5/2/11 - the mansions of kings and queens

In today's excerpt - the mansions and retinues of such kings and queens as Britain's King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth:

"Traditionally, the great house builders (and house accumulators) were monarchs. At the time of his death Henry VIII had no fewer than forty-two palaces. But his daughter Elizabeth cannily saw that it was much cheaper to visit others and let them absorb the costs of her travels, so she resurrected in a big way the venerable practice of making annual royal progresses [lengthy visits to the houses of nobles]. The queen was not in truth a great traveler -- she never left England or even ventured very far within it -- but she was a terrific visitor. Her annual progresses lasted eight to twelve weeks and took in about two dozen houses.

"Royal progresses were nearly always greeted with a mixture of excitement and dread by those on whom the monarch called. On the one hand they provided unrivaled opportunities for preferment and social advancement, but on the other they were stupefyingly expensive. The royal household numbered up to about 1,500 people, and a good many of these -- 150 or so in the case of Elizabeth I -- traveled with the royal personage on her annual pilgrimages. Hosts not only had the towering expenditure of feeding, housing, and entertaining an army of spoiled and privileged people but also could expect to experience quite a lot of pilfering and property damage, as well as some less salubrious surprises. After the court of Charles II departed from Oxford in about 1660, one of those left behind remarked in an understandably appalled tone how the royal visitors had left 'their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coal-houses, cellars.'

"Since a successful royal visit could pay big dividends, most hosts labored inventively and painstakingly to please the royal guest. Owners learned to provide elaborate masques and pageants as a very minimum, but many built boating lakes, added wings, or reconstructed whole landscapes in the hope of eliciting a small cry of pleasure from the royal lips. Gifts were lavished freely. A hapless courtier named Sir John Puckering gave Elizabeth a diamond-festooned silk fan, several loose jewels, a gown of rare splendor, and a pair of exceptionally fine virginals, then watched at their first dinner as Her Majesty admired the silver cutlery and a salt cellar and, without a word, dropped them into the royal handbag.

"Even her most long-standing ministers learned to be hypersensitive to the queen's pleasures. When Elizabeth complained of the distance to his country house in Lincolnshire, Lord Burghley bought and extended another at Waltham Cross, in London's Home Counties. Christopher Hatton, Elizabeth's lord chancellor, built a mighty edifice called Holdenby House expressly for receiving the queen. In the event, she never came, and Hatton died £18,000 in debt -- a crushing burden, equivalent to about £9 million today.

"Sometimes the builders of these houses didn't have a great deal of choice. James I ordered the loyal but inconsequential Sir Francis Fane to rebuild Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire on a colossal scale so that he and the Duke of Buckingham, his lover, would have some rooms of suitable grandeur to saunter through en route to the bedroom.

"The worst imposition of all was to be instructed to take on some costly, long-standing obligation to the crown. Such was the fate of Bess of Hardwick's husband, the sixth Lord Shrewsbury. For sixteen years he was required to act as jailer to Mary, Queen of Scots, which in effect meant maintaining the court of a small, fantastically disloyal state in his own home. We can only imagine his sinking heart as he saw a line of eighty horse-drawn wagons -- enough to make a procession a third of a mile long -- coming up his drive bearing the Scottish queen, fifty servants and secretaries, and all their possessions. In addition to housing and feeding this force of people, Shrewsbury had to maintain a private army to provide security."


Bill Bryson


At Home: A Short History of Private Life


Random House


Copyright 2010 by Bill Bryson


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