Twelve years after Elizabeth I’s death at age 69 in 1603, the English antiquarian William Camden published the first official account of the Tudor queen’s reign. Commonly nicknamed Camden’s Annals, the text laid the groundwork for future scholars’ assessments of Elizabeth’s 45 years in power. As historian Hugh Trevor-Roper argued in 1971, “It is thanks to Camden that we ascribe to Queen Elizabeth a consistent policy of via media,” or a middle way between two religious extremes, “rather than an inconsequent series of unresolved conflicts and paralyzed indecisions.”
In the Annals, Camden acknowledged the personal bias that shaped his account, writing, “Things doubtful I have interpreted favorably; things secret and abstruse I have not pried into.” Yet modern scholars have largely treated the text as an impartial record. Now, reports Dalya Alberge for the Guardian, new enhanced imaging reveals how much self-censorship went into the Annals’ creation, suggesting Camden reworked his biography to win the favor of Elizabeth’s successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England.
The British Library’s handwritten manuscripts of the Annals contain dozens of pages with pasted-over or crossed-out text that can’t be read by the naked eye. According to a statement, Helena Rutkowska, the University of Oxford graduate student leading the research, used transmitting light technology to uncover these passages, discovering key instances when Camden revised his account to present James in a more flattering light.
Perhaps the most egregious example is a fabricated anecdote about Elizabeth naming James her successor on her deathbed. The so-called virgin queen famously remained unwed, never bearing a child of her own. James, the son of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, arguably had the strongest claim to the throne, but the English queen refused to name him (or anyone else) her heir out of fear of sparking a coup in favor of her replacement.
“[Camden] presumably included [the story] to appease James, so that his succession looked more predetermined than it had actually been,” Julian Harrison, lead curator of medieval historical and literary manuscripts at the British Library, tells the Guardian. “Elizabeth was too ill to speak in her final hours, and no other historical evidence points to this deathbed scene being true.”
The writer also revised a section on Valentine Thomas, a suspected horse thief who claimed to be sent by James, then king of Scotland, to assassinate Elizabeth in 1598. The English queen “wished the situation to be managed discreetly,” as she knew publicizing such rumors would damage her likely successor’s reputation, wrote Elizabeth Tunstall, a historian at the University of Adelaide in Australia, in a 2021 article in the journal Parergon. James, however, wanted Elizabeth to publicly refute the accusation—a request she refused. Though Camden initially mentioned Thomas’ full confession, he later softened the language, claiming that the thief simply accused James of harboring “ill affection toward the queen.” Per the statement, “James had never plotted against Elizabeth, but he was highly sensitive to any slander against him, having sent other writers to prison for offending him.”
Camden started writing the Annals at the behest of Elizabeth’s trusted adviser William Cecil, Lord Burghley. He drew on an array of primary sources, including parliamentary records and eyewitness reports. Though Camden “is credited with authorship of the work, … he was probably writing in collaboration with others, including Sir Robert Cotton,” founder of the Cotton collection, notes the British Library in a blog post.
Elizabeth I, but not as you knew it— Medieval Manuscripts (@BLMedieval) July 16, 2023
Thanks to the endeavours of @helenaheritage @CCockburn2 @BL_Digitisation, new light has been thrown (literally) on the reign of one of the most famous queens in history
Read all about it herehttps://t.co/8HeuDmwE70 pic.twitter.com/MBnvXdXXGI
Following Cecil’s death in 1598 and Elizabeth’s in 1603, the project came under James’ patronage. The first three books in the Annals were published in Latin in 1615, while the last volume was published posthumously after Camden’s death in 1623.
Placating the new king wasn’t Camden’s only motivation for making substantial revisions to the Annals. As Rutkowska explained during a recent presentation hosted by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the author also wanted to avoid falling foul of censors and his peers in the scholarly community. To maintain an aura of objectivity, Camden removed a line suggesting Elizabeth’s ally-turned-enemy, Philip II of Spain, had “no imperial skills,” as well as a passage attributing the king’s death to phthiriasis, a disease viewed as a divine punishment. Additionally, in a section documenting Elizabeth’s excommunication in 1570, he removed a passage describing Pope Pius V’s drastic act of religious censure as “spiritual warfare.”
Not only [did] he have to avoid writing anything risky about James to evade punishment, but he also followed this protocol for the likes of King Philip, Pope Pius and John Puckering to avoid being labeled as a biased historian. It is no wonder, then, that in the final part of the Annals’ preface, Camden wrote that he wished to be remembered only [as] “a smaller writer in the great affairs of history.”
The historian added, “In a world of punitive censorship and intellectual scrutiny, Camden knew that his Annals could not be an objective account of Elizabeth’s reign, nor should we claim it as such.”
Whether the newly revealed revisions will reshape historians’ understanding of Elizabeth remains to be seen. But as Rutkowska tells ITV News’ Neil Connery, “We actually see Camden sometimes being even more complimentary to Elizabeth and then getting rid of that information to make James look better, so I actually think it shows that Elizabeth deserved that amazing legacy she got.”