The Stinky Truth About Queen Elizabeth I

Armada Portrait

There are various items in modern day society that the innovation and convenience of go greatly under appreciated. Have you ever stopped to wonder what it would be like if there was not a man to come by and pick up your garbage once a week? How about a toilet that flushes or paper towels? And don’t even try to stand there, straight faced, and claim you thank some unnamed inventor every time you pull a package of frozen meat from your freezer. Because the truth is you don’t, we don’t, almost no one does – save perhaps a select few who might be beneficiaries of the General Electric fortune.
 

Point being, the above-mentioned items are now thought of as not only a part of everyday life but a necessity of it. They are as common as the light switch we flip on in our bedrooms and we expect them to be there just as much as we expect our toothbrushes to be in their holders. However, in reality, they weren’t always there. It’s thanks to a variety of revolutionary technological advances both large and small that we have the number of amenities we consider ourselves entitled to today. One of those revolutions is modern dentistry.
 

Ask just about any child in modern society, age five through seventeen, what will happen if they don’t brush their teeth. Provided they attended school in an even halfway competent public education system, that child will most likely look at you as if you have just fallen off a turnip truck and then say “You’ll get cavities, duh.” Case in point; kids are smart mouths nowadays and they know cavity prevention is a paramount aspect of your overall health. Despite what you may believe, that small exchange with a young person in the modern world is not only a display of their adeptness for sarcasm, but an example of the revolution dental health and technology has made in everyday life.
 

Again, all of this just seems commonplace, right? The fact that letting a cavity go untreated can result in a loss of the tooth just goes without saying, doesn’t it? This is an unspoken, yet ever present, verity we all have in the “common sense” storage container section of our brains. While this may be true for people today, it could not have been farther from it in regards to society in the past. Modern dental knowledge and the awareness of oral health is a relatively new thing. In fact, after taking into consideration just how long mankind has been walking around, the notion that daily brushing and flossing are pivotal aspects of health is infantile.
 

You don’t have to take our word for it, though. There are many famous historical figures who have had terrible oral hygiene that can aid in the proving of this point but none quite as thoroughly as Queen Elizabeth I. With that in mind, let’s take a trip back to 16th century England to examine one of history’s most notable monarchs just a little closer and prove why you should be thanking modern dental technology every time you step foot in the bathroom.
 

Being Wealthy in 16th Century England was Sweet – Literally

 

Going through the annals of history and researching just about any prolific ruler from almost any time period will tell you one thing; they had money and quite a bit of it. Castles aren’t cheap and neither are crowns. However, what does this have to do with dentistry or anything sweet for that matter? Well, it starts with sugar.
 

Sugar was first recorded in England around the 13th century and much like the various other spices and ingredients flooding into ports from various parts of the world, it was new and exotic. This meant it was also wildly expensive. So much so, in fact, that sugar and other spices at this time in history were considered almost a currency in their own right. Of course, all this meant that sugar – or the ability to afford and eat it – soon became a symbol of status in upper-class society. With that in mind, it goes without saying that a queen such as Elizabeth I would have a nearly unending supply of sugar and an unchecked access to the things you could make with it. Throwing a party and having sweets on the dining table was akin to placing all of Queen Elizabeth’s tiaras and jewels on the table and then watching her eat them. Having enough sweets to go around and offer to guests was an even bolder statement of wealth and power, one Queen Elizabeth executed nearly every day.
 

Sugar cultivation didn't arrive to Western Europe until the 15th and 16th centuries.
Sugar cultivation didn’t arrive to Western Europe until the 14th and 15th centuries, and as such was prohibitively expensive. Map: Eltis (2010)

 

Bearing the above in mind, it goes without saying that Queen Elizabeth formed a fondness for not only the finer things in life but sugar in general. Her affection for sweet treats became so pronounced that she demanded they be served with every meal, and so they were. Queen Elizabeth ate sweets every day with every meal.
 

With the idioms of modern dental technology rolling around in your head and the fact that too much sugar causes oral health problems being a commonly known one, we’re guessing it doesn’t take you long to gather that she did not have the healthiest mouth in the world. In fact, Queen Elizabeth’s oral health was notoriously poor. Unfortunately, at the time, no one knew any better. Expensive things were thought to be healthy for you. Sugar was a luxury and so it was likely the last thing on people’s minds when trying to figure out the cause of her oral health issues.
 

Money Did Not Buy Queen Elizabeth Health

 

Well, in a way it did. It provided her with the means to have plenty of food. That food allowed her body a level of nourishment which the majority of citizens were denied. However, this actually spelled disaster for her teeth. Due to the fact that sugar was such an expensive commodity, many peasants in 16th century England would go their entire lives without ever tasting anything that had sugar in it.
 

Despite their inability to afford and therefore consume sugar, what peasants did have access to was fresh vegetables, as the majority of farming was done by this class. This meant that they survived on a diet rich in leafy greens, root vegetables, plenty of stews, and what little meat they could either afford or catch. Not very much wiggle room for cookies was allotted. In a world where the toothbrush did not yet exist, this diet is ideal for conserving teeth and preventing cavities.
 

Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, was obsessed with luxury. Not only did she wish to eat the most luxurious things, but she wanted to wear them and would only use the most expensive items on her body during what little, if any, personal hygiene activities she took place in. Insert “Tudor Toothpaste” here.
 

What’s Tudor Toothpaste, you ask?
 

This was a paste used by the wealthy during the Tudor dynasty to polish teeth. It was made of sugar. So, not only did the rich consume as much sugar as possible, they brushed their teeth with it too. Queen Elizabeth was a fan of Tudor Toothpaste and insisted upon its use whenever she would rarely endeavor upon any sort of tooth polishing. As you can well imagine, the combination of her diet and poor personal hygiene habits caused Queen Elizabeth I’s teeth to start decaying at an early stage in her life. By the time she was in her early fifties her teeth had almost all turned black and fallen out.
 

Fun Facts About Queen Elizabeth and Her Oral Health

 

Despite what you’ve read here today, the fact of the matter is that we no longer live in a day and age where the notion of brushing your teeth daily was a foreign one. Now, the majority of society knows that proper care of your mouth should be included in the list of tasks that make up your daily personal hygiene routine. We also know what causes tooth decay and how you stop it before tooth loss occurs.
 

That being said, sometimes it can be fun and interesting to look back on the mistakes people have made in history. Here are a few more facts about some of the ridiculous consequences Queen Elizabeth’s poor diet and oral hygiene caused her.
 

The Queen had a Terrible Temper

 

Experts and reports from servants and witnessed that served the queen during her reign tell us about a woman that was subject to random bouts of anger and a poor temper, despite being of a generally kind nature. There is are several reported instance in which the queen tossed her shoes at people in rage. Some reports state the cause of this was their poor choice in fashion, others state that the queen only lost her temper rarely and when it warranted a good cause.
 

Queen Elizabeth I was known to have bad teeth and a temper.
Queen Elizabeth I was not a very nice person.

 

She was known to have a sharp tongue and cursed like a mad woman when angry. It was also noted that she spat on the clothing of people who upset her and was not shy about threatening to send them to “the tower”. However, aside from these occasional displays, the queen was said to be rather kind, light hearted, and in no way matching the wrath that other monarchs in history have shown their servants and subjects.
 

This start contrast in behavioral patterns has led a few historic dietitians and nutrition experts to believe that her temper tantrums were a direct result of her sugar rich diet. The same concept can be seen in unruly children who have had too much sugar. They often become cranky and are subject to temper tantrums when crashing from a sugar high. Of course, this can never be proven fully, but the theory is a very good one.
 

The Queen had Black Teeth

 

Well, not naturally, of course. However, from what you now know about her diet and oral hygiene habits, it most likely not a surprise that historical reports on her appearance depict the queen’s teeth being completely black and rotted by the time she was in her mid-sixties. Truth be told, her teeth were most likely rotted and falling out at a much earlier age than this.
 

As an added humorous note about the queen’s black teeth we will tell you this; Queen Elizabeth I was the “it” girl of her time. She was the epitome of fashion and grace in the eyes of not only the upper-class society, but nearly everyone. That being said, whatever the queen wore everyone else wanted to wear. How the queen styled her hair is how all women tried to model their hair styles as well. Whatever literature she was enthralled by at the moment quickly became the most popular among all who were capable of reading. So on and so forth. Bearing this in mind it should come as no surprise that when the queen’s teeth turned black, the rest of upper-class society decided that black teeth were a symbol of beauty so women began coloring their teeth black with soot and almost anything else they could get their hands on that would turn teeth black.
 

Talk about a stark contrast from then and now. However, black teeth or not, Queen Elizabeth still saw to the resurgence of widespread literature during her reign and brought about the English renaissance with her love of art. Because of her, a better printing press was made and society began the slow journey it would make toward a time when everyone knew how to read – not just the clergy. So, for that we thank her and say “long live the Queen.”