Historian of Elizabeth I’s reign self-censorship revealed

Draft manuscript of William Camden's Annals with copious cross-outs and overwriting. Photo courtesy the British Library.Numerous passages in a manuscript of William Camden’s contemporary account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I have been rediscovered 400 years after the historian censored them to avoid angering his patron, Elizabeth’s successor King James. Camden’s Annals of the Reign of Elizabeth I has been considered a largely accurate official record, but the new information that has come to light shows the final published version was significantly more favorable to James than the original draft.

Camden was first commissioned to write the Annals in 1597 by the Queen’s chief adviser William Cecil. Cecil died in 1598; Elizabeth died in 1603. The first three books of the Annals were published in 1615, and after James VI of Scotland ascended the British throne as James I, Camden overwrote or covered up dozens of passages. He glued pieces of paper over potentially sensitive passages and wrote new passages on top. Those paper cover-ups were glued so tightly that they could not be lifted without destroying the page, so even centuries after James’ death, Camden’s original writing was still effectively censored. The end-result was a 10-volume draft manuscript in which hundreds of pages had unreadable paragraphs.

These manuscripts, now at the British Library, have been re-examined using non-invasive transmitted light imagining. The state-of-the-art technology has revealed the long-obscured texts which include some alterations to the accounts of Elizabeth’s excommunication by Pope Pius V in 1570 (original text says Pius was motivated by “spiritual warfare,” whereas the published version accused him of creating “secret plots”) and the 1598 death of King Philip II of Spain. The biggest revelations put James himself in the crosshairs.

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.

The newly-visible passages in the manuscript volumes are still being examined and translated from the original Latin into English.