The Queen's Bed

An Intimate History of Elizabeth's Court

Anna Whitelock

Sarah Crichton Books


The Queen’s Two Bodies
At the heart of the court lay the Queen’s bed. Here the Queen might finally rest and retire from the relentless pressures of the day. Yet it was more than simply a place of slumber. The Queen’s bed was the stage upon which, each night, the Queen would lie. Hers was no ordinary bed; it was the state bed, and at night as by day the Queen was surrounded by all the trappings of royal majesty.
As Queen, Elizabeth would have a number of beds, sumptuously furnished in bright colours and luxurious fabrics, all ostentatiously decorated and individually designed, each fit for a queen. At Richmond Palace, Elizabeth might sleep in an elaborate boat-shaped bed with curtains of ‘sea water green’ and quilted with light-brown tinsel. At Whitehall her bed was made from an intricate blend of different-coloured woods and hung with Indian-painted silk. Her best bed, which was taken with her when the court moved from place to place, had a carved wooden frame which was elaborately painted and gilded, a valance of silver and velvet, tapestry curtains trimmed with precious buttons and gold and silver lace, and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.
In her Bedchamber, Elizabeth could de-robe, take off her make-up and withdraw from the hustle-bustle of the court. Here she was waited upon by her ladies who had the most intimate access to the Queen, attending on her as she dressed, ate, bathed, toileted and slept. Elizabeth was never alone and in or adjacent to her bed she also had a sleeping companion – a trusted bedfellow – with whom she might gossip, share dreams and nightmares, and seek counsel. We know Elizabeth was both an insomniac and scared of the dark. All her worries were magnified in the darkness of her Bedchamber at night. It was here that she might have second thoughts about decisions made in the light of day, be haunted by fears of her enemies and plagued by vivid nightmares. Sharing a bed with a sleeping companion of the same sex was a common practice at the time, providing warmth, comfort and security; but being the Queen of England’s bedfellow was a position of the greatest trust, bringing close and intimate access to Elizabeth.1
The Queen’s Bedchamber was at once a private and public space. The Queen’s body was more than its fleshly parts; her body natural represented the body politic, the very state itself. The health and sanctity of Elizabeth’s body determined the strength and stability of the realm. Illness, sexual immorality and infertility were political concerns and it was her Ladies of the Bedchamber who were the guardians of the truth as to the Queen’s and thus the nation’s well-being.
An unmarried queen heightened fears. Women were expected to marry and Elizabeth’s decision to remain unwed ran counter to society’s expectations. It was generally believed that women were inferior to men and so subject to them by divine law. Women who ignored religious precepts and did not submit to male authority were potentially a source of disorder and sexual licence. Medical discourse regarded women’s bodies as being in a constant state of flux and so possessing dangerously unstable qualities.2 Such medical axioms were influenced by theology, with the belief that Eve’s moral and intellectual weakness had been the primary cause of the Fall of Man and succeeding generations of women were similarly flawed.
Whilst for her male predecessors sexual potency might be a sign of political power, the corruption or weakness of Elizabeth’s body would undermine the body politic. Women were to preserve their honour not only through chastity, but also by maintaining a reputation for chaste behaviour. For a woman to be thought unchaste, even falsely, would jeopardise her social standing. Moreover, Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, ‘the King’s whore’, and so the living symbol of the break with Rome.3 For Philip II of Spain, the Guise family in France, and the Pope, Elizabeth was illegitimate by birth and by religion. For them Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was the rightful queen.4 Mary was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, who had married James V of Scotland and was daughter of Mary of Guise. The Guise was one of the most powerful, ambitious and fervently Catholic families in France. In April 1558, just six months before Elizabeth’s accession, this Franco-Scottish alliance was cemented by the marriage of sixteen-year-old Mary Stuart and François of Valois, the Dauphin of France. From the day Elizabeth became Queen, Mary Stuart claimed the English throne as her own.5 The stakes could not have been higher; the Queen’s body was at the centre of a drama that encompassed the entirety of Europe. In the war of faith which divided Europe, Elizabeth’s body, with her bed as its stage, was the focal point of the conflict.6 Throughout her reign rumours circulated about her sexual exploits and illegitimate children. Her Catholic opponents challenged her virtue and accused her of a ‘filthy lust’ that ‘defiled her body and the country’.7 The reason Elizabeth was not married, they claimed, was because of her sexual appetites; she could not confine herself to one man. Some alleged that she had a bastard daughter; others that she had a son, and others that she was physically incapable of having children. By questioning the health, chastity and fertility of the Queen’s natural body, opponents in England and across the continent sought to challenge the Protestant state. For half a century the courts of Europe buzzed with gossip about Elizabeth’s behaviour. The King of France would jest that one of the great questions of the age was, ‘whether Queen Elizabeth was a maid or no’.8
Over the five decades of her rule, Elizabeth changed from being a young vibrant queen with a pale pretty face, golden hair and slender physique, to a wrinkled old woman with rotten teeth, garishly slathered in jewels and cosmetics to distract from her pitted complexion, and wearing a reddish wig to cover her balding head. As she passed through her twenties and thirties, unmarried and without an heir, and on to middle age and infirmity, the country’s fears intensified. With no settled succession it became increasingly important for Elizabeth to try to disguise the signs of ageing. The physical reality of the Queen’s decaying natural body needed to be reconciled with the enduring and unchanging body politic; only in the Bedchamber was Elizabeth’s natural body and the truth laid bare.
Access to the Queen’s body was carefully controlled, as were representations of it in portraits. The Queen’s image was fashioned to retain its youthfulness, which necessarily obscured the reality of her physical decline. In paintings she needed to appear as she did outside her Bedchamber, enrobed, bejewelled, bewigged and painted; creating this complex confection as she aged was the daily task of the women of her Bedchamber. Such was Elizabeth’s desire to preserve the fiction of her youth that she sponsored the search for the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, the elixir of life which would ensure eternal health and immortality.
Beyond the rumours and the sexual slander, the Queen’s body and Bedchamber were also the focus of assassination attempts, as disaffected religious zealots plotted to kill Elizabeth. The preservation of the Protestant state depended upon the life of the Queen, and the Bedchamber was the last line of defence for would-be assassins looking to subvert the regime. One plan aimed to plant gunpowder in her Bedchamber and blow up the Queen as she slept; others sought to poison her as she rode, hunted or dined. Not only did Elizabeth’s bedfellows, the women who attended on the Queen when she was in bed, help protect her reputation for chastity; they also protected the body of the Queen from attempts to assassinate her; they would check each dish before it was served, test any perfume that had been given to her Majesty and would make nightly searches of the Bedchamber.9 Their presence was for both propriety and security. While the loyalty of her ladies was assured, the families of some of these women sought to use their privileged access to the Queen to serve their own traitorous or licentious ends.
The Queen’s body was the very heart of the realm and so its care and access to it was politically important. By sleeping with Elizabeth and dressing her, the Ladies of her Bedchamber could observe any bodily changes in the Queen, attend to her if unwell, share her night-time fears, her good humour and her confidences and defend her against hostile rumours. Foreign ambassadors managed to bribe the women on occasions for information about the Queen’s life, and despatches reported intimate details, such as Elizabeth’s light and irregular periods, and supposed secret sexual liaisons with individuals such as Robert Dudley, Sir Christopher Hatton and the Duke of Anjou, the alleged ‘bedfellows’ who ‘aspired to the honour of her bed’.10

Copyright © 2013 by Anna Whitelock