EL­IZ­A­BETH I’S WORDS OF WIS­DOM

The queen of­fers James VI of Scot­land some hard-headed ad­vice, 1603

BBC History Magazine - - Tudor Letters -

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)

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