The Royal Household: Edificial Structure and Servants
Regular Court Movements
Reading about Queen Elizabeth ruling in a men’s world as described by various contemporary witnesses must give the modern reader the impression of observing a sumptuous theatre play (KLEIN, 65). However, the created Elizabethan World Picture represents only one side of the coin and thus this paper attempts to look at the other one; it intends to take a look behind the scenes of that huge show, understand properties, costumes, and their purpose. In the end, we will hopefully have gotten a closer insight at how the courtly microcosm functioned, where everybody had their sphere, how they were meant to orbit the queen in daily matters, and, of course, how the figuratively spoken sun spread her light even to the most distant corners of her universe. Then we might go back in front of the Elizabethan people’s stage with more background knowledge for an interpretation of their identity and priorities.
To begin with, one certainly knows even after investigating the epoch only superficially (cf. TILLYARD, 17ff) there must have been a certain hierarchy in their system of life, equally influencing the structuring of the court. Therefore we might imagine every Elizabethan social, cultural, political etc. system with a comparably tiny but powerful centre and surrounding spheres, losing power but gaining quantity towards the corners, all of them supposed to mirror the contemporary understanding of the harmony in religion and nature. Expressing this rather profanely, we can find an immense number of servants scurrying at the Elizabethan court, a smaller number of people being allowed closer to the queen and only a handful to be honoured to stay with her in private. Nevertheless, one has to acknowledge that although officially only higher social classes surrounded the queen actually more servants experienced her in her most private moments (cf. SUERBAUM, 253).
Additionally, it should be said this paper will generally leave out investigations on courtly behaviour in front of the queen, how to bow and address her, when to step back and so on because I am aiming at another conclusion. The answer to the question: “Were all the pomp and neatly planned ceremonies necessary?”
The Royal Household: Edificial Structure and Servants
Before examining detailed questions about the “Why?” it shall be useful to take a brief look at the “How?” since the structuring of a court is a materialised representation of an ideology as Roy C. Strong confirms in a general way:
“A society is held together by the assumptions and images it carries in relation to the nature of power within its hierarchy.” (STRONG, 116)
The indoors living areas were occupied on the one hand by courtiers, i.e. the higher nobility and the gentry, who lived at the court all year; on the other hand, some rich landowners joined them to make themselves known to the queen mostly accompanied by a request they needed Elizabeth’s approval for (cf. SUERBAUM, 254). The latter, however, left again after several, ideally as soon as their request was being granted so they could go back to their lands and take of their business. Moreover a court could be the temporary home for guests of any kind, e.g. religious envoys and political ambassadors from foreign countries or more distant areas of the kingdom or, expressed rather timely, businessmen and lobbyists (cf. SUERBAUM, 255). By far the most important person at court, though, was the Queen herself always escorted by her maids.
Suerbaum came up with the note-worthy idea that the only way to realistically guess the number of courtiers could only be calculated roughly by investigating how many people it was being cooked for daily. Although this mental experiment seems interesting it shall not be our topic but rather the focus on understanding how the functions of different people and rooms fulfilled different purposes (ibid.).
According to the majority of historians’ opinions, we find, for instance, a carefully built room system reflecting the hierarchical ideology in the interior of royal estates being described as period-characterising and typically Elizabethan (cf. e.g. SUERBAUM, 257). Without denying this indeed correct attribution, personally, I can hardly find it extraordinary because, for instance, antique temples as well as medieval properties or modern palaces and state-owned head quarters evenly have to be constructed as a matter of fact in a way that just a handful of people is allowed to access the very core.
Entering an Elizabethan court, one found himself in the Great Hall, at the beginning, where audiences of large numbers of visitors could be held and where other heads of state and legations were being welcomed. As this hall was still a more public place visitors could enter fairly easily with nothing more than a letter of recommendation (cf. SUERBAUM, 256).
More efforts were required to gain access to the spacious chamber area that was divided into several chambers of different size and for different uses. The Presence Chamber, for example, was probably the biggest among them, the major place to receive parliament delegations. As Suerbaum and other sources state, Queen Elizabeth I. was being informed about political news almost daily (ibid.). After all, it was still a relatively uncomplicatedly accessible spot where one could behold the Queen pretty naturally and without exaggerated royal ceremonies.
On the contrary, the Privy Chamber, as the name suggests, was reserved for the inner political circle, Elizabeth’s personal servants or highly prominent guests. Yet it had surprisingly varied functions; this chamber was a working office, a waiting room, a leisure time area, and a living room all at once (cf. SUERBAUM, 257). Since being located centrally within the court building it was theoretically accessible by several rooms surrounding it in order to have servants and/ or guests ready for the Queen to meet them whenever she felt inclined to do so. Although “Counsellors were supposed to tell the monarch the necessary hard truths” we can assume that their meetings were still comfortable for the Queen because they were “sought to time their advice correctly and offer it in a soothing manner” (MEARS 97f). Until then courtiers performed their apparently most natural task: waiting. When Elizabeth finally arrived it was done what she was in a mood for; they played games, discussed current political affairs, etc. (cf. SUERBAUM, 257) . As a consequence, persons allowed in the Privy Chamber could become the monarch’s most influential advisors as can already be seen in the case of Henry VIII. (cf. MEARS 15, 20, 84f).
The exertion of influence on the monarch by her Maids of Honour in her most private room, the Royal Bedchamber, however, maintains uncertain, although presumably low. Although the image of about ten people regularly lingering in one’s bedroom is considerably alien to modern thinking, it was absolutely accepted back then; the Queen’s body was property of the state in a way and helping her wash herself or getting her dressed was treated as a great honour (cf. SUERBAUM, 257).
Drawing back from the centre of attention, the huge working areas and a myriad of everyday tasks can be discovered. Yet the royal court must not be imagined as a present-day office employees go to every morning from 9 to 5 but only some of them really lived at or close to the court because they had a life-time duty there (cf. SUERBAUM, 260).