The Queen's Voice: Elizabeth I's Christian Prayers and Meditations

Jennifer Clement
Vanderbilt University

Jennifer Clement. "The Queen’s Voice: Elizabeth I’s Christian Prayers and Meditations". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 1.1-26<URL:>.


  1. To tell the casual inquirer that you work on the writing of Queen Elizabeth I is, usually, to meet with the reply "I didn't know she wrote at all!" However, recent editions[1] of her work have gone some way to bring Elizabeth's writing to light once more. Elizabeth did indeed write, and she also published during her reign - not just speeches, but occasionally letters, and, most numerously, prayers. The queen published her Precationes privatae in 1563, just after recovering from a near-fatal attack of smallpox; and in 1569, a volume entitled Christian Prayers and Meditations in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greeke, and Latine appeared. While this text is not marked with Elizabeth's name as author, the foreign language prayers it includes have been reprinted in the 2000 edition of Elizabeth's Collected Works, edited by Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose. In this article, I examine Christian Prayers as a text that positions the queen as simultaneously typical and unique, a humble sinner who is divinely chosen to rule England, who bows before no other human, yet who abases herself in front of God. While I agree with Elizabeth's recent editors that Christian Prayers is indeed the queen's work, I also suggest that regardless of the question of "true" authorship, this text contributed to the queen's public image in both domestic and international contexts, as reflected by the juxtaposition of English-language and foreign-language prayers within the volume. That is, whether or not Elizabeth scratched out these prayers with by her own hand is less important, ultimately, than the fact that they appeared to be authored by her. Christian Prayers and Meditations produces the effect of Elizabeth as author, the authorizing force behind the voice that calls to God in these prayers. As such, this text can be studied as an important contribution to the public image of the queen as both head of state and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and as an indication of Elizabeth's lost reputation as a published writer.

  2. The theological problem the queen faced - that is, the problem of representing herself as among the weak and humble of the world, as sufficiently imitative of Christ's own meekness and humility, in accordance with the religious reformers' imperative that suffering is a sign of God's favor - coexists uneasily with the claims for strength and authority that reappear in Christian Prayers over and over again. The need to appear submissive and meek in a religious context could confirm early modern stereotypes of gendered identity, the stereotypes that would severely limit Elizabeth's power and authority in the first place; yet to appear too confident might run the risk of appearing to defy biblical injunctions against women's speech. Christian Prayers and Meditations negotiates this delicate balance, actively participating in the religious debates of its time, and creating spaces within which the weakness of the female body can be transformed into strength through the mediation of divine authority. As I explore these issues, I begin by examining one of the English language prayers for its use of Elizabeth's maternal heritage as a guarantee of her Protestant bona fides, before turning to the foreign language prayers and their even more explicit claims to divine right and absolute rule. By doing so, I hope to show how Christian Prayers uses the language of weakness, paradoxically, to establish the queen's authority and her privileged relationship to God.

  3. Within the devotional context, the conventional early modern admission of abject humility in front of the divine can be seen not only as a constraint or limitation upon the subject, but also as the means by which the subject may resist constraint, or actively shape a powerful identity though a ritualistic self-abasement to the divine Other. Weakness occupied a strangely ambiguous place in Reformation constructions of gender, salvation, and authority. Weakness signified an inferiority and vulnerability usually gendered feminine, and yet it could also be understood as most characteristic of Christ on the cross, suffering in obedience to the will of his father. Late medieval and early modern texts call on the believer to imitate Christ - as far as possible, that is - in this self-abasement, accepting "weaker, passive and dependent characteristics" as the proper states for the human worshiping the divine (Crawford 12). In one sermon, for example, John Donne reminds us that

    The root of all Christian duties is Humility, meeknesse, that's violated in an ambitious precedency, for that implyes an over-estimation of our selves, and an undervalue of others; And it is violated in scandals, and offences, for that implies an unsettledness and irresolution in our selves, that we can bee so easily shaked, or a neglecting of weaker persons, of whom Christ neglected none. (Sermons III 158)
    For Donne, there is an obligation laid on the Christian to behave as Christ did, with a corresponding humility and submission, and an acute awareness of vulnerability and weakness. His description of ideal Christian meekness fits the common description - in both the Protestant and the Catholic traditions - of the Church as the bride of Christ, a metaphor that cast all Christian souls in the feminine role, married to a loving husband who forgives all her infidelities and faults.[2] We might ask, then, what happens to stereotypical constructions of gender when the position most suitable to sinful humanity - both male and female - is one of feminized weakness and submission? What might it mean for a male to imitate a weakened, feminized, submissive Christ, in a society where, as Patricia Crawford has written, "It was impossible for men and women to talk of their beliefs about God without reference to a set of ideas about female inferiority and weakness" (17)? And what might it mean for a powerful woman, a queen, to endorse these ideas in her published writing?

  4. Although, as I mentioned above, the question of the authorship of Christian Prayers is uncertain, the text clearly connects Elizabeth's name with the writing and publication of devotional texts, not least through its frontispiece, which depicts the queen worshiping in private, kneeling before a prie-dieu, her sword of state lying on the floor and her crown resting above the queen's open prayer book. As the following prayers do, the portrait combines state power and religious devotion, establishing the queen as the figure where these issues intersect. A number of the prayers in the volume are not by the queen, but instead are drawn from Henry Bull's 1568 version of John Bradford's Private Prayers and Meditations, which in turn translates Juan Luis Vives' Preces et Meditationes Diurnae  (White 163, 183). The book also includes the standard liturgy of the Church of England, with its prayer for the queen that asks God "to replenish her with the grace of the holy spirite, that she may always incline to thy will, & walke in thy way" (sig. I.ij.). The inclusion of the litany, in particular, establishes the book's endorsement of state religion and the status of the queen as Governor of the Church.

  5. There are three prayers in English, however, that are not from Bull, and these are clearly in the Queen's voice, as are the prayers in foreign languages. Oddly, the 2000 Elizabeth I: Collected Works includes and translates the six prayers and one poem in French; the four prayers in Italian; the three in Spanish; the three in Latin; and the three in Greek. But the editors do not include the three prayers in English that are explicitly in Elizabeth's first-person voice, and address issues specific to the Queen's own life. This is an odd omission because, if we look closely at these English prayers, we can see how these prayers shape the queen's relationship to God in the language that would be most easily understood by her own subjects. Most notable perhaps is "In time of sicknes," which, while one of five prayers asking for God's mercy in illness, is the only one of these five clearly in the queen's own voice. The prayer is typical of Elizabeth's writing in that she refers to herself repeatedly as God's "handmaid," a term she also uses in Precationes privatae. In Latin, "handmaid" translates as "ancilla," the form used by Elizabeth in her Latin prayers and, significantly, by the Virgin Mary in the Magnificat of the Vulgate Bible.[3] The repeated use of this word is not only characteristic of Elizabeth's own rhetoric, but also strongly suggests a link between the Virgin and the queen, not so much in their shared virginity - a state that, in 1569, it was by no means clear that Elizabeth would permanently embrace - but rather in their shared devotion to God and in the authority they wield through God's grace.

  6. Like several of the prayers in Precationes privatae, this one is obviously related to Elizabeth's recovery from smallpox, but unlike the others it is written as if the queen were still ill, suggesting that it may have been written during her illness. It stresses the danger to the country should the queen not recover: “...thou has stricken me with a greuous sicknes of my body, and very daungerous unto my life, and also troubled & abashed my minde with terrours and anguishes of my soule: and withall thou hast by my daunger sore flighted and amased thy people of England, whose safetie & quietnes next after thee, seemeth to stay uppon me aboue all other worldly creatures, and upon my life and continuance amongst them. Wherefore as well I as thy people committed unto me, bowing the knees of our hartes before thy maiestie, do humbly besech thee most gratious Saviour, in thy iudgement to remember thy mercy, and according to thy accustomed goodnes, to deliuer me thy handmaiden from thys present perill of daungerous sicknes.” (sig. L.j.)

  7. The prayer emphasizes Elizabeth's status as the only bulwark against civil war and invasion, a status that is inextricably bound up with her religion. Though many rulers of Britain have faced insurrection for various reasons, Elizabeth faced even greater risks of both invasion and civil war because she was a Protestant in a world where the most powerful monarchs were Catholic. By presenting her illness in the present tense, the prayer appears more spontaneous and therefore more sincere. But it also makes her illness seem more immediate, as if it was still continuing, and not incidentally reminds Elizabeth's subjects that she is their only safeguard against a foreign - and Catholic - ruler.

  8. "In time of sicknes" makes Elizabeth's claim to be such a safeguard through her inheritance as the daughter of her father and, rather unusually, of her mother. As most biographers of Elizabeth note, she rarely referred directly to Anne Boleyn and preferred to dwell on her father's accomplishments and traits.[4] Yet this prayer goes out of its way to mention her mother:
    Beholde me thy handmaiden upon whom from my tender yeares unto thys day, thou hast heaped so great & so many, and almost infinite benefites of thy gratious goodnes, whom being borne of a king and Queene, thou hast not onely endued with gifts of grace, meete for a kingdome, but also hast deliuerred me from many & great daungers, out of the handes of my enemies, & from ye snares of death which they had set for my life, hast exalted me unto the dignitie of a Queene... (sig. K.iiij.)
    This prayer not only refers to Elizabeth's mother, it also accords Anne the status of a queen, a title that was stripped from Anne when she was convicted of treason. It thus emphasizes Elizabeth's own royal descent - along with her talents at ruling - and reminds readers of the dangers she encountered because of this descent and because of her allegiance to the Protestant faith during the reign of her sister Mary. Here, Elizabeth's rule is explicitly described as a direct result of Henry VIII's "Great Matter" - the divorce not only from Catherine of Aragon, but also from the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, the description hammers home the point that Elizabeth's rank comes from God, as does her authority. By embracing servitude as God's "handmaiden," the queen can, in accordance with Christian doctrine, claim authority. And by stressing that it is only God who has "deliuerred me from many & great daungers," the prayer emphasizes God's special regard for Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, and thus for the Protestant settlement that was the ultimate result of Anne's marriage to Henry, through Elizabeth.

  9. I have spent some time examining this one prayer because I think it speaks most clearly to the historical and religious context of Christian Prayers and Meditations. But the foreign-language prayers are also key to understanding what political and religious effects Christian Prayers might have produced. While we seem to be reading Elizabeth's private communications with God, these are prayers that were, after all, published, and so clearly intended for public display. Furthermore, the fact that these prayers, except the three English ones, are in several foreign languages, it seems extremely likely that Christian Prayers was meant to be read abroad, especially in those countries - primarily France and Spain - that still followed the Roman Catholic church and threatened Protestant England. This grandly illustrated work[5] explicitly engages with international politics, sending a message of resolute Protestantism to those abroad who might challenge her throne or attempt to set up Mary Queen of Scots in her place.

  10. In spite of the prayers' atmosphere of private discussions with God, these are presented very deliberately as part of the larger effort to shape the public view of Elizabeth, just as much as were, for example, her periodic progresses through the countryside. As such, Christian Prayers operates as a performance, in which the queen's addresses to God are intended to have certain effects and accomplish certain goals. On one level, these prayers communicate with the divine, sharing the queen's desires for herself and her people, and requesting wisdom and mercy from God. On another level, these are prayers that are being shared with Elizabeth's subjects and, presumably, an international audience, and thus they also communicate with human beings to shape a public sense of Elizabeth as a ruler. That being the case, it seems strange that so many of the prayers emphasize Elizabeth's extreme unworthiness and sinfulness. Of course, the trope of humility was a standard one at this time, often employed by rulers or aristocrats who wished to seem properly humble in the sight of God. For example, Elizabeth's stepmother Katherine Parr finds this trope useful in her  Lamentacion of a Sinner, first published in 1547, where it helps her avoid the charges of presumption that a woman might otherwise face for writing and publishing. While it makes sense that Elizabeth, too, would find the convention of modesty similarly useful, such a convention could also have adverse political effects, given that many were already skeptical of Elizabeth's ability to be a strong enough ruler to keep England safe. Mary Tudor's reign had not inspired any great enthusiasm for female rule, while many considered a woman on the throne to be outright blasphemy, a view expressed most notoriously in John Knox's 1559 The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. By playing up Elizabeth's weaknesses these prayers ran the risk of confirming people like Knox in their worst fears: "Nature, I say, doth paint them [women] forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment" (43).[6] So while these prayers explicitly stage the performance of Christian self-denigration for certain advantages, they also take considerable risks as they does so. One question this article asks, then, is why the game might have been worth the candle. In the prayers written in the queen's voice, the metaphor of servitude works, I suggest, as a way of forestalling those who might reject Elizabeth's right to rule, not only as queen, but also as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. In the process, Elizabeth's near-miraculous survival in her sister's reign turns into a sign of her status as God's chosen vessel. Furthermore, by invoking King David as a model for her own communication with God, the prayers replace Henry VIII with Elizabeth as the "sweet psalmist" of the Bible, the human conduit of divine speech to God's people. In other words Elizabeth's description as God's "handmaid" is not simply part of a more general discourse of humility, but forms part of a deliberate strategy to ground her power more firmly than her father's will - in both senses of the word - does. As the bastardized daughter of Anne Boleyn and as the Protestant heir to her Catholic sister, Elizabeth faced direct challenges to her authority from those who refused to accept her as the legitimate queen to England's throne. In fact, Elizabeth's strongest claim to that throne came only from  Henry's will, in which he dictated the terms by which the throne would descend: first to Edward, then to Mary, and finally to Elizabeth.[7] Since he failed to re-legitimize Mary and Elizabeth, both women had to claim their rights of inheritance solely through this legal document, a literal representation of their father's "will."[8]

  11. As last in line for the throne, Elizabeth faced several life-threatening crises over the course of Edward's and Mary's reigns, especially at the time of Wyatt's rebellion, when she was implicated in the uprising against Mary and her Catholic advisors - a time to which one of the Latin prayers refers. This prayer, "The queen's prayer"[9] runs in part:
    O most good and most great God, wonderful in the depth of Thy judgements, Thou art King of kings and Lord of lords; Thou by whose command it is seen Thou removest and transposest, rootest out and plantest, destroyest and buildest up; Thou, for it is Thy singular kindness, hast freed Thy handmaid who was almost the daughter of death - me, me once imprisoned in my native land, Thou hast set on a royal throne. (CW 158)[10]
    This prayer foregrounds the speaker's gender through its reference to the queen as God's "handmaid" ("ancilla") - a term that refers to the Virgin Mary's address to God in the Magnificat, where she describes herself, in the Vulgate Latin translation, also as "ancilla," a significant point given Elizabeth's purposeful appropriation of Mariological tropes and images during her reign.[11] This prayer also makes it clear that the queen is speaking here, and makes specific references to Elizabeth's brief incarceration in the Tower - "me, me once imprisoned in my native land" - a well-known episode dramatically related by John Foxe in the first and all successive editions of his massively popular Acts and Monuments.[12] The repetition of the personal pronoun also makes the queen sound faintly indignant that such things could have happened to her. Elizabeth's near-martyrdom in Mary's reign is used here to establish her authority as a ruler who, clearly, has God on her side.  

  12. Thus far, self-abasement hardly seems a concern in these prayers. Rather, the queen's uniqueness has been the focus, her status as God's specially chosen vessel for England's salvation. However, even in this passage we can see how the term "handmaid" within the context of imprisonment and possible death confesses, like many other reformist texts, the subject's weakness and inability to help itself without the aid of God.[13] As I noted earlier, the evangelical belief in the utter sinfulness of all humans creates a definition of self as always already abject, in need of the grace of God even to recognize its fallen state. In Lamentacion, Parr also endorses this doctrine, for example in this passage: "It is ye hand of the lorde that can and wyl bring me oute of this endeles mase of death: for without I be preuented by ye grace of ye lord, I can not ask forgeuenes nor be repentant or sory for them" (sig. B.ii). Again, when Parr praises the efficacy of studying "the book of the crucifix," she writes "I neuer knewe myn own wickednes, neither lamented for my sines truely, untyll the tyme God inspired me with his grace..." (sig.D.v.).

  13. For Parr, these statements give her authority by virtue of her experience of conversion, and enhance her performative use of weakness as a trait all must acknowledge, since only through faith by grace can anyone be saved. By contrast, the emphasis on Elizabeth's imprisonment stresses her role as the Protestant heroine celebrated by Foxe, as well as a properly submissive sinner before God. Simply being Anne Boleyn's daughter, born as it were into the reformed religion, can place Elizabeth in danger and make her, potentially, the "daughter of death."  But this emphasis on Elizabeth's unique circumstances goes hand-in-hand with an emphasis on the language of abasement and grace as an integral part of its message. In her second Latin prayer, "Prayer to God for the Auspicious Administration of the Kingdom and the Safety of the People,"  self-humiliation is the theme:
    Great Framer and Preserver of things, God, before whom here at the feet of Thy majesty I humbly lie prostrate, I consider seriously with myself how unworthy I am, to whom Thou kindly offerest Thine ear. Suffused all over with shame, I scarcely dare to lift up mine eyes to Thee. For formerly when I was in my mother's womb, a fall into sin stained me, on account of which, like the rest of the descendents of Adam, I was most worthy of miscarriage; yet Thy fatherly hand led me out from thence and allowed me to be born into the light - born to die with Christ and, dead, be reborn to enjoy eternal life. (CW 158)[14]
    What I notice here in particular is the emphasis on original sin as, precisely, stemming from the "mother's womb" that links the speaker to the "descendents of Adam." The reference to her mother might evoke the disappointment felt by both parents when Elizabeth proved to be a girl, instead of the hoped-for boy; in this sense, Elizabeth might indeed be considered "most worthy of miscarriage," not only by those parents but also by religious conservatives. But by reaching for God's "fatherly hand," Elizabeth rejects the defiling "stain" of her origins in the undifferentiated mass of "the descendents of Adam," and achieves a sense of her own separate, individual identity through her connection with God. If, as Anne Boleyn's daughter, Elizabeth might be regarded as an illegitimate ruler by some, this divine connection renders her birth less important than the fact that her accession occurred by God's will.

  14. However, just as Lamentacion portrays a passive subject who must rely entirely on God for salvation, so too in "Prayer to God" the subject is similarly passive. Though Elizabeth has access to the truth of Christ's message, first God's grace is needed to push her towards the awareness of her own sin:
    And yet (unhappy me) my youth - indeed my cradle - breathed forth nothing but the dung of that prior life, whence yet again I have had to await your coming as a Judge angry with me. But Thou through Thy infinite goodness hast called me, most unworthy, from courtly pleasures to the delights of Thy kingdom, even by the communion of saints and the voice of the Gospel. And when I have not given ear attentively or diligently enough to Thy words, although Thou hast struck with Thy rod me along with other ingrates of this kingdom, nevertheless Thy goodness here also has conquered innate evil. (CW 158-9)[15]
    Just as Parr situates her "filthy sinne" (sig. A.iiii.) in her earlier complacent Catholicism, Elizabeth's sin is framed here as "the dung of that prior life," stressing her misfortunes not as the result of  her devotion to reform, but rather of the "innate evil" that needed God's grace to be cured. While the reference to her own evil may possibly invoke  her politic acceptance of the laws of her sister's church, when she attended Mass and accepted the pope's authority, we can read with more certainty here the equation of Elizabeth's past self with the original sin that God has eliminated. 

  15. So, while "The queen's prayer" presents Elizabeth's rule as a result of God's special care and protection, "Prayer to God" stresses the sin that stains every human being, and that cannot be eradicated, only forgiven by the mercy of God. This vacillation between self-endorsement - via the reminders of her past suffering - and self-abasement via the reminders of her past sin is typical of Elizabeth's voice in Christian Prayers. To take another set of examples, look at the self-endorsement of the Spanish "Third Prayer," which reads in part:
    O Lord, my God and my Father, I render undying thanks unto Thy divine  majesty with my mouth, with my heart, and with all that I am, for the infinite mercies which Thou hast used toward me - that not only hast made me Thy creature, made me by Thy hands to be formed in Thy image and similitude.; more yet because Thou hast done me so special and rare a mercy that, being a woman by my nature weak, timid, and delicate, as  are all women, Thou hast caused me to be vigorous, brave, and strong in order to resist such a multitude of Idumeneans, Moabites, Muhammadans, and other infinity of peoples and nations who have conjoined, plotted, conspired, and made league against Thee, against Thy Son, and against all those who confess Thy name and hold to Thy holy Word as the only rule of salvation. (CW 157)[16]
    This passage makes a number of interesting rhetorical moves. As a Spanish language prayer, it makes some pointed assertions about those who have "conjoined, plotted, conspired, and made league against Thee" - especially barbed, given Spain's encouragement of the plotters of the Northern Rebellion of 1569, not to mention Elizabeth's own history of conflict with Spain in the person of her sister's husband, King Philip II of Spain. [17] As I mentioned above, the fact that so many of the prayers in this volume are written in foreign and classical languages strongly suggests that Christian Prayers was intended for an international audience, and the aggressive terms used against Elizabeth's and God's enemies here - a trait typical of the other Spanish prayers as well[18] - supports the idea that the volume might potentially find Spanish readers.

  16. Indeed, each set of foreign language prayers has its own characteristics: the French ones tend to be concerned with the establishment of a reformed community of believers - an apt concern, given the struggle the Huguenots were undergoing to establish the reformed faith in France; the Italian prayers deal with humility in the face of God, perhaps suggesting Elizabeth's true faith and humbleness as opposed to the vanity and pride of the papal court; and the Spanish prayers, like this one, aggressively portray the opponents of reform as godless heathens who have maliciously endangered England's security. Writing in these languages allows the prayers to communicate a message to each nation in turn. Furthermore, a significant point in favor of Elizabeth's authorship is the fact of  her considerable linguistic mastery. Writing in the vernaculars of four countries as well as Latin and Greek - the languages, with Hebrew, of biblical scholarship - would allow the queen to make a display of her skill, and also performatively enacts the special gifts of God which have allowed her to become such an exceptional woman, such that even as she humbles herself before God, she exhibits his support of her in the form of her linguistic abilities.

  17. But if Elizabeth can be regarded as uniquely gifted, this prayer in Italian conveys quite a different message:
    My God and my Lord, humbly and with a soul full of infinite displeasure at having offended Thee and at offending Thee all day long, I, Thy humble handmaid and sinner, present myself before Thy divine majesty to confess my sins candidly and freely and to ask pardon of Thee. I was, as Thou knowest, conceived and born in sin; I have come out of the same mass of corruption from which the whole lineage of mankind is taken. (CW 152)[19]
    Appropriately, as a confession this prayer accentuates Elizabeth's sense of sin; and once again, it uses the term "handmaid" to describe her own subjugation to the service of God: "io humil serua tua." But as in the "Prayer to God," this prayer also stresses the sinfulness she has in common with all humans, the "mass of corruption" that everyone starts from. Nothing special in herself, Elizabeth has been selected by God for a unique role in the world, though this role places her in danger of temptations that others need not face: "The occasions for offending Thee through the height of the place where Thou hast set me - through riches, through actions, through honors - are many; and the temptations are infinitely many, continual, and most urgent" (CW 152).[20] Again, as in "Prayer to God" this prayer does not shrink from proclaiming the queen's special destiny, but it also makes clear what she shares with the people over whom she rules. Her temptations may not resemble the temptations of many of her subjects, but they are, after all, temptations, and they make Elizabeth in just as much need of God's help as her inferiors are.

  18. These examples show that while Christian Prayers maintains a consistent view of the demands and privileges of ruling, the prayers shift back and forth between this image of the queen as special and unique, and an almost egalitarian idea of Elizabeth as simply one among a community of sinners in need of God. That more humble approach becomes evident not only through the confessions of sin, as in the Italian "Confession" or the Latin "Prayer to God," but also through the way in which the royal prayers have been included with more general prayers that specify no particular speaker, and with the litany that formed a central part of the Church of England's liturgy and which begins, in fact, with "O God the father of heauen, haue mercy vpon vs miserable sinners" (sig. G.j.). In these prayers, Elizabeth's lineage is severely downplayed. Instead, the prayer suggests Elizabeth's self-abasement by stressing her humble status as one of many sinners in the world, unworthy through her female weakness and her inherent sinfulness alike.

  19. But, as I argued earlier, that potentially risky stress on humility allows Elizabeth to alleviate the numerous problems attendant upon her accession as the bastardized daughter of Henry VIII and of Anne Boleyn. If Elizabeth could claim her birthright to the Protestant cause through her mother, that same claim also rendered her liable to charges of illegitimacy and usurpation. Here, rather than base her rule on the somewhat shaky grounds of her family tree and her father's will, Elizabeth becomes one of a mass of undifferentiated sinners in the sight of God, who owes her life and her crown to grace, and not to hereditary position. As a queen, Elizabeth is first and foremost the servant of God, his "handmaid," whose female sex only proves the infinite power and wisdom of the divine father. In this Elizabeth draws on the arguments in favor of female rule used by, for example, John Aylmer in his response to Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet. Aylmer asserts that God's power only becomes clearer when he sets a woman to rule: "Place he a woman weake in nature, feeble in bodie, softe in courage, unskilfull in practice, not terrible to the enemy. Virtua mea (saith he). My strength is most perfight when you be moste weake, if he joyne to his strengthe: she can not be weake" (sig. B.3). Aylmer made his case in favor of female rule at least in part because, as he saw it, the kingdom had no choice - Elizabeth was the only Protestant option available, and the only one endorsed by Henry VIII's will.

  20. However, Aylmer also had the support of most evangelical theologians, since it was a staple of both Lutheran and Calvinist theology that rebellion against an anointed ruler was absolutely forbidden. If their prince were evil, people should still accept his or her rule as the will of God and the punishment of their sins; if his or her demands should be against God's commandments, they could refuse to obey, but then must accept persecution even to the point to death. Tyndale memorably phrased the point in his Obedience of a Christian Man: "There is no power but of God (by power understand the authority of kings and princes). The powers that be, are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth power resisteth God: yea though he be Pope, bishop, monk or friar" (41). Knox was unusual in his assertion that rebellion against an ungodly ruler was not only justified, but obligatory; however, his assertion of this principle did find adherents, and could have posed a serious threat to Elizabeth. Even Aylmer cannot be considered a wholehearted supporter of female rule; while he defended Elizabeth's right to the throne, he also took comfort in the idea that a queen must rule by law, which should make up for some of her "infirmity".[21] For Aylmer, there simply was no other option; only Elizabeth could be considered the rightful heir by Protestants, and, most unusually, there were no other male heirs. By contrast to Aylmer, as the handmaid of God, Elizabeth represents her power in her kingdom as absolute, even though she also acknowledges her need for wise councilors.

  21. One of the French prayers, "Prayer for the Whole Kingdom and Body of the Church According to Their Estates and Members," pleads:
    O Lord, good Lord, Thou hast made me to reign in the midst of Thy people; Thou wilt give to Thy maidservant and to Thy menservants an understanding heart to judge Thy people and to distinguish good from evil, so that we may not be unprofitable or, worse, pernicious in a vocation so holy as this. Give us also prudent, wise, and virtuous councilors, driving far from us all ambitious, malignant, wily, and hypocritical ones. . Also, O Lord, make that all whose charge Thou hast committed into my hand render unto me the duty of a just obedience, so that there will be a good and holy union between the head and the members, and that by this means all may know that on Thee alone depends the state of kingdoms and the government of nations. (CW 147)[22]
    Though this prayer makes clear that the country is governed with a council and Parliament as well as by the queen, the ending of the passage - drawing upon the common political metaphor of the political body - emphasizes the queen's role as head of that body and God's vicegerent on earth. Not into "our hands" but into "my hand" alone has God committed the kingdom and the welfare of the people, a phrasing that again shapes the image of the queen as the one person closest to God. And this principle is repeatedly cited in Christian Prayers, which notes again and again that Elizabeth is queen by God's grace and not by any earthly power. The very last prayer, the Greek "Prayer of the Queen to God," asks that:

    Father most high, who hast laid out the universe with Thy Word and adorned it with the Holy Spirit, and who hast appointed me as monarch of the British kingdom, favor me by Thy goodness to implant piety and root out impiety, to protect freely willed religion, to destroy superstitious fear by working freely to promote divine service, and to spy out the worship of idols; and, further, to gain release from the enemies of religion as well as those who hate me - Antichrists, Pope lovers, atheists, and all persons who fail to obey Thee and me. (163)
    Clearly, here, to resist Elizabeth is to resist God. This is one of many places in her prayers where the queen's power and will are equated with God's, reinforcing her status as one of the "powers that be," but simultaneously running the risk of seeming too confident that God's will supports hers.  

  22. Such an equation could be all the more problematic given the religious climate of the 1560's. Though the metaphor of the body politic was of course widely known and used in the early modern period, it takes on a special resonance in the light of the religious settlement of 1559, in which Elizabeth was forced to alter the title of Supreme Head of the English Church - a title her father and brother had both borne. As a female, Elizabeth faced the opposition of those who pointed to Saint Paul's injunction against women speaking in the church to support their contention that no woman could be the head of the Church, and compromised by accepting the alternate version of Supreme Governor of the Church.[23] Anne Somerset describes the change as one in which "With characteristic pragmatism, the Queen had been willing to accept a less controversial alternative which in no way undermined her jurisdictional powers" (79). While this episode from the first year of her reign demonstrates Elizabeth's ability to compromise,  Christian Prayers  makes it very plain that - although Elizabeth is a sinful human being whose natural self is as inferior as anyone's - through her God-given role as queen she comes second to no one besides God himself. Though Elizabeth's settlement held, it came under strong attack, particularly in the 1560s and 70s, from the more radical reformers, who felt that the settlement did not go far enough and that the queen, who kept a silver crucifix in her chapel and insisted that priests wear vestments, held beliefs that could be considered far too similar to Roman Catholic dogma.[24] In this context, Christian Prayers looks like a deliberate performance of authority in the face of those who would deny her right to determine the religious future of the nation. It presents the queen's dedication to the Protestant settlement and depicts a ruler whose power is solidly based on her divine right to the throne.

  23. To assert that her will was closely aligned to God's allows these prayers to bolster Elizabeth's authority with God's power, but the risks of doing so were great, and necessitated the repeated invocations of humility and submission that balance the potentially blasphemous claims to know God's intentions. By stressing her service as a handmaid of God, the prayers humble the queen in order to make the claims to authority that animate these prayers; and significantly, they do so in terms that build upon her father's role as the great reformer king, the "David" of his nation. The most poetic claim for Elizabeth's authority in this volume comes from a French prayer of "Thanksgiving," which quotes King David from Psalm 116:16-17. Paraphrasing David's text, the passage runs:
    But O Lord, give me grace as formerly Thou didst to David, a man according to Thy heart, who treating this same subject and reciting the testimonies of Thy goodness, said "Thus it is, Lord, I am Thy manservant, I am Thy manservant, the son of Thy chambermaid; Thou hast broken my bonds.Thus I say, Lord, of myself, and say it by Thy grace: I am Thy maidservant, I am Thy maidservant. Thou hast broken my bonds, and hast preserved me in the midst of mortal dangers; Thou hast set me at large and in safety. (CW 146)[25]
    Christian Prayers refers to Henry VIII only once, in a brief reference to Elizabeth's birth "of a king and a Queene" (sig. K.iiij.). This reference to King David, however, does evoke her father in one of his favorite roles. In his lifetime, Henry VIII was frequently compared to David as a king beloved of God, the killer of the giant Goliath in the person of the Roman Catholic church.[26] Significantly, David became king of Israel through God's grace, not through birthright - exactly the sort of claim Christian Prayers presses for Elizabeth. By invoking David, the prayer sets Elizabeth in her father's place as the "sweet psalmist" of the Bible, and claims the authority David wielded as the great defender of God's chosen people, translating that authority into gender terms that fit the queen more closely; where David repeats "I am Thy manservant, I am Thy manservant," his words are rephrased to read "I am Thy maidservant, I am Thy maidservant ("seruante"). Significantly, the prayer does not repeat David's assertion that he is "the son of Thy chambermaid ("chambriere")." In spite of the earlier assertion of Anne Boleyn's role as the queen's mother, this absence may demonstrate some anxiety at drawing too much attention to the dubious heritage of illegitimacy bequeathed Elizabeth by her parents.

  24. The psalm referred to here forms a song of thanks for being delivered from death, and just as God preserved David through many dangers, so too Elizabeth has been preserved to serve God as the defender of the reformed faith. As in her stepmother's Lamentacion, here the acknowledgment of oneself as sinful and humble before God allows Elizabeth to invoke her father in his role as God's anointed, the same role she claims for herself. In this way the prayer skirts the Tudor family drama, and instead ground the queen's rule more securely on the assurance that God is with her, as he was with David, and that as he promised David, "I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth" (2 Sam. 7.9). David's legend also contributes to the sense of the queen as author in this text; as the putative author of the Psalms, David is one of the great devotional poets of the Bible. By association with David, then, Elizabeth appears not only as powerful and godly ruler, but also as the accomplished writer whose work testifies to her close relationship with God.

  25. The connection between Elizabeth and David is strengthened by the inclusion of a French translation of Psalm 101 in the middle of a prayer I examined earlier, "Prayer for the Whole Kingdom and Body of the Church According to Their Estates and Members," which follows "Thanksgiving." The work of Clement Marot, the Huguenot writer protected by Marguerite de Navarre, this psalm declares the king's determination to tolerate no evil in his court:
    My eyes will be most sharp to find
    Dwellers on earth of faithful mind
    To me; for he who has true sight
    Will serve me right.

    He who takes pains to use deceit
    Within my house will find no seat;
    Never from me will liar or babbler
    Get gift or favor. (ll. 21-7)[27]
    This is very much a psalm about being a just and godly ruler, one whose duty is to know and obey God's will in all things; and it explicitly connects faithful service to the prince with "true sight," a message perhaps to the Valois rulers of France that they should heed the calls for reform from their Huguenot subjects. While the French translation is Marot's work, not Elizabeth's own, it fits very well in the middle of a prayer that, as I noted before, calls for "a good and holy union between the head and the members." By casting Elizabeth as David, the prayer can stress her role as God's chosen ruler, who speaks directly to God on behalf of the people, and who - in spite of her female body - draws upon God's masculine power in order to establish and perpetuate a virtuous society on earth.

  26. As a role model, David might seem to be as problematic as Henry, given the Biblical ruler's history of sexual misbehavior and lack of paternal care. John N. King, for example, points out that references to David were used to criticize Henry's marital adventures during his reign (86). But in fact David's masculine weaknesses offer a parallel for Elizabeth's feminine ones in that both offer God the chance to show the extent of his power and mercy. No matter what David's behavior may be, ranging from adultery to murder to the inadequacy of his fatherly oversight of his children, God never withdraws his favor from him. In the early modern reading that assumed David's complete authorship of the psalms, each song reveals some aspect of the chosen ruler's relationship to God.[28] The psalms articulate David's sense of gratitude and the juxtaposition of self-abasement and self-aggrandizement so evident in Elizabeth's writing. In this sense, Elizabeth's Christian Prayers take up the psalms' acknowledgement of imperfection and sin, only to assert that through God, all things are possible.

[1] See the Collected Works (2000), edited by Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose; also Steven W. May's Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works (2004).

[2] For more detailed examinations of the gendering of the Church's union with Christ in the late medieval and early modern periods, see Carolyn Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption (1991) and Jesus as Mother (1982); Grace M. Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (1995), esp. pp. 290-304; Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to WomanChrist (1995); Susan Wabuda, "Sanctified by the Believing Spouse: Women, Men and the Marital Yoke in the Early Reformation," in The Beginnings of English Protestantism (2002), 111-128; and Erica Longfellow, Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England (2004).

[3] I refer here to the Vulgate Bible (Sacrae bibliae) of 1535, in which Mary declares "Quia resperit humilitatem ancille tue" (Londini: Excudebat Thomas Betheletus, July 1535), 206. In his New Testament (1534), Tyndale translated these words as "For he hath loked on the pvre degre of his honde mayden" (ed. N. Hardy Wallis, reprint, Cambridge UP, 1938), 125. On the other hand, the Geneva Bible has a slightly different version: "For he hathe loked on the poore degre of his servant" (sig. GG.iii.); see The Geneva Bible: A facsimile of the 1560 edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin P, 1696).

[4] J.E. Neale, for example, states that "It was enough for Elizabeth that she was Henry VIII's daughter. He was a father of whom she could be, and she was, justly proud and fond. Against her mother's shame there always stood a large interrogation mark;...."(14). Anne Somerset provides a more balanced analysis, noting that Elizabeth adopted her mother's motto and badge, but that nevertheless "there are only two occasions on which she is recorded as having mentioned her mother by name" (7).

[5] Christian Prayers and Meditations begins and ends with the queen's coat of arms, and in addition to its frontispiece illustration of Elizabeth at prayer, the text is framed by marginal illustrations of Christ's life and a Dance of Death. The copy created for Elizabeth herself, now in the possession of the Lambeth Palace Library in London, is even more elaborate, with each illustration carefully hand-colored and the initial letters of each prayer beautifully decorated.

[6] Knox rather grudgingly admits that, in theory, some women might be exempted from such criticism, but seems doubtful that, in practice, this would ever occur: "I except such as God, by singular privilege and for certain causes known only to himself, hath exempted from the common rank of women, and do speak of women as nature and experience do this day declare them" (43).

[7] Although English kings had generally not claimed the right to explicitly name their successors, an Act of Succession in 1536 gave Henry that right. Thus, uniquely in British history, the later Tudors inherited the throne only because of their father's will (Scarisbrick 350-51). So strong was popular support for Henry's act that a mass uprising quashed Edward VI's attempt to bypass his father's will and make Jane Grey queen after him to ensure a Protestant succession, asserting Mary's right to the throne.

[8] Melanie Hansen's article "The Word and the Throne: John Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women" examines the specific legal and religious circumstances of Knox's pamphlet and its argument against female rule, and notes that since Mary felt it necessary to pass an Act of Parliament asserting her right to the throne, "genealogy alone was not sufficient to assure the constitutional right of Mary's accession as a woman" (16).

[9] All translations are by the editors of Elizabeth I: Collected Works; the foreign language transcriptions are taken from Elizabeth I: Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals (ACFLO).

[10]"Admirabilis est, deus optime Maxime iudicorum tuorum abyssus. Tu rex regum, Dominator dominatium. Tu imperia uibus visum est aufers et transfers, euellis et plantas, destruis et aedificas. Tu, qua tua est singularis benignitas, ancillam tuam mortis pene filiam liberasti: me, me captiuam in patrio et regali solio collocasti." (ACFLO 144).

[11] In 'The Heart and Stomach of a King': Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, Carole Levin writes "The use of these religious ceremonies fit well with Elizabeth's self-presentation as the Virgin Queen, an image she presented to her people as a means to replace the Virgin Mary and help heal the rupture created by the break with the Catholic Church. Elizabeth and her Councillors deliberately appropriated the symbolism and prestige of the suppressed Marian cult in order to foster the cult of the Virgin Queen" (26-7). Frances Yate's Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century is the classic course for Elizabeth's use of Marian imagery. See also Louis Montrose's 2006 book The Subject of Elizabeth: Authority, Gender, and Representation, pp. 80-9, for a more recent examination of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary.

[12]  In the first, 1563 edition of Acts and Monuments, Knox relates Elizabeth's trials at the hands of her sister Mary at some length, dwelling especially upon her imprisonment in the Tower and the famous episode when, entering the Tower, Elizabeth sat upon a wet stone and, on being asked to move, said "'better syttinge here then in a worse place. For God knoweth, I knowe not whether you will bringe me.' With that her gentleman Vsher wepte, shee demaunding of hym what he mente so vncomfortably to vse her, seeinge shee tooke hym to be her comfortour and not dismayor, especiallye for that she knewe her truth to bee such, that no man should haue cause to wepe for her" ( John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, p. 1725,, 1 September 2006).

[13] This is not to claim, however, that only reformers found this trope useful. Saint Paul, of course, frequently emphasizes the need for humility in the face of the divine, as in 1 Corinthians:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellencie of wordes, or of wisdome, shewing vnto you the testemonie of God. For I esteemed not to knowe anie thing among you, saue Iesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was among you in weaknes, and in feare, & in muche trembling. Nether stode my worde, & my preaching in the enticing speache of mans wisdome, but in plaine euidence of the Spirit and of power, that your faith shulde not be in the wisdome of men, but in the power of God. (Geneva Bible, 1 Cor. 2:1-5)

And in On the Trinity, Augustine writes:

For no holy person rejoices in his own power, but in the power of Him from whom he has whatever power he can suitably have. He knows that it is a proof of greater power to be united with the omnipotent One by a pious will, rather than to be able to do things by his own power and will, at which those tremble who cannot do such things.For humility that is solidly established is more powerful and safer than the most inflated conceit. (18-19)

However, the confession of weakness became especially attractive for reformers who found themselves under attack from religious conservatives. To take one example, as she faced torture and death, Anne Askew wrote,

O lorde, I haue more enemyes now, than there be heeres on my heade. Yet lorde lete them neuer ouercome me with vayne wordes. But fight thu lorde, in my stede. For on the cast I my care. With all the spyght they can ymagyne, they fall vpon me which am thy poore creature, Yet swete lorde, lete me not set by them which are agaynst the. For in the is my whole delyght." ("Lattre examynacyon" 61)

[14] "Svmme rerum opifex et seruator deus, quum hic ad maiestatis tuae pedes humilis iaceo, mecumque serio reputo quam indigna sim sui aurem benignus praebeas, vndique suffusa pudore vix audeo ad te oculos attollere. Cum enim iam olim in ipso matris vtero peccati labes me infecisset, ob idque (vt reliqui Adami nepotes) abortu dignissima essem, me tamen hinc tua paterna manus eduxit atque in lucem edi permisit, edicam cum Christo mori, et mortuam vt aeterna vita fruerer, renasci." (ACFLO 145)

[15] "Et tamen (miseram me) iuuentus mea, immo mea incunabula nihil nisi prioris illius vitae fecem spirarunt. Vnde iterum iam me iudicem iratum expectare te debui. At tu pro infinita tua bonitate me indignissimam ab aulicis voluptatibus ad regni tui delitias, per Sanctorum communionem et vocem euangelij tui etiam tum vocasti. Cumque verbis tuisnon satis attente et diligenter auscultarem, etsi me vna cum alijs huius regni ingratis virga tua percussisti, tamen vicit tua hic quoque bonitas genuinam malitiam" (ACFLO 145).

[16] "O Senor Dios mio, immortals gracias hago a tu adiuina Magestrad con mi boca, con mi coracon y con quanto yo soy, por las infinitas misericordias de que has vsado con migo: que no solamente me has hecho criatura tuya, hechura de tus manos formada a la imagen y semejanca tuya. : mas aun porque me has hecho esta tan senalada y tan rara merced, que siendo yo vna muger de mi naturaleza flaca, timitida y delicada, somo lo son todas las demas, me has querido hazer robusta, animosa y fuerte para resistir a tanta multitud de Idumeos, Ishmaelitas, Moabitas, Agarenos y ostra infinidad de gentes y naciones que se auvian juntado, conjurado, conspirado y hecho liga, contra ti, contra tu hijo y contra todos aquellos que confiessan tu nombre y tienen por vnica regla de salud a tu sancta palabra" (ACFLO 143).

[17] Anne Somerset gives a concise account of Elizabeth's clashes with Spain and Spanish involvement in various English plots in the late 1560's; see Elizabeth I, pp. 214-41.

[18] I especially like the wording of the Spanish "First Prayer," which includes the line "Thou freest me from the cruel hands of my enemies - they who like ravenous wolves attempt to suck my blood and eat me alive" (155).

[19] "Dio et Signor mio. Humilmente, et con animo pieno d'infinito dispiacere d'hauerti offeso, e d'offenderti tutto di, io humil serua tua, et peccatrice, mis presento dinanzi la tua diuina maesta per confessare ingenuamente, e liberamente I miei peccati, et chiedertene perdono. Sono, come sai, concetta, e natain peccato, dall'istessa massa di corruttione uenuta, onde e tolto tutto l'human lignaggio." (ACFLO 139)

[20] "Le occasioni d'offenderti per l'altezza del luogo oue m'hai posto, per le richezze, per gli agi, et per gli honori, sono molte, e molte, Infinite le tentationi, continue, e vrgentissime" (ACFLO 139).

[21] "But to what purpose is all this? To declare, that it is not in England so daungerous a matter, to haue a woman ruler, as men take it to be. For first it is not she that ruleth but the lawes, the executors whereof be her iudges, appoynted bi her, her iustices of peace and such other officers: but she may erre in chusing such: so may a King." (sig. H.).

 [22] "O Seigneur bon Dieu tu m'as fait regner au milieu de ton peuple, tu donneras a ta seruante et a tes seruiteurs vn coeur entendu pour juger ton peuple, et pour discerner le bien d'entre le mal [1 Kings 3:9] a fin que nous ne soyons point inutiles, ou mesme pernicieux en vne vocation si sainte. Donne nous aussi des Conseillers prudens sages et vertueux, chasant loing de nous, tous ambitieux, malins, cauteleux, et hypocrites... Fay aussi Seigneur que tous ceux, desquelz tu m'as commis la charge en main, me rendent le deuoir d'vne iuste obeissance, a fin qu'il y ait vne bonne et sainte vnion entre le chef et les membres, et que par ce moyen tous cognoissent que de toy seul depend l'Estat des Royaumes et le gouuernement des republiques." (ACFLO 133)

[23] Somerset, 74-88.

[24] See Patrick Collinson, Elizabethan Essays, pp. 108-18.

[25] "Mais Seigneur, fay moy la grace, comme iadis tu as faite a Dauid, homme selon ton coeur. [1 Samuel 13:14] Lequel traitant de ce mesme Argument, et recitant les tesmoignages de ta bonte, disoit, Ainsi est-il Seigneur, Ie suis ton seruiteur, Ie suis ton seruiteur filz de ta chambriere, tu as rompu mes liens, [Psalm 116:16, 17] ...Ainsi di-ie Seigneur de moymesme, et ce par ta grace, Ie suis ta seruante, Ie suis ta seruante. Tu as rompu mes liens, et m'as preseruee au milieu des dangers de mort, tu m'as mis au large et en sauuete." (ACFLO 132)

[26] See John N. King's article "Henry VIII as David: The King's Image and Reformation Politics; see also Daniell for the representation of Henry as David in the frontispiece of the Great Bible, 207-08; and Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Boy King: Edward IV and the Protestant Reformation for an account of Edward as the Solomon following his father's David (14-18).


Mes yeux seront fort diligens a querre
Les habitans fidele de la terre:
Pour estre a moy. Qui droite voye ira.
Me seruira.

Qui s'estudie a vser de fallace,
En ma maison point ne trouuera place:
De moy n'aura mensonger ne baueur.
Bien ne faueur. (ACFLO 134)       

[28] Patrick D. Miller writes "While many of the psalms are associated in their headings with David, who may have written some of them, the authorship of the individual psalms is unknown" (797).

Works Cited