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Previously unpublished letters shed new light on Dutch Republic’s first queen

‘Seated behind her desk, she initiated and influenced embassies, conventions, ambassadorial meetings, sieges, and skirmishes that had kept a war-torn early modern Europe in its grip.’ This is how Nadine Akkerman, researcher as the Leiden Institute for Cultural Disciplines and author of The Correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart Queen of Bohemia, Volume II 1632-1642, describes the feisty, if reluctant, stateswoman.

‘Sentenced to a more solemn life’

‘What interests me most in this volume, is that the letters completely belie the popular image of Elizabeth as a frivolous and extravagant royal consort,’ Akkerman continues. Following the death of her husband, Frederick V Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, in 1632, Elizabeth was forced to take over the role of head of state in exile, fighting to regain the Palatinate territory that had been lost. It was not a role she would have chosen. In a letter written in November 1632 to a former lady-in waiting, Lady Broughton, Elizabeth writes that she feels she has been sentenced to a more solemn life: ‘I think you woulde neuer have thought that I should become a states woman, which of all things I haue euer hated.’

Forthright and strong

Although the letters in the period 1632-1642 are primarily concerned with the business of state, Elizabeth’s forthright nature at time shines through. She makes personal comments, often ridiculing the person concerned to his face. In a letter to James Hay, first Earl of Carlisle, she comments on his: ‘uglie Camels face’ and Ambassador Sir Henry Vane she calls an ‘honest fatt boobie Ambassadour.’ The strength of her commitment to her political role can be seen when she writes of her favourite son Rupert, who had been imprisoned by the enemy: ‘If he be prisoner I confess it woulde be no smale greef to me, for I wish rather dead than in his enemies.’ Elizabeth was expressing her fear that her son might be persuaded to convert to Catholicism, and join the enemy forces.

Military, political and diplomatic significance

Akkerman explains the importance of the letters to historians of all fields: ‘Elizabeth’s correspondence provides a lens through which events in the Early Modern Period can be viewed. She had personal contact with many of the important players of the period, corresponding with them on issues of military, political and diplomatic significance. All these personages and the key issues of the day are mentioned in her letters!’

Seven different cipher codes

What is striking about this work is the sheer breadth of the information it contains: 1224 pages, 622 letters, both from and to Elizabeth, collected by Akkerman from 47 different archives and libraries, the larger part of which have never previously been published. The volume contains not only transcriptions of hand-written letters, but also correspondence written in 7 different cipher codes, all of which have been deciphered for the first time. The same codes were in use by ambassadors, diplomats, politicians of the period, which means Akkerman’s keys will be invaluable to other Early Modern researchers. For instance, to those wanting to unlock the letter books of Rubens’s art broker Sir Balthazar Gerbier.

Publication information

Title:                  The Correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart Queen of Bohemia
                           Volume II 1632-1642
Author:             Nadine Akkerman
Published by:  Oxford University Press
ISBN:                978-0-19-995108-8

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