Dark wood, intricately carved. Slightly out of focus, blurred, as if viewed through a pane of glass. The room only dimly lit, as if by stuttering candles. A vision. A glimmer. Her death.
Elizabeth could never make out the details of the carvings, never make the image swim into focus, no matter how she tried as she succumbed to sleep. It had always irked her. As a child it had been maddening, looking at the wooden ceiling, the wooden canopy over the bed, the wood panelling, in every room she entered, squinting to blur the image to see if this was it. As an adult, as a Queen, it made more sense, as the entire world gradually took on that watery misty quality. It annoyed her no less, though it worried her more.
The Virgin Queen. Childless. Heirless. Maybe the blurred vision of what would come with her passing was a blessing. The uncertainty she felt around her death – no indication of when or how or why, barely more than the insistence that it would be indoors – was part of why she was so reluctant to name an heir, so paranoid about the plotters around her who would no doubt multiply if she dared gift them a figurehead. Her advisers, both those with formal positions and her many ladies-in-waiting, suspected that her glimmer may be part of her reticence to name a successor. It could hardly not be, both things as intimately bound up with her death as they were. But her glimmer was not to be shared. Never even committed to paper. Not even scrawled as a child, her mother and uncle’s executions too much of a permanent wound for her to ever be comfortable giving anyone, even her divinely appointed father, knowledge of the death that destiny had chosen for her, lest they try to bring her to death’s door faster.
Elizabeth, when she was still a princess, had lain in bed and looked at the dark wooden canopy above her. At the time, as a young woman, eyes bright and clear, the image had crisp lines, shapes had definite edges, not the ill-defined uncertainty she was haunted by. Even when the lighting was about right – not daylight, but the dim flickering of candles burning through the night – it was clear she was not yet witnessing her death. But still she developed the habit of sleeping on her side, on her front, face towards the rest of the room and its hanging carpets, or buried in downy pillows.
When she ascended the throne at the age of twenty-four – an old maiden aunt compared to her half-brother, a young hopeful virgin compared to her half-sister – her now widower half-brother-in-law offered her his hand in marriage. It was a courtesy, a potential renewing of an alliance, a dutiful olive-branch offered to the new Queen who may want a husband of suitable status and proven fertility. And while Elizabeth never entertained the idea of accepting a Catholic King into her bed, her ladies did whisper to her about what such an agreement would entail. Not politically – that was for the men – or religiously – though they rightly had their concerns in that area – but personally. Intimately. Elizabeth, virgin queen (not yet Virgin Queen), knew little of the things her ladies now recounted to her. Of pain and pleasure. Of boredom and excitement. Of duty and eagerness. Of lying on their backs staring at the bed above them. One ruefully commented that when trying to produce a male heir for her husband she’d spent so long eyeing the bed’s canopy (less distressing than her husband’s contorted face) she could draw its carvings from memory.
That conversation, at least as much as any practical concern the Queen cited – the lessons learned from her half-sister, the genuine lack of suitable candidates, the thorny issue of authority – made Elizabeth certain she would never marry. Or even take a lover. Unwilling to let any man’s search for peace between her thighs, or any circumstantially-forced search for her belly to swell, lead to her death. So the Virgin Queen remained both a virgin and a queen. She slept alone. She slept with her face to the room, to the pillows, but never to the dark carving looming above her.
As she aged, her sight became more and more indistinguishable from the blurred glimmer she was eternally plagued by. When the lamps burned bright – far too bright to be a part of that incessant image – she would sometimes lay and look at the wood above her. In each royal residence they were different, though only, with her ailing eyes, if she looked at them when drawn to her full height, standing beside the bed. Her ladies would sometimes observe her, neck craned to see the details, holding a candle as high as she dared. But it never helped. She could not order the carpenters to avoid a certain style of carving, of decoration. Nor, had she been inclined to, in the despairing months after she ordered her cousin’s execution, and that of a man who could have been a lover, could she order the carpenters to use a specific pattern. In the darkest hours of those darkest times, she would lie awake and look to the heavens, wondering if they might take this moment to take her away. Always she stopped, irritated with herself, drying suddenly wet eyes on the pillow she now steadfastly pressed her face against. Joining them – her cousin, her indomitable mother, the ministers and friends she outlived, the rumoured-to-be-lovers she never let warm her bed, even the nameless faceless soldiers she sent to their deaths – would help no one. Their losses would mean more if the Queen who had caused them, or simply lived through them, lived on. And so she did.
London was deep in the throes of winter, the Thames frozen beyond her windows, when she fell ill. Personal losses in the autumn had weakened her spirit which had, in turn, weakened her already aged and frail body. She had been ill before, of course. Physicians and priests has told her she might die before. This winter she believed them. Too sick, too prone to coughing fits that seemed to shake her very soul, too short of breath and full of sickness to lie on her front. After weeks of long uncomfortable dark nights on her side in a room full of desperate prayers and worried glances exchanged by her ladies, she simply refused to go to bed.
She was Queen, queen regnant, Elizabeth Regina. She would not give in to the temptation to roll to her back and stare upwards until the light hit the bed just right and she could finally rest. No. She was a Prince. She ruled as a King. Her suffering body could not take that from her. Her ladies and advisers could not deny her requests, her orders. Even when they could all tell she was now insisting on standing, on not sleeping, on remaining vigilant, in some inevitably vain effort to escape her destined death, they had to obey her. Had they known the exact nature of her glimmer, the exact cause of her acute anxiety, they might have offered to hang fabric across the bed, obstructing the elusive, imprecise carvings. They might have brought in every lamp and candle and torch in her magnificent palace, suffusing the room in enough light that she could rest in the sure knowledge that she would wake. Or, the paranoid voice in her whispered, they might promise her this, then lay her to rest and ensure that death succeeded in its hunt for her soul.
She relented partway, consenting to lie on soft pillows piled on the floor, the nondescript ceiling and wall-hangings surely not her final sight in their word. She rested fitfully, the sudden appearance each time her body gave in to exhaustion of that dreaded carved wood jolting her back awake more often than not. Too haunting now that she felt it was so close. Her body so weak from age, from illness, from lack of appetite, from exerting herself standing for so long, from her trouble sleeping, from her unwillingness to have physicians insist on bedrest (and thus her unwillingness to have them visit at all), made her unable to bear the sight of her death the way she’d coped for her entire life.
Slowly, she came to realise she was only persevering at living to avoid dying. She was not ruling her country, her kingdom. She was not enjoying the delights of life. She was not even securing a better eternity for her immortal soul, being too weak to pray out loud. She had no family and no surviving friends to cling on to or for. She was simply living to prove that she could, that she understood the warning in her glimmer, that she could avoid her destiny if she chose to do so. But she was so tired. Life had been exhausting and now so too was death.
Finally, almost so emaciated she couldn’t speak, she permitted her ladies to lay her to rest, head pillowed, eyes on the bed’s dark canopy for – if not quite the last, then very nearly – the last time. The Archbishop, even older than the Queen herself, told her the joy and peace that awaited her in heaven, to which her soul would surely ascend. Unable even to voice her thanks, she simply squeezed his hand, and lay back to wait for her release from suffering.
She dozed and woke through the night, the light fading, the candles burning lower, the carved wood remaining as unclear above her as it always had. Dark wood, intricately carved. Slightly out of focus, blurred, as if viewed through a pane of glass. The room only dimly lit, as if by stuttering candles. Not a vision. Not a glimmer. Her death. As the awareness of the moment sank in between one quiet heartbeat and the space when the next would never come, Elizabeth thought I would like to rest now, and she did.
The author would like to note that the information contained within the story about the reign and death of Queen Elizabeth I of England is accurate, although her precise motivations are of course speculation and altered by the context of this story. If there are any inaccuracies please let me know.
The featured image is Paul Delaroche’s “The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England”, painted in 1828 and housed in the Louvre, Paris.