In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and Their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England

By Peter Beal | Go to book overview

4
'Hoping they shall only come to your merciful eyes': Sidney's Letter to Queen Elizabeth and its transmission

During the course of the year 1579 one of the crucial episodes in the life of Queen Elizabeth I came to a head. This was the proposal that she should marry François, Duc d'Alençon (who was by now also Duc d'Anjou), brother of Henri III of France. He was the Frenchman she affectionately called her 'little frog', and who may be the one immortalized in the nursery rhyme 'A frog he would a-wooing go'.1 The proposal, first mooted in 1572, had been rumbling along for seven years; but negotiations took a significant new turn in 1579 when Alençon's agent, Jean de Simier, was sent over to plead his cause to the Queen with more than customary ardour and eloquence; when the 46- year-old Virgin Queen gave unexpected indications that she was at last taking him seriously, even consulting physicians for advice on whether a woman of her age could still safely bear children; and when her Council realized, with alarm, if not horror, that the next heir to the English throne might well be a Frenchman and a Papist.2

As we know, the scheme eventually evaporated. It has often been said that of all her nominal suitors--and despite the likely persistence until 1578 of Leicester's ambition to marry the Queen--Alençon was, in a sense, the only serious candidate for a husband Elizabeth ever had, and that she knew it. With his departure, and the fizzling-out of negotiations, the possibility of her marrying and bearing children was closed for ever.

While the threat was perceived to be real, there was immense public concern and a deep division of opinion. Supporting the alliance was, most notably, the Queen's trusted Secretary of State Lord Burghley, as well as the Earl of Sussex. Strongly against the match was a larger faction headed by the Queen's old favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, together with, notably, Sir Francis Walsingham, supported by Henry, Earl

____________________
1
Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier poet ( New Haven, 1991), 161. The possible connection with Alençon is not recorded in The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes, ed. Iona and Peter Opie ( Oxford, 1951; reprinted 1983), 177-81, where the earliest recorded version of the song is given as that in Thomas Ravenscroft Melismata ( 1611).
2
For an account of the Alençon marriage proceedings and of the earnest and complex political circumstances which gave rise to them, see especially Blair Worden, The sound of virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan politics ( New Haven, 1996), 71-124.

-109-

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