As It Happens

Queen Elizabeth I behind 16th-century translation of Roman text, says historian

Literary historian John-Mark Philo says the paper stock, the watermarks, and the "idiosyncratic" handwriting of a manuscript housed at Lambeth Palace Library in London, England, all point to the hand of Queen Elizabeth I.

She provided many clues, but 'the clincher' is the handwriting, says John-Mark Philo

Close-up of the translated text of Tacitus's Annales at Lambeth Palace library in England. Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have provided the translation for the manuscript. (Lambeth Palace Library)


Literary historian John-Mark Philo says a translation of an ancient Roman manuscript was penned by Queen Elizabeth I — and it was her "idiosyncratic" handwriting that gave it away. 

Philo was researching the 16th-century manuscripts of the Roman historian Tacitus at Lambeth Palace Library in London, England, when he first came across the piece of work. It had been in the library since the 17th century. 

His findings were published Friday in the in the journal Review of English Studies.

Philo, who is an honorary fellow at the University of East Anglia, spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about what he found. Here is part of their conversation.

When you first picked up this manuscript some years ago, would you have believed if someone told you that Queen Elizabeth I was the translator?

I think it was always a possibility, although it's an ongoing possibility. But one of the few references to someone who has undertaken a translation of an extract from tough statistics analysis is actually the Queen. And so we've always known about that reference.

So the Queen was a possibility, but certainly initially, no ... I wasn't expecting this.

Literary historian John-Mark Philo is an honorary fellow at the University of East Anglia. (Jess Lowry)

And what has convinced you that Queen Elizabeth I actually was the translator?

Well, there were a couple of clues to begin with. So the paper stock, for instance — it's a very specific kind of paper that is being used by the Elizabethan Secretariat in this period.

And it's actually a kind of paper that the Queen uses in her private correspondence and in other translations. But the real clincher in all of this is ... the handwriting.

Now Queen Elizabeth's handwriting is idiosyncratic, and that is putting it mildly. It's extremely distinctive.

She's almost developing a new alphabet for herself, in some cases — I think in terms of saving time. So the M and the N become horizontal lines. Her E becomes a small crescent. And she ... even incorporates the Greek letter phi. 

So I guess if you're an absolute monarchy, you have that luxury that other scribes would not have.

No, exactly.

So if you're a professional scribe, you're trained — you're employed — to make your handwriting as clear legible as possible.

For the Queen, comprehension is somebody else's problem. You know, as far as she's concerned, no other people can catch up. And there's actually lovely examples of her secretary sending fair copies of her autographed letters that she's sending to people saying, "Oh, just in case you can't decipher Her Majesty's hand, we've included this fair copy as well."

Detail of the manuscript for which Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have provided translation.

It looks fairly nice, it's well written. But there are these annotations. What part of it did she actually write herself?

Yes, that's a really interesting point because some of Elizabeth's translations, they survive in autograph — written out entirely in her handwriting. Others survive in fair copy, like the Plutarch translation at the British Library. 

She asks her scribes to copy a fair copy of her translation after she's written a rough draft. And that's what's happening here. She's given the translation over to a scribe. They've written a very eloquent copy, and then she's going through it.

She's editing it as you might the first draft of an essay, adding corrections and additions in her own distinctive handwriting.

Now this is from a book — from a Roman historian — that was I guess originally written in Latin. What was it about these passages that were important to her?

Well, Elizabeth ... chose to translate the first book of Tacitus's Annales.

A great deal of this book is devoted to describing revolution and rebellion amongst the soldiers in Germany. And further to that, how to quell revolt — how to deal with a rebellion and to pacify a troubled situation. 

Now of course, Elizabeth has already had her own experience of revolt and rebellion. And then in 1593, you have ... the Nine Years' War — the Tyrone Rebellion over in Ireland. 

So I think her choice of subject matter there is no accident. I think she is focusing on a moment that speaks to her own historical moment.

A close-up of The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at Royal Museums Greenwich in London, England. (Michael Bowles/Getty Images)

What happens with the manuscript now?

In the last couple of days, Lambeth Palace Library have put them online. So they've digitized [it] so anyone can access it from around the world.

And I would also stress if you happen to be in London, Lambeth Palace is open to whomever wants to study there. So really, it's a wonderful collection and have at.

Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?