Working for Elizabeth I: a secretary complains

Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577)

I don’t think anyone could look at the court of Elizabeth I and the extraordinary range of political and intellectual talent it contained – not to mention the vanities and ambitions accompanying them – and feel anything but awe at her ability to assert her unwavering authority over them for over four decades. It had nothing per se to do with her political authority as queen; it was a question of intellect and personality. And it was, after all, a task entirely beyond her sister Mary.

A key way in which Elizabeth ruled her advisers was through what those men who worked for her regarded as indecision, an unfathomable feminine weakness. But was it indecision or a more subtle form of control?

Sir Thomas Smith is largely overlooked as her secretary of state, a role he performed from 1572 until 1576. Essentially an academic by temperament, he was fairly elderly and certainly in rather poor health by the time he assumed the position from Burghley and would, in fact, die of throat cancer in 1577.

What follows are excerpts from two letters he wrote to Burghley in March 1576, expressing his exasperated, indeed exhausted despair, at the difficulty of getting approval from Elizabeth for various aspects of government policy. My sympathy is broadly with Elizabeth in her dealings with the men at court; but I can’t help feeling sorry for Smith here. His suffering sounds real and abiding.

For matters of state I will write as soon as I can have access to her majesty, the which, as it was when your lordship was here, sometimes so, sometimes no, and all times uncertain and ready to stays and revocation. So it is now… This irresolution doth weary and kill her ministers, destroy her actions and overcome all good designs and counsels… I wait whilst I neither have eyes to see or legs to stand upon. And yet these delays grieve me more and will not let me sleep in the night… For private matters and suits I have the same success. They increase daily. Yea nor nay can I get…

Your Lordship has good cause to marvel that I have not written of any resolution for the matter of Ulster. But also what can I write, when I can have none with daily attending, for the most part three or four times in the day? It maketh me weary of my life. I see what your Lordship writeth, the time passing almost irrecuperable, the advantage lost, the charges continuing, nothing resolved, and therefore, such number of things unanswered, whereupon her Majesty’s ministers lie still in suspense… I can neither get the other letters signed, nor the letter already signed, which your Lordship knoweth, permitted to be sent away, but day by day, and hour by hour, deferred till anon, soon and tomorrow… This for that matter, which indeed maketh me weary of my life, to have no resolution, but still waiting and suspense for that which doth so much import her majesty’s honour, profit and reputation. I would some other man occupied my room, who had more credit to get things resolved, signed and things necessary resolved in time

4 thoughts on “Working for Elizabeth I: a secretary complains

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  1. Interesting that ‘indecision’ was used by Elizabeth as a form of control over her secretaries. I don’t think it’s an aspect of her power that is widely known, unlike courtly love.

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