ELIZABETH I’S WORDS OF WISDOM
The queen offers James VI of Scotland some hard-headed advice, 1603
Following the death of Mary I in 1558, her sister, Elizabeth, ascended the English throne as the last direct heir of the Tudor dynasty. Concerned that the future of the Tudor monarchy depended on the survival of one woman, Elizabeth’s councillors regularly urged her to either marry or to name her successor.
But Elizabeth steadfastly refused, famously declaring that choosing a successor would be tantamount to setting “my winding-sheet [shroud] before my eyes”. Despite this, towards the end of her reign, Elizabeth came round to the idea that James VI of Scotland should succeed her. In this letter to James, written just 11 weeks before her death, the queen expresses her pleasure at the king’s willingness to seek advice from her: “It pleaseth me not a little that my true intents, without glosses or guiles, are by you so gratefully taken.” She also provides her thoughts on Scotland’s diplomatic relations with Spain, France and the Vatican. Tellingly, she advises him against opening diplomatic relations with Spain.
Elizabeth’s flourished signature is instantly recognisable but the elegant italic hand of her youth has been replaced with her virtually illegible “skrating” hand, for which she apologises. For all that, the letter reveals that Elizabeth remained as sharp-minded and politically acute in the final year of her reign as she had the previous 44.
James and Elizabeth never met, but they corresponded regularly from the early 1580s, with Elizabeth frequently providing the Scottish king with outspoken advice on the craft of monarchy.
Elizabeth’s death in 1603 brought to a close the rule of the Tudors. The crown did indeed pass to James VI of Scotland, who – as James I of England – became the first Stuart monarch and ‘King of Great Britain and Ireland’.
Andrea Clarke is curator of early modern historical manuscripts at the British Library. She is author of Tudor Monarchs: Lives in Letters (British Library Publishing, 2017)