Queen Elizabeth’s Rotten Teeth

Recently I read somewhere that Queen Elizabeth had horrible teeth. The reason her teeth were bad – Sugar! Early on in the Tudor England sugar wasn’t as readily available, but during the reign of Elizabeth the importation of sugar from places like the West and East Indies, Morocco and Barbary led the way to the blackening of England nobility’s formerly “pearly whites”.

When I first read about the Queen’s teeth I heard that Elizabeth brushed her teeth with honey – yes, you heard me right, honey. Oh, it gets better, once sugar was available on a regular basis they believed it best to brush one’s teeth with a sugar paste.

Queen Elizabeth had teeth that were blackened by decay. She had even lost many teeth due to her sugary diet. She had lost so many teeth that foreign ambassadors claimed she was hard to understand. The problem was that Elizabeth had a great fear of dentists, or barber-surgeons as they were called back then. Even though she needed to have a tooth, or teeth pulled, Elizabeth was afraid. Before she would agree to the procedure on of her bishops had to prove to her that the pain involved was not that bad.

Sugar was considered luxurious and was only available to the wealthy. Those who were not wealthy would actually find ways to blacken their teeth to be included in this sugar-eating fad. One of the most popular sugary treats was Marzipan. Marzipan was made of almond and sugar paste and was moulded into a variety of shapes. These treats were elaborately decorated. Just look at the below image – looks like fruit, right?

CLICK IMAGE for a video on how to make Marzipan Fruit

If we look at some descriptions of Elizabeth during her lifetime we can see when sugar took it’s toll on her mouth. When she was twenty-two years old (see below portrait from 1555) she was said to have a very handsome face.

Elizabeth I as Princess, c.1555. Artist Unknown. Private Collection.

At twenty-four is was said that “although her face is comely rather than handsome, she is tall and well-formed, with good skin, although swarthy; she has fine eyes and above all a beautiful hand which she makes display.”

When we jump forward a bit to her thirty-second year of life (see below portrait from 1565), seven years into her reign, we see a more humble side of Elizabeth. “When anyone speaks of her beauty she says she was never beautiful.” Just kidding she wasn’t that humble – they went on to say, “Nevertheless, she speaks of her beauty as often as she can.”

Queen Elizabeth, c.1565.
Artist Unknown. Private Collection.  Christie’s Images Ltd.

At the age of sixty-four, the French ambassador said, “Elizabeth’s face was ‘very aged…long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal.”

A German traveler named Paul Hentzner said of Elizabeth when she was sixty-five years old:

Her face is oblong, fair but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked, her teeth black (a fault the English seem to suffer from because of their great use of sugar); she wore false, and that red.

Queen Elizabeth I with a Fan, 1585-1590.
Attr. to John Bettes the Younger. Private Collection.

Now that I have shared these fun Elizabeth ‘facts’ with you let’s be realistic – the actual statements about Elizabeth’s teeth are few. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The fact that it isn’t more widely documented would suggest that a couple of comments should not reflect the whole truth.

Love Podcasts? Here are some of my original episodes on her life:

Elizabeth, Queen of England – Part One

Elizabeth, Queen of England – Part Two

Elizabeth, Queen of England – Part Three

Elizabeth, Queen of England – Part Four

Elizabeth, Queen of England – Part Five

Elizabeth, Queen of England – Part Six

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