Gregorio Leti was an Italian historian of the 17th century who wrote about many different topics. He wrote widely on the papacy, including a life of Pope Sixtus V, a contemporary of Elizabeth I (Vita di Sisto Quinto). Leti wrote also about the Emperor Charles V and Philip II of Spain, as well as a multi-volume history about Li segreti di stato de i prencipi dell’Europa, and a work on the Bourbon dynasty of France, and especially Louis XIV: Teatro gallico, o vero La monarchia della Real Casa di Borbone in Francia, sotto i regni di Henrico 4. Luigi 13. e Luigi 14. ma più in particolare, della vita, allevamento, progressi, … del regnante rè, detto Luigi il Grande.
Leti is interesting to Tudorphiles, though, through his work, Historia o vero vita di Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, detta per sopranome la comediante politica, in two volumes. Though he describes her as “the political comedian” (in the sense of actress) in the title, the book is very sympathetic to both Elizabeth and her mother, Anne Boleyn. After all, Leti was a Protestant, and he had to leave Italy to avoid persecution. He visited England and the English archives in 1661, during the reign of Charles II, and later wrote also La Vie d’Olivier Cromwel, printed at Amsterdam in 1694. The Elizabeth book also appeared at Amsterdam, in 1693.
Leti did use authentic documents and letters he found in the archives of the English crown, yet he freely invented many more. It is not too difficult to see which letters are authentic and which are Leti’s invention, for he typically uses phrases and describes things which would not have been mentioned by the personages who supposedly wrote the letters.
Still, he often used well-known situations in the lives of his protagonists and embellished them according to the romantic leanings of his readers. Thus, a writer like Agnes Strickland in the mid-19th century was still very inclined to rely on Leti’s supposed letters: Though she realized this was problematic, she believed it was more a matter of Leti’s style and language than the actual contents.
In his biography of Elizabeth, Leti invented quite a lot of letters – a letter she supposedly wrote to her sister, Mary, and a letter she supposedly wrote to her de facto guardian and stepfather, Thomas Seymour. Leti also invented a supposed letter from Robert Dudley to Elizabeth when she was imprisoned as princess:
I cannot recall my own disgrace and that of my family without being filled with grief; but I can assure you that all this is as nought in comparison with the grief which your imprisonment causes me, and all the more as I find myself where I can be of no assistance to you. I have obtained my pardon by the help of King Philip at the peril of my life [Leti was aware that Robert and his surviving brothers had served with Philip in France, and that the youngest brother Henry had lost his life in battle], and my recall to this country on the recommendation of that Prince, with my rehabilitation in honours and dignities; but I would give all these with pleasure if they would exchange my liberty for your confinement.
The Queen, your sister, has received me favourably [here Leti alludes to the fact that Robert had personally brought the news that Philip was returning to England to the queen], at the end indicating that I must manage myself with prudence in all that has regard to you. …
I have but just escaped losing my life by the sentence of the judges, but I am able to assure you that I would really lose it with pleasure if that would serve you or procure your liberty. I am re-established in the possession of all the fortune of my family, but of what good is it all, if it is not permitted to me to use it in aiding you in the matter of money, of which I learn you are in need? I assure you, my dear Princess, that all I have is yours, money, life, service, and that I would consider myself the happiest man in the world if I could pour out my blood in your service. …
The Lady who will take this letter to you has two hundred pounds sterling in hand. I pray you to accept of them if you have need of them, and to see in the meantime what he who only hopes to obey you may do for you and show his zeal for you.1
It remains to be said that Robert Dudley was himself in financial difficulties in the years between his family’s downfall and Elizabeth’s accession to the crown, and it can be ruled out that he would have been able to send her a sum like £200 (which was a huge sum). He would certainly not have sent such an amount of money by “a lady”.
Still, Leti did not invent the basic theme of Robert Dudley helping the princess out with money. There exists a contemporary account, by the Burgundian statesman Hubert Languet, that mentions a similar story. Languet, who was then in the service of the Duke of Saxony, had heard in June 1561 at Antwerp that Elizabeth had replied to criticism of her intimacy with Robert Dudley that she did not intend to marry him, but that
she was more attached to him than to any of the others because when she was deserted by everybody in the reign of her sister not only did he never lessen in any degree his kindness and humble attention to her, but he even sold his possessions that he might assist her with money, and therefore she thought it just that she should make some return for his good faith and constancy.2
It is not very likely, however, that Gregorio Leti received the information about a gift of money from Robert Dudley to Elizabeth via Languet’s 1561 letter; this letter was only printed in 1699 and was not kept in an English archive. It seems therefore probable that Leti heard the story in England.
1 Frederick Chamberlin, Elizabeth and Leycester, 1939, pp. 91-92
2 Frederick Chamberlin, Elizabeth and Leycester, 1939, pp. 93-94