Beauty tips from Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I is one of history’s most iconic monarchs, instantly recognisable in her numerous representations. Bur have you ever wondered what it took to create the Elizabethan look? Joint Chief Curator Tracy Borman explores Elizabeth I’s beauty secrets…

The beauty industry is one of the biggest in the world, with the demand for new products – anti-ageing ones in particular – fuelled by celebrity endorsements promising to turn back the clock. I admit that I’ve invested in a fair few of them myself over the years.

Preserving the ‘mask of youth’ is something that my all-time historical heroine Queen Elizabeth I would have heartily approved of. This was more than mere vanity: any outward sign of infirmity on a sovereign’s part undermined the immortal, God-like status that was essential to retaining their power. For Elizabeth, there was an added incentive to maintain her youthful looks as long as possible so that she might still be considered a prize in the international marriage market. With the help of her ladies, she underwent a lengthy and painstaking beauty regime every single day of her forty-four year reign.

Queen Elizabeth I of England receiving Dutch Ambassadors, 1570-1575. Artist Unknown. Neue Galerie, Kassel, Germany. Source: Levina Teerlinc / Public domain

To keep the queen’s forehead wrinkle-free, her ladies pasted it with curd that had been skimmed from posset – a creamy drink made from milk mixed with sugar, wine or ale. She also used a cleansing lotion made from two newly laid eggs and their shells, burnt alum, powdered sugar, borax and poppy seeds ground with water. It was believed to whiten, smooth and soften the skin.

So far, so harmless – if, possibly, ineffective. But the same could not be said for Elizabeth’s choice of makeup. Her entire face, neck and hands were painted with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar) in order to achieve a fashionably pale complexion and also perhaps conceal some of Elizabeth’s smallpox scars. This may have looked good, but it also gave the queen lead poisoning, which – ironically – accelerated the ageing process. One contemporary observed with some distaste: ‘Those women who use it about their faces, do quickly become withered and grey headed, because this doth so mightily dry up the natural moisture of their flesh.’

Elizabeth I by Unknown English artist, circa 1588 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Plastering the face with ceruse each day could also cause significant hair loss. We know that Elizabeth had more than eighty wigs in her collection. Although they were a popular way of concealing greying, thinning hair in old age, there is evidence to suggest that the queen began to lose her hair when she was as young as thirty, thanks to her liberal use of white lead.

To create a dramatic contrast to her pale skin, Elizabeth’s lips and cheeks were coloured with a red paste made from beeswax, cochineal and plant dye, and her eyes were lined with kohl.

Great attention was also paid to the queen’s teeth. Although she was generally quite abstemious, Elizabeth had a weakness for sugar – so much so that she even sprinkled it over her salads, as well as consuming large quantities in desserts and sugar work. Little wonder that she soon started to suffer from tooth decay and had to have a number of them removed. By the time she was in her sixties, she had so few left that the French ambassador claimed: ‘One cannot understand her easily when she speaks quickly.’

The loss of her teeth had another unfortunate side-effect: it made the queen’s already gaunt face sunken and drawn so that she looked a good deal older than her years. Her ladies therefore stuffed clots of material inside their royal mistress’s mouth to plump out her cheeks. They also soaked this material in sweet-smelling herbs to help cover up the queen’s foul breath.

Elizabeth I Portrait Miniature, Isaac Oliver, 1590-2 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. One of the few convincing images showing the Queen as she looked as an older woman. It is quite possible that the image was not completed because it was considered too realistic.

Thanks to all of this effort, Elizabeth just about pulled it off. A visitor to her court in 1599 was amazed to see the queen, now well into her sixties, looking ‘very youthful still in appearance, seeming no more than twenty years of age.’ It was an impressive achievement and a fitting reward for all the pain and effort that Elizabeth had invested in her beauty regime over the years. But it’s not one I’ll be trying any time soon.

Tracy Borman
Joint Chief Curator
Historic Royal Palaces

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