For Queen and country
Ceremony, pomp and circumstance, from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II
The woman who would become Queen Elizabeth I barely features in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII – you won’t find her in the dramatis personae of most modern editions – but her influence hovers over the play like a prophecy.
Brought on as a new-born in the final scene, her future is laid out in glittering terms by Archbishop Cranmer (in Hannah Khalil’s new version of Henry VIII, these lines are spoken by Thomas Cromwell):
This royal infant – heaven still move
about her! –
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand
Which time shall bring to ripeness.
She shall be –
But few now living can behold
that goodness –
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed.
There’s something decidedly odd about this climactic moment in the play – it’s a eulogy about a baby, delivered on the occasion of her christening. But the vision
of an ageing royal paragon makes sense in the context of 1613, when the play was written – and the cult of Elizabethnostalgia was at its height. She’d been dead for ten years by the time Henry VIII premiered at the Globe, and already the main features of the Gloriana myth were firmly in place. Helped by popular entertainments like Thomas Heywood’s patriotic play If You Know Not Me (1605–6), the disillusioned subjects of King James I were encouraged to look back to a time of peace, prosperity and good will, and to forget the unemployment, anxiety and toxic politics that characterised the later stages of the queen’s reign. Good Queen Bess memorabilia flooded the market in the early seventeenth century – a wave of broadside ballads, prints, plays, poems, and statues that helped set the pattern for the array of royal jubilee merchandise available today.
‘Elizabeth I had been dead for ten years by the time Henry VIII premiered at the Globe, and already the main features of the Gloriana myth were in place’
And that’s not the only influence the first Queen Elizabeth had on modern pageantry. Her reign provided the blueprint for the forms of public royal display that would flourish from the 19th century until today, and helped create the myth of Elizabeth in the first place: a hyper-visible monarch in receipt of turbo-charged flattery that has been custom-designed by the nation’s creative artists.
She would have flinched at the very idea of a ‘jubilee’, though. That word was definitely out of favour, associated with the anniversaries announced every 25 or 50 years by the Pope, and therefore unacceptable to Protestants. Elizabeth certainly remembered her ‘crownation day’. Her accession to the throne in 1558 was celebrated every 17 November for the 44 years of her reign, marked by earnest sermonizing and some very athletic jousting in her palaces. But little distinguished her ‘silver’ or ‘ruby’ anniversaries in 1583 and 1598 from those that came before or after.
Perhaps the queen felt little need to mark the big decades because she spent so much of her time making triumphal entries into her towns and cities. The Elizabethan years were a golden age for civic and royal pageantry, each summer progress an excuse to revisit the gorgeous cavalcade of the coronation ceremony in January 1559. The people of London lined the streets to watch her process in a golden litter from the Tower to Temple Bar, entertained on the way by a series of lavishly-designed tableaux, commissioned at vast expense by the corporation of London.
‘The Elizabethan years were a golden age for civic and royal pageantry, each summer progress an excuse to revisit the gorgeous cavalcade of the coronation ceremony’
In one, actors playing the queen’s ancestors posed in their finery on an elaborate multi-level arch swathed in the red and white roses of the houses of York and Lancaster – a family tree brought magically to life. On another stage, the city’s engineers had excelled themselves with an ambitious two-part mountain set that spanned the road. The north side featured a blasted landscape, ‘barren and stony’, on which a bedraggled figure drooped beneath the title of the pageant: ‘The Ruined Commonwealth’. The other side was ‘fresh, green, and beautiful’, with a sprightly subject standing upright under a flowering tree. Naturally this ‘Well-Governed Commonwealth’ was to be understood as the realm of the new queen. At each stage of the procession, child actors stepped forward to deliver poetic explications of the allegories on display (which, for the most part, did not require a huge amount of decoding).
The queen adored these theatrical displays of flattery and loyalty, and knew how to play her part. She delivered speeches of thanks and promised her people security. The thousands of spectators, pressed against wooden barricades, went wild. Scenes like this were repeated – with varying levels of extravaganza and budget – at Coventry and Warwick, Bristol and Wanstead, Norwich and Woodstock. Noblemen competed to dazzle the queen with eye-popping immersive shows at their country houses.
At Kenilworth in 1575 the queen was led through an extended site-specific retelling of Arthurian legend (there’s a theory the young William Shakespeare was in the audience; if he was, perhaps memories of courtly splendour found their way thirty eight years later into Henry VIII ). The Earl of Hertford dug a crescent shaped lake at his estate in Elvetham for the queen’s visit in 1591, where he staged a battle between sea-gods and woodland-gods, ‘a pompous array of sea persons’ including a back flipping triton. Whatever the setting or style of the allegory, the themes were consistent: Elizabeth’s pageantry played a vital role in establishing her reputation for virtue and wisdom, and in making visible the loyalty and love that the crown needed to see from its people.
Elizabethan-style public pageantry didn’t survive. The Stuarts brought their expensive theatricals inside in the form of the private court masque (James I consented to a coronation procession in 1604 only under intense duress). But the principles of Queen Elizabeth I’s faith in public display were revived in the early 19th century to bolster faltering public opinion of the Hanoverians (later Windsors). So when we gaze at the current queen’s gold State Coach (tricked out today with smart glass to display archive footage of Elizabeth II on her coronation day in 1952), or watch the ‘world’s biggest entertainers’ perform on a temporary stage outside Buckingham Palace to mark her Platinum Jubilee, we’re revisiting a tradition set down four and a half centuries ago her by predecessor and namesake – the ‘high and mighty princess of England, Elizabeth’ who closes Henry VIII.