Deathly White – The truth behind Queen Elizabeth I’s ‘white clown mask’

History is one of my favourite subjects, particularly the Tudor and Elizabethan era.

Most of London’s history was dark, gruesome and most definitely toe-curling, but one iconic face that will always stand out in history is that of Elizabeth I.

Her famous white face was not due to the wrong choice of colour foundation, but due to an illness she endured at the age of 29. 

Smallpox was highly contagious and most people didn’t survive it. A horrendous illness, it caused blisters that developed into scabs which led to terrible scarring. 

Once known for her flawless skin and beauty, the Queen ended up desperately trying to cover her scars with the Elizabethan answer to foundation. 

A mixture of vinegar and lead, it was known as the Venetian ceruse. The fashion of the time was to have the perfect white flawless face as it symbolised youth and fertility. Still, constant use of these deadly ingredients not only poisoned you but made your skin grey and very wrinkly, so women would keep it on for a week at a time before attempting to remove it. 

If this foundation wasn’t harsh enough, then the cleanser was worse! Rosewater, mercury, honey and eggshells were mixed and used. Their skin would feel incredibly soft after due to the eggshell exfoliation, but the mercury ate away at the skin so the situation became increasingly worse, so she would have to apply more foundation to cover up a worsening problem.

If the Queen wasn’t destroying her face enough already, she added to her beauty regime the bright red lipstick made from heavy metals and black eyeliner made with coal.

Her eyebrows were plucked to within an inch of their lives and a high arch was drawn, making her forehead appear larger. The practice supposedly made women look more intelligent. 

There is no question that Elizabeth I was one of the most famous queens, but her death is questionable. One of the possible causes was blood poisoning because of her rather harsh beauty regime. She lost her hair, had memory loss and suffered digestive problems which are all common causes of blood poisoning.

As she aged and caused more damage to her skin, she applied more and more in a never-ending bid for what became the deadly mask of youth.

We can all be thankful that beauty therapy and make-up now enhances our beauty without killing us!

Donna Groom is a beauty therapist at the Kutting Room in Praia da Luz.

Image © The Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard Walker Art Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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