In Her Own Words: Elizabeth I Onstage and Online

Program Notes

It is your shame (I speak to you all, you young gentlemen of England) that one maid should go beyond you all in excellency of learning and knowledge of divers tongues. Point forth six of the best-given gentlemen of this court, and all they together show not so much good will, spend not so much time, bestow not so many hours, daily, orderly, and constantly, for the increase of learning and knowledge as doth the Queen's Majesty herself. . . . Amongst all the benefits that God hath blessed me withal, next the knowledge of Christ´s true religion, I count this the greatest: that it pleased God to call me to be one poor minister in setting forward these excellent gifts of learning in this most excellent prince.

So wrote the humanist scholar Roger Ascham in his educational treatise The Schoolmaster, published in London in 1570. The "maid" whom Ascham taught was Elizabeth Tudor, born in 1533 to Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The "most excellent prince" whom Ascham subsequently served as Latin secretary was Elizabeth I, England´s queen from 1558 to 1603.

The last of the Tudor monarchs, Elizabeth was preceded by her grandfather Henry VII (who won the crown from Richard III at Bosworth Field and ruled from 1485 to 1509), her father Henry VIII (1509 to 1547), her younger brother Edward VI (1547 to 1553), and her elder sister Mary I (1553 to 1558). She was succeeded by the son of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, who had been James VI of Scotland since 1567 and then was also James I of England until his death in 1625. Unlike Edward, whose reign was vigorously Protestant in tone, and Mary, who was a devout Catholic queen, Elizabeth ruled under what has become known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, a skillfully-crafted amalgam of Christian beliefs outlined in the 1559 Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563. A brilliant politician, Elizabeth lived in a time every bit as tumultuous as our own. Hers was an age of discovery and of consolidation of England´s place as an international power. It was the age of Sir Francis Drake´s and Sir Walter Ralegh´s voyages of exploration (and of the beginning of the triangular slave trade that would for years link Africa, England, and America); it was an age of tension between Europe´s Protestant and Catholic countries (and of England´s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588); it was the age we now associate with writers such as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare—and Elizabeth herself.

Although it is difficult today to measure literacy rates in sixteenth-century England, we know that they were by today´s standards low—and considerably lower for women than for men. Nevertheless, many aristocratic women and an increasing number of women of the middling sort did learn to read—enough women so that many books of the period were addressed specifically to them. Some sixteenth-century women were also writers. Mary Sidney, for example, edited her brother´s Arcadia; translated a French play, Petrarch´s "Triumph of Death," and biblical psalms; and wrote original poems. In 1567 Isabella Whitney published The Copy of a Letter, Lately Written in Meter by a Young Gentlewoman to her unconstant Lover, apparently the first book of poetry to be printed by an English woman. Elizabeth I wrote speeches, poems, prayers, letters, and translations. It is that writing—Elizabeth´s own words—upon which this production is based.

Click here to see a chronology of Queen Elizabeth´s life

In Her Own Words is sponsored by The Brown University Women Writers Project and The Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services.