It’s not much of a secret that Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley had a Sort Of Thing going on in her court. The famously-Virgin Queen had one possible True Love – Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester. In 1575 Elizabeth was on one of her summer progresses through the midlands, and she visited Dudley at his home in Kenilworth Castle. It was there where he spent 19 days wooing her in spectacular fashion; almost 3 weeks of pageants, festivals, music, and theater, which would have been the ultimate in Elizabethan entertainment. The pageantry was a huge effort to win the heart – and the hand in marriage – of the Queen who would never marry.
Dudley himself was an interesting character. His family fell from grace when his father fought to put the Protestant Lady Jane Grey on the throne rather than Mary Tudor, who was a Catholic, after Edward VI died young. But after Mary died and Elizabeth became Queen, she rewarded Dudley, and he became one of the largest landowners in the country, working with William Cecil and Francis Walsingham in advising the Queen. And they were obviously more than friends.
In 1560 Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Rosbart fell down a flight of stairs and died. Rumors hounded Dudley that he had killed her so that he could be free to marry Elizabeth. Those rumors would stick with him throughout the rest of his life. For eighteen years he didn’t remarry, keeping himself available in case the Queen did decide to choose him. When he finally did tie the knot in 1578, his new wife was banished from court; such was Elizabeth’s jealous fury. The ultimate problem in their love affair was that she was the Queen, and as such she would never be completely free to follow her heart. A marriage to Dudley, as political as it would be, and with the rumors still swirling around that he had killed his wife, was simply impossible. Elizabeth knew it, but she still was jealous of any woman who eventually became his wife.
But in 1575, Dudley still nurtured hopes of winning Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, and he staged an elaborate three week festival that was pretty much his last ditch effort to impress her. Her time was completely filled up with all of her favorite passions, elaborately choreographed. There was dancing, riding, and hunting; as well as more public festivals like pageants. The cost was staggering – well over £1000/day, and was on a scale never before seen in England. There was one where a mechanical dolphin rose out from the water and concealed within were musicians and a singer. A huge fireworks display lit up one night, there were new gardens with fountains built, and Elizabeth stayed in the new state apartments that Leicester built.
Even though Dudley was unsuccessful in his quest to win Elizabeth, the festival he created was the talk of the Tudor world for some time. There are a few contemporary descriptions that give us an idea of what the experience would have been like. One was from poet and actor George Gascoigne, whose book, The Princelye Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelwoorth (1576), gathered together the scripts that he and others had written for the dramatic entertainments performed for Elizabeth, complete with stage directions. The second was an account of the revels published in 1575 in the form of a privately printed Letter: wherein part of the Entertainment unto the Queenz Maiesty at Killingworth Casle in Warwik Sheer in this Soomerz Progress, 1575, iz signified; from a freend officer in attendance in the Coourt, unto his freend, a Citizen and Merchaunt of London.
“The author of this letter – the ‘officer in attendance in the Coourt’ – identifies himself as Robert Laneham and he tells us that he gained access to the private garden one day ‘when the garden door was open and her highness out hunting’. The letter goes on to give a very detailed account of the garden – so precise that it includes the dimensions of the flower beds and of the garden’s crowning glory, a great fountain of ‘rich & hard white Marbl’, raised on a four-foot high platform, in which a pair of Atlantes supports a globe from which water pours out of spouts into a basin filled with fish – the eight sides of which are carved with erotic scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The author notes that those whose passions are inflamed by viewing these scenes are likely to find their ardor doused by the fountain which spurted ‘with such vehemency’ as to ‘moysten [them] from top to toe’.” – http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/kenilworth-castle-the-wooing-of-a-virgin-queen.htm
Elizabeth’s long vacation at Kenilworth Castle would ignite imaginations for centuries. One of Arthur Sullivan’s earliest choral works (Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) was called Kenilworth, and the libretto is based on the novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott. Shakespeare biographers also love to speculate on how much the young William would have experienced of all the public pageants and masques, as he lived only about 14 miles away. Dudley didn’t succeed in winning Elizabeth in marriage, but he may have succeeded in inspiring the imagination of the boy who would become the world’s greatest playwright. And that would have perhaps made it all worth it.