Alison Sim discusses the practicalities of running Elizabeth's court.
FOUR HUNDRED years after Elizabeth's death the glamour of her court continues to excite the imagination. The court was, in effect, a magnificent piece of theatre, and as in any theatre a large team of highly trained people was needed to produce the magic.
Elizabeth's officials inherited a comprehensive set of regulations for the governing of the royal household. These were based on those laid down for Elizabeth's great grandfather, Edward IV (r.1461-83), which were then further revised by Cardinal Wolsey in the reign of Henry VIII (r.1509-47). They are known as the Eltham Ordinances and they were constantly revised throughout the Tudor period.
Enforcing the Ordinances could have been no easy task as many of the revisions appear to be designed to reinforce regulations that were already in existence. Part of the problem was the scale of the court. When the Queen was in residence at the larger palaces, such as Whitehall or Hampton Court, there could be between 1,000 and 1,500 people in residence. These would vary from household staff, such as cooks and bakers, to the highest courtiers in the land. They all had to be housed, fed and, in many cases, clothed at the royal expense.
Even something as simple as allocating lodgings could be difficult. For the most part, one could only expect to be put up and fed at the royal expense if one worked for the Queen. Gentlemen who had come to court on their own business had to find their own food and accommodation. The aristocracy, however, were a different matter. They could hardly be turned away, so there must have been considerable embarrassment, for example, when the Duchess of Alba came to court unexpectedly in 1554, during the reign of Mary, to find that there was no space for her. She was still housed at the royal expense, though outside the palace.
Another difficulty was that everyone at court was trying to milk the system. At the bottom of the social scale there were always plenty of people hoping that the court would provide them with a free living. A typical scam was to mingle with the royal staff with a view to sharing the food and accommodation on offer. This must have proved quite a problem, as the Ordinances instruct the officers of the Board of the Greencloth, the main body responsible for the discipline of household staff, to:
'... once or twice in the week, view all the Offices and Chambers of the Household to see if there be any Strangers eating in the said Offices or Chamber at the Meale times, or at any other time, contrary to the King's Ordinance.'
Also recommended was a daily check on the number of servants in any office to search out 'strangers or vagabonds within the same'.
Catering was another area open to abuse. Elizabeth's court, which was not extravagant compared with that of Henry VIII, ate 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar and over 40 million eggs in one year (probably 1591). All this food had to be obtained in the first place, stored and cooked -- in an age before freezers or canning.
Provisioning the court had been a political hot potato since medieval times. A great deal of the cost of feeding the court fell, not on the monarch, but on the people. Since the Middle Ages the king had had the right to impose taxes in kind for this purpose. By the fifteenth century this had evolved into the monarch having the right to make forced purchases at prices set by the monarch's officers -- ways well below the true market rate. The royal purveyors were also well known for not only misrepresenting the prices being offered, but also for deliberately buying too much and then re-selling the excess at full market price.
Over the years, reforms were made. Thomas Cromwell, for example, tried to Control the purveyors more strictly, while in Mary Tudor's time changes were made to try to ensure that suppliers were paid faster. There were even attempts to replace the whole elaborate systemof rules and regulations with a systemwhereby individual counties agreed to provide the court with a specified amount of certain goods each year at a suitably low price. This was known as composition. William Cecil thought it would be a good idea to replace purveyance entirely with composition and gradually this began to be the case. By the end of Elizabeth's time the whole system was hugely complicated, with all sorts of agreements for different items from different counties. The tax was paid partly in produce, so that the practical problems of getting the goods to the court in good condition remained. The purveyors did not disappear entirely and even by 1603 they still did some small-scale work for the Queen's personal consumption.
For those working at the court, food was part of the remuneration. To make matters more complicated, food was also an important status symbol. It was no wonder, then, that the Eltham Ordinances went as far as giving sample menus for the different grades of courtier. The 'Wardrober of the Bedds, Groome Porter, Yeomen and Officers of the House' could expect beef, veal 'or other rost', and 'pig, goose or cony' (rabbit) plus their bread and ale allowance at dinner. This was certainly good food by Tudor standards but it paled compared to the sumptuous meals served to the more senior courtiers, such as the gentlemen of the privy chamber. Their dinner had two courses rather than one, and included luxuries such as veal, capons, pigeon, plovers and tarts. They were also served wine as well as ale.
In the highly status-conscious world of the Tudor court the administration understood the importance of seeing that everyone was served with the correct food. The original idea had been that, at least at the larger palaces, eating would be communal. The lowest of the palace staff tended to eat in the place where they worked, the 'middling sort' in the great hall and the grander courtiers in the great chamber. All these people would be served from the communal great kitchen. The king and his consort had privy kitchens to serve them. Under these conditions, in theory it was fairly easy to control who was given what.
However, even in the time of Henry VIII there were plenty of palaces without great halls, while mostly when they did exist, the upper courtiers preferred dining in private. According to the household ordinances, '... sundry noblemen, gentlemen and others, doe much delight and use to dyne in corners and secret places, not repairing to the King's chamber nor hall.'
There were also frequent complaints about people using fires for cooking purposes in private rooms, which were only meant for heating. As more and more food was being taken to private rooms it became harder and harder to keep track of who was eating it, increasing confusion and waste.
These sorts of problems were multiplied several times in the summer, when the Queen went on progress. (This she did most years regularly until the end of the 1570s. The progresses lasted usually eight to twelve weeks.) In the summer of 1578, for example, the court stayed at twenty-five different places and dined in ten others.
Elizabeth did not travel light. The whole court was expected to accompany her -- some 200-300 carts took to the road with her. Everything went, from the Queen's own wardrobe to legal documents. The cost of all this moving was considerable -- somewhere in the region of £2,000 per year -- so that going on progress certainly did not save the Queen money.
The organisation of a summer progress started early in the year. Court officials would start the process by inspecting houses the Queen intended to visit, checking at the same time that there were no local outbreaks of plague. The first group of officials would find places suitable for the Queen herself; later others would seek suitable lodgings for the rest of the court. Finally the 'geste', or planned itinerary, would be published in the form of a list of places where the Queen would stay, although without specific dates. These were then sent to the mayors of towns and the Lords Lieutenant who then had to confirm that their areas were free from plague. The next stage must have been dreaded by many, as it was now that the royal purveyors arrived. Towns and villages were ordered to provide stocks of food, fuel and fodder. A yeoman purveyor and his assistant then moved in to buy up stocks for royal use.
As the royal visit grew imminent, a team of the Queen's gentlemen ushers and an officer of the wardrobe would arrive. The job of the gentlemen ushers was to manage Elizabeth's public rooms and to make sure that only suitable people were allowed to enter them. On progress they, with the officers of the wardrobe, were responsible for making the Queen feel at home.
Elizabeth expected her apartments to be completely ready when she arrived, and no Packing up could start until after she had left. The ushers therefore had to work in relays, so that one team would be packing up after a royal visit while another was ready to receive the Queen at the next venue.
Elizabeth might have been well provided for, but life on progress was less easy for the rest of the court. Housing the upper courtiers could prove a difficult task for those with this responsibility. In 1574, Elizabeth stayed with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Croydon, when the officer in charge wrote:
'I cannot ... tell where to place Mr Hatton, and for my lady Carewe there is no place with a chimney for her but that must lie abroad by Mrs Parry and the rest of the Privy Chamber. For Mrs Shelton here is no rooms with chimneys, I shall stay one chamber without for her. Here is as much as I have any ways able to do in this house.'
Others were less lucky and had to take whatever accommodation was on offer, often at some distance from where the Queen was staying.
The business of government still had to go on, so that many members of the court found themselves spending most of the day traveling between their lodgings and their work. One such frustrated courtier was Edward Tremanyne, who during the 1578 progress was forced to apologise to Walsingham as he was having difficulty keeping up with his correspondence. He must have echoed the feelings of many when he explained that:
'... leisure be never so scant with me in this time of progress, when we consume half the day to and from the Court, and the rest not much better, in places not fit to write in.'
Despite such difficulties, the progresses were stage-managed down to the smallest detail. Even the devising of entertainments for the Queen was not left up to the towns she visited. For example, during the 1578 progress Thomas Churchyard, who was responsible for devising and staging court entertainments, was sent down from the court three weeks in advance to supervise the devising and production of the entertainments offered in Norwich. These included not only suitable pageantry to celebrate the Queen's formal arrival in the city, but also a number of smaller, more informal displays. During one of these Elizabeth was surprised and delighted by a small boy dressed as Mercury, riding in a coach highly decorated with birds, sprites and clouds and topped by a golden, bejewelled tower. At the sound of a fanfare, 'Mercury' got out of the coach, delivered a suitable speech to the Queen, then rode away as he had arrived.
Royal changes of plan or the weather could sometimes destroy Churchyard's hard work altogether. On one occasion, attempting to surprise the Queen, Churchyard had had a large hole dug in the ground to serve as a 'cave' from which musicians and twelve 'water nymphs' could emerge. An allegorical play was to be performed at the same time, in which various male characters were to have contended for the hand of 'Lady Beautie'. But just as the Queen was about to arrive in her carriage a thunderstorm broke, forcing everyone to run for cover. The rain not only stopped the show but also mined the fine costumes, so that they were not even fit for re-use at a future date. 'Men doth purpose and God dothe dispose' was Churchyard's comment.
However, the effort proved worthwhile, at least as far as the Queen was concerned. Elizabeth was at her best in front of a crowd and always knew how to behave to obtain the required result. No doubt those who saw her on progress remembered her with awe and affection ever after. Those who had to organise the events or follow her as part of the court must have had rather different memories.
David Loades, The Tudor Court (Headstart History, 1992); Zillah Dovey, An Elizabethan Progress (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1996); Simon Thurley, The Royal Palaces of Tudor England (Yale University Press, 1993); Peter Brears, All the King's Cooks (Souvenir Press, 1999).
Elizabeth I playing the lute, minia-ture by Hillard, c. 1580. Music was a central part of Tudor court life
Elizabeth's procession arriving at Nonesuch Palace, Surrey, in 1568 by Joris Hoefnagel.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, built in Elizabeth's honour by Sir Francis Willoughby, 1580-88.
A court official's sketch of the progress route from Thetford to Richmond, 1578.
Musicians on a balcony, attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger.
Left: an engraving showing the Earl of Hertford's spectacular entertainment for Elizabeth when she visited him at Elvetham Hall in 1591. The Earl had a crescent shaped pond dug (right), in which he staged an elaborate pageant in the Queen's honour.
Though not painted from life, 'Elizabeth I Receiving Dutch Emissaries, c. 1585?', German school, gives some sense of an Elizabethan court interior.
PHOTO (COLOR): Detail from an embroidered cushion used by Elizabeth's maids of honour, at Loseley Hall, Surrey.
By Alison Sim
Alison Sim is a freelance historian and the author of The Tudor Housewife (Sutton Publishing, 1996).