Elizabeth I's suspicion of Mary, Queen of Scots writ large in donated letters

A batch of letters given to the British Library throws light on the English monarch’s growing frustration with her exiled cousin

An icy missive from Elizabeth I to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, in which the monarch makes full use of the royal “we” as she discusses how “greeved” she is to “behold the alteration and interuptuion” of Mary’s “frendshippe”, forms part of a new donation of letters to the British Library.

The letter is dated 31 October 1584 – less than three years before Mary was executed at the age of 44 on 8 February 1587. Mary had fled Scotland for England in 1568, after an uprising against her. She had sought help from her cousin, Elizabeth, but the queen felt Mary was a threat and imprisoned her for years, latterly with Sir Ralph Sadler, who kept her in custody at Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire between 1584 and 1585.

Elizabeth’s 1584 letter, which shows her hardening attitude, is one of 43 letters to Sadler that have been given to the American Trust for the British Library by the industrialist and philanthropist Mark Pigott. Four of the letters are signed personally by Elizabeth, with the others from her chief minister, Lord Burghley, and her secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham.

Elizabeth I’s letter to Ralph Sadler, 3 December 1584
Elizabeth I’s letter to Ralph Sadler, 3 December 1584. Photograph: British Library

The 1584 letter was intended to be shown or read by Sadler to Mary, because, Elizabeth wrote, of “a vowe heretofore made not to writte unto her with our own hand untill we might receave better satisfaction by effect from hir to our contentment then heretofore we have don”.

Criticising Mary’s “sundry hard and daungerous coorses heald towardes us”, Elizabeth tells Sadler that “you may lett hir understand that we wish she had been as carefull for the tyme past to have avoyded the cause and ground by hir given of the just jealousy by us conceaved, as she now sheweth to mislyke of the effectes that the same hath (by due desert) bread towardes hir”.

Mary “knoweth”, writes Elizabeth, “howe great contentment and lyking we had for a tyme of hir frendshippe, which as we then esteamed as a singular and extraordinary blessing of god to have one so neerely tyed unto us in blood and neighborhood, so greatly affected towardes us as we then conceaved.

“So are we nowe as much greeved to behold the alteration and interuptuion thereof, taking no pleasure to looke back on the causes that have bread so unpleasant affectes which we wish that ether they had never been, or at the least we could never remember, and that She were as innocent therein as she laboreth greatly to beare both us and the world in hand that she is.”

Pigott had loaned the collection to the British Library since he acquired it in 2010 for almost £300,000. The library now plans to digitise the manuscripts, which Pigott said “offer a unique window on that world both for researchers today and for future generations”.

The letters show the tightening security under which Mary was kept – all mothers with young children were to be removed from her household, for example, while Sadler is told that his charge is “not permitted to ride farre abroad but onely suffered on foot or in a Coche to take the ayre and use some such exercise neere the howse where she shall lye”. Elizabeth warns him to “use but olde trust and new diligence” as he takes over her charge, while on 22 March 1585, Sir Francis Walsingham tells Sadler that “this doubtfull and dangerous state of thinges geveth her Majesty iust cause to cary the more watchefull eye over that Queene & her doinges”.

Further letters to Sadler give an insight into Mary’s life at Tutbury – her requests for table silver, for example, or how Sadler is reprimanded for allowing Mary to accompany him when he goes hunting. In a letter sent on 19 March 1585, Walsingham reports that Elizabeth is displeased “that the Queen of Scotts hathe more liberty nowe than at any tyme when she was in the Earl of Shrewsbury’s chardge”. Sadler is also instructed “once or twise a moneth to have a privie serche sondelie in all places within som Compas of the Castell, so as all strangers to be found in that serche maie be forthecomming”.

Curator Andrea Clarke said: “On the continent, there was a lot of upheaval. There was a sense of fear, and one of the reasons Mary was moved from Derbyshire to this secure location was to move her further from the sea ports – to make her more unreachable. These letters tell of an incredible part of our history.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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