Draft and sent versions of a letter from Elizabeth I regarding the earl of Leicester's visit in June 1577: Bess's social networks

The sent version of this letter (ID 172)

In this letter Queen Elizabeth writes from the Court at Greenwich to 'Our very good Cousins', the Shrewsburys, and we see Bess's social networks in action at the highest level. The Queen first thanks Bess, 'our Cousin the Countesse', for recently entertaining her (the Queen's) favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, 'at Chatsworth', and then thanks both Shrewsbury and Bess for his (Leicester's) reception at Buxton and their 'very rare present' to him. Playing on the terms 'debtor', 'creditor' and 'account', the Queen says she regards herself personally indebted to the couple for their kind and generous hospitality. The debt she owes them, says the Queen, is to be added to those debts already due in recompense for their 'loyall & most carefull looking to the chardge committed to you both' (i.e. their custodianship of Mary, Queen of Scots).

To receive such a personal letter from the Queen was an event in itself. That the letter was received with great appreciation and afterwards treasured as a most precious object is attested by the note, added on the outside of the letter-packet, written in Shrewsbury's own hand: 'The queens majestes letter of the xxv of Iune 1577 to be kept as the dereste Iuell' (i.e. her majesty the Queen's letter of 25th June 1577, which is to be kept as the dearest jewel). In the economics of favour, the Queen, it seems, had chosen just the right words to reassure Shrewsbury and Bess that their loyal efforts had been noticed and would be rewarded.

The draft version of this letter (ID 221)

The importance of choosing exactly the right words was not lost on Queen Elizabeth. In fact, the pains to which the monarch went to achieve just the right tone are visible in the draft we have of this letter. The draft shows that the Queen had made, in her own hand, drastic revisions to the letter before sending. As we have just seen (above), the version of the letter that Shrewsbury and Bess actually received is a rather sober, straightforward and prosaic expression of gratitude from sovereign to subject. By contrast, the draft is far more playful and lively and in it the Queen makes joking reference to Shrewsbury's repeated requests for the Scots Queen's diet money.

To be specific, in the draft, the Queen gives a spoof account of her own prescriptions for Leicester's diet and she teasingly declares that, if his diet is not restrained, she will be bankrupt and unable to repay her debts to Shrewsbury and Bess. She must, therefore, she says, be strict with Leicester and allow him no more than '^for his meate^ two ownces of fleshe', although on 'festyvall dayes', she adds, he may additionally be given 'the showlder of a wren and for his svpper a leg of the same'. The tone is irreverent and light-hearted, yet, the Queen decided that, on reflection, such facetiousness might not be well received.

That the Queen removed these quips before sending the letter is likely to have been a wise decision in the circumstances, as they could well have been perceived as deeply insensitive or even mocking. As far as Shrewsbury and Bess were concerned, the enormous financial burden of the Scots Queen was no joke, nor was Queen Elizabeth's meagre contribution to the costs. That the Queen would take so much trouble over revising the tone of her own letter gives us an insight into the high priority she placed on the management of her relationship with Bess and Shrewsbury. It speaks of the strain and magnitude of their task as the Scots Queen's keepers, and we can sympathise with Shrewsbury and Bess in this situation.

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References and Further Reading

  • Recent studies of the life, letters and language of Elizabeth I include: Mel Evans, Aspects of the Idiolect of Queen Elizabeth I: A Diachronic Study on Sociolinguistic Principles (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, July 2011); Steven W. May (ed.), Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works (Simon & Schuster for The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2005); Felix Pryor, Elizabeth I: Her Life in Letters (The British Library, 2003); H. R. Woudhuysen, 'The Queen's Own Hand: A Preliminary Account', in Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing, ed. by Peter Beal and Grace Ioppolo (Trowbridge: British Library, 2007), pp. 1-27.
Author(s): Alison Wiggins, April 2013

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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Digital Humanities Institute at The University of Sheffield
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