How Queen Elizabeth I spent her summer vacation

Queen Elizabeth I arriving at Nonsuch
Elizabeth I arriving at Nonsuch, Franz Hogenberg after Georg Hoefnagel. Hand-colored engraving from Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum, ca. 1598. Folger Shakespeare Library. (Click the image to see a zoomable version in the Folger’s digital image collection.)

You thought you had packing woes—imagine trying to cram a whole palace-full of goods into carts for a summer-long jaunt through the English countryside! Yet this is just what Queen Elizabeth I’s staff did almost two dozen times during her 44-year reign, as she and her court took to the highways for her seasonal progresses.

These trips took her to towns and manors throughout southern England and the midlands, where she was able to see—and be seen by—a broad cross-section of her subjects. Crowds turned out to cheer her passage, church bells rang, and as admirer Thomas Churchyard observed, she was able to “draw the hearts of the people after hyr wheresoever she travels.” In an age that had not yet witnessed a campaign swing or a photo op, the Queen had mastered the art of public relations.

On the Road Again

The logistics were daunting. A baggage train of between 400 and 600 horse-drawn carts groaned beneath the weight of everything the monarch and her entourage might require on the trip: bedding, furniture, clothing, food, dishes and kitchen equipment, and even the documents and office supplies needed to conduct the business of the realm. Members of her court accompanied her, as did a full household complement of grooms and pages, wardrobe ladies and maids, guards, chaplains, cooks, and court musicians. Travel was slow and difficult. Even on the main highways, the Queen’s caravansary averaged only ten or twelve miles a day.

An advance team scouted the destinations, arranging for the Queen and selected members of her court and household to lodge with local nobles. Other officials and servants were put up at inns or relegated to sleeping in the tents carried to house the horses and their keepers. Once settled, the retinue of people and horses occupied a considerable chunk of land. And, given the rudimentary nature of the sanitary facilities, the surrounding air was doubtless also leavened by their presence.

Paying the Piper

While hosting a royal visit was considered a great honor, not all were thrilled to be “chosen.” By tradition, the sovereign was entitled to occupy any dwelling she chose. On occasion, hosts whose homes were less than commodious were forced to vacate the premises for the duration of the visit. The financial burden was also not insignificant. While the royal budget bore a substantial share of the cost for provisions, accommodations, and transportation, civic and private hosts also incurred expenses.

An account ledger kept by Roger, Lord North, of Elizabeth’s 1578 visit to his Cambridgeshire home of Kirtling Tower notes that he spent a total of 762 pounds, 4 shillings, and 2 pence for the privilege of entertaining the queen—at a time when you could get a quart of ale, a plug of tobacco, or the cheapest place at the Globe Theatre for a mere pence. The gracious host ran up a bill of 32 pounds for home improvements, 209 pounds for gifts for his visitors, and 16 pounds for sugar. Other supplies included 74 hogsheads of beer, 6 hogsheads of claret and one of white wine, as well as “a cartload and 2 horseloads” of oysters, and enough meats, fish, and cheeses to feed a small army.

[Related Post: How ordinary Elizabethans spent their summer]

Food and lodging comprised only part of the host’s duties; he also had to arrange elaborate entertainments worthy of a queen. Music, dancing, banqueting, and fireworks were de rigueur. Special songs, poems, and masques were commissioned, with costumed players enlisted to perform them. Happily, numerous written accounts of these visits have survived—the Folger has some half dozen written accounts. In Sandwich in 1573, for example, the Queen was reportedly “very merrye” and so impressed by the banquet prepared by the wives of the town mayor and judges that she tucked in without first calling upon the services of the royal taster and asked for several dishes to be carried back to her lodgings.

The Queen was less sanguine about the entertainments mounted by Robert Dudley at Kenilworth in July of 1575. As did many of the nobles who hosted the queen, he used the occasion as a means of furthering his own political agenda. He employed an Arthurian theme to forward his claim to noble ancestry and thus legitimize his wish to marry the queen. In the poem composed to welcome her, a woman arises from the water claiming to the “the Lady of this pleasant Lake…since the time of great king Arthures reigne.” Elizabeth politely thanked the Lady, but observed that she had thought the lake was hers. Kenilworth had been a royal gift to Dudley when he was made earl of Leicester in 1563, a fact of which she clearly wished to remind him.

Let Me Entertain You

For sheer drama, few entertainments could match those presented by the earl of Hertford at Elvethem in 1591. Thirty years before, the earl had made a disastrous marriage to Lady Katherine Grey, a great-granddaughter of Henry VIII whose aspirations to the throne—like those of her younger sister Lady Jane Grey—were summarily thwarted. Instead of beheading, however, Katherine was thrown into the Tower with her husband and their infant son, where she died several years later. Hertford remained under restraint until 1571, charged with having deflowered a virgin of royal blood. With the marriage annulled, his two sons (the second was conceived in prison) were declared bastards, effectively eliminating any claim to succession. Conveying the right impression during the queen’s progress could go a long way toward restoring the earl and his offspring to royal favor.

Alerted to Elizabeth’s impending visit to his tiny estate in Hampshire, the earl immediately hired several hundred carpenters to build new rooms, offices, and kitchens to accommodate the queen and her party. And, since his grounds lacked the expanse required for hunting and other exercises, he directed the dredging of a large artificial lake, “cut to the perfect figure of a half moon,” which contained three islands—designated the Ship Isle, the Fort, and the Snail Mount—and a three-masted ship called a pinnace.

Show Time

These sites were creatively deployed in the pageantry that accompanied the queen’s arrival and departure, which featured cornet-playing virgins, laurel-wreathed poets, dancing fairies, and musicians aplenty. In between, there were speeches and serenades, ceremonial volleys fired from the Snail Mount and the Ship Isle, demonstrations of sporting prowess, a garden banquet lit by a hundred torch-bearers, and “all manner of fire-workes.”

But “The Second Daies Entertainment,” in which the Great Pond in Elvetham became center stage for a Broadway-worthy nautical spectacle, blew the other diversions out of the water. That afternoon, with the queen installed beneath a green and silver canopy, Nereus and “a pompous array of sea-persons” emerged from a bower opposite and swam across the pond to her, trailed by five Tritons “cheerefully sounding their tumpets.” Several more sea-gods towed the pinnace, which contained the virgin Naeara, Nymph of the Sea and purported love of Sylvanus.

The progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth I
The entertainment at Elvetham, 1591, showing the Great Pond, the pinnace (C), and the Snail Mount (G). Lithograph printed by John Nichols, 1823. Folger Shakespeare Library. (Click the image to see a zoomable version in the Folger’s digital image collection.)

Following an oration and song by Nereus and heralded by another blast from the trumpets, Sylvanus and his fellow satyrs then appeared from the woods. The horned god delivered an inflamed oration that earned him a dunking from Nereus and company—“that water will extinguish wanton fire”—and sent him fleeing back to land vowing revenge. Finally, having played out their drama to the queen’s delight, all parties retired to their bowers “in selfe same order as they came forth.”

Your Subtext is Showing

In a culture that fed on hidden messages, the nautical entertainment was particularly ripe for portent. One of the more benign—and topical—allusions involved the queen’s victory over the Spanish Armada three years before. Other interpretations offer more titillating possibilities. For example, Sylvanus’ lascivious pursuit of Neaera, which holds the potential for ravishment, may echo the earl’s earlier conviction for deflowering a royal virgin. By evoking his sexual history, the earl may be indirectly reminding the queen of his sons and their purported claim to royal succession. On the other hand, he may have been flattering the Virgin Queen herself by emphasizing her ability to arouse desire. Or, his ultimate aim may have been to contrast her virginity with his ability to produce heirs to the throne.

Whatever his precise strategy, the earl’s efforts achieved at least a short-term rapprochement. “Her Majestie was so highly pleased with this and the rest,” reports the chronicler, “that she openly said to the Earle of Hertford, that the beginning, processe, and end of this his entertainment, was so honorable, she would not forget the same. And manie most happie yeares may her gratious Majestie continue, to favour and foster him, and all others which do truly love and honor her.”

In the long run, however, such “favour” proved elusive. In 1595, the earl attempted to overturn the decision that had annulled his previous marriage and negated his sons’ royal pedigree. As a result of this legal challenge—or possibly because he was implicated in a conspiracy to commit treason—he ended up under arrest and spent several months in the Tower of London.

Hertford died in 1600 without having secured his sons’ inheritance. Meanwhile, that same year, a 67-year-old Elizabeth persuaded her reluctant ministers to muster for another summer progress. It would be her last. The queen died on March 24, 1603.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Folger Magazine.


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