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

Elizabeth at her coronation, 1558

(Previous: Clapham’s Story …)


This story of Elizabeth’s death is the most vivid and by far the most controversial. It was written by one of the queen’s maids of honour, Elizabeth Southwell, who was sixteen or seventeen years old in March 1603.

Southwell’s information is a mixture of first and second hand. There is no doubt she was close to the event, and she probably was privy to intimate details that would have been kept from those outside the queen’s household.

There are strong elements of superstition here, which make for a spooky read. In my view the most controversial part is the denial of Elizabeth’s approbation of her successor, and in fact this account was used in religious polemic to question the authority of James I as king of England.

Elizabeth is shown at her most regal in a response to Robert Cecil (son of her former chief secretary), when he told her she must go to bed: “To which she smiled wonderfully contemning him, saing that the word ‘must’ was not to be used to princes. Therupon said, ‘little man, little man, yf your father had lived ye durst not have said so much: but thou knowest I must die and that maketh thee so presumtious’.”

Southwell’s account was written four years after the event, so that’s a big factor in deciding what weight to give this evidence. The link to the source includes a discussion on the reliability of Southwell, and addresses the criticisms of her account by JE Neale.

Transcript from Elizabeth Southwell’s Manuscript Account of the Death of Queen Elizabeth (English Literary Renaissance, vol. 26 iii, pp. 482–509, Sept. 1996):

Ymprimis [at first] Her Majtie being in verie good health, one daie Sr John Stanhope being the vice chamberlaine and secretary Cecills dependant and familiar, came and presented her majtie with a piece of gold of the bignes of an angell full of characters which he said a old woman in Wales bequethed her on her death bed, and thereupon he discoursed how the said old woman by vertue of the same lived to the age of 120 yeares and being in that age having all her bodie wethered and consumed, and wanting nature to nourish. she died commanding the said piece of gold to be carefully sent her majtie alleging further that as long as the said old woman wore yt upon her bodie she could not die.

The queene upon the confidence she had hereof toke the said gold and wore yt about her neck. now though she fell not sodainlie sick, yet dailie decreased of her rest and feding and within 15 daies fell downe right sick and the cause being wondered at by my Ladie Scrop with whom she was verie privat and confident being her neare kinswoman her majtie told her, commanding her to conceale the same, [said] she saw one night in her bed her bodie exceeding leane and fearefull in a light of fire, for the which the next daie she desired to see a true loking glass which in 20 yeares befor she had not sene but onlie such a one which of purpos was made to deceive her sight which glas being brought her she fell presently exclaming at all those which had so much commended her and toke yt so offensivelie, that all those which had befor flattered her durst not come in her sight. now faling into extremitie she sat tow daies and 3 nigh[tes] upon her stole ready dressed and could never be brought by anie of her Councell to go to bed. or eat or drinke onlie my lord Admirall one time perswaded her to drink som Broth, for anie of the rest she would not answere them to anie question, but said souftlie to my Lord Admiralls earnest perswasions: that yf he knew what she had sene in her bed he would not perswade her as he did: and Secretarie Cecill, overhearing her asked yf her majtie had seen anie spirits, to which she saie she scorned to answer him to so ydle a question, Then he told her how to content the people her majtie must go to bed: To which she smiled wonderfully contemning him saing that the word must was not to be used to princes. therupon said little man. little man yf your father had lived ye durst not have said so much: but thou knowest I must die and that maketh thee so presumtious: and presently commanding him and the rest to depart her chamber willing my lord admirall to staie. to whome she shuke her head and with a pitifull voyce said my lord I am tied with a chaine of yron about my neck. he alleging her wonted courage to her, she replied I am tied and the case is altered with me. Then tow Ladies waiting on her in her chamber discovered in the bottom of her chaire the queene of harts with a naile of yron knockt through the forehead of yt, the which the Ladies durst not pull out remembring that the like thing was used to the old Ladie of Sussex, and proved afterwards for a witchcraft for the which certaine were hanged as ynstruments of the same: The ladie Elizabeth Guilford then wayting on the queene and leaving her asleep in her privie chamber, met her as she thought 3 or 4 chambers off fearing she would aben displeased that she left her alone, came towards her to excuse her selfe and she vanished away, and when she returned into the same chamber where she left her found her asleep as before, So growing past recoverie having kept her bed 15 daies, besides 3 daies she sat upon her stole and one daie being pulled up by force stoud on her feet 15 houres: The Councell sent to her the bishop of Canterburie and other of her prelates. upon sight of whom she was much offended cholericklie rating them bidding them be packing, saing she was no atheist, but knew full well that they were [illegible] hedge priests and tok yt for an yndignitie that they should speak to her.

Now being given over by all and at her last gaspe keeping still her sense in everie thing and giving ever when she spak apt answers. though she spak verie seldom having then a sower throt she desired to wash yt that she might answer more freelie to what the Councell demanded. which was to know whom she would have king. but they seeing her throt troubled her so much desired her to hold up her finger when they named whom liked her whereupon they named the K of france the K of Scotland at which she never stirred, they named my lord Beaucham whereto she said. I will have no raskalls son in my seat but [illegible] one worthy to be a king: Hereupon ynstantlie she died: Then the Councell went forth and reported she meant the K of Scots. whereupon they went to London to proclame him. leaving her bodie with charge not to be opened such being her desire, but Cecill having given a secret warrant to the surgions they opened her: which the rest of the Councell afterwards passed it over though they meant yt not so: now her bodie being seared up was brought to whit hall, where being watched everie night by 6 severall Ladies. my selfe that night there watching as one of them being all about the bodie which was fast nayled up in a bord cofin with leaves of lead covered with velvet, her bodie and head break with such a crack that spleated the wood lead and cer cloth. whereupon the next daie she was faine to be new trimmed up; whereupon they gave their verdicts that yf she had not ben opened the breath of her bodie would a ben much worse. but no man durst speak yt publicklie for displeasing Secretarie Cecill.

Her majtie understood that Secretarie Cecill had given forth to the people that she was madd. and therefore yn her sickness did manie times saie to him Cecill know I am not madd. You must not think to make queene Jane* of me: and although manie reports by Cecills means were spread how she was distracted my selfe nor anie that were about her could ever perceive her speeches so well applied proceeded from a distracted mind.


* “queene Jane” may be a reference to the older sister of Katherine of Aragon, Juana la loca (the clue is in the name), and suggests Elizabeth was aware of a risk of forced confinement.

Elizabeth in profile


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