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Stories of England: Pageantry and progresses

Head historic properties curator Jeremy Ashbee explores the stories of six royal visits to our sites


Image: William the Conqueror illustration


The summer of 1086 saw the first Norman king of England stage the most spectacular event of his reign. Twenty years previously, he and his supporters had defeated the English king Harold at Hastings. But the first decades of Norman rule had not been smooth: there had been rebellions and foreign invasions, and the country was still gripped by a powerful sense of two nations sharing a single country. It had never been so important for the king to appear in his full majesty.

Old Sarum, in Wiltshire, was an inspired choice for a great ceremony. It lay in the centre of lowland, southern England, close to navigable rivers and Roman roads. But it also powerfully symbolised a combination of old and new. The mighty banks and ditches of the outer enclosure were created in the Iron Age as a hillfort, even before the Roman invasion. Now, rising above these prehistoric defences were two innovations of William and his supporters: a stone cathedral and a timber castle.

As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle related, every land-holding man in England, including sub-tenants of others, now converged on Old Sarum, and performed an act of homage to King William. Probably in the open air, with the king seated on a throne, they all bowed down before him and swore oaths that they would be faithful to him over any other man. In return for this, they understood that their rights to hold their lands would be guaranteed by their new master.

Visit Old Sarum
Image: King Richard III illustration


Through the late summer and autumn of 1483, the newly crowned king Richard III and his queen, Anne, made an extensive progress through the Midlands and the north to show themselves to their people. The king was anxious for an enthusiastic reception. His secretary wrote ahead of him to the city of York, hoping for pageants and speeches, and 13,000 badges of Richard’s symbol, the white boar, were to be given to friends and supporters.

The king’s return to London saw him stay one night at Gainsborough, in the fine new hall built by Thomas Burgh. He was exactly the sort of man with whom Richard wished to associate himself, for he embodied continuity with the previous regime. Burgh had been a leading supporter of King Edward IV, Richard III’s older brother. Richard rewarded his support by making him a Knight of the Garter, the highest order of knighthood in England. Though no detailed descriptions of the festivities at Gainsborough have survived, we must imagine the king and queen dining in state in the magnificent great hall, surrounded by the leading families of the district.

Unfortunately, elsewhere in England, storm clouds were gathering. As Richard travelled south, he received news that his chief supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, was in open rebellion against him. Though the rebellion ultimately failed, the few days at York and Gainsborough turned out to be the high point in Richard III’s short reign.

Visit Gainsborough Old Hall
Image: King Henry VIII illustration


Of all the monarchs of England, King Henry VIII may have left the most striking impression, both on contemporaries and people in later centuries. The world-famous portraits capture the king in middle age. But records of an event at Eltham Palace in January 1516, when Henry was aged 24, show that even earlier in his reign, the king was acutely aware of the need to appear in royal magnificence.

Henry had known Eltham his whole life – lying close to the royal palace at Greenwich, Eltham was a natural choice for the young prince and his siblings to be brought up. This wasn’t a life of pure seclusion – the Dutch scholar Erasmus left a description of the nine-year-old Henry presiding over a stately reception in the Great Hall. And it was in this same building that, as king, Henry was later entertained by a truly spectacular piece of pre-dinner ‘theatre’.

The stay at Eltham ran through the entire Christmas period, culminating on Twelfth Night. On this evening, an imitation castle was built, in which elaborately dressed knights and ladies were stationed. The costumes, of crimson satin with gold and silver ‘spangles’, attracted admiring comments – the ladies’ headdresses followed the fashion of Amsterdam, while the men’s costumes were thought to reflect styles from faraway Hungary. The main event began after King Henry and Queen Katherine (of Aragon) were seated – a crowd of knights entered the hall and engaged in a mock battle to capture the castle. ‘Many a good stripe was given,’ though the attackers finally retreated, after which the knights and ladies paraded out from the castle, and the dancing could begin. Once this was over, a banquet of 200 dishes was served in the hall, ‘with great plenty to everybody’.

Visit Eltham Palace and Gardens
Image: Elizabeth I illustration

WHEN 9–27 JULY 1575

One of the greatest practitioners of the royal progress was Elizabeth I. For the first half of her reign, she travelled around the country on progress every summer. This provided a great opportunity for her to be seen by her people. But those who hosted her in their houses and castles engaged in bitter rivalry to outdo each other in the lavishness of the entertainments they could provide.

Elizabeth visited her close friend, and possibly lover, Robert Dudley at his castle at Kenilworth four times: the fourth visit, lasting 19 days, would be the most elaborate and expensive entertainment of her reign. Dudley had spent much of the previous five years updating some of the buildings and amenities of his ancient castle to make it truly fit for the queen, including a giant tower to contain her chambers and a private garden.

The entertainments during the queen’s stay included banquets, music and dancing, dramatic performances and elaborate tableaux and masques. In the early evenings, Dudley took the queen out into the park around the castle to hunt deer. Dudley and his master of ceremonies, George Gascoigne, tried to maintain the pretence that this was an informal visit: Dudley even ordered that the castle clock be stopped when she arrived, suspending her normal life of royal duty. But with several hundred people in attendance, and a packed programme of events, this was obviously not a simple few days’ holiday.

Several historians have suggested that Dudley was trying to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. If this was indeed his intention, he failed. But the events at Kenilworth in 1575 have echoed down the centuries as a high point in the history of royal progresses.

Visit Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden
Image: King James I illustration

WHEN 27–29 JULY 1619

Like his predecessor, Elizabeth I, King James I embarked on a number of tours of his kingdom during his reign. This was an opportunity for the king to cement his association with important subjects, honouring them by staying in their houses. Sir Christopher Hatton II and his son Christopher III, owners of Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire, hosted the king nine times between 1608 and 1624. Kirby was an ideal place for a royal progress – a new and fashionable house, easily accessible from London, and within the royal forest of Rockingham, allowing the king to indulge his passion for hunting.

During a royal visit, the house was effectively made over to the royal entourage, numbering several hundred, and the king was naturally given the best bedchamber as his sleeping accommodation. The layout of Kirby, like other houses, contained a sequence of state rooms, with the bedchamber in the most private and inaccessible part of the house: a back stair led to it directly, with a page guarding this route, and attending immediately to the king’s needs.

The house was elaborately furnished and decorated for the king’s stay. An inventory made shortly after the 1619 visit listed a gilded bedframe, hung with crimson curtains of velvet and taffeta, fringed with gold trimming (crimson was a colour especially associated with royalty). The walls of the bedchamber were covered with tapestries, over which were hung royal portraits – a constant reminder to the king of his host’s loyalty to him.

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Image: Charles I illustration

WHEN 30 JULY 1634

Bolsover Castle hosted a lavish one-day visit from the king and queen during their progress of summer 1634. The poet and playwright Ben Jonson devised a spectacular entertainment comprising music, dramatic performance and dance, entitled Love’s Welcome.

The castle, belonging to William Cavendish, was used as a ‘retreat’ from the family’s more important residence at Welbeck Abbey, a few miles away, and it was there that the king and queen had been staying. As well as the entourage around the king and queen, Cavendish also invited all the gentry of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The entertainment came after a huge feast in which 30 swans, 30 peacocks, 30 turkeys, 40 herons, 120 geese and nearly 600 other birds were eaten.
At least part of the entertainment took place in the open air, in the Fountain Garden, where a troupe of dancers, dressed as builders, performed before the king and queen. But their spirited (and presumably comic) antics followed a more sober song, on the theme of the five senses, as depicted in the Pillar Parlour inside the Little Castle. The principal theme of the entertainment was love. After the dance, two cupid figures emerged from scenery clouds to set down a banquet for the royal couple, who were praised as the embodiment of love.

Events outside the castle nearly spoiled the impression of harmony, however. A crowd of lead miners assembled with the intention of petitioning the king to resolve a dispute but, on an instruction from the king’s secretary, Cavendish forcibly kept them away from the castle, and had their leaders imprisoned for several months. The royal couple were thus able to enjoy Love’s Welcome without distraction from rising political tensions in the country – tensions that would later erupt into civil war.

Visit Bolsover Castle