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Thursday 3 am .. 24 March 1603 .. death of Queen Elizabeth I ..

Elizabeth portrait … with spooky face

(Previous: Elizadeath II: Manningham’s Story…)


In 1603 the Doge of Venice sent Carlo Giovanni Scaramelli as envoy to the court of Queen Elizabeth. Since 1557 the English had resented the breach in diplomatic relations with Venice, but now the Venetians had every reason to re-engage: Scaramelli was to petition the queen on curtailing English piracy in the Mediterranean.

Marino Grimani, Doge of Venice (1595-1605)

Scaramelli’s mission lasted just a few months, but he wrote vivid descriptions of his time in England. In particular he gave a wonderful account of his audience with Elizabeth in February, one month before her death. Beyond that point Scaramelli’s information, while interesting, is second hand. I’ve edited his despatches, but there is still plenty to read, so this is a long post.

For me the most telling detail is Elizabeth’s comment at the end of the audience. She and Scaramelli seem to have conversed in the language of diplomacy, Italian, and Elizabeth finished off with this: “But I do not know if I have spoken Italian well, still I think so, for I learnt it when a child, and I believe I have not forgotten it” –  an invitation to praise, which Scaramelli gave in later despatches when he enthused over her ability in nine languages. On any occasion, even at the age of sixty nine, Elizabeth was the smartest person in the room.

What follows is from Scaramelli’s reports in the Calendar of State Papers Venetian (1592-1603) pp.531-570.


Supervised by one of the queen’s pensioners, the Venetian envoy is summoned into the royal presence, 2 pm Sunday 16 February:

1135. When the hour for starting came, which the pensioner and I had awaited all Sunday morning, I went to Richmond in spite of the bad weather. I was received at the foot of the stairs by several gentlemen who made use of courteous expressions out of regard for your Serenity [the Doge of Venice]. At the top of the stairs the Lord Chamberlain awaited me and introduced me into the room they call the Presence Chamber, and immediately after that into the room where her Majesty was.

The Queen was clad in taffety of silver and white, trimmed with gold; her dress was somewhat open in front and showed her throat encircled with pearls and rubies down to her breast. Her skirts were much fuller and began lower down than is the fashion in France. Her hair was of a light colour never made by nature, and she wore great pearls like pears round the forehead; she had a coif arched round her head and an Imperial crown, and displayed a vast quantity of gems and pearls upon her person; even under her stomacher she was covered with golden jewelled girdles and single gems, carbuncles, balas-rubies, diamonds; round her wrists in place of bracelets she wore double rows of pearls of more than medium size. Her Majesty was seated on a chair placed on a small square platform with two steps, and round about on the floor and uncovered were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan of England, the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Treasurer, the Lord High Admiral, the Secretary of State and all the Privy Council; the remainder of the Chamber was all full of ladies and gentlemen and the musicians who had been playing dance music up to that moment.

At my entry the Queen rose, and I advanced with reverences made in due order, and reaching her was in act to kneel down upon the first step and to kiss her robe, but her Majesty would not allow it, and with both hands almost raised me up and extended her right hand, which I kissed with effusion, and at the same moment she said, “Welcome to England, Mr. Secretary. It was high time that the Republic sent to visit a Queen who has always honoured it on every possible occasion.” I withdrew a step or two, and suiting my discourse to her lead, I replied, in substance, that a variety of circumstances had for many years prevented her Majesty from hearing from the lips of an Envoy, especially accredited by the Serene Republic of Venice …

Scaramelli went through the diplomatic niceties, then complained about the harm being done by English pirates. He presented a letter from the Doge, and the queen responded in a haughty manner, her faculties at full power. Scaramelli’s come-back was eloquent, and Elizabeth concluded the audience:

Her Majesty was persuaded of the truth of this answer and then, almost always smiling, she stood on foot till the close of my audience. Before I took my leave I added, that as she desired, for her better information, to appoint Commissioners, I begged her to do so at once, reminding her that services are the more graceful the more readily and at first hand they are granted. To which the Queen replied “Yes, I mean to do so, and I will let you know about it. But I do not know if I have spoken Italian well, still I think so, for I learnt it when a child, and I believe I have not forgotten it.”

She then graciously gave me her hand once more to kiss, which I did yet again, and she said these very words “I will not detain your Lordship any longer.” With that I took my leave and returned to London that same evening.

Scaramelli sought a second audience, but the response from Court was that this would not be necessary if he were satisfied with the findings of the commissioners. By March 20 something had intervened – the death of the Countess of Nottingham – but Scaramelli reckoned the real concern was over the succession claims of Arbella Stuart:

1159. The cause of the delay in the meeting of the Commissioners is the death last week of the Lord High Admiral’s wife. Apart from her husband’s exalted rank she herself was a lady of high consideration and one of the Queen’s principal ladies of the bed-chamber. This rank is reckoned so lofty here that they say her funeral is to cost forty thousand crowns. I might also add that the Carnival, which according to the English calendar continued down to the day before yesterday, has delayed the meeting, only here in Court it has not been observed with the usual accompaniment of dances and comedies, for the Queen for many days has never left her chamber. And although they say that the reason for this is her sorrow for the death of the Countess, nevertheless the truer cause is that the business of Lady Arabella has reached such a pitch that the son of the Earl of Hertford, to whom they affirm she is betrothed, has suddenly disappeared and is nowhere to be found, and Arabella for this reason has been removed from the custody of the Countess of Shrewsbury, and taken to the same castle where Queen Mary of England kept her sister, the present Queen, a prisoner, opposing her right to the succession on the ground of her illegitimacy, and her Calvinism; disabilities subsequently removed by Act of Parliament, upon which Queen Mary, to please Philip II., declared her sister capable of succeeding to the throne.

It is well known that this unexpected event has greatly disturbed the Queen, for she has suddenly withdrawn into herself, she who was wont to live so gaily—specially in these last years of her life, when, as far as health was concerned, her days seemed numerous indeed but not burdensome—and to force herself to throw off all care but that of enjoying life; now she allows grief to overcome her strength, and so anxious is she that rumours of this beginning of troubles should not spread beyond the kingdom, that she forbade either persons or letters to leave any of the ports, although, perceiving that this provision came late and was too violent to secure silence, she subsequently abandoned it. All minds are anxious and the partizans of the King of Scotland, the most powerful party, in order to destroy public sympathy for Arabella, are spreading reports prejudicial to her character as an honest woman both in the past and in the present.

Scaramelli then writes just before the queen’s death (dated 27 March – bear in mind his dates were new style):

1162. I was right when in my last despatch I said that her Majesty’s mind was overwhelmed by a grief greater than she could bear. It reached such a pitch that she passed three days and three nights without sleep and with scarcely any food. Her attention was fixed not only on the affairs of Lady Arabella, who now is, or feigns herself to be, half mad, but also on the pardon which she has given at last to the Earl of Tyrone, leader of the Catholic rebels in Ireland. She fell to considering that the Earl of Essex, who used to be her dear intimate, might have been quite innocent after all; for when he was her general in Ireland he had a meeting with Tyrone, each on horseback on different sides of a river, and he concluded an agreement with Tyrone that was both more advantageous for the kingdom and more honourable for the Queen than the present one. But the Council, condemning the conduct of Essex in coming to England in person to explain his action without leave given, persuaded the Queen to put him in the Tower, whence followed all those events which led to his decapitation on the first day of Lent 1601. So deeply does her Majesty feel this, that on the first day of Lent this year, which in the English calendar was the nineteenth of this month, she recalled the anniversary of so piteous a spectacle and burst into tears and dolorous lamentation, as though for some deadly sin she had committed, and then fell ill of a sickness which the doctors instantly judged to be mortal. The Privy Council was convened in perpetual session at Richmond; the Peers were summoned to Court with all speed, especially the Catholics; and the guards were doubled at the Royal Palace, and the pensioners armed. The town council of London met and took certain steps for the safety of the city, which, as every one knows, is extremely rich, and incredibly unprotected by walls. This perturbation of a population, composed of various religions, and reckoned but little inferior to Paris in numbers, causes an universal dread of dangerous risings; and, although in a single night not less than five hundred vagrants were seized in the taverns and elsewhere, under pretext of sending them to serve the Dutch, and are still kept as a precaution under lock and key on that pretence, and though the same is done every market day, for it is the custom here to press all those who do not pay taxes, and, therefore, have neither property nor profession,—still, the idea that the leaders of factions and of the malcontents may rise, more especially as not a single Catholic has, as yet, obeyed the order to come to Court, a belief that many of the ministers are hated by the people, and above all the question of religion, are considerations to make most men blench.

The Queen’s illness is want of sleep, want of appetite, labour of the lungs and heart, cessation of the natural motions, irresponsiveness to remedies. There is but little fever but also little strength; nor are there any good symptoms except that a slight swelling of the glands under the jaw burst of itself, with a discharge of a small amount of matter.

There are rumours of amendment, but the truth hangs in doubt, nor is anything certain save this, that the Queen is seventy-one years old, and this is the first serious illness which she has had in the whole course of her life.

On April 3 (new style) Scaramelli writes again, unaware of the queen’s death – until the postscript (which ties in with Carey’s story):

1166. I wrote to your Serenity, viâ Antwerp, on the twenty-seventh of last month, giving an account of the Queen’s malady, and of all the steps which had been taken to meet the dangers which are threatening. But as I learn that the ports are closed, and consequently no letters can pass, I venture to send this brief despatch by many different routes, in the hope that one copy may reach you …

Her Majesty’s life is absolutely despaired of, even if she be not already dead. For the last six days she has become quite silly, and indeed idiotic.

London, 3rd April 1603.

Postscript.—Last night Sir Robert Carey (Baron Cree) left for Scotland to convey to the King the news of the Queen’s death, which took place last evening, and this evening the Earl of Northumberland, the Earl of Cumberland and others will leave to welcome the King into England. The proclamation of His Majesty’s [James VI] succession is hourly expected. They are placing under arms four thousand infantry in London, at the public charges, and their headquarters are in the churches.

Scaramelli then writes on April 7 to confirm Elizabeth’s death – the date corresponds to March 24 old style, and he is firm on the hour of death at 2 am.

Apart from the details on Elizabeth, the most interesting point here is the rumour of assassination – not accepted by Scaramelli – by the most obvious culprit, which must be Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief secretary and champion of the succession of James VI.

Another reservation is that this second-hand account of Elizabeth’s last words seems perfect for easing the succession – did Scaramelli assist Cecil’s plan for the succession by doing his “diplomatic duty”? 

1169. The Queen, towards the close of her illness and of her life, after some few hours’ sleep, returned to the full possession of her senses. On April the first she recognised that she was dying, and caused the Lords of the Council to be summoned to her presence. With tears and sighs she said that she saw herself so weak and ill that her life could last little or rather no longer. She exhorted and commanded them to have due care for the peace of the realm, and to see that the Crown came to the most deserving, whom she in her secret thought had always held to be the King of Scotland, both in right of birth and because he excelled her in merit, having been born a King, while she was but a private person. He ought to be all the more acceptable to them in that he brought with him a whole Kingdom while she had brought nothing but herself, a woman. As for the most important amount of her own private property, accumulated through a reign of forty-five years, (which is calculated to pass four and a half millions in gold), she declared that she would make no other provision about it but that it was to follow the succession.

The same day she spoke of certain things which weighed upon her conscience, and recalled to mind the death of the Earl of Essex. Then rising to topics of religion, she said that she had been at war with Pontiffs and princes, and touched upon two principal points of variance from the Church of Rome, the use of the vernacular in prayers, and the question of the Sacrament, upon which I will not enlarge; enough that from her remarks and from her prayers that God would not reckon against her in the next life the blood of priests shed by her, there are some Catholics about court who think that in her inner sentiments her Majesty was not far from reconciliation with the true Catholic faith. This view is confirmed, because it was observed that in her private chapel she preserved the altar with images, the organs, the vestments which belong to the Latin rite, and certain ceremonies which are loathed by other heretics; also because upon her death-bed she held the hand of the Archbishop of Canterbury until she had breathed her last, while it is quite certain that he had a disposition towards Catholicism, as he showed by certain external signs, such as his abstention from matrimony, and his use of unleavened bread when administering the sacrament. All this stabs the heretics to the heart, and they would fain silence the report, though all agree that the Queen died as she had lived.

Be that as it may, she died a Queen who had lived for long, both gloriously and happily in this world. With her dies the family of Tudor, originally of Welsh extraction. As to her personal appearance, she leaves the fame of past though never quite lost beauty. As to her mental qualities, they quote ever so many instances of prudence, not emanating from the Council, but in many important cases the result of her sole deliberation. She possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who speak the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian extremely well …

… As the Queen’s illness came from nothing but rage, and as her habit was sober and clean, some, forgetting her age, think that she may have been assisted to death. They even name the person, and say that actions of this magnitude begin in danger and end in reward …

… No sooner was the Queen’s death known, which was the very hour it took place, at two o’clock on the morning of the third of this month (a. 2 venendo 3, del corrente), than the Council, in view of the great doubts and anxiety manifest among the nobility and people lest some rising should happen, gave orders for the solemn proclamation of the new King, this took place on the fourth. James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, was duly proclaimed in the terms your Serenity will read in the enclosure. This ceremony, though carried out with all pomp, fell so flat that there was evidently neither sorrow for the death of the Queen, nor joy for the succession of the King.


I recommend you click through this link at the calendar of state papers venetian. It gives the full sequence of dispatches to Venice in 1603 as the queen lay dying – a vivid outsider’s view of the controversies at Elizabeth’s court, including English piracy (particularly severe in the seas off Greece), the war with Spain and Ireland, and the struggle for the succession.

The preface to the Venetian state papers also gives good background for the years 1592-1603.



Next … Harlay’s Story