Frequently Asked Questions
7. Was Queen Elizabeth I bald?
No, the Queen was never bald. The following is an extract from the prologue of Elizabeth Jenkin's book Elizabeth the Great and deals with this unsubstantiated legend in some detail.
I would like here to deal with the story that after the age of thirty Elizabeth was bald. It seems to have arisen in 1922 when F. C. Chamberlin, in his useful Private Character of Queen Elizabeth, stated that there appeared to be no references after 1564 to the Queen's own hair, only to her wigs, and that "all her portraits after this date indicate that it was soon after this that she became bald" (p. 54). Mr. Chamberlin submitted his data to Sir Arthur Keith, F.R.C.S., and printed the opinion which the latter based on it. Assuming Mr. Chamberlin's data to be correct. Sir Arthur Keith said (op. cit.) "she would appear to have become bald" (p. 98) and by p. 102, this tentative statement was devel-oped into: "women at thirty may suddenly become as bald as Elizabeth did". Whereupon Mr. Hilaire Belloc, in his History of England (1931)3 announced: "at thirty she was as bald as an egg".
Both Mr. Chamberlin's statements are incorrect. Contemporary references to the Queen's own hair after 1564 are as follows: the lock of greying red hair preserved at Wilton, she is said to have given to Philip Sidney in 1572 when she was thirty-nine, though Fox Bourne argues that the date should be 1582 when her age would have been forty-nine. In 1596, when she was sixty-three, the Bishop of St. David's offended her by saying in his sermon that "time had sowed meal upon her hair", and the contemporary account of Essex bursting into her bedroom in September 1599, when she was sixty-six, says that he surprised the Queen, "her hair about her ears".
There is a portrait of Elizabeth dated 1569 (Frontispiece to Christian Prayers) when she was thirty-six, in which the hair is clearly not a wig; it is strained back from the temples and pushed into a net. The portraits of the last two decades show the Queen with a dark red wig; the authorities of the National Portrait Gallery are unwilling to commit themselves as to whether a portrait of the 15 70s showing closely-curled hair of the Queen's own shade of reddish yellow represents a wig or not. If it does, the wearing of a wig does not imply baldness but merely a follow-ing of the sixteenth-century fashion for wearing wigs, which is established by numerous contemporary references.
The colour of Elizabeth's eyes has been variously described by modern writers. I have examined nine contemporary paintings, in all of which the eyes are either golden-brown or darker brown. From a distance they sometimes look agate-grey: an effect pro-duced by a large black pupil and a dash of light across the iris.
No one could attempt to write on this period without wishing to record a debt of admiration and gratitude to the works of Sir John Neale, Dr. A. L. Rowse and Mr. Conyers Read. My personal thanks are due to Mrs. Austin Duncan-Jones, who introduced me to the portrait of Elizabeth at Gripsholm, and to Mr. Thurston Dart of Jesus College, Cambridge, who very kindly gave me the words of the two songs set by Byrd, pp. 271-2. E.J.