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17 November 2021

Elizabeth I and languages

The Tudors were a formidably educated family, though Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, Venetian Secretary in England, was doubtless laying it on thick:

[Elizabeth] possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who spealk the one to understand any of the others. Besides this, she spoke perfectly Latin, French, and Italian extremely well. (Calendar of State Papers relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, April 1603, pp. 562-70)

The catalogue of the current British Library exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens says she studied French, Italian, Latin and Greek, and ‘knew some Spanish too’ (p. 29).

As part of her education Roger Ascham taught her Greek; Battista Castiglione Italian. The same Ascham paid credit to ‘her perfit readines in ... Spanish’ (Randall, 231n).

Portrait of Elizabeth holding a book

Portrait of Elizabeth holding a book, from Lucas de Heere, Corte Beschryvinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland, 1573-5, Add MS 28330, f.4r 

Her reading knowledge of languages is clear from the translations she made. From French: Marguerite de Navarre, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (for Katherine Parr); Calvin, Institution de la religion chrestienne (ch. 1); from Italian: Ochino, Che cosa è Christo and possibly Petrarch; from Latin: Seneca, (Epistle CVII), Cicero (two epistles), Boethius (De consolatione philosophiae) Horace, and Plutarch (De curiositate, via the Latin of Erasmus). (Unless otherwise stated sources are Mueller and Scodel and their reviewers.)

She also had writing skills in various languages. She wrote a letter in Italian to Katharine Parr (aged ten), wrote 27 stanzas in French, and translated Katherine Parr’s Prayers or Meditations into French, Latin and Italian as a new year’s gift to her father. Mueller and Marcus say the Latin is closer to the original than are the French and Italian.

Elizabeth’s French translation of Catherine Parr’s Prayers or meditations

Elizabeth’s French translation of Catherine Parr’s Prayers or meditations BL. Royal MS. 7.D.X. f.39r

Her translation of Erasmus’s Dialogus fidei into French for Henry is lost. She also wrote letters in Latin to her brother Edward VI and letters in French, including one to Mary Queen of Scots. And prayers in Spanish (Autograph Compositions, 141-43).

A halfway house between reading and writing is the collection of Latin tags she gathered in Sententiae.

A page from Elizabeth’s collection of Sententiae

A page from Elizabeth’s collection of Sententiae, in Precationes priuatę Regiæ E. R. ([London], 1563). Huth 139.

As regards speaking, she addressed the University of Oxford in Latin. She spoke in Latin to the Polish ambassador. On her first meeting with Guzman de Silva, the Spanish Ambassador, she spoke in Italian, ‘diciendo que no sabia en que lengua hablarme’ [‘saying that she did not know in which language to speak to me’]; he in Latin. But when the two rode together to Lord Burghley’s residence on July 26th, 1564, she, being mounted on a Spanish jennet, spoke to him in Spanish, ‘mostrandole gran contentamiento del caballo y de las lenguas’ [‘showing great content [perhaps ‘fluency’] with the horse and the languages’] (Ungerer 44). Mueller and Marcus say Elizabeth ‘had learned [Spanish] but deliberately avoided [it] later in her reign for political reasons’ (141).

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References/further reading:

Gustav Ungerer, Anglo-Spanish Relations in Tudor Literature (Madrid, 1956) 11872.w.20

Janel Mueller and Joshua Scodel (ed.), Elizabeth I: Translations, 1544-1589 [-- 1592-98] (Chicago, 2009)
YC.2009.a.8501; YC.2009.a.15444; reviewed by Retha Warnicke, Journal of Modern History, 82:4 (Dec. 2010), 923-27; Ac.2691.d/43.p

Roger Ellis, Translation and Literature, 19: 2 (Autumn 2010), 225-32. ZC.9.a.3123

Janel Mueller and Leah S. Marcus (ed.), Elizabeth I: Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals (Chicago, 2003) YC.2004.a.5929

Dale B. J. Randall, The Golden Tapestry: a Critical Survey of Non-chivalric Spanish Fiction in English Translation (1543-1657) (Durham NC 1963) 011881.d.7

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