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Case 2 - English Translations of French Religious Works

Many aristocratic Englishwomen could read French, and were especially attracted to religious writings. Religion was a central part of daily life at a time when the Protestant church was relatively new in England and France, competing with the older Catholic tradition. Writing prayers and translating religious texts was an acceptable way for women to make their private voices heard publicly. Elizabeth I studied French, and, at the age of eleven, translated A Godly Meditation of the Christian Soul from the French of Marguerite de Navarre. Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, rendered Philippe de Mornay’s Discourse of Life and Death into English in 1592, and shortly thereafter, Baroness Elizabeth Richardson made her own abridgement and revision of Sidney’s translation in her commonplace book. The 1630 translation by Elizabeth Cary, viscountess Falkland of Jacques du Perron’s Reply . . . to the Answer of the most Excellent King of Great Britain provided an important voice for English Catholics in their ongoing debate with Protestants.

Marguerite de Navarre. A godly medytacyon of the christen sowle. Wesel, April 1548

Elizabeth Richardson (aka Elizabeth Ashburnham). Instructions for my children. Manuscript, 1606-ca. 1750

Elizabeth Richardson (aka Elizabeth Ashburnham). Instructions for my children. Manuscript, 1606-ca. 1750 (Detail)


At the age of eleven, Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, translated Marguerite de Navarre's A Godly Meditation of the Christian Soul for her stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr, as a 1545 New Year’s gift. Protestant reformer John Bale edited the work and had it published three years later in Germany, when Elizabeth was just fifteen. In the original manuscript, Elizabeth points out how the book feminizes the relationship between the individual soul and God, describing how “she [the soul] doth perceive how of herself . . . she can do nothing . . . unless it be through the grace of God, whose mother, daughter, sister, and wife by the Scriptures she proveth herself to be.”


Mary Sidney translated Philippe de Mornay's Discourse of Life and Death in 1592. Mornay was a leader of the French Huguenots and a close friend of the Sidney family, who were strong supporters of the Protestant cause. In the early seventeenth century, Elizabeth Ashburnham Richardson summarized Mary Sidney’s translation of Mornay and meditated on several points. She reduced the original thirty-one printed pages to four, with her own introduction and conclusion. Shown here are her manuscript and her signature.


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