Queen Elizabeth I is perhaps one of the most influential and well-recognized figures in all of history. As the ruler of England and Ireland from November 17th, 1558 until her death on March 24th, 1603, Elizabeth I oversaw a cultural movement which propelled flourishing literature and exploration. While history tends to focus on The Virgin Queen’s influence and political reign, her own name and status as an author tends to be left out of the limelight.
Elizabeth I was more than just royalty; she played a huge role in the world of Elizabethan literature. From Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, many literary critics have traced Elizabeth I as an inspirational subject to several of the more memorable dramas and poems in this period of time.
So, of course, as leader of a country undergoing a transitional period of writing and entertainment, Elizabeth I found herself in the center field of reference for art. However, that’s not where it all ends. While she played an inspirational role in several playwrights’ works, Queen Elizabeth I also had a heavy hand with writing on her own. To understand her literary role in this era of time, we must look past the men who crafted her image through comedic plays, tragedies, and histories. We must look to the abundance of speeches, letters, and publicized poems which she crafted on her own. In a period of time which is remembered for highly valued and critiqued literary spectacles, an established image hovers over it all: Elizabeth I, the extravagant Queen of England and Ireland and underappreciated author.
Queen Elizabeth was incredible educated, one of the few women of England to benefit from humanist support for the education of females during this time period. She received a complete education from prominent humanists (from John Cheke to Roger Ascham). Able to speak Latin, Greek, French, Italian, the young Elizabeth could translate classical works from Latin to Greek, from Greek to English, and from English to Latin again.
Many of her translations survive the test of time, with her handwriting dawning pages upon pages of error-filled, hastily written classical works. Many of her speeches, delivered briefly in Latin at Cambridge and Oxford, survive as well, which is unheard of for a majority of history. A woman, speaking in the so-called ‘civilized’ tongue, to men of such “authority” in the world of intellect.
Her educational manifestation followed her for her entire life, playing an important role as establishing her as not only an effective monarch, but a rather intelligent and intellectual one as well. Her later speeches, in which she mastered English literary devices and rhetoric, show us just how talented the Queen was in this subject.
As her Catholic half-sister Mary took the throne in 1533, the Protestants of the country shivered in fear of religious persecution. Although no historical evidence sides with Mary’s doctrine, Elizabeth was locked away after being claimed to be apart of a treasonous rebellion in late January of 1554. Here we see more of Elizabeth’s brilliant writing, as she oftentimes sent letters to her sister while imprisoned in an attempt to protest innocent and complain about the unfairness that was bestowed upon such a member of royalty.
Elizabeth I oftentimes wrote, secretly, upon the walls and within her prayer book so no guard could find out that she was writing. Such a fear of her own words, perhaps being labelled as treasonous, taking her to trial and swiftly to the executioner…this prevented the soon-to-be Queen from writing more outwards. One of her poems, scratched on the window, states her position that “Much suspected by me, / Nothing proved can be.”
We have a historical issue with this very poem, as it fails to give historical evidence towards innocence. So, perhaps we’ll never know if Elizabeth committed any treasonous acts. Was Elizabeth wrongly committed as her half-sister Mary feared of a Protestant Rebellion? Or was Elizabeth locked away after making advances to take the throne?
Another poem, On Fortune and Injustice, was supposedly written on the wall within her chambers. In this “iambic tetrameter stanza”, Elizabeth expressed her sentiments using frequent alliteration, blames her troubles on fortune, whose “wresting wavering state / Hath fraught with cares my troubled wit.”
But, perhaps the most well-known and enjoyed poem from the captured Queen was “No Crooked Leg, No Bleared Eye”.
No crookèd leg, no blearèd eye,
No part deformèd out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As is the inward suspicious mind.
This poem was written within the margins of her prayer book, and it does a fantastic job at expressing her concerns with the people around her. This is, essentially, a rant in which Elizabeth expressed how suspicion can corrupt and ruin an otherwise good person. Perhaps Elizabeth was suggesting that her half-sister Mary ruined what people think of her by imprisoning her (a very favorable and popular Protestant in a country desperate for religious change). She continues the trend of demonstrating her hatred for the baseless suspicion cast upon her.
Many of her speeches — revved up with religious-based nationalism and English rhetoric — and her letters, more deeply rooted with personality and praise — continue the trends noticed within her poetry. To read them, click here.