Queen Elizabeth (reign: 1558-1603) had known Robert Dudley (1532-1588) from childhood, and the day after becoming queen, she nominated him as her Master of the Horses. Besides getting a prestigious role, this also meant that he had to be by her side wherever she traveled. The news of the queen’s devotion to Dudley spread fast all over Europe: “she is in love with Lord Robert and never lets him leave her”. She also granted him the title of Earl of Leicester.
However, Elizabeth was still young and under pressure to marry, her relationship with Dudley was politically undesirable and, crucially, Dudley was already married. At the time, gossip went around that Dudley was planning to poison his wife so he could marry the queen. And one evening, his wife was found lying dead at the foot of the stairs with her neck broken. Although the resulting inquest returned a verdict of accidental death, the sudden death of his wife sparked rumors of murder and brought on an additional obstacle in the way of their marriage.
At Kenilworth Castle, Dudley received Elizabeth and her entourage on a number of her annual royal ‘progresses’. On her last visit in 1575, the entertainment at Kenilworth took spectacle to its limits.
Two eyewitness accounts of the events surrounding the royal visit survived to this date. The poet George Gascoigne’s ‘The Princely Pleasures, at the Court at Kenilworth’ describes in detail the courtly entertainments. Whereas, Robert Langham’s pamphlet, that takes the form of a letter, offers a more general description of the festivities and the local non-courtly performances. Langham’s account during the summer progresses has helped many historians and writers to imagine the festivities, which greeted the queen’s arrival at the great houses.
“the stately seat of Kenilworth Castle, the rare beauty of building… every room so spacious, so well belighted… in daytime, on every side so glittering by glass; at night, by continual brightness of candle, fire, and torchlight, transparent through the lightsome windows”
Robert Langham: A Letter (1575)
The festivities comprised of sport and theatrical shows, including staged ‘skirmishes’ or mock battles on ground and water, tilting in which opponents on horseback charged each other with lances, and bear-baiting. Moreover, all this was complemented with culinary extravagance, dancing, various performances, fireworks and ceremonial gunfire. Elizabeth and Dudley also shared a passion for hunting, and on many occasions rode out together in the ancient forests at Kenilworth.
Many of the performances witnessed by the queen were thinly veiled declarations of Dudley’s devotion to her and pleas for her to marry. In the most explicit of the planned performances, the goddess Diana (representing chastity) and Iris (representing marriage) were to argue over who should claim the nymph ‘Zabeta’ (a shortening for Elizabeth). It was to end with a direct appeal to the queen: “How necessarie were for worthy Queenes to wed”. However, on the day, the play was never performed and bad weather was blamed for it. It is more likely that Elizabeth herself thought Dudley was going too far, and banned the performance.
Although the marriage never happened, the two remained close throughout their lives. Her affection for Dudley may even have been an emotional barrier to her marrying anyone else. Eventually, the queen become known as the virgin queen, wedded only to her country.
There is an intriguing portrait of Queen Elizabeth, displayed in Leicester’s Gatehouse at the castle, which has been left in an unrestored state in order to reveal its hidden history. Paint losses from the surface revealed that the queen was painted over the features of another woman. It has also been discovered that the queen was originally depicted holding a serpent. Serpents could symbolize wisdom and prudence, but could also refer to the original sin. Perhaps because of this double meaning, the serpent was painted over by a bunch of roses.
Kenilworth Castle info panels
Robert Langham (1575) A Letter: Wherein, part of the entertainment unto the Queen’s Majesty, at Kenilworth Castle, in Warwickshire, in this summer’s progress, 1575, is signified: from a friend officer attendant in court, unto his friend a citizen, and merchant of London