10 October 1562 – Elizabeth I Contracted Smallpox

On 10th October 1562, the twenty-nine year-old Elizabeth I was taken ill at Hampton Court Palace, with what was thought to be a bad cold. However, the cold developed into a violent fever and it became clear that the young queen actually had smallpox.

Elizabeth became so seriously ill with the disease that it was thought she would die. Fortunately, Elizabeth survived and was not too badly scarred, although Lady Mary Sidney, who had nursed her back to health, contracted the disease and was badly disfigured. In his “Memoir of Services”, Mary’s husband, Sir Henry Sidney, recorded the effect nursing Elizabeth had on his wife:

“When I went to Newhaven [Le Havre] I lefte her a full faire Ladye in myne eye at least the fayerest, and when I retorned I found her as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her, which she did take by contynuall attendance of her majesties most precious person (sicke of the same disease) the skarres of which (to her resolute discomforte) ever syns hath don and doth remayne in her face, so as she lyveth solitairilie sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo [like a night-raven in the house*] more to my charge then if we had boorded together as we did before that evill accident happened.”

It was while Elizabeth was recovering from the illness that she ordered her council to make Robert Dudley protector of the kingdom and she made it clear that “as God was her witness nothing improper had ever passed between them.”

*Sidney is quoting from Psam 102 verse 6.

Notes and Sources

  • A Viceroy’s Vindication? Sir Henry Sidney’s Memoir of Service in Ireland, 1556-78, ed. Ciaran Brady

10 thoughts on “10 October 1562 – Elizabeth I Contracted Smallpox

  1. I bet there were some right secret goings on behind closed doors by her councillors and courtiers alike with Elizabeth being so close to death, plotting and planning about who would inherit her throne. Not an easily solved problem, certainly not with a solution that would suit everyone. Thank goodness she was robust enough to have pulled through, because not only would we have benn deprived of a great Queen and the wonderful piece of history that she carved, but England could possibly have seen a repeat of the ‘War of the Roses’ situation. A very unsettling and frightening time for the country.

    As for Lady Mary Sidney, Elizabeth couldn’t have wanted a more loving and faithful friend and servant than she had in her. To have risked her own life to nurse her Queen, and to be afflicted with her own disfigurement as a consequence was such a selfless act of love and loyalty, (and a poor reward), she was a very brave and caring Lady. Her husbands description of Mary sounds horrendous, I hope it was an exaggeration on his side…

  2. I have published a book, “They Called Her the Goriana” which is a fictionalized biography of Elizabeth I for the young adult audience. It is available on Amazon.com. Could someone on your staff review the book and tell me what you think of it? Thank you for your time. This is a great website. Best wishes, Louise Butler

    1. Hi Louise,
      I don’t have a staff, it’s just me but I’d be happy to read and review it for you. Do you have a kindle file you could send me?

  3. I note that the screen depiction of the Queen giving instructions to her lords about her decree on her small pox deathbed says she wants Sir Robert Dudley to have Lbs 20,000/year. It is also a fact that Sir Robert;s daughter Mary, was married off to the Earl of Pembrookshire and a letter in the hands of the Earle was destroyed by Queen Victoria which showed that The Queen had wed Sir Robert Dudley 1561 and that the letter survived only because Mary Sidney was the queens first Child by Dudley. The point I wish to make is that the Queens Words are quoted as. “Sir Robert and I never had improper relations ” Some interpret this to mean there was NO Physical relationship…DNA shows that the Down line males of Dudley have a known DNA and thus her deathbed confession is truthful and proper…..she was married to Dudley so nothing was improper between them.DCR

  4. Mr. Rice, I am taking your last reply (to suggest) that you in fact believe, her majesty – did have a child with Mr. Dudley?

    The Queen doesn’t seem to have taken after her fathers body type and thus – I can’t possibly see how a lady (so thin) could have not shown she was carrying!? The Queen was ALWAYS in front of her court, let alone subjects outside the palaces.

    Perhaps my “modern” mind can’t grasp one getting away with such a thing back then but her having a child just seems far to impossible an act to have occurred.

    As for DNA, I’d assume our current Queen Elizabeth would have to OK a testing on her line to see if any ‘Dudley’ falls in the tree somewhere. But it’s certainky won’t be found in Windsor.

  5. Did Elizabeth have more than 1 child with Dudley? And when did she marry Sir Robert Dudley? I had read somewhere that her hair loss was caused by contracting syphilis while passing through the birth canal.

  6. Dawn~ Thank you for yr. glowing compliment of Mary Sidney. Elizabeth repaid Mary’s sacrifice with coldness and stinginess for the rest of her life. Husband Henry was poorly acknowledged and remunerated for his lengthy services in Ireland and Wales. Eldest son Philip was denied honors and not allowed to return from the war in Holland.

    D. Charles Rice~ An intriguing idea. Though I think you mean Sir Henry’s (Sidney) daughter married Pembroke, and she was the royal adoptee. Do you have a source for yr. bold claim ??

    Donna~ Elizabeth did not officially have children with Dudley. No one has presented its evidence, for better or worse. Nor did she marry him, officially. If she did so privately, in order to legitimate the baby, that would make Dudley’s subsequent marriage to Lettice Knollys illegal and bigamous. However, Dudley’s only son from that marriage died as a child, rendering the problem moot.

  7. Brad~ The present Earl of Pembroke is directly descended from Henry Sidney’s (adopted?) daughter, Mary – whom Mr. Rice thinks is Elizabeth’s daughter – so that’s easy. Getting the royal sample would prove somewhat harder.

    I must admit that, if Robert Dudley did have a secret lovechild, his sister Mary would be the natural choice for adopter, since his other sister Katherine was married to Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, whose loyalty Elizabeth distrusted. Too bad, since they were childless.

    However, one would imagine Elizabeth might have treated the Sidneys with more consideration, given their precious secret, not to mention it being her only child. Elizabeth treated his family coldly. It is just barely possible, if Elizabeth felt she had to disguise the reality at all costs, and the loyal parents did not let on. It might make sense if she treated them with respect but she didn’t. Elizabeth did not even favor the daughter, as one might have expected. That’s not the way to get people to keep secrets.

    On the other hand, it might explain why Elizabeth wouldn’t marry. It would explain QE’s jealous fits later on. And it would explain why a marriage to Dudley had to remain secret, with conception coming so soon after the suspicious death of Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart. If it did happen – and if QE could take off from court for a few months, as you say – then the scenario might actually be credible.

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