Mystery Author of Forgotten Tacitus Translation Turns Out to Be Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I is better known for her high necklines and defeat of the Spanish Armada than as an avid intellectual, but an article published in the Review of English Studies adds a new translation to her portfolio—a copy of Tacitus's Annales dating to the sixteenth century, titled "An Essay of the Translation of Livy (slash) Tacitus 1st Booke of the Annals."

The manuscript—one of four extant early modern translations of the Roman historian to English—is described as "a fair copy, written in an elegant italic hand on ruled paper across 17 folio pages."

Researchers claim to have identified its author using tell-tale signs, from the shape of the 'e's to the "rampant lion" watermarks. If correct, this would be the first piece of substantial work from Elizabeth to be discovered in more than a century.

The study's authors say there are persuasive similarities between this particular manuscript, found at Lambeth Palace Library, and those of Elizabeth's other translations. Specifically, they point to the extreme horizontal 'm's and 'n's she adopts, as well as breaks in the letters 'e' and 'd.'

These idiosyncrasies developed as she increased her speed to meet the demands of ruling, the study authors say. "These distinctive features serve as essential diagnostics in identifying the queen's work."

But that's not all. There is also the design of the paper, which featured a watermark of a lion and the initials "G.B." as well as a crossbow countermark. Not only do these symbols suggest they come from court, they match the paper Elizabeth herself used when translating Boethius, and paper she used for personal correspondence.

It also lines up with John Clapham's statement in his (contemporary) Observations on the Reign of Queen Elizabeth:

"She took pleasure in reading of the best and wisest histories, and some part of Tacitus' Annals she herself turned into English for her private exercise. She also translated Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae, and a treatise of Plutarch, De Curiositate, with diverse others."

Finally, the researchers discuss the tone and style of the writing, which align with the tone and style of work confirmed to be Elizabeth's. The researchers refer to the density of prose retained from the original source (Tacitus) and its brevity. It also adheres to the contours of the Latin syntax "with remarkable commitment"—even to the extent that it might not make all that much sense in English.

Elizabeth I Portrait
Elizabeth I has been identified as the author of a centuries-old translation of Tacitus's Annales. Topical Press Agency/Getty

While "translator" might not be the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen—like many monarchs of her time—was trained in literary pursuits.

"Only the extent of Elizabeth's academic output is unusual for her time," James Clark, professor of history at the University of Exeter, U.K., told Newsweek.

"It was part of an important cultural value embraced by the social elite of the sixteenth century that young women, as much as young men, should demonstrate their learning by transforming an important work into a translated text."

Elizabeth was particularly well-placed as far as education was concerned. Her father, Henry VIII, had been a pupil of the philosopher and humanist Erasmus, and made it an important part of his reign to build a network of scholars and literary writers, said Clark. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was multilingual.

Elizabeth herself benefited from challenging lessons in Latin, French, Italian and Greek from the best tutors the country had to offer, Mark Nicholls, Librarian and College Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge, U.K., told Newsweek.

"In later life she liked to show off her learning, but it also appears that she enjoyed the challenges of translation for their own sake, producing translations of Plutarch and Horace in her sixties, in the middle of a war with Spain and towards the end of her long reign," he said.

Her gender may have also played a role in this particular hobby. As well as a genuine enjoyment "her academic aptitude and scholarship were used by Elizabeth as tools to impress those men about her at court, as well as the envoys and representatives of other monarchs," said Nicholls.