Still refusing to confess

Elizabeth I

October 20, 2000

Arrogant or demure? Christopher Haigh tries to unmask Elizabeth.

Now, surely, we can crack the enigma? Elizabeth Tudor's life was a succession of images, some self-made, some projected for or upon her - obedient child, demure evangelical bluestocking, Protestant heroine, desirable prize, God's own virgin, mother of the nation, imperial warrior, careful manager of scarce resources. Which was the real Elizabeth? In the four centuries between William Camden and David Starkey, historians and biographers have struggled to understand the woman who survived and ruled by mystery and myth. What moved her? Religious commitment, monarchical duty, concern for her people, a fancy of her own greatness, a vision of national destiny, or the will to survive in a man's world? What was she really? An arrogant daughter of an arrogant king, the beneficiary of fortunate circumstances, a figurehead for men on the make, a consummate stateswoman who got most things right, or an anxious actress with a difficult part? Now, surely, we can know, from Elizabeth in her own words.

There have been editions of Elizabeth's letters and of her poems, and most of her speeches have been printed in the proceedings of Parliament. But this is the first collected set of 24 speeches (plus eight variants), 103 letters, 15 poems and 39 prayers, and it is a splendid achievement, scholarly, accessible and reasonably priced. The general reader as well as the specialist can afford and enjoy the book. The editors have modernised (and Americanised) spelling and punctuation, and have translated texts written in foreign languages; there will be a separate volume for libraries and purists, with original spellings, alterations and languages. The present collection is intelligently user friendly: the material is organised into four periods, and then presented chronologically within the four genres; and the editorial clutter is restricted. If the editors seem much more interested in texts than contexts, and historians are offered little help, that is to be expected from three professors of English. Let us be grateful to them and to University of Chicago Press. They have given us 189 documents apparently from Elizabeth herself, 28 additional documents to show the interaction of correspondents, and 18 illustrations - ten of them facsimiles of holograph manuscripts.

Some themes are immediately clear in her writings - religion is one of the most obvious. The texts suggest that Elizabeth had a strong sense of divine providence: God had chosen her, protected her and favoured her - so she reminded God himself, her people and other rulers.

She had been "miraculously preserved at sundry times", and she said "I trust God, who hath hitherto therein preserved and led me by the hand, will not now of his goodness suffer me to go alone".

She was "an instrument of His holy will", and, very often in her prayers, "thy handmaid". Elizabeth's religious rhetoric was Protestant. She was of "the holy flock and redeemed people", those "with assurance and certain faith", called "by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the true worship and sincerity of Thy religion".

She identified herself with "them of the religion reformed", "pure religion", "that religion" which was persecuted in France and the Low Countries, and distinguished herself from "those who adore idols" and hold "damnable superstitions".

Elizabeth and God had a very special relationship: she prayed she might "gain release from the enemies of religion as well as those who hate me - antichrists, pope lovers, atheists, and all persons who fail to obey Thee and me". Although she was a woman, "weak, timid, and delicate, as are all women", God had given "strength, so that I, like another Deborah, like another Judith, like another Esther, may free Thy people of Israel".

The facts of her survival and successes showed that she was God's queen, doing God's will: she could not rule "if thou, most merciful Father, didst not provide for me (undeserving of a kingdom) freely and against the opinion of many men".

Elizabeth also claimed a special relationship with her people. When just 15, she worried about what "men think" and "the people will say", and later she blamed hostile public opinion for her rejections of French suitors. "You are not unaware, my dearest, that the greatest delays consist in doing what our people should rejoice in and applaud," she told the duke of Anjou in 1580. Over and over again, in Parliament and on progress, she told her people that they loved her, more than any prince before, and she thanked God for it - "that after 28 years' reign I do not perceive any diminition of my subjects' good love and affection towards me".

She told her last Parliament: "My care was ever by proceeding justly and uprightly to conserve my people's love," and popularity had certainly been a high priority.

A continuous reading of Elizabeth's writings reveals many repetitions - God's favour, a weak woman's achievements, her people's love, the handmaid's tale. When she addressed Parliament, she usually said the same things: you love me, I love you, I keep the peace and save money, but Spain is a nuisance. Whenever she wrote to the duke of Anjou, she told him that of course she would like to get on with the marriage, indeed she was taking risks for it, but her people objected to foreigners and popery. In her patronising letters to James VI, she reminded him of her care for his welfare and his need for her protection, but urged him to stand up against troublemakers. And her prayers to God varied little: "I am a sinner, Christ is my saviour, You are my protector, and all will be well."

There were flashes of originality. "Jesus, what availeth wit when it fails the owner at greatest need! Do that you are bidden, and leave your considerations for your own affairs," she wrote brusquely to William Davison in 1586. A cheering letter to the earl of Leicester began "Rob", continued affectionately, and ended: "As you know, ever the same, E.R."

A tired old warder who wanted release was greeted: "Amyas, my most careful and faithful servant, God reward thee treblefold in the double for thy most troublesome charge so well discharged." The various texts of Elizabeth's response to Parliament's petition for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots differ considerably, but they all include the epigrammatic "answer answerless". A dark-complexioned friend who had lost her son was told: "Mine own Crow, harm not yourself for bootless help, but show a good example to comfort your dolorous yokefellow." "Mistress Kitchenmaid," she addressed a general who had compared his task to that of a kitchen wench. There is real Elizabeth here, real anger, real concern, real wit, real style.

But perhaps there is not much real Elizabeth in this volume, and perhaps we cannot know her from "her" words anyway. The editors' selections have complicated things. These "collected works" include "a generous selection of Elizabeth's letters" - and, since "Elizabeth's letters" is taken to mean any letters signed by the queen, a choice was necessary. The queen often wrote to fellow monarchs and trusted servants herself, and she blamed a strained hand when she replied to the king of France with a message via her ambassador. Letters or drafts in the hand of a secretary may or may not have been dictated by Elizabeth. Some secretarial drafts were corrected in Elizabeth's hand, and the highly personal style in some copies suggests dictation or a lost holograph original. But the editors have also included many letters that are the queen's only in a nominal sense - official correspondence drafted and/or corrected by William Cecil, with no evidence of Elizabeth's participation in composition, and formal diplomatic instructions surviving only in 17th-century copies. It seems odd to select letters that are only technically Elizabeth's, and to add 28 letters and petitions from others, at the expense of more personal texts - such as the earnest inquiries after George Carey's health, in the Berkeley manuscripts. More of Elizabeth in her own words would have been more revealing than Elizabeth in Cecil's.

The poems and prayers are especially problematical. Only two of the 15 poems are in Elizabeth's hand and many of the others are ascribed to her only in 17th-century copies: several are of doubtful authenticity and have usually been rejected by modern scholars. In any case, they are versified cliches and platitudes. Eight of the 39 prayers are in her hand, but 25 of the rest were printed for public circulation in the queen's name - and who knows how they were composed? The printed prayers, like the official letters, had Elizabeth's endorsement - but were they "her" works, "her" words? And whom was she (or her ghost writer) trying to impress? God, her bishops, her Protestant subjects, a nervous nation, foreign allies in religion? The Precationes Privatae were published in 1563 and the Christian Prayers and Meditations in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin in 1569, when Elizabeth had lots to prove.

Many of these documents were in some sense propagandist and need critical analysis in context: that is obvious to all historians and literary scholars. The point is nicely made by Elizabeth's speeches to Parliament. Some texts of speeches were written out by members of her audience, with substantial variations between versions. Some survive wholly or partly in Elizabeth's hand: these have usually been regarded as the queen's preliminary drafts. But the editors suggest that Elizabeth spoke extempore or from memory, and that these "drafts" were in fact produced afterwards as working copies for the queen to revise for circulation and sometimes printing. The ill-remembered auditors' versions may thus be better records of what she actually said: the revisions show what she wanted read. For Elizabeth's amendments were political as well as stylistic, usually intended to tone down her parliamentary fury and appeal to a wider national audience. And some speeches had an afterlife, adjusted in later copies for use in changing political circumstances.

Well, surprise, surprise, we cannot solve the enigma - at least, not from her words. Elizabeth would certainly be pleased: a writer of such contorted and obscure prose presumably did not wish to be too readily understood. Her guises and disguises can fool us still. We know some of what Elizabeth said to God, but not much of what she said to her friends. We know what she wrote to Leicester when he was away, but not what she may have whispered to him when they were together. We know her favourite prayers, but not her favourite jokes. Will the real Elizabeth stand up, please? I doubt it.

Christopher Haigh is lecturer in modern history, Christ Church, Oxford.

Elizabeth I: Collected Works

Author - Elizabeth I
ISBN - 0 226 50464 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 446

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