October 10 – Elizabeth I gets smallpox

Oct10,2022 #Elizabeth I

On this day in Tudor history, 10th October 1562, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, came down with smallpox.

The twenty-nine-year-old queen was taken ill at Hampton Court Palace, with what was thought to be a bad cold. However, it soon became clear that Elizabeth I had smallpox.

Elizabeth became very ill, and it was thought she’d die at one point. Panic over who would succeed her ensued and Elizabeth chose Robert Dudley as “protector of the kingdom”. Fortunately, Elizabeth survived and went on to reign until her death in March 1603.

Find out more about what happened when Elizabeth I became ill with smallpox, and how she would have been treated…

Elizabeth was nursed by her good friend, Mary Sidney, who also came down with smallpox and was badly disfigured by it. Find out more in my video on Mary at https://youtu.be/OkBlboV2G8o


On this day in Tudor history, 10th October 1562, twenty-nine-year-old Queen Elizabeth I was taken ill at Hampton Court Palace, with what was thought to be a bad cold. However, the cold developed into a violent fever, and it became clear that the young queen actually had smallpox.

The Spanish ambassador recorded Elizabeth’s illness in his dispatches, writing on 16th October:
“The Queen has been ill of fever at Kingston, and the malady has now turned to small-pox. The eruption cannot come out and she is in great danger. Cecil was hastily summoned from London at midnight. If the Queen die it will be very soon, within a few days at latest, and now all the talk is who is to be her successor. Lord Robert has a large armed force under his control, and will probably pronounce for his brother-in-law, the earl of Huntingdon.”

Then, on 17th October:
“The Queen is now better as the eruption has appeared. Last night the palace people were all mourning for her as if she were already dead. The Council were all present, and it seems they agreed amongst themselves, or tried to do so, but what it was I cannot discover. At one time I thought the illness was a feint in order to find out the temper of people, but I am now convinced it was genuine. She was all but gone. I think what they settled was to exclude the queen of Scots.”

On 25th October, Elizabeth was well on the road to recovery, with the ambassador recording that she was “now out of bed and is only attending to the marks on her face to avoid disfigurement.”

In a dispatch to Philip of Spain, the same ambassador gave a few more details, writing:
“The Queen was at Hampton Court on the 10th instant, and feeling unwell thought she would like a bath. The illness turned out to be small-pox, and the cold caught by leaving her bath for the air resulted in so violent a fever that on the seventh day she was given up, but during that night the eruption came out and she is now better.”

He went on to explain that when the queen recovered from being unconscious and speechless for two hours, “the first thing she said was to beg her Council to make Lord Robert protector of the kingdom with a title and an income of 20,000 pounds. Everything she asked was promised, but will not be fulfilled.” He was made a privy councillor though.

Elizabeth was incredibly lucky. Although there were fears for her life, once the sores erupted she started down the road to recovery. She was also lucky not to be disfigured by the disease, although she did apparently have some scarring. Robert Dudley’s sister, Lady Mary Sidney, who nursed the queen through her illness caught the disease and was terribly disfigured by the disease. I’ll give you a link to my video on Mary Sidney – https://youtu.be/OkBlboV2G8o

How would the queen have been treated for smallpox? Well, in his book, “Pustules, Pestilence and Pain”, which looks at the treatments and ailments of Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, Seamus O’Caellaigh describes different treatments for smallpox which he found in a book by Tudor physician William Bullein. A barley water drink was used to help temper the fever; barley mixed with poppy and wild lettuce was used to help the person sleep; a sulphur-based oil was used on the spots, and a sulphur-based ointment was applied to the scabs that formed.
I’ve also read that the colour red was thought to be helpful in treating smallpox sufferers. Quite a few books state that Elizabeth I was wrapped in a red blanket, although I haven’t found the primary source for it. It’s just so sad that Elizabeth’s faithful lady suffered as a result of nursing her queen.

Thankfully, Smallpox was officially declared globally eradicated by the World Heath Organisation on 8th May 1980 following worldwide vaccination programmes.

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