Well-hung tongue

Elizabeth I: collected works

Edited by Leah S Marcus, Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose <em>Univers

Words mattered to Queen Elizabeth I. Aged only 12, she showed a precocious awareness of their power, declaring that the written word was "to be valued even above the most excellent creations of sculptors and painters", as it alone could reveal "the image of the mind". Having so early recognised its potential, she would manipulate the medium with exemplary flair, using her mastery of language to subjugate, enchant and perplex. This excellent anthology of her speeches, poems, prayers and letters demonstrates her virtuosity and affords the reader a penetrating insight into her "wiles and understanding".

Elizabeth received a remarkable education (she herself boasted that "I suppose few that be no professors have read more") and the classical allusions and scriptural citations that stud her works testify to her breadth of learning. She was also an inspired stylist, whose artistry with words sprang from instinct quite as much as erudition. With their challenging syntax and serpentine rhythms, her speeches and writings (praised by her favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton, for their "rare sentence and matter . . . exceedingly to be liked of") abound in language of a richness and complexity that simultaneously beguiles and compels.

Paradoxically, Elizabeth lived in an age when women were deemed incapable of serious thought, and were encouraged to remain silent, rather than distract their male superiors with pointless babble. Elizabeth herself seemingly subscribed to such prejudices, telling parliament in 1563 that, as "a woman wanting both wit and memory", it would be fitting if she evinced "some fear to speak and bashfulness besides". Typically, she then excused herself on the grounds that, as a sovereign, she was not bound by normal conventions. At times, she feigned reluctance to speak in public, claiming that, were she not impelled by duty, she "could be content to spare speech, whom silence better pleaseth than to speak". No one should be deceived by such disingenuous disclaimers; Elizabeth revelled in her oratorical powers and relished that - as a foreign visitor somewhat quaintly put it - "her tongue was wonderfully well hung".

Obfuscation formed an important part of Elizabeth's genius. She made statements that she knew would be unwelcome to her audience (such as when she rejected calls on her to marry, or to execute Mary Stuart), and she hoped that, by employing phraseology that was at once majestic and abstruse, she would distract attention from the unpalatable substance of her answers. Thus, when she declared that "since there can be no duer debt than princes' word, to keep that unspotted for my part I would be loath that the self thing which keepeth the merchants' credit from craft should be the cause that princes' speech should merit blame and so their honour quail", her purpose was to baffle as well as to impress, and, by using her talent for mystification, she hoped to heighten her mystique.

Elizabeth's letters are also masterful productions, couched in inimitable prose. Whether she was rebuking the Earl of Leicester for insubordination ("We could never have imagined . . . that a man raised up by ourself . . . would have in so contemptible a sort broken our commandment") or offering gracious words of praise - which often took the place of more tangible rewards - to courtiers who had served her, she expressed herself in terms that still excite wonder and respect.

The editors of this volume have made great efforts to achieve authenticity, wherever possible using manuscripts dating from Elizabeth's reign. As they make clear, however, some textual uncertainty remains. It seems that Elizabeth rarely wrote out her speeches beforehand and, often, the only record of them derives from transcripts written from memory by those who had heard her speak. The editors sometimes supply several versions of the same speech, showing how much recollections could differ. One man who took down Elizabeth's final speech to parliament noted that she had spoken "somewhat to this effect. For besides I could not well hear all she spake . . . her apt and refined words, so learnedly composed, did ravish the sense of the hearers with such admiration as every new sentence made me half forget [what had gone before]."

The publishers consider it a virtue that there is no cumbersome analysis of the historical background in the footnotes, but this policy, arguably, is carried too far. Readers who are not experts in the period would certainly benefit from a fuller elucidation of some of the documents. However, this should not detract from what is a magnificent enterprise, which gathers together invaluable source material in an admirably compact form.

Big Chief Elizabeth is about the English colonies founded in North America during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. Giles Milton vividly relates the hardships faced by the early settlers (in 1609-10, famine caused several to resort to cannibalism), while making it plain that their endurance was all too often accompanied by cruelty to the indigenous inhabitants, who then revenged with terrible acts of savagery. In the end, the colonists survived thanks to the native princess Pocahontas. After she had saved the life of one of their leaders, the English ungratefully took her hostage, but she then fell in love with one of her captors. When her father consented to their marriage, relations between the two peoples were transformed. As a result, the Virginian colony at Jamestown prospered, having been rendered economically viable by the exportation of tobacco, much prized for its health-giving properties.

Occasionally, Milton cannot resist enlivening his narrative with specious details. We are told that, alone in his study, Sir Humfrey Gilbert allowed himself a rare self-satisfied smile. How does Milton know? Such gimmicks are superfluous. The story is fascinating enough, and Milton's eye for arresting quotes and bizarre facts keeps the reader enthralled, without any need for dubious embellishments.

Those who like their history replete with action and adventure are well catered for here. While Elizabeth I's Collected Works confirm that the way in which she and her contemporaries exploited the English language was one of the greatest glories of her age, Milton's book reminds us that the achievements of the Elizabethans did not rest on words alone.

Anne Somerset's Elizabeth I is published by Phoenix (£11.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun