An audience with the Queen : subversion, submission and survival in three late Elizabethan progress entertainments
Three late Elizabethan progress entertainments are being discussed: Cowdray (August 1591), Elvetham (September 1591), and Harefield (July 1602). The Elvetham entertainment has received some critical attention and is comparatively well known due to the extraordinary preparations undertaken for the royal visit, and the fact that a woodcut of an artificial crescent-shaped lake, especially dug for the occasion, has survived. The other two entertainments have been somewhat neglected, and Harefield survives only in fragmentary form. To my knowledge, its text has never been printed in toto, and the thesis will include a transcript of the original manuscript housed in Warwickshire County Record Office. The traditional view that progress entertainments were pastoral tales whose main purpose was to consolidate and confirm existing class structures is challenged. Entertainments are rather complex fictions that serve not merely to establish and preserve the `beautiful relation' between Queen and her subjects, highborn as well as lowly. These occasions were also very much sites for the exercise of power, by monarch and hosts alike. When examining these festivities in their historical and political contexts and illuminating their hosts' backgrounds, significant new interpretations, or at least possible alternative readings, may be found. Most importantly, the entertainments have to be viewed holistically, as events rather than as the texts that have come down to us. The hosts of the first two entertainments were powerful peers who were politically suspect from the regime's point of view. Both these lords, on the other hand, had little reason to love the regime because they had been harassed. Despite this state of affairs, traditional interpretations still maintain that both entertainments were submissive in tenor; that their hosts regarded the royal visit as an honour, and tried to (re)gain the Queen's favour through the spectacles that they were putting on. I would claim that these pageants are far more complex affairs and have to be read on different levels of signification. Far from being submissive, these fetes can be interpreted as challenging the existing order, if not indeed actively trying to subvert it. Having said that, there are country welcomes that seem to conform to the more traditional view of progress entertainments. The third pageant at Harefield was offered by a top-ranking Elizabethan official whose relationship with the Queen was presumably more amicable. Her visit to him was probably intended as a sign of favour, and his motivation in hosting the entertainment may well have been the consolidation of his own position within her close circle of councillors. He would have aimed at maintaining the existing order rather than challenge it; at establishing a `beautiful relation' between all classes. These conclusions can only be drawn, however, once the event as a whole has been studied as well as the surviving fragments of text.