Blue Monday: Elizabeth I’s tips for curing the blues

So, today (18 January) is officially Blue Monday – statistically, the most depressing day of the year. Even more so in 2021, as we find ourselves still in the grip of a global pandemic and unable to cheer ourselves up by getting out and about. But fear not, help is at hand from the greatest Tudor monarch of them all: Elizabeth I. Always a resourceful woman, she chased away ‘melancholy’ with a whole host of entertaining (socially-distance-able) pursuits.

Elizabeth I at Hampton Court Palace

Elizabeth was top of the Tudor tree when it came to fitness. Although she declared that she was ‘no morning woman’, it was her habit to go on vigorous early morning walks in the grounds of her palaces. The Queen was particularly fond of the gardens at Hampton Court and ordered that the windows overlooking the ponds area to the south of the palace be blocked out so that she could ‘walk secretly all hours and times without anyone looking upon her out of any place.’ [PICTURE OF PALACE GARDENS] But in 1602 she was spotted by a foreign visitor at court, who was astonished when ‘Her Royal Majesty passed us several times, walking as freely as if she had been only eighteen years old.’

On rainy days, Elizabeth stayed indoors and practised her dance steps. The Virgin Queen would have given the Strictly dancers a run for their money. She was a highly accomplished dancer and loved to perform energetic routines such as the galliard or volta. The latter involved being thrown several feet into the air by a partner, so was not for the faint-hearted. Dancing helped Elizabeth to stay fit throughout her life. She was still out-dancing every other lady at court when she was approaching seventy.

Ceramic tile fragments recovered from excavations of Whitehall Palace, once part of Elizabeth I’s bathroom.

For all her restless energy, Elizabeth did know how to relax. One of her main pleasures was bathing, and she made sure it was as luxurious and entertaining as possible. At Whitehall Palace, she had the Tudor equivalent of a sauna, heated by a ceramic tiled stove. There was also a splendidly arrayed bathroom which, as well as a large bath, contained an elaborate water feature where ‘the water pours from oyster shells and different kinds of rock.’ Next to the bathroom was a room containing an organ so that the Queen could be serenaded while she soaked in the tub.

Elizabeth’s other sedate pastimes included reading. Often, she would read to herself, but on other occasions she would command her ladies to read aloud (in several languages) for her amusement. Her private library at Hampton Court was stocked with books on a variety of different subjects. It also included a number of more unusual items, such as a walking stick made from a unicorn’s horn and a horn cup that was reputed to break if it came into contact with poison. The Queen also liked to distract her mind from the pressures of state business by translating ancient Greek and Roman texts.

Elizabeth wasn’t averse to more frivolous diversions. She spent many hours playing cards, backgammon, gambling or gossiping with her ladies in private about the latest scandals and events at court. She also followed the traditional private pastime of female royals: embroidery. By the time she came to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth was exceptionally skilled with a needle. At the age of just five years old, she had presented her infant brother Edward with ‘a shirt…of her own working’. She subsequently produced three exquisitely embroidered manuscript books which she presented to her father and his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, as New Year gifts.

But there was one pastime which the Queen kept secret – for good reason. Alchemy, the art of turning base metals into gold through the discovery of a universal elixir known as the ‘philosopher’s stone’, bordered on witchcraft. Elizabeth was so fascinated by it that she had a suite of private rooms at Hampton Court filled with alchemical equipment and potions, and she and her astrologer Dr John Dee would closet themselves away there for hours.

The Bacton Altar Cloth on display in The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I exhibition at Hampton Court Palace

And for those days when alchemy, fitness, gossiping and the numerous other pursuits the Queen had at her disposal just didn’t cut the mustard, she could always resort to clearing out her wardrobe. The Venetian Secretary to England may have been exaggerating when he claimed Elizabeth owned 6,000 dresses, but at the time of her death in 1603 there were 1,900 in her possession. Those gowns which she had grown tired of or which she (reluctantly) admitted didn’t suit her, she gave away to her ladies and favourites. Chief among the latter was her longest-serving attendant, Blanche Parry, in whose memory she may have bequeathed the exquisite ‘Rainbow Portrait’ dress. This is the only dress from Elizabeth’s wardrobe known to have survived and, after being discovered in a church in Bacton, Herefordshire, a few years ago (where it was masquerading as an altar cloth), it is now being cared for by Historic Royal Palaces.

So why not chase away the blues by rifling through your own wardrobe for long-forgotten treasures? Who knows what you might find…

Tracy Borman
Chief Curator
Historic Royal Palaces

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