Monday, August 03, 2009

Question from Esther - Elizabeth I's health issues and Elizabeth's Christmas Court

Hi there,

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Elizabeth Tudor had problems with painful menses and also had pain in her face and jaw sometimes, which made me think of TMJ. I really wish I had written down WHERE I had read that, as it may have been a completely unreliable source, but I didn't, and now I can't find any information about these health issues Elizabeth may or may not have had.

Would you happen to have any idea if this is accurate information, or if I was just reading something utterly fabricated?

I'm also trying to find descriptions of Christmas celebrations at Elizabeth's court.

Thank you so much for your time!

Esther in L.A.


Blogger kb said...

I am a bit embarrassed to say that I know very little about Elizabeth's ongoing health problems. A bit more about the famous bout of smallpox.

Christmas was not the big celebration of the winter months, New Year's was. The ceremonial giving of the New Year's gifts were fairly well documented and the court fairly full to bursting.

Perhaps others know more . . .

August 04, 2009 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Marilyn R said...

Hi Esther

Christopher Hibbert in ‘The Virgin Queen’ says that Elizabeth ate mainly chicken and game, and even after an exhausting day’s hunting had a very small appetite, toying with her food and pushing it around her plate ‘reluctant to eat it yet unwilling to be seen to reject it’, which sounds very similar to accounts of the dinner parties of the Duchess of Windsor, who famously declared ‘you can never be too rich or too thin.’ I have always wondered if Elizabeth suffered from anorexia, although she apparently liked fine white bread and had a weakness for sweetmeats and sugary puddings.

She rarely drank any wine, Hibbert says, ‘for fear it would cloud her faculties’; Alicante wine was her favourite, although she had it diluted with three parts water.

From 1569 onwards she apparently had for several years a painful ulcer of the leg; when the discharge eventually ceased there was concern because it was supposed to have compensated for her irregular menstruation.

Hibbert says she also suffered from stomach pains, headaches, aching limbs, eyestrain, insomnia, breathlessness, indigestion, fainting fits, gout in the thumb, toothache (repeatedly) and swellings in the cheeks.

There is an extensive bibliography to the book, but unfortunately the author does not give footnotes.

August 05, 2009 9:29 AM  
Blogger kb said...

Marilyn -

I only read a bit of Hibbert's book so thank you for posting this information. Does Hibbert provide sources/footnotes for the irregular menses statement?

I've also never heard of the painful ulcer on her leg. Any source for that? It doesn't seem to have slowed her down in terms of riding, hunting, or even walking which she did nearly daily most of her life.

In reading your post, I wonder if the stomach pains, headaches and aching limbs were related to her menstrual cycle - a little early-modern PMS.

Fainting fits? Does anyone have any information at all of Elizabeth having fainting fits? This sounds, to me a bit far-fetched. The only time I've heard of anything close to that would have been in the days before her death when she was without energy, did not eat, would not go to bed and had breathing difficulty - according to Robert Carey.

Swelling cheeks was probably related to her dental issues - wouldn't you think?

I've never heard the idea that she suffered from anorexia. Interesting ...that would account for several of the other symptoms Hibbert lists.

August 05, 2009 11:28 AM  
Blogger Lara said...

The menstrual issues ring a bell with me, and I want to say that a I've come across mentions of bad headaches. I know from personal experience (menstrual migraines... yuk) that they can be related!

It's probably been 10 years since I've read a non-fiction book on Elizabeth though, that I can't even be sure if it was in a biography or some faint recollection from a novel. That's why I try to take notes now when I read history non-fiction. :)

August 05, 2009 11:47 AM  
OpenID entspinster said...

For another reason why Elizabeth merely toyed with her food in public, see the entry on few days back on her teeth. There is a portrait of Elizabeth done shortly after her ascension where her face looks quite swollen, almost like the "moonface" associated with Cushing's syndrome. Just before Mary died, Elizabeth had developed (or faked) an illness involving swelling and complaints of great pain when moved. As Cushing's that is not caused by modern treatment with steroids is associated only with an adrenal tumor, which would neither clear up on its own or be treated by surgery, probably what she had was a kidnesy infection. It may well have been brought on by stress.

The extremely tiny waist shown in Elizabeth's cornation portrait looks like aristic license to me-- even anorexics have ribs! She was relativewly thin, but "Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd", a treasure trove of quotes from original materiels, shows that in the middle of her reign some of her dresses where sent back to the tailor to be "enlarg'd", made larger. The author thinks this means that Elizabeth put on some weight, as people often do in their middle years.

In Elizabeth's last illness, she developed an abcess in her throat and could not swallow even broth until it burst a few days before she died. No doubt she died emaciated and dehydrated, as those who are now "in hospice" often do-- the dying loose interest in food and drink.

August 05, 2009 12:03 PM  
Anonymous Marilyn R said...


I’m afraid there are no sources or footnotes of any sort in Hibbert’s book, only the bibliography - and looking at that I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what came from where.

He does say that her health improved as she got older (perhaps the migraines ceased when she entered the menopause, would you think?) and that she had great stamina, even as an elderly woman. I remember reading about her having the headaches when she was a young woman, and how some courtiers saw them as appearing at very convenient times.

She seems to have some of the symptoms of gall stones or hiatus hernia, which would explain her digestive pains, careful eating and the small amounts, but really, when you look at the list of ailments, I would think that most women, in the course of a lifetime, could claim to have had most of them.

Page 31 (just after Katherine Parr died)
“...she was suffering from violent headaches and pain behind the eyes.... and when she reached the age of menstruation, her periods were highly irregular or, as some reported, non-existent, as in the case of amenorrhoea.”

Had not properly recovered by the time of Seymour’s death, after which she took to her bed and had to be attended by her brother’s physician.

Mary wants her to attend Mass in the Chapel Royal. Says she is too ill with stomach pains but then decides it would be prudent to attend and ‘wearing a suffering air’ asks one of the Queen’s ladies to rub her stomach for her.

Too poorly with cold and headache to leave her bed to answer questions regarding Wyatt’s rebellion. Queen Mary’s physicians diagnose ‘watery humours’; Hibbert says it also sounds like inflammation of the kidneys.

In custody at Woodstock – had a swollen face (although Hibbert says she was always crying) had to be bled; afterwards was better in health but not in temper.

P. 109
“The Queen was what nowadays would be called exceptionally highly-strung. She often came close to hysteria and more than once fainted when overpoweringly distressed.”

Does not give instances of this and continues with the list of ailments I gave in my first post.
Also says that ‘envoys’, whom he does not name, described her as ‘stick-thin’ and ‘as white as a ghost’.

August 05, 2009 2:18 PM  
Anonymous Lucretia said...

Assuming that the anorexia referred to in this thread is anorexia nervosa, I'm not sure that it even existed before the twentieth century, with the rise of consumer culture. (Corrections, anyone?)

Plain anorexia refers to a loss of appetite for any reason.

August 06, 2009 2:49 AM  
Anonymous Marilyn R said...

I was using the word 'anorexia' as meaning loss of appetite, perhaps frequently, or just having little interest in food, rather than an aversion to it. I think the fact that Elizabeth was fond of sweetstuffs shows she did not suffer from what is known today as anorexia nervosa.

August 06, 2009 11:23 AM  
Blogger kb said...

Marilyn R -

Thanks for the quotes. I agree with you that most of the illnesses Hibbert is describing could be associated with any normally healthy woman. I know for sure that if I were Elizabeth and it was at all possible to concoct an illness during Wyatt's rebellion I would have.

I'm still a bit flummoxed about the 'fainting' bit. I either haven't been reading the same sources, or Hibbert has some special source he hasn't shared with the rest of us. I just don't ever remember reading about her fainting - or even coming 'close to hysteria'. Anger - yes; merry - yes; stern - yes; flirtatious - yes; hysterical - no. I hate to say it but it sounds a bit patriarchal of Hibbert.

Anyone care to disagree or provide more info?

As for very white, it was an English fashion to lighten the skin with cosmetics concoctions that we would never dream of using. the thin issue though is intriguing to think about.

August 06, 2009 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It also seems to me that a lot of these complaints could have been brought on by stress and anxiety. Shortness of breath and fainting spells. Perhaps fainting spells may have been the phrase used, but it was really some type of lightheadedness? That happened to me at a job I used to have, regularly. As Queen of England in the mid to late 16th century, the stress had to be enormous, to understate it.

Thanks for the Holiday info., Marilyn! I think she should have had a bit more wine, though. Sounds like she could have used it. . .

If her diet was primarily simple sugars, it would have led to irritability, and the sugar crashes may have brought on headaches as well as the "fainting spells", waddaya think?

August 06, 2009 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Marilyn R said...

These are the only references to fainting and a bad leg I’ve come across.

Jane Dunn in 'Elizabeth & Mary’ says that at the beginning of 1554 Elizabeth was weakened and her face and body swollen, probably due to kidney inflammation, but that Queen Mary’s two doctors confirmed that the condition was not life-threatening and she was fit to travel.
"Elizabeth was in no position to demur. She was so unwell, however, that she came close to fainting ’three or four times’ as they got her ready to depart. (cites ‘Actes and Monuments’, John Foxe; revised & corrected by Rev. Josiah Pratt 1877, p119) ....Her progress (i.e. to London) was painful and slow....There were rumours, as there always were with unexplained illnesses, that Elizabeth had been poisoned, ’because she is so distended and exhausted that she is a sad sight to see’.” (Cites ‘Girlhood of Queen Elizabeth’, Frank A. Mumby, 1909, p108.)

Sir John Neale in 'Queen Elizabeth I’ also describes her as having those symptoms at this time.
(Neale does not give footnotes or bibliography, and the book first appeared in the 1930’s, but it is still, in my opinion, a very good read.)

"She had foibles: good health was one. Most of her life she enjoyed remarkable health and hated to be ill or even thought ill. In 1577 she several times commanded Leicester to write to Burghley, then at Buxton, asking him to send her some of the medicinal water from there. When it arrived she mistrusted ’it will not be of the goodness here it is there’; though the truth was that she had been told people were talking of it,'as though her Majesty had some sore leg’; and was half angry with Leicester now for writing to Burghley!”

P 287
When she was 53 and age was beginning to catch up with Leicester, Walsingham etc, Neale says she was in very good health “torpid neither in mind nor body...She had no tendency to stoutness, had not as yet become angular...”

P 323
Regular exercise and abstemious habits had stood her in good stead " did her scorn for the fantastic physic with which most of her friends dosed and disordered themselves... True, she occasionally, very occasionally, had some little ailment; 'in another body no great matter, but much in a great princess’.”

I have a feeling that the last paragraph says it all! And,as Anonymous points out,the accumulated stress on Elizabeth must have been beyond anything we lesser mortals can comprehend.

August 07, 2009 6:19 AM  
Blogger kb said...


Thank you for the references. I agree with you that Neale is still a good read and I would not quibble with his research. And in this case I agree with his assessment that she was generally in very good health.

I think the illnesses Elizabeth suffered during Mary's reign were not extraordinary given the circumstances.

August 07, 2009 11:28 AM  
Blogger kb said...

Christmas court! - I don't know why I didn't think of this before - but over on in her Compendium, she has some good information on some of the Christmas customs. See:

August 07, 2009 12:59 PM  
Blogger perrett said...

On the subject of Elizabeth's ailments. I am sure most of her problems were really stress re-lated. You note, when ever she was to make her first decisions on government issues...she started to claim she was unwell, as I feel it gave her time to collect herself and allowed time to considor the problems effects...should she get things wrong. I think she was very scared at first... then as she became more competant and realised she had 'Cecils'support, she only then got 'so stressed and ill' in times of extreme danger. Sure did did always have headaches, also 'suffered with her menses' and stomach problems, but all these relate to extreme stress and worry of the gigantic weight put upon her by becoming Queen. I am sure in times of real danger she did use these ailments to keep her from Court and out of the way from her accusers. If she was unable to face them...time might just be her saviour.

September 02, 2009 6:41 AM  

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