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Queen Elizabeth and Her Times
Edited by Thomas Wright, M.A., FSA. &c. in two volumes (1838)


The object which the editor of the following letters has had in view, was to do for English history, what Bishop Percy did for old English poetry — to give its documents to the public in a popular and amusing form. His design has been not only to make the witnesses of the facts vouch for their truth, but to let those who acted and counselled tell themselves the actions or explain the counsels in which each was engaged throughout the memorable reign of Elizabeth. It was one of those peculiar periods, when every man’s character and actions have been so differently viewed by different persons, that it is but fair to let them all speak for themselves; and in so doing, if he mistake not, they give us a vivid and accurate picture of the times when they lived, for which we may look in vain through the pages of the historian. To the editor himself, the comparison of these letters with one another, bearing always in mind the characters and positions of the writers, has opened many new views of the history of Elizabeth’s reign, and he feels confident that most of his readers will rise from the perusal of them with much clearer notions of the condition of their forefathers nearly three centuries ago, than they had when they began them. History is but imperfectly represented by dry records of facts —to understand fully those facts, we must know not only the character of the people, but the characters of the individuals, their relative feelings, their private and petty jealousies, the social condition of the community in general, even the intimacies of private life; and in no documents are all these painted more lively or more truly than in private correspondence. The editor is so far from wishing the present work to be considered as a dry collection of state papers, that he has studiously interwoven many letters of a lighter character, which apparently have little connexion with history, and he has often turned aside to illustrate literature and domestic life. With this object also, as well as to give a greater diversity of style and sentiment, a varied selection has been made, in preference to the more usual method of illustrating the history of a given period by the successive letters of one man, or of one family.

The reign of Elizabeth may be conveniently divided into three periods. During the first, the enemies of her government and of the Protestant religion laboured by secret conspiracies to undermine both, until they were disconcerted not less by the vigilance of her ministers, than by the fall and imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, in whose person all their plots centred. In the second period, Elizabeth’s foreign enemies were preparing, as their domestic troubles gave them leisure, to crush her by open force, till in the ever-memorable eighty-eight the invincible Annada was defeated by the bravery of her subjects. The third period, though not one of peace, was one in which the English government was freed from the fear of its enemies, and when the cause of protestantism was triumphant. The first two periods are by far the most interesting, and to them the larger proportion of the following work is dedicated. The correspondence between Cecil and Sir Thomas Smith, the letters of Randolph, Throgmorton, Drury, and Knollys, relating to the affairs of Scotland and the eventful history of Mary, with a variety of others, cannot fail to be popular; and later on, those of the merry Recorder Fletewood give us a curious picture of the .state of the lower classes at the period which gave birth to those poor-laws, which have of late years been so much canvassed, and of which, in their first workings, so curious an account is given by Sir Anthony Thorold in our second volume, p. 406. Care has also been taken to collect together most of the letters relating to the defeat of the Spanish Armada. During the third period, in the absence of any suitable documents, either new or interesting, relating to the fall of the Earl of Essex, the editor has felt a true pleasure in tracing the last years of the great minister, Lord Burghley, and his never-failing attachment to the cause of his royal mistress, in a series of letters from himself to his son, which have been placed in his hands by the liberality of the|Univer-sity of Cambridge.

With comparatively but a few exceptions, the letters now published have hitherto remained inedited. In pursuing the plan which the editor proposed to himself, of making a connected history of the reign, it was sometimes not only desirable, but even necessary, to fill up the chain with a letter or two which had been already given to the public; and this was thought the less objectionable, as most of the works from which they are taken are heavy collections of state papers, inaccessible by their size and rarity to the general reader. Several of Fletewood’s letters, and some others also, have been previously printed in the elegant collection of Original Letters by Sir Henry Ellis; but if it were necessary, besides that in a work peculiarly dedicated to the reign to which they belong, they acquire an additional interest by their connexion with those that precede and follow, their reproduction might have been excused, were not such excuses always invidious, by several important errors, that a reference to the original manuscripts has corrected. Few works of this class or indeed of any other, are totally free from errors, and the editor of the present work wishes that he may experience the same indulgence which he is willing to use towrards others.

A considerable number of these letters have been selected from the manuscripts in the British Museum. A few interesting letters, more particularly illustrative of the literary history of this reign, have been derived from private sources. The latter part of the second volume is composed chiefly of the letters from Lord Burghley to Sir Robert Cecil, during the last six years of his life, preserved in the Public Library of the University of Cambridge, and endorsed at the end, apparently by Sir Robert himself, “My Lord’s last letters that ever he wrote with his owne hande.” The last of them has been considered so curious, that it has been thought worthy to be given in a facsimile.

It was once suggested to the editor, that the orthography of these letters should be modernised; but, after due consideration and advice, this suggestion was rejected for reasons altogether of a literary nature. The orthography of Elizabeth's reign is by no means so far removed from our own, as to present any difficulties to the most ordinary reader. Had it been modernised, a host of passages, whose beauty is their quaint and antiquated turn of expression must either have been altered, in which case the letters would have lost entirely their character of authenticity, or they would have appeared extremely bare and unsightly. Moreover, there are many words no longer in use, which could net have been modernised, and still more, that were not used in exactly the same sense that they now bear, whose older meaning would have been forgotten in giving them a modern dress. Another difficulty lay in the proper names, which are by no means spelt uniformly, and in some cases the preference of any one spelling to another, might very reasonably be disputed. In fact, the question seems to be that of giving originals of the correspondence, or translations. One liberty the editor has taken with the orthography, which it will be necessary in a few words to explain. In the written monuments of our language, there were two causes of variety of spelling. From the earliest period we know, up to the beginning of the last century, certain letters and certain combinations of letters were always interchangeable, and a given word, though differently spelt, was in none of its forms incorrectly spelt. There was also a gradual changing of forms at different periods of the language, so that in many instances the orthography now adopted would not be correct three hundred years ago. All these variations exist in printed books as generally as in manuscripts; but in the latter there was another cause of variation, namely, the ignorance or, more commonly, the inattention of the writer, and the forms of words thus produced are neither more nor less than errors, which by a printer of the age in which they were written would invariably have been corrected. These errors are naturally common in private correspondence, and there is no reason whatever for retaining them in print. The editor of the following letters has given them as nearly as possible in the orthography which they would have presented had they been printed in the reign of Elizabeth, and by so doing, he thinks that, perhaps with the exception of two or three letters at the beginning, they will be read with perfect ease. The peculiarities of dialect have also been preserved—the complaints of Shane Macguire are peculiarly quaint and amusing in his rude Irish brogue, and the elegant wit of George Buchanan is heightened by the broad Scotch in which it is written.

The editor has to acknowledge much aid and advice from two very kind and very learned friends, Mr. Crofton Croker, to whose rich stores and extensive knowledge of Irish history he is indebted for the greatest and most valuable part of the notes to the Irish letters in the first volume, and the Rev. Joseph Hunter, who is no less known for his deep learning in the general and particular history of England, and in its records.

Volume 1  \  Volume 2


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