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Imperial Letters

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Imperial Letters

Through the centuries, Chinese emperors corresponded with popes via merchants and missionaries, but at the turn of the seventeenth century England had yet to make its first contact.  Eager to establish direct trade with China in an era dominated by the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish, Queen Elizabeth I wrote letters to the “Emperour of Cathaye.”  English adventurers never succeeded in delivering her letters either because they fell victim to piracy or because they tried to reach China by way of America. These fruitless attempts spawned at least one literary prank in the form of a fake letter to Queen Elizabeth purported to be from the Emperor of China.

Collection of letters, etc. Manuscript, ca. 1582-ca. 1615

This counterfeit letter (shown above) was copied into an early seventeenth-century letterbook, and was probably intended as a joke. It pretends to be a reply to the queen’s own letter to the emperor of China sent via the merchant Benjamin Wood in 1596. Wood’s fleet disappeared off the coast of present-day Myanmar. The punch line to the joke is the supposedly outrageous date, “25000.” This alludes to the challenge posed by China’s historical records which predated the beginning of the world as it was understood from the bible. Only a Jesuit like Matteo Ricci could have translated the emperor’s reply, which is why the copy is in Italian. (Read more about this counterfeit letter, including a transcription, here.)


The reply may have been a fake, but Queen Elizabeth did send letters to China. A beautifully illuminated manuscript letter (at right) signed by Queen Elizabeth was sent with George Weymouth in May of 1602 on an expedition to find a northwest passage to China. The letter expressed hope that a “mutual benefit amity, and frenshipe may growe, and be established between us.” But the two-vessel fleet finally turned back in August 1602 after reaching only as far as Labrador. The letter survived in its original tin box along with the original translations that accompanied it in Latin, Spanish, and Italian (though only the English is illuminated). The letters were found in a private collection in Lancashire in the early twentieth century.


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Arnoldus Montanus. Atlas Chinensis. London, 1671

Queen Elizabeth I. Letter to the “Emperour of Cathaye.” Courtesy of the Lancashire Records Office.

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