Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) is, perhaps, the most famous ruler England has ever known. But far fewer people realize that Elizabeth I was not only the patron of poetsOn Monsieur's Departure"; it's generally agreed that it was likely about either the end of marriage negotiations between Elizabeth I and The Duke of Anjou in 1582, or, possibly, the Earl of Essex, once her favorite but who was executed for treason in 1601. The other frequently printed and discussed poem by her is "The Doubt of Future Foes," generally thought to be about her fears regarding her own future.
The poems by Queen Elizabeth I that I want to look at speak strongly about her own situation. In 1554 the son of Sir Thomas Wyatt the poet led a rebellion against Queen Mary. His rebellion failed, as did his plan to put Elizabeth on the throne in the place of her half-sister. Elizabeth was not party to the plans, but nonetheless, she spent two months imprisoned in the Tower, and on release, spent roughly a year essentially under house arrest at the royal manor of Woodstock. Elizabeth was not charged, but was very closely watched, with her letters and reading materials all supervised. Her living conditions were somewhat harsh; the manor proper was too run down to live in, and Elizabeth, with very little staff, was forced to live in the gatekeeper's lodge, and plead for wood to heat the frigid building. Eventually, Mary relented. In 1555 Mary allowed Elizabeth to leave Woodstock. She was 22 at the time.
Because her access to writing materials was strictly controlled, as was her access to reading materials, these poems are written on materials that are atypical, but that were convenient, and easy to hide. This first poem was written by Elizabeth I in her French psalter, a prayer book, while under house arrest. It deals quite plainly with the fact that she knew her half-sister QUeen Mary was very suspicious and that Elizabeth was watched, constantly.
No crooked leg, no bleared eye,
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As is the inward suspicious mind.
Elizabeth wrote a couplet on a window in her room at Woodstock; for many years the poem was concealed by the heavy drapes covering the glass panes. It too deals with the fact that she is essentially there under duress, without knowing who, if any, of the people around her she could trust.
Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.
This last poem was written on a wall at Woodstock by Elizabeth; ostensibly concealed by shutters for many years.
Oh fortune, thy wresting wavering state
Hath fraught with cares my troubled wit,
Whose witness this present prison late
Could bear, where once was joy's loan quit.
Thou causedst the guilty to be loosed
From bands where innocents were inclosed,
And caused the guiltless to be reserved,
And freed those that death had well deserved.
But all herein can be nothing wrought,
So God send to my foes all they have thought.
This poem in particular presents an Elizabeth who is very very different form the one we read about in history texts. She is the daughter of a King, her mother beheaded when Elizabeth three, and later referred to publicly by her older half-sister Mary as a whore. Elizabeth herself must have surely been braced for execution at any moment. Notice how Elizabeth pointedly refers to "fortune," known to be faithless, freeing the guilty, while keeping the innocent imprisoned. The last line, with its awareness of divine retribution, and the presence of enemies, is very like the older, regnal Elizabeth I.