Music for fairy dance at Elvetham Entertainment: ‘Elisa is the Fairest Queen’


This item is a set of five 16th-century, manuscript partbooks (i.e. books containing harmonised musical compositions separated into their component voices or parts). Digitised here is the song ‘Elisa is the fayrest queene’, performed as a fairy song and dance at Elizabeth I’s visit to Elvetham in September 1591. Elizabeth’s visit was part of her royal progress – a journey through the country during which a monarch could be seen by his or her subjects and would meet with important local people. The in-person presence of the monarch encouraged loyalty and asserted his or her royal authority.

An entertainment at Elvetham

A lavish entertainment that spanned four days was put on for the Queen by Edward Seymour (1539?–1621), the Earl of Hertford. The estate was dressed with spectacular and fantastical scenery, and Elizabeth was entertained by displays of pageantry, music and dance by performers in extravagant, often symbolic, costume. There were poems, speeches and songs that flattered the Queen and asserted the Earl’s loyalty, as well as feasting and other displays including fireworks, sports, the shooting of cannon and gifts.

Elizabeth I meets a fairy queen

On the fourth day of the entertainment, Elizabeth was met by a fairy queen attended by a train of dancers. The Fairy Queen planted a staff in the ground and placed on it a garland in the form of a crown (much like a maypole). She gave a speech, saluting Elizabeth with the garland given to her ‘by Auberon the Fairy King’. The Fairy Queen and her maids danced and sang a song, ‘Elisa is the fayrest queene’. Elizabeth was so delighted with this piece that she requested it to be performed three times.

‘Elisa is the fayrest queene’

The festival book for the entertainment describes the Fairy Queen and her maids dancing and ‘singing a song of sixe partes, with the musicke of an exquisite consorte, wherin was the Lute, Bandora, Base-violl, Cittern, Treble-viol, and Flute’.

The music was composed by Edward Johnson, a composer of high repute in his own time, but of whose music only little survives today. The lyricist is unknown. The manuscript here gives the song in five parts, but one of the parts may have been doubled or a sixth part added.

‘Elisa’ is found as follows:

  • Vol I, Cantus: f.63r, first three staves, in treble clef.
  • Vol II, Contratenor: f.68v, first two staves, in alto clef (C on the middle line).
  • Vol III, Tenor: f.63v, first two staves to the double bar, in tenor clef (C on the second line from top).
  • Vol IV, Bassus: f.65v, first two staves to the double bar, in bass clef.
  • Vol V, Quintus: f.10v, first two staves, in soprano clef (C on the bottom line).

‘Elisa’ is followed by ‘Com agayne’, another song by Johnson, which served as a farewell to Elizabeth at the close of the Elvetham entertainment.

The lyrics for ‘Elisa’, as found in the Cantus manuscript, read:

Elisa. Elisa. Elisa. Is the fayrest queene that ever trode upon the green
Elisa Elisas eyes are blessed stares inducing peace subdueinge warrs
O blessed be each daye & hower whear swett Elisa builds her bower

Full title:
Services, anthemes, and a few part-songs, for five voices
late-16th century
Manuscript / Music / Book / Octavo
Edward Johnson [composer], unknown [lyricist], unknown [scribe]
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 30480–84

Full catalogue details

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