Was Elizabeth I Poisoned By Her Makeup?

”If looks could kill…”

No, we’re not talking about the imperious glare for which Queen Elizabeth I was feared. The killing looks in this case refer to the appearance of Her Majesty. Virtually all portraits of the queen emphasize her pale skin, vibrant lips, and styled hair. The portraits also suggest that she wasn’t feeling particularly chipper at the time. Perhaps that is because the makeup she used to perfect her appearance was slowly killing her.

As previously noted in other articles, the Commonplace Fun Facts staff is exclusively male. This is not because of an intentional violation of Title VII of the U.S. Code; it’s just the way it happens to be. Consequently, our collective experience about what it takes to make oneself presentable in the morning is limited to a 5-minute shower, a once-over with a comb, and — if absolutely necessary — a shave.

We acknowledge, however, that the female of the species takes a bit longer to get ready. We’re not complaining. As John F. Kennedy joked when he made an appearance without his wife, “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes longer, but of course, she looks better than we do when she does it.”

Today, the act of “organizing herself” can be expensive. The makeup and perfume industry rakes in billions of dollars each year. Five hundred years ago, making oneself presentable was also costly — not only monetarily but also in terms of what it did to your health.

Elizabeth I reigned over England from 1558 to 1603. As sovereign, she was expected to reflect the best of England’s culture and to be the personal embodiment of the kingdom’s image around the world. The cultural standards of the day put a premium on pale, smooth skin. For Elizabeth to pull that off, she would need some help.

In 1562, Elizabeth contracted a bad case of smallpox. She survived the ordeal, but it left her face and body badly scarred. To cover up these imperfections, she used Venetian ceruse, a cosmetic made with white lead and vinegar.

Regular contact with lead is certainly hazardous to one’s health. In Elizabeth’s case, she had it in direct contact with her face and neck in mass quantities. It wasn’t just for a few hours a day, either. Consistent with the practices of the time, Elizabeth wore the toxic concoction for a week at a time, with touch-ups applied daily, as necessary. At times, her makeup was as much as one inch thick.

As the years progressed, Elizabeth’s need for the lead-based cosmetics increased. One of the unfortunate side-effects of lead is corrosion of the skin. Once she started down the road of using Venitian ceruse, it began a deadly escalating cycle. The makeup caused skin lesions that required more makeup to cover, which led to more lesions, etc.

“We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed; the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.”

Wearing the makeup for a week gave the lead an opportunity to be completely soaked into the skin. Lead poisoning wasn’t her only problem, however. When she did get around to removing the makeup, she used a concoction of eggshell, alum, and mercury. Mercury happens to be yet another of those amazing features of the natural world that should come with the label, “Look, but don’t touch.”

Physicians tell us that those who suffer from lead and mercury poisoning exhibit memory loss, irritability, and depression. In addition to these mental health maladies, lead and mercury poisoning trigger the erosion of skin, hair loss, and vision problems. Elizabeth suffered from all of these conditions toward the end of her life.

Although she did not recognize the cause of her problems, Elizabeth was cognizant of the heavy demands placed upon her in terms of keeping up appearances. When addressing Parliament in 1586, she lamented, “We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed; the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.”

Even if she disagreed with societal expectations, she still felt compelled to observe them. This extended to the rest of her beautification routine, as well. To achieve the ruby red appearance she desired for her lips, Elizabeth used cinnabar — a substance that contains mercury. When she started to lose hair — likely because of lead and mercury poisoning — she began wearing a wig. It was dyed with — you guessed it — more mercury.

Art historian, Sir Roy Strong, coined the term ‘The Mask of Youth’ in the 1970s to describe the queen’s appearance in portraits in the later years of her reign. Despite heavy applications of the toxic makeup, nothing could prevent Elizabeth from becoming a rather horrifying apparition by the end of her life. In one of the earliest forms of political image control, she forbade any artist from depicting her in any way other than beautiful. Had photography existed at that time, nothing would have been able to disguise the deadly and corrosive effects of her lifelong practice of “beautification.”

Elizabeth died in 1603. The true cause of her death is open to speculation. Some suggest pneumonia or cancer. All of her contemporaries observed that she was in a state of “deep melancholy” at the end. There can be no doubt that it was her makeup that contributed to the end of the Elizabethan Age.

end of the day they considered ‘they were worth it’.”

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