31 July 1544 – An Incredible Letter

Jul31,2014 #Catherine Parr
Attributed to William Scrots, c. 1546
Attributed to William Scrots, c. 1546

On 31st July 1544 ten year old Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, wrote a letter to her stepmother, Catherine Parr, who was acting as regent while Henry VIII was in France.

Why do I call this letter incredible? Well, because not only is it beautiful to look at, being written in a lovely itallic hand, but it was also written in Italian. Click here to see a photo of the original, which was damaged in the 1742 fire in Sir Robert Cotton’s library of manuscripts at Ashburnam House. I love her “z”s! By the way, it is the earliest surviving letter we have written by Elizabeth I.

Here is a translation from Italian to 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 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 July.

Your most obedient daughter, and most faithful servant, Elizabeth”

If you’re interested in reading Elizabeth I’s correspondence then you can find transcripts of her letters, along with prayers, speeches and poems, in Elizabeth I: Collected Works.

  • ed. Everett Green, Mary Anne (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, p176-177

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12 thoughts on “31 July 1544 – An Incredible Letter”
  1. Amazing when you consider she was only ten most adults today can’t even spell properly, no doubt she inherited her talent for languages from her grandfather, Sir Thomas Boleyn,.

  2. A beautiful letter for a child, and a beautiful hand. Poor Elizabeth… what a sad life had growing up.

  3. Hi Claire,

    Loved the photo of you and Tim. Just purchased a copy of your book on George Boleyn, it’s very interesting. Have a wonderful summer!!

    Best wishes
    Daniela x

  4. What a lovely letter. Elizabeth was so intelligent. Her mother would have been incredibly proud.

    The fact that Elizabeth wrote this letter so eloquently (in Italian no less!) at 10 really reinforces, for me anyway, the idea that Anne was born in 1507 and was around 6/7 when she was sent to Margaret of Austria’s court, and wrote the letter to her father. She specifically mentions in the letter to her father in 1514 “I beg you to excuse me if my letter is badly written…Semmonet (her tutor) tells me the letter and waits for me to do it myself.” This sounds like something a 7 year old Tudor youth would write, not a 13 year old woman (by Tudor standards, 13 was, by canon law, definitely a woman).

    1. Well, it must be remembered that Elizabeth was better educated and arguably even more intelligent than her mother. However, I take your point. Anne’s letter is a mess compared to this and yet Anne was apparently three years older when she wrote it. It might be an indicator that Anne’s education had been fairly basic before leaving for the continent. But, as you say, when you see Elizabeth’s letters it does make you think that it would be perfectly possible for a 7 year old Anne to write that letter to her father. However, I still lean more to 1501 overall.

    2. Leslie, ever since reading Gareth Russel’s rigorously researched article on Anne Boleyn’s age (http://garethrussellcidevant.blogspot.com/2010/04/age-of-anne-boleyn.html) I have been convinced of the 1507 date. And I had exactly the same sense of further confirmation when reading the brilliant 10-year-old Elizabeth’s letter in Italian. The facility with languages certainly ran in the Boleyn family, Elizabeth’s maternal grandfather was multilingual and a great success at court partly due to that (and to the intelligence and value on education which obviously ran in the family as well). There is every reason to believe that Anne was practically a child prodigy by current standards, and certainly was well educated from her early years. Being younger than her surviving brother and sister would be even more of an educational advantage, since their tutors and examples would be in place, right there at home, for her benefit. At the age of five, I clearly remember teaching my very bright three-year-old sister to read, and many children exposed to multiple languages in early childhood become multilingual like the Boleyns. The fact that another very young girl from England named Anne Brandon, born in 1506, was also at the Hapsburg court along with “la petite Boulaine”, lends even further credence to 1507 as the date of AB’s birth. There are two specific, unrelated references from the time of Elizabeth mentioning Anne’s age as 28 at the time of her death. One reference was from one of Queen Mary’s closest ladies, and Mary must certainly have known exactly how old Anne was. The other specific reference came from a historian of Elizabeth’s time who had full access to all the historical references then available, writing this history for Queen Elizabeth, with multiple people including members of the Boleyn family descended from Mary, understood to be older, who could have corrected him if he had her birth year wrong. I believe we simply have further reason to honor the exceptional nature of Elizabeth’s mother seeing this at least partly heritable evidence of her daughter’s early brilliance.

  5. I have tremendous fascination and interest in this Queen. She was so intelligent, well read and astute. A difficult childhood made her all the more so. I read almost everything I can get my hands on about her. She chose her advisers well but was always one step ahead of them. I truly enjoyed seeing them advise her she sometimes got the advise she had already decided upon herself as if the ideas were their’s alone. Clever, clever woman.
    She did have the body of a woman but the heart and soul of a King and wouldn’t share her kingdom with anyone. A wise ruler!

  6. Beautiful handwriting and elequent for a ten year old girl, even a Princess. Few people have that capacity for languages, let alone a child of ten, so in addition to the ability to express herself Elizabeth is quite remarkable. Mention has been made of the linguistic inheritance from her grandfather, who was an able ambassador, but her father also spoke several languages and used Italians in his service. He had an Italian architect for example. Bess must have inherited much of her ability from Henry as well as Thomas Boleyn or her mother. The appeal to Queen Katherine to bring her to the memory of her father is touching and shows confidence in the clemency and affection of her new stepmother with whom Elizabeth was to have an especial bond.

  7. Elizabeth’s handwriting is just beautiful and her signature as Queen is a work of art. It is fairly easy for us to read her hand writing, it is so clear. I believe, from the numerous biographies I have read, that Elizabeth had done something to anger her father and that is why she was separated from her stepmother. This letter always makes me sad; she had a hard childhood. I believe that shortly after this, she was allowed back at court.

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