Revels at Kenilworth

In the summer of 1575, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, arranged the most magnificent entertainment of the whole of Elizabeth’s reign, spending a reputed £60,000 on a glorious spectacle that was intended to both charm the queen, and woo her into a final acceptance of his suit. The numerous pageants and tableaux all had subtle messages, promoting a marriage between them.

It was Elizabeth’s custom to spend two to three months each summer travelling in the south-east and midlands of England. There were several reasons for these progresses – avoiding London during the summer, when infectious disease was rife; showing herself to her subjects; keeping an eye on her nobles, and, to a degree, economy, although this latter objective was not generally achieved.

In 1575, her itinerary took her through the Midlands and by 9th July, she was in the environs of Kenilworth. Leicester was with the queen, and they, and the court spent the day hunting, arriving at the front of the castle gates around 8pm. She was met there by one of the ten Sybils (prophets in Ancient Roman lore). The Sibyl prognosticated long-life for the queen, in verses written by William Hunnis, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal.

Following the Sybil, Elizabeth was treated to the sounds produced by six unusually tall trumpeters, who were placed on the battlements. The unusual height of the musicians was a mute reference to the size of men in King Arthur’s time – much of the pageantry was to be related to tales of Arthur and his knights.  

Before the queen could enter the castle precincts, a porter, dressed as Hercules, offered her the keys to the castle – a symbolic gesture implying the queen’s ownership of fortress. Once inside, the procession entered the tilt-yard, where yet another speech of welcome and adulation caressed Elizabeth’s ears. This was delivered by the Lady of the Lake, who expanded on the (largely mythical) history of the castle.

A short bridge was then to be crossed to enter the inner court. Decorated with fruit, flowers, musical instruments, it indicated plenty. More verses, this time in Latin, were recited.  Once in the inner court, Elizabeth dismounted, music playing all the while, from oboes, shalms and cornets,  and went inside to the rooms that had been decorated and furbished for her pleasure.

On the next day, Sunday, the company attended the parish church, and, in the afternoon, they dance. That evening, there was a fire-work display. The following day was so hot that Elizabeth remained indoors until 5pm, when she emerged to go hunting. On her return, Elizabeth was met by a ‘wild man’ who appeared overcome by the apparition of the mysterious beauty. In rather lame verse, he conversed with ‘Echo’ about the identity of the lovely woman, and discovered it was the Queen of England. He then continued, outlining the previous tableaux and pointing out how ‘Dudley’ had shown so many gifts of love that ought to be accepted – including, it was implied, Dudley himself.

There was then another tableau involving the Lady of the Lake, Triton and Neptune. The purport of it was that the Lady had been harassed by Sir Bruce Sans Pitie, who pursued in revenge for his cousin, Merlin (whom the Lady had entombed). Neptune had taken pity on her, and surrounded her with waves to keep her safe. She could only be rescued by a better woman than herself. Now that the queen was present, she might hope for release.

The Lady was no sooner rescued than the Greek sea-god, Proteus, appeared, riding on a dolphin. The sources are unclear as to whether it was a real dolphin, or a model.  

On the Tuesday, dancing was once again the entertainment of choice, followed by a walk in the ‘chase’ – that is, the hunting park. Hunting was Wednesday’s entertainment, then on Thursday, there was a bear-baiting. Thirteen bears were tormented, and both bears and dogs horribly savaged.  Rather more appealing to modern tastes, was the Italian acrobat.

The hot weather of the Monday had presaged a storm, which materialised on the Friday and Saturday, with heavy rain and wind. Sunday worship was followed by performances from the local populace, including morris-dancing, and scenes from the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. The centrepiece of this, was the playing of a country bridal. No doubt intended to make Elizabeth wish for a husband of her own. This was followed by the old sport of tilting at the quintain.

A similar itinerary was followed for the second week – a pageant showing the defeat of the Danes, by Ethelred in AD 1012, a display by the local militia (the queen gave them two bucks and five marks in cash to make merry with); picnics, more hunting, and the dubbing of various courtiers with knighthoods – including Thomas Cecil, eldest son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

Elizabeth also touched victims of ‘the King’s Evil’ (scrofula), it being believed that the royal touch could effect a cure.

The poems and verses used in the various tableaux were the work of several authors, chief amongst them was George Gascoigne, but there was also William Hunnis, Henry Goldingham (or possibly Arthur Golding) and Richard Mulcaster.

At the end of a nineteen-day visit, Elizabeth departed. She had not succumbed to any temptation to finally accept Leicester’s suit, and it is unlikely that it was more than a forlorn last hope for him. There is no reason to doubt that there was genuine love between them, but Elizabeth, for an unfathomable combination of personal and political motives would never marry, and Leicester eventually consoled himself with a very happy marriage to Lettice Knollys. The revels at Kenilworth, however, remained unequalled in both beauty, cost, and, perhaps a certain sadness in the queen’s mind, as her youth and beauty began to fade.