The standard image of a Tudor banquet is perhaps of food being eaten to excess, riotous behaviour, too much to drink and the worst of table manners.
In fact this is far from the truth – banquets were very formal affairs, with a strict hierarchy governing your position in the room and the food you were served. The image of ‘too much food’ possibly comes from the fact that all main courses were served at the same time, so that each diner could select their favourite.
My novel The Witchfinder’s Well begins with a sumptuous Tudor banquet organised by my heroine Justine. It was great fun researching what a banquet might have looked like, and, more importantly, how it would seem to 20th century eyes. I also played with the idea, putting in an unexpected twist at the end of the sequence.
See if you can spot it coming!
As she surveyed the royal banquet from her high vantage point in the Minstrel’s Gallery, Justine Parker twisted slightly to get more comfortable in the tight bodice of her gown.
All things considered, it was going pretty well.
An army of servants had brought exotic dishes up from the kitchens into the Great Hall and presented them to the assembled ladies, gentlemen, knights and courtiers for their appreciation and amazement.
There were dishes such as the noble roast peacock with its plumage dancing in the light, guinea fowl in a deep crusty pie and legs of mutton surrounded by mountains of peas and carrots. Fine red claret was drunk copiously from silver goblets, with the servants replenishing them from silver pitchers as they weaved around the tables.
Justine leaned on the railing of the gallery and let the warm sound of conversation and laughter wash over her; the rich hubbub of noise that rose up to the furthest corners of the magnificent ornate plaster roof. Down below her, the face of every guest was bright with enjoyment, bathed in the golden glow of a thousand flickering candles.
In the middle of the high table, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth sat bolt upright, her bright eyes dancing round the room as the courtier to her right engaged her in conversation.
Justine admired her pale beauty, set off by her striking bodice of red velvet edged with gold lace and sparkling with a thousand shimmering pearls, together with the single flashing emerald at her neck that brought out the green fire in her eyes. Then there was her red-bronze hair adorned with its simple, elegant gold crown, framed by the high pearl-edged lace ruff that flared up from her shoulders.
With a small raise of her hand, the Queen paused the conversation with the courtier beside her and looked up at the gallery. Maybe Justine’s small twisting movement had caught her eye. She held Justine’s gaze a moment, then gave the smallest nod of her head – so small that it could easily have been missed – as if to congratulate Justine on the success of the banquet she had organised.
With a smile Justine bowed her own head and gave a gentle curtsey. The Queen nodded again, then turned back to the courtier and resumed their conversation.
In the gallery Justine smiled again, this time to herself.
Yes, all things considered, the banquet was going pretty well.
She looked down across the room, taking in the full scene. The long high table ran along the back wall under the big windows with the Queen in the centre. On either side Justine had seated her most important courtiers, looking resplendent in their richly-coloured silk doublets with slashed sleeves and fine white ruffs. Beyond the courtiers she had seated the women, elegant in their low-cut gowns, their hair carefully parted in the centre and tucked under their French hoods – a style introduced originally by Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn.
Justine’s gaze moved to the table down the left side of the room. The people here were less important and their clothes reflected this – the men wore plain doublets and the women wore their hair in simple cotton coifs rather than the more elaborate French hoods of the high table. Their behaviour was no less exuberant, if anything slightly more so, and Justine smiled as they all laughed at a joke from the jester who had been moving round the tables. His brightly-coloured motley costume consisted of a tunic split into a red half and a yellow half, while his hose had one red leg and one yellow leg on the opposite sides. In his hand was a small jester head on a stick, which he was using to entertain the guests.
From behind her came the sound of the minstrels; four elderly men with lutes playing light-hearted music that was all but lost against the loud noise of the room. Their piece came to an end, and she turned to them.
“You play well, good sirs,” she said with a twinkling smile. “What is next?”
“We have not yet played Greensleeves,” said the eldest minstrel. “But first we need a drink.” All four reached down for the tankards by their stools and drained them with great satisfaction. The oldest man then examined the bottom of his empty tankard and looked up at Justine expectantly. She laughed and reached for the large pewter jug ready by her feet, then went to each in turn, pouring more beer into their proffered tankards.
“Ahh, thank you my girl,” said the oldest man, “it is always a pleasure to play at one of your banquets.”
Justine curtseyed in reply. The men drank some more, then put down their tankards and launched into Greensleeves.
She turned and resumed her gaze across the Great Hall.
To her right was a smaller table seating more people, with a carving table beside it. On the wall above was a large portrait of a handsome knight in a shining breastplate standing with a white stag in the background. Her gaze stopped on this portrait, as it so often did, and she gave a small sigh as she studied the man’s long blond hair and trim beard.
The jester turned from the table he’d been entertaining and looked up, catching sight of Justine as she stared across at the portrait.
His gaze took in her shoulder-length cascade of russet-coloured ringlets trying to escape from under her French hood; her small, slightly snub nose, her pale blue eyes under thick, dark eyebrows staring with a faraway look at the portrait…
He gave a little dance and waved his stick to catch her eye.
She spotted him and gave a small wave back. He raised an enquiring eyebrow, then flicked the stick up behind his back so the little jester head on the end popped up on his shoulder.
He turned to it and appeared to have a brief conversation, then pointed up at her. The little head on his shoulder nodded. He made a ‘doe-eyed’ face – a gross over-exaggeration of hers, with a sickly grin and fluttering eyelashes – then pointed back at her. The head nodded again, then both the jester and the head turned to look up at her, with the jester smiling broadly.
She couldn’t help but laugh and he laughed back. Then he gave a low courtly bow, while she applauded.
The jester turned back to the room and started dancing sideways up towards the high table.
Still chuckling, Justine’s gaze moved upwards to the large tapestries depicting heroic scenes of hunts that were hanging round the hall between the sconces. In one scene knights attacked a stag with spears and arrows in a green forest; in another a different stag was running from a pack of baying hounds, followed by nobles on horses.
Justine looked back down at the hall. The servants had cleared the main courses away and were now circulating with bowls of fruit and more wine.
‘Only an hour more and we’ll be cleared and finished,’ she thought, as she twisted once more in the tight bodice of her gown.
Just then she became aware of an insistent beeping sound over the noise of the room. Fishing her mobile from the pocket of her gown, she swiped the screen.
“Hello, Justine Parker here.”
“The taxis have started arriving,” said a voice. “They’re early.”
“Oh, bother. I put half-eleven on the schedule.” She nudged up the end of her lace sleeve with her elbow, to reveal her watch. “It’s only eleven fifteen. We’ve just served the fruit. Would you be a sweetie and tell them they’ll have to wait?”
“And please can you tell them to turn their meters off. I don’t want one of their silly waiting charges when it’s all their fault.” Justine thought a moment. “It is their fault, isn’t it? Oh bother and blast it, it had better be. I’ll check the email I sent them. Can you be an absolute poppet and bluff it out or something?”
“Sure, no problem.”
Justine tapped the email app on her phone and scrolled through to find the relevant message. There it was – ‘please make sure the taxis arrive at 11:30pm’.
Tucking her mobile back into her pocket with a satisfied smile, Justine looked back down at the hall.
…to be continued…
If you would like to read more of Justine’s story, please visit Amazon:
A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Philippa Gregory give a talk on the subject of Katherine Parr – the 6th, and some might say, the most fortunate, of Henry VIII’s wives. The reason for the talk was the launch of Ms Gregory’s new book about Katherine, called The Taming of the Queen.
It is now a while since I read the book, so this post is not a critique of the work, but more a musing on why we have ‘discovered’ Katherine Parr in the last few years, and why we find her so interesting.
I say ‘discovered’ because even though she is possibly the least ‘colourful’ of the wives, Katherine seems to have popped up in a fair few books. Not only is she the sponsor of legal detective Matthew Shardlake in Heartstone, but is also in Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle, which tells the story of her marriage to Henry. I’m sure there are also others – and she is, of course, finding a new audience through the musical Six.
And what a remarkable story it was, too. Katherine was a trailblazer of a woman. She was the first English Queen to be published as an author in her own right with her Prayers or Meditations (1545). She was also a very learned scholar and theologian – holding philosophical and religious meetings with such luminaries as the radical theologian Anne Askew and the playwright Nicholas Udall.
But more than anything, she was a survivor. In 1546 Henry lined her up for removal (which almost certainly meant execution) and had prepared her arrest warrant. Learning of the warrant, she feigned sickness in order to avoid being shunned publicly by the king. Instead, Henry went to her, allowing her to play the submissive wife, massage his ego, and restore herself in his favour. He then dismissed Stephen Gardiner, who thought he had succeeded in getting rid the Queen. It was a masterly tactic – and one that Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard would each have done well to employ!
So Katherine Parr managed to outlive the erratic and almost certainly insane King Henry. This left her free to marry her true love, Thomas Seymour, and to become the only real mother that Henry’s children Elizabeth and Edward had ever known. The sad outcome of this marriage was her death following childbirth in 1548, aged only 36.
She was truly a remarkable woman. I did enjoy reading Philippa Gregory’s take on her final, turbulent years, and I am very sad that I wasn’t able to see Six in March 2020 due to the coronavirus lock-down.
By Steven Veerapen
The image of the elderly Virgin Queen that has been passed down to us is not always necessarily complimentary. Thanks in no small part to popular film and television shows, we are inclined to think of the ageing Elizabeth I as painted, face, hands, and chest, in toxic lead-based makeup. We are encouraged to believe that she consciously adopted a ‘mask of youth’. It is an idea so deeply engrained that the Royal Museums at Greenwich adopted the title in its 2018 display of a remarkable robotic reconstruction of the queen’s face. The overall impression is one of grand guignol, of Miss Havisham-esque Victorian Gothic. But to what extent is our idea of the heavily painted grand-dame true?
To answer that, we must revisit contemporary accounts of the queen in her old age. The French ambassador, Maisse, who saw her in 1597, left perhaps the most detailed description:
“She rose and came five or six paces towards me, almost into the middle of the chamber … She kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot. On her head she wore a garland of the same material and beneath it a great reddish-coloured wig, with a great number of spangles of gold and silver, and hanging down over her forehead some pearls, but of no great worth. On either side of her ears hung two great curls of hair, almost down to her shoulders and within the collar of her robe, spangled as the top of her head. Her bosom is somewhat wrinkled as well as one can see for the collar that she wears round her neck, but lower down her flesh is exceeding white and delicate, so far as one could see … As for her face, it is and appears to be very aged. It is long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal, compared with what they were formerly, so they say, and on the left side less than on the right.”
It is hardly a flattering picture – but we should keep in mind that at the time the queen was desperately trying to stall Maisse as he pressed her for answers on ongoing peace negotiations with Spain. The ambassador saw Elizabeth the politician. German visitor Paul Hentzner, who saw her in 1598, reported that:
“…her face [was] oblong, fair, but wrinkled, her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked, her lips thin and her teeth black; her hair was of an auburn colour, but false; upon her head she had a small crown. Her bosom was uncovered, as all the English ladies have it till they marry.”
It is difficult to believe that Hentzner, close enough to comment on the thinness of her lips and colour of her teeth, did not notice or think to mention that she was coated in white paint. A year later, Thomas Platter found her ‘very youthful still in appearance, seeming no more than twenty years of age’.
Notable, considering the startling detail in all but Platter’s account (and here it is worth noting that he did not have a personal audience but saw her at a distance, and that age was reckoned in the period by sprightliness of carriage and the colour of the hair), is the complete absence of any reference to the queen’s supposed white makeup. Indeed, if we scour the records of descriptions from those who might have seen her, we come across only scattered references.
The first is from a contemporary recipe for makeup, which calls for two new-laid eggs with their shells, burnt alum, powdered sugar, borax, and poppy seeds ‘beaten up very finely with a pint of water that runs from under wheel of a mill … it whitens, smooths and softens the skin’ and should be used three times per week. The result would not be the white matte we see spread over many a modern actress playing Elizabeth, but (if the wearer was lucky) it might provide a scouring agent which would at worst irritate the top layer of skin and at best moisturise and freshen it. The notorious ‘Venetian ceruse’ – that toxic, lead-based killer – certainly existed, but nothing from Elizabeth’s life suggests that she was a devotee of this deadliest of cosmetic arts.
The second is the playwright Ben Jonson, who told his friend Drummond of Hawthornden that “Queen Elizabeth never saw herself [when old] in a true Glass, they painted her & sometymes would vermilion her nose.” Curiously enough, a red-nosed Elizabeth is not an image that has ever captured the public imagination. Further, Jonson also claimed after her death that the queen was prevented from sexual intercourse by the presence of a ‘membrana’ that made her incapable. As we have no record of his ever meeting her, it seems likely we can discount all of his claims as tall tales.
As far as the contemporary record goes, that is it.
Where, then, does the image of the painted Elizabeth come from? Why, when we picture the queen in her dotage, do our minds turn to Glenda Jackson lost beneath an inch of white matte, Margot Robbie rendered unrecognisable under ‘clownface’, or even the younger Cate Blanchett assuming virginity by means of a paintbrush dipped in whitewash being liberally swept over her?
The answer appears to lie in the Victorian period, which first turned its attention to Elizabeth’s later years. Throughout earlier eras, we see Elizabeth depicted in artwork, from paintings to woodcuts to engravings, as ageless: Robert Smirke’s 1806 erotically charged Interview Between Elizabeth and Essex, for example, shows the doomed earl bursting into the chamber of a veritable nymph. To the Victorians, Elizabeth was a more problematic animal: an elderly virgin quite different to their own grandmother of Europe, depictions of her increasingly tended towards the ghastly and the haggard. Largely, we can thank the legacy of the Victorians and their desire to smear the queen (literally and figuratively) by connecting her with the worst excesses of vanity culled from the wider historical record of extravagance, luxurious extremes, and the arabesque.
Unfortunately, their painting of the queen has routinely become established fact. Thus, it is not unusual to find entire chapters of history books (by excellent historians) devoted to Elizabeth’s use of cosmetics, and often going further in explaining the perceived political function behind them (having swallowed the tales that she had painted herself to outlandish extremes, historians’ attention simply turned to why: was it to hide scars left by her bout of smallpox in 1562? Was it to deny the passage of time? Was it part of a widespread fashion? All questions that needn’t have been asked without that unfounded association of Venetian ceruse with the queen). Remarkably, we can therefore trace the history of the queen’s use of heavy white makeup as firstly part of an emerging Gothic tradition to be sneered or appalled at; to an established truth of the queen’s self-fashioning; to part of post-modern analyses of her rule. All of this, however, is based on not a whisper about her use of makeup by anyone who actually saw her and reported on her appearance.
Queen Elizabeth I has never been more popular, and it is likely her story will continue to be so, as long as the world produces actresses eager to cut their teeth on this meatiest of roles. It is therefore time we revised our opinion of the elderly monarch and stripped her of centuries of false connections, dubious stories, and of course, that ghoulish white makeup (the wigs she can keep; people saw those). In doing so, we can take a fresh look at the woman behind the myth.
For more on Elizabeth, see: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elizabeth-Essex-Power-Passion-Politics-ebook/dp/B07QDYS3PK