24 March 1603 – The death of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen

On this day in history, 24th March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, died at Richmond Palace at the age of sixty-nine. She was the third of Henry’s children to be monarch but reigned for far longer than her siblings, ruling for 44 years and 127 days.

Diarist John Manningham recorded the moment of her 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.”

You can click here to read a primary source account of her final days and you can click here to read more about her life and reign.

Elizabeth I has gone down in history as the Virgin Queen, Gloriana and Good Queen Bess, ruler of a Golden Age, but what do you think of her? Do share your views in comments below.

Picture: The Plimpton Sieve portrait of Elizabeth I, possibly by George Gower.

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4 thoughts on “24 March 1603 – The death of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen”
  1. The cult of Elizabeth has portrayed her as a mythical figure; Elizabeth was certainly not a saint or an angel sent from heaven, but what fascinates me about her is how elusive she is. Elizabeth was highly intelligent, well-educated and witty. When you read her speeches, her poetry and her recorded remarks, you are amazed at her turn of phrase, her intellect and her sharp wit. Elizabeth’s accession was highly unlikely. First, she was a woman in an age that remained ambivalent to the thought of female rule. Secondly, she had been declared a bastard when Henry VIII annulled his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Thirdly, it looked likely that her brother Edward VI would marry and produce children of his own. And if he did not, then surely her sister Mary would produce an heir.

    Elizabeth was much-loved by her subjects, especially at her accession, because she had the common touch. Like her father, she was very much a people person. She loved conversation, social pastimes, she enjoyed studying but she was not someone who preferred books to people. Elizabeth had a wide range of interests; she was very much an intellectual and spoke several languages, enjoyed reading, philosophy, history, the classics and she was also interested in the arts. She was very much a Renaissance queen.

    How successful Elizabeth was as a ruler is debatable. She was extremely indecisive and often hesitated before committing herself to policies, for example her decision to execute Mary Queen of Scots did not occur overnight, she agonised long and hard over it. In this sense she was less ruthless than her father. The Pope admitted that Elizabeth was widely feared, and there is no doubt that England held its own on the world stage during her reign.

    It is often said that Elizabeth decided at an early age that she would never marry, but that is open to question. As Ilona Bell shows in her beautifully written study of Elizabeth, the queen actually was open to offers of marriage and seems in particular to have seriously considered marrying Francois of Anjou. Whether she romantically loved Robert Dudley or not is a mystery, but there is no doubt that she thought highly of him. I believe that Elizabeth did consider marriage on several occasions, and ultimately her reasons for remaining single are a mystery. Whether her mother’s fate influenced her decision is unknown, but it is also possible that Elizabeth considered the experiences of other female monarchs – her sister and Mary Queen of Scots, to name but two – who had married; neither of their lives had been easy. Perhaps Elizabeth decided that it was less of a risk to marry.

    Much about Elizabeth remains unknown; the true nature of her religious views, her beliefs about Anne Boleyn, the nature of her relationship with Dudley, for example. Irrespective of whether she is viewed as Good Queen Bess or not, there is no doubt that Elizabeth was a highly effective queen, a skilled politician, a Renaissance ruler who brought prestige to England. She deserves to be celebrated and remembered even today. RIP Elizabeth.

  2. I too am a big fan of Elizabeth and I certainly agree that she was no saint. I don’t find her reasons not to marry so mysterious. As you stated she was an intellectual woman in a time when women were thought not capable of holding such high positions. I think she was quite aware of that and did not want to lose her position and power as queen regnant. Since her sister Mary had all ready been in this position she may not have had to give it up but I don’t think she wanted to take the chance of being subservient to anyone.

  3. Elizabeth, the fascinating daughter of a fascinating woman, and an equally fascinating father, only Henry V111 and Anne Boleyn could produce such a daughter as she, it’s true what Conor says, the cult of Elizabeth did portray her as a divine being, there is a painting produced during her reign which shows three goddesses of ancient mythology being overwhelmed by the presence of this auguste majesty, she personified to her people a monarch who was all powerful all omnipotent which was something her father had also done, she represented a pure mystical image like the Virgin Mary which was how she liked to present herself, yet she was all too human, she was known throughout the world as a strong ruler indeed as a young woman during her sisters reign, she was described as greatly to be feared, she had a spirit full of incantation, those who met her were in awe of her, her Protestant subjects adored her yet her Catholic ones disliked her and never acknowledged her as their queen, their true queen they said was Mary of Scots, known for being highly intelligent with a gift for repartee, she could hold her own in a serious conversation with many academics yet could also flirt like a coy sixteen year old, a trait she inherited from her mother, she could be smiling and genial one minute, then suddenly explode into terrifying outbursts of temper the next reminiscent of her father, the ladies of her household who served her found her a difficult mistress, easily irritated she did not hesitate to slap them across the face or throw a hairbrush at them, if she so chose, she jealousy guarded their reputations like an abbess at the monastery and disliked them marrying, though she resolved herself never to marry she never wanted her women to either, maybe a certain envy caught at her heartstrings at their matrimonial bliss, though as Conor states she did toy with the idea of marrying and was said to be a little in love with the Duke of Anjou, I doubt wether she actually took it seriously enough, as a young child after being told of her fifth stepmothers execution, she had declared she would never marry, what you feel as a child and later as an adult is different however but, after witnessing her sisters misery over her husband Philip who left her time and again, and how unpopular with her subjects he was, and her cousin Mary of Scots disastrous two marriages, and how they had brought her to the brink of ruin, maybe she thought she felt safer just to rule alone in her virgin state, though wether she actually was a virgin is open to debate, well aware of her councils pressuring her to choose a bridegroom she reminded them time and again of her fathers Spanish marriage which caused him years of frustration trying to extricate himself from, she reminded them of Marys husband who could well have brought the inquisition to their shores they would not like it if she chose such a bridegroom who interfered with Englands policy she said, some historians have suggested she never married because she was in love with the one man she could not have, the Earl of Leicester, son of the convicted traitor Dudley he was not liked amongst his contemporaries, favoured by Elizabeth who would openly flirt with him and showered him with favour’s, she had her apartments next to his wherever the court travelled, he aroused feelings of envy and suspicion amongst the queens other favourites, her minister Cecil both mistrusted and disliked him, maybe fearing the day when she told him she was going to marry him, but it never happened, his wife’s mysterious death one sunny September day in 1560 effectively stopped any wedding bells forever, had he murdured her so he could marry the queen was on every persons lips up and down the kingdom, it was also leaked abroad and Elizabeth, who prided herself on her reputation found herself right in the centre of a scandal which as today’s headlines would put it a sex scandal, memories of her mother must have surfaced, known throughout Europe for being the most notorious woman in Christendom as Katherine of Aragon had said, would have frayed on her nerves, she could not let anyone say that about her, she would not risk her kingdom for any man, she would wait till the inquest was over and the rumours died down, Leicester was sent from court and the inquest ruled accidental death, today they might have said the same, but although Leicester was cleared of any wrong people were suspicious and many thought him culpable, for the queen to marry him now would have been political suicide, so she never did and the rumours died down but they never completely went away, as we say today, today’s news, tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, Leicester eventually fell in love with and married her cousin Lettice Knolly’s an action which barred her from court during the queens lifetime, though loving her mother devotedly she loathed Lettice for taking her lover from her and she never allowed her to forget it, she kept Leicester at court whilst his wife languished in her country residence, she forgave him because she loved him but she never forgave her rival and when he died after the defeat of the Armada she was distraught, she then had another favourite, Lettice’s son Robert Devereux the handsome young Earl of Essex who ended up on Tower Hill one day after foolishly leading a rebellion against her, she had pampered him like a foolish old woman with a young boy, given him command of her armies during the trouble is Ireland but he had disobeyed her orders, he was petulant and spoiled and died as a traitor, he reminds me of the young Earl of Surrey who was beheaded years before, Elizabeth was more lucky in her political life than her love affairs, she triumphed over Spain and yet her execution of the queen of Scots caused outrage in the Catholic world and amongst her Catholic subjects, her incarceration of Mary has been seen as blight on her rein, she did not like executing anyone and since she had become ruler of England Tower Hill had seen no beheadings, much much more merciful than her father and sister, possibly due to her tormented mothers shade she disliked spilling blood, the first to die on Tower Hill was her cousin the Duke of Norfolk, for conspiring to marry the imprisoned Scottish queen, her councillors bayed for Mary’s blood also but she would not give it, ever wary of her delicate position on a throne which her father had intended should be for sons she disliked the very idea of executing a crowned queen, to do so would debase monarchy, it also meant that if Mary could be toppled that easy so could she, there was rebellion amongst her Catholic subjects and an assassination bullet could easily find its way to her many palaces, it was also something she knew could cause war with France and Spain, Mary had been queen of France and she wanted no enmity with that country, when told of her death one day whilst out hunting she swooned and wept for many hours after, saying she had not intended the warrant to be used, her council had tricked her she said, I think her grief lay more in the fear of retribution from France and Spain than any real sorrow for the death of a cousin she had never met, the execution of Mary gave Spain the excuse it wanted to send the armada to Protestant England and get rid of the bastard queen for good, for many years her pirates had been troubling Spain and whilst Elizabeth had condemned their actions publicly it was rumoured the gold they had seized went into her coffers, she had even knighted Drake, after the victory with Spain which mostly the weather had contributed to, a medal with struck with her image and a painting was made in her honour, this wonderful painting which shows Elizabeth standing on the map of England and Europe dressed in white and gold hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, I have seen it myself and it a huge piece of work and very beautiful, as we know the last years of her reign were lonely for Elizabeth, she was thought of as a god like being who would never die but beneath the false wigs and heavy white make up, scarlet rouge and elaborate gowns dripping with jewels she was just an old woman, becoming more and more depressed by affairs at home and abroad, there was still enmity with Spain, the Earl of Essex’s death depressed her more and she acted quite bizarre, according to one source she received a foreign ambassador in her presence chamber with a gown so low cut her breasts could be seen and with horror he recalled her wrinkly naked flesh, perhaps she came to believe in her own immortality and thought she looked as she did in her youth when she had danced all night and had men falling over to marry her, she was a legend in her lifetime and in the centuries since her death that legend had never abated, it was called the golden age in which science and the arts flourished, it was the age of Shakespeare and Marlow, she had achieved what was considered at the time something well near impossible, ruled a kingdom successfully, as she lay on her cushions piled high on the floor it was said she put her thumb in her mouth and stared for hours in front of her, was she seeing the faces of loved ones and comforting herself with the thought she would soon be with them, she knew she was dying and would eat nor drink nothing, appetite does go in those near death and she was maybe drifting in and out of sleep, it could be she had developed pneumonia an affliction of the elderly and which causes the person to drift away silently, as her death was later described, she is said to have uttered the words ‘ I am tired and the case is altered with me’, her death caused much sorrow throughout the land and the effigy on her funeral cortège as it passed along the streets to Westminster was said to be so lifelike grown men wept, it was the end of an era, RIP Queen Elizabeth 1st, daughter of King Henry V111 and Queen Anne Boleyn.

  4. While I don’t believe the myth of Elizabeth I, there is still much to admire about her as a woman and Queen. Whether or not she was the greatest Queen or Monarch of England is purely subjective and open to debate and interpretation. Greatest Queen, compared to who? To be fair there haven’t been that many of them and the ones who followed her had their authority limited by Parliament and by agreement of the various Acts of Settlement and the Bill of Rights. The two Queens before her have had their reputations unfairly sullied by propaganda and only had short reigns so they can’t reasonably be compared like for like. Jane Grey was only on the throne for thirteen days and Mary for less than six years and was attacked by later propaganda. Elizabeth on the other hand was twenty-five when she became Queen and had a lengthy reign of almost 45 years, which is ample time to set down your own legacy and destroy your predecessor. It is also time to establish an image and a myth as well as to ensure your achievements, rather than failings are remembered by posterity.

    The highlights of Elizabeth included her reaching the crown without too much fuss, an achievement she owed to Mary and her own success in upholding the dignity of the monarchy and it’s new identity as both neutral in terms of gender and that a woman can rule and rule well. Elizabeth learned far more from Mary than is usually accepted and put much into practice. She was well loved for much of her reign although the last decade brought much disaster, such as several famines, failed harvest and her wars were expensive. Like any leader who has been around too long, there are signs of waning popular appeal. However, she was still well mourned at her funeral progress. Her reign saw a blossoming of popular culture and the greatest writer of history had the good fortune to be born in 1564, William Shakespeare. (May I for the record also say I believe Shakespeare was the lad from Stratford on Avon and not one of the often promoted alternatives, Oxford, Stanley or Neville). Theatre had always had an appeal but now it explored like never before and enjoyed royal patronage outside of the court and country house by the rich and poor alike. We have the famous events of Elizabeth I’s reign of course, including the outstanding defeat of the Spanish Armarda, although the weather had as much to do with this as the navy, the first ventures into the New World for several years and of course that Elizabeth negotiated a political minefield by remaining single. However, she is also held responsible by history for ruthless persecution of her Catholic subjects and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Both of these are controversial and they are hot topics, but they also have to be examined against a background of paranoia and plots and Spanish double talk. Most people were merely trying to get on with life and follow the faith of 1500 years of English Catholicism, the faith of their parents and grandparents and those who died for bringing help to those who wanted to do so were and are considered martyrs, just as Protestant martyrs are considered so from under Mary. There were those who took a more extreme view and following the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, became involved in plots, real and imagined to kill Elizabeth. This of course, didn’t do the cause much good. Elizabeth was also excommunicated, although the Bull does not order her death. It released people from their allegiance and the entire Catholic population was subjected to fines, imprisonment, firced conformity and execution or exile if they didn’t do as they were told. Puritans also faced a hard time and they too sought alternatives. It was a time of mistrust on both sides and it put a shadow over what some historians still call a Golden Age.

    Elizabeth is also remarkable as a woman and a Queen because she ruled alone, but this would not have been admired in her own time. Her Council and Parliament were always at Elizabeth to marry, and, there is of course evidence that she did consider some of the many offers which came her way. However, there are many reasons which could explain her reluctance to marry, her childhood experience, the wonderful example of beautiful matrimonial bliss shown by her father (not), the allegations of grooming in the household of her stepmother, Katherine Parr, which may not even be true, falling for the wrong man, who was totally unsuitable, in Robert Dudley, the fact that two other Queens didn’t marry good husbands, the many views presented to her by opposition from her Council, the changing political and religious landscapes and her own desire to be ruled by no man. Any Lord or Prince who married Elizabeth would, as custom dictated and because of her sex, diminish her authority as a female King. Elizabeth could not accept this and at some point chose not to marry. The downside of this was that it left the succession very open. There were legitimate claims from abroad, from Spain, from Mary, Queen of Scots, plus many at home. Katherine Grey was considered the true heir by many Protestants and later, Margaret and then, Anne Stanley. Elizabeth viewed James in a more favourable light but didn’t name him until she lay dying and he courted political support from Robert Cecil and others to help him gain the right as he saw it. By the time Elizabeth died, most other candidates had either died or stepped aside and nobody else came seriously forward. The only serious claimant who had been a rival and a threat had been the tragic, executed, Mary, Queen of Scots.

    Elizabeth left a legacy in art, through her many grand portraits, music, the popular myth of her image and polemical propaganda, the popular culture of Shakespeare and Marlow and others, the iconic grand house, dress and she is a filmmakers dream. She was raised to the status of a goddess and the real Elizabeth has almost become hidden by the glorious myth. She had a clever wit and was a quick thinking talker, loved to dance, ride, hunt and dazzled all who met and saw her. She spoke and wrote in many languages and was very intelligent. She was the daughter of two of the most fascinating and enigmatic rulers in history, Henry Viii and Anne Boleyn and inherited the best of them both. Love or hate, Elizabeth I, she is an iconic figure and one who inspired many to write poetry about her.

    I probably think if she could sum herself up, that she would declare that she did it My Way. RIP Elizabeth I.

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