Thursday, February 16, 2012

Elizabeth I's Royal Progresses and Kenilworth Castle

Nonsuch Palace

It’s well-known that Queen Elizabeth I moved her court away from her great palaces during the summer months, visiting the homes of various favoured courtiers in turn. This was largely to allow the palaces to be ‘purged’ after several months of residency, especially once the stench of human ordure had become too much to tolerate.

In the Queen’s absence, the royal apartments would be swept and scrubbed clean, with aromatic herbs burnt to dispel bad smells and the palace cesspits dug out. But a very real fear of plague was also behind this mass exodus. It was widely believed that fresh country air was a protection against plague, and that diseases could be caught from the polluted stench of towns and cities. Elizabeth herself always carried or wore a pomander of herbs and spices that she sniffed at constantly when the air was bad.

Elizabeth I, the Rainbow portrait

What is less well-known is the sheer scale of Elizabeth’s removals from court. Not only did the Queen take the bulk of her courtiers with her on these annual ‘Progresses’, as her trips around the country were known, but she was also accompanied by a fleet of her own household servants, including laundresses, seamstresses, cooks and grooms, plus all the usual accoutrements of a court on the move. These included selections of gowns and finery for the Queen and her ladies, hats, shoes, jewellery, goblets and tableware, precious books, even a selection of her palace furniture in case the house she visited was too humble for her taste. All this was transported in a vast convoy of carts laden with great wooden chests and dozens of servants. Sometimes as many as three hundred carts would set off in advance of the Queen's party.

Further servants would be on hand to tend to the courtiers, and in particular those members of the Privy Council who had been ordered to accompany the Queen. A few courtiers were permitted to bring their wives and children, so an array of wetnurses, maids and tutors might be added to the tally. The unfortunate courtier whose home was hosting the Queen’s Progress would be expected to bear the cost of almost every expense incurred by housing, feeding, and entertaining this vast travelling circus. Yet to host the Queen's Progress was considered a great honour, and many courtiers no doubt hoped to recoup their losses by increasing their status at court.

When Elizabeth I descended on Kenilworth Castle in July 1575, she arrived with such a vast entourage that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her court favourite and host for the next few weeks, was left nearly bankrupt for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, the stakes he was playing were equally high. For the ambitious Earl had not yet given up hope of persuading Elizabeth to marry him, and had planned every detail of her stay to underpin his final – and most desperate – proposal.

Robert even had the castle clock stopped at the moment of Elizabeth's arrival, a romantic gesture to indicate she had now entered a ‘magical world’ where outside time and reality ceased to matter. The theme of his entertainments rather daringly suggested that Kenilworth had become a kind of Camelot for her visit, with the Earl promoted to the status of King Arthur - and Elizabeth as his Queen.

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire: J.D. Forrester

The Earl’s entertainments were among the most lavish and elaborate ever seen in Tudor England, with giants playing trumpets on her arrival, nymphs and a Lady of the Lake on a floating island, outrageously extravagant banquets with goblets made of golden sugar and a gigantic salt cellar in the shape of a silver galleon, plays and mummers offered at every turn, even a staged attack by a Green Man in the forests where she loved to hunt every fine afternoon. Small wonder he was left bankrupt!

And the Queen and her courtiers were not the only ones to benefit from these amazing entertainments. It is widely believed that the young William Shakespeare, then a boy of eleven living in nearby Stratford, may have been brought to Kenilworth to witness one particularly spectacular firework display, since references to it crop up in his plays.

We know the Earl’s proposal was not successful. Something occurred to upset the Virgin Queen during those idyllic weeks at Kenilworth, for Elizabeth cut short her intended stay and remained at the castle only nineteen days before abruptly departing for the north. One tale goes that the Earl sent his friends to ride after the Queen, begging her not to miss the final entertainments that still awaited her, but Elizabeth ignored them and rode on. We can only speculate as to why.

Victoria Lamb’s debut historical novel "The Queen’s Secret" is set entirely at Kenilworth Castle during Elizabeth I’s visit in July 1575. It is available as a hardback and ebook in the UK, and as an ebook in the US.


  1. Oh I LOVE Kenilworth castle! You only have to catch sight of those soaring red towers set aglow in sunlight and picture them reflected in the surounding lake to start speculating about what went on there five and six hundred years ago. Who inhabited the gorgeous rooms with their arched windows and enormous fireplaces, cooked in the well-fitted kitchens and galloped down the causeway jousting ground with pennons flying? I can't wait to read your vivid account inspired by what can be gleaned from history. That is what historical fiction is all about.

  2. Fascinating! It is so strange to our sensibilities that someone (with money) could be so absurd as to put such a financial burden on another person. But, the existence of the country was all about the monarch in those days.

    Does the Queen's secret happen to be your version of why she left? That would be intriguing indeed.

    1. Yes, indeed, that plays into the plot of the novel. Though to say more would involve a spoiler!


  3. Wonderful post and please tell me where I can purchase my own pomander to sniff when the air is offensive! My preference would be cheese pizza however.

    1. Karen, you'd have to do what the Tudors did and make your own pomander. Lavender is always a good choice. Though cheese pizza makes an interesting alternative. ;-)

  4. Much of Dudley's bankruptcy may have come from all those buildings he built at Kenilworth, all that remains there now of the structure previous to Dudley's building project being the four-square medieval tower.
    Indeed one is fascinated by the question of what sent Elizabeth packing!

  5. Fascinating information! On one level, I think it grand that a monarch got out and among her people, but the part about dragging her court along and bankrupting her hosts makes me think it not worth the gesture.

    Thanks for sharing!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.