Elizabeth de Valois died at the age of twenty-three after a short illness and premature labor on Sunday, October 3, 1568 at the Royal Palace of Aranjuez. She gave birth to a baby girl who died a few hours before her mother. Elizabeth’s husband, King Philip II of Spain as at her side when she passed away and was in shock and grief at her death.
Her body was embalmed on the same day and placed in a coffin covered in black velvet richly adorned with the emblems of royal rank. In the meantime, the chapel of the palace was hung with black cloth embroidered with emblems such as the lilies of Valois and the arms and cyphers of King Philip. The room was illuminated with many burning tapers of white wax. The catafalque lay before the high altar with four escutcheons on each corner representing the arms and heraldic devises of Valois and Hapsburg.
During the afternoon, people veiled and clad in long mourning robes filled the chapel. These were not actors hired for the ceremony but true mourners. The French ambassador Brantôme stated “never was such affection shown before by people. The air was filled with wailing, and with passionate demonstrations of sorrow: for the queen was regarded by all her subjects with feelings of idolatry, rather than with reverence.” Attending the ceremony were all the cavaliers and ladies of the queen’s household, the clergy of Madrid, the heads of the religious houses, male and female, the foreign ambassadors, the magistrates of Madrid and the military governor.
At nightfall, the funeral procession travelled the length of the long galleries of the palace from the apartments of the dead queen to the chapel royal. Outside the guns boomed and the bells tolled. The body of the queen was carried by four grandees of Spain and preceded by the queen’s mayor-domo Don Juan Manrique. Her primary lady-in-waiting, the duchess of Alba walked after the coffin clad in long mourning robes. Next came a train of noble ladies and cavaliers.
The portal of the chapel was thrown open and the coffin was received by the papal nuncio Casteneo and Cardinal Espinosa followed by the clergy of Madrid. As the procession passed up to the choir, the singing of the Requiem was heard. The coffin was placed on caatafalque and covered by a pall of gold brocade and topped with the royal crown, mantle and scepter and a small vase of holy water.
The office of the repose of the dead commenced. The sounds of the stifled sobs of the women of Elizabeth’s household were heard during the chanting of the priests and the sounds of the distant murmurs of the crowds in the street and avenue leading to the palace were audible. At the end of the service, the nuncio gave the benediction. Everyone left the chapel except those who had been chosen to perform a vigil for the corpse.
The closely veiled duchess of Alba sat in a chair at the head of the coffin wearing black garments. Don Juan Manrique stood at the foot of the bier holding his wand of office. Other members of the household knelt around the platform. Soldiers of the king’s bodyguard stood holding torches, keeping guard within the chapel still illuminated with numerous candles.
In the middle of the night, King Philip entered the chapel attended by his half-brother Don Juan of Austria and his friends Ruy Gomez and Don Hernando de Toledo. He advanced slowly toward the bier, knelt down at the head of the coffin and remained absorbed in prayer for a long time with the three men standing silently and motionless behind him. No one betrayed the presence of the king in the chapel. Finally, Philip rose, took the aspergillum, sprinkled the coffin with holy water and left the chapel. He quit the palace attended by his three companions and went to the monastery of San Geronimo for prayer and meditation.
The following morning, many of the greatest men of learning, nobles and ladies assembled in the palace chapel to escort the funeral cortège to the Carmelite convent of Las Descalzas Reales where Elizabeth was to be buried temporarily until the mausoleum of El Escorial was completed. The coffin was carried along the streets by the same four men from the day before. The pall was held over the coffin by the dukes of Arcos, de Naxara, de Medina de Rioseco and de Osuna. Beside the coffin marched the marquises de Aguilar and de Poza, the condés de Alba, de Liste and de Chinchon.
The streets had been hung with black draperies and flags and many spectators lined the route of the procession to watch and shed tears. At the portal of the church of the Carmelite nuns, the procession was met by the papal nuncio Castaneo, Espinosa and Frexnada, bishop of Cuença who had been chosen to perform the funeral rites. The archbishop of Santiago, high almoner of Spain was also in attendance. Behind the prelates stood the abbess Doña Inez Borgia and the nuns of Descalzas.
After the mass, the coffin was deposited in a niche excavated close to the high altar. Then, an important part of the ceremony was performed which was required for Spanish sovereigns. The corpse was to be identified by certain personages nominated by the king. The bishop of Cuença first blessed the sepulcher. The lid was raised by the duchess of Alba and by Don Juan Manrique. Standing around the tomb as witnesses were: the papal nuncio Castaneo, Cardinal Espinosa, the French ambassador de Fourquevaulx, the Portuguese ambassador Don Francisco Pereira, the dukes de Osuna, Arcos and Medina, the marquis de Aguilar, the condés de Alba, de Chinchon, Don Enriquez de Ribera, Don Antonio de la Cueva, Don Luis Quexada Senor de Villagarcia, president of the Indian board, and the archdukes Rodolph and Matthias, Philip’s nephews.
When the mortuary cloth was removed, the corpses of Elizabeth and her infant daughter were visible. The duchess of Alba poured into the coffin finely powdered balsam and perfumes which had been specially prepared for the occasion. She also scattered bunches of thyme and fragrant flowers. The coffin was then closed and sealed with the royal signet. A record of the proceedings was written on the spot by the under-secretary of state, Martin de Gatzulu and this was signed by all the witnesses. The confessor of the convent and one of his colleagues came forward to take guardianship of the queen’s remains until they were to be moved. The tomb was closed and the ceremonies for the day were ended.
For nine days the office of the dead was chanted in all the churches of Madrid. Morning and evening, the court attended the service performed in the chapel of Las Descalzas at which Philip’s sister Doña Juana was always present. Philip heard the service twice daily in the chapel of San Geronimo. For the entire nine days, Philip remained in solitude, speaking to no one and seldom leaving the raised gallery over the high altar in the chapel praying and meditating. All state business was suspended and a general mourning for the queen was ordered by proclamation throughout Spain.
On October 18, in the church of Our Lady of Atocha, a solemn mass for the repose of the soul of the queen was heard in the presence of the king. It was the most imposing and magnificent ceremony yet, performed by torchlight. The bishop of Cuença preached the funeral oration which was well received by the audience. A similar oration was made at Toledo, Santiago, and Segovia as well as throughout other cathedrals in Spain. Another memorial service was held in Queen Elizabeth’s homeland of France at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on October 24th. Thus, the Queen of Spain received sufficient majestic tribute.
Further reading: “Elizabeth De Valois, Queen of Spain, and the Court of Philip II” by Martha Walker Freer