Death Cushions

In the early morning of this day in 1603, the great Queen Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace, in a great royal bed befitting her station in life and history. But this was not her chosen place of earthly departure: she was forced into it after days of lying upon a pallet of cushions laid out in her privy chamber by her ladies-in-waiting. The Queen’s death watch was very focused on these cushions, as recorded by the oft-cited account of Sir Robert Carey, and imprinted in historical memory by Paul Delaroche’s famous 1828 painting, The Death of Elizabeth I. According to Carey, on the Sunday before her death the Queen did not go to chapel; instead  she had cushions laid for her in the privy chamber hard by the closet door, and there she heard service. From that day forwards, she grew worse and worse. She remained upon her cushions four days and nights at the least. All about her could not persuade her, either to take any sustenance, or go to bed. The Queen grew worse and worse, because she would be so, none about her being able to persuade her to go to bed. My Lord Admiral was sent for, (who, by reason of my sister’s death, that was his wife, had absented himself some fortnight from court) what by fair means, what by force, he got her to bed. There was no hope of her recovery, because she refused all remedies.


elizadutch Paul Delaroche, The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1828), Musée du Louvre, Paris;Queen Elizabeth I of England receiving Dutch Ambassadors (1570-75), Artist Unknown. Neue Galerie, Kassel, Germany.

Both the story and the image make me sad, not just because it’s a death scene, but also because they remind me of my favorite image of the Queen in her prime, the charming painting Elizabeth receiving the Dutch Ambassadors (above), painted in the 1570s by an anonymous artist. I just love everything about this painting: its accessibility and informality, the interior details (floorcovering, wallpaper, windows!), Thomas Walsingham’s skinny legs, the ladies-in-waiting lounging on the cushions–perhaps in the very place that Elizabeth herself reclined for the penultimate time. It’s very intimate, and so is the image of a very vulnerable Elizabeth at the end of her life. She is so tired, she’s done: why can’t she choose her own place of death? But no, her final dutiful act was to consent (???) to be carried into that big bed to die.

Eliz Final Hours Elizabeth in her Last Hours. Illustration for the History of Queen Elizabeth by Jacob Abbott (Harper, 1854).

The public reactions to Elizabeth’s death (as far as we can tell from printed sources) seem to fall into two camps: relief that a secure succession was enacted (the Queen is dead; long live the King) and devout mourning. I think there must have been some relief in the latter camp too, because there was considerable anxiety about Elizabeth’s inevitable death and succession over the previous decade, if not longer. But this was the end 0f a long reign, likely the longest in historical memory for Englishmen and women, and when her long, choreographed funeral procession made its way through the streets of London a little over a month later (drawings of which you can see here) I have little doubt that those on the sidelines knew they were witnessing  the ritualistic end of an era.

Elizabeth collage

Eliza Petowe_Henry-Elizabetha_quasi_viuens-STC-198035-1390_11-p1

5 responses to “Death Cushions

  • ornesquare

    Thank you for another fascinating post.. The “DeathCushions” could be adapted for modern use – more comfy than a mattress.. Fun how the victorian etching has victorian furniture in it..


    Jean Harris

  • Brian Bixby

    Annoying pedant that I can be, I decided to check out how long Elizabeth’s reign was compared to previous ones “in living memory” of her contemporaries.

    Elizabeth I – 44 years, 4 months, 7 days
    Mary I – 5 years, 3 months, 29 days (add 13 days if one disregards Jane)
    Jane – usually given as 9 days from her proclamation as such, which happened 4 days after Edward VI had died
    Edward VI – 6 years, 5 months, 8 days
    Henry VIII – 37 years, 9 months, 6 days
    Henry VI – 23 years, 7 months, 30 days
    And that takes us back to 1485. I’m going to assume few people alive in 1485 were still living in 1603.

    How far back does one have to go to beat Elizabeth?
    Well, if one rejected Edward IV as legitimate, then Henry VI would have ruled for over 48 years, but in reality only ruled for about 40.
    One actually has to go back to Edward III, who was king for over 50 years, 1327-77, though if one excludes his minority, that shrinks to not quite 48 years.

    Going forward, if one counted James I/VI’s years in Scotland, he ruled for over 57 years (47 after minority), but only under 22 as king of England.
    The indisputable next monarch to rule longer is George III, king for over 59 years (1760-1820), and even if one discounts the Regency, he ruled for over 50 years.

    • daseger

      You are correct; I’m just wondering if people in 1603 would have had some awareness about the length of Edward III’s reign.

      • Brian Bixby

        While James was still VI of Scotland and not I of England, he had a series of paintings done representing his ancestors all the way back to the mythical Fergus. There being no accurate images of most of these people, the French painter kept copying one or more of James’s distinctive facial features into every other ancestor or two, just to make it clear the king was no bastard!

        So I imagine Elizabeth knew, but how many beyond her? And how many who might have access to the knowledge would care? Your guess would be more solidly grounded in knowledge of the period than mine!

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