Queen Elizabeth I’s Iconic White Makeup Held A Deadly Secret

From her bright red lips to her pale, porcelain skin, Queen Elizabeth I is arguably one of the most recognized monarchs in English history. But her iconic look, particularly her white makeup, hid a dark and deadly secret, something that historians believe led to her death at 69 years old. You’ll have to keep reading to learn the truth.

Queen Elizabeth I Needed To Remain Beautiful

Queen Elizabeth I
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

When Elizabeth I took the throne on November 17, 1558, she became one of the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor. During her reign, Queen Elizabeth did all she could to hold her power. She was living in a male-dominated world, after all.

To stay on top and in control of the English monarchy, Elizabeth I believed she needed to remain as youthful and beautiful as possible.

She Was Greatly Influenced By The Beauty Of The Renaissance

Queen Elizabeth I - portrait
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth I was highly dependent on a beauty routine, something she would later become known for in various media depictions. Greatly influenced by art, literature, and the Renaissance, the queen was a bit of a romantic when it came to her personal style.

It was all about bringing the beauty ideals of the era to life, and that meant a very specific style, makeup palate, skin tone, and hair color.

Pale Skin, Red Lips, And Lighter-Colored Hair

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Focus Features
Focus Features

During the Renaissance, a woman was considered beautiful with very pale skin, lighter-colored hair, bright eyes, and crimson red lips. While the standards might sound achievable in this day and age, they were almost impossible to maintain during the time.

It was the 1550s, and disease was so widespread that a simple infection was enough to leave a person disfigured. There wasn’t any modern medicine to speak of at the time.

The White Makeup Became Iconic

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

So, how was Queen Elizabeth I able to maintain her striking beauty and appearance? The answer is simple: the iconic white makeup that she would paint on her face each morning. Her routine would become even more prevalent as time went on and she grew older.

But while Queen Elizabeth I’s friends, family, and subjects became used to seeing their monarch in white face makeup, no one knew about the dark truth that lay underneath the mask.

It Was A Male-Dominated World

Elisabeth I.-England
Bullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Bullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Elizabeth I took the throne over from her sister when she was only 25 years old. As the second-ever female in the court, Queen Elizabeth had to stand her ground in a male-dominated world.

For her, that meant retaining her beauty and youth for as long as possible; in those times, men were more likely to speak with her if she could hold their attention. The fact that she was unmarried made doing her job even harder.

Unmarried Women Were Considered Bothersome

Queen Glenda
Henry Gris/FPG/Getty Images
Henry Gris/FPG/Getty Images

Living and being queen in a male-dominated society meant Queen Elizabeth I had to work much harder to stake her claim as the ruler of the country. At the time, women were still considered property of their husbands.

And women who were unmarried weren’t seen as much more than a nuisance. As an unmarried woman herself, Queen Elizabeth I had that much more to prove, even though she sat on the throne of England.

Even Though There Were Many Suitors, She Never Married

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Universal Studios
Universal Studios

As a young queen, it’s said that Elizabeth I was good-looking and used her feminine charms to get ahead in the court. The thing is, beauty and youth disappear with time, something Queen Elizabeth I soon found out.

Even so, during that time when her beauty was widely discussed, many men came to the palace asking to court her majesty. She never once took a husband, only bringing good-looking men into her court.

Beauty Equaled Power

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Universal Studios
Universal Studios

At the time, beauty meant power. So, Queen Elizabeth I was set on keeping her youthful appearance for as long as possible. During an interview with BBC, British historian Dr. Anna Whitelock discussed the late queen, saying, “Elizabeth’s contemporaries believed that beauty amplified female power, and so they regarded the queen’s splendor as confirmation of her claim to the throne.”

If that was the case, it’s no wonder Elizabeth wanted to keep her looks.

Pale White Skin Was The Epitome Of Beauty

The Virgin Queen
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

With people believing that beauty equaled power, Queen Elizabeth I did her best to keep a beautiful appearance, especially as she grew older. It became a huge part of her success.

And the biggest part of that beauty was Elizabeth’s iconic white skin. Thought to be the epitome of style, grace, and beauty, porcelain skin was very desirable during the time, as it represented innocence, fertility, and being part of the higher class.

Queen Elizabeth Painted Her Face With A Special Concoction

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Universal Studios
Universal Studios

According to some, the white paint Queen Elizabeth I used on her skin was the epitome of beauty. It meant she worked inside, was higher class, and, because of how pale she was able to get the color, looked like she retained the innocence of a young girl.

Because of this, Queen Elizabeth I made sure to have her face painted each day with a special concoction, something that would not be allowed on the market today.

The White Paint’s Compounds Were Toxic

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Focus Features
Focus Features

The paint that Queen Elizabeth used to get her iconic white face was known as Venetian ceruse. This compound was composed of lead and white vinegar. And, as one would expect with lead in the equation, the paint was extremely toxic.

Considering that Queen Elizabeth I painted her face each morning with the toxic substance and wore it all day long, it’s safe to say she wasn’t exactly in the healthiest state.

Women Would Wear The Lead-Laced Paint For Days

mary-queen-of-scots_W0IxdQ
Focus Features
Focus Features

It was the 16th century, so people weren’t overly concerned with a little thing called lead poisoning. At the time, they didn’t even have a name for the health issue! Women would just go on about their lives, wearing lead-laced white paint on their faces for, sometimes, days at a time!

Even Queen Elizabeth I was said to have died with at least an inch of white makeup on her face!

The White Paint Was Worse Than They Could’ve Imagined

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HBO
HBO

Not only was the white paint laced with toxic lead, but it really did no favors to anyone’s skin. In fact, the paint wound up leaving the complexion of a person with discolored lines, not exactly the face people want during a time where beauty was everything.

Not only that, but when the ladies actually took the time to remove the white makeup from their faces, they were spreading on even more toxins!

The “Remover” Was Laced With Mercury

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HBO
HBO

Venetian ceruse was bad enough on its own, with toxic lead in its mixture. Of course, the people wearing the white paint had no idea they were spreading toxic chemicals on their faces.

And the paint mixture wasn’t the only toxic element to their beauty rituals. The remover Queen Elizabeth I and everyone else allegedly used was also bad, being laced with mercury! Everything about the makeup was a health risk.

Many Toxic Chemicals Were Used In The Name Of Beauty

Queen Elizabeth I
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth I and other high society ladies had no idea that while they were amplifying their beauty, they were actually poisoning their skin, making it look aged with lines and discoloration.

But strange practices such as using lead and mercury-laced products weren’t unheard of during the time. In fact, many women would use toxic substances such as sulfur and turpentine to remove what they considered imperfections on their skin, i.e., freckles.

Black Kohl Wasn’t Doing Queen Elizabeth Any Favors

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Jamie Fenn/unsplash
Jamie Fenn/unsplash

The white lead-laced paint and the mercury-ridden remover weren’t the only toxic makeup products Queen Elizabeth I used. It’s been said that her majesty also used black kohl liner to help give her look a bit of drama.

Beauticians still argue over the long-term health issues that came with using such a substance back in the 16th century. Considering Queen Elizabeth was already using lead and mercury on a daily basis, the kohl probably didn’t help.

Kohl Was Made Using A Toxic Element

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Channel 5
Channel 5

Black kohl wasn’t made of the non-toxic substance it is today. Back in the 1550s, Queen Elizabeth I was using a product made of powdered antimony, a metallic chemical element that is known to cause rashes if skin is exposed for a prolonged period of time.

And that’s just the beginning! Her majesty would also use eyedrops from the plant nightshade to widen her pupils and give her eyes a dewy look. Too bad nightshade is poisonous!

There Was One Thing That Wasn’t Toxic

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Channel 5
Channel 5

Thankfully, Queen Elizabeth I’s beauty routine didn’t always involve toxic chemicals that were secretly aging her. She also favored very thin and arched eyebrows, plucking them for the desired effect.

And her iconic ruby-red lips and cheeks were a product of plant dye and beeswax, a far cry from the lead, mercury, and kohl used on her eyes and face. But between the pale white paint and crimson lips, Queen Elizabeth became quite a trendsetter!

Black Teeth Became In Vouge

The Virgin Queen
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth was quite the trendsetter. As a beloved and beautiful monarch, women wanted nothing more than to look like her majesty. So much so that when her teeth began to decay later in life, black teeth were suddenly in vogue!

While she didn’t necessarily hide her decaying teeth, which were thanks to a fondness for sweet desserts and a lack of oral hygiene, there was one aspect of her majesty that Queen Elizabeth I didn’t want anyone to notice.

Queen Elizabeth I Contracted Smallpox

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

When Queen Elizabeth I was only 29 years old, she contracted a deadly disease: smallpox. With no cure or vaccine, smallpox was feared by pretty much everyone. In fact, when her physician, Dr. Burcot, first told Queen Elizabeth I that she had the illness, she thought he was lying.

In no way was the Queen of England sick with smallpox! But her high fever was telling a different story — her majesty was very ill.

A Lot Of The European Population Died From Smallpox

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Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

With no cure or vaccine, smallpox was the most feared contagion in Europe. And rightfully so! At the time, about a third of the people who were diagnosed with the illness died. It’s no wonder Queen Elizabeth I didn’t want to believe her physician’s diagnosis.

This was especially so, considering one of the stages of smallpox was going to ruin her appearance. One of the symptoms of smallpox was disfiguring lesions, something that would end up scarring a person if they become irritated.

Her Reaction Was A Bit Dramatic

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Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox

With her fever, pains, and the inevitable lesions that were going to pocket her skin, Queen Elizabeth I had no choice but to believe Dr. Burcot’s diagnosis. She had smallpox and, therefore, was going to get scarring on her skin.

According to historical accounts, when her majesty finally came to terms with her smallpox diagnosis she was a bit dramatic. Reports say the queen cried “God’s pestilence. Which is better? To have the pox in the hand or in the face or in the heart and kill the whole body?”

It Didn’t Look Great For The Queen

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

For a time, things didn’t look great for the beloved queen. As her condition worsened, to the point of her voice going, the queen’s subjects were afraid she wasn’t going to make it.

As there was nothing in terms of a cure or even medicine, there was nothing physicians could even do to help her condition. Of course, that didn’t stop them from trying everything within their power to cure the queen.

Doctors Wrapped Her In A Red Cloth

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monylov/unsplash
monylov/unsplash

At the time, physicians thought smallpox was contracted when a person had an “imbalance of humors” within the body. In Queen Elizabeth I’s case, her doctor believed she needed to be wrapped in a red cloth in order to rid her body of the scarlet lesions.

The fever and pains would go away, eventually. But the queen was horrified at the idea of being scarred and disfigured for the rest of her life.

Eventually, Queen Elizabeth I Returned To Full Health

Elizabeth I of England.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Thankfully, the succession plans made by Queen Elizabeth I’s ministers fell through, as her majesty eventually returned to full health. Unfortunately, while her health was back, her skin took on a different look.

Her face was no longer smooth. It was now pocketed with the scars of smallpox lesions, something that would never go away, no matter how many times she was wrapped in a red cloth by her doctors.

She Couldn’t Use Her Beauty To Her Advantage Anymore

Queen Elizabeth I
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Before she was diagnosed with smallpox, Queen Elizabeth I used her beauty to her advantage. It helped her influence people in a male-dominated world. Now, she was riddled with scars, something the queen thought was going to hurt her position as the head of the monarchy.

So, she began layering on the Venetian ceruse makeup, hoping the white paint would cover up a majority of her scarring. From that point on, the queen was rarely seen without her face painted.

The Toxins Were Taking A Toll

Elizabeth I.
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The only people who saw Queen Elizabeth I without her inch-thick white mask were her inner circle. Even so, they would never comment on the queen’s actual skin. But, according to history, her majesty’s skin was going downhill fast.

Not only was it pocketed by smallpox scars, but the lead-laced paint and mercury-laced makeup remover were doing a number. The toxins were aging her beyond belief. It wasn’t a good look.

She Was Getting Older And More Self Conscious

Judy Dench in Elizabeth
Miramax/Laurie Sparham
Miramax/Laurie Sparham

As she got older, Queen Elizabeth I grew even more concerned about her looks. As she had been all about her beauty from a young age, the fact that she was getting older with wrinkles on top of her already scarred skin wasn’t going to fly.

She was now applying “her face” no matter the occasion. She even ordered the ladies of the court to wear drab dresses of black and white for a very specific reason!

She Ordered A Dress Code

A young Queen Elizabeth I.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As she got older, Queen Elizabeth I became more self-conscious about her looks. She even made it so women of the court could only wear black and white dresses while she wore lavish gowns. She wanted it so no one could take their eyes off her.

But the years upon years of putting toxins on her skin were about to catch up with her. When she was 69 years old, Queen Elizabeth I died.

Lead Poisoning Was Her Downfall

The death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England, in 1603 by Paul Delaroche
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

In her last year, Queen Elizabeth I was experiencing hair loss, lapses in her memory, fatigue, and digestive issues. According to modern-day doctors, those are all signs of lead poisoning.

It seems as though Queen Elizabeth I took the phrase “beauty is pain” to a whole new level, as she continued to use the white lead-laced paint on her face up until her death. She was even buried in it. Ultimately, her vanity and the need to be the most beautiful person in the room was the queen’s downfall.