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The precise cause of Queen Elizabeth I’s death discovered

420 years have passed since Queen Elizabeth I passed away, but researchers now think they know how she died.

After losing her adviser and several close friends, the ‘Virgin Queen‘ was said to have experienced depression in the final weeks of her life.

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She was also dealing with other excruciating conditions, such as rotten teeth that had caused abscesses in her mouth, pus-filled glands, a swelling hand that required the removal of her coronation ring, and mental health issues that caused her to withdraw from public life.

However, a modern-day autopsy carried out by Home Office pathologist Dr. Brett Lockyer has concluded that it was pneumonia that ultimately killed her.

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In the second and final episode of the Sky History series Royal Autopsy, Professor Alice Roberts had previously helped investigate the cause of death for King Charles II, with tonight’s episode focusing on the last Tudor ruler.

Investigating the clues that had been left behind, they looked at several health issues that could have killed her.

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Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland, c1588. Version of the Armada portrait attributed to George Gower. The last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I (1533-1603) ruled from 1558 until 1603. From the National Portrait Gallery. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The ‘Virgin Queen’ died aged 69 in 1603

Before this investigation, Elizabeth I’s cause of death aged 69 was unclear, and while it was suspected it could be blood poisoning, she made her wishes very clear before she died that she did not want a post-mortem carried out.

Explaining how obsessed Elizabeth was with projecting an appearance of youth to maintain power, Professor Roberts investigated how the white make-up she used, a trend at the time, could have been dangerous.

‘She pasted this onto her face day in day out for years…it was a toxic metal,’ she explained in the episode.

Although it didn’t kill her, Dr. Lockyer did say that the Queen had been suffering from the effects of chronic lead poisoning, which had caused significant hair loss and rotting teeth.

‘They were in terrible condition and there was some dental abscess and gingivitis,’ Dr. Lockyer explained.

‘The Queen’s final months must have been agony,’ Professor Roberts added.

Home Office pathologist Dr. Brett Lockyer and Professor Alice Roberts.
Home Office pathologist Dr. Brett Lockyer and Professor Alice Roberts lead the series (Picture: Sky)

The two did also speculate that bacteria from infections in her mouth could have contributed to her death.

‘It does cause a lot of pain because infection was building up and it was not going to have made talking or swallowing very easy for her,’ Dr. Lockyer said.

‘It’s an end-of-life condition effectively. Her body is slowing down and closing down.’

Although it was a sign that she was dying, it was not the cause. A swelling to her left hand also indicated her heart was not functioning properly.

Linda Marlowe as Queen Elizabeth I.
Linda Marlowe plays Queen Elizabeth I in the series (Picture: Sky/Paul Olding)

After 45 years on the throne, her coronation ring had to be cut off because of the severity of the swelling, also leading the two experts to consider if sepsis developed because of this.

Thin and emaciated by the time she died; the autopsy carried out based on the symptoms she was displaying showed that Elizabeth had a fluid build up in her lungs and her heart was not pumping effectively.

But when it came to making his conclusion, Dr. Lockyer said he was sure that what had killed her on March 24, 1603, was pneumonia.

‘That was the reason she died. I think the infection in her lungs possibly entering into her system gave her blood poisoning,’ he said.

‘The heart failure could have very well of been tipped over. Her heart was working to a point until it encounters something which meant it had to work harder to get blood around the system, so the cause of death is going to be the bronchial pneumonia, without a shadow of a doubt, but the heart failure had an added role.’

As Professor Roberts explained there had been some ‘red herrings’ in the investigation, but that hundreds of years later, we now know what killed the last monarch of the House of Tudor.

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