‘When Britain really ruled the waves –
In good Queen Bess’s time
The House of Peers made no pretence
To intellectual eminence’
From ‘Iolanthe’ lyrics by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911)
I’ve been thinking about the Queen. Not this Queen – that Queen. The first Queen Elizabeth – The Virgin Queen, The Faerie Queen, Gloriana, Good Queen Bess herself.
Like Elizabeth Windsor, Elizabeth Tudor inherited the throne at the age of twenty five, and the path to the throne was tortuous. Her mother was executed for treason and her elder sister Queen Mary I had her imprisoned in the Tower of London. When Elizabeth was taken there in the middle of the night, she sat down on the steps and refused to enter, so afraid was she that like her mother, she might not come out again. Elizabeth I never believed that she would be Queen – there were simply too many people between her and the throne – a bit like her 20th century counterpart.
Unlike Elizabeth II who never went to school, Elizabeth I was highly educated. She spoke fluent Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian, she was well read, musical, and had beautiful handwriting. Her tutor Roger Ashkam, a good Yorkshire man said ‘... beside her perfect readiness in Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, she readeth.....more Greek every day than some prebendary of this church doth read Latin in a whole week.'
Elizabeth I loved pageants and festivals and she encouraged them to mark her accession and other notable events during her reign. There were good reasons for this. The traditional and welcome holidays of the Catholic liturgical year had been much reduced during the reign of her father and her fiercely Protestant half brother. Elizabeth with a great deal of political astuteness and psychological insight, realised that there was a real need for public holidays. They forge community and bring people together with a purpose. They are a break from toil, an excuse to drink too much (a British tradition even then) and let’s be frank - they have a whiff of ‘bread and circuses’ about them.
(Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard c1575 - The Phoenix Portrait)
The most fabulous festivities were of course the private ones put on for the Queen by members of the court at their country houses. Every couple of years the Queen made a ‘progress’ round the country and visited her favourites – she saved a lot of money that way and it also accounts for the huge number of stately homes in Britain which can still boast a bed that Elizabeth I slept in.
The most lavish of these visits was the nineteen days that Elizabeth spent at Kenilworth in 1575. Even today the richest celebrity or Russian oligarch could hardly reproduce the excesses of this visit. Elton John's parties pale into insignificance beside Robert Dudley's. There was a lot at stake; Dudley had wanted to marry the Virgin Queen for years and as a last attempt he was prepared to gamble a fortune to get her. He remade the garden, rebuilt the gate house, stocked the menagerie and the deer park, laid on plays, fireworks and a masque featuring Triton riding an eighteen foot long mermaid and moving islands carrying the Lady of the Lake and her nymphs.
Here is an engraving of similar entertainment laid on for the Queen's visit to Elvetham in 1591.
But the Queen still wouldn't marry Dudley. Eventually when against her wishes he married Lettice Knollys, the Queen was not amused and refused to receive her at court.
These Elizabethan parties make our Jubilee celebrations seem quite modest, and of course I've made a cake. The meringues are a small homage to Elizabeth's passion for all things sugary. Sugar was introduced into Britain about 1200 but didn't begin to be refined in Britain until Elizabeth's reign. The cane was imported from Madeira and North Africa - hence its name 'Barbary Sugar'. Needless to say it was very, very expensive and often turned up in Britain having been seized (legally or not) from foreign vessels by British ships.
I'm not going to give a recipe - I made a very straightforward chocolate sponge on the pound cake principal - 4 eggs and 8oz of butter, sugar and SR flour - remove 2 tablespoons of the flour and replace with cocoa, and add 1/2 tsp baking powder. I baked it in a 9" cake tin and then cut a circle out of the middle to make a crown shape. (I ate the middle)
Cover the cake with a thin layer of marzipan (another of Elizabeth's passions) and then a layer of fondant icing. I made a batch of meringues with 2 egg whites and 4 oz sugar, which I coloured pink. I cut some creme de menthe turkish delight into pieces and brushed with edible gold powder.
I made the diamonds by melting some clear mints in the oven on a silicone sheet (about 10 minutes at 180c). I took them out of the oven, then quickly as they hardened, I pressed a diamond shaped biscuit cutter onto the melted sugar. When it had set hard I broke off the diamonds and stuck them into the cake. Sprinkle with more gold powder a few marshmallows and some silver hearts - this is no time for restraint!
Have a jolly Jubilee.
‘She shall be, to the happiness of England,
An aged princess; many days shall see her,
And yet no day without a deed to crown it.
From Henry VII (Act V Scene v) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Here's the podcast of this blog post on SoundCloud
In Good Queen Bess's Golden Days