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6. Court and civic festivals in Tudor and early Stuart England

J.R. Mulryne

Court and civic festivals in England begin for our purposes with the reign of Henry VII. Drawing on the court spectacles of European princes, especially those of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Henrician tournaments, disguisings and masks initiated a period of court and civic display that ran unevenly throughout the Tudor years, to emerge in changed form in the court masques and civic pageantry of the reigns of James VI and I and Charles I.

Henry VII’s coronation in 1485 provided the opportunity for magnificent display, entailing the expenditure of very large sums on costume and decoration, and comprising processions, jousts, banquets, a tournament, the conferring of chivalric honours and the coronation service itself, with its time-honoured rituals. The event was of major political importance, presaging the reconciliation of the Houses of Lancaster and York - an outcome confirmed in the wedding of Henry with Elizabeth of York and its attendant spectacle.

Henry’s reign made a feature of progresses in which the King travelled to key areas of the country to impress local people and receive their homage. The first progress to York, Worcester, Hereford, Gloucester and Bristol in 1486 was attended by elaborate pageants devised by the civic authorities, drawing on real and mythical history and incorporating religious iconography in order to demonstrate loyalty. Other ceremonies and pageants during the reign were focused on the birth and christening of Prince Arthur, his creation as Prince of Wales, and his marriage in 1501 to Katharine of Aragon, with elaborate pageants greeting her arrival in London.

Image of Henry VIII
Portrait of Henry VIII from The Penitential and other Psalms, translated into English by John Croke. Owned by Anne Boleyn. London, 1509-46. BL Stowe MS 956, f.1v. Larger image

The early years of Henry VIII were marked by the King’s enthusiasm for pageantry, especially tournaments. These might incorporate a dramatic element in the Burgundian fashion, entailing the narration of a romantic quest or a mock combat. The high point of Henry’s myth-making was the Field of Cloth of Gold (June 1520), characterised by Sydney Anglo as ‘the mock international chivalric court festival par excellence’ [0006, 0007]. Vastly expensive and visually ostentatious, the event included a lavish temporary palace for Henry and a splendid pavilion for the French king, Francis I. The projected peace negotiations between the two kings barely survived the nervous tensions thrown up by the enacted pageantry and by personal and national rivalry.

An almost equally remarkable political occasion, the visit of the Emperor Charles V to London in 1522, incorporated an almost equally exceptional pageant series and resulted in an almost equally hypocritical outcome, ostensibly pitting England and the Empire against France.

The politically-inspired pageantry of these years was complicated by the personal pre-eminence of Cardinal Wolsey, who up to the verge of his fall employed pageantry for political- and self-aggrandisement. The principal cause of his downfall, the King’s marriage with Anne Boleyn in 1533, provided an occasion for a royal entry for the Queen, a rare use in England of a familiar European device. England was also the site for elaborate funerals in the European manner, such as those of Anne of Cleves in 1557 and Sir Philip Sidney in 1586.

With the inception of a Reformation agenda, political propaganda switched largely to the stage, in the plays of John Bale especially, and the pulpit. In the reign of Edward VI, festival entertainments played a less prominent role than in his predecessor’s, though they still took place, ranging in Sydney Anglo’s words ‘from the mere fripperies designed to amuse [him] at the beginning of his reign, to the enigmatic and macabre follies reflecting the political tensions of his closing years’, especially in the Christmas and Shrovetide revelries.

The pageants for the coronation of Queen Mary have a European feel, with displays prepared by Genoese, Hanseatic and Florentine merchants, a characteristic unsurprisingly intensified in the pageants for the Queen’s highly unpopular marriage with Philip II of Spain in 1554, with their well-scripted but often unconvincing attempts to blend English history with Catholic allegiance [e.g. 0118, 0120, 0122].

Queen Elizabeth, attended by Fame, and a Herald of Arms
Queen Elizabeth, attended by Fame, and a Herald of Arms, riding in an elaborate chariot. Sir William Teshe, England 1570.
BL Sloane MS 1832. Larger image

Elizabeth, as Mary’s successor, was notoriously preoccupied with creating a persuasive self-image to do duty as royal propaganda. In this, her appearance and participation in festivals of various kinds played a not inconsiderable part [0231]. Her intervention in the pageants prepared by the City of London for her Entry in 1559 is well known, most notoriously when she received the Bible in English ‘kyssed it, and with both her handes held vp the same, and so laid it vpon her brest, with great thankes to the citie therfore’.

A similar impulse governs Elizabeth’s interventions in the progress entertainments which took place almost throughout her reign, most memorably at Kenilworth in 1575, with its underlying personal and political agenda, but also at other aristocratic houses in locations such as Cowdray (1591) and Elvetham (1591). Elizabeth made participation an art, thus enhancing the effect of these mythologically coded and costly displays of loyalty.

The Stuart period, under James I and Charles I, is distinguished by the rise and development from 1605 to 1640 of the court masque, a festival entertainment peculiar to England, though much influenced by Florentine culture and practice. Masques authored principally by Ben Jonson and designed by Inigo Jones became the most characteristic entertainments of the Stuart courts, including prominently those of Queen Anne, wife of James I, of Prince Henry, their son, and of Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. Masques such as the Masque of Blackness (1605), Oberon (1611, for Prince Henry), Love’s Triumph (1631) and Coelum Britannicum (1634; by Carew) helped to define and confirm the Stuart myths of absolutism. Male and female performers, including professional players and musicians, lavish costume, sometimes recondite allegory, music and dance and, importantly, skilful scenography, combined with propagandistic sentiment to make the court masque a brilliant and culturally significant phenomenon.

The civic pageants of the Jacobean period, including entertainments written for members of the City Guilds at the annual Lord Mayors’ shows (29 October), together with processions on religious and secular feast days, complemented the busy life of corporate London. Wagons decorated with iconographical symbolisms were created to transport the pageants. Authors and performers were professional writers and actors, including the playwrights Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. The elaborate royal entry for King James (1604), known as The Magnificent Entertainment, included ornate and iconographically rich arches designed on behalf of Italian, Dutch and Flemish merchants. These are splendidly illustrated in Stephen Harrison’s contemporary The Arches of Triumph (1604).

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Acknowledgements and further reading

This essay is principally indebted to the following studies:

Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1969)

Jean Wilson (ed.), Entertainments for Elizabeth I (Woodbridge and Totoya NJ: D.S. Brewer, 1980)

David Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 (London: Edward Arnold, 1971)

Richard Dutton (ed.), Jacobean Civic Pageants (Keele: Keele University Press, 1995)

See also: Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones, The Theatre of the Stuart Court (London, Berkeley and Los Angeles: Sotheby Parke Bernet and University of California Press, 2 vols, 1973)

David Lindley (ed.), The Court Masque (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984)

Graham Parry, The Golden Age Restor'd: The Culture of the Stuart Court (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1981

1. Festivals in Italy
2. Festivals in the Holy Roman Empire
3. Habsburg festivals
4. Festivals in Valois France
5. Festivals in Spain
6. Court and civic festivals in Tudor and early Stuart England