his fatal Bull of Excommunication in 1570. Her subjects were released from their allegiance and should no longer attend English services. The latter was easier said than done due to the crippling fines and imprisonment for not doing so. Martyrs had already died but now there was crack down after crackdown. It was treason to be a Catholic, hide a Catholic priest, say Catholic Mass, be reconciled to the Church or reconcile anyone to the Church, to be any kind of None Conformist or a Puritan. Catholic families tried to remain loyal but many of their younger generation were totally impatient and engaging in plots real and imagined to replace Elizabeth with Mary. More draconian measures followed and more alleged plots emerged. England became a police state.

    Now one cannot condone either the Marian or the Elizabethan persecutions but both women had so much more about them than that. Mary had been courageous yo stand up to two direct attempts to prevent her from becoming Queen and holding the crown and Elizabeth would face her own ups and downs in the same way. Mary is known for her devotion to her mother and Elizabeth also remembered her own mother and showed this in grand gestures such as mingling her arms on display with her own. Mary was fond of ceremonies and fine dress and used this to promote herself and her husband. She also ensured that Philip didn’t have control over her political power and Elizabeth was also determined men would not rule her. Mary reformed the naval finances and ensured the gender free succession to the crown was firm in its authority. Elizabeth would not have succeeded without a fuss otherwise. Elizabeth would use much of how her sister presented female power but would go much further. The use of images and portraits and showing herself brought her closer to the people.

    Elizabeth was magnificent in her dress and use of the portrait, she was a shrewd and fast politician, she was a manipulator of international and national personalities and like modern political leaders never answered a question with a straight answer. She is one of our most successful monarchs and she had a degree of greatness but I do not believe she was our greatest monarch. I don’t believe this was a golden age, because I don’t believe there is such a thing and for the lower classes it was anything but. However, it was an age of many achievements, some of which are personally down to Elizabeth, others which are coincidental but none the less remarkable. Elizabeth saw the flowering of a literary boom and theatre for the masses, she was active in being a patron, it saw advanced forms of art and architecture, the first flushing loo and expansion abroad. The Defeat of the Armada was both an achievement for the renewal of the naval institutions and building of ships and a great stroke of luck aided by tenacity and bad weather. Unfortunately, England suffered terrible loss on the several Counter Armada expeditions which followed. Elizabeth encouraged trade but so did other monarchs and she was made rich from the plunder in the New World. Fine Elizabethan houses graced the English landscape and her fashionable clothing was commented on. The early colonies began to be built in the New World and she expanded contacts begun in the reign of Mary with Russia and Islam, but her sea captains engaged in slavery. Elizabeth approved new laws against witchcraft and trials, none of which existed under Mary, but which had under Henry Viii now took off. The worst would come in Essex and later things would be even worse under the Stuarts, especially James I and the Puritan interludes. Elizabeth had an excellent grasp of languages and her international correspondence in Italian is quite remarkable. However, a series of disastrous wars in Ireland and with Spain hit the country hard financially. Elizabeth could be dangerous to cross, especially if you married without her permission or upset her during her dressing or undressing. She plunged a pair of scissors into one poor woman’s hand. Elizabeth also inspired devotion and after 45 years was deeply mourned. This wasn’t a Golden Age but it certainly was her age. She attempted to relieve the suffering of the poor and the Great Poor Law of 1601 was the pattern for poor relief for centuries. However, she had also left those hurt and infected with disease after the Armada to die in poverty so perhaps this was her penance. She had also neglected the succession but it was really a matter of formality when Robert Cecil ensued that James of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. Elizabeth was a remarkable woman and Queen but she wasn’t the perfect being of mythology.

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