The Elizabethans

The Elizabethans by A.N. Wilson Read Free Book Online

Book: The Elizabethans by A.N. Wilson Read Free Book Online
Authors: A.N. Wilson
losers, such as the voyage of Fenton in 1582.
    And another drain on his pocket was Kenilworth.
    We who are used to reliably fresh water to drink, and who have tea and coffee whenever we like it, need to make a mental adjustment when we travel in our imaginations to sixteenth-century England, reminding ourselves that it was not safe to drink the water and, even if you were the Queen, there were some occasions when there was nothing to drink but beer. The crisis passed; ‘God be thanked, she is now perfect well and merry,’ 8 said Leicester on the day that he was due to bring her to Kenilworth. But it was not a good start. At the ‘ambrosial banquet’ prepared for her, Leicester had ordered more than 300 dishes. ‘Her majesty eat smally or nothing; which understood, the coorsez wear not so orderly served and sizely set doun, but wear by and by az disorderly wasted and coorsly consumed, more courtly the thought then courteously,’ said one observer. The next sweltering day, the Queen spent the entire time in the castle, ‘for coolness’. 9
    Most of the food at an ‘ambrosial banquet’ such as this would have been sweet. The 300 dishes would have been chiefly sweetmeats of a kind that have now disappeared altogether from the English table, or would only be served with fruit and nuts for a ‘dessert’ at a formal dinner in, say, an Oxford college or a city Livery Company. Even savouries, if they formed part of the banquet, would have had sweet admixtures. Their herring pies were made with currants, raisins and minced dates; 10 capons would come roasted with orange peel, sugar and prunes; 11 a chicken pie would contain brown sugar and raisins. 12 All disgusting to a modern palate. Vegetables, if served at all, would be overcooked and, yet again, sweetened. Their artichoke pie was made with sherry, sugar, orange peel and raisins. The English critic Walter Pater thought all art aspired to the condition of music. All Elizabethan cooking aspired to the condition of marmalade.
    The splendour of pageantry, and the jangling lack of harmony between the two great protagonists at Kenilworth – Elizabeth and Leicester – are perhaps both recalled in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream . The gunfire and fireworks that greeted the Queen’s arrival at the castle were seen and heard more then twenty miles away, 13 so they would surely have been seen and heard five miles away in Stratford-upon-Avon. Only ten miles north-east of Stratford, at Long Itchington, Leicester put on a stupendous hunting picnic for the Queen, and she spent much of her time at Kenilworth, in the cool of the late summer afternoons and early evenings, pursuing the deer. She loved hunting. (She personally killed six deer during this visit, as the surviving game-books show. 14 )
    A modern visitor might have found the Kenilworth pageants and games spectacular, even the deer-hunting. The one activity that would surely not appeal even to the most thick-skinned time-traveller would have been the bear-baiting in the outer wood of the castle. It is good to know that even in Elizabethan times there were those who abominated this gratuitous cruelty. Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses (1583) asked, ‘What Christian heart can take pleasure to see one poor beast to rend, tear and kill another, and all for his foolish pleasure?’ The answer to this rhetorical question must be: the Earl of Leicester and his guests, including – we must presume – Queen Elizabeth herself, for he would surely not have had his hounds slavering at the prospect of fighting and tormenting the bears if he had not thought this would be diverting for his monarch? 15
    Even the hunting parties were punctuated with pageantry. As she came riding home one evening, she was met by Gascoigne dressed as the Savage Man. On another evening he was Sylvanus, god of the woods, who told her that all the forest-dwellers, the fauns, dryads, hamadryads and wood-nymphs were in tears at the rumour that

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