Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I; drawing by David Levine

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 earliest—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 Alençon, 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.

Some such sketch of the difficulties of Tudor succession, however rough, seems necessary to the understanding of much that Elizabeth thought and wrote. She had other obstinate problems of policy, both domestic and foreign, but the problem that would not go away was the succession. Two years after her death, which extinguished the Tudor dynasty, her contemporary Francis Bacon remarked that the time of her reign, and those of her half-brother Edward and half-sister Mary, provided “the strangest variety that in a like number of successions of any hereditary monarchy hath ever been known: the reign of a child, the offer of a usurpation, the reign of a lady married to a foreign prince, and the reign of a lady solitary and unmarried.” He meant, Edward, Lady Jane Grey, Mary, and Elizabeth.

Some of Elizabeth’s earliest writing consists of humanist showpieces in several languages, exercises in flattery and submissiveness. The middle of the sixteenth century was not a great period of English prose, and Elizabeth presumably associated elegance, complex sentences, and grammatical subordination with other languages than her own. Here she is at sixteen, in 1549, during the reign of her brother, fearing to be compromised by an indiscretion on the part of a confidante:

These be the things which I both declared to Master Tyrwhit [who had been sent to interrogate her] and also whereof my conscience beareth me witness, which I would not for all earthly things offend in anything, for I know I have a soul to save as well as other folks have, wherefore I will above all thing have respect unto this same.

The letter is subscribed, with habitual deference, “Your assured friend to my little power, Elizabeth.” Her correspondent was Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, at that moment the most powerful man in the kingdom. The princess’s style admittedly has a certain defensive briskness, and is livelier than that of letters by other hands here quoted. She addressed her little brother the King in florid Latin:

That before this time I have sent no letters to your majesty, king most serene and most illustrious, and have given no thanks for that singular kindness and brotherly love that you have shown towards me, I beg you not to account to the forgetting of benefits (which God forbid) nor think it to follow from such forgetting, which is most unfitting, but rather that it must be attributable to other, more just, causes.

In other words, I owed you a letter and should have written before this. Naturally, when she herself became serene and illustrious, the tone changes. The royal power was not absolute, but the Queen sometimes speaks as if it were, while for tactical reasons sometimes also deprecating the fact that she was a poor weak woman bearing the responsibilities of a king. She condescended to her parliaments (which met only when she wished it) and scolded them about their impudent insistence on her marrying. Reports of her very first speech to Parliament are far from pellucid, but there is no mistaking the drift or the menace. They had begged her to marry; she explains that she is happy as she is, hoping that “God, who hath hitherto therein preserved and led me by the hand, will not now of His goodness suffer me to go alone.” She adds that she will “take in good part” their petition, but adds, rather ominously, that she can only do so

because that it is simple and containeth no limitation of place or person. If it had been otherwise, I must needs have misliked it very much and thought it in you a very great presumption, being unfitting and altogether unmeet for you to require them that may command, or those to appoint whose parts are to desire, or such to bind and limit whose duties are to obey, or to take upon you to draw my love to your liking or frame my will to your fantasies.

Having herself, in youth, been imperiled by the indignation of princes, she was ready to imperil others with hers. She was, after all, the daughter of the perilously indignant Henry VIII. But she had good control of herself. In the following passage she is dealing, in 1561, with the Scottish ambassador. Mary Stuart had not ratified the tripartite Treaty of Edinburgh (France, England, and Scotland), which required Mary to give up using the arms of England and her immediate claim on the English throne:

…You put me in remembrance that she is of the blood of England, my cousin and next kinswoman, so that nature must bind me to love her duly, all of which I must confess to be true. And as my proceedings have made sufficient declaration to the world that I never meant evil toward her person nor her realm, so can they that knew most of my mind accord that in time of most offense, and when she by bearing my arms and acclaiming the title of my crown had given me just cause to be most angry with her; yet could I never find in my heart to hate her, imputing rather the fault to others than to herself. As for the title of my crown, for my time I think she will not attain it, nor make impediment to my issue if any shall come of my body. For so long as I live there shall be no other queen in England but I, and failing thereof she cannot allege that I ever did anything which may hurt the right she may pretend. What it is I have not much considered, for the succession of the crown of England is a matter I will not mell in….

Elizabeth had been on the throne for three years. This whole report has no doubt been tidied up, but is still an impressive demonstration of Elizabeth’s maturing political skill. She speaks civilly, allowing Mary’s claim in a limited form—as long as it cannot be pressed in her own lifetime—but is very firm when she comes to the main point. Recalling “the inconstancy of the people of England, how they ever mislike the present government and has [sic] their eyes fixed upon the person that is next to succeed,” she is conscious that Mary is not a single threat.

The Scottish ambassador, in making his mistress’s case, does not shrink from reminding the Queen that in the eyes of Catholics, she was illegitimate; but no one could doubt Elizabeth’s victory, or fail to admire her quiet authority. So with her addresses to her parliaments: her reproaches occur in polite contexts but are the sharper for that: “Beware however you prove your prince’s patience,” she says; or she instructs them that they must not take it on themselves “to draw my love to your liking or frame my will to your fantasies.”

The House of Lords argued that the prince is anima legis, the soul of the law, a doctrine with serious practical implications; “therefore upon the death of the prince, the law dieth, all the office[r]s of justice whereby laws are to be executed do cease, all writs and commandments to all parties for the execution of justice do hang in suspense….” Any gap between reigns would be chaotic. The Queen’s reply to their long argument was brief, obscure, and negative: without denying the importance of the point (“My marriage and my successor” being “of your cares the greatest”), she promised nothing.

Sometimes it was an advantage to be female. On state occasions she calls herself a prince to emphasize that her sex makes no difference to her authority, but in her last speech to Parliament in 1601 she says she’s “a taper of true virgin wax.” At the age of forty-eight she describes herself as a “poor old woman,” and in a sly letter advises young James VI thus: “If you suppose that princes’ causes be veiled so covertly that no intelligence may betray them, deceive not yourself: we old foxes can find shifts to save ourselves by others’ malice, and come by knowledge of greatest secret, specially if it touch our freehold.” Interference with her power she would not tolerate, hence her treatment of her favorite Leicester (“a creature of our own”) when he took too much on himself: “Do that you are bidden.” A later favorite, Essex, had to endure the dishonor of having his face slapped. She was not squeamish: without being as sadistic as some of her agents, yet always understandably worried about her security, she approved of interrogation under torture. But there is a letter to Burghley, “received at 2 in the morning,” countermanding the order for the execution of the Duke of Norfolk for conspiracy; a womanly qualm that extended the Duke’s life by seven weeks.

How should Elizabeth be judged as a writer? As a correspondent she was livelier than wise Lord Burghley, who writes very much in the manner of Polonius, always using two words where one would do: “Three sorts of people we find against this marriage [to the French royal duke Alençon]: one for doubt lest a husband of contrary faith should alter and overthrow the religion; the second sort, lest it might be impediment or defeasance of some plot or hope laid and had of a successor to their likings; a third kind, for loathness and doubt, etc., etc.”

But that is to say very little. Strong claims are now made for the Queen’s exceptional qualities, even her greatness, as a writer. They are proposed in this book, and expanded in Jennifer Summit’s recent book Lost Property.1 Summit argues that the exclusion of women from the literary canon was a seventeenth-century achievement, and thinks that the native literary tradition as at first established not only included women but could not have existed without them. The argument entails a great deal of research and an easy command of critical jargon. Its climax is its revaluation of Queen Elizabeth as a great poet. Many of its pages are devoted to a poem called “The doubt of future foes.”

In any ordinary view this is a rather clumsy, old-fashioned piece, its interest largely political, but it was wildly praised in George Puttenham’s Arteof English Poesie (1589), a work well known to students, who, being accustomed to the frenzies of adulation Elizabeth attracted, especially in her later years, have hitherto taken little notice of his extravagance. Puttenham finds the poem as “gorgeous” as its writer, and perhaps the most gorgeous poem he has ever seen. Here are the last four of its sixteen lines, taken from a manuscript version:

No foreign banish’d wight

Shall anchor in this port:

Our realm it brooks no strangers’ force, let them elsewhere resort.

Our rusty sword with rest, shall first his edge employ.

To poll their tops that seek such change and gape for future joy.

The manner is a generation out of date, the diction is awkward (“our sword rusty with rest” wouldn’t quite do, and “gape for future joy” is a vile phrase; Puttenham, who until now has rarely been thought to have taste, makes it a senseless one by leaving out “future”).

Summit finds that this poem, which probably does refer to a genuine apprehensiveness about the Queen of Scots, is full of subtle dissimulations, and provides a perfect illustration of what she calls “the poetics of queenship.” Of course the Queen could not seek fame by publishing her poems (not merely because she was a woman; the aristocracy in general so abstained) but she could achieve manuscript circulation in important female aristocratic circles, using the no-publishing convention “together with a political practice of covert communication in order to negotiate her complicated relationship with her Catholic kinswoman, Mary Queen of Scots.”

This “covert communication” is consistent with her having “clearly confined her most private activities to female company.” But there is surely nothing especially significant about that. David Starkey, in a well-known article,2 showed that kings were remarkably dependent on their body-servants, these being not menials but great lords who competed for the honor of emptying the royal close-stool, the reward being a degree of intimacy otherwise unattainable, and making the Privy Chamber a seat of power. That Elizabeth employed women in this way is not strong evidence for the existence of a “privatized, feminine domain,” different in any but the obvious ways from the domain of a king’s Chamber, in which the queen was “crafting herself as a poet.”

For all its learning Summit’s essay on Elizabeth as a poet mostly misses the point; it does seem perverse to want the author of a few scattered pieces, the longest of them in French, and none of them particularly skillful or beautiful, to stand at the head of the list of poets in a period that produced some great English poets, admittedly most men.

The editors of the Collected Works correctly argue that most of the Queen’s writing was occasional and political; but they believe that the “rapidly changing intellectual developments of the past twenty-five years” in a climate of “revised assumptions about literary value” have shown there is no need to distinguish between such writing and writing formerly thought to have higher aesthetic value. It seems as pointless to argue about this as it would be to dispute an argument that the sole value of Beethoven’s last quartets, like that of all other artistic productions of their time, must be sought solely in the political and social conditions of Vienna in the 1820s.

This Issue

April 12, 2001