When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the thrones of the United Kingdom and fifteen other commonwealth nations in 1952, the press hailed her reign as a new Elizabethan age. In contrast, the new Queen herself believed she had little in common with her sixteenth century predecessor, Elizabeth I. In the first Christmas broadcast of her reign, delivered from New Zealand, Elizabeth II stated, “I do not myself feel at all like my great Tudor forebear, who was blessed with neither husband nor children, who ruled as a despot and was never able to leave her native shores.”
Elizabeth II correctly noted the differences in family life, monarchical government and ability to travel between herself and her predecessors but there is one crucial similarity between the two queens. The reigns of both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II are notable for the monarch’s engagement with the wider world. Elizabeth II has become the world’s most traveled monarch, visiting remote commonwealth nations unfamiliar to her predecessors while Elizabeth I engaged in more personal correspondence with foreign monarchs that any previous English monarch.
Rayne Allinson’s fascinating book, A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth Ilooks at the Queen’s foreign policy through her letters, analyzing her complex relationships with her fellow rulers, Philip II of Spain, Mary, Queen of Scots, Catherine de Medici, Ivan the Terrible of Russia, Sultan Murad III of the Ottoman Empire, Henry IV of France and her eventual successor, James VI of Scotland. The world had become a smaller place in the sixteenth century with the Italian practice of posting regular foreign ambassadors spreading throughout much of Europe and the continent’s monarchs expanding their networks of trade and exploration. As a talented linguist and prolific letter writer since childhood, Elizabeth I responded to these new conditions by establishing personal relationships with her fellow monarchs through correspondence.
Allinson devotes each chapter to a different one of Elizabeth I’s illustrious correspondents, demonstrating that the queen used different rhetorical techniques and a wide variety of decorative flourishes depending on her relationship with the recipient. While Allinson’s research demonstrates that Elizabeth I and Philip II viewed each others’ ambassadors as bearers of bad news throughout their reigns, the personal correspondence between the two monarchs maintained the pretense of friendship until the outbreak of war between the two kingdoms. As a more experienced ruler and the widower of Elizabeth’s sister and predecessor, Mary I, Philip adopted a mentoring tone in his letters and attempted to advise the new queen.
Elizabeth largely ignored the King of Spain’s advice but adopted a similar tone with her younger cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. The Queen of England maintained the voice of calm authority through her letters as Mary’s correspondence became increasingly emotional as her authority over her kingdom collapsed. As godmother to Mary’s son, James, Elizabeth would adopt a parental tone in her letters with the young King of Scotland, which eased the transition between the Tudor and Stuart dynasties in England.
The form of a royal letter was as significant as its tone. Elizabeth I’s royal correspondents in Western Europe expected their letters to be signed with a small privy seal, which demonstrated their close relationship with their fellow monarch. In contrast, Tsar Ivan and the family of Sultan Murad sent ornate letters to Elizabeth I and expected her responses to be just as magnificent looking, displaying the Queen’s great seal. If the ruler of Russia or the Ottoman Empire believed himself slighted by Elizabeth I because of the display or delivery of her letters, the merchants of the Muscovy company or Turkey company would lose valuable trading channels. Elizabeth I’s personal engagement with the rulers of Russia and the Ottoman Empire was unprecedented for an English monarch and she encountered cultural differences and misunderstandings over the course of these new diplomatic and economic relationships.
In addition to her well researched scholarly analysis of Elizabeth I’s correspondence, Allinson also has a eye for revealing details that bring Elizabeth I and her correspondents to life. Philip II’s first letter to Elizabeth as a reigning queen was also her first proposal of marriage, filled with passionate rhetorical flourishes unmatched in the King’s other letters. Ivan the Terrible’s desire for a secret correspondence with Elizabeth inspired him to send her a packet of letters pickled in a wooden bottle of vodka. By the time they reached the English court by horseback and ship from Moscow, the smell of alcohol on the pages was overwelming.
Perhaps the most significant detail about Elizabeth I is her scrutiny of one of Ivan’s original letters. The Queen saw similarities between the Cyrillic script of the Russian language and the classical Greek she knew from her childhood tutors and declared she “could quicklie lern it.” Elizabeth I’s fascination with the world beyond her kingdom informed her monarchy of letters, inspiring her correspondence with more foreign monarchs than any previous English sovereign. A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth I analyzes the full extent of Elizabeth I’s foreign policy through the fascinating letters exchanged with her fellow rulers.by