In the spring of 1584 the English government (in the person of Sir Francis Walsingham) became aware of a new publication that had surfaced in France. Smuggled into England, The Copy of a Letter written by a Master of Arts of Cambridge quickly became a best-seller with underground booksellers. The next year it was translated into French. The authors are still unknown, but they were enemies of the Earl of Leicester, and also, apparently, of the queen. They were clearly Catholics in exile, probably former courtiers. In this book of some 300 pages Robert Dudley is engaged in a long-term conspiracy to snatch the crown from Elizabeth (guided by “seignor Machiavel, my lord’s counselor”). But the book is most famous nowadays for the spicy details of his supposed private life.
An ever-increasing avalanche of religious and political pamphlets was let loose on 16th century readers, and The Copy of a Letter …, later known as Leicester’s Commonwealth, was only one of many, although one of the most remarkable, both in terms of influence and literary quality. Peter Lake’s recent book Bad Queen Bess?: Libels, Secret Histories, and the Politics of Publicity in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I (2016) is a magisterial study of many of these pamphlets and the people behind them. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief minister, was apparently one of those, as was his son, Robert Cecil. They did not write up Leicester’s Commonwealth, of course, but Leicester’s Commonwealth has its very own chapter and pops up in many others. – Bad Queen Bess? is not an easy book to read, but utterly fascinating.