Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part I: Not such a Virgin Queen; or, that’s one DNA test I’d like to see the results of!

Jonathan Willis

This post is the first in what may (or may not) become an occasional series about the ravings of assorted Elizabethan ‘madmen’.  This is a topic I’ve become quite interested in recently, after stumbling over some fascinating letters in the state papers.  This has nothing to do with a desire to procrastinate because I need to start writing up my monograph on the Ten Commandments.  Nothing at all…

Anyway, the letter I want to talk about today is one I came across quite accidentally because of its proximity to another letter which I have been using in my teaching and research.  The calendar entry for said letter reads as follows:

Miles Fry, a madman (who calls himself Emanuel Plantagenet), to Lord Burghley; saying he has an embassage from God to the Queen his (Fry’s) mother, he himself being the son of God and Queen Elizabeth, but was taken from her by the angel Gabriel and carried to one Mrs. Fry to be kept by her for a time, June 28, 1587.

A small amount of digging confirms that the letter is certainly not unknown to history or historians: other than its presence in the catalogue of the Lansdowne MSS, it also features in Henry Ellis’ nineteenth century edition of Original Letters, Illustrative of English History, and it merits a (very) brief mention in Christopher Haigh’s important biography of Elizabeth I.  Still, the letter was new to me, and I expect that the contents are unfamiliar to all but the geekiest Tudorphiles.

Miles Fry's mother?

Miles Fry’s mother?

The letter itself is relatively brief – just over half a single side – and, for a ‘madman’, Fry has a style which is lucid and concise, and a hand which is surprisingly legible to the modern reader (it beats most Tudor churchwardens’ accounts, that’s for sure!).  The concision and neat appearance of the letter, however, belie its extraordinary contents.  Addressed ‘To the right honourable the lord burley, lord tresorar of the queen of england’, it begins:

My lord I am sent an embassador from god the father unto the quenes highness to declare unto her that I am the sonne of the both…

Now that is an episode of Jerry Springer I would actually want to watch!  Fry explained to Burghley that, after his birth he was taken from Elizabeth to ‘one mistres ffry’ by the angel Gabriel ‘for to be kept’; but that ‘the time of this keeping is ended’, and that Fry had been sent by God to reveal himself to his mother.  His true name revealed both his royal and divine origins, for he signed his letter off, ‘your honors to use emanuel plantagenet’.  For Christopher Haigh, the significance of this event lay in the fact that ‘the official image of Elizabeth as virgin mother of her people … seems to have been effective – even if it was taken too literally by some’.[1]  That is certainly true.  Fry explains that he writes his letter because he is ‘in great extremity and redi to perish for lak of helpe’.

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer...

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer…

His divine ‘embasage’ and royal birth, however, mean that Fry also demanded a personal audience with the Queen.  He was nothing if not persistent.  In his letter to Burghley, he explained that he had made first made a similar plea to Sir Francis Walsingham some four years previously, and that Walsingham had ‘promised to helpe me unto the queen but did it not’.  In the intervening time, Fry wrote letters to the queen herself, assorted members of her counsel, and again to Walsingham, with whom he even claimed he had spoken ‘at divers times’.  Leaving aside the contents of his communications, this tale highlights the extraordinary ease which ordinary people could speak to the powers-that-were in Tudor England, even if they could not necessarily expect a response.

And not that his letters did Miles Fry much good.  As he lamented, ‘I am so far from helpe of my ladi that I have not the favour of a subiect in her relme thou I be her sonne: and during this sute I have bin hardli used’.  This, he explained to Burghley, was his last attempt to force the Queen ‘to accept me for her sonne’.  Thirty-five year old Miles was the (adopted?) son of John and Jone Fry, and he claimed that Burghley knew John Fry ‘wel’.  The Fry clan lived near Axminster in Devon, and Fry (writing from ‘the signe of the rose and crowne in Saint Johns street beyond smithfelde in london’) explained that it was not convenient (and it was too expensive) for him to remain in the capital for long.  The consequences of refusing to help him, Fry threatened, were not only that ‘immediatli upon my returne thither I shal end my life’ but that, as a consequence, god would ‘punish this land’.

Fry’s embassy was not only one of family reunion and material aid, however.  He explained:

My calling is not to redeme the worde but to shewe the end of generation and the love between christ and his church: which Salomon began to do and did it amisse…

History does not record the fate of Miles Fry, a.k.a. Emanuel Plantagenet.  Dismissed by the state papers as a ‘madman’ and ‘distempred in his wytts’, we can be fairly confident that his plea was also dismissed by Burghley, and it seems unlikely that a story with such a sad beginning can have had a very happy ending.  Fry was clearly a somewhat disturbed character, but it seems likely that the fiction he created was, in part at least, a response to an extremely difficult reality.  His misguided insistence that he was the queen’s son was juxtaposed several times with the desperate plea that he was not even being treated as favourably as ‘the quenes pore subiects’.  Perhaps because of the realisation that his life was of such little value that the threat of suicide was no threat at all, Fry attempted to gain greater leverage by appealing to a providential framework, in which a failure to treat him with charity would bring down the wrathful judgement of his divine progenitor.  In many respects Fry had a lot going for him: he was literate, educated, and possessed the wherewithal to make the one-hundred-and-fifty mile trip from his home to London (indeed, it seems likely that he had made the 300 mile round trip several times before).  He knew not only how to write, but also who to write to, even if his attempts to persuade were clumsy and heavy-handed.  Goodness only knows what his elderly parents made of their son’s delusions, but if we ever needed more evidence that ordinary people in Tudor England could be just as troubled, complex, thoughtful and pathetic (in the sense of arousing compassion) as in society today, then we have it in Miles Fry.

[1] Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I (London: Pearson, 1998), p. 161.

7 thoughts on “Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part I: Not such a Virgin Queen; or, that’s one DNA test I’d like to see the results of!

  1. Fry is certainly a fascinating case! Of course I am most interested in the fact that it is Gabriel that spirits Fry away after his birth. Gabriel’s association with Christ’s birth makes him a natural protagonist in that regard, but I can’t help also thinking that it is fairies who usually steal babies from their beds (often replacing them with a fairy child, or changeling). Fry’s narrative may well have been influenced by both traditions I suppose.

    • Thanks Laura, that’s really interesting; I either didn’t know or had forgotten that about fairies, and it makes total sense that he is combining stories from the bible with traditional folk beliefs. What I can’t quite make up my mind about is whether he actually believed his own fantastical birth narrative, or whether it was an elaborately-constructed and quite deliberate rhetorical ploy. I suspect the truth probably contained elements of both…

  2. It’s very consistent with a grandiose delusional state. I’ve known modern cases in which people had very fixed delusions of noble, and in one case royal, birth despite humble upbringing. One of them wrote regularly to Buckingham Palace seeking legitimation/recognition. It doesn’t necessarily prevent the person managing a reasonably normal day to day life.

    • Thanks Neil, it’s fascinating to have a modern comparison for this sort of behaviour. That sounds like a perfect description of Fry. Clearly in most other respects he was a perfectly ‘typical’ Tudor subject, and even his delusion is consonant with the religio-cultural framework of the time. Fascinating!

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