Emily Rose, Books owned by a Renaissance queen: Elizabeth of Bohemia (1622)

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Books owned by a Renaissance queen: Elizabeth of Bohemia (1622)

Emily Rose  in De Gulden Passer, vol. 98 (2020), nr. 1, pp. 151–196


A newly discovered list of more than eighty books in four languages sent in 1622 from London by King James VI and I to his daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia (the “Winter Queen”) in exile at The Hague reveals broad political, literary and religious interests. These books (in English, French, “Dutch”, and Italian) were apparently handed down among several English queens: some derive from the collections of Elizabeth I and James’ wife Anna. Although Renaissance queens were doubly exceptional because of their status and gender, their activities as book collectors and readers have not previously been studied in detail. Elizabeth Stuart stands firmly in a tradition of British female royal ownership of renaissance libraries as exemplified particularly by her godmother, the last of the Tudor line, Queen Elizabeth I.

Along with conventional texts of the Reformed religion by leading theologians and disputants are a large number of history books, classics, and books on royalty. There were also texts by and about women, books on cosmology, geography, statecraft and diplomacy. The numerous texts by ancient authors are all in translation. Many of the volumes sent from Whitehall were among the “bestsellers” of the previous generation. Not one of these volumes is particularly striking; it is primarily as a collection and because of their royal provenance that the books are of special interest. Changes in taste may help to explain why many of the volumes on the list were sent from the royal collection. It seems likely that the ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia received volumes that her father did not care about; those for which there were duplicates; or those for which the Royal Library acquired more impressive or up-to-date copies. The volumes sent from Whitehall would have pleased the young queen for many reasons: as entertaining and relevant reading material; as family heirlooms and mementoes; and, most importantly for a deposed and exiled queen, as material symbols of her royal status.

This collection of books sent to Elizabeth Stuart in the Netherlands, heretofore unknown, adds important evidence to the growing appreciation of women’s book ownership in the first half of the seventeenth century. It contributes as well to information about early modern publishing history, the book trade, and the cultural life of royal families. The essay addresses important issues that touch on methodology, material culture, gender, reading versus book ownership, print and manuscript, learned versus vernacular languages, advisors and rulers, intellectual reception of the past, ideas about the Renaissance. The essay considers the use of books to advertise royal lineage and some of the roles they played in international relations and cultural patronage. The appendix to this essay reproduces the list in full and identifies particular editions where possible.