In the Days of Queen Elizabeth - E. M. Tappan

Entertaining a Queen

Many a monarch has liked to wander about his domains in disguise and hear what his subjects had to say about him when they did not suspect that he was near. Elizabeth thoroughly enjoyed journeying about her kingdom, but she did not wish to be disguised, she preferred that everyone should know where she was and should be able to sing her praises in such wise that she need not lose the pleasure of hearing them. These journeys of hers were called progresses, and while on a progress she was always entertained by some wealthy subject.

Whenever there was a rumor that the queen meant to leave town, every nobleman who owned a beautiful country seat would tremble, for while a royal visit was an honor, it was also a vast expense and responsibility. The queen would set out with a great retinue, but for what place no one was told until a few days before the journey began. If there was the least reason to think that she would go to a certain district, the noblemen of that district hastened to engage provisions of all sorts. The luckless favorite was at last told that the great honor of entertaining his sovereign was to be bestowed upon him. He had to appear exceedingly grateful and to make humble speeches of thankfulness, even though he was wondering between the words where he could buy meat and fish and fruit and other food for a great company.

As soon as the queen's messengers were out of sight, then was there a hurrying and a scurrying. In one case many of the nobles in a certain district were so afraid of being victims that they engaged all the provisions in the vicinity, and the unfortunate man who was first chosen had to send post-haste to Flanders to buy food for his unwelcome guests. One man provided for a royal visit of three days wheat, rye, oats, butter, partridges, trout, lobsters, beer, ale, wine, sugar loaves, turkeys, pheasants, salmon, deer, sheep, oysters, plums, preserved lemons, sweetmeats, cinnamon water, beef, ling, sturgeons, pigeons, etc. These eatables had to be obtained in large quantities; for instance, this three-days' host bought fifty-two dozen chickens for one item, and twenty bushels of salt for another.

Nor was this all. Damask, knives, and pewter dishes must be hired; carpenters and bricklayers must be engaged to make all sorts of changes in the house and grounds that might suit the whim of a queen who did not hesitate to express her opinions if she was displeased. Moreover, when this queen was entertained, she expected to find entertainment; dancers must be hired, and perhaps a whole company of actors must be engaged to present a play for her pleasure.

It is not at all wonderful that even the richest of Elizabeth's subjects dreaded a visit from their queen. The archbishop of Canterbury wrote a most pitiful letter about the difficulty of finding bedrooms for so great a party. He explained what he had planned, and ended, "Here is as much as I am able to do in this house." One man who had been notified that the queen would soon honor his castle wrote to Cecil, "I trust you will provide that her Majesty's stay be not above two nights and a day," and he added anxiously, "I pray God that the room and lodgings may be to her content."

This man, like the rest of Elizabeth's hosts, was not anxious without good reason, for the queen often manifested but slight gratitude for the efforts of her entertainers, while she seldom hesitated to express her disapproval if anything occurred that did not please her. At one house she discovered by chance an image of the Virgin Mary, and within a fortnight her host was in prison on the charge of being a Catholic. To another house she made an unexpected visit when the owner was away from home. The unfortunate lord had a fine deer park in which he took great pride, but on his return he found that large numbers of the deer had been slaughtered to amuse the queen and her retinue. He was so indignant that he "disparked" the ground. It seems that it was not safe for a man to do what he would with his own, for not many weeks later a friend of his at court wrote to him:—

"Her Majesty has been informed that you were not pleased at the good sport she had in your park. Have a wary watch over your words and deeds. It was Leicester who brought her to your castle. He has taken no small liking to it, and it might easily be that he would claim to have good title to the same."

The most brilliant of Elizabeth's entertainments was given her by Robert Dudley at Kenilworth Castle not long after he became Lord Leicester. For nineteen days he was her host, but he could well afford to make the outlay, for the queen's recent gifts to him were valued at 50,000, an amount that was worth as much then as a million and a quarter dollars to-day.

On this visit Elizabeth was received at a neighboring town and was feasted in a great tent. Then after a day's hunting she and her train arrived at the fine old castle with its manor lands of hill and dale, forest and pasture. It was already eight in the evening, but there were all sorts of sights for her to see before she entered the castle. First came forth ten sibyls in white silk, gleaming in the soft twilight. One of them made a speech of welcome, and the company passed into the tilt-yard. There stood a tall porter, big of limb and stern of countenance. He brandished a heavy club as he strutted to and fro, apparently talking to himself. He did not know, he declared, what all this chattering, riding, and trudging up and down was for, but he did not like it, and there was no one great enough to deserve it. Suddenly he saw the queen, and was so overcome by her beauty—so he said in his speech—that he could only fall down on his knees before her and beg her pardon. He gave her his keys and called his six trumpeters to announce the arrival of so wondrous a being.

On two sides of the castle there was a beautiful pool, and as the queen stepped upon the bridge that crossed an arm of the mere, a sudden light gleamed far out on the lake, and over the quiet water came a little floating island, all ablaze with torches. On the island was the fair Lady of the Lake, and with her were two attendant nymphs. The Lady recited a pretty poem to the purport that ever since King Arthur's days she had been hidden, not daring to come forth, but now a royal guest had come for whom she could feel as deep a love as for Arthur himself. She ended:—

"Pass on, madame, you need no longer stand,

The lake, the lodge, the lord are yours for to command."

With all her quickness of wit, Elizabeth could think of no better reply than, "We had thought the lake had been ours; and do you call it yours now? Well, we will herein commune more with you hereafter." Then came a great flourish of shawms, cornets, and other musical instruments, and the queen passed on. She was as eager as a child to see what was to be the next sight, for nothing gave her more pleasure than these displays.

Everyone was interested in mythology in those days, and no entertainment was regarded as complete without some reference to the gods and goddesses; cooks often represented in their pastry scenes from the stories of the early deities. Elizabeth's way now led over a bridge that crossed the lower court and extended to the entrance of the castle. On either hand were seven pairs of wooden pillars, each pair loaded with the gift of some god. On the first pair were the tokens of Sylvanus, god of the woodfowl; these were great cages containing various kinds of birds, alive and fluttering in the glare of the torches. Then came Pomona's treasures, two large silver bowls full of the fairest apples, pears, cherries and nuts. White and red grapes represented the welcome of Bacchus, while on the fifth pair of pillars were the gifts of Neptune, herring, oysters, and mullets, for the god of the sea as well as the deities of the woods and the fields had been summoned to give greeting to Elizabeth. Mars was not forgotten; well polished bows and arrows, gleaming swords and spears shone in the flaring lights. The last pillars bore the offering of Apollo, the cornet, flute, and harp, the lute, viol, and shawm.

At the end of this bridge was an arch whereon was written a lengthy welcome in Latin. The letters were white, but wherever the queen's name appeared, it shone out in yellow gold. Leicester had no idea of trusting the flickering light of torches to reveal all these elaborate preparations for the queen's reception, and beside the arch stood a poet with a wreath of bays on his head. His part was to explain to her what each offering signified and to read the inscription over the gateway. It is to be hoped that the lights shone upon him well and clearly, for he was attired in all the splendor of a long robe of blue silk with sleeves flowing widely to reveal glimpses of his gorgeous crimson doublet.

As the queen alighted from her horse and entered the castle, every clock in the building was stopped, perhaps to suggest that she would never grow old, that even time had no power over her. She was escorted to her rooms, and then came the welcome of Jupiter, king of the gods. This was peal after peal of the guns of the castle and a display of fireworks. For two long hours this greeting of Jupiter's blazed and roared, but it was none too long to please the woman for whom it had been planned.

The next day was Sunday, and the queen went to church, but in the afternoon came music and dancing, and at night more fireworks, stars and streams and hail of fire and burning darts flashing through the darkness. This was only the beginning of the festivities. The next afternoon there was a hunt, and many a deer was slain to amuse the royal, guest. A "savage man," covered with moss and ivy, came out of the forest as she was riding back to the castle and made her a long speech, declaring that never before had he seen so glorious a sight. He called nymphs and fauns and dryads and satyrs to his aid, but no one could tell the meaning of the vision. At last he held a conversation with Echo, and learned how mighty a queen was before him. Then he made another speech about her wondrous beauty, her grace and manner, and the rare qualities of her mind. Finally, to show his submission, he broke his stick into pieces. Unfortunately, this action startled the queen's horse. There was confusion for a moment, and all flocked around in utter dismay lest some harm had befallen her. "No hurt, no hurt," said Elizabeth graciously, and the officer who wrote the account of the visit says, "These words were the best part of the play."

There was a mock fight; some Italians gave an exhibition of "leaps, springs, and windings," and so agile were they that the chronicler says it could hardly be distinguished whether they were "man or spirit." There was a bridal procession of a rustic couple who were delighted to have the opportunity to appear before the queen. The groom was "lame of a leg broken in his youth at football," but he made up for the loss by wearing a mighty pair of harvest gloves to show that he was a good husbandman, while on his back was slung a pen and inkhorn to indicate that he was "bookish." On his head was a straw hat with a crown made steeple-shape. He and his bride were escorted by the young folk of the parish, each man wearing a bit of green broom fastened to his left arm, and carrying an alder pole in his right hand by way of spear. One wore a hat, another a cap; one rejoiced in a coat or a jerkin, while another had only doublet and hose; one had boots without spurs, and another had spurs without boots, while a third had neither; but it was a merry time, for were they not all come to display themselves before the glorious queen?

So the days went on. There was another scene on the lake when a dolphin, eighty feet long, came swimming up to meet Elizabeth. On his back was the god Arion, who had come from regions far away that he might sing to her, and within the machine were six players with their instruments. There was a show of bear-baiting, wherein thirteen bears tied to stakes, were attacked by a company of dogs trained for the purpose. To see them clawing and tumbling and growling and scratching and biting, to note the bears' watchfulness for their enemies and the dogs' keenness in getting the better of the bears, was what the letter-writing official called "a very pleasant sport." This seems to have been the general opinion of the cruel amusement, for a bear-baiting was often arranged as a treat for the entertainment of foreign ambassadors and other national guests of rank and dignity.

The day's pastime was often closed by thundering peals of guns and by fireworks that would "mount in the air and burn in the water." Often the whole castle was illuminated by candle, fire, and torchlight, as if the god of the sun himself—so said one who was there—was resting in its chambers instead of taking his nightly course to the antipodes. There was surely no lack of amusements, and indeed several spectacles had been planned for which there was no time. One man who was to represent a minstrel of the olden days was sorely grieved because he could not have the honor of singing before the queen. He found what comfort he might, however, in showing his skill to a company of the courtiers. One of them described his appearance, and a reader cannot help feeling sorry that Queen Elizabeth lost the sight. The "ancient minstrel" wore a long, flowing robe of green, gathered at the throat and fastened with a clasp. The wide sleeves were slit from shoulder to hand, and under them was a closely fitting undersleeve of white cotton. He wore a black worsted doublet, confined at the waist by a wide red girdle. His shoes were "not new indeed, but shining," though perhaps not quite so brilliantly as was his hair, for that had been smoothed with a sponge "dipped in a little bear's grease" till it gleamed like a duck's wing. He wore a shirt whose bosom was ruffled, and starched "after the new trink," till every ruffle stood up stiff and "glittering." A handkerchief was thrust into his bosom, but enough of it was displayed to show that it was edged with bright blue lace and marked with a heart. Around his neck was a broad red ribbon which held his harp, while on a green lacing hung the tuning key. It was really a pity that the queen lost all this display.

The chief reason for Elizabeth's pleasure in these progresses was probably her delight in all pageants and thorough enjoyment of her popularity among the people. At such times she was nearer to them than at any others. The humblest servant in the castle where she was making her stay, the simplest peasant of the countryside, had as free access to her Majesty as the greatest of her nobles. Anyone might bring her a petition, anyone might offer her a gift; and no matter of how slight value the present might be, its donor was never disappointed in the gracious thanks that he hoped to receive from his sovereign. Often sufferers from scrofula were brought before her with the prayer that she would but lay her hand upon them, for England had believed for six hundred years that the touch of the royal hand would cure this disease. It was said that on Elizabeth's visit to Kenilworth she healed nine.

This was only one of the many superstitions of the Elizabethan times. A bit of the wood of which the gallows was made would cure the ague; wearing a topaz stone would bring an insane man to his right mind; a verse of the Bible written on parchment and worn about the neck would drive away evil spirits; to carry fern-seed in the pocket would enable a man to "go invisible." Powdered diamonds would heal one disease; wiping the face with a red cloth another; while pills made of the powdered skull of a man that had been hanged were a sure remedy for a third. Not only the ignorant but most of the most learned men of the day believed firmly in astrology, and the home of the queen's astrologer, Dr. Dee, was often crowded with nobles who were eager to know the fates foretold to them by the heavens. There was so firm a belief in witchcraft that one of the queen's bishops preached before her on the subject, telling her what sufferings her subjects were enduring from witches. "They pine away even unto the death," said he, and he begged her Majesty to make a law providing for the punishment of sorcerers. This was done, or rather, an old law was revived. When Elizabeth had a toothache, many of her advisers declared that the pain had been produced by magic, and it was suggested that the treatment of waxen images of the queen at the hands of some who were ill-disposed toward her was the reason for her sufferings. The royal physicians could not agree upon the cause of the trouble or upon a remedy, and the matter was ended by the council of state taking charge of the affair and ordering a prescription from a foreign physician.

At the time of Queen Elizabeth's progress to Kenilworth, a banquet was arranged for her. One of her courtiers says that it was neither well served nor nicely set down, that it was "disorderly wasted and coarsely consumed," that it was carried on "more curtly than courteously;" but he adds, "If it might please and be liked and do that it came for, then was all well enough."


Kenilworth in Elizabeth's time.—From an old print.

The Elizabethan life was a strange mingling of magnificence and discomfort. There were most palatial mansions with noble towers and gateways and terraces, with lawns and gardens and fountains and parks and wide-spreading acres of hill and dale, of field and forest, but according to modern ideas there was little comfort in all this splendor. The only way to warm these lordly castles was by an occasional fireplace, and the rooms were full of drafts that even the heavy tapestry hung on the walls would not prevent. Cleanliness was almost unknown. Floors were strewn with rushes, and when a room was to be put in order, fresh rushes were brought in, but no one thought it at all necessary to carry away the old ones. A room was almost never swept unless space was needed for dancing; then a circle in the middle was cleared of rushes, dirt, dust, crumbs and bones from the dining table and all sorts of rubbish that had accumulated since the time of the last merrymaking. One letter-writer of the day declared that the rushes on floors not needed for dancing were sometimes left for twenty years without being swept away. Whoever could afford it owned several country houses, and when one became absolutely unendurable, even according to sixteenth century notions, he would move to another to let the first house "sweeten," as was said.

The list of different kinds of food purchased for the queen's progress gives an idea of what the rich folk ate, that is, what they ate in the summer. In the winter they had little besides salt meat, various kinds of bread, and the most remarkable pies that one ever heard of. They were made of everything from artichokes to herring. One pastry is described as made of fish and flavored with pepper, ginger, and cloves. The artichoke pies were made of a combination of artichokes, marrow, ginger, raisins and dates. Few vegetables were used. Potatoes had been brought from America, but they were regarded as a luxury. They were roasted in the embers or else boiled and eaten with pepper, oil, and vinegar. There was neither tea nor coffee; beer or wine was drunk at every meal. People ate with knives and fingers, for forks did not appear until near the end of Elizabeth's life. One that was richly jeweled was presented to her and was kept in a glass case as a curiosity.

The homes of the poor were indeed bare and comfortless. The floors were of clay or beaten earth. A clumsy table, some wooden stools, a wooden trencher to hold the food, a pile of straw to sleep on, salt fish and rye or barley bread—these were all the comforts that a poor man could expect to have in his home. The house itself was built of boughs of trees interwoven with willow twigs and daubed with clay. The fire was made against a rock set into one of the walls, and the smoke found its way out as best it could. Before the reign of Elizabeth was over, chimneys had become more common, and many men whose fathers had lived in huts of mud and had eaten from wooden trenchers were building for themselves houses of oak with the comfort of a chimney and perhaps the elegance of a pewter porringer or two among their wooden dishes. At best the luxuries were not very luxurious, but a writer of the time lamented that men were no longer as brave and strong as they used to be, and thought their weakness was due to these dainty, and enfeebling fashions.