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Lambeth Library yields up ‘Messy’ Queen Bess

20 December 2019

Lambeth Palace Library

The Tacitus transcription in the Tenison collection in Lambeth Palace Library, showing emendations thought to be in the hand of Queen Elizabeth I

The Tacitus transcription in the Tenison collection in Lambeth Palace Library, showing emendations thought to be in the hand of Queen Elizabeth I

THE discovery of a rare manuscript by Elizabeth I in Lambeth Palace Library has revealed that Gloriana’s handwriting was not so glorious.

Her translation from Latin of the Annales, by the Roman historian Tacitus, is the first work by Elizabeth to be unearthed in more than a century. (Elizabeth I’s translation of Tacitus was published by Oxford University Press last Friday in the Review of English Studies.) It is written in an elegant script that matches one of her secretaries’, but numerous corrections and additions are in her own hand, and they are, the academic who discovered it, Dr John-Mark Philo, said, “idiosyncratic — to put it mildly”.

Apparently, in Elizabeth’s court, the worse one’s handwriting was, the better one’s status. Dr Philo, an honorary fellow in English Studies at the University of East Anglia, said: “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.”

It was the unique style of the corrections which enabled Dr Philo to attribute the authorship to her. “The changes and additions are in an extremely distinctive, disjointed hand,” he said. “Her late handwriting is usefully messy: there really is nothing like it, and the idiosyncratic flourishes serve as diagnostic tools.

“As the demands of governance increased, her script sped up, and, as a result, some letters, such as ‘m’ and ‘n’, became almost horizontal strokes, while others, including her ‘e’ and ‘d’, broke apart. These distinctive features serve as essential diagnostics in identifying the Queen’s work.”

Further evidence of the sovereign’s authorship is the manuscript’s paper. Its three watermarks — a rampant lion, the initials “G. B.”, and a crossbow countermark — are also found in Elizabeth’s other translations and personal correspondence. Dr Philo believes that the work could be an example of a leisure activity for a monarch known to enjoy translation and classical history. “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 17-page manuscript is from state papers collected by Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1694 to 1715, who had a great interest in the Elizabethan court.

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