Elizabeth I


Autograph Compositions

Elizabeth I, Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals, ed. Janel Mueller and Leah S. Marcus (Chicago & London, 2003)


The Poems of Queen Elizabeth I, ed. Leicester Bradner (Providence, EI, 1964)

Collected Works

Elizabeth I, Collected Works, ed. Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose (Chicago & London, 2000)


Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T. E. Hartley, 3 vols (Leicester University Press, 1981-95)

Selected Works

Queen Elizabeth I, Selected Works, ed Steven W. May (New York, London, etc., 2004)

Translations (1)

Elizabeth I, Translations 1544-1589, ed. Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel (Chicago & London, 2009)

Translations (2)

Elizabeth I, Translations 1592-1598, ed. Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel (Chicago & London, 2009)


Queen Elizabeth I is one of the most celebrated monarchs in British history, her forty-five-year reign being one of the most eventful and remarkable periods in that history. The subject of innumerable studies and biographies, as well as novels, plays, films and operas, virtually every aspect of her character and personal and political life has been scrutinised, if not sometimes romanticised, ever since her death four centuries ago. For present purposes, we are concerned with only one of those aspects: her writings.

These fall into several categories, all dominated by texts in manuscript.


Perhaps the earliest of her ‘literary’ writings are the semi-calligraphic and beautifully bound manuscripts of translations that she produced as a young Princess for her brother, Edward VI (*ElQ 64), her father, Henry VIII (*ElQ 65), and her stepmother, Katherine Parr (*ElQ 59, *ElQ 62). Her interest in scholarly learning and her command of several languages would last the rest of her life, resulting, among other things, in a series of translations which she produced as intellectual exercises, for her own diversion, almost throughout her reign. Her renditions, chiefly into English, of classical and continental writers, which still survive in her own handwriting, range from early neat presentation volumes to rough drafts in the degenerated italic scrawl of her later years. From contemporary references, it is also likely that Elizabeth made more translations (from Tacitus, Isocrates, and others) than are currently known.

Interesting light on some of Elizabeth's translations is thrown by an anonymous contemporary memorandum, on a single quarto leaf, in British Library, Lansdowne MS 253, f. 200r. Besides mentioning the Queen's translation of ‘a peece’ of Sallust's De Bello Jugurthino (‘in what yeere of her Raigne I knowe not’), otherwise apparently unrecorded, the anonymous writer claims that ‘her translation of Boetius’ was begun at Windsor on 10 October and finished on 5 November 1593; that she translated ‘a peece of Horace de arte poetica about November 1598’; and that her translation of ‘a treatise of curiosity written by Plutark’ was begun on 3 November and finished on 9 November 1598. He notes that ‘she writt all these translations wt her owne hand’.


A second category is Elizabeth's original verse. As with so many other contemporary poets who neither published nor made any attempt to gather their poems into formal collections in their own lifetime, the canon of Elizabeth's verse remains uncertain, the contemporary or subsequent attributions to her varying in reliability. At present some fifteen poems are consigned to her in Bradford and in the Chicago Collected Works. One or two of these survive in her handwriting (*ElQ 1, *ElQ 33), the rest in contemporary or early-seventeenth-century miscellanies. Of these poems, the best-known, a text of which somehow migrated beyond the Royal Court and was then widely copied, is “The doubt of future foes”, a poem generally interpreted as referring to the threat imposed by Mary Queen of Scots before her execution in 1587 and which was also singled out for special praise in Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie. At present twelve manuscript copies of this poem can be recorded (ElQ 14-26).


A third and most prolific category is Elizabeth's speeches and orations, which date from the first year of her reign to within two years of her death, many of them of striking eloquence. Again, the question of authorship is complicated. This is partly because at least some of her speeches would have incorporated contributions by her close advisors, such as her principal secretary of state William Cecil, Lord Burghley; and partly because various speeches exist in different versions. One would perhaps be the ‘official’ version written up for publication after the event rather than the speech she actually delivered in Parliament. Other versions would be determined by the circumstances in which her speeches were copied by different scribes present at their delivery, certain of whom frankly admitted that they could not catch everything she said, and whose texts inevitably vary. The exact process of her speech-making is still not clear, and it has even been speculated that she delivered speeches purely from memory, and that they were only written up afterwards. What is certain, however, whatever their predominant modus operandi, is that Elizabeth took an active, if not always exclusive, part in their composition, as is witnessed by several speeches that exist partly or wholly in her own autograph drafts (*ElQ 140, *ElQ 164, *ElQ 213).

Although there are other reports of statements she made in various conferences or conversations, as well as brief remarks by her in Parliament or statements of her views delivered on her behalf by the Speaker, Elizabeth's ‘formal’ speeches are here taken to be those printed in Collected Works. While some of her speeches were officially published, most, copied by commercial scribes, enjoyed considerable unofficial circulation in manuscripts, either as ‘separates’ or as incorporated in scribal copies of parliamentary journals, both during her reign and well into the seventeenth century. Her most popular speech, copies of which abound (ElQ 256-305), was clearly the so-called ‘Golden Speech’ of 30 November 1601, on the abuses of monopolies, the penultimate speech she ever delivered. Curiously enough, what is today her most celebrated speech, her inspiring address to the forces at Tilbury on 9 August 1588 during the Spanish Armada crisis, was relatively little copied (ElQ 226-229), although what is probably the best text of it was published immediately afterwards. The exact nature of this speech, for all its fame, remains controversial, and it has even been argued that it was scarcely delivered at all but written up afterwards as a propaganda exercise. If so, the propaganda was remarkably successful.


Besides a few essays attributed to Elizabeth in early copies (ElQ 68-72), a final category of her prose writings found in manuscript copies is the various prayers which are attributed to her (ElQ 73-108). Curiously enough, her prayers became after her death the most popular texts associated with her, subject to several printed editions in the seventeenth century: see Steven W. May, ‘Queen Elizabeth Prays for the Living and the Dead’, in Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing, ed. Peter Beal and Grace Ioppolo (London, 2007), pp. 201-11.

Letters and Documents

Besides all this, the mound of surviving documentation relating to Elizabeth – her innumerable letters, documents (including execution warrants) signed by her, proclamations and other official papers – is immeasurable and certainly beyond our present purview. If all this material, now widely scattered in libraries, record offices, and private collections world-wide, is ever collected and edited for print publication, what would truly be Elizabeth's ‘Collected Works’ would probably be an edition running into upwards of a dozen volumes.

One document which is worth drawing attention to is the mock-charter presented to Lord Burghley during a courtly entertainment at Theobalds in 1591, addressed by the Queen ‘too the disconsolate & retired spryte, the hermyte of Tybolles’. The vellum document is signed by the Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton, and bears the Great Seal. It is quite possible that the Queen had a hand in the preparation of this light-hearted frolic, designed to dissuade her elderly Secretary of State from retiring, and it is more than likely that it was the Queen herself who presented it to Burghley during the entertainment. The document was recorded in the early eighteenth century by John Strype, but was then lost to sight until rediscovered in 1980 in a trunk of old deeds at Sotheby's. It was offered at Sotheby's on 15-16 December 1980, lot 200, with a facsimile in the sale catalogue, and is now at Yale, Elizabethan Club (Eliz Vault). A facsimile of it is in the British Library (RP 2859).

Elizabeth's Library

A comprehensive cataloguing of books and manuscripts presented to Elizabeth, or owned or inscribed by her, would also be considerable. Three examples of ‘Elizabeth's Book Inscriptions’, found in Windsor Castle and in the Bodleian Library, are quoted and discussed in Translations, pp. 395-405.

Elizabeth's Handwriting

For discussions of the Queen's variable handwriting over the years, and for facsimile examples of it, see, inter alia, H. R. Woudhuysen, ‘The Queen's Own Hand: A Preliminary Account’, in Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing, ed. Peter Beal and Grace Ioppolo (2007), pp. 1-27, and Katherine Duncan-Jones, ‘Elizabeth I and her “Good George”: Unpublished Letters’, in the same publication, pp. 29-41; Felix Pryor, Elizabeth I: Her Life in Letters (London, 2003); Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, ed. Susan Doran (London, 2003); David Loades, Elizabeth I: The Golden Reign of Gloriana (London, 2003); and Elizabeth I Then and Now, ed. Georgianna Ziegler (Washington, DC, 2003), as well as Collected Works, Autograph Compositions, and Selected Works.


Several boxes of working papers of the Chicago edition of The Collected Works are now preserved in the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, in Amherst.

Peter Beal