There was more satisfaction in being courted by virile Elizabethans than in being bedded by a poxy youth, and the courtship could last as long as marriage did not stifle it. Hence Elizabeth enjoyed perennial adulation and savored it insatiably. Lords ruined themselves to entertain her; masques and pageants allegorized her glory; poets smothered her with sonnets and dedications; musicians strummed her praise. A madrigal celebrated her eyes as war-subduing orbs, and her breast as “that fair hill where virtue dwells and sacred skill.”30 Raleigh told her that she walked like Venus, hunted like Diana, rode like Alexander, sang like an angel, and played like Orpheus.31 She almost believed it. She was as vain as if all the merits of her England were the blessed fruit of her mothering; and to a degree they were. Distrustful of her physical charms, she robed herself in costly dresses, varying them almost every day; at her death she left two thousand. She wore jewelry in her hair, on her arms and wrists and ears and gowns; when a bishop reproved her love of finery she had him warned not to touch on that subject again, lest he reach heaven aforetime.32
Her manners could be alarming. She cuffed or fondled courtiers, even foreign emissaries. She tickled the back of Dudley’s neck when he knelt to receive his earldom.I She spat as she list—once upon a costly coat. She was usually amiable and easy of access, but she talked volubly, and she could be an unanswerable shrew. She swore like a pirate (which, by proxy, she was); “by God’s death” was among her milder oaths. She could be cruel, as in playing cat and mouse with Mary Stuart, or letting Lady Catherine Grey languish and die in the Tower; but she was basically kind and merciful, and she mingled tenderness with her blows. She often lost her temper, but she soon regained control of herself. She roared with laughter when amused, which was often. She loved to dance, and pirouetted till she was sixty-nine. She gamboled and gambled and hunted, and was fond of masques and plays. She kept her spirits up even when her fortunes were low, and in the face of danger she was all courage and intelligence. She was abstemious in food and drink, but covetous of money and jewelry; with relish she confiscated the property of rich rebels; and she managed to get and to hold the crown jewels of Scotland, Burgundy, and Portugal, besides a hoard of gems presented by expectant lords. She was not renowned for gratitude or liberality; sometimes she tried to pay her servants in fair words; but there was a certain patriotism in her parsimony and her pride. When she acceded there was hardly a nation so poor as to do England reverence; when she died England controlled the seas and challenged the intellectual hegemony of Italy or France.
What sort of mind did she have? She had all the learning that a queen could carry gracefully. While ruling England she continued her study of languages; corresponded in French with Mary Stuart, bandied Italian with a Venetian ambassador, and berated a Polish envoy in virile Latin. She translated Sallust and Boethius, and knew enough Greek to read Sophocles and translate a play of Euripides’. She claimed to have read as many books as any prince in Christendom, and it was likely. She studied history almost every day. She composed poetry and music, and played forgivably on the lute and the virginal. But she had sense enough to laugh at her accomplishments, and to distinguish between education and intelligence. When an ambassador complimented her on her languages she remarked that “it was no marvel to teach a woman to talk; it were far harder to teach her to hold her tongue.”34 Her mind was as sharp as her speech, and her wit kept pace with the time. Francis Bacon reported that “she was wont to say of her instructions to great officers that they were like to garments, strait at the first putting on, but did by and by wear loose enough.”35 Her letters and speeches were composed in an English all her own, devious, involved, and affected, but rich in quaint turns, fascinating in eloquence and character.
She excelled in intelligence rather than intellect. Walsingham pronounced her “inapt to embrace any matter of weight”;36 but perhaps he spoke in the bitterness of unrequited devotion. Her skill lay in feminine delicacy and subtlety of perception, not in laborious logic, and sometimes the outcome revealed more wisdom in her feline tentatives than in their reasoning. It was her indefinable spirit that counted, that baffled Europe and enthralled England, that gave spur and color to her country’s flowering. She re-established the Reformation, but she represented the Renaissance—the lust to live this earthly life to the full, to enjoy and embellish it every day. She was no exemplar of virtue, but she was a paragon of vitality. Sir John Hayward, whom she sent to the Tower for giving rebellious notions to the younger Essex, forgave her enough to write of her, nine years after she could reward him:
Now, if ever any person had eyther the gift or the stile to winne the hearts of people, it was this Queene; if ever she did expresse the same, it was … in coupling mildness with majesty as she did, and in stately stouping to the meanest sort. All her facultyes were in motione, and every motione seemed a well-guided actione; her eyes were set upon one, her ears listened to another, her judgment ran upon a third, to a fourth she addressed her speech; her spirit seemed to be everywhere, and yet so intyre in her selfe, as it seemed to bee noe where else. Some she pityed, some she commended, some she thanked, at others she pleasantly and wittingly jested, contemning no person, neglecting no office; and distributing her smiles, lookes, and graces so artificially [artfully] that thereupon the people again redoubled the testimonyes of their joyes.37
Her court was her character—loving the things she loved, and raising her flair for music, games, plays, and vivid speech to an ecstasy of poems, madrigals, dramas, and masques, and such prose as England has never known again. In her palaces at Whitehall, Windsor, Greenwich, Richmond, and Hampton Court lords and ladies, knights and ambassadors, entertainers and servitors moved in an exciting alternation of regal ceremony and gallant gaiety. A special Office of the Revels prepared amusements that ranged from “riddles” and backgammon to complex masques and Shakespeare’s plays. Ascension Day, Christmas, New Year’s, Twelfth Night, Candlemas, and Shrovetide were regularly celebrated with pastimes, athletic contests, jousts, mummings, plays, and masques. The masque was one of many Italian importations into Elizabethan England—a gaudy mixture of pageantry, poetry, music, allegory, buffoonery, and ballet, put together by playwrights and artists, presented at court, or on rich estates, with complex machinery and evolutions, and performed by masked ladies and gentlemen burdened with costly costumes and simple lines. Elizabeth was fond of drama, especially of comedy; who knows how much of Shakespeare would have reached the stage, or posterity, if she and Leicester had not supported the theater through all the attacks of the Puritans?
Not content with her five palaces, Elizabeth sallied out almost every summer on cross-country “progresses” to see and be seen, to keep an eye on her vassal lords, and to enjoy their reluctant homage. Part of the court followed her, delighted with the change and grumbling at the accommodations and the beer. Towns dressed their gentry in velvet and silk to welcome her with speeches and gifts; nobles bankrupted themselves to entertain her; hard-pressed lords prayed that she would not come their way. The Queen rode on horseback or in an open litter, greeting happily the crowds that gathered along the road. The people were thrilled by the sight of their invincible sovereign, and bewitched to fresh loyalty by her gracious compliments and infectious happiness.
The court took on her gaiety, her freedom of manners, her luxury of dress, her love of ceremony, and her ideal of the gentleman. She liked to hear the rustle of finery, and the men around her rivaled the women in molding Oriental stuffs to Italian styles. Pleasure was the usual program, but one had to be ready at any moment for martial exploits beyond the seas. Seductions had to be circumspect, for Elizabeth felt responsible to the parents of her maids of honor for their honor; hence she banished the Earl of Pembroke from the court for making Mary Fitton pregnant.38 As at any court, intrigue wove many entangling webs; the women competed unscrupulously for the men, the men for the women, and all for the favor of the Queen and the perquisites dependent thereon. Those same gentlemen who exalted in poetry the refinements of love and morality itched in prose for sinecures, took or gave bribes, grasped at monopolies, or shared in piratical spoils; and the avid Queen looked indulgently upon a venality that eked out the inadequate pay of her servitors. Through her grants, or by her permission, Leicester became the richest lord in England; Sir Philip Sidney received vast tracts in America; Raleigh acquired forty thousand acres in Ireland; the second Earl of Essex enjoyed a “corner” on the importation of sweet wines; and Sir Christopher Hatton rose from the Queen’s lapdog to Lord Chancellor. Elizabeth was no more sensitive to industrious brains than to handsome legs—for these pillars of society were not yet shrouded in pantaloons. Despite her faults she set a pace and a course to elicit the reserve energies of England’s worthies; she raised their courage to high enterprise, their minds to brave thinking, their manners to grace and wit and the fostering of poetry, drama, and art. Around that dazzling court and woman gathered nearly all the genius of England’s greatest age.