Queen Elizabeth I of England was particularly fond of sugar. This was a time of great conquests and explorations to the New World for the royal houses of Europe, accompanied by expanding trade and the arrival of exotic luxury goods, including sugar. But this was also before the invention of toothpaste and basic concepts of dental hygiene. The combined effect was to wreak havoc on her royal fangs and cause her mouth to be filled with black teeth.
Although it had a long history in India and the Arab world, sugar (dubbed “sweet salt”) only reached Europe with the crusaders from the end of the 11th century. It only became a hot commodity amongst the English elite when it became more widely produced in the colonies in the 1500s.
It was so expensive that it was seen as a status symbol, indicative of power and wealth and only accessible to the very rich. In fact, sugar was compared by contemporary sources as being on a par with pearls and other expensive spices.
Elizabeth I, who reigned England from 1558 to 1603, was particularly fond of sugar and has been remembered for her sweet tooth. She was also a firm believer in projecting an image of immense power, so the increasingly popular sugar was her ideal ally.
One little-known fact is the havoc her taste for sugar did to her mouth. For this was a time before modern dentistry and the damage committed by the innocuous sweetener was as yet unknown. Elizabeth was actually a fan of so-called Tudor toothpaste , a paste made of sugar which was used to polish teeth. Her sugar-heavy diet and sugar toothbrushing habits meant that by her fifties most of her teeth were rotten, had fallen out or turned black.
There are no black teeth in sight within the famed Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, attributed to Isaac Oliver. Here she is depicted as a youthful and eternal queen even though it was painted around 1600 when she was almost 70 years old. ( Public domain )
Elizabeth I went to extraordinary lengths to control her image. As explained in Smithsonian Magazine , “during her 45-year reign, England’s Elizabeth I carefully cultivated her public image,” particularly as she grew older and suffered from poor health (and bad teeth). Nevertheless, one visitor from Germany recorded her black teeth, claiming this was “a defect that the English seem subject to, from their great use of sugar.”
Sir Robert Cecil went so far as to write: “Her Majesty commands all manner of persons to stop doing portraits of her until a clever painter has finished one which all other painters can copy. Her Majesty, in the meantime, forbids the showing of any portraits which are ugly until they are improved.”
Elizabeth I was a veritable fashion icon, with the English elite trying to emulate her hairstyle, makeup and clothes. When her teeth became black, they tried to replicate her look, coloring their teeth deep black using soot. Meanwhile English peasants had no access to sugar and their diet was filled with fresh vegetables. This is actually a diet ideal for keeping teeth healthy and avoiding cavities. The story of Elizabeth I’s teeth has therefore served as a cautionary tale favored amongst English dentists in their battle against sugar.
Top image: Allegorical portrait of an elderly Elizabeth I, who is said to have suffered the effects of poor dental hygiene and black teeth. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard