If It Pleases Her Majesty
Trea Martyn Writes of Rivalries Among Queen Elizabeth I’s Courtiers
By MIRANDA SEYMOUR
Published: February 10, 2012
Almost every summer, just as London began to turn hot and smelly, Elizabeth I took her court on a stately tour of the provinces, during which a series of hapless hosts were called on to send themselves nearly to bankruptcy in honoring Her Majesty with magnificent entertainments. Meanwhile, the thrifty queen, having saved considerable expenses, handed out cost-free rewards in the form of titles and coats of arms.
Trea Martyn’s bewitching and original “Queen Elizabeth in the Garden” offers a new spin on the familiar subject of the royal progress by concentrating on the rivalry between two of Elizabeth’s most powerful courtiers. Robert Dudley, the dashing Earl of Leicester, entertained the queen at Kenilworth Castle in 1575, offering her a pageant that was acclaimed as a wonder of the age. And William Cecil, Baron Burghley, the older and cleverer of the two men, on whom Elizabeth relied for sound political advice, created at Theobalds Palace a garden of such exceptional beauty that her successor, James I, forced the Cecil family to trade their estate to him in exchange (not the harshest of fates) for ownership of the royal manor at Hatfield.
Today, Martyn tells us, not a single authentic Elizabethan garden survives — all the more reason to welcome a book that uses a wealth of evocative detail to recreate this lost world of bright bowers and labyrinths, of paths of sand so glittering and carefully raked that passers-by sometimes mistook them for gold.
Elizabeth’s first grand welcome to Kenilworth, in 1572, had devolved into fiasco when a mock battle resulted in a volley of misdirected fireballs falling on the nearby town. To the citizens whose homes were destroyed by these war games, a royal handout of £25 brought scant consolation. Three years later, Dudley outdid himself in folly. On the previous occasion, he had merely realigned the castle’s grand entrance from south to north (thus facing his new Italianate garden) and masked Kenilworth’s russet keep with hand-gilded rosemary, an herb that invited Elizabeth to remember the earl’s love for her and contemplate matrimony. Nobody could be certain of the exact relationship between the queen and her handsome favorite, but Elizabeth — who usually commanded the earl to sleep in the room adjoining her own — had been seen, in full view of the court, to tickle his neck with her fingers. Dancing as his regular partner in the high-stepping volta, the queen kicked up her legs with abandon.
In 1572, Dudley had merely offered her a new garden. Three years later, he submerged an entire village, creating a magnificent 111-acre lake, across which a nymph-attended lady floated to present this inland ocean, together with the inevitable songs of praise, to the visiting sovereign. The queen, after snappily responding that the lake was already hers, by royal right, regained her good temper during a pageant of events that included fireworks rising from the watery depths; meats being juggled onto plates by experts in the Italian art of carving; elaborate masques; and, in case Elizabeth missed the point, the unveiling at the banquet table of two life-size portraits: Him and Her.
Aficionados of Sir Walter Scott may recognize some of these details from his novel “Kenilworth,” with which, in 1821, he transformed Dudley’s home into one of the greatest tourist draws in Britain. Martyn reminds us that Scott’s account, however seductive, displayed little concern for accuracy. The novel allowed Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, to obtain a secret interview with the queen by impersonating a garden statue during the festivities. In fact, by then Amy had been dead for 15 years.
The real drama at Kenilworth that summer involved Dudley’s clandestine paramour, the exquisite Lettice Devereux, Lady Essex, whom, rumor had it, Dudley had gotten pregnant not once but twice. The queen (possibly the last lady at court to acknowledge Dudley’s dalliance with Lady Essex) was aghast. Martyn provides an irresistibly comic account of Elizabeth’s furious curtailment of the festivities and Dudley’s last-ditch retrieval of the situation by desperately presenting himself at his castle gate in the guise of a trembling, lovesick holly bush.
A prickly disguise and a pretty speech won the earl a week’s reprieve, but they offered little protection against a cool-headed rival like Cecil. Martyn analyzes a swiftly published account of the Kenilworth pageant — today easily misread as an act of homage — which veiled a cunning piece of mockery. It was commissioned by Cecil, intent on sabotaging Dudley. Although the subversive work was just as swiftly suppressed, its effect had been achieved. The queen never returned to Kenilworth.
The immense advantage of Theobalds over Kenilworth lay in the fact that Cecil had put his garden under the charge of the extraordinary John Gerard, author of the celebrated “Herbal, or General History of Plants.” Martyn’s scrupulous research restores life to Gerard’s creation, a landscape so enchanting that in 1587 the queen kept court for more than six weeks within its red-brick walls. And this, although Martyn never explicitly says so, represents the significant difference between Kenilworth and Theobalds. Dudley’s grand garden was never a habitable space, merely a fantastic showpiece. Theobalds, by contrast, offered the vulnerable monarch a haven of repose, a refuge from a perilous life.
“One of the most beautiful places in the world,” a besotted French visitor wrote, describing Theobalds in 1640. Yet today, Martyn soberly informs us in the conclusion to this exquisite book, Theobalds has been subsumed by a public park laid out in the 18th century. It’s “as if the palace and gardens never existed.”