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

Herald of Arms at Elizabeth’s funeral (the feet!)

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Henry IV (1553-1610)

Another foreign account of the decline and death of Elizabeth – this time from Christophe de Harlay, Comte de Beaumont, who was French ambassador to the English court (1602-05). Harlay is likely to have been well informed, because news of the queen’s death had great implications for the establishment by the king of France, Henry IV, of a balance of power with Spain.

The ambassador gives intimate details, especially the touching description of Elizabeth, “holding her finger almost continually in her mouth, with her eyes open and fix’d upon the ground”.

I take it that the meditations of “mons. du Plessis” mentioned in the second-last paragraph refer to the works of the French Huguenot Philippe de Mornay – a fascinating detail, but the implications would need another post.

Harlay’s despatches from around the time of Elizabeth’s death are referred to in detail by the 18th century historian Thomas Birch. The account presented below is my transcription of the relevant passages from that source (original spelling).

I’m not aware of any full translation of Harlay’s letters, so bear in mind that this is merely the best available secondary source (so far as I know, the only Harlay source used by modern historians). It is unclear in what proportion Harlay relied on his direct contact with the declining queen and on second-hand information. It is also unclear whether the passage in paragraph two, setting out speculations on the cause of the queen’s melancholy, derives solely from Harlay. Finally: MS = manuscript; NS = new style; mons. = monsieur.

From Memoirs of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth: from the year 1581 til her death, pp.506 ff:

But the circumstances of her last illness will be best described from the MS. letters of the French embassador. In that of the 13th of March, 1602/3, N.S. to mons. de Villeroy he observes, that having received on the 8th the French king’s letter of the 26th of February, and immediately requested an audience of the queen, she had desired to be excused for some days on account of the death of the countess of Nottingham, for which she had wept extremely, and shewn an uncommon concern.

On the 19th of March N.S. he wrote to the king, that she had been very much indisposed for fourteen days past, having slept scarce at all during that time, and eat [sic] much less than usual, being seized with such a restlessness, that tho’ she had no formed fever, she felt a great heat in her stomach, and a continual thirst, which obliged her every moment to take something to abate it, and to prevent the hard and dry phlegm, with which she was sometimes oppressed, from choking her. Some ascribed her disorder to her uneasiness with regard to lady Arabella Stuart: others to her having been in a manner forced by the council to grant a pardon to Tyrone: many were of opinion, that the distress of mind was occasioned by the death of the earl of Essex: but all agreed, that before her illness grew considerable, she discovered an unusual melancholy both in her countenance and behaviour. She had been obstinate in refusing every thing prescribed by her physicians during her sickness. In this letter the embassador remarked, that he thought, that the succession of the king of Scots would meet with no difficulty …

The embassador on the 22nd of March N.S., wrote, that the queen of England had been the day before much better, but was that day worse, and so full of chagrin, and so weary of life, that notwithstanding all the importunities of her counsellors and physicians to consent to the use of proper remedies for her relief, she would not take one. In his letter of the 24th of March N.S., he infoms the king, that three days before she was thought to be dead, but the day following began to grow better, and to repose herself, and since the 15th had lain in her bed. Her principal courtiers, particularly the archbishop of Canterbury and secretary Cecil intreated her to receive help; but she was angry with them for it, and said, that she knew her own strength and constitution better than they; and that she was not in so much danger as they imagin’d.

The embassador wrote again to his master on the 28th of March N.S., that the queen continued to grow worse, and appear’d already in a manner insensible, not speaking sometimes for two or three hours, and within the last two days not for above four and twenty, holding her finger almost continually in her mouth, with her eyes open and fix’d upon the ground, where she sat upon cushions without rising or resting herself, and was greatly emaciated by her long watching and fasting.

In his next letter, of the 1st of April N.S., he informs mons. Villeroy, that the queen was drawing to her end, and had been abandon’d the day before by all her physicians, but was now forced in a manner into bed, after having sat ten days upon cushions, refusing to repose herself on it except for one hour, and that in her cloaths. She seem’d once to be so much better, calling for broth, that those about her entertain’d some hopes of her; but soon after began to lose her speech, and from that time eat nothing, but lay on one side on the day of the date of this letter, without speaking or looking upon any person, tho’ the day before she had directed some meditations to be read to her, and among others those of mons. du Plessis.

On the 5th of April N.S., the French embassador acquainted Henry IV with the death of the queen, two days before, who expir’d very easily at three in the morning, having begun to grow speechless the day before, and slept for five hours before she resigned her breath; upon which her council and servants proclaim’d her successor king James at Richmond, as they did at London at ten that morning, her majesty some days before her death having declar’d to the earl of Nottingham, lord admiral, and secretary Cecil, that she acknowledged no other successor than that king, and did not desire, that her kingdom should fall into the hands of rascals, which was her own word: and afterwards when her speech fail’d her, and they requested her in the presence of others of the council, to make some sign to confirm what she had said to them, she put her hand to her head, to shew her approbation of it.


Another funeral effigy of Elizabeth

Next …Clapham’s Story