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Elizabeth I: Collected Works
Elizabeth I: Collected Works
Elizabeth I
University of Chicago Press, 2000
470 pp., 50.00

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Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

Long Live the Queen

Elizabeth I in her own words

For the past two decades, scholars interested in cultural studies have been actively seeking, recovering, and publishing texts written by women of the early modern period, thus putting to rest Virginia Woolf's contention that women in the 16th and 17th centuries did not write because they were not allowed to. Woolf imagined Shakespeare's sister abused and ultimately driven to suicide because she tried to follow in her brother's footsteps, a direction prohibited to women. But with the rediscovery and publication of works by Aemilia Lanyer, Anne Askew, Martha Moulsworth, Katherine Philips, and many other authors, that scenario is no longer credible.

For the most part, editors and authors have chosen to preserve original spellings and punctuation in these texts. While understandable from a scholarly standpoint, this approach has had the unfortunate result of discouraging general readers from approaching the works at all. (Consider the obstacles that would face the non-academic reader of Shakespeare if editors were interested only in preserving the original texts as they appeared in folio or quarto editions replete with errors, textual corruptions, unfamiliar spellings, and inconsistent punctuation.) Hence the recovered texts that were supposed to rattle and ultimately widen the canon end up never entering it.

Fortunately, the splendid new edition of the collected works of Elizabeth I does not have this problem. Up to now it has been difficult to find more than a handful of Elizabeth's works in any one place. In this representative collection of Elizabeth I's speeches, letters, prayers, and poems, the editors have chosen to modernize spelling and punctuation, and to provide English translations when necessary. (An ancillary volume, Elizabeth I: Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals, provides original texts for those with scholarly interests.)

The sheer magnitude of works that bear the imprint of Elizabeth's hand and thinking makes it impossible to collect all of her writing in one volume. The editors have wisely chosen to limit themselves to all 24 of her full-length speeches, all 39 prayers, and all 15 poems, together with a selection of her letters as well as relevant letters from personages such as James VI of Scotland (who would later succeed Elizabeth as James I of England), poems from courtiers and political figures to whom she wrote poems in reply, and transcriptions of some of the public exchanges she had with bishops and members of Parliament.

At a time when women were not allowed into the universities and usually received no education at all, Elizabeth fell under the tutelage of schoolmasters as well known as Roger Ascham, who said of her in his famous essay, "The Schoolmaster": "Point forth six of the best-given gentlemen of this court, and they together shew not so much good will, spend not so much time, bestow not so many hours daily, orderly, and constantly, for the increase of learning and knowledge as doth the queen's Majesty herself." She spoke and read Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, and French, translating, at the age of 11, Marguerite of Navarre's The Mirror of the Sinful Soul as a New Year's gift for her stepmother Queen Katherine, and the next year tackling the first chapter of Calvin's Institutes as a gift for the same. Elizabeth took pride in her learning, at age 16 writing in a letter to King Edward about a portrait she had given to him, "For the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present." In a prayer written in Latin in 1563, five years into her reign, she thanks God for her learning, "unusual in my sex," and prays that she will always use her intellectual gifts for the glory of God. Remarkably, in later years she was able to deliver extemporaneous Latin orations (published in translation in this volume as re-created by listeners) to the faculties of Oxford and Cambridge, several centuries before women were allowed admission into the universities.

The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth lived through early years fraught with intrigue and danger. Considered illegitimate by the Roman Catholic Church—from which her excommunicated father split when he decided to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn—Elizabeth spent a few tentative years after her father's death as a subject first of her Protestant brother Edward, a sickly child who inherited the throne at the age of ten and died at 16, and then of her Catholic sister Mary I, who attempted to weed the kingdom of Protestant heretics in a bloody reign that ended with her death five years later and Elizabeth's accession. Elizabeth's letters, speeches, and prayers are replete with references to the dangers she survived in her youth and with expressions of thanksgiving to God who preserved her for what would be a triumphant 45-year reign as one of England's greatest monarchs. Some time before her accession she wrote one of her most famous rhymes, in which, perhaps for the sake of satisfying her sister Mary I, she adroitly negotiated the difficult waters of a subject of considerable Reformation controversy, Christ's meaning in the words of Institution, "This is my body":

Hoc est corpus meum
'Twas Christ the Word that spake it.
The same took bread and brake it,
And as the Word did make it,
So I believe and take it.

In later years Elizabeth claimed that until she became queen, she studied only theology, a fact which makes particularly remarkable her survival under her sister Mary's rule.

In the letters and speeches in this volume, one finds two continual concerns running throughout the half-century of Elizabeth's reign: the linked issues of her marriage and the succession. In early speeches to Parliament, she argued that she was married to England and that her subjects were her children, that she had as of yet found no potential partner suitable for marriage and that she wanted only to follow God's will on this issue. In one speech she announced openly that she would probably marry so that she could have children, in her mind the only possible justification for her marriage. She had recently survived a serious bout with smallpox, which created great nervousness because she had come so close to death, the kingdom still without a clearly designated line of succession.

Thus followed many frantic requests from her Lords with appeals to Scripture and to anecdotes from history to persuade her to change her mind. At one point Elizabeth became so angry about Parliament's constant harangue on this issue that she put a gag order on any further discussions of the problem. Parliament was furious, claiming that she was breaching freedom of speech in the House. Within two weeks she had rescinded the order, but Parliament then decided to tie further funding of her government to the settlement of the order of succession. It was her turn for fury, and in the end she prevailed, Parliament no match for her strong will.

Through the years, however, she dexterously used the unresolved issue of marriage for her own political purposes, allowing negotiations to take place with a number of foreign monarchs and heirs to foreign thrones. Only once did she appear to have been seriously tempted, and then by an unlikely candidate, the Duke of Alencon (also called the Duke of Anjou and referred to as "Monsieur" by Elizabeth), 21 years her junior. Negotiations opened when she was 38 and he was 17 and lasted so many years that at one point the French king wanted discreet assurance that Elizabeth could still bear children. Elizabeth's affectionate letters to Monsieur differ notably from the rest of her foreign correspondence. During one of his visits to England and in the presence of witnesses, Elizabeth put a ring upon the duke's hand, kissed him, and told her court that she would marry him. The years passed, however, and the discussions continued until she realized he was trying to involve her in his campaign in the Netherlands, which would have put in jeopardy England's already tentative relationship with Spain. She quickly bribed the duke to leave England.

Implying that all of Elizabeth's marriage negotiations had been an elaborate game, the Duke of Parma once wrote to the Spanish ambassador in London: "The marriage of that queen seems to me like the weaving of Penelope, undoing every night what was done the day before and then reweaving it anew the next, advancing in these negotiations neither more nor less than has been done and undone countless times without reaching a conclusion one way or the other. And in this way the years will pass her by, so that there will be very little to desire in her." In the meantime, however, her eligibility for marriage served as a powerful tool in negotiating relationships with Spain, France, and several other countries.

Also plaguing Elizabeth from the early years of her reign was the delicate and dangerous situation with Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic whose claim to the English throne, her followers felt, was legitimate since Elizabeth was, according to the Catholic Church, a bastard. Mary went so far as to include the arms of England in her own coat of arms when she was Queen of France. After she returned to Protestant Scotland and was refused the right to attend Mass (she did so anyway), and after questionable behavior and possible involvement in the murder of her new husband, she was forced into exile and held house prisoner in England. Even from there and living under these circumstances she was implicated in several plots against Elizabeth. But remembering her own perilous early days, Elizabeth was reluctant to act against another monarch, especially another woman who was also her cousin. She delayed action until forced to confront incontrovertible proof that she had come dangerously close to being assassinated. Even then, Elizabeth replied with characteristic reluctance to Parliamentary petitions urging Mary's execution:

I wish with all my heart that she may be repentant for this and all other her crimes. And that you may the better perceive how maliciously I have proceeded against her, I will declare a matter unto you wherein I shall become a blab: after these last conspiracies and treasons were discovered unto me, of myself I sent and wrote unto her, giving her so to understand that if she would confess the truth and by her letters advertise me for what cause and by whose means she was induced to consent thereunto, and withal discover the conspirators in this action, assuring her that I dealt not cautelously [craftily] with her to draw from her the knowledge of anything whereof I was already ignorant, I would cover her shame and save her from reproach. Which offer of mine she utterly refused and steadfastly denied her guiltiness therein. Notwithstanding, I assure you, if the case stood between her and myself only, if it had pleased God to have made us both milkmaids with pails on our arms, so that the matter should have rested between us two; and that I knew she did and would seek my destruction still, yet could I not consent to her death.

In her second reply to further Parliamentary petitions, Elizabeth concluded:

But now for answer unto you, you must take an answer without answer at my hands. For if I should say I would not do it, I should peradventure say that which I did not think, and otherwise than it might be. If I should say I would do it, it were not fit in this place and at this time, although I did mean it. Wherefore I must desire you to hold yourselves satisfied with this answer answerless.

This equivocating continued until Elizabeth finally signed an edict for Mary's execution, but refused to give orders for its delivery. The signed edict was delivered anyway, and Mary was executed, ostensibly to Elizabeth's dismay.

During the proceedings Elizabeth carried on a careful correspondence with James VI of Scotland, Mary's son. Although Elizabeth and James never met face to face, they had through the years forged an alliance through their correspondence. Implicit in some of the exchanges between them, although never overtly expressed, was the understanding that James would be named Elizabeth's successor. When his mother's activities were investigated, he pleaded for Elizabeth's leniency, and when Mary was finally executed, Elizabeth could claim that the execution went forward in spite of her intentions. In this way the two monarchs could safely address themselves to furthering their relationship for the good of both England and Scotland, who would, under James' rule, unite as one Protestant nation.

As was true during his reign as James VI of Scotland, James I of England would be troubled with competing religious factions throughout his reign, and the seeds for this trouble were sown, of course, even before Elizabeth's time. Under Henry VIII the country had been Roman Catholic until Henry's break with Rome. The English Church continued for the short years of Edward's reign and then reverted to Catholicism with the accession of Mary I. With Elizabeth the change back to the English Church was effected once again.

As queen, Elizabeth continuously dealt with theological questions, not only from what were considered dangerous external papist influences but also from the growing Puritan voice within. In one of her speeches to the bishops and clergy, Elizabeth addressed the problems of the lack of unity in the church, the growing carelessness in certain congregations in administering the sacraments, and issues of false teaching (for example, "that there is no hell but a torment of conscience"). Her suggested antidote for these problems, that the clergy needed to read more homilies from King Edward's time, reveals a surprising lack of interest in addressing the issues more particularly.

On the other hand, in response to critics who accused her of having "no religion, neither hot [nor] cold, but such a one as one day would give God the vomit," she said,

I pray you look unto such men. I doubt not but you will look unto the papists, for that they not only have spite at me, and that very nearly, but at the whole realm and the state of religion. There is an Italian proverb which sayeth, "From mine enemy let me defend myself, but from a pretensed friend, good Lord deliver me." Both these join together in one opinion against me for neither of them would have me to be queen of England. And as for their curious and busy fellows, their preaching tendeth only to popularity.

It is clear that she was attempting to maintain a delicate balance. In an exchange with the bishops, some of whom were complaining that there were not enough learned preachers to fill England's 13,000 parishes, Elizabeth pragmatically replied that it mattered not to her whether the preachers were learned. What she wanted were "honest, sober, and wise men, and such as can read the Scriptures and Homilies well unto the people." Her own prayers often echo Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. It is clear from them that she was a woman of strong faith who recognized her own vulnerabilities and who embraced utterly the basic tenets of Reformation theology.

Her humor is also evident throughout these letters and speeches. She nicknames her favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, "eyes" (written "ôô" in her letters). She calls the Duke of Alencon "Frog" and Sir Walter Raleigh "Pug." She composes a mock writ of dispensation pardoning Lord Burghley for missing St. George's festivities. She playfully advises the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury on the Earl of Leicester's diet: "Allow him by the day for his meat two ounces of flesh, reserving the quality to yourselves so you exceed not the quantity, and for his drink the twentieth part of a pint of wine to comfort his stomach, and as much of Saint Anne's sacred water [morning dew] as he lusteth to drink. … On festival days … enlarge his diet by allowing unto him for a fit dinner the shoulder of a wren, and for his supper a leg of the same besides his ordinary ounces."

Elizabeth's poems are, with notable exceptions, occasional pieces. Two of these poems, "On Monsieur's Departure" and "When I Was Fair and Young," often appear in anthologies and in course syllabi for 16th-century British literature. "On Monsieur's Departure" is unusual in that while Elizabeth, the narrator, remains "soft, and made of melting snow," she also takes on attributes usually associated with the male Petrarchan lover: loving yet seeming to hate, freezing yet burning with passion, mute but "inwardly prat[ing]." The pose of courtly love poetry in which a courtier suffers at the hands of an unattainable mistress (a position Elizabeth was accustomed to taking) is reversed here as the unattainable mistress herself speaks of love's passion and disappointments. That this poem was composed after the Duke of Alencon's final departure, and that it can be read in this volume in the context of the letters exchanged between the two, makes it a particularly personal statement of feeling. This level of feeling can also be detected in several of the letters of condolence Elizabeth writes to various friends at court on the loss of their loved ones.

Indeed, even in her most public addresses, her strength lies in her ability to touch her people with her care and love for them. Her well-known speech to the troops at Tilbury, after the defeat of the Armada but while she was anticipating further Spanish military action, is a testament to her oratorical skills, to her commitment to sacrifice herself for her kingdom, and to her honesty about her own position as a female monarch:

I am come among you at this time … being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live and die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom and for my people mine honor and my blood even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too, and take foul scorn that Parma or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

Her deep sense of the responsibilities entailed by her role can also be found in the extemporaneous "Latin Rebuke to the Polish Ambassador," scathing in its denunciation of a statesman's violation of decorum.

The picture that emerges from this meticulously produced volume is of a queen of enormous capabilities, whose chosen motto, semper eadem (ever the same), presents an ideal she actively sought to live up to even as she acknowledged her own mutability. In these, her own words, we see a woman of character who combines a refreshing willingness to be transparent with an unwavering determination to uphold the qualities that she felt her kingdom most desperately needed: consistency, continuity, and majesty.

Jill Peláez Baumgaertner is dean of humanities and theological studies and professor of English at Wheaton College. She is the author most recently of Finding Cuba (Chimney Hill), a book of poems.

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