His Last Letter
At her death in 1603, Leicester’s last letter* to Elizabeth (written six days before his death in September 1588) was found in a small casket by her bed with “His Last Letter” written in her own handwriting on it. This story has always captured my imagination as a very adoring gesture taken by this imposing historical figure.
His Last Letter. For a modern transcription see below*.
In the early summer of 2003, I came home from work to find a present waiting for me from my husband. When I opened it, imagine my surprise when I found Susan Doran’s Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum--the catalog to the Greenwich Exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Along with the catalog were entry tickets for August 8th and plane and hotel reservations. I was going! The catalog was read thoroughly beforehand with meticulous notes taken on which items would be “Want to See” and “Must See”. Lot #70, Leicester’s last letter written to Elizabeth, was a “Must See” and became one of the top artifacts that I said I would die if I didn’t see. What a way to set myself up.
We arrived early at the National Maritime Museum. I was so excited. We were some of the first in the doors that morning and sat front and center to watch the introductory video narrated by Guest Curator, David Starkey then I was ready to view the artifacts.
Armed with my list of exhibits to see (see below for an abbreviated chart of artifacts), I came upon Lot #70 and the letter wasn’t there! There was #69 and #71 immediately next to it. No #70. I kept looking expecting it to miraculously materialize. Nothing. My husband looked: he called a docent over and they looked together. The young man expressed great concern and radioed his supervisor who came to spend over 15 minutes looking for it. Neither one of them could come up with a reason for its absence. Still mystified, I finished the rest of the exhibit, went back to admire some particular items, wrote my notes and had to leave despite not seeing “His Last Letter.”
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
The rest of my surprise trip to Great Britain was a thrill (My visit to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London is for another blog entry). Upon my return home to the USA, I was determined to discover what had happened to Lot #70. Leicester’s last letter had become almost as important to me as it had to Elizabeth I. I researched as much as I could and came up empty handed until my husband and I attended Dr. David Starkey’s lecture at the Newberry Library in Chicago, IL on November 22, 2003.
While standing in line to have books autographed (I took Elizabeth: The Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum and my husband had Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII), I resolved to ask him about the letter. Dr. Starkey was wonderful to take the time to answer my questions (with a queue trailing behind me) and expressed surprise that I did not see the letter. He assured me that it should have been there.
My next step, e-mailing the National Maritime Museum, which I did on November 24, 2003, asking if the lot had been removed for some reason.
The reply I received on November 26, 2003 is as follows. [Having eliminated the name of the respondent for privacy.]
Dudley’s last letter was on display in the exhibition but unfortunately, the
National Archives would only loan it to us for 3 months or so. By the time you
visited, it was replaced with another letter from Dudley to Elizabeth.>
An image of the letter is available to view on our website. [The link is not active
now in 2013.] http://www.nmm.ac.uk/site/request/setTemplate:singlecontent/
Mystery solved. It still does not end my disappointment of not seeing the actual letter but ten years later and I am close to being over it. Happily, I have a framed poster of the fantastic Exhibition in my den as a reminder.
In October of 2012 inquires were made as how Liecester’s letter came to the ownership of the National Archives. My first e-mail was mistakenly taken as a request for a copy (for those of you who are interested, here is the web address where it can be purchased: https:www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/recordcopying/estimateoptions.aspx). A second e-mail fielded this reply:
Thank you for your further email, and I am sorry if my colleague did not fully answer your enquiry. While it is often very difficult to check the provenance of a single document, more generally the National Archives holds the archive of the crown and central government, and as such many personal documents from the reigning monarch ended up amongst more formal state documents, known collectively as State Papers. Some have ended up elsewhere, as royal officials often treated official papers as personal property, but royal letters can be found for all the Tudor monarchs in our collections. There is some background research guidance on this in:http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/state-papers-1547-1649.htm. Elizabeth’s letter is likely to have been in custody of royal officials since her death.
Dr. ##### ######
Medieval and Early Modern Team
Advice and Records Knowledge (ARK)
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU
It must be surmised that the letter was treated as a “State Paper” and handled as such throughout. I am just thankful that it is still in existence and the story of Elizabeth I treasuring it for the 15 years until her own death is preserved as well.
*“I most humbly beseech your Majesty to pardon your poor old servant to be thus bold in sending to know how my gracious lady doth, and what ease of her late pains she finds, being the chiefest thing in this world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life. For my own poor case, I continue still your medicine and find that (it) amends much better than with any other thing that hath been given me. Thus hoping to find perfect cure at the bath, with the continuance of my wonted prayer for your Majesty’s most happy preservation, I humbly kiss your foot. From your old lodging at Rycote, this Thursday morning, ready to take on my Journey, by your Majesty’s most faithful and obedient servant,
Even as I had writ thus much, I received Your Majesty’s token by Young Tracey.”