31st July 1544 – Elizabeth I’s Earliest Surviving Letter

Young Elizabeth IThe earliest surviving letter we have written by Elizabeth I was written on this day in 1544 when Elizabeth was aged ten. It was written in Italian and in an italic hand, and the recipient was Elizabeth’s stepmother, Queen Catherine Parr, who was acting as Regent while Henry VIII was in France.

Here is a translation of that letter:

“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 faith servant, Elizabeth”

You can see a photo of the original letter at http://elizregina.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/exile-letter-001.jpg


  • 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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30 thoughts on “31st July 1544 – Elizabeth I’s Earliest Surviving Letter”
  1. She had beautiful way of speaking. I wonder if she was out of favor with the king at that time? It sure sounds like it. I wonder why.

    1. At the time she wrote that letter to her father the king of england she was indeed out of favor with henry because he married her mother anne boylen and she gave birth to elizabeth after annes beheading elizabeth was declared a bastard and her mother a witch and an adultress

      1. Elizabeth had been reconciled to her father some years earlier and was not out of favour at the time of her letter. In fact she was now restored after Edward and Mary to the succession, if not made legitimate again, in the Third Act of Succession. She had been at Court a month earlier. This letter is meant as a display of her ability, not of historical accuracy of her position.

  2. Her handwriting is lovely, especially when you consider the implements they used–But she was studious and imagine, writing in Italian at age 10!! How lazy we have become with our learning. THanks!

  3. That’s amazing….so eloquent; unbelievable command of language and beautiful penmanship….I.can barely wrap my head around the fact that this was written by a child of 10.!

  4. It always amazes me at the level of education past generations afforded their children when we of the 21st century are losing ground by budget cuts. If a 10 year old child in the 16th century could learn Italian and a marvelous vocabulary, think of what our children could learn if given the opportunity. Time to start voting in politicians who put our children’s future before their benefits (at least here in the States!).

    Also, I am always amazed that any example of a 16th century person’s handwriting has survived when so much has been lost or destroyed over the centuries. It makes me wonder just how many letters written by Elizabeth survived. And how many documents she signed; did the death warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots survive? I have never read if it has or not. I would imagine it would be one document Elizabeth would have wanted destroyed if only to soothe her feelings of guilt.

    1. Shoshana, I agree. Our education system in the UK often leaves me shaking my head. I look at the students coming from the Far East to our universities and they are so far ahead of our children. They often speak two or three languages and are coming to study in a language which is so different from their own! However, aged ten, no child is going to have that command of rhetoric and subtlety unless she is being guided so perhaps we should look as to who was in her household and had her best interests at heart. She was certainly incredibly able and intelligent, but I’m sure there was a guiding hand in the composition. Rhetoric was taught as a subject and this letter demonstrates Elizabeth’s grasp of the power of the word, even if it might have been with a little help.

      As to Mary Queen of Scots’ death warrant, a copy survives in Lambeth Palace library which was exhibited at their exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the library’s founding. What with Thomas Bodley revamping the Oxford library, which became the Bodleian (1598) and a bishop (can’t remember who precisely) founding the Lambeth Palace library in 1610, there is a whole focus on collecting books. How this copy of the warrant has survived, I have no idea and as you so rightly observe, the original was probably destroyed to assuage Elizabeth’s guilt! The little sketches in the British Library of Mary’s trial and execution are eloquent as a visual recording of these events (I think Nicholas Hilliard may have sketched these) and I wondered if Elizabeth ever saw them. If she had, it might explain why he was never knighted!

    2. Well, one child out of 300,000 had this education. The overwhelmingly vast majority were illiterate and received no education whatsoever, not even the supposedly universal catechism.

      1. No the overwhelming number of children did go to school and did have a basic education and then an apprenticeship. They may not have learned other languages, that was for the merchant class upwards, but they did learn basic reading and writing and their catechism. That most people were illiterate is a modern myth.

  5. The fact this letter was written when Elizabeth was 10 makes me think about the great “Anne’s birthday/age” discussion.

    Could Anne really have been around 7 and not 12 (in 1513) when Margaret of Austria wrote to Thomas Boleyn “I find her so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.”

    Hmmm, makes me think! Margaret may not have been so struck with a 12 year old (many Tudor girls were married by that age anyway), but she would have certainly been impressed with a 7 year old. If Elizabeth could have written so eloquently in Italian at 10, I wonder if Anne could have been so advanced at 7 and sent abroad for her education? I know most “demoiselles d’honneur” in Margaret’s court were around 12, but Anne was definitely advanced, just as Elizabeth was.

    Just a thought…

    1. Good point Leslie! You just may be onto something! 🙂 As advanced as Elizabeth was, it stands to reason that, Anne would probaly have been very advanced herself!

      1. But you must rememebr that Anne was the King’s daughter, and it was only about now that some men were educating their daughters – although, of course, earlier royal ladies had been well educated.

  6. I remember reading that, in addition to Italian, Elizabeth was also fluent in Latin, French, Spanish, German, and Greek in her lifetime. Whoa! I know language studies were necessary in those days to maintain foreign relations, but I think today’s students, regardless of age, often find studying even one language to be daunting.

    The content of this letter is also touching. You can really feel Elizabeth’s affection for Catherine.

  7. I don’t think there are too many adults, let alone children, in today’s world who can write with that level of sentiment or vocabulary.

    Sometimes I think the people from that time would be appalled at our use of English. We talk too fast and don’t have the breadth of vocabulary. They would probably think that we speak in a verbal equivalent of some sort of shorthand!

    1. I completely agree, Deborah – especially in this age of texting and technology where many expressions have been abbreviated or turned into an acronym.

      Those were the times of Shakespeare, where even the “common” Londoner could listen to (at the Globe) or read those beautiful words and fully understand their meaning.

    2. Leslie, Deborah, Oh please can we bring proper spoken English? I red inked and failed an essay about the branding of the, then new, IPhone back in 2006 because the student had done the whole piece in text speak, which I do not do! I was mentoring them through their degree in Advertising & Branding as they didn’t have the necessary essay writing skills. Yes the concept was a good one, if you wanted to target a very specific market, but since it was an academic piece of writing it had to be understandable by the majority of us. I don’t do text speak – I don’t have a mobile phone. However, how many of us are going to be left speaking what might be considered the Queen’s English because of the advent of the mobile phone and this shorthand style of writing?

      Elizabeth’s hand is exquisitely beautiful as a piece of palaeography, plus the language has so many layered meanings, so how many of the up and coming generations would even understand how to craft such a piece? In this electronic age we do not have anything to compare to this fragile fragment that has come down to us from over four hundred years ago and soon I don’t think there will anyone out there who would be able to read it either. I don’t mind being thought of as an antidiluvian oddity, I will still not ‘do’ text speak, but I can read Elizabeth’s original writings – although perhaps not this one in Italian!

    3. The overwhelming vast majority of people in those days spoke far, far worse than we do. Comparing the ultra-mega-privileged entitled pampered privileged spoiled minuscule few of the past to the average of the present is unhelpful. The real difference is that basic education – and freedom of expression – is no longer deliberately withheld from those born with less intelligence or worse language skills than the average.

      1. You’re absolutely right Charlene! I love researching the monarchies of old but it is important to remember that they were very much in the minority, and their lovely fashions and expensive festivals were paid for on the dime of the “little people,” who, aside from being far more likely to be in our ancestry than any blue-blood, were also generally denied the opportunity to receive an education such as Elizabeth’s. How many minds, equal to or surpassing the brilliance of this precious Tudor, were deprived of an opportunity to nourish their natural genius because they were born in a hovel rather than a palace? The most gifted human being who ever breathed could very well have been a peasant in York but who was denied any opportunity to apply their brilliance.

        Our education system has its flaws but at least our impoverished geniuses have a chance to climb out of their poverty, however slim that chance is. And I think that chance is worth a very great deal.

        I’d also contest the idea that ‘chat speak’ or inordinate texting are harming our youths as much as we might think. We have to understand, Elizabeth Tudor aside, it’s not as though without texting or facebook our teens would be lying around writing Shakespeare. No, it is far more likely that they wouldn’t be writing anything at all. When a student applies their texting habits to an academic paper they have certainly erred but we shouldn’t use one example to damn an entire generation or technological innovation.

  8. I whole heartedly agree with those that say our standard of education has slipped dramatically when we are still seeing in our modern age those coming out of school with little or no literacy skills what so ever. It is unacceptable as well as unbelievable. There is more and more pressure put on schools/ teachers concerning budgets, statistics and goodness knows what other administrative requirements needed by the Education Ministers that there is less and less time left to actually teach the pupils. Ridiculous. The national curriculum has altered beyond my recognition. Far to much interference from those in High Office. It must be very frustrating for Teachers.

    Elizabeth was indeed a very intellectual young girl, how could she not be with her parentage, (one of the more favourable and useful ‘genes’ she inherited from Dad 🙂 ) and she certainly does put any adult, let alone a child of equivalent age in our times in the shadows.
    Though in the same breath, but by no means undermining her abilities, she was in a position of being able to receive the privilege of a high standard and one to one education to stretch that quick mind of hers, even though her father had made her illegitimate and she wasn’t always in favour, she still was the daughter of a King. Her education and high achievements would have definitely flattered his ego/vanity .

    I’m not criticising the way things were done then, but it seems to me (through modern eyes), that learning was introduced so early at the cost of what we would see as a ‘normal childhood. Childhood was something to survive not enjoy, and to be discouraged and put aside as soon as possible. The rigorous educational time table devoted to these young ones certainly wouldn’t be tolerated in our time either, it would seem cruel and oppressive. And in that respect I feel a little sorry for the children….but as these young students didn’t know any different their childlike thinking was quickly replaced by a great sense of dedication to their educational achievements, and a pride on reaching them, which placed ‘old heads on young shoulders’, a great asset to their parents too no doubt.

    It is a pity we can not find a compromise between our failing system of education and the impressive, but excessive educational style of the Tudors. A young mind caught early has such an capacity to learn to its maximum ability, if this was done with the emphasis of high importance and pride in learning as the Tudors placed on it, but less harsh and not bogged down with administration, we would have the best of both worlds, which would greatly benefit all future generations.

    1. Our standard of education is FAR better than in Elizabethan times. We may marvel at the educational achievements of a well-fed, comfortable princess with a roomful of private tutors at her beck and call, but 99% of English girls her age were functionally illiterate.

  9. I so agree with both of you. Education was for the privileged in Tudor times, survival – well, we have to thank modern medicine for our overpopulated world (I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for antibiotics in the ’50s) and education for everyone.

    As for ‘those in power’ sticking their noses into education, PLEASE can they butt out! Let teacher’s teach and not be bogged down with administration/leaguetables/sats etc. I’ve been giving talks on art history to 6th form art and contextual studies students, as an afterschool option, because there is no room within the national curriculum. I was asked to do this so the girls (it’s a local all girls school) could experience something wider within the subjects they were studying and to broaden their experience of a university type lecture for the next stage in their education. They aren’t set homework, but I encourage them to go to exhibitions because the school is strapped for cash and the health and safety risk assessment for a trip to London, is horrendous. Most of them are 17 and 18 so quite capable of going on their own. Many of them have told me that they had no idea that there was so much out there. They only knew a handful of artists – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Picasso! However, I digress.

    Elizabeth would have had one to one tutoring – Roger Ascham (I think I said Robert in a previous comment – sorry) between 1548 – 50, took over after her previous tutor died. By now she was 15 and well able to converse in Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish. These men are responsible for producing one of the most erudite women of the 16th century. (Perhaps this is why Bram Stoker thought Elizabeth was a man!!! MCP that he was – our family had busines dealings with him and the family stories are that he was a typical Victorian male who thought all women were not very bright.). The only thing I can compare Elizabeth’s achievements to today are those children from Singapore, Hong Kong, China who have such high rates of academic success because they start at an early age and those children who go through the private system which has smaller class sizes, and pushy parents who invest in private tuition. However, I believe that they too don’t have much of a childhood. I don’t think that Elizabeth did because of all the politics going on around her. However, what are we thinking of as ‘childhood’? There is a lot of discussion that childhood, as we think of it, was invented by the wealthy Victorians to justify their exploitation of those children of the poor (and the poor in general) in making their fortunes.

    Do we live in a better world? Certainly there are more opportunities for all of us, thank God, but is the education better? It would be if those in government in the UK, it would be if teachers were allowed to their jobs and stop playing with our education system.

      1. Obviously I do not know for sure. I just know from anything I have ever read regarding the history of their time. They were always dictating the letter, and someone else was writing it for them. Just a guess…I believe that the words are of Elizabeth’s tongue. However, I do not believe it is Elizabeth’s hand.

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