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The Queen's Death

Queen Elizabeth may have seemed to many to be immortal, but by the turn of the seventeenth century, she was beginning to display very real human frailty. Life as a monarch may have been glorious at times, but it was a difficult, demanding, and often very lonely task, and Elizabeth was tired both physically and emotionally. She herself said :

“To be a king and wear a crown, is a thing more glorious to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it”

  When visiting the House of a courtier, Queen Elizabeth had to have a stick to walk up the stairs, and during the opening of Parliament she almost fell under the weight of her heavy robes. Also, for some years the Queen had been suffering from some form of mental instability. She was no longer the charming, witty and graceful monarch that she had once been. She was rather paranoid, and was increasingly bitter. She was also lonelier as more friends passed away. She had never doubted the justice of the execution of her once favourite, Robert Devereux, but she grieved deeply at the death of the man she had loved since childhood. Sometimes she would sit in dark rooms, weeping at his young and tragic end.

By the late winter of 1602/3 Elizabeth was feeling unwell. She had caught a chill after walking out in the cold winter air, and complained of a sore throat as well as aches and pains. She lay resignedly on her cushions in her private apartments, and could not be persuaded to leave them for the comfort of her bed.  “I am not well” she declared, but refused the administrations of her doctors. It was the opinion of her contemporaries that she would have recovered from this illness if she had fought against it, but she did not want to. She was old, tired and lonely. As her condition deteriorated, Archbishop Whitgift (her favourite of all her Archbishops of Canterbury) was called to her side, and the Queen clung tight to his hand. When he spoke to her of getting better, she made no response, but when he spoke to her of the joys of Heaven, she squeezed his hand contentedly.  By this time she was beyond speech and could only communicate with gestures. There was still one matter that the Queen had left unresolved and that was the succession to the throne. However, it was generally believed that the King of Scotland was to succeed. Elizabeth may or may not responded, but for the sake of the peaceful transition of power, it was declared that she had gestured for James VI of Scotland to succeed her.

It was getting late, and those in vigilance around the Queen's bed left her to the care of her ladies. The Queen fell into a deep sleep, and died in the early hours of the 24th of March, 1603. It was a Thursday, the death day of her father, and her sister.  It was the eve of the annunciation of the Virgin Mary, perhaps an apt day for the Virgin Queen to die. The Elizabethan calendar was also different to ours, as they still used the Julian calendar - the new year beginning on the 25th of March. Thus the last day of the year 1602 also saw the last hours of the last Tudor monarch. The new year would bring a new reign and a new era in British history.

It was with sadness that the Queen's death was announced on the streets of London the following morning, and witnesses described the eerie silence of the stunned crowd. For almost 45 years they had been ruled by Elizabeth, and knew no other way of life.

As the Queen had wished, there was no post mortem. Her body was embalmed, and placed in a lead coffin. A few days later, the Queen began her last journey. She was taken by water to Whitehall, and laid in state, before being taken to Westminster Hall. There her body was to remain until the new King gave orders for her funeral.

On the 28th of April 1603, the Queen was given a magnificent funeral. Four horses draped in black drew her coffin, covered in purple velvet.  An effigy of the great Queen, dressed in the robes of state with a crown on her head and a scepter in her hands, lay on the coffin beneath a mighty canopy held by six knights. Behind the Queen came her palfrey, led by her Master of Horse. The chief mourner, the Marchioness of Northampton, led the peeresses of the realm all dressed in black, and behind them came all the important men of the realm, as well as over two hundred poor folks. The streets were full of people, all come to pay their last respects to the Queen who had ruled them so wisely and for so long as she made her way to her final resting place at Westminster Abbey. The grief of the nation was unprecedented, and was a tribute to the remarkable achievements of a remarkable woman, Queen Elizabeth I.