31 July 1544 – Elizabeth writes to her stepmother

On this day in history, 31st July 1544, ten-year-old Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, wrote a letter to her stepmother, Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. It’s the earliest surviving letter written by the future Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Anne Everett Green, editor of Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain, in which the letter is translated and transcribed, explains:

“This epistle, which is in elegant Italian, was written to Queen Catherine Parr, as regent, in 1544, during the absence of Henry VIII. The cause of the long absence of the princess from the court of her step-mother, of which she complains, has not transpired.”

Here is Elizabeth’s letter in English:

“Inimical fortune, envious of all good and ever revolving human affairs, has deprived me for a whole year of your most illustrious presence, and, not thus content, has yet again, robbed me of the same good; which thing would be intolerable to me, did I not; hope to enjoy it very soon. And in this my exile, I well know that the clemency of your highness has had as much care and solicitude for my health as the king’s majesty himself. By which thing I am not only bound to serve you, but also to revere you with filial love, since I understand that your most illustrious highness has not forgotten me every time you have written to the king’s majesty, which, indeed, it was my duty to have requested from you. For heretofore I have not dared to write to him. Wherefore I now humbly pray your most excellent highness that when you write to his majesty, you will condescend to recommend me to him, praying ever for his sweet benediction, and similarly. entreating our Lord God to send him best success and the obtaining of victory over his enemies, so that your highness and I may, as soon as possible, rejoice together with him on his happy return. No less pray I God, that he would preserve your most illustrious highness; to whose grace, humbly kissing, your hands, I offer and recommend myself.

From St. James’s this 31st of July.

Your most obedient daughter, and most
faithful, servant,


Why would a ten-year-old write to her stepmother in Italian?

Well, David Starkey, in his book Elizabeth explains: “Like most of the letters of royal children, it is only secondarily a vehicle of communication. Its primary purpose, instead, was to show off the latest of Elizabeth’s scholarly attainments.” Starkey goes on to point out that Queen Catherine would have needed the help of a translator to understand what he describes as “elaborate, courtly Italian.” I wish I could have written about “inimical fortune” in Italian at the age of ten!

By the way, Elizabeth was not in any type of “exile” at this point. She had been at court and Starkey points out that she had dined with her father, Mary and Edward just a month earlier, but she had missed seeing Catherine.

Notes and Sources

Picture: Portrait of a young Elizabeth I by William Scots; portrait of Catherine Parr, the Melton Constable Portrait.

  • Green, Mary Anne Everett (1846) Letters of royal and illustrious ladies of Great Britain, from the commencement of the twelfth century to the close of the reign of Queen Mary, Volume 3, Ho. Colburn, London, p. 176-177. The letter had been translated and transcribed from the “Cotton MS., 0TH0., c. X. FOL. 231” and was described as “Holograph, Italian, burnt.” https://archive.org/details/lettersroyaland06greegoog
  • Starkey, David (2001) Elizabeth: Apprenticeship, Vintage, p. 35-36.

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20 thoughts on “31 July 1544 – Elizabeth writes to her stepmother”
  1. Elizabeth was Certainly very cultivated and had the privilege of a brilliant education which is rare even today- she was also a most intelligent child who became one of the most important rulers in England’s history –

  2. Elizabeth’s exquisite handwriting makes one marvel that this piece of correspondence was written by a very young girl of ten and in Italian to, she was highly intelligent, inheriting both her parents brains and today she would have most likely gone to university and become something of a scholar, when she was queen she signed her name with a flourishy signature quite unique amongst the sovereigns of England, she had an excellent education and this letter if Henry ever read it when he returned from France, would have made him feel proud, there has never been any explanation why Elizabeth was absent from her fathers court for that length of time and it’s believed she may have angered him, maybe she was curious about her mother quite naturally and being the headstrong girl she was, asked Henry a few impertinent questions, that she loved her stepmother is apparent in the letter she wrote her and they probably found they had a lot in common, Catherine being studious herself and she had no children of her own must have lavished a lot of maternal affection on her and Edward and Mary maybe, Elizabeth at ten I should imagine was a charming little girl who is said to have had a grave air about her, certainly her mother whilst at the court of Marguerite of Austria aroused affection in that stalwart woman, as can be seen in the enthusiastic letter she wrote to Thomas Boleyn, she describes Anne ‘as so bright and pleasant for her young age’, she gos onto say she is more indebted to her father for sending her to her, instead of the other way round, she had been saddened when her cousin Catherine Howard had been beheaded, possibly she had felt close to her because she was related to her mother and was said to have uttered the words ‘ I will never marry’, as she grew older and when her father died she moved into the household of her stepmother and caught the eye of her new stepfather, he abused his position as her guardian and after an unsavoury episode witnessed by Catherine she was banished from her home, she was very upset as she had loved her stepmother, I believe she had come to revere her and would have enjoyed life with her if it were not for the unwelcome attentions of Thomas Seymour, she is said to have blushed when his name was mentioned and maybe harboured a schoolgirl crush on him, Seymour being immature enjoyed flirting with her, a princess in his house, no doubt it gave him a bit of a thrill, in fact it reminds me of Catherine Howard when she was subject herself to male attention whilst living with her grandmother, human nature hasn’t changed at all, today it would be considered normal among young people, but in those days it was a case of shock horror, but it did go on regardless of the moral standards of the age, and the women were blamed, no doubt after Elizabeths disgrace Anne Boleyns loose morals were brought up, and she had malicious gossip said about her, yet it had been Seymour’s fault, he was the adult and Elizabeth only about fifteen, when Catherine Parr married Thomas Seymour there was quite a bit of disapproval as it was not long after the old kings death and princess Mary was displeased, what Elizabeth thought we have no idea but one door had closed, and another door had opened, it was a new phase in her life which young as she was, no doubt found it exciting, however it ended in misery and for the next few years of her life she resided quietly in her country house, Hatfield for one and devoted her life to study dressing in modest gowns of black as if to try to rehabilitate her tarnished reputation.

  3. Elizabeth was particularly cultivated in Italian and she wrote numerous letters in this difficult language as part of her diplomatic correspondence as Queen. Catherine Parr was acting as Regent at this time. Perhaps she just didn’t have the opportunity or the time to visit with Elizabeth regularly while ruling in the King’s stead. Yes she was at Court, but Catherine may not have been able to grant her personal time. No doubt she kept regular reports from Elizabeth’s staff and recommendations were made to her father, but it must have been difficult for a growing young lady, especially as she needed a female hand to guide her as she grew into a young woman over the next few years.

  4. This little girl’s letter is addressed to a Queen. It sounds stilted beyond belief, yawningly sycophantic and much too clever-clever. Claire poses a question – why? Dr Starkey tells us the primary goal is to impress her step-mother with the child’s amazing learning skills in Italian. And we then ask, surely, just how far must this little girl go to win approval and praise? Answer apparently, this far. She is THIS driven. Doesn’t your heart go out to her? Mine does. I can’t help feeling this is a child driven to win approval because approval equals survival. There is much insight in this post. Thank you, Claire. Made me think.

  5. I studied Italian, and it is, in many ways, easier than French, though it is harder than Spanish. Elizabeth would have studied Latin first, making her study of the Romance languages much simpler than it would otherwise be. Having both French and Latin would make Italian relatively easy. It is also easier for the very young to acquire new languages. The handwriting would have required some diligence on her part. Is there any link between manual dexterity and beautiful handwriting? Don’t know, but I am going to check it out. Elizabeth was a talented musician(like her parents), so she had many gifts. Just not so lucky on the family front.

  6. I read somewhere that writing letters in different languages was part of the teaching techniques of the era; for example, Elizabeth would write to her brother in Latin or Greek. Does anyone know if this is correct?

  7. Interestingly, just read Under These Restless Skies piece “The Age of Anne Boleyn: The Letter to Her Father.” This brings up the very young age at which Royals received tutoring and the results this produced. Seems to suggest that early learning is productive and little minds are eagerly receptive to it. Perhaps I need to rethink this subject. What do you think?

    1. My three children started learning French at an early age by immersion, 3, 2 and 18 months due to them being educated in French in Quebec.

      I’ve heard so many stories over the years of children in both school systems not being able to communicate with their teachers I decided to get a head-start. As a result all 3 (now 19, 16 and 12) are almost fully bilingual.

      At their elementary school, they had Spanish as a third language and all three were in the top group. Sadly high school didn’t teach a third language to the majority of students but my two youngest are in the International Baccalaureate and do get Spanish for their first three years.

      Certainly young minds do take in a lot of learning either structured as in lessons or in a more informal peer group situation.

      1. My three learnt Spanish by total immersion, i.e. moving to rural Spain at the ages of 4, 5 and 8. They are now completely bilingual and found the learning of other languages (French, Latin and Ancient Greek) relatively easy. If that part of the brain is exercised when a child is young then it really does help.

  8. I adore those two portraits side by side. Elizabeth wears scarlet/red because she is royalty. Am I right? Elizabeth and Catherine Parr were certainly scholars and very intelligent. I don’t know if it is true but one of Elizabeth’s tutors taught her sword fighting? Maybe I am wrong. I think Elizabeth was truly an intelligent and caring girl. Her family upbringing must have been chaotic but Catherine Parr was maternal to her and her siblings. It makes me think how normal a family it was for them at that period. Elizabeth’s use of language is very persuasive. Whether she is trying to please her stepmother or it comes from the heart. But it seems that she wanted to be thought well off as I am sure she felt neglected from her father. But I don’t think Elizabeth was one to hold a grudge. but that proved different with the grey sisters.

  9. The letter is a great example of the pitfalls historians and researchers must face. Taken literally, it says Elizabeth was exiled from court for a year and did not dare to write to her father, so asks Catherine Parr to intercede. However, as David Starkey pointed out, she was NOT in exile, there is no record of gossip or a disagreement with her father, and it was a common teaching method for children to write elaborate letters — bordering on essays — to their parents displaying their progress in linguistic studies. The letter actually does not say much — boiled down, Elizabeth regrets the bad fortune that has kept her and Catherine from meeting up for a year. She thanks Catherine for mentioning her in her letters to the King, especially since Elizabeth has not written to him herself, and asks her to continue to do so. That’s pretty much it. The only thing not clear is why she doesn’t “dare” to write to her father directly — was it a breach of etiquette to do so? Or, as with the word “exile”, was she being dramatic? Two perfectly plausible interpretations — pick the one you like, I guess…

    1. I think that Elizabeth was trying to intellectualise with Catherine and Henry rather than bond. So Elizabeth could have been dramatic.

    2. I agree and I doubt that there was any breach with her father either as Henry had put Elizabeth and Mary back in the Succession, despite their ‘illegitimate ‘ status. Henry had enacted the Bill before launching himself in another vain glory attempt to take France, his famous attack on Boulogne in 1544, his last attempt at glory as he was not at his best, over weight and not in great shape healthwise. Henry wasn’t in danger during the attack, but he could still become ill on campaign, not have the best condition around him and the effect of riding long distance could have killed him. He had put everything in place just in case. Edward would be next, but in case he died the two Princesses were next and he even put a clause to allow this, without declaring them legitimate. Henry had left Katherine Parr as Regent to act as he would, but as he had been away for some time, it is hardly likely Elizabeth could have been out of favour. However, Elizabeth was ten and may have perceived herself unworthy to write to her overly powerful and overly godlike father. Henry was in command in France and maybe she perceived she couldn’t distract him with trivia. I know when my dad had to go to London on business when there was mass reorganisation in Norwich Union, I was about ten or twelve, I felt left out, not that I couldn’t contact him, but put the protocol of monarchs and the sixteenth century court on top of this and you get a Princess who feels she needs help to write to her father who she needs to honour but missed. Katherine was busy but Elizabeth is missing her too and of course she is trying to impress everyone with her Italian, which is clearly schooled as it would be for a royal child with an advantage of the best tutors. Elizabeth was always known for her dramatics as well.

  10. Elizabeth would need to use Italian if she was to make a good match or if the unlikely event of her becoming Queen, even a Queen Consort, because it was the official language of diplomacy. She was showing of her ‘scholarship ‘ but it is doubtful she was any more brilliant at Italian than any other clever royal kid at this time. Her tutor would have helped to show her using more advanced grammar and internal expressions in the correct way. Katherine probably didn’t understand Italian even if she may have read or understood French, but children learn these languages easier and Elizabeth had the best tutors just as Mary did before her, just as Edward would. It’s an eloquent letter and Elizabeth does seem to have a natural ability for this language if her collection of Italian diplomatic correspondence is anything to go by. It’s also a nightmare to interpret as obviously Elizabeth wasn’t out of favour as she had been promoted back to the succession, although still legally illegitimate, behind Mary, who was in the same boat and the legitimate heir, Edward. She does seem to have missed regular contact with Queen Katherine and that part of her letter may not have been coached, although on the other hand she was at Court a month earlier.

  11. I have always wondered what Elizabeth was really like as a child. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be in this very weird situation, your father having had your mother publicly executed for treason, did she know just what her mother was charged with? Is it possible anybody in her household had actually liked her mother and told her her mother loved her? Growing up with the burden of being the child of Anne Boleyn cannot have been easy. One almost hopes she hated her mother otherwise one can only imagine the nightmare of living with knowing her mothers fate on the scaffold.It does seem she inherited some things from Henry, but in the end I wonder if her dead mother had more influence on the woman she became. The Virgin Queen? True or not it seems as if she was compensating for having a mother who supposedly used sex or the absence of it to get a king.

    1. Certainly Elizabeth must have been somewhat affected by her mothers death, on the orders of her own father but as for the public disgrace it’s impossible to know how she really felt, one of Elizabeths early biographers states that to be beheaded was a sign of high rank, as we know beheading was reserved for the nobility therefore the scaffold did not matter much, there were many courtiers who had had at least one member of their family executed, it was a sign of the times and one did not have to actually commit anything dreadful, an ill chosen word was enough to send someone to the block, lives were cheap and a head could easily be toppled off its shoulders, we have no idea either if Elizabeth was really a virgin, she made a big show of it but it could just have been a huge pr stunt.

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