Elizabeth I, Translator.

I had known that Queen Elizabeth I was among the more literate of monarchs, but I hadn’t realized the extent of it; John-Mark Philo writes about it for the TLS:

Among the manuscripts preserved at Lambeth Palace Library is a translation of Tacitus completed in the late sixteenth century (MS 683). It focuses on the first book of the Annales, which sees the death of Augustus and the rise of the emperor Tiberius, tracing the steady centralization of governmental powers in a single individual. The translation has been copied by an amanuensis in an exquisite italic hand, with subsequent corrections made by the author. It is on a very specific kind of paper stock, which gained prominence among the Elizabethan secretariat in the 1590s. There was, however, only one translator at the Tudor court to whom a translation of Tacitus was attributed by a contemporary, and who was using the same paper in her translations and private correspondence: the queen herself. Above all, the corrections made to the Lambeth Tacitus are a compelling match for Elizabeth’s later handwriting, which was, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic.

As well as composing an impressive range of original works in verse and prose, Elizabeth I was an enthusiastic translator. Whether engaging foreign visitors in multilingual conversation or delivering withering ripostes in Latin to impertinent ambassadors, Elizabeth was celebrated for her linguistic abilities even in her own lifetime. Particularly strong in French, Italian, and Latin, she was also proficient in Spanish and Greek, whose alphabet would eventually pepper her everyday handwriting (in later years, she used “φ” for “ph”). She undertook translations of Jean Calvin, Cicero, Plutarch, Seneca, Horace and Boethius, all of which survive today. Elizabeth’s perennial favourite, Henry Savile, produced a translation of Tacitus in 1591, which he dedicated to the queen, drawing particular attention to her “most rare and excellent translations of Histories”. John Clapham, another of Elizabeth’s contemporaries, refers to her translation of “some part of Tacitus’ Annals” in his history of the queen’s reign, which he composed with the help of the courtier Robert Cecil. Clapham mentions Elizabeth’s Tacitus first and foremost among the queen’s translations, which “she herself turned into English for her private exercise”. Though the other translations which Clapham mentions have since been accounted for, the Tacitus translation has thus far remained elusive. […]

With its vigorous colloquialism and succinct turns of phrase, the Tacitus translation exemplifies the queen’s approach to translation more generally. In Elizabeth’s version, Augustus “garboiled the olde soldiers by gyftes”, while Lepidus “by sluggy age went to wracke”. Compared with the more common form “sluggish”, “sluggy” was rare in English of the sixteenth century, appearing only four times in texts published between 1550 and 1600. It was, however, a favourite of Elizabeth’s, and can also be found in her Boethius, where she has “sluggy lust” and “sluggy flames”. In Tacitus, the rebel Segestes is “ingens visu” (“huge to see”), for which Elizabeth gives “goodly to look on”; for “mulierculam” (“little woman”), she has “sely woman” (we can compare this with “Sely Smithe” and “Sely shame” in her translation of Horace).

There is also a subtle but nonetheless discernible introduction of monarchical terms to the Tacitus translation. The city is not merely splendidly restored by Augustus (“magnifico ornatu”), but “royally adorned”, while the “initiis Tiberij” (“the beginning of Tiberius”) becomes, in Elizabeth’s version, “Tiberius new raigne”. In Tacitus, Germanicus is described as “Augustæ nepos”, that is, grandson of Livia Augusta, for which Elizabeth gives “nephew to the Empresse”, a title by which she was herself frequently addressed. This approach is also at work in her translation of Cicero’s Pro Marcello, where the queen has Cicero single out Caesar’s “princely and wise voice” for praise, where “princely” translates “praeclarissimam” (“most distinguished voice”). Conversely, Elizabeth was also obliged to engage with the republican elements of Tacitus’s political vocabulary. He uses the word “libertas” to describe the liberty or freedom enjoyed under the former Roman republic. At one point, the queen translates this with a pessimistic gloss as “unfortunate libertie”, and at another, ignores it completely.

On the one hand, the queen’s decision to translate Tacitus makes perfect sense. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Tacitus was being read as presenting monarchy as the best form of government, a reading popularized by the editions and commentaries produced by the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius. It is not hard to imagine why this first book in particular might have appealed to the queen – it shows the disintegration of the old republic and the emergence of a monarchical form of government that is able to bring stability to a Rome exhausted by civil war. Taken on its own, then, the first book of the Annales could be read as the triumph of monarchical rule in stabilizing and pacifying a troubled state.

On the other hand, Tacitus was already being read with greater caution on the Continent, where he was seen as a potentially dangerous influence for the incautious reader. Elizabeth’s successor, James I, showed little affection for the historian, and under the reign of Charles I, Tacitus would be condemned as an obviously pro-republican author and a potential threat to the stability of the government. In Elizabethan England, Tiberius, whose reign Tacitus covers in the Annales, already boasted a reputation for tyranny (the scholar Gabriel Harvey summed him up as a “wily, mischeevous, couvetous, cruel and deceytful fox”), while Tacitus’s portrayal of women in positions of power and influence are far from flattering. Of course, the queen may well have been reading these as examples of misrule to be avoided. Still, it is hard not to wonder what she made of Livia, who appears in her own translation as “heavy mother to common wealth, more grievous stepdame to Cæsars howse”.

Fascinating stuff! There’s also a scholarly article by Philo, “Elizabeth I’s Translation of Tacitus: Lambeth Palace Library, MS 683” (The Review of English Studies 71.298 [February 2020]: 44–73); you can see the MS itself here, and there are a couple of images of details at the start of the TLS piece.


  1. John Emerson says

    Queen Christina of Sweden was also very scholarly. She wrote a commentary on La Rochefoucauld in French and studied under Descartes, but her main interest was alchemy, which Descartes (but not Newton) despised. There’s a book in Swedish about her alchemical studies.

  2. As was Catherine the Great of Russia.

  3. the Great of Russia. – a dialogue with a schoolgirl preparing to an exam: “why despite all this enlightened blah-blah-blah with French thinkers she was such a bitch?” “Define bitch” “like, she supported serfdom”.

    I prefer Elizabeth [not virgin] of Russia (“…Elizabeth lacked the early education necessary to flourish as an intellectual (once finding the reading of secular literature to be “injurious to health”),…..She made education freely available to all social classes (except for serfs), encouraged establishment of the very first university in Russia” to quote Wikipedia). Her mom (Catherine not the great) was a handmaid taken captive at some war.

    “Great” refers to the overall amount of blood spilled during a king’s reign. But: “Elizabeth hated bloodshed and conflict and went to great lengths to alter the Russian system of punishment, even outlawing capital punishment.”.

  4. Didn’t Queen Christina contribute to Descartes’ death by making him get up early to discuss philosophy when he was used to staying in bed until noon? Or is that just a story?

    I visited the British Library about 20 years ago, and among the stuff they had on display (Magna Carta and so on) there was something written by Queen Elizabeth I in some other language. I don’t remember now which one. I think she wrote it when she was fairly young. I was surprised because I hadn’t thought of her as being multilingual. But I suppose that royal girls were probably brought up with the expectation that they would be married off to some foreign monarch, and so should know some languages.

  5. Elizabeth I was given an Irish primer in 1564; dunno if she made use of it, but it found its way back to Ireland. Elizabeth 2 was given a replica in 2011.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    James IV, who was treacherously slain by the English in 1513, was actually a speaker of Gaelic* – the last monarch to be so.

    * And of pretty much everything else too.
    He founded what is now the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and was himself an enthusiastic practitioner of surgery, though apparently they had to pay people to be his patients.

  7. From mollymooly’s link:

    It has been supposed that the Primer was presented to Elizabeth I on the occasion of her visit to the University of Cambridge in 1564. If so – and the supposition cannot be verified – it differed from the multitude of other presentations made to her on that occasion in that the queen herself had specifically requested of the author that he provide her with: ‘the Iryshe Caracters with instructions for reading of the language’ (f. [3]r). Whatever the occasion, the main motivation for Elizabeth’s request and for the primer’s composition was, without doubt, her interest in propagating the Protestant religion among the Irish through the use of the vernacular. This was a time when the queen was expressing concern that ability to preach in Irish should be a criterion in episcopal appointments to the reformed church in Ireland. Assuming that the primer dates from the 1560s, it is no coincidence that it was written just at the time when Elizabeth had made funds available for the manufacture of a fount of Gaelic type to facilitate the printing of an Irish translation of the New Testament. Such a fount was eventually cut, and was put to use in the first book printed in Irish in Ireland, Aibidil Gaoidheilge & Caiticiosma, written by Seaán Ó Cearnaigh, who had been a contemporary of Christopher Nugent’s at Cambridge.

    This concern with the vernacular reflected the reality that Irish was commonly the language of conversation even among the queen’s loyal followers within the Pale. Scholars have suggested that the reference to conversational Irish in the text reflects Elizabeth’s reputed fondness for uttering words of greeting to foreign dignitaries in their own language. Nugent, in his introduction, refers to the queen’s desire to avoid the use of interpreters, and cites Elizabeth Zouche (his great-grandmother) as an example of the facility with which Irish could be acquired.

    I’m just going to pretend that Liz learned “Pangur Bán” and murmured it to herself sometimes, the way I do.

  8. The title page of Aibidil Gaoidheilge agus Caiticiosma; the whole thing doesn’t seem to be available online. Bah.

  9. David Eddyshaw; “James IV, who was treacherously slain by the English in 1513”.

    Ummm. The way I understood it, in 1513 Scotland had a peace treaty with England, despite which James IV invaded England, taking advantage of the English King and most of his army being otherwise engaged. However, he ran into the English B team at Flodden and was killed in fair fight.

    Not sure where treachery (at least, English treachery) comes into it, but Scots creative mythology is a wonderful thing. Did you never hear that the massacre of Glencoe was all done by the English?

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    English slaying is always treacherous.

    (I just chanced to be reading an article about Middle Welsh translations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, which pointed out whereas Geoffrey himself quite often describes the English as brave and fighting well, the Welsh translations just leave those bits out.)

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Not to mention the dire consequences of adopting foreign games:

    “James I, aged forty two, died in a sewer. In 1437, trying to escape from a gang of thirty conspirators from among his own noblemen, James crawled down a sewer. Unfortunately he, himself, had ordered the sewer blocked a short time before, because he kept losing tennis balls down it. He found himself trapped. He was stabbed and killed.”

  12. David Marjanović says


    Bess. Good Queen Bess.

    (…one of the few things I know about her from sources other than Blackadder.)

  13. I call her Liz, and she can’t object because she’s beastly dead.

  14. “English slaying is always treacherous.”

    David, is there any need for this sort of remark on what is usually a good-humoured comments section?

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Yes, but Liz is this one, and you wouldn’t want to muddle them up. Although I wouldn’t put learning Pangur Ban past her, either.

  16. Jen in Edinburgh says

    David, is there any need for this sort of remark on what is usually a good-humoured comments section?

    It’s the Scots he’s taking the piss out of…

    The treachery, if not the slaying, may have been French – ‘so if you lot can just go and get yourselves killed in the north, it’ll make things easier for us down here…’. But then England had invaded France, knowing that by the terms of an earlier treaty that meant Scotland had to invade England. So basically, everyone is to blame except us.

    And maybe Wales.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    This piece mentions Philo, is about the same vintage (late 2019) and refers to the monarch in question as a “girly swot,” which is I guess reasonably idiomatic BrEng? https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2019/nov/opinion-why-elizabeth-i-was-committed-classicist

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    I had completely forgotten that BoJo-related kerfuffle but given the timing I daresay Ms. Maltby may have been alluding to it ironically in her reference to Queen Elizabeth (of famous memory).

  19. David, is there any need for this sort of remark on what is usually a good-humoured comments section?

    David is always good-humored; he was just being jovially Celtic as usual. Stand down!

  20. January First-of-May says

    So basically, everyone is to blame except us.

    To be fair the whole thing was a huge mess long before England got involved. TL/DR: the Pope, dissatisfied by the Venetian expansion, called a crusade against them (not really but same difference); then after a year the Pope got what he wanted from it and decided to call it quits, and the other participants rebelled and attacked the Pope instead.

    Then both sides started calling in their allies, who started calling in their allies, and the situation got messy.

  21. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Then both sides started calling in their allies, who started calling in their allies, and the situation got messy.

    Kind of the opposite of 1914 – start with the war and end with the death of a random royal.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Just re Scottish-nationalist self-pity, I am reminded of some tv footage of a not-very-successful lineup of Fairport Convention circa ’76 in which Simon Nichol, after being mock-insulted by Dave Swarbrick, sets up the next number (“Flowers of the Forest”) by saying “This is a Scottish lament, and as I’m half-Scottish and sing lamentably, I’m doing it.”

  23. Around 1500, the Italian peninsula was about the most economically advanced region of western Europe (or maybe second to the Low Countries). In the Late Middles Ages, the decline, at either end of the Mediterranean, of Islamic Iberia and Christian Anatolia and the Balkans opened the way for the Italians to renew their position as Europe’s most influential sea-going traders—and just at a time when maritime trade was expanding to be much more important overall. So there was a period of tremendous economic expansion (and, of course, cultural Renaissance). However, eventually, political turmoil, along with the rise of the new Christian state in Iberia and the Islamic one in Anatolia and the Balkans as the new European great powers stifled development in Italy, and by the nineteenth century, the Italian economy had fallen far behind that of many other European states.

    One of the things that contributed to the damaging political turmoil in early modern Italy was that the state was unable, at the time, to cohere into a nation-state. Modern, cohesive states were developing in Spain, France, Turkey, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Part of this was a trend of feudal overlords extending their previously largely nominal authority into a much more effectiive and uniform control over their territories; and Italy was not the only place where attempts to do this did not lead to the development of a coherent nation-state. (Similar efforts to consolidate imperial control in German continued through around 1648, but ultimately failed.)

    In Italy, there were five major states in the sixteenth century: Milan (which had also absorbed the previously important thalassocratic state of Genoa), Venice, Florence (the smallest in area, but perhaps the most economically advanced), the Papal States, and the Two Sicilies; plus a slew of smaller states with their own complex relationships with the major players.* The riches of the Italian states and their colonies made these divided territories practically irresistible for the French, the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria, and the Turks; so Italians had to contend not merely with warfare amongst themselves, but also frequent invasions and pillaging from outside. The presence of the papacy in Lazio, Umbria and Romagna, rather than another temporal ruler, probably complicated things further. The pope’s authority was perceived to be of a different nature from that of all rulers,** and the Papal States could sometimes count on alliances fwith Christian rulers who wanted to curry favor with the church. ​Moreover, it was generally impossible to forge lasting marriage alliances with the nondynastic rulers of the Papal States,*** and these combined factors probably contributed to the failure of Italian nation-state to develop at the time.

    * By pure happenstance, one of those small states, San Marino, still exists.

    ** The purely political issues facing the pope as ruler of an important Italian state could sometimes spill over into doctrinal issues. In 1527, Henry VIII tried to get the pope to grant him a divorce, at a time when his wife’s nephew Charles V was in complete control of Rome.

    *** Of course, there were lots of attempts to secure shorter-term alliances with the various nepotistic popes (such as Louis XII marrying Charlotte of Albret to Cesare Borgia)

  24. John Emerson says

    “Everyone is to blame except us”.

    This is true in all cases. One of the human universals.

  25. Is “beastly dead” an attempt at English schoolchild slang? If so, it doesn’t work, because (i) “beastly” is an adjective, and (ii) it is generally only used to express a personal dislike for someone or something. As any fule kno.

  26. By pure happenstance, one of those small states, San Marino, still exists.
    Well, historically Monaco is also one of the small Italian states, even if it’s surrounded by France on land and culturally French nowadays.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Is “beastly dead” an attempt at English schoolchild slang?

    I think that Hat was channeling Malachi Mulligan.
    (Who is neither English, not a schoolchild.)

  28. Is “beastly dead” an attempt at English schoolchild slang?

    Google is your friend.

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    Beastly just means “awfully” (maybe for some speakers a euphemism for bloody/bleeding). My impression is that “beastly dead” was modeled on “beastly drunk” (also a legal term for one of many levels of intoxication) or “beastly ill”.

  30. I had read that Queen Elizabeth translated the classics to keep her mind sharp for statecraft. I wonder how often we would find that among the leaders of today. The University of Chicago Press has published all of her translations in two volumes, edited by Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel, 2009, https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo5911060.html.

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