Elizabethan Progess

Some of you may wonder – why is Queen Elizabeth I arriving in the small shire of Sterling, also known as the New York Renaissance Faire? Well, traveling the realm was something Her Majesty did every couple of years to see her subjects and the lands she presided over.

These trips – or “progresses” took her to towns and manors throughout southern England and the midlands, where she was able to see—and be seen by—a broad cross-section of her subjects. Crowds turned out to cheer her passage, church bells rang, and as admirer Thomas Churchyard observed, she was able to “draw the hearts of the people after hyr wheresoever she travels.”

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The logistics were daunting. A baggage train of between 400 and 600 horse-drawn carts groaned beneath the weight of everything the monarch and her entourage might require on the trip: bedding, furniture, clothing, food, dishes and kitchen equipment, and even the documents and office supplies needed to conduct the business of the realm. Members of her court accompanied her, as did a full household complement of grooms and pages, wardrobe ladies and maids, guards, chaplains, cooks, and court musicians. Travel was slow and difficult. Even on the main highways, the Queen’s caravansary averaged only ten or twelve miles a day.

Music, dancing, banqueting, and fireworks were de rigueur. Special songs, poems, and masques were commissioned, with costumed players enlisted to perform them. Happily, numerous written accounts of these visits have survived—the Folger has some half dozen written accounts. In Sandwich in 1573, for example, the Queen was reportedly “very merrye” and so impressed by the banquet prepared by the wives of the town mayor and judges that she tucked in without first calling upon the services of the royal taster and asked for several dishes to be carried back to her lodgings.

Despite various political crises and dangers, she travelled nearly every summer of her 44-year reign, staying at some 241 different places from Hampshire to the Midlands. She did so partly to escape the diseases that could descend on London in the heat of summer. But she also genuinely wished to meet her people. Few could resist her charm, and even fewer have been able to match her brilliant sense of public relations.

In later years, in response to courtiers’ grumbles over the customary seasonal upheaval, the ageing but undaunted Queen bade “the old stay behind, and the young and able go with me.” In 1601 she broke her progress to hunt at Castle Ashby, Northampton. Even in her late 60s she rode 10 miles a day and refused to give up her sport.

Only Elizabeth’s death, on 24th March 1603, prevented her from embarking on that summer’s royal progress. She was mourned by a people who felt that their Queen genuinely cared for her subjects, a belief created in no small part by her travels among them.

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