The Twilight of the Tudors
What caused Elizabeth I’s death and why didn’t she leave a will?
On Wednesday, March 18, 1603, as the defeated Hugh O’Neill, rebel leader, made his preparations to surrender in Ireland, Queen Elizabeth, victorious monarch, resided with her court at the Palace of Richmond. The royal household of some 1,700 people had moved there on January 21st in “very foul and wet weather.”
For her entire reign, Elizabeth favored Richmond, a handsome castle that loomed over the Thames like a dense forest of turrets, because she relished the privacy its park afforded for the vigorous walks she always craved. It felt warmer within, compared to her other river castles, and this was an unusually cold, damp winter. “The sharpest season that I have lightly known,” wrote John Chamberlain, a London gentleman.
Some say that in the past the Queen ordered the court there with frequency so that, out of sight of gossips, she could pay visits to a neighbor of Richmond: John Dee, the scholar and necromancer who spoke to angels through special mirrors and divined the future through communing with the dead. He had advised Elizabeth since the beginning, selecting a coronation date that was most propitious. Dee was still alive in 1603 but had finally fallen out of favor with Elizabeth. The times had waxed for hardheaded Puritans and waned for wizards casting spells.
But now a certain tension, a dread made up of fear for the future and a morbid excitement, filled every corner of Richmond. There was no celebration over the defeat of O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, after years of war.
The sixty-nine-year-old Queen was ill — just how ill was the question. After surviving a serious bout with smallpox when she was twenty-nine, Elizabeth enjoyed good health. Some attributed it to her “abstinence from wine and temperate diet,” so unlike her father in that respect. Arthritis plagued Elizabeth as well as recurring toothaches and a leg ulcer, and she’d always been bedeviled by headaches, but overall Elizabeth’s vigor impressed all who observed her, whether it was a Londoner peering from a distance or a foreign ambassador conversing with her in Latin, French, or Italian.
Passionate for dancing, she executed the most complicated steps well into her…