Elizabeth I – Speech to the House of Commons, January 28 1563

The speeches of Queen Elizabeth, as noted in the NAEL, were extemporized, and only later written down and published. So even when the gap between the speech and its publication was very small, there remains a question of how much it reflects her actual words, and how much, let’s say, the speaker’s idiolect, which could even unconsciously creep in. After this disclaimer, I can discuss this speech, made in answer to the House of Commons, which was acting with regard to QE like everybody’s least favourite aunt, pointing out that she is not getting any younger and should better start having children pronto. Of course the Parliament had better reasons to be meddling with Queen’s private affairs, because the Queen did not really have a private life – her hypothetical husband and children were the matters of the gravest state importance. Besides, life is fragile, and in the 16th century even more so. Elizabeth has lost already two siblings, one younger than her and just a few months ago she almost dies of smallpox. If she had died, Mary Stuart would have been the legitimate heir and I can’t even imagine the mess it would have caused.

Elizabeth is in her answer, as her poem on the glass indicated, very evasive. She thanks effusively the Commons for their concern. She plays her favourite card: “me, a feeble woman, wanting both memory and wit, and besides I am so shy,  oh dear”, justifying that she cannot answer them straight away, but has to reflect upon that matter. She quotes the example of a certain philosopher who, before answering any scholarly question, refreshed his alphabet in order reinvigorate his wit. If he took such care for academic questions, she must exercise even greater care in the matters of state. She says “I know it is an important question, I know that the safety of the state and all its citizens depends on it. I know that as a monarch I have these obligations and that the salvation of my soul depends on my fulfilling these obligations. I don’t forget them, as I hope you don’t forget that I saved you from falling into some deep shit (meaning Mary’s reign) and that you swore to be loyal to me. I am not offended by your petition, and I am going to answer it after seeking some advice. And be assured (playing her second favourite card), after my death you may have other stepmothers, but you are not going to have another mother like me.”

A miniature of Elizabeth I by Levina Teerlinc (1510/1520–1576) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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