Actor reading letter: 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 pain she finds, being the chiefest thing in this world I do pray for, for her to have good health and long life.
Matt: There’s a story about Queen Elizabeth I. The story goes that when she died in 1604 – having ruled England alone for 45 years as the Virgin Queen – there was found by her bed a small casket, and in the casket there was a letter. Creased from being opened and folded repeatedly over the years, it was labeled, in her own hand….“his last letter.”
Katie: We don’t have any evidence that says whether or not this story is actually true. It’s been repeated by historians over the centuries, but if any primary source ever confirmed the account, it’s been lost to us.
Matt: So we don’t have proof that Queen Elizabeth kept this cherished letter by her bed until her death, but we do have…the letter itself.
Katie: And what it reveals about this powerful woman…will challenge what you thought you knew about her life…and loves.
Matt: You’re listening to On the Record at The National Archives, a show that uncovers the stories hidden in our collections, stories of famous monarchs and spies…..
Katie: ….and stories everyday people like you and me.
Matt: …Stories you’ve never heard before…
Katie: …and stories you *thought* you knew.
Matt: I’m Matt Norman…
Katie: …and I’m Katie Fox.
Matt: Here at The National Archives, we’re the guardians of more than 11 million historical government and public records spanning a thousand years of British history.
Katie: We’re the paper trail of a nation, and our original documents have some incredible stories to tell…if you know where to look.
Matt: In this mini-series we’re re-reading famous love letters preserved in our archives….and reading between the lines of less obviously romantic records to discover the love-stories of everyday people from the last 500 years.
Katy M: The letter is on paper, It’s quite a small letter about the size of an A4 paper, a little bit smaller.
Katie F: This is Dr. Katy Mair, Head of Early Modern Records here at The National Archives. I sat down with Katy to take a closer look at this famous letter and discover what it can tell us about QElizabeth I and her relationship to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, the man whose last letter she kept for fifteen years.
Content warning: this episode does contain a brief reference to domestic violence.
Katy M: So you’ve got the block of text Leicester’s writing to Elizabeth. And then at the very bottom, you’ve got a little signing off line. And then his signature and then you’ve got a postscript, which is quite nice cause he, he says something like, “Even as I had writ thus much, I received your Majesty’s token by young Tracy.” So you get a sense of him writing the letter and being about to seal it and then receiving something else from her, and you get this kind of nice postscript, which gives you a lot of sense of the moment of this letter being written.
Interestingly as well, you can see the letter has been folded. And you can see the letter’s address line, which he would have written to her. But then you can all see an extra line, possibly in Elizabeth’s hand, and it says “His last letter.” And you can see the seal and the floss that Leicester would have sealed and closed the letter with. So you have a sense of the letter having been kept as an objet, a sort of commemoration object for Leicester.
Matt: Now Queen Elizabeth must have written hundreds, if not thousands of letters in her lifetime. So what’s written in this letter that makes it worth keeping, and worth making a podcast episode about four hundred and fifty years later.
Katy M: It’s a very sort of everyday letter thanking her for something, some medicine she sent him and inquiring after her own health. So it’s kind of one of these letters that you see the relationship maintained. It’s not containing anything particularly significant. It’s just significant cause it connects the two individuals.
For this letter, we have to think about the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley. Elizabeth was essentially his master, because she was the queen. So that power relationship reflects a lot of what we see in this letter.
In terms of the context it’s written just after a period of celebration for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which Leicester had been pivotal in arranging. And after the celebrations, he had not felt well, so he had extracted himself from the celebrations and was traveling, we believe, to Buxton to take the waters. He was hoping that would improve his health.
So he was traveling and he wrote this letter from Rycot lodge in Oxfordshire, which is a place that had a resonance for Elizabeth and Leicester. They had visited that together. And he has written about four days I think before his actual death. And then he travels on somewhere else where he dies.
Their relationship goes back decades. They were very good friends for a long period. They’d become friends in childhood when Robert Dudley was in the household of Edward the VI.
And from then when she became queen one of the first things she did was make him master of the horse. And that role was one that entailed working very closely with Elizabeth, moving the court around the country, organizing her annual progresses, and on those annual progresses he would ride behind her. So it was a sort of a key role within the court. And not only that, he became her sort of, well the person she relied on I think the most emotionally.
The romantic element of their relationship is questionable to some extent, especially at this point. Previously in the reign it appears that there had been, um, a serious sense that Elizabeth was romantically attached to Robert Dudley, leading to rumors about even pregnancy, et cetera. And so the Spanish ambassadors are writing back, talking about the visibility of the intensity of the relationship between the two. And it all kind of comes to a head when his wife, Amy Robshart, dies in suspicious circumstances by falling down the stairs in her home. And after that, this appears to be a point at which Elizabeth may have taken the steps to marry him.
But she didn’t.
Matt: Elizabeth was a powerful monarch. If she wanted to be with someone, couldn’t she just have made that happen? I mean her father is most well known in history for having six wives.
Henry VIII was so determined to have any wife he wanted that he split the Church of England from the Vatican so they couldn’t stop him from remarrying.
Katie F: Ah, but even being the supreme ruler of England can’t shield a woman from misogyny, and 16th century England was a society structured to favor men above women in every way. Henry VIII and other kings could take mistresses and wives without consequences to their reputation, but Elizabeth was under far more scrutiny and had a completely different standard to uphold.
Katy M: It’s widely believed that she recognized the shadow that would cast on her morality and her chastity, essentially. She didn’t want to be close to anything that looked like scandal. Her consciousness of the fragility of her power and the sorts of the extra care she needed to take up her reputation as a woman ruler may have made her take extra caution about marrying.
And there is also the sense that once a queen marries, the power balance is different than someone could have more political control. So she may have been very conscious of not wanting to allow that to happen. So in some ways, it’s one of those relationships or love affairs that couldn’t happen, that had to just be pushed away.
Katie: But the story is more complicated than “a woman loves a man and is unable to be with him.”
Matt: That narrative makes Elizabeth out to be a victim. And although she certainly had to face her fair share of misogyny in order to maintain power, she was an incredibly smart and strategic ruler, so let’s not underestimate her.
Katie F: Elizabeth was only 25 when she took the throne, and she kept it until her death 45 years later, avoiding any loss of power that might have come from allowing a man to share her throne.
Matt: But I don’t think we should err on the side of depicting her as emotionless either. The truth–whatever the real story of their relationship–is that both Elizabeth and Robert Dudley were real, complicated individuals with complicated motivations and desires.
Katy: And their lives don’t fit easily into a storybook plot.
Katy M: It is not a sort of a passionate love affair in the way that we think about passionate love affairs now or some of the ones in the past. But I think it’s clearly one of deep affection. They were friends from childhood. And I think that the loyalty of their relationship and the longevity of that relationship did a lot to support her as people changed and the court changed and she grew older. I think she must’ve leant on him quite significantly as someone who remembered her from the very beginning.
And I think that by this point, at the time of his death, they remained close and he had been what we call her favorite for, for many years, even though he married someone else without telling her and she was furious.
Katie: Maybe once you get to the level of power and influence of Elizabeth and to a lesser extent the Earl of Leicester…everything else in your life becomes part of maintaining and navigating those power dynamics.
Katy M: The other thing that sort of makes it complicated is this whole culture of courtly love that Elizabeth really developed in order to maintain her power. She kind of played this game of her subjects being her suitors and this allowed her to sort of build this reputation and identity as the sort of the focus for everyone’s attraction.
And this whole sort of culture infused the letters and her relationships with a lot of her courtiers. A lot of the letters used this language. And it almost allows men to be not the ones in power. It kind of, the problem of women being the weaker sex is overcome by making it into this sort of courtly love frame. Which is quite interesting I think in terms of how people get around the problem of a woman ruler when, when they’re so traditionally the weaker sex. And one of the ways they do this as they draw from this courtly love chivalric culture. Going back to what I was thinking about, how much can you tell from the letters about whether it’s love or how much of it’s this performance of courtly love?
Actor reading letter: “…with the continuance of my wonted prayer for your Majesty’s most happy preservation, I humbly kiss your foot.”
Katy M: I think with Leicester, it probably, it’s not just about the performance of courtly love. With like the Earl of Essex who becomes a next favorite after, Leicester, it clearly is that because he’s much younger than her and she’s very old at that point. But with, with Leicester, there seems to be a playfulness and a different sort of side of that relationship.
There are other letters that we’ve got from her to him, one which is a very interesting draft letter when she’s teasing him about not, not being given any food. And actually it shows that there is this sort of playful relationship between them.
Matt: So were Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester star-crossed lovers kept apart by the demands placed on the throne?
Katie F: Mmmm maybe not. That narrative takes away a lot of the Queen’s agency in shaping her own image and making her own hard choices. But it doesn’t mean it was an easy choice to give up romantic love and partnership in order to maintain her status.
Matt: I think it comes down to the fact that all love is also politics when you are ruling a county.
Katy M: Potentially if she hadn’t been queen and they’d been in a position when she wasn’t going to become queen or she wasn’t queen, in an alternative scenario, they could have married, but because of her political, because of her position and the political and social forces around the marriage of a queen, the decision, she obviously made the decision that it wasn’t the wise move.
So they were kind of kept apart by those circumstances rather than any other power. They’re the sorts of the, the political players in this scenario. And she had the agency to say, this isn’t going to be good for my reign.
So yeah it’s the political choice, a pragmatic choice above love essentially.
Matt: Now our next story is also about social forces that threaten to keep lovers apart, but it’s different in so many ways. To tell this story, we have to travel nearly 400 years forward in time to the year 1919…and from the splendor of Queen Elizabeth’s Richmond Palace to Barry, a small port town just outside Cardiff.
Katie F: Here in Barry, almost exactly one hundred years ago, a man named James Gillespie wrote a letter to the Home Office pleading with officials not to make him choose between financial ruin and separation from his wife and child.
Matt: After emigrating from Jamaica, James built a life in Barry. He married a local woman, they had a child together, and he set up a fish and chips shop to support his family.
But in 1919, racial tensions erupted into violence all over the British Isles as gangs of white men targeted anyone who they perceived as foreign.
During the riots in and around Cardiff, James Gillespie’s chip shop was attacked and ruined.
Katie F: And it’s at this point that James enters the historical record, unknowingly claiming his place in the archives as he makes his case to the Home Office:
Actor Reading Letter:
Pardon me for taking up a few seconds of your precious time reading my humble letter. Sir I am a native of Jamaica British West Indies. Been a seaman by profession, sailing out of the Port of Barry Dock (from/since 1896 till 1917 when I stopped … to go in Government work from the 29th of September 1917 to the 1st of June 1918. The work was finished (Granaries) I started a little business in the refreshment department (fish friers) until the last racial riot 12 of June 1919 when my home was destroyed by the rioters. I applied for repatriation for myself and family several times, to the Home Office, Colonial Office and the West Indian Committee, I filled a form in likewise a letter from my creditors giving me permission to leave the country. Its 4 months since I apply for aid to left the country. I received a letter on the 21st inst. informing me that I refused this offer unless ‘certain concessions were made’. The interpretation of the application is I am willing to leave the country at once with my wife and child (not without) without any compensation although I am ruin in monetary matters to the amount of 227£. I have to sacrifice what little I have left in furniture with the 26/ a week out of work donation to keep the ‘wolf from the door’. I am begging honoured sir as the leader of the British Empire to give me and family passage to Jamaica. I am not asking sir for any compensation, would pay my own fare if I was in a position to do so but what little I have its just enough to start with in Jamaica I don’t wants to take my family out there to me a burden on the country. Trusting sir you will take compassion on one of Britain’s son even if his colour is black.
I remains sire, your humble servant.
Matt: There’s a lot to unpack here, but first….I’m wondering how this letter ended up in our mini-series on love letters. Where’s the love element?
Katie: This one isn’t an obvious choice for our theme at first, but if we read between the lines, a real love story emerges.
Robert Dudley’s letter to Queen Elizabeth is full of flowery language of courtly love, but it doesn’t actually say much. In contrast, James Gillespie’s letter to the Home Office doesn’t appear to be about love at all at first, but once you dig into the historical context and his request, you’ll see that it all comes down to his desire to keep his family together.
And somehow, in a letter that is utterly unromantic, we see clear evidence of a couple willing to face enormous obstacles in order to stay together. To help us understand why this letter is actually quite romantic, I spoke to Iqbal Singh, Regional Community Partnerships Manager here at The National Archives.
The letter itself, it captures in detail the attack and the loss of his livelihood and the request to be repatriated and the extraordinary pressure that black communities and black men like him were placed under after the 1919 race riots. Gillespie’s letter powerfully illustrates the racism prevalent at the time and its consequences.
The key element to this letter is the 1919 Race Riots. For many, these were the first time in Britain that people became aware of the presence of a black community in the UK. The riots had different outcomes in different parts of the country. So sometimes that violence wasn’t just about black and white.
The particular attack on James Gillespie’s fish and chip shop, however, really does symbolize something quite important because it’s a symptom of this wider discomfort that was felt at the time about the presence of black people here, particularly just after the war.
Matt: So how diverse was Britain at this time?
Katie: There have been black individuals and communities living in Britain for centuries now. By the mid 18th century, it’s estimated that 10,000 Africans lived in London, some free and some enslaved.
We also know that after the American Revolution, 14,000 formerly enslaved Africans were evacuated from the newly independent colony to Britain. Port cities in Britain, particularly Liverpool, also saw seafaring men from China, India, and Arabia coming and going over the centuries.
In other words, the population of Britain has never been entirely white, and in fact, some cities like Liverpool were outright multicultural in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As we learn from his letter, James sailed in and out of the port of Barry for almost 20 years before settling in the town.
He first set sail from Jamaica, a British colony where slavery wasn’t abolished until 1838, just 60 years before James left the island to find work on the steamships.
Iqbal: The fact is that men from the colonies, both from the Caribbean and from other parts of the British empire did come to work, which allowed them to then take employment from this country. And he was very similar to many, many other men who took that chance to work in the steam ships. I mean, the steam ships were relatively, you know, new, they’d come in the latter half of the 19th century. And for many men in the colonies, that opportunity to work, even if it was below deck, often as firemen and document, sometimes in the hottest part of the ship, you know, feeding coal into the furnaces, it still meant an opportunity to make a living.
Men from the Caribbean and Arab men in particular were allowed as members of British empire to work from British ports. And so men like James Gillespie would have been able to work from here. They were unlike Indian lascars who were not allowed to work officially from here. AAnd so many places like Liverpool, Cardiff and South Shields saw these communities of men grow.
Matt: So after working at the docks in Barry, James settles down and starts his fish and chip shop. From the letter, we know he is living and working in the same place, so maybe he lives above the shop with his family. But less than a year after he opens it, the shop and his home are damaged beyond repair in the Race Riots.
Katie: The Race Riots are a complicated history, but I’ll try to keep it simple so we can focus on James and how he fits into this period of history.
As we’ve already learned, there were quite a few black and Arab men living in Britain before the First World War, and their communities were often concentrated in port cities.
During the war, many of these men fought in the British forces, and as the war raged on, more were recruited from the colonies.
After the war, many black soldiers were demobilised to Britain, which means that the end of the war saw even larger populations of black men, particularly from the Caribbean, living and working in British cities.
And those who had fought came back with more confidence in their rights as citizens of the British empire.
After the First World War, white workers had to compete for jobs with black workers for the first time, and that led to race-based resentment. It was easy to blame black men for quote-un-quote “stealing” jobs and housing and even eligible white women.
Matt: And James is in the middle of all of this as a black Caribbean man married to a white woman and working at the docks in Barry outside Cardiff.
Katie: Exactly. In the first half of 1919, this tension eventually burst into violent outbreaks. In some of the worst instances, Liverpool saw thousands of white men organizing into gangs to attack black men and their property.
Matt: With his shop and home destroyed, James is faced with no livelihood and a very hostile environment should he choose to try and rebuild. It must have been a really stressful situation for him and his wife.
Katie: I imagine it was. And on top of everything, the government response wasn’t to protect people like James; it was to create policies that would reduce the number of black men living in the country.
Iqbal: Following the riots, one of the first policies that was introduced was a repatriation policy, targeted at black men, offering them initially a small amount and then slightly more to get them to go back to the colony from where they had come from. The thing with the policy was that initially there was also some acceptance that even white wives could go, but that quickly was disallowed and it became quite apparent quite quickly that the white wives were not going to be allowed to go back.
There were issues here in this country of miscegenation, the concerns about racial mixing. One of the catalysts for the Cardiff riots was a group of black men returning from a trip out with white women. The press headlines at the time were also very racist and made disparaging marks about black men often focusing their ire on white women.
So this is a sort of cumulative thing that started to develop here and this idea of then going back to Jamaica without his wife and child would have certainly been very upsetting because they would already in this country have faced quite a lot of challenge. And the impression from the letter is that he himself is, very much in love with his wife. He wants her to be part of his life. And one can only guess, but that sense that both of them must’ve been through a lot to stay together and then the prospect of having to travel back to Jamaica without his wife and child must’ve come across as deeply upsetting.
Actor reading out letter: I am willing to leave the country at once with my wife and child (not without).
Iqbal: I think the love that he has for his family is a very important aspect of this letter. It’s something that he says very clearly that he wants to leave the country with my wife and child and then it says very clearly “not without.” If he has to, he’ll go without compensation. May not be happy, but he certainly says that he’s willing to go without compensation, but he then goes on to say that he’s actually in financial ruin, and that financial ruin means that he may not be able to look after his family and be the breadwinner that he wants to be. And without that role, he not only feels that he himself will, you know, not be fulfilling what he wants to fulfill, but more importantly he also conveys the sense that he’ll become a burden on the colony itself. And that is something he doesn’t want to do either. And you get the impression from the letter that here is somebody who’s worked for many, many years. He’s been in the sea business from 1896 to 1917, he then came on shore and then he didn’t just sit back, he then went and got himself with his wife a fish and chip shop. And so you really get a sense that the man has tried his hardest and is a hard working man.
I think the very important thing the letter brings out also, which is something that I think really touches not only our hearts today, but I’m sure would have also moved the prime minister at the time, well, certainly some of the officials, is the fact that he does make quite a bit of the fact that he is a loyal son.
He brings across this sense that he’s very much a son of the empire. And whilst he says, his color is black, this sense of loyalty is very much linked to the sense that men, particularly from the Caribbean saw Britain as the mother country. Many of them had been schooled from primary school, learning English, learning about England, and that real sense that was instilled in them of loyalty. So for many of them, and I think that’s something that also comes across, is there’s a slight sense, not necessarily in his letter maybe, but it could be read, that slight sense of betrayal of disappointment maybe is a better word to describe how he felt, that sense of disappointment that whilst he is a son of the empire and his color is black, he feels that he should be given something more because he has served, he has been loyal, and he has tried his best to make a life both here, and his aspiration is to make a life back in Jamaica. But he’s very concerned that he won’t be able to fulfill it with the kind of compensation he’s currently being offered.
Katie: So what do you think?
Matt: You do sympathize instinctively with James Gillespie. He seems like quite a proud, dignified guy, and you can’t help but sympathize with that. He does seem to be asking for recognition really of his efforts. And Iqbal talking about that sense of betrayal…that seems accurate to me. I would think I would feel quite betrayed.
Katie: To what extent do you think this is a love letter
Matt: Good question. You do have to read very carefully between the lines here. It’s not obviously a love letter at all. But as we said before, the sense of his love, the importance of his love for his family, is implicit in all of this. He’s determined to keep his family together. James and his wife would have already faced a lot of discrimination as a mixed race couple.
Katie: And their love would already have been tested quite a lot at this point.
Matt: But from the letter, it seems like they are still committed to staying together, no matter what.
Katie: Right, because even though we don’t directly hear from James’ wife, we can assume she wants to go with him to Jamaica and raise their child there.
Matt: And thinking about it, right, moving from Cardiff to Jamaica would be a big change, I mean ven for someone today, and for a woman in 1919, who had probably never traveled…to make that choice…I mean that’s really brave.
Katie: So the fact that she is willing to take her child and leave her home and everyone she has ever known to be with her husband, even if they are leaving with no financial resources….that says a lot about the strength of their relationship.
So what happens to James Gillespie, this man who just wants to provide for his family and build a life for them together?
Iqbal: We don’t know exactly what happened to James Gillespie. What we do know is that men similar to him did go back. Some went back and found it quite difficult to go back and found themselves coming back again. Civil servants have referred to men joy riding the Atlantic, taking compensation, going back, finding it doesn’t work, and literally coming all the way back. Certainly, there were issues for men who returned with white wives and some of the white wives themselves, certainly in one instance didn’t find it easy. It is a different culture they would have confronted out there.
What we do have is possibly a picture of, uh, James held by another archive. But again, we’re still not sure if it really is him. So there’s some work still to be done to verify that. We have done research on the census from 1911 certainly, and we haven’t found anything yet that confirms his presence here. But certainly he was here. He’s written this letter. So there are a number of questions that still remain about James Gillespie and what actually happened to him. And it may be that there are people, you know, in Barry who might know some more stories.
Katie: James doesn’t leave a paper trail that we know of besides this letter that we have at The National Archives and the possible photo that they have at the National Maritime Museum.
Matt: This happens more than you might think with stories of everyday people in our archives. People like James show up in our records at moments of crisis in their life as they intersect with legal record keeping, but then they go back to their normal lives, lives that come and go in obscurity, lives that don’t actually leave a lasting paper trail.
Katie: But you could make the case that this one letter that lets us know James Gillespie existed tells us more about his true motivations and priorities than all the formal correspondence and records saved from the reign of Queen Elizabeth says about hers.
Matt: Because while Elizabeth and the Earl of Leiceister would have been guarded and strategic in any record they made of their relationship, James is completely vulnerable and open in his letter to the Home Office. He even uses the word, “begging” to convey how desperate he was.
Katie: Still, despite how different these stories are, they are both about love divided….divided by politics, divided one’s status in the world….
Matt: …and at the end of the day, when our curators decided to put these two letters into our With Love exhibition….
Katie: …letters from people of such unequal status and circumstances…
Matt: ….they gave each letter its own space and equal standing in the exhibition….
Katie: …because you’re as likely to find a great love story in the palace of a queen as you are the fish and chip shop of a Jamaican sailor.
Matt: Thanks for listening to On the Record, a production of The National Archives at Kew.
In the next episode of On the Record we’re going to share two letters on the theme of sacrifices made for love. One tells of a king giving up his throne to be with the woman he loves, the other about an elderly pauper giving up shelter and security to stay with his wife at the end of their lives. You’ll have to decide whose sacrifice was greater.
All of the letters featured in this mini-series were chosen from The National Archive’s With Love exhibition, which runs from 14 February until 5 July 2020.
Listeners, we need your help to make this podcast better! We need to know a bit more about you and what themes you’re interested in. You can share this information with us by visiting smartsurvey.co.uk/s/ontherecord/. We’ll include that link in the episode description and on our website. You can also share your feedback or suggestions for future series by emailing us at OnTheRecord@nationalarchives.gov.uk.
To find out more about these letters, the history behind them, and The National Archives, follow the link from the episode description in your podcast listening app or visit nationalarchives.gov.uk. All of the documents discussed in this episode are available for any member of the public to view on site here at Kew.
Thank you to all the experts who contributed to this episode. This episode was written, edited, and produced by Hannah Hethmon for Better Lemon Creative Audio.
This podcast is copyright to The National Archives, all rights reserved. It is available for reuse under the terms of the Open Government License.