Entertainment at court in Elizabethan times included jousting, dancing, poetry-reading, dramatic performances, hunting, riding, banqueting and concerts.
Many of Queen Elizabeth I's most entertaining court appearances took place in Greenwich itself, at Greenwich Palace. The culture of court entertainment partly explains why the Elizabethan age was such a notable one for poetry, drama and music. Queen Elizabeth I was a skilled hunter, rider, dancer, poet and musician, and she admired proficiency in these areas in her courtiers. Court entertainments also provided a means for suitors to interact with the Queen, and gain her attention.
A military skirmish, a tilt, a masque, a banquet and fireworks!
Public entertainment allowed Elizabeth to see and be seen. One of her first appearances at Greenwich after her coronation in July 1559 had courtiers and citizens in attendance. An elaborate programme of entertainment was held over a few days, including a staged military skirmish, a tilt (a form of jousting), a masque, a banquet and fireworks. A good time was had by all and the Queen’s behaviour - dignified, confident and gracious - reassured those present that she was fit for the role of appealing to and ruling over the court and commoners alike.
Tilts, in particular, were rituals designed to impress, allowing Elizabeth's ‘favourites’ to show off their athletic prowess. Sir Henry Lee became her first champion, representing the Queen in tournaments until his retirement in 1590. He became responsible for initiating the Queen’s Accession Day celebrations, one of the grandest annual events in Elizabethan times. These celebrations marked the anniversary of Elizabeth's coronation, and events of this nature are still celebrated around the world today.
New Year's Day gift-giving
Another important ritual in the court calendar was the practice of giving gifts to the monarch on New Year's Day. Through giving, Elizabeth's servants and courtiers showed their respect and devotion to the queen, in an effort to keep her favour.
In 1588 the court was at Greenwich Palace for New Year's Day, and the gift roll, which records all the gifts received, still exists today. The offerings that year included a gold, diamond and ruby necklace with matching earrings, from Sir Christopher Hatton, 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.
The Armada Portrait
Recently saved for the nation, the Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth I's reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. This iconic portrait is now back on public display in the Queen's House after careful conservation.
Using our collections for research
The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history, astronomy and time.