Elizabeth I’s Death – 24 March 1603

On this day in history, the 24th March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, died at Richmond Palace.

Elizabeth I’s death was the end of an era in so many ways: the end of England’s Golden Age, the end of a long reign (over 44 years) and the end of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudor line died with the Virgin Queen and it was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England and who began the House of Stuart in English history.

You can find out more about her death, funeral and resting place in my article “The Death of Elizabeth I” but here is a primary source account of Elizabeth I’s last days, written by Sir Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth, son of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, and grandson of Mary Boleyn, in his memoirs:-

“I took my journey about the end of the year 1602. When I came to court, I found the Queen ill disposed, and she kept her inner lodging; yet she, hearing of my arrival, sent for me. I found her in one of her withdrawing chambers, sitting low upon her cushions. She called me to her; I kissed her hand, and told her it was by chiefest happiness to see her in safety, and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, ‘No, Robin, I am not well,’ and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days; and in her discourse, she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs. I was grieved at the first to see her in this plight; for in all my lifetime before, I never knew her fetch a sigh, but when the Queen of Scots was beheaded. Then, upon my knowledge, she shed many tears and sights, manifesting her innocence, that she never gave consent to the death of that Queen.

I used the best words I could, to persuade her from this melancholy humour; but I found by her it was too deep-rooted in her heart, and hardly to be removed. This was upon a Saturday night, and she gave command, that the great closet should be prepared for her to go to chapel the next morning. The next day, all things being in readiness, we long expected her coming. After eleven o’clock, one of the grooms came out, and bade make ready for the private closet; she would not go to the great. There we stayed long for her coming, but at the last she had cushions laid for her in the privy chamber hard by the closet door, and there she heard service. From that day forwards, she grew worse and worse. She remained upon her cushions four days and nights at the least. All about her could not persuade her, either to take any sustenance, or go to bed. The Queen grew worse and worse, because she would be so, none about her being able to persuade her to go to bed. My Lord Admiral was sent for, (who, by reason of my sister’s death, that was his wife, had absented himself some fortnight from court;) what by fair means, what by force, he got her to bed. There was no hope of her recovery, because she refused all remedies.

The death of Elizabeth I Paul Delaroche

On Wednesday, the 23d of March, she grew speechless. That afternoon, by signs, she called for her council, and by putting her hand to her head, when the king so Scots was named to succeed her, they all knew he was the man she desired should reign after her. About six at night she made signs for Archbishop Whitgift and her chaplains to come to her, at which time I went in with them, and sat upon my knees full of tears to see that heavy sight. Her Majesty lay upon her back, with one hand in the bed, and the other without. The bishop kneeled down by her, and examined her first of her faith; and she so punctually answered all his several questions, by lifting up her eyes, and holding up her hand, as it was a comfort to all the beholders. Then the good man told her plainly what she was, and what she was to come to; and though she had been long a great Queen here upon earth, yet shortly she was to yield an account of her stewardship to the King of kings. After this he began to pray, and all that were by did answer him. After he had continued long in prayer, till the old man’s knees were weary, he blessed her, and meant to rise and leave her. The Queen made a sign with her hand. My sister Scroop knowing her meaning, told the bishop the Queen desired he would pray still. He did so for a long half hour more, with earnest cries to God for her soul’s health, which he uttered with that fervency of spirit, as the Queen, to all our sight, much rejoiced thereat, and gave testimony to us all of her Christian and comfortable end. By this time it grew late, and every one departed, all but her women that attended her.

This that I heard with my ears, and did see with my eyes, I thought it my duty to set down, and to affirm it for a truth, upon the faith of a Christian; because I know there have been many false lies reported of the end and death of that good lady.”

After Carey had left, Elizabeth slipped into a deep sleep and died peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of the 24th March. Diarist John Manningham recorded her actual death:-

“This morning, about three o’clock her Majesty departed from this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree… Dr Parry told me he was present, and sent his prayers before her soul; and I doubt not but she is amongst the royal saints in heaven in eternal joys.”

RIP Queen Elizabeth I.

Now, I could carry on being sad and morbid, but as I was reading the moving accounts of Elizabeth I’s death, I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate her life, rather than just focus on her death. She was an incredible woman and there are many people around the world who admire her, but why?

For me, I must admit, that part of the attraction is that she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn and as I read more about Elizabeth I see glimpses of her mother in her. As I read her letters and speeches I am blown away by her way with words, her wit, her intelligence and her skills of diplomacy. When I look at the events of her life and reign, I am overawed by the challenges she faced and how she overcame them. When I consider the status of women in Tudor times, I am amazed by Elizabeth’s achievements, and when I read the words of her friends and advisers I am struck by the respect and love they had for a woman who could be incredibly spiteful at times. She was a formidable woman and queen and deserves to be remembered as such.

Please leave comments below sharing what Elizabeth means to you and what you think her greatest achievements were.

Notes and Sources

  • Sir Robert Carey’s Memoirs, edited by John Boyle, 5th Earl of Cork, in 1759, and by Sir Walter Scott in 1808, quoted on Elfinspell.com

20 thoughts on “Elizabeth I’s Death – 24 March 1603

  1. elizabeth I as an amazing woman.
    to go through so much tragady from such a young age, to be denyed her mother, and also hear though out her life such terrible things said about her mother, and stll be in one piece is amazing.
    so many people would have fell apart but she faught on.
    she had so many issues ith family, new mothers, a sister who disliked her and so much more.
    she brought her country from the brink of the abiss to be one of the most successful
    she was an amazing lady and im sure she had her bad side but who doesntespecially what she went though.

  2. Elizabeth ushered in the Golden Age of England, bringing to full fruition the seeds of national identity sown by her father and grandfather. She supported artists, musicians and writers with her keen understanding and sharp intellect. She kept England at peace when others pushed for war. Very few people were executed during her reign, especially for religious reasons. She hated being an instrument of death. She gave her people a leader to be proud of and she was very conscious of the theatricality of the throne and used this to her advantage. She was her mother and her father’s daughter, combining Anne’s wit and charm with Henry’s political acumen. At a time when women were considered quite inferior to men, Elizabeth proved otherwise. She garnered the respect of highly intelligent and talented men. Her reign was more successful than her father’s and gave England a rising merchant class. Thank you for the primary account of her death–I really believe she intended to die and made her body follow her will.

  3. She is probably the best known English or British monarch ever and worldwide! I don’t think Henry VIII — notwithstanding six wives and Holbein — is better known. As a child I only knew her as a beruffed icon. I was very impressed when I saw the picture where she is around 13 or 14 and wears that red gown; but it was even more the revelation that she had something like a childhood and that she was in danger to lose her head etc. I love this portrait immensely. But it was (and is!) still difficult to realize this is actually one and the same person!

  4. I admire Elizabeth immensely for her intelligence and wisdom, her singlemindedness and her immense achievements. She made huge personal sacrifices in her life but she was possibly the most successful monarch Britain has ever had, despite having the odds stacked against her in very many ways – her sex, the bankrupt state of the country at her accession, her religion (still a minority faith in Europe at that time), her dubious legitimacy, etc.
    Possibly apart from Henry II, I don’t think any other monarch had to overcome so many difficulties and obstacles to get to the throne. Her youth was a harsh but effective apprenticeship.
    I also see much of her mother in her – but the better part of her father too.
    The British don’t tend to give their kings and queens many epithets but if anyone deserved the title The Great, then she did.

  5. Elizabeth I – one of the most famous of English monarchs; perhaps only her father, Henry VIII, is more famous. Yet, for all her success as Queen, I believe she felt a great many insecurities from her tramatic childhood. She very obviously had problems with love and marriage but then who would not given her father’s martial history? It’sno wonder she never married; not only because she did not want to share power (I’ll have no master!) but because she feared marriage after seeing how her father treated her mother and all his wives. Not one wife of Henry VIII’s escaped without experiencing some form or mental or emotional abuse at some point in the marriage. He ran hot and cold with each of his wives and Elizabeth must have concuded such would be her fate should she marry. Add to her childhood fears an ill conceived and frustrating flirtation with Thomas Syemour, and a Prince and King of Spain eager to conquer her by marriage or invasion, pressures from her Counceil and Pariliment to marry, a captive sister Queen, Robert Dudley’s eager anticipation of marriage and later just power, and you have a recipe for a well rounded catatonic queen. Yet she never allowed her fears to interfere with the governing of her country. Many of the things she implemented have withstood the test of time.
    Elizabeth could have been an emotional wreck as Queen but she was not the kind of person to dwell on the past too much, and she forged ahead with what she believed was right. The results were a long, successful reign. I can see her on her death bed; eyes closed, commanding by signs only and every man in the room jumping to do her bidding! That’s a Queen.

  6. Although they were father and daughter, I find the difference between Elizabeth and Henry VIII immense. It was as though a comlete age passed between Henry’s passing & Elizabeth’s succession. Indeed the three short reigns (if you include the tragic Jane Grey) that separated her form her father must have seemed like ages to many who were there. Oh, all that wasted blood.
    Elizabeth built on the successes of her Father without using his cruel methods. She seemed an altogether more modern ruler, the one who left the medieval period behind.
    Stern, hard and strong when she had to be, she was nevertheless human.
    Although a Tudor, she left the Tudors behind. She deserved the love of her people.

  7. Hi Alison,
    G J Meyer, author of “The Tudors”, writes that the doctors probably had no idea of why Elizabeth was dying and that it could have been any of the following:-

    • A bronchial infection that turned into pneumonia
    • Streptococcus
    • The failure of some vital organ
    • Poisoning from ceruse – the white lead and vinegar mixture that Elizabeth used as make-up.

    But G J Meyer writes that whatever the actual medical condition it does appear that it was aggravated by Elizabeth’s state of mind, her depression.
    It could also have been cancer.

  8. Claire — what a wonderful recounting of Elizabeth’s last days. I hated to see her in such shape considering the life she had, but it was a quieter and more peaceful end that she likely imagined would ever happen.

    Ages ago, there was a fun book called The Book of Lists which contained all sorts of lists including If You Could Invite Anyone To Dinner, Who Would You Ask? (Or something like that). Elizabeth was among the 8 or so guests I wanted at my table,in addition to Jesus Christ, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln — I can’t remember the others right now, but it was funny how she was in the top five. Like few other historic figures, it seems that she has been a part of my life for the bulk of it.

    I’ll repeat the story of my introduction to her. In second grade (meaning I was about 7 or 8), our American history textbook came to the chapters on the New World post-Columbus, and the section opened with a paragraph on a young red-haired Queen, walking in the rose gardens of her palace as she contemplated a proposal of marriage from fellow monarch Phillip of Spain. It imagined her deep in thought as she considered the weight of such a decision…and a few paragraphs later, I learned that she became the Virgin Queen and was named Elizabeth. Everything else I learned about her came later, through books, movies, TV. Glenda Jackson, Flora Robson and (regrettably) Bette Davis made her live for a kid who loved history and movies; the middle book in the Tudor trilogy by Mary M. Luke (Catherine the Queen, A Crown For Elizabeth, and Gloriana) introduced me to the young Elizabeth that was nothing like the older, iconic Virgin we normally see. It was this Elizabeth, as a princess, as a young Queen, that gave me even more insight and made me a bigger fan. And the more I’ve learned of her mother, I can see that she was as much a Boleyn as she was a Tudor.

    She was a remarkable woman. She made mistakes like any of us because she was human (caring for Essex and for too long sparing that ungrateful Mary Queen of Scots stand out for me); she could be temperamental and vain, but she was still pretty incredible considering her background (princess one minute, bastard the next, and then wondering if you half-sister will spare your life). There aren’t many monarchs — male or female — who loved a nation as much as she did. She may have been the only queen in full rights (or if not the only then one of the few) who would not marry and have to hand over a portion of her Crown to a husband, only because it was believed a woman couldn’t do the job. Thankfully she wasn’t forced into marriage with an idiot (Catherine the Great and Grand Duke Peter); she didn’t have to marry a weakling (Louis XVI or Nicholas II). She received a great education, especially for a woman; she also learned through observation — of her father, stepmothers, brother, sister. She didn’t have the spoiled childhood of a Mary Stuart, but she learned survival.

    Just when I think I’ve learned all I can about Elizabeth, I find out I’m wrong, and she remains one of the few women in history that can make me sit up and take notice because she made such a strong difference. I think in many ways she was even more successful than Henry VIII — hey, she got an AGE named after her! I’m only sorry she didn’t marry because I hated to see the Tudor dynasty come to an end (had she been able to give birth), but I’m never sure what man could have been her equal, while not demanding his “rights” as a King or Prince Consort. But she remains a major influence to me. I’ll never be a queen 😀 and my Latin stinks LOL but I learned a lot from her. She taught me to study hard and accept challenges, especially in jobs traditionally male (when I became a crime scene tech, there weren’t many women in the job). I know that if I continue as a single, it’s not a sin.

    So RIP Elizabeth Tudor. (And sorry for going on so long but she will always be one of my favorite topics).

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