Entertainment and ritual

The Elizabethan court

ElizabethThe 'court' referred both to the various royal palaces, mostly in and around London, and to the body of people who surrounded the monarch. The Elizabethan court was made up of the collection of privileged people serving the Queen – the members of the Privy Chamber, Royal Household and the Privy Council. (See Elizabeth's England: 'The Queen is dead, long live the Queen' for more.) One estimate suggests that Elizabeth’s court included some 1250 people.

Elizabeth maintained a splendid court to project an image of power but she did not spend money on expensive vanity projects, such as the major building works of Henry VIII. This was left to her courtiers, like Christopher Hatton and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who built massive country houses as symbols of status and power. These private houses were often used as surrogate palaces for the Queen and the court on their travels around the country, known as 'progresses'.

The court revolved around elaborate ceremony and ritual, which reinforced Elizabeth's position as head of state and provided opportunities for courtiers to catch the Queen's eye. While Elizabeth relied on the devotion of her courtiers for advice and protection, they relied on her continued favour for their positions and promotions. Her favourites were often in direct competition with each other for her affection and support, and the wooing of her favour and patronage literally adopted the forms of a courtship ritual. In the centre of this extraordinary cult of love was Elizabeth, who managed to induce her favourites to command and combine the affection of a subject for their sovereign with that of a man for his lover.

Elizabeth had pet names for many of her favourites and they showered her with extravagant compliments, gifts and letters using the language of love. Hatton, one of the Queen's most trusted courtiers, whom she called 'Lids' and her 'sheep', is a case in point. He built an immense house at Holdenby, the largest in England at the time, in honour of the Queen and wrote to her in language more befitting a lovesick suitor than a government official:

Would God I were with you but for one hour. My wits are overwrought with thoughts. I find myself amazed. Bear with me, my most dear sweet Lady, Passion overcometh me. I can write no more. Love me, for I love you.

Hatton knew that his powerful position was a result of their special relationship. He never married, so as not to incur the wrath of his beloved Queen, and to keep the courtship ritual alive. Many of Elizabeth's courtiers who did marry, such as Dudley and Ralegh, did so secretly and, when it was discovered, often found themselves out of favour.


Entertainment at court included such pastimes as jousting, dancing, poetry reading, dramatic performances, hunting, riding, banqueting and concerts. Elizabeth was a skilled hunter, rider, dancer, poet and musician and admired proficiency in these areas in her courtiers. In addition to pleasure and recreation, court entertainments thus provided a means to interact with the Queen and to come to her attention. They also partly explain why the Elizabethan age was such a notable one for poetry, drama and music.

These entertainments also allowed Elizabeth to see and be seen. One of her first public appearances after her coronation took place at Greenwich in July 1559, with courtiers and citizens in attendance. An elaborate entertainment was held over a few days that included a staged military skirmish, a tilt (a form of jousting), a masque, a banquet and fireworks. A good time was had by all and Elizabeth's behaviour – dignified, confident, gracious and obviously enjoying herself – reassured those present that she was fitted for the role of appealing to and ruling over both court and commoners.

Tilts, in particular, were rituals designed to impress, allowing Elizabeth's favourites to show off their athletic prowess. Henry Lee, one of Elizabeth's favourites, became her first Champion, representing the Queen in tournaments until his retirement in 1590. He was responsible for initiating her Accession Day celebrations, one the grandest events of each year.

New Year's Day gift-giving

Another important ritual in the court calendar was the annual practice of giving gifts to the monarch on New Year's Day. Elizabeth's servants and courtiers gave her gifts to show their respect and devotion – and to keep her favour.


In 1588 the court was at Greenwich Palace for the New Year's Day gift-giving and the gift roll, which records all the gifts received, still exists. The offerings that year ranged from a gold, diamond and ruby necklace with matching earrings, from Hatton, to an 'oringed' pie from John Dudley, serjeant of the pastry, and a macaroon from Elizabeth’s master cook.

Other popular gifts for the Queen included clothing, gloves, handkerchiefs, petticoats and sweets. For her part, Elizabeth reciprocated with gold plate, or with an amount of money based on the recipient's social status and Elizabeth's whim at the time, making the pecking order clear.

Sir Christopher Hatton

Sir Christopher Hatton (1540–91) caught Elizabeth's eye with his dancing skills and quickly became one of her favourites. He was appointed Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard in 1572, was knighted and made a privy councillor in 1577 and became Lord Chancellor in 1587. He was known for urging moderation in the treatment of both Catholics and Protestants, adopting the motto 'Neither Fire nor Steel'. Many adventurers sought him out as a key patron. Hatton Garden in Holborn is named after him.

Sir Henry Lee

Sir Henry Lee (1533–1611) was another of Elizabeth's favourites, serving as Master of the Leash, Master of the Armoury and the Queen's Champion until his retirement in 1590. He originated and supervised the annual Accession Day tilts and extravaganzas usually held at Whitehall Palace to celebrate Elizabeth's accession to the throne.

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