What do you get the person who has everything? A manuscript book of poetry written in his or her honour, naturally!
Original binding of gold-tooled parchment with the royal coat of arms and initials ‘E R’ (‘Elizabeth Regina’), from a manuscript of complimentary verses to Elizabeth I, England (Eton), 1563, Royal MS 12 A XXX, front cover
A lesser known part of the Royal collection is a set of manuscripts of complimentary verses that were presented to royalty and aristocracy during the 16th and 17th centuries. They are mostly catalogued under the ‘Royal MS 12 A’ range. Eleven of these, containing verses or epigrams in Greek, have been digitised as part of our ongoing Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project (a list of these is provided below). They are now available online, allowing us to take a closer look at these intriguing gifts.
Title page with coloured border featuring Tudor roses and coats of arms, Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 1r
The focus of today’s blogpost is upon the earliest dated manuscript of this group: Royal MS 12 A XXX, presented to Elizabeth I when she travelled to Windsor in 1563. The volume opens with a hand-drawn and coloured title page, the border of which contains Tudor roses and the coats of arms both of Elizabeth and Eton College.
Poems in Latin by Giles Fletcher, with an acrostic, Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 28v
The Latin verses were composed by pupils of Eton College. The most frequent contributor to the volume, with eleven poems, was ‘Fletcher’. Giles Fletcher (bap. 1546, d. 1611) later served as one of Elizabeth’s diplomats, undertaking a perilous embassy to the court of Tsar Feodor I at Moscow between June 1588 and July/August 1589. Like several of his fellow-pupils, Fletcher employed elaborate acrostics to encode Elizabeth’s name or encomia into his poems: the first and last letters of each line in the above poem read ‘Vivente te vivimus, te remota moriemur’ (‘We live while you live, we will die when you leave’).
Poems in Latin by ‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’, with acrostics, Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 56v
‘Frankline’ and ‘Flemmynge’ (Samuel Flemming, later prebendary of Southwell) used the same device to bid their monarch ‘Farewell [and] prosper’ (‘Valeto, vivito’ and ‘Vive, Vale’). ‘Hunt’ went one step further, using his acrostic to declare ‘Vestra secundet Christus Iesus’ (‘May Jesus Christ favour your endeavours’) (ff. 33r-33v).
Coat of arms of Eton College, with Latin verse, Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 72r
What spurred the composition of such a book? William Malim (b. 1533, d. 1594), Headmaster of Eton College, prefaced the poems with a dedicatory Greek quatrain. Perhaps he hoped his and his pupils’ praise would secure the patronage and favour of the new monarch (he may have been involved in producing a similar book – now Royal MS 12 A LXVII – when he became High Master of St Paul’s school ten years later). The coat of arms of both of Elizabeth and the College were painted in at the end of the volume, and lavishly embellished with silver leaf (now oxidised into a dull grey), with verses on both, providing a reminder of the source of the gift.
Opening of a prayer in Latin prose against the plague, Royal MS 12 A XXX, f. 62r
Yet there was a serious side to all this flattery. Elizabeth’s departure from London had been prompted by an outbreak of the plague in the city. Only five years on the throne, and without either husband or heir, the Queen’s position and the stability of the nation as a whole seemed precarious. After the political and religious upheavals of previous reigns, such anxieties were sharply felt by Elizabeth’s subjects. After all the plaudits and praise, the elaborate exercises in Latin composition and inventive word-play, a prayer in Latin prose follows: ‘In order that the contagion of the ravaging plague may be diverted as long as possible from our most fair and noble Queen...’
- James Freeman