Monday, February 20, 2012

Question from Nick - Elizabeth I's other motto

I wanted to ask about origin of the motto of the queen Elizabeth I "video et taceo". Thanks for any response.


Anonymous said...

It was her political motto "I see and say nothing""

Foose said...

This is a tough one. I had assumed it was a Latin tag adopted by Elizabeth (or recommended by her advisors) because it had a specific resonance with some ancient anecdote or history.

However, I couldn't find anything conclusive. I did find a number of modern scholarly sources that cited an essay by Mary Thomas Crane, "Video et Taceo: Elizabeth I and the Rhetoric of Counsel" that is found in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (1988), as the last word on the subject. The essay is not available to read on Google Books. I strongly recommend that you consult this work if you can, because the other sources I looked at seemed to consider it definitive, although unfortunately they did not reproduce Crane's arguments.

Some other interesting lines of thought I came across, although Crane's essay may sweep them all aside:

-The motto may have originally been used by Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster, and later assumed by her.

-Walsingham (and Elizabeth) were well acquainted with Sir John Mason, a Tudor secret agent who went on diplomatic missions with, among others, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder during the height of Henrician paranoia. Mason had adopted the decidedly more sinister motto, "Do, and say nothing," which appears not be a Latin tag but something he cooked up. Walsingham may have modified it to fit his own, more passive, role as organizer and supervisor of a network of agents.

-According to some sources, Elizabeth may have utilized it for the first time in 1568, as her devise for the “Grand Lotterie.” Mary Queen of Scots landed that year in England and was imprisoned; possibly the motto may have been chosen in reference to this event, but I don’t have information on how far ahead lottery subscribers had to submit their mottoes or devises.

-Rosalind Miles, author of I, Elizabeth suggests the motto came from Cicero's orations against Catiline. Although her book is a novel, Miles is a Ph.D., and the equation of Elizabeth's own political situation (multiple conspiracies by partisans of Mary Queen of Scots) with Cicero's as consul of Rome, when he did indeed “watch and wait,” seems appropriate.

-However, I can't find Cicero using the exact words "Video et taceo" in his Catilinian orations. Nor does it appear in Sallust's Catiline Conspiracy as far as I can make out, but I confess my enthusiasm for running searches on vast Latin passages using multiple variations of "video et taceo" in all the conjugations rather flagged after a while. Cicero is fond of the verb "tacere," which is often translated "to pass over in silence," suggesting that one knows more than one considers prudent to tell. He employs it a lot rhetorically, enumerating his opponent's crimes and then stagily intoning, "But I pass over this," to show his magnanimity after having ensured the jury knew the worst. I did find the "video, taceo" pairing (in a different conjugation) in his oration for Sextus Roscius, but Roscius was accused of parricide, which does not really fit Elizabeth's situation.

-According to her contemporary Camden, the best mottoes were "in some different language, wittie, short, and answerable thereunto neither too obscure nor too plaine, most commended when it is a Hemistich or parcell of a verse." So it is likely that there is some specific allusion associated with “video et taceo” (also “video, taceo”). Camden, in discussing the queen's motto, associates it with a device she used separately, with no motto - that of the sieve, denoting prudence. Jacqueline Broad and Karen Green's Virtue, Liberty and Toleration argues that <”video et taceo” conjoined with “semper eadem” allude “to an important feature of prudence, which is that it encompasses the knowledge of when to speak and when to be silent."