"These latter days of the world":

the Correspondence of Elizabeth I and James VI, 1590-1603

Rayne Allinson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Rayne Allinson." 'These latter days of the world': the Correspondence of Elizabeth I and James VI, 1590-1603". Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 16 (October, 2007) 2.1-27<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-16/allilatt.htm>.


My pen may not with equal balance countervail the thanks that my heart yields you, for your g[reat] and large offers of all the service you have to help me withal, as also, in particular, not regarding spotted blood, in respect of mine untainted, which shall never have any impureness in your behalf. These latter days of the world are too weak to retain so sound bodies as may carry good minds, but rather all inclined to what may be worst thought and wickedliest done …  

                                                                               Elizabeth to James, c.1598[1]


  1. Over the last ten to twenty years, the number of historical studies devoted to letter writing has increased significantly. While letters have always been recognised as important sources of cultural, political and social history, recent studies influenced by literary criticism have encouraged a new appreciation of letters as carefully constructed literary texts. Feminist history in particular has drawn attention to the range of written material beyond the male-dominated arena of printed books and pamphlets, and has attributed equal authority to more informal modes of writing which give voice to women's lives. Early modern historians such as James Daybell, Jane Couchman and Ann Crab have demonstrated how English women of the sixteenth century used letters as a means of intellectual expression, social networking and political engagement.[2] These studies have provided some useful methodological frameworks for approaching epistolary history, revealing in particular how attention to the "mechanics" of letter writing and the problem of "mediated" authorship can help elucidate the more latent ideas and issues contained within a letter.[3] 

  2. Despite these innovations in the field, few historians have reflected at length on how evolving attitudes to letter writing may have influenced communications between monarchs like Elizabeth I and James VI. Many historians have sifted through royal letters for illustrations of key historical events, yet beyond some brief summaries prefacing edited collections of letters, few have presented an extended study of how monarchs used the written word to further their diplomatic ends. This may be partly explained by the resonating impact of G. R. Elton's seminal work, The Tudor Constitution, which argued that early modern diplomacy, like most other practical, day-to-day aspects of government, was fundamentally a bureaucratic exercise.[4] This statement was perhaps more applicable to medieval diplomatic practice: from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, royal letters were typically composed in Latin by scribes or secretaries and transported to their destination by special envoys. Few letters written in the hand of medieval monarchs survive, since the attachment of the privy seal was considered sufficient attestation of royal "authorship".[5] The nature of diplomacy changed dramatically in the early sixteenth century with the introduction of resident ambassadors, whose activities facilitated more regular communication between courts. At the same time, ideas about of the form and utility of letters were changing in association with the spread of humanist learning: Desiderius Erasmus and other authors of epistolary manuals encouraged individual expression and style over more formulaic templates.[6] Thus, despite the introduction of resident ambassadors, the sixteenth century saw an unprecedented increase in the exchange of royal letters which brought about (or perhaps merely illuminated) a more personal style of royal diplomacy than had been evident before.
  3. The correspondence of Elizabeth I and James VI exemplifies this trend towards a new "monarchy of letters". Unlike her father, Henry VIII, for whom writing letters was "su[m]what tedious and paynefull", Elizabeth was a prolific letter-writer and produced an estimated 3,000 letters during her lifetime.[7] James' love of literature is similarly reflected in the considerable number of letters he composed and produced himself.[8] The earliest extant letters in their correspondence may be dated from 1572, when James was only six and under the protection of his third Regent, John Erskine, 1st Earl of Mar.[9] However, a regular correspondence was not established until the late 1570s, just before James achieved majority rule following his escape from the pro-English, Protestant nobles led by William Ruthven, first earl of Gowrie (otherwise known as the Ruthven Raiders) in 1584. Many studies on Anglo-Scottish relations in the sixteenth century have tended to reduce James and Elizabeth's relationship to one of conflict, manipulation and distrust.[10] Certainly, there were many incendiary events which sparked discord between them, the most potentially dangerous being the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the Catholic northern earls' sustained attempts to effect a Counter-Reformation by force in 1589 and 1592. Elizabeth's tenuous assurances that James' place in the succession was secure, and James' correspondingly hollow promises of an exclusive alliance with England, only fanned the flames further. However, by the 1590s, the increasingly world-weary Elizabeth could share her musings on politics, life and duty more readily with her intellectually ambitious godson, who was himself maturing into an accomplished author and poet.[11]

  4. A comparison of the estimated number of holograph letters (that is, those written in the monarch's own hand) and autograph letters (written in secretary hand and signed by the monarch) exchanged between Elizabeth and James reveals two different styles of personal diplomacy, as illustrated in the graph below:

                         Elizabeth I                                      James VI

  5. As these figures demonstrate, Elizabeth was more inclined to write out her own letters to James rather than dictate to an amanuensis, particularly towards the end of her reign (despite the chronic rheumatism in her right wrist). James' preference appears more balanced, although in most cases he tended towards the more indirect medium of the autograph letter. Although autograph letters conveyed the monarch's chosen policy and point of view, they did allow the royal author to transfer responsibility for the wording and structure of the letter to a secretary. James' consistent preference for autographs therefore suggests that he saw less need to directly compose his letters to Elizabeth. These graphs also show that the number of letters exchanged between Elizabeth and James increased significantly over time, particularly after James' accession to majority rule, with an even more marked increase during the 1590s. This could indicate either that their familiarity with each other grew steadily stronger as the years progressed, or that both perceived a need to enhance their diplomatic efforts in the face of mutual distrust. James undoubtedly found it expedient to reinforce his loyalty and commitment to Elizabeth as she approached her seventieth year, while Elizabeth may have sought continual reassurance that her tacit decision to allow James to succeed her was the right one.

  6. The exchange of royal letters was a highly ritualised process, and once a regular cycle of send-and-receive was established it could not be broken without some dishonour, as James reminded Elizabeth in December 1591: 
    Madame and dearest sister, your silence hath been so long, and I have so long awaited upon your breaking thereof, that I am forced now at last to remember you again by these few lines … What can I think, except that either ye have been by some greatly abused, or else in other weighty affairs greatly distracted? Howsoever it be, I am sure ye could not have taken a greater trial of my patience … A short refusal had less displeased me than any answerless and disdainful delay. Remember, that as I am your kinsman, so am I a true prince. The disdaining of me can be no honour to you.[12]
  7. James himself was occasionally slow with a response: in April 1593 he apologised to Elizabeth for what she might judge to be his "slouthfull arrogance", having received three letters from her without sending an answer.[13] Just like other kinds of royal gifts, letters were intrinsically political, since their ultimate purpose was the consolidation and furtherance of diplomatic relations. Although some letter forms required less direct, physical involvement on behalf of the monarch, in most cases the sovereign retained tight authorial control over the content and wording of their letters. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth relied on her advisors (principally Lord Burghley and, after his death in 1598, his son Robert Cecil) for counsel regarding foreign policy.[14] Nevertheless, she carefully scrutinised the wording of her letters to foreign princes and frequently countermanded the editorial advice of her secretaries, making it unlikely that she would have signed and dispatched any letter not wholly approved by her.[15] On at least one occasion James requested his Principal Secretary, Sir James Melville, to draft a reply to a holograph letter received from Elizabeth in 1583, "that he mycht wret over it again with his awen hand."[16] According to Akrigg, such examples of James "shirking the labour of authorship" were rare, although (as discussed above) his reliance on autograph letters attests to his reluctant approach to state correspondence.[17] In most cases, however, both Elizabeth and James drafted and edited their holograph letters themselves, and attributed significant value to them as the most direct (in the sense of unmediated) method of communication.

  8. James and Elizabeth's attitudes to their own handwriting reveal much about how they saw themselves as royal authors. Elizabeth ends a significant number of her letters to James with an apology for her "scribbling". For example, in 1593 she wrote, "I am ashamed that so disordard Coursis makes my pen excede a Lettar and so drives ^me^ to molest your Yees [eyes] wt my to Long skribling"; and in 1596, "thus I end my tedius skribling wiche you wyL the rather pardo[n]".[18] Elizabeth suffered from painful rheumatism in her right arm towards the end of her life which would have made letter writing difficult; however, her apologetic references to her poor handwriting spanned several decades, suggesting that it was rather a rhetorical device.[19] Moreover, her references to her poor hand typically occur at the conclusion of letters in which she offers James particularly harsh advice, or makes an indignant response to his criticisms. In the same letters from 1593 and 1596 quoted above, she writes: "you have not only neglected yourselfe but wro[n]ged me"; "I am not suche a wekly, nor of so base a Courage that euer I mene breake one SLo[m]bar for [my enemies'] malice".[20] According to Daybell, such self-deprecating comments were typical markers of female authorship.[21] James, however, occasionally mimicked Elizabeth's apologetic language, though he maintained a comparatively neat and legible writing style throughout his life. In 1585, he wrote: "praying [you] to appardone this scribling in haist"; in 1600, "thus, fearing to ueary you with my raggit scribling"; and in 1601, "I uill put an ende to these my raggit lynes scribledd in haste".[22] However, as these examples illustrate, James more often justified his poor handwriting as the result of "haste", and these references did not necessarily follow unpalatable news or advice as Elizabeth's did. Although Elizabeth may have been genuinely apologetic for her racing hand, which did become more angular and large as she found the rhythm of her plain, round English, her self-deprecating remarks may also have been a way of softening the blow of her acerbic wit and authoritative tone: "Excuse my plainness," she wrote in November 1591, "and let goodwill plead my pardon."[23] As a highly educated female monarch, trained in the humanist ideal of cultured kingship, Elizabeth was confident in her ability as a writer; so confident that she found it expedient to understate her rhetorical power in her letters to fellow monarchs such as James.[24] Mueller has noted an "unusual thematic development" in this correspondence "from friendship-in-kingship to kinship between these two, self and other self, equals as friends and monarchs." This complexity, Mueller continues, allowed both monarchs to adopt a "striking range" of "fluid and dynamic interchanges" in their letters.[25] "[U]se me as ye list," James wrote to Elizabeth in July 1595, "ye shall neuer shake [me] of, by so many knottis ame I linkit unto you".[26] Elizabeth and James were "related" to each other on three distinct, albeit overlapping levels. Firstly, James was linked to Elizabeth by blood twice over, once through his mother's descent from the marriage of Margaret Tudor to James IV of Scotland, and again through his father's descent from Margaret's second marriage to Archibald Douglas. Thus, while "cousin" was a common term of address amongst monarchs and nobility, the word carried literal significance in the case of Elizabeth and James, who were (technically) double first cousins twice removed. In April 1566 Mary Stuart had sought to reinforce her son's place in the English succession by nominating Elizabeth as James' commere ("godmother"), thus establishing an affective, spiritual bond between the two.[27] Finally, once James was crowned King of Scotland on 29 July 1567 he became Elizabeth's "dear brother", having officially entered into the political "family" of European monarchs.

  9. The "many knots" of Elizabeth and James' relationship – genetic, spiritual, political, geographical – strengthened the bonds of their amity, but also allowed them to draw on an array of emotive rhetorical devices to achieve their diplomatic ends. James' persistent use of such uncommonly strong terms of address as "mother" and "son" in the months leading up to the signing of the Treaty of Berwick in 1586 had a specific political purpose: to persuade Elizabeth to acknowledge him publicly as her chosen heir. By April 1586, however, it became clear to James that Elizabeth would not relent to his request that "the quhole worlde [be given] to understand hou it pleacith you to honoure me above my demeritis," and consequently his impassioned rhetoric of filial love faded out.[28] In the summer of 1586, relations between England and Scotland had come dangerously close to disintegration when Mary was found to be implicated in the Babington plot, and James reasserted his love for his biological mother. Nevertheless, Mary's execution only temporarily discouraged James from sending loving letters to Elizabeth. Throughout the 1590s James continued to acknowledge her "motherlie caire in all my adoes", and declared in June 1594 that "I euer baire that reuerence to all uertuouse ladies, but aboue all to you, quhose bloode, long and trustie friendshipp and manifolde uertues requyres such louing and kynd reuerence of me".[29]

  10. In August 1594, Elizabeth agreed to James' request that she stand godmother to his son Henry, a role she accepted with delight: "I make a note of my happy destiny, in beholding my luck so fortunate as to be baptiser of both father and son, so dear unto me; and pray Almighty God to bless you both."[30] The political motivation behind James' request was made transparent two years later in October 1596, when he asked Elizabeth's ambassador whether his daughter "may have the name of her Majesty and be patronised with her Majesty's favour," emphasising that "her Majesty alone (and without any other prince) shall be required to be witness at the baptism." Since royal children were traditionally named after their parents or grandparents, James' request further emphasised Elizabeth's role as his surrogate mother. In exchange for this honour, James pressed Elizabeth to name him publicly as "second person to the crown of England".[31] Although Elizabeth accepted James' honour, she ignored his insistent request for recognition, and (contrary to tradition) she neglected to send a present for the baby along with her proxy godparent, Sir Robert Bowes.[32] This exchange demonstrates the potential political and patronal advantages of godparenthood, both for the parents and the godchild, in extending kinship networks and opening up more opportunities for developing influence and power. It also demonstrates how the promise of spiritual kinship could be used as a political bargaining counter, and that it not always achieved the desired effect.

  11. J. E. Neale has described Elizabeth's correspondence with James as "curiously maternal and tutorial", while Susan Doran has noted how Elizabeth "frequently adopted the tone of a world-weary and exasperated parent forced to offer a way-ward child advice and issue him reprimands".[33] Elizabeth had also adopted the figurative position of "daughter" to Catherine de' Médici (who nearly became her actual mother-in-law), and had offered to recognise Mary Stuart as her "natural sister or daughter" if she accepted her choice of husband in 1563.[34] Yet in her letters to James, Elizabeth preferred to invoke her matriarchal authority through tone rather than words, since she never directly referred to him as her "son" in her opening addresses or valedictions. Thus, when she did decide to draw attention to her role as James' surrogate parent, it was for deliberate rhetorical effect. Since each "knot" of kinship involved an implicit, mutual expectation of behaviour, the language of familial duty could be invoked as a form of passive aggressive protest. Elizabeth frequently invoked her moral authority as James' godmother when reproaching him for an alleged dishonour, listing her many acts of selfless support during his minority. In June 1596 she complained of his tardiness in delivering up Walter Scott of Buccleuch, who had successfully stormed Carlisle Castle on 13 April 1596 and released the infamous border reiver Kinmont Willie: "Was it ever seen that a prince from his cradle preserved from the slaughter, help[ed] up in royall dignitie, conserved from many treasons, maintained in all sortes of kindnes, should remunerate with so harde a measure such deare desarts?"[35] Although she found it expedient to remind James of the parental respect he owed her, Elizabeth was generally more restrained in her declarations of motherly love in her letters than he was. By choosing not to reciprocate James' overt assertions of filial love and devotion, Elizabeth maintained an air of uncertainty surrounding the succession, emphasising the conditional terms of the Treaty of Berwick "that nothing shall be done to the prejudice of any title he [James] may pretend unto this [the English] crown, unless by the said King's unkind usage towards her Majesty, which God forbid, he shall justly deserve the contrary."[36]

  12. Whereas James had emphasised his unofficial status as Elizabeth's "son" to persuade her of his suitability as her successor, Elizabeth used the language of maternal love to reprimand him and extend her influence in Scottish affairs. In an enraged letter of January 1593, Elizabeth drew James' attention to her many acts of goodwill during his minority, which his reluctance to punish his rebellious Catholic lords then threatened to undo: "You knowe my deare brother that sins you first brethed I regarded alwais to co[n]serve hit as my none [mine own] hit had bine you bare." The last part of this enigmatically phrased sentence carries the double meaning of "as if you bore my own breath", or "as if I had borne you"; both powerfully evocative images of natural motherhood.[37] However, the intimidating tone of the letter gives this reference an aggressive edge: Elizabeth went on to emphasise that James' apparent reluctance to quell dissent had brought about "the Eminent da[n]ger and welny ready approche of your states ruin, your Lives peril and neighbors wro[n]g."[38] Elizabeth had similarly charged the French King Henri IV with "temerity and feebleness" in 1590: "For as to my son, if I had had one, I would rather have seen him dead than a coward."[39] Evidently, neither Henri nor James corresponded to Elizabeth's idea of what a good son should be.
  13. As in her public speeches, Elizabeth used the rhetoric of motherly love in her letters to James to enforce obedience and assert her authority as a sovereign ruler. Yet while the matriarchal language in her speeches associated family hierarchy with social order, this language took on a more pointed political meaning in her letters to James. As John Guy has noted, Elizabeth used the language of familial love as a "weapon of manipulation", but nowhere more forcefully than in her diplomatic duel for authority with her Scottish cousin and godson. [40]

  14. Sir Francis Bacon later reflected positively on Elizabeth's ability to advise and influence other princes: "In her councels she was no less kinde and helpful then in her supplies, whereby she perswaded the King of Spain to asswage his anger towards his subjects of the Netherlands … and often solicited the Kings of France to keep their faith".[41] Evidently, Elizabeth and others saw no contradiction in her adopting simultaneously the arch-masculine roles of ruler and counsellor, particularly in her letters to foreign princes. Mueller has suggested that one of Elizabeth's successes as a ruler was her ability to turn "the familiar letter to a more ordinary generic purpose, that of the Renaissance manual of advice to a prince."[42] Elizabeth's letters to James reveal that she held definite views on the proper balance of power between monarch and counsellor. In September 1596 Elizabeth thanked James for taking action contrary to the advice of his Council by handing over Buccleuch, and suggested that monarchs were often better judges of diplomatic procedure than their counsellors, who had no proper understanding of the code of honour between rulers:
    That I see a King more considerate of what becometh him in the behalf of his like than councillors that never being of such like estates can hardlier judge what were fittest done, I marvel no more than I am glad to find yourself as greatest, so worthier of judgement than such as if they were as they ought.
  15. Elizabeth hoped that James' show of decisiveness would encourage him to "look with a broad sight on such advisers and will warn you by this example not to concur with such deceitful counsel".[43] In this letter, Elizabeth appears to echo the observation of Machiavelli and others that "a prince who is not himself wise cannot be well advised."[44]

  16. Although James felt comfortable presiding as counsellor-in-chief at his Scottish court, he rarely adopted a similar position of intellectual authority in his letters to Elizabeth. One of the reasons for this was that there was a significant difference in age between them. Elizabeth was thirty-three years older than James, and by the time he had officially reached his majority in 1584 she had been reigning England for twenty-five years. Elizabeth frequently reminded James of her greater age and experience when advising him on matters of state. In April 1590 she wrote: "You may belive me, for experience, though not to trust me for my witt". As well as claiming unparalleled practical knowledge of statecraft, Elizabeth peppered her letters to James with ancient aphorisms and personal maxims to demonstrate her breadth of knowledge, as she did in the same letter: "I finde an old English proverb truly veryfied, that “a feast long looked [for] is good when it comith”".[45] Such aphoristic phrases were standard devices in the humanist rhetoric of counsel, and are reminiscent of the kind of maxims quoted by Lord Burghley in his book of advice to his sons and in his letters to other English nobles.[46]

  17. Unlike James' Scottish councillors, whom Elizabeth portrayed as mere flatterers, she repeatedly insisted that her advice was motivated by nothing more than her natural affection for him. "I hope you will make your profit of my plainness." she wrote in July 1594, "and remember that others may have many ends in their advice, but I think only of yourself."[47] Elizabeth presented herself to James as his most experienced, wise, and loyal advisor, a position that allowed her to insinuate herself in Scottish affairs and direct James' actions in accordance with English interests. Moreover, Elizabeth stressed that counsel was an exclusive kind of exchange that could only be passed between allies. For James to accept advice from another monarch, particularly one hostile to England, would implicitly jeopardise his amity with Elizabeth. In October 1593 Elizabeth compared her honest and loving counsel to the dangerous sirens' songs of other princes and (extending the Homeric metaphor) prayed James to play the part of Ulysses in resisting them: "Wax ynough of Godz raison befaL ^you^ to resist so destroing aduis and be so wel Lightened as as [sic] not so dark a Clowde may dim you fro[m] the sight of your best Good".[48] Evidently, Elizabeth cast herself in the role of the wise goddess Pallas Athena, who would guide her protégé safely through the Spanish-Catholic Scylla and Scottish-Puritan Charibdys of the political world. The act of giving and receiving counsel was thus an important means of reinforcing ties of friendship and loyalty between monarchs, as well as defining the boundaries of diplomatic amity with other countries.

  18. Nevertheless, the diplomatic value of counsel was more often determined by the receiver than the sender. Despite James' apparent enthusiasm, Elizabeth was continually frustrated by his apparent reluctance to act on her counsel. Elizabeth rebuked James in August 1591 for what she saw as his perverse inertia: "It is true that my many counsells I gaue knowen oft thanked but seldome followed, when I wished you raigne you suffred others rule, If I desired awe you gaue them libertye my taintye [timely] warning became to late performance when it required actiones it was all to beginne".[49] "I knowe not what to write", Elizabeth mused again in January 1592, "so liteL do I Like to Loose Labor in Uane,"[50] Although James' style of kingship was more conciliatory than Elizabeth's, she hinted that his refusal to heed her counsel reflected negatively on his reputation as an enlightened and effective ruler. Later in 1592 she wrote: "if my counseils had als well bene followed as they were truely meant, your subjects had nowe better knowen their king, and you no more neede of further justice."[51]

  19. In July 1593 Elizabeth hinted that her care and attention for James was not only diplomatic, but dynastic:
    At large I have discoursed for your estate, and have thereof adjoyned my advice and counsell, ever the very like as yf myne owen case that touched, without malice, void of deceite, and clere from any faction, but only adheringe to your safetie, which being preserved, I have obtained the scope of my designes.[52]
  20. By implication, James' safety not only ensured stability in Scotland, but also maintained an atmosphere of security in England about the vexed issue of the succession. By the 1590s the likelihood of James' accession to the English throne seemed more secure (despite his nearly disastrous association with the Earl of Essex's failed rebellion in 1601), particularly once he had established a secret correspondence with Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Robert Cecil. Sir John Harington wrote in 1602 that Elizabeth had privately said that "They were great fools that did not know that the line of Scotland must needs be next heirs."[53] Admittedly, Harington's Tract on the Succession was written purposefully to gain James' approval, and with the hope of securing a comfortable position at the new court. Nevertheless, if Elizabeth did look upon James as her favoured heir, her claim that his business touched her "own case" suggests that another motive behind her persistent counsel was to train him in the art of English good government.

  21. There is evidence to suggest that Elizabeth had settled on James as her eventual successor from his early childhood. During Mary's imprisonment in Lochlevan Castle in July 1567, Elizabeth had informed her Scottish ambassador Throckmorton that she was willing to adopt James as her own child and educate him according to the religion and traditions of England.[54] If Elizabeth's ambitious plan had succeeded, she may not only have established an unprecedented position of influence in Scottish affairs, but solved the English succession crisis without suffering the political and personal dangers of marriage and childbirth. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, however, a confederacy of Scottish lords moved quickly to crown the thirteen-month old prince on 29 July, and appointed a council of nine noblemen to govern in his stead. Elizabeth's initial eagerness to adopt James as her son and heir is nonetheless highly significant in the context of their later correspondence, where she appears staunchly reluctant to acknowledge him publicly as her successor.
  22. In the summer of 1602, James emphasised his gratitude and affection for Elizabeth by requesting her advice, accounting himself "infinitelie happie to haue so noble, so uyse, and so faithful a friende, by quhose counsail I maye and euer shall be directed in all my most importante adoes."[55] James' usual reluctance or refusal to adhere to Elizabeth's advice may reflect his natural resentment at her attempts to meddle in Scottish affairs and undermine his own personal and political autonomy as a king. He may also have baulked at being instructed in the art of statecraft by an ageing woman, since in 1585 he had remarked that the corruption of the Scottish lords sprang from "the fact that for forty years or more they had only had for governors in this kingdom women, little children, and traitorous and avaricious regents", and later regretted that his father had left a "double curse" behind him: "a Woman of sex and a new borne babe of age to raigne ouer them".[56] In February 1598, James had refused to respond to one of Elizabeth's "passionate" letters, asserting that "it becommes me not to stryue with a ladie, especiallie in that airt quhairin thaire sexe most excellis".[57] This statement suggests that James subscribed to Knox's view that women were naturally ruled by passion rather than reason, and so could not be good rulers, let alone good advisors. By seeking out Elizabeth's advice, James reinforced his diplomatic loyalty to Elizabeth and demonstrated respect for his elderly godmother by flattering her intellectual vanity: "You see how farr the trust you repose in me hath transported me," Elizabeth remarked in July 1593, "and made me over lavish in bablinge my conceils."[58]
  23. Elizabeth and James used the rhetoric of counsel to define their diplomatic and dynastic relationship, as well as to associate themselves with the ideal of the wise and educated monarch lauded by humanists such as Erasmus and More. Both adopted different positions within this relationship to further their own interests. On the one hand, Elizabeth assumed the position of a wise and experienced advisor in her letters to James in order to insinuate herself into Scottish politics and prepare her favoured successor for the demands of English government. James, on the other hand, accepted the role of the young apprentice-king in order to maintain good relations with his English godmother, although he was also able to assert his independence by choosing to ignore many of her instructions. This correspondence therefore demonstrates that the rhetoric of counsel was an important tool in royal diplomacy, allowing monarchs to negotiate the terms of their allegiance in a more personal and direct manner, rather than relying on ambassadors and other intermediaries.

  24. In his posthumously published tribute to Elizabeth, Bacon remarked that the transition from Tudor to Stuart rule had been so easy, it would have been unlikely that "the son could succeed his father with greater silence, or less danger or disturbance of estate."[59] James' conflict of allegiance between his political "mother" Elizabeth and his biological mother Mary demonstrates how the use of fictive kinship terminology in royal correspondence could have profound ramifications for domestic and foreign policy. A comparative analysis of the kinship terminology used in Elizabeth and Mary's correspondence would serve as a useful complement to the present study, since few if any letters from James to Mary survive. Although Elizabeth's rhetoric of motherly love has been the subject of much historical study, James' persistent description of himself as a "loving son" gives new insight into his rhetorical strategies for achieving his political ends. In an intriguing statement in 1602, James wrote that "if euer I runne a course with any prince liuing, quhairin ye shall not be my only oracle, I pray God to punishe me as a parjuride [perjured] parricide".[60] It is interesting to speculate on how this reference to parental murder would have resonated with Elizabeth, who knew how James had roared over the execution of his mother, and yet had done nothing to stop it.

  25. In light of the fact that James wrote more letters to Elizabeth than to any other ruler during his Scottish reign, this correspondence provides the most sustained insight into how his theory of kingship worked out in practice. An examination of the Elizabeth-James correspondence reveals that early modern monarchs used kinship terminology in a variety of ways: to acknowledge a sense of common experience, to make a point about the current status of their relationship, to assume a position of authority over the other, to invoke redress for perceived transgressions, and to negotiate the terms of their alliance. Thus, even the most apparently formulaic elements of royal letters could carry fluid and potentially important meanings, giving insight into how two or more corresponding monarchs defined their relationship (and consequently that of their countries) over time.
  26. Many studies in political history have examined the mirror-for-princes genre for insight into the mechanics of monarch-counsellor relations. Few, however, have examined the more unusual phenomenon of advice being passed between two ostensibly equal monarchs. The ways in which Elizabeth and James manipulated conciliar rhetoric in their correspondence are significant in demonstrating their familiarity with contemporary political theory, and shed even more light on how they fashioned themselves in relation to one another. Elizabeth adopted the role of the wise and experienced counsellor in order to insinuate herself into Scottish affairs, but also to educate James according to English principles of government. James accepted and even encouraged Elizabeth to advise him in matters of state, but continually frustrated her by refusing to act on her advice.
  27. There are few examples of royal correspondence either before or after the sixteenth century which were sustained over such a long period (thirty-one years) and during such a significant era in British political history (the transition from Tudor to Stuart rule in England, and the origin of the concept of Great Britain). While providing a useful complement to Elizabeth and James' more formal public writings, their letters can be read as a distinct and valuable collection of sources in their own right, providing a new and unique perspective on areas such as Renaissance diplomacy, letter writing, royal authorship and the history of ideas. Elizabeth and James' correspondence sheds new light on the political philosophies and diplomatic strategies of both rulers. Moreover, these letters provide an important window into the political culture of the sixteenth century, revealing that monarchs actively engaged with contemporary ideas and debates about good government. 

I am grateful for the invaluable advice and generous comments of Dr Susan Doran and Mr Dylan Borg.

[1] B[ritish] L[ibrary] Add[itional] 23240, art.44, fols. 148r-149v. The precise date of this letter is uncertain, but in it Elizabeth refers to James' "offers by captain Brewes", most likely Edward Bruce, a Scottish lawyer and administrator who was sent on three embassies to London in 1594, 1598 and 1601. In 1598 he was instructed to communicate James' apologies for insults complained of by Elizabeth, and the conciliatory tone of this letter appears to support this date.   

[2] James Daybell (ed.), Early Modern Women's Letter-Writing, 1450-1700 (New York; Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001); Jane Couchman, and Ann Crabb (eds.), Women's Letters Across Europe, 1400-1700: Form and Persuasion (Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2005). See also Susan Frye and Karen Robinson (eds.), Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliances in Early Modern England (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[3] James Daybell, "Women's Letters and Letter Writing in England, 1540-1603: An Introduction to the Issues of Authorship and Construction", 27 Shakespeare Studies (1999): 162.

[4] G. R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary [1960] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 116-119.

[5] Pierre Chaplais, English Diplomatic Practice in the Middle Ages (London; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[6] The most influential manuals of the period were Erasmus' Opus de conscribendis epistolis (Basle:1522), William Fulwood, The enemie of idlenesse (London: T. East and H. Middelton, 1571), Angel Day, The English secretorie (London: Robert Walde-graue, 1586).

[7] BL Add. 19398, fol.44. G. B. Harrison claims to have read between two and three thousand of Elizabeth's letters. Harrison (ed.), The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I [1935] (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968), x.

[8] G. P. V. Akrigg notes that he has examined 227 of James' hand-written letters. Akrigg (ed.), Letters of King James VI & I (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 27. According to Grant G. Simpson, around 650 of James' holograph letters exist in print. Simpson, “The Personal Letters of James VI: a Short Commentary”, in Julian Goodare and Michael Lynch (eds.), The Reign of James VI, (Phantassie: Tuckwell Press, 2000), 142.

[9] Joseph Bain, et al. (eds.) Calendar of State Papers Relating to Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots, 1547-1603 [hereafter CSPScot] (Edinburgh: His Majesty's General Register House, 1898-1969), 4:298; N[ational] A[rchives], SP 52/23 fol.97. Although it may be contested whether these letters can be accurately described as "to" or "from" James in light of his necessarily limited involvement at such a young age, the early modern conception of authorship was broader and more flexible than the modern one. The generally impersonal, symbolic nature of royal authorship is similarly reflected in the vicarious attribution of official documents to the monarch (for example, letters patent).

[10] See for example A. L. Rowse, The Expansion of Elizabethan England [1955] (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 24, 27; Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981), 158, 427.

[11] James' most famous political works, Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, were both written during his Scottish reign in 1598-99. See Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier (eds.), Royal Subjects: Essays on the Writings of James VI and I (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).

[12] Laing MS III.371, fols.14-16.

[13] BL Add. 23109, fols. 43r-44v.

[14] See Allison Heisch, "Arguments for an Execution: Queen Elizabeth's 'White Paper' and Lord Burghley's 'Blue Pencil'", Albion 24 (1992), 591-604.

[15]Susan Doran, "Elizabeth I's Religion. The Evidence of Her Letters", The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 51.4 (2000): 700.

[16] Sir James Melville, The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, ed. Gordon Donaldson (London: Folio Society, 1969), 297.

[17] Akrigg, Letters of King James VI and I, 25. Daybell cites an example of a holograph letter from Elizabeth to George Talbot on 21 October 1572 for which a draft with Cecil's corrections survives. Daybell, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 76. However, I have not yet found such an example from her correspondence with James.

[18] BL Add 23240 art.29, fols.98r-99v; BL Add. 23240 art.32, fols.108r-109v; BL Add 23240 art.42, fols.140r-141v.

[19] In 1602 Elizabeth complained to James of "an evill accydent of my arme", one of very few public admissions of physical frailty. John Bruce (ed.) Letters of Queen Elizabeth and King James VI of Scotland; some of them printed from originals in the possession of the Rev. Edward Ryder, and others from a MS which formerly belonged to Peter Thompson, Kt [hereafter Letters], Camden Society, vol. 46. (London: J. B. Nichols and Sons, 1849) 142-3.

[20] BL Add. 23240 art.32, fols.108r-109v; BL Add 23240 art.42, fols.140r-141v.

[21] Daybell, "Women's Letters and Letter Writing in England, 1540-1603”, 164.

[22] Letters, 22; Letters, 133; Letters, 140.

[23] CSPScot, 10:592.

[24] For more on Elizabeth's identity and influence as a writer, see Peter Beal and Grace Ioppolo (eds), Elizabeth I and the culture of writing (London: British Library, 2007).

[25] Janel Mueller, “To My Very Good Brother the King of Scots: Elizabeth I's Correspondence with James VI and the Question of the Succession”, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 115 (2000) 1066.

[26] Letters, 111.

[27] CSPScot, 2:275.

[28] Letters, 32.

[29] Letters, 90; Letters, 105.

[30] CSPScot, 11:410.

[31] CSPScot, 12:336.

[32] CSPScot, 12:337.

[33] J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I [1934] (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), 391; Susan Doran, "Loving and Affectionate Cousins? The relationship between Elizabeth I and James VI of Scotland 1586-1603", in Doran, Susan and Richardson, Glenn (eds.). Tudor England and its Neighbours (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 205.

[34] BL Cotton MS, Caligula B.10.

[35] Letters, 115.

[36] CSPScot, 8:491.

[37] Interestingly, Bruce transcribes this line as "my womb hit had bine you bare". Letters, 72.

[38] BL Add 23240, art.32, fol.108r.

[39] Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose, (eds) Elizabeth I: Collected Works (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 363.

[40] John Guy, “Tudor Monarchy and its Critiques”, in Tudor Monarchy, ed. Guy (London, New York: Arnold, 1997), 90.

[41] Francis Bacon, The Felicity of Queen Elizabeth and Her Times with other things. (London: T. Newcomb, 1651), 11-12.

[42] Mueller, “To My Very Good Brother the King of Scots”, 1071.

[43] CSPScot, 12:319.

[44] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince [1532], trans. George Bull [1961] (London; New York: Penguin Books, 1995), xxiii, 75.

[45] Letters, 166

[46] Conyers Read, Mr Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth (London: Jonathon Cape, 1955), 119.

[47] CSPScot, 11:366.

[48] BL Add 23240 art.38, fol.127v. Elizabeth is alluding here to Homer's Odyssey, Book XII, lines 165-200.

[49] Laing MS III.371, art.9, fols.21-2.

[50] BL Add 23240, art.31, fols.104r-105v.

[51] Letters, 76.

[52] Letters, 83.

[53] Sir John Harington, A Tract on the Succession to the Crown [1602] (London: Roxburghe Club, 1880), 46.

[54] CSPScot, 2:349.

[55] Letters, 151.

[56] CSPScot, 7:271; Basilikon Doron, Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave, 1599, Gvir.

[57] Letters, 124.

[58] Letters, 84.

[59] Bacon, The Felicity of Queen Elizabeth, 21.

[60] Letters, 146.


Works Cited


Manuscripts Cited




Primary Sources


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© 2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).