Friday, July 31, 2009

Question from Nancy - Tudor teeth

I recently read Alison Weir's Children of Henry VIII. She mentioned a few times that both Mary and Elizabeth had bad luck in the tooth department. Elizabeth even stuffed her mouth with cotton to fill in the gaps. I read on this site of another q&a that perhaps her black teeth may have been something of a trend. My question is this: How many teeth were missing in these ladies?! What did the artists have Mary and Elizabeth do so their portraits wouldn't come out with them looking like they have "bitter beer face?" And, if having black teeth was en vogue, why did Elizabeth 'stuff' with white rags?
P.S. I'm so glad this blog exists. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

[Note from Lara - you're welcome Nancy!]


  1. I wonder if the cotton was to ease any pain in the socket from the missing tooth?

  2. It is worth remembering that bad teeth were fairly common in the period, after the widespread introduction of sugar. The early 16th century aristocrats had fairly good dental hygiene, apparently, but the latter half less so. Elizabeth's bad teeth have certainly been exaggerated - since there's only one record case of her having to have a rotten tooth extracted.

  3. I can only speak to the question about the portraits...Elizabeth's portraits (and many other elites and royals) were painted using a face mask. This was a piece of fabric with holes pricked outlining the contours of the face. The artist could then put the fabric down on the wood or canvas that was to become the portrait and rub charcoal over it. This would leave a tracing on the surface to be painted. Think of it as an early form of carbon copy. This is also one reason why Elizabeth's face seems remarkably the same in several portraits.

    I know that Elizabeth had toothache issues and that at some point had one (or possibly more) pulled out but I haven't researched her medical care and health. Perhaps someone else knows.

  4. Incredible! Thank you!
    How have you come to these answers? I visited the Shakespeare Museum in Washington D.C. and envied those who were in the library. . .are you the lucky ones who've gotten to put their flag in the cup and go in?

  5. Fashions in appearance change. "High" or prominent cheek bones and relatively recessed cheeks below them are a fairly recent fashion. I doubt if they go back much further than the 1930s, with Greta Garbo and her ilk. Before that receeding cheeks would have suggested either missing teeth-- very common in both men and women-- or low body weight, caused by famine and/or poverty. If Elizabeth did pad her cheeks, it would have been to round out the contours as seen from outside. A few hundred years later shaped cork "plumpers" were used for the same purpose. There is a ambassadorial report from late in her reign to the effect that Elizabeth was missing many teeth, and so it was hard to understand her, especially when she spoke quickly. As someone with few remaining natural teeth and sometimes unmoored dentures, I can testify that while missing teeth don't exactly improve one's articulation, toothless gums hamper the speech less than foriegn objects in the mouth. I would guess that there are no portraits of Elizabeth with her mouth open. Revealing the teeth was unladylike, and revealing bad teeth was certainly not recommended. The color of the stuffing hardly mattered. It would of course be hard to speak clearly, and even harder to eat, even very soft food, with padding in the mouth. In her last years Elizabeth usually ate in strict privacy, observed only by her most trusted ladies and gentlewomen. A foriegn tourist reports that the Queen's food was presented and tasted very solemnly before spectators, and then carried into the inner chamber were the Queen ate. She did dine in public when visiting, and on grand public occasions. How much she actually ate at those times can only be guessed at-- she had a reputation for eating with restraint and even boasted of it. The contrast to her father's late life weight gain was duely noted.

    Oh, and "black" teeth probably were actually grey or yellow-- dental fillings even now come in a wide range of tints to match the actual teeth. The popularity of dental bleaching is nothing new, though we must hope that modern methods are safer for the user than, say, strong acids or rubbing the teeth with pumice.

  6. Well now, entspinster, you've created a new question. So Anne Bolyne was supposed to be a hot chick. . .would she be in 2009? hmmm. And something to add to my daydreaming of going back in time in my Jimmy Choos and wondering if I would be considered an eye sore. . .

  7. I have read about this as well. It shows that contemporary oral hygiene was bad in those times. Thank goodness for modern dentistry.


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