Discovery of queen’s 16th Century manuscript paints Elizabeth I in new light

A manuscript written by Elizabeth I has come to light in Lambeth Palace Library – the first such discovery in more than a century.

Dr John-Mark Philo, an honorary fellow in English Studies at the University of East Anglia (UEA), made the startling find while looking for manuscript translations of the Roman historian Tacitus.

Dr Philo, who was a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow when he made the discovery in January this year, said: “The manuscript features a very specific kind of paper stock, which gained special prominence among the Elizabethan secretariat in the 1590s. There was, however, only one translator at the Tudor court to whom a translation of Tacitus was ascribed by a contemporary and who was using the same paper in her translations and private correspondence: the queen herself.

“The corrections made to the translation are a match for Elizabeth’s late hand, which was, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic. The higher you are in the social hierarchy of Tudor England, the messier you can let your handwriting become. For the queen, comprehension is somebody else's problem.

“The translation itself has been copied out in an elegant scribal hand, which is itself a match for one of Elizabeth's secretaries, but the author's changes and additions are in an extremely distinctive, disjointed hand – Elizabeth's. Her late handwriting is usefully messy – there really is nothing like it – and the idiosyncratic flourishes serve as diagnostic tools.”

An article published today in the Review of English Studies (‘Elizabeth I’s Translation of Tacitus’) outlines other clues Dr Philo used to determine that the late-16th Century translation came from the queen’s hand. For instance, the three watermarks featured in this manuscript (a rampant lion and the initials ‘G.B.’ with a crossbow countermark) are also found in the paper Elizabeth I used for her other translations and personal correspondence. So too the scribal handwriting present in the manuscript is a match for a professional copyist working in the Elizabethan secretariat in the mid-1590s.

The translation focuses on the first book of the Annales, which sees the death of Augustus and the rise of the emperor Tiberius, tracing the steady centralization of governmental powers in a single individual.

Dr Philo said Tacitus “has always been considered the subversive historian, and was later reviled under Charles I as anti-monarchical”, which raises questions about why it would be of interest to Elizabeth. Was she drawing upon it for guidance on how to rule or for examples of misrule to be avoided?

“It is hard not to wonder what Elizabeth made of Agrippina, ‘who’, as Elizabeth translates it, being a woman of a great courage, ‘tooke upon hir some daies the office of a Captaine’ and is able to rouse the troops successfully. It is not unreasonable to assume that Agrippina may have appealed to the same queen who addressed the soldiers at Tilbury, and who had deliberately represented herself as placing the importance of addressing her troops in person above her personal safety.”

Dr Philo added that the translation could also be an example of a leisure activity for a queen known to enjoy translation and classical history.

Dr Philo said: “We already knew she’s great with languages – Latin, French, Italian. She’s familiar with Spanish and Greek – she actually starts using some of the Greek alphabet in her own handwriting.”

The translation raises exciting questions as to how Tacitus’s politics were being understood and applied in Elizabethan England, and whether Tacitus was really the subversive influence in this period that he is often assumed to have been.

'Elizabeth I's Translation of Tacitus' is published on November 29, 2019 in the Review of English Studies.

Image credit: Lambeth Palace Library

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