Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 11. Elizabeth’s Court

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 11. Elizabeth’s Court

Queen Elizabeth’s court, designated by William Harrison as “one of the most renown’d in Europe,” and, in a more full and pregnant sense in which the description could have applied to the English court at any other period of the national history, as “the very centre” of the land, “drawing all things to it,” was anything but a stationary institution; and, in this respect, king James did his best to follow his predecessor’s example. As the same authority puts it, every gentleman’s house in England was the sovereign’s for her progresses; and her unflagging love of display and adulation combined with her inbred frugality to impose upon her subjects—greater and lesser nobles, and corporations both learned and unlearned—a constant endeavour to outdo each other in costly exhibitions of their loyalty. In her own palaces—many of them “worthy the owner, and the owner it,” others built with a view to appearance rather than endurance, and most of them surrounded by those vast parks which were among the most distinctive inheritances of English royalty—she maintained a becoming splendour and dignity. And, with this, her court united an openness to intellectual interests such as only her unfailing regard for learning and letters could have long maintained in an atmosphere swarming with germs of greedy ambition and frivolous self-indulgence. No similar effort was made by king James, whose literary tastes, like most of his thoughts and impulses, were self-ended; and it was only in the reign of Charles, who sincerely loved art, and of his refined though fanciful French consort, that the English court might, in more propitious circumstances, have recovered something of its former distinction. In the great days of Elizabeth, the outward and visible fact of its central position in English life corresponded to what may be called an ethical, as well as a political, conception which still held possession of the age, and might almost be described as the last afterglow of chivalry. The ideal which the famous Cortegiano of Baldassare Castiglione had spread far and wide through the higher spheres of European civilisation—the ideal of a high-minded Christian gentleman—was directly or indirectly commended in many an Elizabethan or Jacobean treatise, often at the expense of less elevated “plans of life.” On the same principle, a popular Elizabethan dialogue belonging to this group admonishes its readers that arms and learning are alone fit professions for a gentleman, and that, for such a one, the proper course of life, after passing through school and university, is to qualify himself for the service of his country by the study of the common law, or, if that service is to take an official and, more especially, a diplomatic form, by the study of the civilians, or again, if it is to be cast in the form of military service at home or abroad, by application to the mathematical sciences. Such was the training thought fittest for those desirous of giving of their best for the noblest of purposes and of leading that “higher life” which “Astrophill” and the few who were capable of following in his footsteps were (nor altogether unjustly) credited with leading. Numberless heroes of tragedy and comedy dazzled the imagination of their public by the semblance of similar perfection; and, though never completely presented, the ideal, in some of the very noblest creations of the Elizabethan drama, might seem to have almost reached realisation:

  • The courtiers, scholars, soldiers, eye, tongue, sword;
  • The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
  • The glass of fashion, and the mould of form,
  • The observed of all observers.