A Post About That One Time the Country was Ruled by a Zombie Queen, or, Elizabeth’s BDE (Big Dead Energy)

What follows is a story that doesn’t get told often enough. I would recommend not reading the second half while eating, though…


Dead Powerful

How powerful a ruler was Queen Elizabeth I? According to Giovanni Scammelli, the Venetian ambassador in Westminster at the time, not even the inconvenience of being dead could prevent her from ordering people around. You see, in the month between her death on March 24 1603 and her funeral on April 28, the late Queen flaunted Big Dead Energy like no one else:

[T]he late Queen by her own orders has neither been opened [a process which involved the body cavity being disembowelled and seared with a torch to prevent further decay], nor, indeed, seen by any living soul save by three of her ladies. It has been taken to Westminster … the Palace, all hung with mournings. There the Council waits on her continually with the same ceremony, the same expenditure, down to her very household and table service, as though she were not wrapped in many a fold of cerecloth, and hid in such a heap of lead, of coffin, of pall, but was walking as she used to do at this season, about the alleys of her gardens. [1]

That’s right. Not only did Elizabeth leave orders that her body remain in the palace untouched by embalmers, but she also commanded her staff to continue wait on her as though she were still living. 

If you squint, you may see in Elizabeth’s posthumous court activity echoes of Old Hamlet, who continues to roam Elsinore “in his habit as he lived” (3.4.140) long after death should have put a stop to such wanderings.[2] As a matter of fact, if we consider the two royal afterlives in terms of performance, both of these approaches to living death can be considered at once predictive and retrospective. In the case of Elizabeth’s revered corpse, her dead body remains empowered precisely because her living self made the necessary arrangements. Her performance thus represents a very self-aware exploration by the living Queen of her own mortality: the treatment afforded her corpse comes as the result of Elizabeth pre-empting her death by imagining it. The courtly escapades of Hamlet’s Ghost differ from Elizabeth’s in the sense that they come about against Old Hamlet’s will, as a result of “his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.29) (and his spectral presence comes as a huge surprise to those he once commanded!). As a character in a play, however, just as Elizabeth predicts her future as a cadaver, so too the actor who portrays the Ghost must imagine himself as a “dead corpse” (1.4.33).

In both cases, the living death on display is also a product of retrospective creation, both in terms of the dead body behaving as though it is alive, and in terms of it being treated as such through participation by the living. Both Elizabeth and Old Hamlet are corpses which remember and return to their living behaviour patterns. Old Hamlet stalks the battlements two months after his death, and Elizabeth – whose living death is less a return to courtly existence than a continuation of it – is waited on by servants. They use props to assist in their performances of life: the Ghost wears “the very armour he had on / When he th’ambitious Norway combated” (1.1.69-70), while Elizabeth’s props are, as Carol Rutter observes, “her very household and table service.” [3]

While these props all add up to an impressive performance from Elizabeth, her grand finale was even more spectacular (and spectacularly gruesome!), albeit in ways that even the Queen could not have foreseen…

Another Myth: Exploded?

Once the smell of the Queen’s body grew to be a little too much for the refined nostrils of the Westminster elite, Robert Cecil apparently overrode Elizabeth’s commands and arranged for her body to be embalmed. This ultimately led to what can only be considered a “spectacular comeback” [4], as described by one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Southwell: 

[H]er bodie being seared up was brought to whit hall. where being watched everie night by 6 severall Ladies. my selfe that night there watching as one of them being all about the bodie which was fast nayled up abord coffin with leaves of leas covered with velvet, her bodie and head break with such a crack that spleated the wood lead and cer cloth. whereupon the next day she was fain to be new trimmed up. [5]

Like the bones of Old Hamlet which so famously “burst their cerements” (1.1.29), Elizabeth’s corpse appears to have done the same, but in more grotesque fashion, and in front of a crowd of witnesses. 

Is Southwell’s account reliable? It’s hard to tell. Her assertion that Elizabeth’s body was embalmed, for example, is certainly at odds with other reports. Pamphlets published to commemorate Elizabeth’s funeral describe the body as “balmed” [6], but the word may mean only that the corpse was “anointed with preservatives.” [7] Elizabeth had apparently not been opened when Scammelli wrote in early April, and John Manningham, also well-placed within the court, testifies that “[i]t  is certaine the Queene was not embowelled, but wrapt up in cere cloth.” [8] “Given the length of time required to prepare a royal funeral,” Loomis posits, “the council would have been ill-advised to leave Elizabeth’s corpse unopened,” although we can but speculate. [9] If Elizabeth was indeed embalmed the procedure appears to have been kept a very closely-guarded secret, possibly to avoid tarnishing Elizabeth’s reputation as the Virgin Queen (conventional embalmment would have revealed Elizabeth’s reproductive organs, the condition of which might have raised difficult questions concerning her moral character or possible heirs).

And yet, while there is some reason to question the factual validity of Southwell’s manuscript, it is nevertheless possible that Elizabeth’s corpse exploded in the manner Southwell describes. Loomis writes:

Elizabeth’s corpse had been soldered into a lead casket within which the gases produced by decomposing tissues could accumulate and cause the splitting of flesh, lead, and wood as well as the odor. The “crack” that Southwell heard as the body burst through the coffin could be the result of the gases meeting an open flame if the six several ladies had “watche candles.” [10]

The scenario would have been much more likely if Elizabeth’s corpse had remained untouched, as the soft tissues usually removed during embalmment would have hastened the process of decomposition. Embalmed or not, given the length of time between death and burial, and the conditions in which Elizabeth’s body was stored, the phenomenon Southwell describes could have easily occurred over time…

All of which raises an important question: Would the story have been widely disseminated? Would, as Rutter asks, the tale have “circulated as common knowledge, as gossip?” [11]

Given the – ahem – explosive nature of the events Southwell describes, and the fact that the incident was attended by six witnesses, one would be forgiven for thinking that word had surely gotten around. And yet, for some reason the news does not appear to have spread, and Southwell’s account is largely uncorroborated.

Was there, as Loomis suggests, a general lack of faith in female testimony? Could the lack of report about the story simply be a result of Robert Cecil claiming “Fake News”? (According to Southwell, Cecil’s influence was so strong that “no man durst speak yt publicklie”. [12])

Whatever the reason for the silence surrounding Southwell’s story, the closest thing to another reference to exploding Elizabeth comes from John Chamberlain who, in the week of Elizabeth’s death, reports nothing of unseemly eruptions but does refer to rumours spread by “the papists … utterly voyde of truth” which he considers better dismissed undisclosed than repeated. [13] 

Would many playwrights or theatregoers have been privy to the same sources as Chamberlain? It is impossible to say, although we might imagine that in light of Cecil’s (alleged) attempt to silence witnesses to Elizabeth’s (alleged) eruption, performances of the scene in Hamlet which sees the prince swear the witnesses to his father’s “dead corpse” to “never make known what you have seen tonight” (1.5.158) may have taken on an altogether different quality for certain Londoners in attendance.

So: ruling the roost, making an explosive exit, AND spurring a conspiracy theory? All while dead and decomposing?

How’s that for BDE?

Works Cited

[1] Scammelli, Giovanni. From Calendar of State Papers Venetian IX (1592-1603). Horatio Brown, ed. (London, HM Stationery Office, 1900). 3. Letter dated 12 April 1603.

[2] The date of Hamlet’s composition, a topic of much debate, has been placed by various sources as c.1601, although the date may have been as early as 1600, three years before Elizabeth’s death. See: Introduction. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Bate and Rasmussen, eds. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2007). 1918-1923. 1922.
The earliest manuscript is the First Quarto published in 1603 during the reign of King James I. It is generally considered a “bad” quarto which presents an inaccurate representation of the play as it originally appeared on stage in the year(s) preceding.

[3] Rutter. Carol Chillington. Enter the Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare’s Stage (London: Routledge, 2001). 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Loomis, Catherine. “Elizabeth Southwell’s Manuscript Account of the Death of Queen Elizabeth [with text]”. English Literary Renaissance. 26/3 (september 1996). 482-509. 486-487.

[6] See Chettle, Henry. Englandes mourning garment. (London: Valentine Simmes for Thomas Millington, 1603) Sig. F4; Petowe, Henry. Elizabetha quasi vivens. (London: E. Allde for M. Lawe, 1603). Sig. C2.

[7] Loomis. 494.

[8] Manningham, John. The  Diary of John Manningham of  the Middle Temple 1602-1603. Robert Parker Sorlien, ed. (University of Rhode Island: University Press of New England, 1976). 223.
John Chamberlain, whose letters to Dudley Carleton are generally considered to be reliable, also writes that Elizabeth’s body “was not opened but wrapt up.” See: The Letters of John Chamberlain, 2 vols. Norman Egbert McClure, ed. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939) 1: 190.
As Rutter diligently notes, however, Chamberlain’s observations on the matter were recorded very shortly after Elizabeth’s death. Thus it is not inconceivable that his comments predate an embalmment if there was one. See Rutter. 181, n.30.

[9]  Loomis. 495.

[10] Ibid., 497. Loomis’ assumption of there being “watch candles” is based on a lecture given by Francis Tate on 30 April 1600, in which Tate describes a corpse laid out with “candels set burning over yt on a table day and night, and the body continually attended or watched.” Tate does add, however, that “the custome of burning candels be now growen into disuse, being thought superstitious.” See: Tate, Francis. “Of the Antiquity, Variety, and Ceremonies of Funerals in England”. From Thomas Hearne, ed. A Collection of Curious Discourses. 2 vols. (London: T. Evans, 1773). 1: 216.

[11] Rutter. 14.

[12] Loomis. 497.

[13] Chamberlain. 188.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

A WordPress.com Website.

%d bloggers like this: