You probably know what Queen Elizabeth I looks like, even if she lived nearly 500 years ago. The Virgin Queen was one of the most striking monarchs in British history, with her trademark red tresses, porcelain-like skin, and iconic crimson lips. But her carefully cultivated image hid many brutal secrets that may have even played a role in the queen's demise.
The daughter of Henry VIII and his second queen Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth nearly missed out on the throne. So when she finally found power, she made up her mind to do whatever necessary to hold onto it. That meant she had to remain beautiful at any cost in a man's world. And her iconic look was influenced by the beauty ideals held during the Renaissance.
In that era, a pale complexion, scarlet lips, sparkling eyes, and fair hair were highly desirable. But that was hard to maintain as many of the rampant diseases at that time could easily disfigure a woman. So, to retain her beauty and power, Elizabeth religiously painted thick, white makeup over her skin. But her defining look concealed some dark truths.
At just 25, Elizabeth took the throne from her half-sister Mary, becoming the second Queen of England. But that wasn't easy in a male-dominated court and an intensely patriarchal society. Unmarried Elizabeth had to be really special to succeed. Fortunately, she was young, beautiful, and could use her feminine charms to her advantage at court.
Her meticulously maintained flawless look did bring her lots of powerful suitors, and she frequently teased them but never committed to one. British historian Dr. Anna Whitelock explained to the BBC in 2015, "Elizabeth's contemporaries believed that beauty amplified female power, and so they regarded the queen's splendor as confirmation of her claim to the throne."
So, maintaining an attractive look was integral to the queen's success, especially in her later years. And the most iconic aspect of her look was her dazzling white skin, which was believed to signify girlhood and fertility and was also a symbol of class and position. To achieve such a pure white complexion, Elizabeth used Venetian ceruse, a mixture of lead and white vinegar.
Now we know lead is toxic, but people at that time weren't knowledgeable about its dangers. Elizabeth and her contemporaries would wear such a concoction on their faces for days before removing it. And this eventually left the wearers' complexion lined and discolored. Worst of all, the cleanser Elizabeth used to remove the combination contained mercury, which is also toxic.
Even more alarmingly, Elizabeth had more toxic cosmetics. The black kohl she used to line her eyes was made from powdered antimony, which can cause harmful side effects. The scarlet shade she used to paint her lips was a mixture of plant dye and beeswax. Plus, Elizabeth plucked her eyebrows into arched lines and even rouged her cheeks with animal products.
Still, there were some things Elizabeth failed to hide with her clever makeup. For example, her love of sugar led her to be plagued by black, decayed teeth. Another disturbing secret behind her beauty regime was that she contracted smallpox - the most-feared contagion in Europe at that time.
According to records, Elizabeth experienced a high fever in October 1562. Notable physician Dr. Burcot confirmed her diagnosis, but the queen refused to accept the news and reportedly even dismissed Burcot as incapable. As a result, her condition deteriorated, and this left her on the verge of breaking out in disfiguring lesions.
Then Elizabeth summoned Burcot to her bedside again. "God's pestilence," she is said to have cried, "Which is better? To have the pox in the hand or in the face or in the heart and kill the whole body?" And after a while, the ailing queen finally found out for herself. But, her health worsened during the following several days, leaving it difficult for her to even speak.
As little medical treatment was available at that time, it was feared that Elizabeth would die. Worse still, physicians regarded smallpox as the result of imbalanced humors in the body. That was the prevailing Four Humors Theory, thinking the human body was composed of yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. It gave the helpless doctors a slither of hope against the infectious disease.
Based on the hypothesis, doctors tried to redress any obvious humor imbalance to treat smallpox. In the queen's case, that meant being clad in a red cloth to take care of the scarlet lesions. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's devoted servant Lady Mary Sidney performed a constant ritual at her bedside, ready to serve her with water and tea.
Behind the scenes, the monarch's ministers began to think over the succession plans. As Elizabeth had no heirs, her Protestant supporters feared the throne of England would pass to the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Thankfully, a stroke of luck occurred: Elizabeth began to get better and finally returned to full health. But she was left permanently scarred by the deadly disease.
Lady Sidney, who had performed a lengthy vigil at Elizabeth's bedside, unfortunately also contracted smallpox. She was said to have become so disfigured that even her husband was disgusted by her appearance. He wrote in his memoirs that "I left her a full fair lady in mine eye at least the fairest, and when I returned I found her as foul a lady as the smallpox could make her."
For the queen, who had relied on her beauty to wield power in a man-dominated society, the smallpox was a disaster too. With those scars, how could she continue to retain the image she had carefully crafted over the years? Elizabeth began painting a thicker and thicker layer of Venetian ceruse on her face. When she died, her makeup was said to be an inch thick.
Elizabeth also wore this blindingly white makeup almost all the time and on any occasion. In fact, the distinctive makeup has become an integral part of every portrayal of the queen on stage and screen. No one ever caught sight of her real face except those in her inner circle, but they remained silent. So the monarch's reputation as a beauty was retained.
However, the queen's carefully cultivated look slipped on one occasion. Tired of waiting, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, barged into the royal chamber. He saw the monarch's bare face and was so disgusted that he made cruel jibes, referring to her "crooked carcass" to his friends. This incident was believed to be the motivation behind Devereux's execution in 1601.
Elizabeth then became more and more reliant on her makeup to hide her horrifically scarred face. At court, she commanded the other ladies to dress in simple black and white, so she could catch everyone's eye dressed in vibrant hues. Still, Elizabeth did do something right. For instance, she defeated the Spanish Armada. Even today, Elizabeth is celebrated as one of the greatest monarchs in British history.
Tragically, the queen's outlandish beauty routine may have contributed to her death at 69. As she aged, Elizabeth started to experience hair loss, extreme tiredness, memory lapses, and digestive issues, which would be recognized as signs of lead poisoning today. But we're not sure if it's the real cause of her death because the monarch didn't grant permission for her body to be examined before her death.