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Rayne Allinson, A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth I (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Rayne Allinson, A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth I (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). ISBN: 978-1-137-00835-0, 270 pp. £58.

Reviewed by Guillaume Coatalen


[1] Rayne Allinson’s engaging and lively monograph is a timely contribution to our knowledge of Queen Elizabeth I’s foreign letters, a field which has attracted growing, if limited, attention since the publication of the Chicago edition of her collected works both in translation and in the many original languages which the Queen mastered.

[2] As she notes, paradoxically enough, more literary scholars than historians have concentrated on the queen’s letters as material objects, even though a historian like James Daybell has pursued this line of inquiry for early modern letters in general. Henry Woudhuysen and Jonathan Gibson, for instance, have examined the Queen’s handwriting and Heather Wolfe, the curator at the Folger Library in Washington, has brought to light the various ways in which the letters were folded and presented. Until recently, the traditional position of historians has been to dismiss the material side of letters as irrelevant and to mine the vast correspondence for significant passages suiting their various purposes. They have often done this admirably, with the help (or not) of extensive databases, such as those provided by Gale or British History Online, supported by the Institute of Historical Research. Allinson’s approach is different. She chooses instead to focus on the impact which the Queen’s correspondence with other monarchs had on diplomatic relations, by weighing the contents of the letters with their physical aspect. In terms of historiography, the book marks a return to the analysis of the monarch’s personal and public power to fashion history, for centuries the main historical paradigm which was undermined by the growth of social and cultural history. One of the virtues of the study is to make possible a balanced and nuanced view of Elizabethan history as being the joint product of both rulers and subjects, high and low.

[3] Like Woudhuysen, Allinson rightly contends that the use of the Queen’s own hand was significant in itself and crucial to her diplomatic and personal goals. Consequently, holographs play a major role in her narrative. The study covers the entire reign and a vast territory from Scotland to Constantinople. The material is so rich that entire monographs could be written on the individual chapters.

[4] The first chapter offers historical background on ‘Writing in English Royal Diplomacy’. By the mid-sixteenth century, letter writing was no longer seen as a chore delegated to secretaries and had become ‘an integral part of a monarch’s job description’ (p. 1). This was largely due to the influence of Erasmus in England and the unique combination of humanism and the Reformation which promoted the monarch’s written words as a power for good. The Queen’s humanist italic hand and classical learning were taught by Roger Ascham.

[5] The second chapter looks at ‘The Making of Elizabeth’s Correspondence’, which was a complex process often involving the queen’s secretary Burghley, clerks of the signet, members of the privy council, secretaries for foreign tongues, scribes and, at times, merchants. Burghley would typically write a draft in English and then have it translated into the appropriate language. Other members of the Queen’s inner circle such as Windebank or Beale could contribute, as well as other experts on certain countries. What is quite clear is that the Queen kept close control on the actual wording since she dictated the letters and, when she did not, revised copies carefully. Unfortunately, the chapter was written before Angela Andreani completed her informative and thorough PhD dissertation on the making of the Queen’s letters in the 1590s.[1] As it is, the chapter skillfully describes, however, all the stages involved in the Queen’s correspondence from draft to delivery. Such details as the size of the seal, the colour of the ribbon, or the way the letter was folded, held a precise significance which could be wrongly interpreted and cause diplomatic tensions.

[6] The first two chapters are introductions to the following eight ones which present case studies in a chronological order. The reign’s internal and external affairs are seen through the lens of the letters themselves. Chapter Three focuses on the early reign, 1558-1559. Very quickly, Elizabeth distinguished between two ‘separate but interlinking levels’ (p. 44) of diplomatic exchanges, one involving ambassadors, and the other monarchs. During this period, she wrote the greatest number of letters to France, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, the countries she feared most. These letters’ main purpose was to strengthen bonds of amity and by so doing, to avoid war. Many drafts bear evidence of Burghley’s involvement in penning them. Chapter Four examines the tense correspondence with King Philip of Spain, 1558-1584. Philip noted the signature ‘Soror et perpetua confederata [sister and perpetual ally]’ the Queen used in a letter dated December 28, 1558 reporting the death of Mary I, revealing that the level of attention paid to such details may be wrongly dismissed by modern readers as simply formulaic. Intriguingly, in 1576 the Spaniard wrote a letter in French on the appointment of Don Juan as the new Governor of the Low Countries. The hundred or so letters Elizabeth and Philip exchanged served to check various tensions, often due to their respective ambassadors. One of the most fascinating rhetorical strategies is provided by the use of two letters varying in tone according to the Queen’s immediate response to the messenger.

[7] Chapter Five is entitled ‘Silent Diplomacy: Queen Mary I of Scotland: 1559-1587’. This was a holograph exchange but unfortunately most of Elizabeth’s early letters have been lost. The main paradoxical point of the chapter is the part played by Elizabeth’s delaying responses or more radically not writing back in their tortuous relationship. It is quite clear that Mary valued the queen’s holograph letters, one of which she ‘reverently kissed’ (p. 91) in 1563. Chapter Six explores the correspondence with Catherine de Medici. This is the ‘longest sustained communication with a French ruler besides Henry IV’ (p. 94). The correspondence with her sons, the Dukes of Anjou, is eclipsed by this remarkable relationship and, though this is justifiable, one might regret Allinson did not write more on the holographs sent to the brothers, themselves.

[8] Chapters Seven and Eight deal with correspondences with non-Western rulers and stress the significant cultural differences in how letters were made and read. Both Tsar Ivan IV and Sultan Murād III failed to understand and appreciate signs of intimacy in the material presentation of the Queen’s letters. Instead, they much preferred great seals and lavish decorations to bare holographs. These are possibly the most groundbreaking chapters in the book. Elizabeth’s correspondence with Henry IV is the subject of Chapter Nine. It is quite extraordinary since it survived the King’s conversion to Catholicism. In these letters, many of which were holographs, Elizabeth spoke to an equal and offered tantalizing glimpses of her private persona. In contrast with Chapters Seven and Eight, Chapter Ten grapples with her epistolary exchanges with her closest ally in many ways, King James VI of Scotland. What makes their correspondence unique is its nature. James was not quite a foreigner and Elizabeth wrote to him in English, not in Latin or French.

[9] The conclusion is particularly useful since it offers a graph on the distribution of her letters over time. Notwithstanding the many letters which have not survived, the Queen’s correspondence grew exponentially in her reign. Allinson might have done more on her Italian letters and perhaps written a chapter on the Low Countries, but these are just oversights, certainly not defects. The book opens up numerous avenues of research and is extremely stimulating; there is no doubt whatsoever that it constitutes a landmark in the field. The reader’s only regret is the lack of copy editing, ‘between the England and Russia’ (p. 116), ‘1562-1553’ instead of ‘1552-1553’ (p. 155). Still, this is a work of the highest scholarship from which historians, literary or not, students and laymen should benefit enormously.

Université de Cergy-Pontoise,  June 2013


[1] Angela Andreani, ‘The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I, 1590-1596, Weighing Archival Evidence’ (Unpublished PhD dissertation, Università degli studi di Milano, 2012). [back to text]