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Source: p 101, Lives and letters of the Devereux, earls of Essex, by Walter Bourchier Devereux

[p 100 states that this letter was undated, but the penultimate sentence on p99 (ie the last sentence of the previous letter) contains 1575, so I think that this was the year.] No XVIII.’ The Queen to Essex.

Right trusty and well beloved Cousin, greeting. Having seen certain offers and requests made by you unto our Deputy in your letter of the 15th of this present directed to our Council, by the which you do not only shew yourself providently careful to avoid the inconvenience that might have ensued by the sudden giving over of the enterprize for the reformation of Ulster, but also, for the preventing of such mischiefs as were likely to ensue thereby, was content to spoil yourself of that reputation that birth and desert hath cast upon you, offering to serve under our Deputy there in place not answerable to your state and calling; ...

How do you determine/deduce the subject of the predicate starting with was? It can't be the greyed you, bcecauseyou requires a plural verb. Yet I still believe that the Queen is referring to Earl, because she is discussing how the Earl wills to forgo his reputation to 'serve under our Deputy' in a place beneath his noble 'state and calling'?

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  • Is "giving over or the enterprize" in the original?
    – TimR
    Jan 11, 2015 at 12:56
  • @TRomano Thank you! I missed that error; I can't spell-check these old writings because otherwise, all the other antiquated spellings would be lost.
    – user8712
    Jan 11, 2015 at 16:57
  • I expect a first-person pronoun, "I". Having seen your letters, I ...
    – TimR
    Jan 11, 2015 at 17:00
  • @TRomano Thanks. My problem is that exactly! So I also remain mystified.
    – user8712
    Jan 11, 2015 at 17:01
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    My first thought is that the author got confused while writing the sentence. Surely yourself indicates that the subject is you. But on second thought, I don't know enough about Elizabethan English to rule out the possibility that you was was felt to be grammatical.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jan 12, 2015 at 11:13

2 Answers 2

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Could the subject be "you"? Historically, "you was" was used occasionally for the "singular you", but I am surprised Queen Elizabeth used it. The OED says that this usage was widespread "in the late 17th and early 18th centuries"; this is earlier than that, but it could already have been in occasional use.

The structure is:

by the which you do not only shew yourself providently careful ..., but also ... was content to spoil yourself of that reputation ...

If you replace the "was" by "were", then it would be clear that the subject of "were" is "you". Since "you was" was in use at that time for "singular you" (which previously had been a plural pronoun), it seems likely that this is an instance of "you was".

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Wow, that is a monster of a sentence!

I cannot see any subject that would apply to "was". My first thought was that an "I" had been dropped, which is sometimes done to abbreviate letters. But "I" makes no sense there, and "we" is used later.

I suspect that either the publisher or the author made a mistake, and that "was" should not be there. The "not only" clause makes more sense without it:

...you do not only shew yourself providently careful..., but also, ... content to spoil yourself of that reputation that birth and desert hath cast upon you...

In modern English, this would mean something like:

You have shown yourself to be not only careful to avoid trouble, but also content to take a job that is beneath you for the sake of duty.

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  • The letter was written by Queen Elizabeth. Surely she could not err in grammer.
    – user6951
    Feb 10, 2015 at 19:31
  • Perhaps not, but Walter Devereux could certainly have erred in transcription.
    – Adam Haun
    Feb 10, 2015 at 21:11

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