A letter from Elizabeth I to Tsar Ivan 'the Terrible'

Tracey A. Sowerby

A letter from Elizabeth I to Ivan IV of Muscovy, 25 April 1561 (TNA PRO 22/60/3)

A letter from Elizabeth I to Ivan IV of Muscovy, 25 April 1561 (TNA PRO 22/60/3)

Much early modern English diplomacy was conducted by letter. Rulers corresponded with one another on a fairly regular basis even when they had ambassadors continually stationed at one another’s courts. If we are to understand fully how early modern diplomacy was practiced, then it is important for us to understand how such royal correspondence functioned, especially as early modern letter writing was fraught with difficulties that we rarely encounter today.  In later seventeenth-century France, for instance, conventions had developed about how people of a lower social status should correspond with their social superiors or equals. Writers had to pay attention to how their letter was laid out, what forms of address they used (how familiar should they be? should they include the person’s full titles?) and what material it was written on. If they got it wrong, they risked offending the person to whom they were writing or even disgracing themselves.[1] Letters, then, were an important means by which people established and maintained their place in political society.

The words and rhetoric that a writer used not only put forward the argument s/he wanted to make, they also asserted his or her status and revealed how the writer viewed the recipient. So many early modern letter writers had to walk a fine line between claiming status and conceding it when dealing with fellow politicians. Early modern rulers faced this problem writ large: they wanted their letters to demonstrate their superiority to the person to whom they were writing, even if that was another king or queen, but they did not want to offend or alienate their correspondent. And they had to do this while maintaining amicable relations. Rulers had to be careful what they wrote for another reason: if they made claims that were too bold or promised specific policies, then they were honour bound to fulfil their word. If they did not, then they would lose respect and status in international society, where honour was a valuable commodity. Letters, then, could leave hostages to fortune if a monarch was not careful. But if a ruler was too vague, or if s/he criticised a fellow monarch too harshly, then their letter might create a breach in international relations, rather than furthering their friendship. How then could rulers show their power and magnificence without overstepping the mark? And how might they use the appearance of their letters to say things that they could not, or should not, write down?

SP 102 49 5The physical nature of the letter could be used to communicate political ideas and make political claims. This meant that it too had to be negotiated delicately if it were to have the desired effect. As you can see, the visual impact of some of the Russian tsars’ letters to Elizabeth was quite striking.

In recent years, historians and literary scholars have both become much more interested in material culture. We are appreciating that how a text looked, felt, and even smelled can tell us something about what its author intended and how it was used.[2] When it comes to manuscript collections of poetry, for instance, physical evidence such as the type(s) of ink used and how the pages were bound together can help to reveal in what order the poems were written, how individual poems were adapted, and how the collection of verses was compiled.[3]

charles to teh tsarWe can get some ideas about what rulers aimed to do with illuminated correspondence if we examine a single letter: the second letter Elizabeth I of England sent to Ivan IV of Russia (Ivan the Terrible). Heavily damaged, as you can see from the image at the top of the page, it is highly decorated in colour (sadly I only have a black and white image). But some idea of how vivid English letters to Russia were can be gained from this image of one of Charles I’s letters.

Elizabeth’s letter was written in Latin. An English translation was published by Richard Hakluyt in the later sixteenth century in one of his volumes on the English ‘discoveries’ of the non-European world.[4] It was one of the most elaborately decorated letters sent by Elizabeth.[5]

Elizabeth’s letter complicates our task of understanding the role of royal correspondence because the two rulers did not share a common language.[6] French, Italian and Latin were widely used in European diplomacy in the sixteenth century. English, however, was not considered important enough to be mentioned in diplomatic handbooks as a useful language. Elizabeth once boasted that Russian looked like Greek (which she knew) so she was sure that if she had enough time she would be able to learn it very quickly.[7] But she never did.

While Elizabeth was fluent in Latin, Ivan was not. Indeed Ivan knew only Russian.[8] Why then did she write in a language that Ivan did not understand and that the Russians refused to use? Latin was widely used in European diplomacy and was understood by many churchmen and civil servants. In the earliest years of Anglo-Russian relations there was therefore every reason to suspect that it would be easier to find someone at Ivan’s court who could translate Latin than English. But Richard Chancellor, who had established direct contact between the English and the Russian tsar, had already found that the Russians would not use Latin in their diplomacy.

There are two further possible motives for Elizabeth’s choice of language. First, it might be a subtle way of asserting her greater cultural sophistication. Secondly, her diplomats’ Latinity gave them greater control in determining the meaning of the letter’s translation into Russian. This may seem like a moot point, as we might expect translations to be an accurate reflection of the text on which they were based. But recent scholarship has shown that translations could differ quite considerably from the original, to the extent that we might want to think of them as original works in their own right.[9] There is even evidence that at least one of Elizabeth’s ambassadors took some liberties when translating her letters for far distant powers.[10] So Elizabeth might well have been wary of surrendering control of the translation to another ruler’s bureaucrats.

As Elizabeth and Ivan did not share a common language we might expect him simply to have consulted a translation prepared by his foreign office staff. Yet we can be fairly confident that he did see the original and gave it some scrutiny. Anthony Jenkinson, the diplomat who delivered the letter, insisted that he would only present it to Ivan and refused to let anyone else see it in advance. Jenkinson was eventually allowed to deliver it to Ivan directly and reported that the tsar had received the letter gratefully.[11]

Early modern diplomatic conventions meant that royal letters were considered precious. They represented the rulers who sent them and so diplomatic etiquette required that they be shown respect. Spending some time perusing the letter was one way to show that it had been favourably received, meaning that even Elizabeth’s English letters were highly likely to be scrutinised, however briefly, by the tsar. 

image2This letter’s appearance was intended to communicate messages about Elizabeth and her intentions towards Ivan. First let’s consider what the layout of the letter tells us. The formatting of the letter suggests bureaucratic control: the calligraphy is neat, ordered and the text is framed by decoration. Elizabeth’s name appears in a larger font than the main body of the letter, suggesting it is the most important text on the page, an impression reinforced by the large decorated capital E that opens the letter. In Russia, like in Europe, manuscripts often contained historiated (i.e. decorated) letters, so Ivan would have understood its meaning. He might also have appreciated that Elizabeth had put personal consideration and time into the letter – as indicated by her signature at the bottom – and had thereby shown him due respect, even if he later expressed exasperation at the English queen’s habit of not using a consistent seal to sign her letters.


The decoration reveals more about Elizabeth, her rule, and her dynastic credentials. The symbol of the closed crown, which denoted imperial rule, appears several times in the illumination, where it usually emphasises one of Elizabeth’s royal symbols. In the letter, Elizabeth flattered Ivan by recognising his imperial status as ‘Emperour of all Russia’. She thanked him for the favours that had been shown to Englishmen in Ivan’s empire and for the tsar writing letters under ‘your Imperiall seale’ that had recommended Jenkinson to other rulers. The inclusion of imperial crowns in the decoration of the letter visually asserted Elizabeth’s equal status with Ivan: it suggested that Elizabeth also ruled over an empire.

image6Much of the decoration asserts Elizabeth’s dynastic claims through Tudor badges and her legitimacy through royal motifs. The wreathed portcullis on the left alluded to Elizabeth’s Beaufort ancestors (from whom her grandfather Henry VII was descended); the wreathed Tudor rose that mirrors it on the right symbolised the joining of the houses of York and Lancaster in the Tudor line. The capital E opening letter contained the royal motto – dieu et mon droit (God and my right) – under the English royal arms. Some of the motifs were more personal to Elizabeth, such as the wreathed ER with knotwork was a monogram of Elizabetha Regina (Queen Elizabeth).

The floral decoration also made claims. The roses were a common symbol used by the Tudors, while the lilies alluded to the English claim to the French throne. Pansies were a favourite flower of Elizabeth and probably also symbolised thoughtfulness.[12] Other decoration in the border contains flowers including the red (Lancastrian) rose, while lilies allude to claims to France. If Ivan had not understood the precise meaning of the Tudor badges and the floral decoration, he could have asked Jenkinson to explain them to him, which would have given the ambassador an opportunity to relate an abridged history of the Tudor dynasty. Certainly, when Ivan had received his first letters from an English monarch, he had used these as a prompt to learn more about England and its king.[13]

Here then, we can see just how much importance rulers attached to the physical nature of their letters when negotiating with foreign rulers. The elaborate decoration implied that Elizabeth was a magnificent ruler, but that such effort had been put into the letter suggested that she considered Ivan to be a worthy and important ruler too. This reinforced the language Elizabeth used in the letter, which praised the ‘goodnesse’ of Ivan’s nature, his magnificence, abundant grace, and benevolence.

Indeed, the visual rhetoric of the letter complemented the relationship that Elizabeth sought to construct with Ivan through its text. She thanked Ivan for the privileges he had granted to English merchants trading in Russia and for the personal favour he had shown to Elizabeth’s ‘welbeloved’ servant, Jenkinson. Elizabeth also suggested that she would reciprocate, advocating a meet and mutual trading relationship. She hoped that their friendship would ‘endure to the praise of God, to both our glories, to the publike great commoditie of our Realmes on either part, and to the private desired hope, and certeine felicitie of all our subjects’.

While almost all of Elizabeth’s extant letters to Ivan have some form of decoration, this one is unusually elaborate. The reason for this is found in the text of the letter. Elizabeth was not only thanking Ivan for granting English merchants favourable trading privileges in Russia  but also asking that he allow Jenkinson to travel through his lands on a speculative mission to Persia to establish trade relations there. It had the desired effect: Jenkinson soon left for Persia with introductory letters from the tsar.


[1] Giora Sternberg has written about this. See G. Sternberg, ‘Epistolary Ceremonial: Corresponding Status at the Court of Louis XIV’, Past and Present, 204 (2009), pp. 33-88.

[2] For instance James Daybell & Peter Hinds (eds), Material Readings of Early Modern Culture: Texts and Social Practices, 1580-1730 (Basingstoke, 2010).

[3] For example Jason Powell, ‘Thomas Wyatt’s Poetry in Embassy: Egerton 2711 and the Production of Literary Manuscripts Abroad’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 67.2 (2004), pp. 261-84.

[4] A transcription of the Latin text is printed in Y. Tolstoi, The First Forty Years of Intercourse between England and Russia (St Petersburg, 1875), pp. 17-19. The original survives in Moscow and there is a copy in the National Archives. A Latin transcription and English translation are published in R. Hakluyt, The principal nauigations, voyages, traffiques and discoueries of the English nation (London, 1599-1600), pp. 338-340. (Also available in Morgan and Coote (eds.), Early Voyages to Russia and Persia (London, 1886), vol. 1, pp. 109-112.)

[5] Many of Elizabeth’s letters to Russia contained some decoration, most commonly historiated initials.

[6] Anna Riehl Bertolet, ‘The Tsar and the Queen: “ You speak a language that I understand not’, in Charles Beem (ed.), The Foreign Relations of Elizabeth I (Basingstoke, 2011), pp. 109-112.

[7] Rayne Allinson, A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth I (Basingstoke, 2012), pp. 114-5.

[8] Tolstoi, First Forty Years, p. 85. In a later letter Elizabeth explained that she wrote in English because she had been informed that it was easier to translate than Latin (see Tolstoi, First Forty Years, p. 312).

[9] See for example F. Schurinck (ed.), Tudor Translation (Basingstoke, 2011).

[10] Allinson, Monarchy of Letters, pp. 147-8.

[11] Hakluyt, Principal nauigations, p. 344.

[12] Lisa Klein, ”Your Humble Handmaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework,” Renaissance Quarterly, 50 (1997), pp. 477-8.

[13] Hakluyt, Principal nauigations, p. 249.


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