How Queen Elizabeth The First–Who Shall Be Nameless–Was Outed As A Latin Translator

by Rick Roberts
- Advertisement -

Reigning over England and Ireland for nearly a half-century, Queen Elizabeth I began her life in infamy as the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Henry had Anne executed and his marriage to her annulled when Elizabeth was only two years old, thus declaring their daughter illegitimate. During the reign of her Catholic half-sister Mary, Elizabeth did jail time for being a Protestant sympathizer before acceding to the throne when Mary died in 1558. Given the turbulence of her early years, Elizabeth determined to rule with reserve and moderation. Her desire for anonymity as a scholar fits that temperament.

According to Smithsonian magazine, a classics researcher recently discovered an English translation of “Annals” by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus. This work was an account of the emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Examining the rhetoric of the translation, the paper stock and the handwriting, John-Mark Philo, of the University of East Anglia, concluded that Elizabeth interpreted Tacitus’ work for English-speakers. For one thing, the kind of paper used was distinctly common in Elizabeth’s court. Furthermore, the watermarks on the paper were identical to what appeared in much of the queen’s correspondence. Yet these two facts are not sufficient to make this anything more than a coincidence.

Philo, while noting that the translation was copied by a professional scrivener, observed that the accompanying edits and annotations strongly resembled Elizabeth’s “distinctive, disjointed hand.” Gathering all available samples of her longhand, the professor matched them to those notes in the “Annals” translation. Said Philo: “Her late handwriting is usefully messy – there really is nothing like it – and the idiosyncratic flourishes serve as diagnostic tools.” Detailing the transition from the rule of Augustus to that of Tiberius, Tacitus’ work highlights a powerful role played by Agrippina–the wife of Roman general Germanicus–in boosting the legions’ morale. “Annals” shows her to be both a courageous and comforting presence in times of danger.

- Advertisement -

Prof. Philo sees parallels between Agrippina and Elizabeth who similarly inspired her own armies at Tidbury on the eve of an expected invasion by the Spanish (who retreated instead). This may explain why her translation so carefully corresponds with the original text in style, voice, and economy of words. For Elizabeth, faithfulness to the text took priority over ease of comprehension for readers. In addition to Latin, her linguistic fluency extended to French and Italian. This passion for languages was eventually eclipsed by the burdens of sovereignty.

The queen’s poor penmanship was notorious and it declined as age overtook her. Philo asserts that Tudor England was a culture where the highest officials were not overly concerned about making themselves clear in writing. What is clear is the fact that hiding her identity as a translator–or, at least, not flaunting it–fit her character perfectly. A motto attributed to her is “video et taceo” or “I see but say nothing.” Despite this modesty, her time on the throne earned the moniker of “The Elizabethan Era,” boasting the likes of William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake.

- Advertisement -

More history for you