Was Elizabeth I England’s cleverest monarch?

Queen Elizabeth I spoke, read and wrote in French, Flemish, Italian, Latin and Greek. She was a passionate reader of history and won widespread acclaim for her education and erudition. Was the Virgin Queen England’s most learned monarch? 

There is no doubt that Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, benefited from a true Renaissance education. She was lucky to have three excellent and sympathetic tutors – Catherine “Kat” Ashley, William Grindal and, most renowned of all, Roger Ascham. Ascham was unusual for his age in renouncing brutality, rote learning and discipline. Instead, he sought to instill a love of learning and was successful in his most celebrated charge.

Elizabeth I in the Armada Portrait

Indeed, her prowess in these languages was such that her tutor, Ascham, would later write:

“Yea, I believe, that beside her perfect readiness in Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, she readeth here now at Windsor more Greek every day than some prebendary of this church doth read Latin in a whole week.”

He also praised her handwriting and her voracious appetite for reading:

“beauty, stature, wisdom and industry. She talks French and Italian as well as English: she has often talked to me readily and well in Latin and moderately so in Greek. When she writes Greek and Latin nothing is more beautiful than her handwriting . . . she read with me almost all Cicero and great part of Titus Livius: for she drew all her knowledge of Latin from those two authors. She used to give the morning to the Greek Testament and afterwards read select orations of Isocrates and the tragedies of Sophocles. To these I added St Cyprian and Melanchthon’s Commonplaces.”

As well as being fluent in French, Flemish, Italian, Latin and Greek, Queen Elizabeth was reputed to speak Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Irish. This ensured she could converse with countrymen from all parts of her realm and ensured she had little difficulty finding a common language to speak with visitors and ambassadors from the courts of all Europe. In 1603, the Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli, wrote that she “possessed [these] languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue”.

Under Grindal and Ascham, Elizabeth benefitted from two profound pedagogical developments – the vogue for encouraging the education of aristocratic women and the educational reforms that sprang from students of St. John’s College, Cambridge.

As well as languages, Elizabeth developed other passions including history and classics. She also mastered the flowing italic handwriting that was fashionable in Renaissance Europe under a writing tutor named Belmaine. She was also an accomplished amateur musician, capable on the spinet and lute and even composing her own pieces.

Elizabeth was well aware of her talents. When sending a portrait to her brother in 1551 she wrote:

“for the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present”

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