“All unperfect and incorrect”: Tracy Borman on the discovery of an Elizabethan gem

Following the discovery of a manuscript translation traced to the hand of Queen Elizabeth I – the first substantial work to emerge in more than a century – historian Tracy Borman explores the discovery in more detail, and what it might tell us about the queen’s nature…

Queen Elizabeth I

Apart from the pure joy of research, one of the things that drives historians on – myself included – is the lure of discovering something new: a portrait hidden away in an old attic, an item of clothing in a long-forgotten wardrobe, or perhaps a manuscript buried in some obscure archive. But such things are as rare as hen’s teeth, particularly for the well-trawled Tudor period. Little wonder that the recent discovery of a document in Elizabeth I’s own hand has caused such a stir.

Advertisement

The document in question is a manuscript translation of the first book of the Annales by the Roman historian Tacitus. It was brought to light in a new article published in the Review of English Studies compiled by a team of researchers under the lead of John-Mark Philo, a literary historian from the University of East Anglia. They found the manuscript in Lambeth Palace library, which is known for its rich, eclectic and often surprising collections. It was there that, when researching my first book (a biography of Henrietta Howard, the long-suffering mistress of George II) that I came across a lock of Henrietta’s hair. How on earth did it end up there? I still haven’t found the answer.

The researchers were able to trace the manuscript’s transmission from the Elizabethan court to the Lambeth Palace Library, via the collection of Archbishop Thomas Tenison in the 17th century. Tenison had a keen interest in the Elizabethan court and became an avid collector of manuscripts from that period. By the end of his life, he had compiled one of the largest collections of State Papers from the Elizabethan era.

The document in question is a manuscript translation of the first book of the Annales by the Roman historian Tacitus. (Image by Lambeth Palace Library)

How do we know it was written by Queen Elizabeth I?

A number of clues led Dr Philo to the conclusion that the 34-page manuscript was by Elizabeth I. One of the most revealing was that it was written on a type of paper that had “gained special prominence” in the Tudor court during the 1590s. Another was the presence of certain watermarks: a rampant lion and the initials ‘GB’ with a crossbow countermark. All three are also found on the paper that the queen used in her own translation of Boethius and for her personal correspondence.

Elizabeth I's translation of Tacitus
The manuscript was written on a type of paper that had “gained special prominence” in the Tudor court during the 1590s. (Image by Lambeth Palace Library)

Most compelling of all, though, was the handwriting. Although the translation was copied by one of Elizabeth’s secretaries, there are numerous additions and corrections in her own, very distinctive hand. In the later years of her reign, the weight of government business increased, and her handwriting therefore became more hurried – even, dare I say it, messy. Certain letters, such as ‘m’ and ‘n’, were little more than horizontal strokes, while her ‘e’ and ‘d’ broke apart.

The tone and style of the translation also matches earlier works of Elizabeth I. Tacitus was known for the density of his prose, which is retained in the translation.  It also strictly follows the patterns of the Latin phrases at the risk of obscuring the sense in English. The same style is found in other translations by Elizabeth. What eradicated any trace of doubt is the fact that there was only one known translator of Tacitus at the late Tudor court: the queen herself.

A depiction of Roman historian Tacitus
There was only one known translator of Roman historian Tacitus at the late Tudor court: Elizabeth I. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Why might Elizabeth I have chosen to translate this work?

Her choice of subject is interesting. The Annales trace the history of the Roman empire, including the death of Augustus, the rise of the emperor Tiberius and the centralisation of power in a single individual. Was Elizabeth, who by now had vanquished the Armada and was widely revered as ‘Gloriana’ and the ‘Virgin Queen’, aspiring to absolute authority? Perhaps not. Tacitus was actually quite a subversive historian and was later reviled by Charles I as “anti-monarchical”, as Dr Philo puts it.  Elizabeth may therefore have been drawing upon his text for examples of how not to rule.

There is always a danger in reading too much into such matters, though, and it is equally possible that Elizabeth, who is known to have enjoyed classical history, embarked upon the translation as a pleasurable distraction from the cares of state. The 1590s were, after all, a time of great turbulence in her realm, with the ever-present threat of Jesuit plots and assassination attempts, not to mention the prospect that the king of Spain might launch another Armada. Now that she was well beyond childbearing years, Elizabeth also faced intense pressure to name her successor. It is perhaps not surprising that escaping to the world of Roman history held such appeal.

What else do we know about Elizabeth’s scholarship?

Elizabeth had long taken solace in study. From the age of five, she could speak Latin and Greek, and she also became fluent in several other languages.  An exceptionally precocious and inquisitive young girl, she astonished some of the leading scholars of the age with her intellectual ability. When her last stepmother, Katherine Parr, appointed William Grindal, a renowned Cambridge academic, as tutor to her 11-year old stepdaughter in 1544, he was full of praise for her ‘wit’ and the pains she took in her study. Another contemporary enthused that Elizabeth was “learned (her sex and times considered) beyond all common belief”.

Princess Elizabeth
Princess Elizabeth astonished some of the leading scholars of the age with her intellectual ability. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Elizabeth thrived under Grindal’s tutelage. In order to express her thanks to Katherine, she set about about translating ‘Le miroir de l’âme pêcheresse’, or ‘Mirror of the sinful soul’, a poem by Margaret of Angoulême, Queen of Navarre and the favourite sister of King Francis I. Her choice was significant.  Katherine had read the poem to Elizabeth during her stay at court in the summer of 1544 and had introduced Elizabeth to other writings of Margaret, who shared her religious sympathies and was a leading patroness of reform at the French court. As such, she was also an example of a powerful female figure whose learning and intellect was influencing the lives of many both at court and beyond.

The translation had evidently taken Elizabeth a great deal of time and effort – more than she had expected, for the handwriting suggests that she had had to finish it in a hurry in order to get it to her stepmother for New Year, the traditional time for exchanging gifts at the Tudor court. She prefaced it with an amusing note in which she begged her stepmother not to show the translation to anyone else because it was “all unperfect and incorrect” and “nothing is done as it should be”. But she comforted herself with the knowledge that “the file of your excellent wit and godly learning, in the reading of it… shall rub out, polish and mend… the words (or rather the order of my writing) the which I know in many places to be rude”.

As a finishing touch, Elizabeth embroidered a beautiful cover for the book, which was bound in exquisite blue cloth. She carefully stitched little forget-me-nots onto the spine and worked heartsease – a herb that signified domestic harmony – in violet, yellow and green silk at the corners. On the front, she embroidered the initials ‘KP’ in silver, mirroring the Queen’s customary signature.

The translation is one of the earliest and best known of Elizabeth’s works. But thanks to this new discovery at Lambeth, it is now clear that such pursuits remained a passion of the Virgin Queen throughout her long life.

Tracy Borman is an author, historian and broadcaster specialising in the Tudor period. Her books include Elizabeth’s Women: the hidden story of the Virgin Queen. Tracy is also joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, which has recently discovered a ‘lost dress’ of Elizabeth I. This is on display at Hampton Court Palace until spring 2020.

Advertisement

The full manuscript has also been digitised here.