Hidden text within Camden’s Annals shines a new light on Elizabeth I’s life

A lightsheet used to reveal hidden text in one of the manuscripts of Camden's Annals: © The British Library Board

British Library researcher uncovers passages that have not been read for 400 years.

Published date:

For centuries, dozens of passages in the original manuscript drafts of William Camden’s Annals have been invisible to the naked eye. Often, pieces of paper were pasted over the original text and the passages over-written, implying that Camden was concerned not to offend his patron, King James.

Now, thanks to advances in enhanced imaging, these concealed lines can be read for the first time using transmitted light, offering a deeper insight into the political machinations of Elizabeth’s court.

Camden’s Annals is one of the most valuable sources on early modern Britain and is considered the official contemporary account of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558–1603). Often regarded as the most important source in shaping the image of Elizabeth I and her reign, modern historians have relied on the manuscript to be an impartial and supposedly accurate record.

This new research reveals that key sections of the Annals were revised before publication, implying that the manuscript was deliberately rewritten to present a version of Elizabeth’s reign that was more favourable to her successor.

The handwritten manuscript drafts are still being analysed in detail, with the previously hidden sections being revealed for the first time and translated from Latin into English. Here are some of them:

  • Did James plot to assassinate Elizabeth? In 1598, a man named Valentine Thomas confessed to having been sent by King James to murder Queen Elizabeth. Newly studied passages reveal that Camden initially intended to keep this shocking information in the Annals, but he subsequently amended and softened the confession to say that Thomas ‘had accused the King of Scots with ill affection towards the Queen’. 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.
  • Did Elizabeth I name James as her successor? Camden’s Annals ends with Elizabeth I’s obituary, in which she is said to have named James VI of Scotland as her successor on her deathbed. Elizabeth never married and died childless in 1603, to be succeeded on the English throne by Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland. Analysis of the manuscript drafts shows that the deathbed scene was a fabricated addition that Camden did not intend to put into his history. He presumably included it to appease James so that his succession looked more predetermined than it had actually been. Elizabeth was too ill to speak in her final hours, and no other historical evidence points to this deathbed scene being true.

This research has been undertaken by DPhil student Helena Rutkowska as part of a Collaborative Doctoral Award at the University of Oxford in partnership with the British Library and Open University, and it represents a significant finding in early modern historical scholarship.

Helena Rutkowska, DPhil student at the University of Oxford, said: ‘William Camden’s Annals has long been regarded the first history of Elizabeth’s reign and it’s been a thrill to have the chance to use new imaging technology thanks to my collaborative PhD with the British Library to explore hundreds of previously covered passages in Camden’s text for the first time. While historians have studied the Annals in print before, an in-depth analysis of the manuscript drafts has never been done and the sheer amount of new information we have been able to discover regarding Elizabeth’s reign has been astounding.’

Julian Harrison, Lead Curator Medieval Historical and Literary Manuscripts, at the British Library, said: ‘This year marks 50 years of the British Library, and while it’s an opportunity to reflect on the Library’s history it’s also an opportunity for us to look forward, and explore the technologies that are helping us to reveal new findings from our collections. We hope by using enhanced imaging to unveil passages that have been hidden for 400 years we will help researchers now and in the future to see Elizabeth I’s reign with a new, richer understanding.’

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