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Elizabeth I Manuscript Discovered at Lambeth Palace Library

By Mark Michael

An unusual paper stock and “an extremely distinctive, disjointed hand” helped a literature scholar to identify Queen Elizabeth I’s handwriting in a 16th century manuscript housed in the Lambeth Palace Library. According to The Guardian, John-Mark Philo of the University of East Anglia reported his discovery of an English translation of Tacitus’ Annals in an article published November 29 in the Review of English Studies

Philo noticed distinctive watermarks in the writing paper, and knew from a contemporary of the queen’s, John Clapham, that she took “pleasure in reading of the best and wisest histories, and some part of Tacitus’ Annals she herself turned into English for her private exercise.” He estimates that the famous Roman history was translated in the 1590’s. Several pages survive, and were copied out in the fine hand of a court scribe. But the queen annotated and corrected them herself. 

Elizabeth’s translation includes an account of an encouraging speech given to to a wary Roman army by Agrippina, the wife of the famous general Germanicus.  “She a woman of great courage playde the Captaine for that tyme,” it reads, “and bestowed on the soldiors as euery man needed or was wounded, bread and clothes … she stoode at the bridges end to give lawde and praise to the returning legions.” Philo suggests that the heroine might have especially appealed to Elizabeth, who had famously addressed her troops at Tilbury in 1588 on the eve of their great battle against the Spanish Armada.

The Lambeth Palace Library, housed in the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was described by the British National Archives as “the second most important ancient library in Europe” (after the Vatican Library). Founded by Archbishop Richard Bancroft in 1610, it is one of Britain’s oldest public libraries. It houses a collection of more than 5,000 manuscripts, along with over 200,000 volumes. Treasures of British history within its holdings including the gloves King Charles I wore on the day of his execution, a prayer book carried by King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, and the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Construction is currently under way on a new library and archives building for the collection, which is currently housed in 20 rooms within the palace, as well as a large off-site warehouse. Most books are currently housed in buildings that adjoin busy Lambeth Palace Road, and that are susceptible to flooding from the Thames. At the ground breaking ceremony in April 2018, Archbishop Justin Welby described the current facilities as “completely unsuitable for preserving and keeping the extraordinary treasures. The [current] risk is fire, flood, and, above all, pollution from this road behind us, which is seeping into the books and the other treasures.”

The new Lambeth Palace Library and Gardens will be the first purpose-built home for the collection, and the first new construction in the palace grounds for 150 years.  Designed by the London firm of Wright & Wright, it will feature a 9-story tower, and has been designed to be as carbon-neutral as possible. Construction costs of £23.5 million (about $31 million) will be funded by the Church Commissioners, who are the custodians of the library.  

The new library is also designed to showcase the library’s treasures for the public. Declan Kelly, the Church of England’s Director of Libraries and Archives, told The Church Times, “The new building means the library can expand and enhance its mission to support the work of the Archbishop and the wider Church. We will be able to not only protect and preserve the collections, but provide greater access to them than ever before.”

The library’s Reading Rooms will be closed from April 30, 2020 as the staff prepare to relocate the collection. The new library is expected to open to the public in early 2021.


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