Kenilworth Castle © Stuart Fry
A chessboard of black ebony, the tusk of a sea bear, curtains of crimson satin with gold and silver lace… No, it’s not my Christmas wish-list, but some of the luxury items owned by Robert Dudley, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, in the 16th century.
English Heritage has just published, for the first time, details of these and hundreds more items as found on a 1578 inventory of the Earl of Leicester, Dudley’s Warwickshire residence, Kenilworth Castle.
Kenilworth was then at its height, having been the venue for Elizabethan England’s most talked about parties in 1575, when Dudley entertained Elizabeth and her court for nearly three weeks with a mixture of music and feasting, masques and dancing, bearbaiting and hunting, feasting and fireworks.
Dr Elizabeth Goldring of Warwick University, an expert on Elizabethan court culture and English Heritage consultant, transcribed and annotated the inventory, which has been published in the second English Heritage Historical Review. The original manuscript is owned by the British Library.
Queen Elizabeth I, by an unknown artist, c1575. © Reading Museums Service, Reading Borough Council (All Rights Reserved)
“This document offers an unusually rich insight into the material culture of the Elizabethan elite,” said Dr Goldring. “It also fleshes out our knowledge of Kenilworth Castle at about the time of the celebrated 1575 festivities, which, for more than 400 years, have been regarded as the high-water mark of Elizabethan court culture.”
“Much imitated, but never surpassed, these revels were the longest and most lavish attempted in the course of Queen Elizabeth I’s annual summer progresses through the English countryside.”
Weights, dimensions, materials, colour and decorative motifs of everything from furniture to weapons and musical instruments make the inventory one of the most detailed, not to mention long, to survive from this era.
The most striking and telling things on the manuscript are the copious emblazoning of Dudley’s initials and coat of arms on everything from chairs to bed linen, and an unusually large (for this time) collection of pictures. Among the 50 or so paintings in Dudley’s possession are four of Dudley and Elizabeth commissioned especially for the 1575 celebrations.
“Given that the 1575 Kenilworth entertainments are usually understood as part of a strategy by which Leicester sought to persuade the Queen to marry him,” said Dr Goldring, “it must almost certainly be the case that the earl’s audacious decision to commission and display a quartet of paintings of himself and Elizabeth at the castle was part and parcel of that strategy.”
Dr Goldring has also found that the paintings correspond to surviving images. One painting is in the National Portrait Gallery, one at Reading Museum (both anonymous), and two by the Italian mannerist Frederico Zuccaro do not survive, but the preliminary drawings do and are held by the British Museum.
“Thanks to the survival of this inventory, we have a remarkably vivid picture of Kenilworth’s internal decorative scheme – the unifying motif of which seems to have been the communication of a quasi-princely magnificence – at about the time of these important and highly influential festivities,” said Dr Goldring.
The English Heritage Historical Review (£25) is an illustrated anthology of research articles on architecture, archaeology and fine and decorative art collections associated with the organisation’s properties. Other topics covered in the 2007 journal are Apethorpe Hall, Roman lighthouses at Dover Castle and statues of Inigo Jones and Palladio at Chiswick House.