“Messy” Handwriting of Elizabeth I Found in Translation of Roman Text

Queen Elizabeth I in front of her handwriting.
Queen Elizabeth I had messy handwriting. This has been shown by the discovery of her penmanship in a translation of a subversive text from Ancient Rome. Annotations on a manuscript at Lambeth Palace Library have been revealed as her royal handiwork.

The text, Annales (Annals) by historian Tacitus, has been in the Library since the 17th century. The translation itself was written by another scribe, but under whose instruction? According to Dr John-Mark Philo of the University of East Anglia, there’s no mistaking what’s scrawled alongside. Turns out Elizabeth believed the pen was as mighty as the sword.

“Her late handwriting is usefully messy – there really is nothing like it,” Dr Philo comments in a UEA press release. Smithsonian notes, “Elizabeth’s handwriting was so difficult to read… that letters sent in her later years were often accompanied by a note from an aide stating the 16th-century equivalent of ‘Sorry, please find a legible copy here.’”

Queen Elizabeth handwriting

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

Why did the quality go downhill? The rigors of her reign are one explanation. “The queen’s ‘m’ and ‘n,’ for instance, essentially became horizontal lines, while her ‘e’ and ‘d’ broke down into disjointed strokes.”

Tell tale watermarks also point to Elizabeth as translator extraordinaire. These include a lion, a crossbow and perhaps most appropriately of all, the initials G.B. There’s also a specific mention of her interest in Tacitus’s Annales, as described by 16/17th century poet and author John Clapham.

Queen Elizabeth armada portrait

One of the three Armada portraits of Queen Elizabeth.

In his Observations on the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, he wrote “She took pleasure in reading of the best and wisest histories, and some part of Tacitus’ Annals she herself turned into English for her private exercise.” Tracing the reference to the Lambeth Palace manuscript has further fleshed out the life of this ground-breaking monarch, whose interest in translation dated back to childhood.

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