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Royalty in Classic Literature

By Megan Powell and Hannah Spruce


With the deeply moving news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the classics team was inspired by her remarkable seventy years of service. This got us thinking about how royalty and monarchy have been depicted throughout English literature. Regency is almost synonymous with many of our beloved Classic novels, and through this theme there have been various depictions of heads of state. This is not just limited to a King and/or Queen figure, with many additional titles being explored, i.e. Dukes, Duchesses, Viscounts, etc. Therefore, we have decided to compile some of our favourite depictions in celebration of this British tradition.


Not only have we decided to discuss fictional novels, but also examples of classic poetry. To remain topical, we have decided to keep this exploration to Queens. Through this we can see how real life examples of British leaders inspired such beautiful poetical works, often reflective of attitudes of the time. These examples will also feature works from Queens themselves, most notably Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I.


Roman Emperors


I, Claudius by Robert Graves


Published in 1934, this historical novel depicts the history of the Roman Emperor Claudius. This novel is in an autobiographical style and although it is a work of historical fiction, many of the significant events are based on true accounts. The plot follows Claudius's account of the reigns of emperors of Rome, from Augustus through to Claudius's own demise. Through this autobiographical exploration, Graves is able to depict the tyranny and cruelty that came before Claudius. As this novel follows Claudius from a young age, the reader is able to witness attitudes of those surrounding him while on his own path to becoming Emperor. His character juxtaposes those that came before him as he documents the unfolding events.


Although this novel isn’t strictly about the British monarchy, Graves was a British author and captures this aspect of Roman history in a fascinating and captivating way. The style of the novel really brings to life the events in the expanding Roman Empire through the eyes of Claudius and lends itself to presenting the royal theme which this feature is exploring. Anyone interested in Roman history will enjoy this book through the unique and at times humorous storytelling.


Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I


Whoso List to Hunt by Thomas Wyatt


Wyatt’s sonnet, written in the 16th century, has been studied on the English curriculum for some time as I myself analysed this poem at A Level. It is the one poem that has stayed with me, and it is easy to understand why. This archaic poem has been argued to represent an unrequited hunt for love between the poet himself and Queen Anne Boleyn – with Anne being embodied by a metaphorical deer. This rumoured love affair is depicted in the iambic pentameter with allusion to “Ceaser” representing King Henry VIII at the antithesis of the poem.


The monarchy in the 15th and 16th centuries was a stark contrast to the institution today, which is much more intertwined with the public interest. The poetry attributed to Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, suggests an intimate portrait of their feelings and humanises these much revered women of the royal family. The poem 'O Death Rock Me Asleep' is suggested to have been written by Anne Boleyn before her execution in 1536. It offers a heartbreaking and desperate reconciliation of the unfortunate fate which awaits her. The poem repeats the phrase “Death doth draw nigh, There is no remedy” which highlights the helplessness and futility of her situation and the sense of impending fear. Boleyn is wishing for Death to bring comfort from her present suffering as she bids “Farewell my pleasures past, Welcome my present pain.” The use of plosives creates a sharp and impactful effect as Boleyn acknowledges her fall from grace. Within the poem, Boleyn uses the word “guiltless” which offers a stark admission of her innocence in contrast to her more carefully cultivated speech prior to her execution.


Her daughter, Elizabeth I, was an equally strong willed woman, and her poem When I Was Fair and Young offers a personal outlook of her position as the Virgin Queen. Known to be defensive when faced with questions of love and succession, the poem is a regretful account of her dismissiveness when she was younger due to pride and vanity. It is reflective as the ageing Queen recounts the suitors of her past and her realisation that she may now be unable to love. The poem is a contrast to the image of Queen Elizabeth who sought to publicly reject feminine sensibilities in order to be taken seriously in a patriarchal era. Beyond her own poetry, Elizabeth is said to have been a literary inspiration for Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare.

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