The Correspondence of Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI

by Janel Mueller

ithin a system of hereditary monarchy, the toughest problem for a self-styled Virgin Queen was to assure a successor to her own reign. This problem obsessed Elizabeth's earliest Parliaments, in 1558-59, 1563 and 1566, when both Houses created an ongoing crisis for her authority by admonishing her, again and again, to marry and bear an heir. But since, in the nature of things, marriage and progeny would take some time, the Lords and Commons simultaneously urged Elizabeth to secure the throne of England by specifying a line of succession after herself.

Elizabeth was always much more negative about specifying the succession than about marrying. She regarded any such explicitness as a colossal piece of political folly that endangered the incumbent and the designated successors alike--in the first instance, by opening up alternative rallying-points for disaffected subjects; in the second, by casting a designated successor as an arch-rival to the person then ruling.

The "Ermine Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth I, painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1585.

In the late spring or early summer of 1585, Elizabeth began a correspondence with James VI of Scotland. Elizabeth was 51 years old; James celebrated his nineteenth birthday in June. Previously the two sovereigns had communicated through their respective ambassadors and the messages orally entrusted to them. Now, in mid-1585, Elizabeth and James begin to write directly to each other. The correspondence continues at irregular but not infrequent intervals until Elizabeth's last letter of January 6, 1603, slightly more than two months before her death. The great preponderance of these letters survives in the collection now known as British Library, Additional MS 15891. The letters are in the two monarchs' own handwriting--as graphic witnesses of their mutual high status but also of the immediacy and frankness with which the two royal correspondents soon begin to treat each other (although they never would meet face to face). Why did Elizabeth initiate this correspondence with James? Why at this date rather than earlier or later? What did she intend by it or hope from it? While Elizabeth offers no direct answers to these questions, I find her intentions readable, to a considerable degree, from her themes and her vocabulary. For his part, James shows himself well able to catch her various drifts and to respond--sometimes in kind, sometimes deliberately not.

The end of all marriage prospects for Elizabeth--her last courtship, to French prince Francois Hercule de Valois, had ended definitively the previous year--had the political and structural effect of relieving her from having to contract a single, exclusive foreign alliance with a consort-to-be and his blood relations. But the end of all marriage prospects also had the political and structural effect of rendering the question of Elizabeth's successor more urgent. The year 1585 found the Dutch Protestants leaderless after the assassination of William of Orange in July 1584, but continuing to receive aid from Elizabeth--first money and supplies, then troops. At home, the spring of 1585 brought the detection of Dr. William Parry's plot to assassinate Elizabeth and, as this conspiracy unraveled, the transfer of Mary, Queen of Scots from relatively lenient custody to much more stringent surveillance.

Sometime in the early months of 1585 Elizabeth appears to have begun writing to James to propose what she terms a "league" or "contract of amity" between them as monarchs of England and Scotland (Letter 57, Part 3, page 82; Letter 58, Part 3, page 83). By August 13, 1585 James is eager that "the conclusion of the amity and league go forward, whereunto I do already fully consent," and on August 18 he dashes off a further message with the suddenly familiar salutation, "Madame and mother," to assure Elizabeth that "although my articles that the ambassador sends you desires the league to concern only religion, yet my plain intention is that the league shall be offensive and defensive for all invasions upon whatsomever pretext" (Letter 58, Additional Documents A and B, Part 3, pages 84-85). Eventually both refer with satisfaction to their faiths pledged to each other, even while their new league is imperilled by violence in the unruly borderlands between the two countries. Russell, a young English earl, is murdered in July 1585, but his Scottish assailants are not easily brought to justice. A group of Scots Protestant lords leave England in October 1585 with Elizabeth's safe-conduct, ostensibly to go to Germany. However, they wind up, heavily armed, in Edinburgh, where they force James to repudiate his favorite, the Earl of Arran, and remove him from any position of political influence.

Both Elizabeth and James are indignant towards each other regarding these respective outrages as affronts to their honors. Yet the first great psychological and rhetorical initiative of this opening phase of their correspondence prevails through sheer insistence and reiteration. They undertake to establish themselves in friendship--and as specifically worthy of the highest kind defined by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics: friendship between equals. The special vocabulary of this friendship theme includes frequent use of first-person plural constructions with conjoint predicates, and adverbs and adjectives like "together," correspondent," "the reciproque." In this vein Elizabeth declares to James:

Your gladsome acceptance of my offered amity, together with the desire you seem to have engraven in your mind to make merits correspondent, makes me in full opinion that some enemies to our goodwill shall lose much travail...It becometh...all of our rank to deal sincerely; lest if we use it not, when we do it we be hardly believed....And so assure yourself I mean and vow to do with this request, that you will afford me the reciproque. (Letter 57, Part 3, page 82)
Friendship roles in the Elizabeth-James correspondence intensify as the two monarchs elaborate a pair of commonplace humanist themes in the period of the Renaissance: (1) that each is as watchful and caring for the other as for a second self, and (2) that neither will flatter or mislead but only speak the truth to the other. However, one unexpected side effect of the friendship-between-equals relation in these letters is that Elizabeth begins quite early to analogize herself to a king--thus drawing her self-representation into nearer identity with that of James. The first occurrence of this terminology is found in a letter of November 1585 in which Elizabeth deplores the strong-arm tactics by which the Scots lords deprived James of Arran, his closest friend:
I beseech you trust my actions according the measure of my former dealings for your safety and answerable to the rule of reason....Judge of me therefore as of a king that carries no abject nature and think this of me, that rather than your danger I will venture mine. (Letter 59, Part 3, page 86)
Another unusual thematic development leads from friendship-in-kingship to kinship between these two, self and other-self, equals as friends and as monarchs. Such is the remarkable range, such are the dynamic interchanges of positions and relations adopted by Elizabeth and James in their letters to each other.

Angling for the throne

I want to trace a crucial sequence of developments hinging on this friendship-kingship-kinship gradation. The sequence is crucial for its bearing on the succession question, and for its determining effect on the subsequent conduct and character of the Elizabeth-James correspondence. It begins with a highly charged, profusely metaphorical letter by Elizabeth to James in March 1586. Expressing herself entirely in allusions, she urges him to recognize and reject the condition on which the French are offering money to fill his almost-empty coffers--the condition that James ally with them and turn away from Elizabeth. She compares her friendship with James to the best ships of which "expertest seamen" boast "when they pass the highest billows without yielding and brook nimblest the roughest storms." "Our friendship" will be likewise "sure," she says, if "you keep the hold of your promised inward affection" and refuse "to peril yourself with hope to harm her who ever hath preserved you." "Read the histories," she admonishes. "You may be sure that Scotland nor yourself be so potent as for your greatness they [the French] seek you, nor never did but to injure a third"--in this case, Elizabeth of England. Still working by allusion, she now gradates from friendship to kinship, tracing their relation back to the care she had of James from his infancy and exhorting him to remain loyal to his alliance with her:

To come to my groundwork, only natural affection ab incunabulis stirred me to save you from the murderers of your father and the peril that their complices might breed you....I pray God you may use your best choice to your surest good.
Kinship, possibly even her figurative motherhood of James, is evoked by Elizabeth's key word choices: "natural affection," "ab incunabulis" (from the cradle), "your father," "breed you."

Sustaining her allusive vein still further, she addresses the matter of "an instrument (as your secretary terms it) that you desire to have me sign." Evidently the "instrument" would be a signed and sealed grant of financial assistance to James, together with other rights, extending possibly to his succession to the English throne; it would have the status of a legal act. Elizabeth responds: "I assure you though I can play of some and have been brought up to know music, yet this discord would be so gross as were not fit for so well-tuned music." This heavy-handed attempt to joke away the "instrument" issue does not even satisfy her beyond this single sentence. She continues in a much more serious tone, with a different figure of speech: "Must so great doubt be made of free goodwill, and gift be so mistrusted that our sign Emmanuel must assure?" "Sign Emmanuel" is a punning allusion to the "sign manual" or outsized official signature with which the queen validated writs and documents. But "Emmanuel," Hebrew for "God-with-us," is a reference to divinity--possibly to the divine right of kings in which Elizabeth and James both believed--and it intimates the huge stakes of the "instrument" in question. James has asked Elizabeth to give him formal documentations that he will succeed her on the English throne. Refusing this, she again refers to herself as "a king" and claims that her word on this letter-paper should suffice him:

Who should doubt performance of a king's offer? What dishonor may that be deemed?... I will, as long as you with evil desert alter not your course, take care for your safety, help your need, and shun all acts that may damnify [i.e., damage, injure] you in any sort either in present or future time.... This I hope may stand you in as much assurance as my name in parchment, and no less for both our honors." (Letter 63, Part 3, pages 92-93)
Through the cumulative conflation of their friendship, kinship, and kingship relations, Elizabeth seeks to impress upon James that this letter to him from her, in her own hand, is as valid as a royal charter, a testamentary writ empowering him as her successor. I find this an extraordinary innovation on Elizabeth's part: to make of a familiar letter the instrument for conveying the right of succession to her throne, the single gravest matter for the future of the realm of England.

The crisis over Mary, Queen of Scots

The later months of 1586, however, brought sensational disclosures with unsettling implications for the personal and political lineage that the correspondence of Elizabeth and James had been forging. On August 14 Anthony Babington had been arrested; on August 18 he confessed to a plot to murder Elizabeth along with all of her principal ministers and implicated Mary, Queen of Scots, in the conspiracy. The chief conspirators in the Babington Plot were executed on September 20 and 21. Within a few days thereafter, it was determined that Mary, Queen of Scots, should stand trial for treason. On October 15, 1586, Elizabeth wrote to James acknowledging the arrival of a messenger who, in her words, "hath sufficiently informed me of your singular care of my estate and breathing" and his delivery of a letter from James,

fraughted with so careful passion and so effectual utterance of all best wishes for my safety, and offer of as much as I could have desired, that I confess if I should not seek to deserve it and by merits tie you to continuance, I were evil worthy such a friend. (Letter 73, Part 3, page 105)
Friendship-in-kingship is the carefully delimited theme of this letter, which proceeds to reconfirm the two sovereigns' agreement not to harbor traitors to the other on home soil, but to send them to each other's jurisdiction for justice. There are two distinct realms and two distinct monarchs here, quite obviously. Elizabeth holds in complete abeyance the kinship language with which she had infused their earlier crucial exchange on the succession question.

James wrote the next key letter in this sequence to Elizabeth on January 28, 1587, pleading with her to spare the life of his condemned mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. This letter's use of kinship language is rigidly conventional. In keeping with the practice among European royalty in that era, James confines it to the address, "To madame my very dear sister and cousin, the queen of England," and to his salutation: "Madame and dearest sister." In the body of his letter James uses the images and terminology of friendship but even this relaxation of the closeness of kinship vocabulary occasions him great difficulty. James can hardly write at all. The rhetorical strain from end to end of this letter signals to Elizabeth the extreme strain on their relationship--in particular, his remoteness from her and from any sense of her as a second self.

Yet James seeks to maintain with Elizabeth what he calls "the duty of an honest few words and plain to give you my friendly and best advice." He reverts now to the earliest self-constructions in their correspondence--the persona of the frank, clear-sighted, unflattering counselor who is a monarch's best friend through truly understanding the monarch's best interest. Significantly, though, James first writes from the perspective of his interest and then, with greater passion and circumstantiality, from Elizabeth's. As he writes, moreover, the key terms of friendship, kingship, and kinship return to degree zero. Now these words merely denote; all metaphoricity and allusiveness are drained away except for the sacredness of divine-right kingship.

What thing, madame, can greatlier touch me in honor that is a king and a son than that my nearest neighbor, being in straitest friendship with me, shall rigorously put to death a free sovereign prince and my natural mother, alike in estate and sex to her that so uses her, albeit subject (I grant) to a harder fortune, and touching her nearly in proximity of blood? What law of God can permit that justice shall strike upon them whom He has appointed supreme dispensators of the same under Him, whom He hath called gods and therefore subjected to the censure of none in earth, whose anointing by God cannot be defiled by man,... Honor were it to you to spare when it is least looked for; honor were it to take me and all other princes in Europe eternally beholden unto you in granting this my so reasonable request, and not (appardon, I pray you, my free speaking) to put princes to straits of honor wherethrough your general reputation and the universal (almost) misliking of you may dangerously peril both in honor and utility your person and estate. (Letter 73, Additional Document A, Part 3, pages 106-07)

The prospect of Mary, Queen of Scots' execution utterly dispels Elizabeth's and James's earlier mutual imaginings and allusive evocations of an England and a Scotland happily at one through the affective bond between their two sovereigns and their mutual understanding on the succession question. Here James isolates Elizabeth as a self-destructive paradox, a monarch-killing monarch, and ranges himself together with the other monarchs of Europe. The sole affinity that he recognizes in her is a receptiveness to Realpolitik. In the Renaissance outlook shared by Elizabeth and James, political realism is the capacity to find contemporary values for the two terms of Cicero's equation--"honor and utility," as he puts it, or as we might update the pair, justice and expediency. Significantly, Elizabeth begins her reply to James by accepting his drastic reduction of their relationship to a friendship grounded in and limited to candid political counsel. But she suddenly shifts ground with a reference to the latest revelations of yet another alleged plot against her life in the context of an international pro-Mary conspiracy--this one said to involve the French ambassador to England, according to the testimony of the English ambassador to France. Now Elizabeth seeks to reactivate the "other-self" image of the earlier, more deeply conceived friendship-of-equals between herself and James:

You may see whether I keep the serpent that poisons me....By saving of her life they would have had mine....Transfigure yourself into my state and suppose what you ought to do, and thereafter weigh my life and reject the care of murder [i.e., concern over Mary's execution] and shun all baits that may untie our amities, and let all men know that princes know best their own laws, and misjudge not that you know not.

"Miserable accident," "unhappy fact"

Whatever his forebodings or other sources of information, James has yet to learn from Elizabeth herself of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, on February 8, 1587. This he does learn in a brief letter dated February 14, which Elizabeth begins disingenuously by calling the execution "that miserable accident, which far contrary to my meaning hath befallen." (She takes shelter in the fact that the order for Mary's execution was delivered and carried out without her knowledge, although she had signed and sealed the order and then become indecisive about sending it.) Having called the execution a "miserable accident," Elizabeth attempts to divest herself of responsibility for it. Elizabeth redescribes her thoughts and intentions in kingship language that first reclaims her status among monarchs generally. She then extends this kingship language to exonerate herself with one monarch in particular, James, by proclaiming the equation between the just and the expedient that he had urged upon her in his letter of January 26.

I am not so base minded that fear of any living creature or prince should make me afraid to do that were just, or done, to deny the same. I am not of so base a lineage nor carry so vile a mind; but as not to disguise fits most a king, so will I never dissemble my actions but cause them show even as I meant them. Thus assuring yourself of me that, as I know this was deserved, yet if I had meant it I would never lay it on others' shoulders, no more will I not damnify myself that thought it not.
In a final audacious move, Elizabeth activates both kinship and friendship language to plead on her behalf by reassuring James of her solely positive concerns and intentions towards him. She writes, "For your part, think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman nor a more dear friend than myself, nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate" (Letter 76, Part 3, page 111).

Does Elizabeth succeed in displacing Mary in her son's affections and aspirations, compensating for the crucial deficit in virgin queenship by becoming the mother of his destiny as he becomes the tacitly reconfirmed successor to the English throne? There is no other access to James's inner feelings than his letter in response to Elizabeth's letter about Mary's death. Written in March 1587, James's reply ascribes Elizabeth's success in reconciling him to his mother's death (which he calls an "unhappy fact," that is, an unfortunate doing of Elizabeth's) entirely to the future prospect of the union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland. This time, significantly, the prospect arises as James's own imaging and imagining. He writes,

Madame and dearest sister, Whereas by your purge yourself of your unhappy fact,...together with your many and solemn attestations of your innocency--I dare not wrong you so far as not to judge honorably of your unspotted part therein; so on the other side, I wish that your honorable behavior in all times hereafter may fully persuade the whole world of the same. And as for my part I look that ye will give me at this time such a full satisfaction in all respects as shall be a mean to strengthen and unite this isle, establish and maintain the true religion, and oblige me to be as of before I was, your most loving..." (Letter 76, Additional Document A, Part 3, page 111)
James's letter ends just at this point, before concluding with the expected signature. Was he about to subscribe himself "your most loving son"--or just "brother" or "cousin" or "friend"? Whatever term he was about to use, the wording of the preceding phrases reaffirms the earlier meeting of the two monarchs' minds in their mutually reiterated references to the Ciceronian equation of honor and utility. Now, James says, this equation will find "full satisfaction" in the union of their two realms when he will succeed Elizabeth. That he sent her a letter with this very wording or something close to it is borne out by her reply in early July 1588, which characteristically mingles a somewhat disingenuous question with an emphatic pledge to keep faith fully with James:
And for that you speak oft of satisfaction, I have much urged, as now again I do, to know what thereby is meant, since I both mind and also do whatsoever may honorably be required of such as I profess myself. And therefore I require you therein to answer me." (Letter 78, Part 4, page 28)
There would be many other threats and dangers to be confronted on both sides of the common border of England and Scotland as this correspondence between the two monarchs continued. But hereafter--that is, after the understanding that James would succeed Elizabeth, struck in the wake of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots--the language of friendship, kingship, and kinship in this letter exchange enlarges its domains and implications no further, but instead retraces and reenforces its earlier applications. While there are still new tonal and topical heights to follow in the Elizabeth-James correspondence, its underlying dynamic has been confirmed--she remains, mostly, the dominant party and he, mostly, the submissive one.

After innovating by using the familiar letter as the instrument for specifying and securing the successor to her throne, Elizabeth turned the familiar letter to a more ordinary generic purpose, that of the Renaissance manual of advice to a prince. After 1588 her letters to James abound with shrewd, circumstantial comments and warnings regarding his turbulent, faction-ridden court. Throughout this correspondence, by one means or another, Elizabeth staked, protected, and cultivated her momentous investment in James. In this serial exchange of complex, inveigling letters the Virgin Queen can be observed creating her successor. With certain discomfiture but no lasting reluctance, James can be observed accepting his creaturehood at Elizabeth's hands because of the mighty advancement it would bring him, in time--the monarchy of Great Britain.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Janel Mueller Janel Mueller

Janel Mueller is professor of English language and literature at the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper Professor in the College, and dean of the Division of the Humanities. A teacher and scholar of English Renaissance and Reformation literature in its historical context, she has published extensively on John Donne, John Milton, and Queen Elizabeth I. At the University of Chicago, she has received the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1983) and the University Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching (1998). Work in progress on Queen Elizabeth includes Elizabeth I: Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals, co-edited with Leah S. Marcus (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and Elizabeth I: Collected Translations, co-edited with Joshua K. Scodel (University of Chicago Press, contract pending).

COPYRIGHT | The text of this article is adapted from a presentation at the Franke Institute for the Humanities at the University of Chicago, May 5, 2000.

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