Written by Emma Poynter
The royal progresses posed a unique opportunity for both the people of Elizabethan England and the Queen herself: it offered each a glimpse into the other’s world. The governing state was compromised of Elizabeth I and her elite group of courtiers, who operated behind closed doors. Consequently, the localities constituting towns and cities beyond this group were managed outside the sphere of the centralised hub of polity. This allowed local communities to adopt their own practical governance and, in spite of Elizabeth’s ultimate supremacy as monarch, power typically lay in an oligarchy of established and wealthy members of the community. On no other occasion would Elizabeth physically enter the space of the localities, giving rise to the opportunity for the two bodies to interact. The ways in which both parties prepared and participated in the progress show attempts to maximise engagement, thus denoting the rarity of this opportunity. For the queen, progress facilitated the opportunity to assert political dominance and spiritual legitimacy. It posed different opportunities for the more diverse localities; for some, it meant the chance of rising in royal favour and establishing a political dialogue, while for others, it meant seeing and celebrating the monarch.
The fact that Elizabeth embarked upon 23 of these highly choreographed and expensive endeavours during her 44-year reign, even subsidising the events from the royal purse, suggests that the progress was a priority of her politics. Fundamentally, the progress is crucial to explaining the disconnected nature of the relationship between the localities and the state throughout Elizabeth’s reign, as it presented the only instances where Elizabeth migrated out from the comfort of the court and into the country that she ruled. This article therefore demonstrates the socio-political impact of decentralised governance both within the state and localities and experiences of class discrepancies. It further illustrates the importance of visual representation and the spiritual legitimacy progress ultimately offered the Queen. This will enable a thorough investigation of visual and documentary primary sources, ultimately evidencing the gap between the ruler and the people of Elizabethan England.
It is important to be aware of how relations within the governing state operated in order to understand how it interacted with the localities when the royal party came to visit on progress. The progress reveals the lack of homogeny within the state itself, applying pressure to its relationship with the localities. The queen herself had many marked differences in policy compared with her powerful councillors and courtiers, sometimes giving the appearance of two governments, not one, ruling the state. Discourse surrounding the issue of Elizabeth’s proposed marriage illustrates one such example where the state experienced strong disharmony from within; initially, courtiers constantly tried to persuade the monarch to marry, but as Elizabeth turned her virginial image into a propagandistic strength over time, the court realised the true limits of their political influence. As her reign went on, Elizabeth singularly identified herself as ruler, with the court merely engaged with executing the mechanics of business. Patrick Collinson emphasises this distinction on progress, suggesting that ministers were preoccupied with other business as they ‘trailed round behind’ Elizabeth during her tours around England. Because progress was a priority of Elizabeth’s politics, the court moving at her will evidences the supremacy of her wishes. Indeed, regular business was often paused so that progress was able to take place.
The Earl of Bedford wrote to Lord Burghley in 1578 regarding such halted business, hoping that ‘now that the progress is ended, trusts there will be time to consider’ alternate business further, showing that Elizabeth’s political priorities overruled that of senior members of state. Whilst Elizabeth’s privy council numbered just twelve compared to Mary I’s fifty, and regular summer visits to Richmond and Windsor did not take councillors more than a couple of hours ride away from the capital, this group would be seen to split into two or even three when the queen progressed further afield. It would therefore be a mistake to assume Elizabeth’s party formed one cohesive power to oppress the localities and remind them of their hierarchical place. Instead, Elizabeth used the progress as a chance to assert the top-down hierarchical structure not only against the localities, but against the state as well.
In spite of the logistical issues faced by a disunited government on a long and complex tour, the court still made sizeable plans to travel into the localities in the form of a royal progress. The opportunities for Elizabeth to interact in person with communities through the country were extremely limited, especially in the north of England. The progress therefore presented the potential for the queen to generate a positive public image, to become acquainted with aristocrats who came to court infrequently if ever, and to promote her policies. Whilst historiography asserts that early modern state formation had an axiomatic obsession with order that put the monarch above all others, Elizabethan England had developed in such a way that de facto independent community leadership was essential to the resolution of everyday social conflict, substantiating the need for readily accessible and consistently visible figures of authority. Principal members of local society were therefore crucial, but this implicitly encouraged a divide between the ruling monarch and key community figures. Furthermore, the impression of separation had been long encouraged by the secrecy in which the state operated. For example, parliamentary proceedings were kept behind closed doors with strict privacy controls in place.
Whilst circulations of parliamentary news did begin to appear in manuscripts and newsletters from the Elizabethan era onwards, this only impacted the politically literate, if the staunchly independent families in power chose to pay any attention at all. The royal progress was therefore crucial for forming bonds across the state and localities forming two governing systems and was consequently often an enormous undertaking, with trips planned over anywhere from a few weeks to several months. In 1575, Elizabeth spent two weeks at Kenilworth castle alone, with a programme of daily entertainments expected to begin upon arrival. Physical displays were important proof of the effort required to host a monarch and show substantial attempts to connect the regional area to the central government. A long tradition of local communities acting separately from the state ultimately posed the purpose of the progress: a chance to form a meaningful connection between the two bodies.
Both parties therefore seized the opportunity to make the best possible impression. The event of progress subsequently required extensive, and often expensive, preparation. In Elizabeth’s train, for example, multiple servants were given money ‘to furnish [them] with a horse and other things to wait on the Queen’s Majesty’, suggesting the household needed to be extended and equipped in order for the monarch to be successfully waited upon away from ordinary business in court. Spending was not all based on practicality, with the progress to Bristol in 1574 seeing £27 spent on red cloth so that all the pikemen would be wearing red breeches. The appearance of a considerably-sized household and matching soldiers were important as they created a cohesive impression, with Elizabeth the head of this well-oiled machine.
To present as understaffed and mismatched would have presented the monarch as weak to the people with whom she was already ill acquainted: how can the queen manage the country if she cannot manage her own household? Maintaining a powerful image was especially important as the queen could not rely on the usual structures of palatial architecture, instead being greeted in gardens, parks, woods, and even fields. Appearing to sustain control in unfamiliar locations resulted in her aura of power extending away from the state and into the localities. Such effort therefore suggests that the state failed to interact with towns beyond the court often, thus necessitating making a powerful impression.
The localities too fully utilised the rare opportunity to impress the queen. Towns would invest in their infrastructure to present their home at its best by painting and restoring public areas; whilst this work often needed to be done, it was an investment in the future of the residents, with the queen’s arrival setting a deadline for work to be completed. The queen would stay in the houses of noble families, with the majority of hosts cleaning, airing, and repairing existing rooms or preparing suitable temporary accommodation, but some ambitious hosts would go so far as to erect new houses especially for the queen’s coming. Preparation of this scale would require a long time frame, evidencing that the progress presented an occasion rare enough to warrant many months of planning ahead.
However, appearances alone were not enough, and host towns would prepare ‘magnificent scaffolds and pageants … appointing musick, preparing speeches and verses to be said to her’. Entertainments would help Elizabeth learn about regional cultures within her kingdom and displayed unique features of particular places. All of this effort denotes an opportunity to showcase a community in order to forge a positive lasting impression, suggesting that there were few precious chances to attempt to bridge the disconnect between the locality and the state.
For the lower echelons of society, the royal progress would see a temporary breach in the disconnect between state and locality caused by extreme disparity in wealth, location, and political interest. Instead, the monarch appeared to be a figure who was in some way related to their own lives, and who could learn about their own successes and issues. Whilst the queen would tactically plan a progress route in order to suit national issues, as in 1591 when she visited the south in order to keep an eye on the war situation in Europe, she did not forget that her presence in the localities would make her rule more tangible to the communities who populated them. Indeed, the queen was well received by the community when she visited Rye in 1573 as people left work to celebrate her, with one poet writing “you fissher men of Rye reioyce; to see your Queen & hear her voice”. Average townspeople would therefore disrupt their daily activity in order to see Elizabeth, denoting the prominence of the event.
However, these communities did not just commit to abandoning routine to constitute cheering crowds. Towns were divided into wards, suggesting that citizens were taxed to fund the entertainments for the queen and thus were financially responsible for the visit too. Ultimately, the commitment required suggests that opportunities to link ordinary life to the queen were exceptionally limited and the most was made of rare chances, even for the poorest in society. However, one cannot assume that this effort necessarily resulted in aims being met; William Leahy notes that despite this improved access to the monarch, she was always heavily protected, which resulted in a physical barrier that reminded the onlookers of the enormous gap between the state and the localities.
He further states that the public relations exercise of progress had ‘ambiguous’ levels of success, and historiography has traditionally failed to recognise this ambivalence. Indeed, the average onlooker might only catch one glimpse of Elizabeth as she processed through each town, and the historian must not overestimate the impact this had on the relationship between local communities and the queen. Whilst the progress may not always provide a reliable indicator of the disconnect experienced between the state and the localities, the severity of personal and financial strain suffered in different communities as a result evidences the disconnect usually experienced within the relationship between the localities and the state.
For the ruling members of localities, the progress posed a much more interactive opportunity, offering an unusual chance to establish and strengthen personal bonds with the queen. Despite hosting families naturally having different circumstances, they similarly participated in the central dynamic of the progress and were integral in the construction of bonds between the state and the localities. The hosts and the queen shared a common aim: to improve the distinguishable link between the two, despite physical distance and factional loyalties driving the bodies apart in regular circumstances. Tokenistic actions by host families evidence efforts to achieve good impressions, such as in 1571 when a valuable ‘cupp of silver doble gilt’ worth in excess of £19 was given ‘to her Majestie as a presente’ by a host family.
Elizabeth meanwhile used the opportunity to cement her dominance over those who topped the local oligarchy. One demonstration of this occurred in Cambridge in 1564; despite perceptions involving the inferior status of women within education, William Cecil wrote ahead of the progress to the university to ask ‘what maner of pleasures in learnge maye be presented to her Majestie’. Whilst Elizabeth was well educated, for her to enter the strictly male world of the university and expect learning presents an assertion of her jurisdiction. The progress therefore provides a reassertion of the state’s favourable power dynamic, which became unsettled through the usually omnipresent gap left between the two parties.
It was not just Elizabeth’s actions that enforced her assertion of supremacy, showing that she fully utilised access provided under progress. Appearances mattered in this disjointed world, and the queen used the progress to display attributes which contextually legitimised her leadership in what Collinson calls a ‘travelling show’. Figure 1 shows a fantastically coloured etching depicting the fairy-tale-esque arrival of Elizabeth at the Palace of Nonsuch in 1587. Foot soldiers, prancing horses, and dogs are all part of the precession, indicating the almost festival-like chaos that must have ensued in the Queen’s train. This was not unique to a singular progress, with the spectacle maintained or built upon as the years went by. In 1589, 169 carts were required to move Elizabeth’s court on progress; the Wardrobe of the Beds and the chapel required ten apiece, and essentials like linen and kitchen equipment fit for royalty were to be carried in the monarch’s train. Similarly, long lists of staff for the 1591 Theobalds progress indicate the scale of the travelling court, with the extensive household registering everyone from ‘The L. Chamberlyn’ to ‘Groomes of the Chamber’ and ‘The Musicians’. Such huge processions moved at a slow pace of maybe 12 miles per day, thus allowing the locals to drink in the atmosphere of the royal parade.
Naturally, this kind of performance would not have been encountered in the everyday life of the Elizabethan localities; the stark contrast between everyday poverty and the power of Elizabeth’s procession must have seemed almost magical. Furthermore, Nonsuch Palace was sold by Mary to the Lord of Arundel. When Elizabeth visited in 1559, Strype writes that she was greeted by the ‘noble Earl of Arundel’ who was reduced into what ‘seems to be now House-keeper.’ The tactical impression Elizabeth made was a systematic promotion of her legitimacy for people of all classes across the country. The monarch taking this action further proves how out of sync the localities and the state were as no such display would have been necessary had the localities been reminded of Elizabeth’s power frequently.
The importance of visual connections to spiritual matters cannot be understated. Indeed, the success of monarchical rule across the population in the early modern period relied heavily upon spiritual legitimacy. When considering the mystery surrounding the workings of the court in comparison to local politics and the supposed links to a Christian deity, the progress served to remind the localities that there was ‘one true ruler’, legitimised by God. German philosopher Max Weber exemplified this phenomenon in his theory of ‘charisma’ meaning ‘gifts of grace’, borrowed from a study of the early Christian Church investigating St. Paul’s use of the word.
Whilst Weber’s most detailed elaboration of the concept of charisma only covers pre-modern political sociology, it can be used to explain why populations believed Elizabeth’s reign was a God-given right. This reasoning explains why appearances mattered so much on progress, but Elizabeth’s spiritual legitimacy extended further than this. For instance, the adulation of the people assumed a religious colouring; many members of Elizabeth’s court believed that having the queen visit on progress was tantamount to having their house blessed. Equating Elizabeth to deity confirmed her legitimacy, intensified by her occupation of the intimate homely space of the localities, despite infrequent visits.
When considering Elizabeth’s uncertain ascension, confirmation of her spiritual legitimacy on rare visits to the rest of the country seems doubly important. Catholicism viewed Elizabeth as the illegitimate child of an adulterous marriage who could not be queen, a dangerous view in both the state and localities. The Protestant queen would continue to assert the opposite throughout her reign. The hosts wishing to rise in favour often reinforced this message through the vehicle of masque. Indeed, much of the historiography surrounding Elizabeth’s progresses focuses on analyses of the entertainment enjoyed at each location. Whilst also rich in political rhetoric, the entertainment on progress enforced Elizabeth’s spiritual legitimacy to the throne.
For example, Elizabeth was given particular roles in masques, as only she had ‘the rare and singular qualitees of both body & minde’ to play the ruling character. Entertainments would use prophetic devices, such as those found in classical mythology, with Elizabeth at the centre; she would arrive just in time to send the evildoer away. Through this theatricalization of ritual, Elizabeth became entrenched in magic and mystery, demonstrating prestige. This would not just take the form of the masque, with other instances including Elizabeth touching to heal whilst on progress, reinforcing the spiritual message without the mediating filter of the court setting.
Moreover, displays would be nothing short of magical to celebrate the queen’s coming. In 1575, one man wrote of ‘very straunge and sundry kindez of Fier-works, compeld by cunning to fly too and fro, and too mount very hye into the ayr upward’. This wonderful description of early modern fireworks further captures the unique aura Elizabeth carried with her on progress. Inextricable links between monarchy and divinity were therefore demonstrated in physical displays, again encouraging a positive atmosphere. The queen seized the opportunity to impair claims that she was not the destined ruler of the country, validated by the divine, and entering the locality in this way was a purposeful action intended to bridge the gaps within the country that she legitimately ruled.
However, the caveat of a magical display is that it presented a façade of usual courtly life, with every experience embellished in order to amplify the message of spiritual belonging. This therefore suggests a limitation of the progress when used to explain the relationship between the state and the localities, as the true nature of the ruling party was veiled in exaggeration. The superficial presentation limits the sincerity of bonds made, and subsequently drives the two bodies further apart; Elizabeth was never within reach of the realities experienced in the country, merely a figurehead to view and admire as a leader.
In conclusion, the relationship between the state and the localities was a disjointed and often fractured one. There was much disparity within the populations of the localities with an equally heterogenous Elizabethan court, and subsequent relations would therefore be difficult to maintain when the two were not in frequent contact. The differences in physical space and political interest also pushed the two bodies forming the governance of the country apart. The royal progress was therefore a unique experience whereby these differences could be overcome for brief periods. This was a point of contact clearly exploited by Elizabeth to reassert her divine right to the throne across both the lower and upper echelons of regional communities, and one where noble families could volley for her favour.
Ironically, the atypical nature of the progress meant that instead of connecting the monarch with her people, it actually highlighted deep-seated and persistent social, economic, and political disconnections more clearly. It is important to note that for many, the progress was merely a glimpse of the monarch and the historian should be careful that its impact is not overstated. Nevertheless, the progress is an essential mechanism in the assessment of the relationship between the state and the localities, as it was the one of the few occasions where the monarch would seem to personally engage with her country.
Figure 1: Hogenberg, Frans, Palatium Regium in Angliæ Regno apellatum Nonciutz, Cologne, 1587, Y,5.153, The British Museum, London.
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Featured image: Formerly attributed to George Gower, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons