When primary sources make you cry

I’ve spent the last year getting to know Elizabeth Tudor.  I have many posts coming about what I read and learned.  But, I feel as though I’ve come to know her.

In particular, I’ve focused on Elizabeth from age 13-15, from Henry VIII’s death to the year after Katherine Parr’s death in childbirth.  I teach English to girls of exactly that age, and after 10 years of teaching, I think I’ve learned a lot about the developing minds of teenage girls.  I adore teaching in an all-girls school, and I really love watching my student make discoveries and find their voices.  They are so smart, so funny, so hard working.  If you need a little hope for humanity, come to my classroom and see the women of the future leading a discussion around my big oval table.

So, my lens when I’m researching and writing about Elizabeth Tudor is to imagine her as one of my students.  Let me lay out what a whopper of a life this particular teenager would bring to my classroom:

  • Mother dead, beheaded for adultery and treason.
  • Beheading was ordered by father.
  • Father just died.
  • Blended family: total of 3 kids, all with different moms, all those moms are dead.
  • Little brother just became king and is now totally distant and inaccessible.
  • Older sister is 17 years older and there’s some personal and religious tension.

Over the course of those years, 1546-1549, Elizabeth would move in with her stepmother who would then die in childbirth.  Her governess, Kat Ashley, who’d been with her since she was 3, would be thrown in the Tower, and Elizabeth herself would get accused of treason.  Starting in January 1549, Elizabeth was interrogated daily by a grown man living in her house for 2 months.  Friends, she was only 15 at this point.  Can you imagine a student in your classroom with that kind of home life?

In the course of my research, I read transcripts of two letters Elizabeth wrote while being interrogated under suspicion of treason–and remember she was without a parent or even a governess for support.  One letter in particular was written on the 7th of March, 1549 and was written to the Lord Protector.  Elizabeth’s brother was king, but he was still very young, so a Protector was appointed to rule while he came of age.  The purpose of her letter is to argue for the release of her governess, Kat, from the Tower.  Kat Ashley was like a mother to Elizabeth, not a perfect one, but the only constant she’d had in her tumultuous childhood.  There had been no evidence to formally charge Elizabeth with treason (not that Sir Robert Tyrwhit didn’t try to wring some out during her daily interrogations) and yet still her governess was locked in the Tower.  The same Tower where her mother had awaited execution 13 years earlier.

Can you imagine the agony of waiting and wondering what would come of Kat, the agony of a 15-year-old girl uncertain of the way forward, whose reputation had just been publicly dragged through the mud?

All I could find of this letter was typed transcripts.  I’m not joking when I say I found the edge of the Internet.  I found it.  There was not a digital image of that original manuscript anywhere on the Internet.  So, I went to that good ole citation in the back of the books I had been reading.  The manuscript was at the British Library.  Not all of their collection is digitized, so I had to make a special request to have the letter photographed and sent to me.  It took a little longer because they had to assess the state of the manuscript to make sure it was safe to handle without damage.  I’m guessing that had to be handled in one of those special temperature and humidity controlled rooms (I assume) and I am sure the person touching it used gloves and a gentle touch.  O that it had been me!  (Someday, friends, someday.)

A few weeks ago, I opened my email and saw the attachments–my images had arrived!  I opened them hungrily and started reading.  To see Elizabeth’s handwriting, the evidence of her frantic thoughts, to hear the scratch of the quill in my mind, trying to keep a cool head so that she could effectively write and persuade the most powerful man in the kingdom to listen to her.  And a life was riding on it.  Add to that the fact that Kat would not have ended up in the Tower if not for Elizabeth, and the guilt and fear must have been paralyzing.

Except Elizabeth wasn’t paralyzed or helpless.  That’s what’s so remarkable.  She didn’t quit.  She didn’t lay down and cry into the rug.

But, dear reader, I cried.  I cried at my laptop looking at the images.  My heart broke for that girl who could have been just another redheaded girl sitting around the table in my classroom.

Here is what it boils down to: I don’t think Elizabeth would have been the queen she was had it not been for this formative experience in her early teenage years.  These letters are the evidence.

If you’re wondering if you can see these letters, the answer is yes!  I am working with a history colleague on a digital humanities project with a website platform.  I’m going to teach a unit called “The Power of Persuasion” next year in my AP Language and Composition class that uses Elizabeth’s letters and speeches, in addition to the letters and speeches of a modern woman in politics.  Students will analyze the rhetorical devices and arguments presented by both Elizabeth I and the modern woman of their choosing.  I can’t wait to share these manuscripts with students next year.

And I will share those manuscripts with you as well.  I’m working on permission and rights currently.  I want to make sure I’m going by the book.  Stay tuned.

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