By Dr Jason Scott-Warren
You go to libraries and archives in search of new things, but sometimes you get waylaid by old friends. When I took a train to Maidstone one Saturday morning four years ago, I was researching a seventeenth-century politician, Sir Edward Dering. The Kent Archives have a cache of Dering letters: begging letters, affectionate letters, letters full of gossip and news. One of them came with an enclosure that caught my attention; it was the handwritten transcript of a conversation, almost a playlet. It rang bells; I remembered reading it years back, although most of the details were beyond recall. The document recorded an encounter between Queen Elizabeth I and William Lambarde, a legal theorist and pioneering antiquarian, whose writings included the first ever county history (the 1576 Perambulation of Kent). Elizabeth had recently given Lambarde a new job as keeper of the records in the Tower of London — the Tudor precursor of our National Archives. Now Lambarde was popping into the court at Greenwich to present the Queen with a book: a catalogue of all of the ‘Rolls, Bundles, membranes & parcels’ that were mouldering in the Tower. Elizabeth looked over it, reading bits out loud and asking Lambarde earnest questions. But quite early on in their conversation, Elizabeth launched a potentially deadly conversational exocet. “Her Majesty fell upon the reign of Richard II saying, ‘I am Richard II know you not that?’”
A lesser spirit might have been thrown by this claim; how could Elizabeth I be Richard II, who (for one thing) was a man, and (for another) had died in 1400? Fortunately Lambarde got her drift. Richard II had been deposed. And in February 1601 a former royal favourite, the Earl of Essex, had attempted to oust Elizabeth by force, and had been executed for treason. (That was the official version of events; as far as Essex and his accomplices were concerned, they were just trying to save the Queen from her ‘evil counsellors’). Lambarde’s reply was circumspect: “such a wicked imagination was determined, & attempted, by a most unkinde gentleman, the most adorned creature that ever your Majestie made”. The Queen agreed: “he that will forget God will also forget his benefactors, this tragedy was forty times played in open streets & houses”.
It was this last sentence that made the document so memorable — and not just for me. Back in the 80s and early 90s, when ‘new historicist’ critics were beginning to think in new ways about the relationship between literature and history, the Queen’s enigmatic line was a clincher. During the government investigation of Essex’s uprising, it had emerged that his accomplices had paid a theatre company to revive an old play about Richard II on the afternoon before the rising. The play was probably Shakespeare’s Richard II, which focuses on the deposition. In the courtroom, Francis Bacon said that the Earl’s servants wanted to watch a tragedy that their master would soon bring “from the stage to the state”. Elizabeth’s “tragedy … forty times played in open streets & houses” can be read as another response to these events, one that registers Shakespeare as a political threat. As Jonathan Dollimore asked, “can ‘tragedy’ be a strictly literary term when the Queen’s own life is endangered by the play?” Lambarde’s conversation with Elizabeth thus not only feels like drama, emulating the cut-and-thrust of stage dialogue. It creates a connection between the texts we consider as literature and those we treat as historical documents. For historicist criticism, there was no fundamental difference between the two; ‘the textuality of history’ matched ‘the historicity of texts’.
Hence my nostalgic pleasure in reconnecting with this knotty document. But where were the other manuscripts? How had the text survived? When I got back to Cambridge and started investigating, the significance of my chance discovery became clear. There were no known early manuscripts, and the only evidence for the conversation had thus far come from a printed edition of 1780. I also learnt that the absence of documentation had recently been discussed in a British Academy lecture by an eminent literary scholar, Jonathan Bate. Asking ‘Was Shakespeare an Essex Man?’, Bate had reassessed all of the evidence relating to the Essex Rising and Richard II, and in the process had cast doubt on the authenticity of the Lambarde conversation. Where did it come from? Who recorded it? And where was the book that Lambarde had supposedly given to Elizabeth? According to the account, the Queen lavished praise on Lambarde’s present, saying “she had not received since her first coming to the crown any one thing that brought therewith so great delectation unto her”. But if she loved it so much, why had it not been seen since she “put the book in her bosom”? And so on. Bate’s hunch was that the account of the meeting was at worst a forgery, at best thoroughly unreliable.
My manuscript dated from 1627, and came with lots of authenticating details, including the claim that Lambarde had expired in “the passion of joy that he fell into, upon her Majesties gracious acceptance” of his gift. (He did indeed die fifteen days after their meeting.) Although I was not naive enough to think that any of this was objective evidence, I had some reasons to have faith where Bate had sown doubt. My chance find, together with the provocation of his argument, set me on a new paper-chase to understand the textual history of Lambarde’s conversation and to work out what had become of the book last seen in Elizabeth’s bosom.
Dr Jason Scott-Warren is a Senior Lecturer in English at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge University. His paper, Was Elizabeth I Richard II?: The Authenticity of Lambarde’s ‘Conversation’, has been made publicly available for a limited time by The Review of English Studies journal.