December 12: Smallpox and Elizabeth I
Thank you to author and historian Mickey Mayhew for today's Advent Calendar treat. It's an extract from his forthcoming book House of Tudor: A Grisly History, which is available for pre-order from THIS LINK
Smallpox: the scarring of the queen’s complexion
As she grew older, Elizabeth is known to have used beeswax as a lotion and egg whites almost as a primer, to ensure that her elaborate make-up did not crack or fade. Sometimes, veins were traced out upon the forehead or neck in order to further imply the illusion of a healthy, vibrant complexion. For those unable – or indeed unwilling – to resort to some of the more extreme measures required in order to emulate that perfect alabaster complexion, there was always recourse to washing one’s face either with a serving of cheap wine or even in a generous helping of their own urine. Another method involved a modest amount of bloodletting in order to literally drain the skin to the required pallor. Elizabethan beauty standards required an emphasis on the eyes that led to overt eyebrow plucking. Many of the surviving portraits of the queen attest to this enthusiastic application of the tweezers, as they do to Elizabeth’s somewhat elevated forehead. A high forehead was a sign of elegant stateliness, and several waves of hair might also fall prey to the tweezers in order to achieve this particular aesthetic ideal. Likewise, blushed or heavily rouged cheeks were seen as the ideal accompaniment to the overly pale complexion, achieved either through the use of dye or simply by pinching the flesh until it reddened under the resultant epidermal distress. Pale lips were remedied by using a variety of means, including egg whites and cochineal. Belladonna drops were sometimes used in order to make dull, tired eyes sparkle and making the pupils dilate; the chemicals in the plant served to block the receptors that make the pupils contract. However, it also has the adverse effect of causing visual distortions and occasionally even blindness among users.
Gruesome but not gratuitous, this decidedly darker take on the Tudors, from 1485 to 1603, covers some forty-five ‘events’ from the Tudor reign, taking in everything from the death of Richard III to the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and a whole host of horrors in between. Particular attention is paid to the various gruesome ways in which the Tudors despatched their various villains and lawbreakers, from simple beheadings, to burnings and of course the dreaded hanging, drawing and quartering. Other chapters cover the various diseases prevalent during Tudor times, including the dreaded ‘Sweating Sickness’ – rather topical at the moment, unfortunately – as well as the cures for these sicknesses, some of which were considered worse than the actual disease itself. The day-to-day living conditions of the general populace are also examined, as well as various social taboos and the punishments that accompanied them, i.e. the stocks, as well as punishment by exile. Tudor England was not a nice place to live by 21st century standards, but the book will also serve to explain how it was still nevertheless a familiar home to our ancestors.
Lifelong Londoner Mickey Mayhew recently completed his PhD on the cult surrounding 'tragic queens' Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots. In that time, he was also co-author on three books relating to Jack the Ripper, published by The History Press. His first non-fiction work, The Little Book of Mary Queen of Scots, was also published by The History Press in January 2015; I Love the Tudors, by Pitkin Publishing, arrived in 2016. He has a column in the journal of The Whitechapel Society, having previously been a film and theatre reviewer for various London lifestyle magazines. Through 2018/2019, he was an assistant researcher on several projects for London South Bank University.