Messy handwriting reveals mystery translator: Queen Elizabeth I

Researcher at Lambeth Palace follows ‘usefully messy’ fragment of Roman history to its royal source

The appalling handwriting gave the game away. An academic has identified the anonymous 16th-century author of a translation of Tacitus: Queen Elizabeth I.

Kept in Lambeth Palace’s library since the 17th century, the manuscript was identified by John-Mark Philo, an honorary fellow in English studies at the University of East Anglia, while he was researching manuscript translations of the Roman historian.

Philo noticed that the watermarks on the paper stock used for the translation – a rampant lion and the initials GB, with a crossbow countermark – were those used for the queen’s private correspondence and translations. But there was only one translator at court in the late 16th century known to have translated any of Tacitus’s Annals: the queen herself, whom her contemporary John Clapham described taking “pleasure in reading of the best and wisest histories, and some part of Tacitus’s Annals she herself turned into English for her private exercise”.

Then he looked at the handwriting. While the translation itself is copied in the elegant hand of a scribe, the corrections and additions are in “an extremely distinctive, disjointed hand”.

Queen Elizabeth I’s translation of Tacitus, dated to late 16th century.
Queen Elizabeth I’s translation of Tacitus, dated to the late 16th century. Photograph: Lambeth Palace

“The paper stock first got me thinking – it’s a very specific kind of paper, but I was still being rigorously pessimistic,” said Philo. “The thing that clinched it for me was the handwriting. That was the strongest clue. I collected as wide a sample of her handwriting as possible and compared her other translations.”

It was a match. “Her late handwriting is usefully messy – there really is nothing like it – and the idiosyncratic flourishes serve as diagnostic tools. If you were a professional scribe you were trained to write regularly and elegantly, you needed your writing to be understood. As a general rule the higher up the hierarchy you are the more liberties you can take. In her later years, you have letters sent by Elizabeth and then an aide adding: ‘Sorry, please find a fair copy here.’ In terms of proving someone’s authorship that’s an absolute gift. That was the exciting moment, the real clincher.”

An example of the queen’s messy handwriting, translating Livy.
An example of the queen’s messy handwriting, translating Livy. Photograph: Lambeth Palace

Philo’s article on his discovery is published in the Review of English Studies on Friday. It also reveals how the scribe’s writing was matched to a professional copyist working in the Elizabethan secretariat in the mid 1590s.

The text translated by Elizabeth deals with the death of the first Roman emperor Augustus and the rise of his successor Tiberiu. It also features a section in which Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina, calms unruly troops. Part of Elizabeth’s translation of this part reads: “She a woman of great courage playde the Captaine for that tyme, and bestowed on the soldiors as euery man needed or was wounded, bread and clothes … she stoode at the bridges end to give lawde and praise to the returning legions.”

Philo said that Agrippina may have appealed to the same queen who addressed the soldiers at Tilbury, and who had deliberately represented herself as placing the importance of addressing her troops in person above her personal safety.

Elizabeth, he added, was extremely skilled with languages and an enthusiastic translator, probably undertaking her translations – already known to have included names from Cicero to John Calvin – in her leisure time. “Across her translations, she’s undertaking them at a pace so there are occasional slips of comprehension, words being missed out, but on the other hand she’s a better Latinist than I will ever be,” said Philo.

“In her translation of Boethius, one of her scribes writes, ‘her majesty did not translate today because she went riding’. That might indicate that she devoted her private attention to it. On the other hand, in this choice of subject matter, there are themes that speak directly to her approach to rule.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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