Servants move silently through the darkened bedchambers of Queen Elizabeth I, completing their morning tasks with the reverence due to a great monarch. The fire is lit, warming the cold rooms in the Palace of Whitehall; water is heated, ready for the queen to bathe, and her clothes are laid out. As the queen wakes, her attendants hurry to her side, dressing her in a simple gown and helping her to wash. Then, before doing anything else, Elizabeth walks alone into her personal chapel to pray.
This great Tudor queen holds a deep religious conviction, and always sets aside time in the morning for worship. As Queen of England, she is the temporal head of the Anglican Church, anointed by God, and the sacred nature of her role is also reflected in the structure of her household. To serve the Queen in any capacity is a high honor, and even the simplest of tasks, such as laying her table or attending to her clothes, are carried out as quasi-religious observances. The members of her household, composed of simple servants and great aristocrats, wait patiently in the Privy Chamber until the queen is ready to begin her daily duties.
Elizabeth, kneeling in the chapel, prays for guidance and strength in the days to come. Her mind is troubled, for there are many urgent matters of state to attend to and no easy answers to the numerous problems she faces. It is April 1580, and relations with Spain have deteriorated once again following the Union of the Iberian Crowns one month ago. Now the ambitious Phillip II of Spain rules over both Spain and Portugal, and by extension, all of their respective overseas possessions, and Elizabeth fears that his belligerence will stoke further unrest in Ireland. At the same time, anxious about Protestant English isolation in a predominately Catholic Europe, Elizabeth is negotiating secret trade deals with the Ottoman sultan and the king of Morocco. These diplomatic overtures are a sensitive business and require careful planning and strategy. She prays for guidance and support, to strengthen her resolve.
Elizabeth stands and returns to her chambers. A small breakfast of bread, butter, and eggs has been laid out for her, accompanied by a cup of small beer, but she touches little of it. Her mind is focused on the day ahead. Elizabeth will require all of her strength and composure, for she is holding court at Whitehall, and the attendees are expecting a spectacle.
Preparing herself for court is no small feat. For Elizabeth, dressing is a fine art, and every choice is calculated in order to project an image of divine authority. As a female monarch in a patriarchal world, Elizabeth needs to draw on both feminine and masculine tropes in order to project an image of authority. She is at once a symbol of virginal purity and virile strength; an exceptional woman exerting power in a man’s world. The creation of a visual language of royal authority is crucial in ensuring that she is taken seriously and respected as queen.
Remembering her family history, Elizabeth is all too aware of the precariousness of her position should the royal mystique fade away. As a result, every outfit is specially chosen to reflect a regime of symbols that evoke power, authority, and divine right. Her favorite colors, especially later in her reign, were black and white, as these symbolized her virginity and made a powerful visual statement. Her beautiful gowns are embroidered with different colored threads and covered in jewels to create a dazzling visual display that outshines every other person in the room. In short, Elizabeth dresses to impress.
The queen is dressed by her attendants, first in a loose shirt, followed by a corset lined with wood. She then dons a petticoat and a farthingale, a padded skirt placed around her hips to accentuate her figure. These are topped with an elaborate gown, sleeves fitted separately, and finally, ruffs around the neck and wrists. Elizabeth also wears a significant amount of makeup, as she has done since 1562 when she was left badly scarred after a bout of smallpox. Her face is whitened with a toxic mixture of white lead and vinegar, and then her lips and cheeks are painted with rouge made from egg whites and red dye. Like many high-status women of the age, she wears a fashionable wig, albeit one that matches her own flame-red hair. To complete the look, she then picks out her jewelry: a large necklace, broaches, earrings, and several rings, all of which have a personal or symbolic significance. Her most treasured piece of jewelry is a diamond and ruby ring that contains a miniature portrait of herself, and one of her mother, Anne Boleyn. In her hand, she carries a miniature prayer book, and a small wristwatch, a gift from her favored courtier, Robert Dudley.
Elizabeth’s fastidiousness concerning her appearance means that this process takes at least two hours, but finally, she is ready to hold court. The Elizabethan court is itinerant and follows the queen wherever she goes, but practically this meant that she needs to reside in one of her larger palaces, in order to accommodate the huge numbers of people who regularly attend; usually somewhere between one thousand and fifteen hundred. The court does not only include the Privy Council, Elizabeth’s retinue, and her advisors but a whole range of attendants, courtiers, foreign dignitaries, and ambassadors. All of Elizabeth’s courtiers and advisors are jockeying for influence, and the court is a hotbed of political intrigue and rivalry.
Holding court is an important way in which Elizabeth exercises her royal power. Being seen is an important part of being queen, and the large size of the court is as much about exercising visual authority as it was about getting things done. Elizabeth takes counsel on political matters, particularly concerning the Spanish question, and listens carefully to the overtures from foreign ambassadors. However, today Whitehall is not only concerned with political matters. Elizabeth’s court attracts a whole range of scholars, explorers, artists, scientists, and performers from across the country, and she loves to hear stories of new discoveries and far-flung locations.
As the day wears on, Elizabeth, followed by her courtiers, moves outside to take air in the palace gardens. Her father, Henry VIII, had made considerable extensions to Whitehall adding a renaissance garden, a menagerie, and a bowling green. Today the palace grounds are a hive of activity, and Elizabeth encourages the games and entertainments as she walks through the gardens, deep in conversation with her most trusted advisors. Elizabeth is an active and agile monarch, and despite the heavy clothing that restricts her movements, she loves to walk. She also loves to ride, and on another day, could easily have been found galloping through the palace grounds or hunting in St James’ Park with the Master of Horse, Robert Dudley, otherwise known as the Earl of Leicester. She is a keen and capable hunter, skilled with a crossbow, and even enjoys hawking. Unfortunately, however, the hunt must wait for tomorrow, as today leaves no time for riding. She must attend to the court, and prepare herself for the evening’s banquet and entertainments.
As the day draws to a close, Elizabeth retires for a brief rest and a change of clothes. Her attendants refresh her makeup, allow her some time to sit, and she is dressed in a new, magnificent gown that is even more lavish than the one she had worn during the day. These moments of calm allow Elizabeth a brief retreat from the world of politics and intrigue, but court life is relentless, and she is soon called out to open the evening’s festivities. Tonight, a banquet is held at Whitehall for visiting foreign dignitaries, and the queen needs to shine.
The banqueting hall at Whitehall is lavishly decorated, and the tables are laden with all manner of flowers, decorations, and enticing dishes. The meal is served in five courses and includes such delicacies as sturgeon, venison, various kinds of fowl, wild boar, and several mixed-meat pies. As dinner is served, there are numerous entertainments. The Elizabethan elites loved a spectacle, and the court is filled with music, dancing, and theatre. As a younger queen, Elizabeth was a keen dancer, but tonight she prefers to sit and watch the performers, indicating her approval with an inclination of her head. Her courtiers watch attentively for signs of her opinions on each piece, and she enjoys toying with them, keeping them guessing until each performer has finished.
Finally, after a long night of entertainments, the queen retires, but it is some time before she will be able to fall into her bed. Her ladies undress her and remove her makeup with the kind of reverence given to a sacred ritual, in a process that takes over an hour, sometimes two. As the makeup, the wig, the jewelry and the clothes are removed, the regal authority slips away, leaving Elizabeth, a simple woman, ready for bed after a long day.