This mistitled book contains a “generous selection” of Queen Elizabeth’s letters, speeches, poems, and prayers. It does not include her translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and other surviving translations, arguing that they are already available to scholars “in fairly convenient forms.” Yet the present volume is intended not for scholars but for a more general public that needs its Latin, French, and Italian translated and its English modernized and glossed when obsolete. The needs of the erudite will be met by a companion volume, not yet published, giving the texts in their original languages and spelling.
All the same, a good deal of careful research has gone into this more popular collection, which, as the editors claim, offers “a sustained, varied presentation of Elizabeth’s writings across generic boundaries in a single comprehensive scholarly edition.” In their view, the Queen’s writing has hitherto been disparaged or neglected, either because of her sex, or because we were so long deceived into accepting an “idealized aesthetics of timeless literary greatness”; now that we have given up that folly, we can take a juster view of the Queen as a writer. Here is a contradiction: if there is no such thing as literary greatness what use is it to argue that Elizabeth is a greater writer than the male-dominated literary tradition has allowed? I shall return to that question.
Quite understandably, the editors stress the difficulty of their task. Some of the material survives in the Queen’s hand or in early copies, but much of her writing must have been produced in collaboration with advisers. Some of the Queen’s speeches were made impromptu, to be recorded later, in differing versions, by her auditors. Her letters were frequently dictated, and she necessarily used on occasion an impersonal official style quite unlike that of her more spontaneous and informal efforts. The editors have gone to a lot of trouble to get at what they think are the best copy-texts, sternly excluding anything of uncertain authenticity, such as her celebrated rebuke to the Bishop of Ely (“Proud prelate, You know what you were before I made you what you are now. If you do not immediately comply with my request, I will unfrock you, by God”). They decide that this is a fabrication, made on the model of more verifiable scoldings.
Readers of the kind the editors seek to interest may find some of the annotation fussy and some of it meager. This is perhaps to say no more than that they suffer from a disease to which all commentators are liable, long since identified by Elizabeth’s contemporary Francis Bacon: they sometimes explain what needs no explanation and fail to comment on words and ideas not likely to be generally understood. For instance, they gloss the noun “thank” as “thanks,” and feel it necessary to translate the expression Vivat Regina!, puzzles which might well have been left to the ingenuity of the reader, while saying nothing about some tricky obsolete usages, for example: “letted” meaning “prevented,” or “uttered” meaning “exposed,” or “all things donative within this our realm,” meaning something like “all things that may properly be given or disposed of.”
We should nevertheless be grateful for this convenient selection of Elizabeth’s writings. Here are some of the earliestâ€”a letter to Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, the pious Catherine Parr, written in Italian in the young princess’s fine italic hand; another, in English, to the same recipient, accompanying a translation of a devotional treatise by Marguerite of Navarre; an elaborate letter to the King her father, dedicating to him a Latin version of Queen Catherine’s prayers and meditations, with a cover embroidered by Elizabeth herself, all done when she was eleven or twelve years of age.
At the other end of her life and reign are her angry letters to Essex as he bungled the Irish campaign of which so much had been hoped, and others, sage and admonitory, to young James VI of Scotland, son of her mortal enemy Mary Queen of Scots, who was to succeed her in 1603. She cannot ever have met James, but corresponded with him for many years; his problems often overlapped with hers, not least because of his mother’s troublesome behavior and her eventual execution. But James, though interested in succeeding Elizabeth, was an ally, and made no claim on her throne while she occupied it.
Elizabeth was writing, or speaking what others wrote down, for almost sixty years, and for almost forty-five years of that time she was the queen. During her reign England was transformed from a poor country into an imperial power; the Spanish rival was defeated or contained; London became a wealthy city; the arts flourished. Meanwhile she presided carefully over a very complicated and dangerous political, economic, and religious scene. On the whole she seems to have enjoyed her work, but there were problems and anxieties which would not go away, and her writings reflect them throughout. The most insistent was the problem of the succession and inevitably associated with it was the question of her marriage. These difficult issues had their origin in events, or non-events, long before her accession, and the editors might have done a little more to situate their texts in relation to them.
The history of the Tudor dynasty, especially from the reign of Henry VIII to the death of Elizabeth, is haunted by problems related to the succession. One of the reasons why Henry fought to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled was that she had failed to provide him with a male heir, producing only the Princess Mary. The official reason was that he had developed a scruple about the validity of his marriage to his brother’s widow; it was a matter of conscience. But another motive was love: as Suffolk puts it in Shakespeare’s play on the subject, “His conscience/Hath crept too near another lady.” This lady, Anne Boleyn, became Henry’s second wife and brought forth another princess, Elizabeth, but lost her head before she could improve on that performance. Jane Seymour, the third of his queens, did better, though she died in giving birth to the son who succeeded Henry and reigned as Edward VI from 1547 to 1553.
This was an age in which it was easy to die, and one son did not make the succession secure. Edward succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of fifteen. His brief reign saw fierce power struggles and the emergence of a Protestant hegemony. The King’s advisers abolished the Mass and the use of Latin in church services. Wanting neither the Catholic Mary nor the temporizing Elizabeth to succeed, they held both of them to be illegitimate, Mary because Henry’s marriage to her mother was invalid, Elizabeth as the daughter of a convicted traitor. They then chose Lady Jane Grey as the next in line for the throne. As the granddaughter of a sister of Henry VIII, Jane Grey had a somewhat marginal claim; but she had been forcibly married to the eldest son of the Duke of Northumberland, the Protector and virtual dictator in Edward’s last years. He wanted Grey and got her; but her reign lasted only nine days, and the Catholic Mary, rallying her supporters, acceded to the throne in 1553.
The new queen was thirty-seven and as yet unmarried, but in 1554 she accepted Philip II of Spain, son of the Emperor Charles V (to whom Mary was earlier betrothed). No children, but much trouble, resulted from this union. A period of Catholic repressiveness, with much burning of heretics, left the English hardly knowing which side they were meant to be on; but they had been conditioned to be wary of the Pope, and they hated Philip. Meanwhile there was continued and justified anxiety about the succession. Mary died in 1558.
While all this was going on, the Princess Elizabeth, born in 1533, was leading a secluded but sometimes threatened life. Sometimes under virtual house arrest, once imprisoned in the Tower on suspicion of conspiracy, she nevertheless used her leisure profitably, enjoying an excellent humanist education, with Sir John Cheke, and later Roger Ascham, among her tutors. She was proficient in French and Italian as well as Latin, writing, speaking, and translating from these languages with fluency. Apparently she kept up her linguistic skills; late in her reign she surprised Cambridge professors, when they told her that English was not permitted, with a powerful impromptu speech in Latin. In the same language she delivered a formidable reproof to an impudent Polish ambassador.
With enemies on both sides, Catholic and Protestant, the studious princess could not have counted on succeeding her much older sister, but there was no comparably qualified candidate. Her accession in 1558 was greeted with relief and, in London, demonstrations of Protestant support for “The English Deborah,” so called after the biblical prophetess who for forty years assured good government in Israel. Her first problem was religion; the people were still predominantly Catholic, but Puritanism was gaining ground. In 1559 her Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity restored the Protestant church and definitively broke with Rome. Elizabeth, while maintaining, doctrinally, a via media, or middle way, be-tween Catholic Rome and Calvinist Geneva, assumed her father’s title as Supreme Governor of the Church, which Mary had renounced in favor of the Pope.
The succession problem was less easy to deal with. Elizabeth was not particularly healthy and might well be assassinated; she might need a successor at any time, and was not even married. It seemed obvious to everybody except the Queen herself that she should produce a legitimate heir as soon as possible. This collection demonstrates everybody’s unflagging interest in this subject, which, despite Elizabeth’s attempts to ban its discussion, continued in the forefront of attention until she was manifestly too old to have a child.
She seems positively to have wanted to stay single; though patient with her many royal suitors (the Duke of Savoy, Erik XIV of Sweden, the Duke of AlenĂ§on, etc.) she might get what political advantage she could but hardly came close to marrying any of them. When it was too late anyway, the best plan was to praise her extravagantly for preserving her virginity, and this was done with much elaborate flattery and occasional magnificence; but such manifestations did not solve the succession problem, which was still in some doubt during her last illness in 1603.
Occasionally difficult, Elizabeth was also intelligent, conscientious, and hardworking beyond what is usually expected of royalty, and she was genuinely as well as dutifully loved and admired. Yet the lack of an obvious heir, which she declined to remedy, meant that the claims of other candidates could be advanced, and one of them, the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was especially alarming. Mary was the daughter of James V of Scotland and the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, another sister of Henry VIII. She stubbornly asserted her right to the English throne (Elizabeth being in her view an ineligible bastard) and she displayed the royal arms of England; though deposed in Scotland, she had powerful foreign alliances. A papal bull of 1570, amounting to what we have learned to call a fatwah, excommunicated and deposed Elizabeth, absolving subjects from their allegiance, and Mary’s name was linked to assassination plots. She was a perpetual source of anxiety, but Elizabeth saw to it that she spent many years in prison. Eventually, after much royal procrastination, Mary Stuart was tried in 1586 and executed in 1587.