Crash-Course Processional: Adapting Elizabeth I’s Coronation for a Laurel Elevation Ceremony

By Magister Ishmael Stedfast Reed, OL

At its heart, ceremony is theatre. Both are choreographed, scripted, and symbolic. The participants in a ceremony have roles to play, cues to respond to, and, importantly, witnesses whose presence and comprehension are required for the significance to be made manifest. This is especially true in the SCA, where Coronations, Elevations, and Courts allow us all to suspend disbelief and “play” together in a moment of shared imagination, in both the rec-reation and re-creation senses of the word “play”. 

Our period antecedents in Western Europe and England understood this deeply, as they left behind a long tradition of treating theatre as a vehicle for politics (see E.K. Chambers’ The Mediaeval Stage for a comprehensive history of this practice), and treating politics as cemented by theatre (Alice Hunt’sThe Drama of Coronation unpacks 16th-century English royal succession through this lens). So when the time came for me to write an “In Case of Peerage” document, I knew that I wanted to include dramatic elements in my own Elevation, considering it’s ceremonial significance. There was no better example of exactly this blend for my persona’s Elizabethan time period than the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth I. The Elizabethan World Reference Library explains that “Historians have noted that Elizabeth’s royal entry was like a theatrical event in which both the queen and her subjects played dramatic roles.”

Elizabeth I's procession from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey,  14 January 1559. BL, MS Egerton MS 3320, ff. 4v-5r, copyright The British Library
Elizabeth I’s procession from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey,  14 January 1559. BL, MS Egerton MS 3320, ff. 4v-5r, copyright The British Library

Elizabeth’s Procession

As Elizabeth processed to Westminster Abbey on the 14th of January, 1559, the entire city of London had prepared for her arrival. Charles Farris, Public Historian for the History of the Monarchy, writes that:

“As the Queen made her way through the streets of London, she was met by a richly dressed child, accompanied by musicians, who welcomed her on the city’s behalf. Elizabeth then encountered a series of spectacular pageants. These were elaborate theatrical stages upon which were acted out little plays.”

Considering the schoolteacher Richard Mulcaster is believed to have written the verse for these plays, it is little surprise they were educational in large part, teaching the “sovereign Lady Elizabeth” what she might need to know to rule well. 

Mulcaster also helpfully wrote the pamphlet The Queenes maiesties passage through the citie of London to Westminster the day before her coronacion, which recounted details of the ceremony, and was printed a week later by Richard Tottel. Summarizing the pamphlet, the 5 total plays were as follows: 

  • “The preseruacion of concorde”: On Gracechurch, “Gracious” Street, “before the signe of the Egle” (a local tavern), a three-tiered stage designed to look like the battlements of a castle had been built across the entire street. Actors playing Elizabeth’s grandparents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, were seated on the first tier, with red and white roses respectively intertwined painted on the set. On the second tier sat two actors dressed as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth. A single branch extended to the third tier, on which sat an actor representing Elizabeth I herself. The whole pageant was narrated by a child orator reading verse, and effusively “…garnished with redde roses and white…And all emptie places thereof were furnished with sentences concerning unitie.”
  • “The maintenaunce of the sayde vertues, and suppression of vyces”. On Cornhill Street, a stage was built which featured three gates. These three gates will appear in future stages as well, which supposes some stages were built to allow street traffic below them. A chair overtop the middle gate was built in “artificiall maner, as to the apperance of the lookers on, the foreparte semed to haue no staye” — the seat had false legs or an extended seat, so it appeared to float in the air. Each “leg” was held by an actor, playing the symbolic roles of “Pure religion”, “Loue of subiectes”, “VVisedome” and “Iustice”, while a child representing Elizabeth sat in the chair. The virtues both had name placards on, as well as, apparently, apparel that matched their virtue – they are not described in the pamphlet, so we can only guess at the symbolic costuming. Each of the virtues had a vice they “treade…under their feete”. More virtuous verses were written on the stage – English on the right, and Latin on the left. 
  • To continue in her goodnes”. South of Cheapside, at Soper Lane (the modern corner of Queen Street), was another three-gated wall with a stage built atop it. On top of the left and right gates were live musicians, with another three-tiered stage built atop the middle gate. On it, 8 children sat: 4 on the first tier, 3 on the second, and 1 on the top tier. Each child was costumed and placarded as one of the 8 beatitudes “expressed in the v. chapter of the gospel of S. Mathew, applyed to our soueraigne Ladie Quene Elizabeth”. After another round of child oration and written text (Latin and English) on the stage, Elizabeth “passed on forward in Chepesyde”. 

INTERLUDE: “And perswade your selues, that for the safetie and quietnes of you all, I will not spare, if nede be to spend my blood, God thanke you all”. Throughout this entire procession, Elizabeth passed each city guild, which had created viewing stands along her route, “one by another enclosed with rayles, hanged with clothes, and themselves well apparelled with many ryche furres, and their livery whodes upon their shoulder”. Once her procession came to the Little Conduit, a water pipe which marked the western end of Cheapside and the north-eastern corner of St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, she was symbolically challenged.  There “she came agaynste the Aldermen in the hygh end of Cheape tofor the little conduite”. They greet her formally with a purse with gold, presented on behalf of the Lord Mayor, and she continued ahead to the next pageant, just past the Aldermen.

  • But for to heale the sore, and cure that is not seene, / Which thing ye boke of truth doth teache in writīg playn This may have been the most elaborate of the pageants, indicating Elizabeth’s religious affiliation with the Protestant church. Played on a large square stage, this pageant featured two “hylles or mountaynes of convenient heyghte”. The Northern hill (the right side, from the Queen’s perspective – stage left) was barren and stony, with one artificial tree “all withered and deadde”. At the bottom of this hill was an actor dressed in sad rags and labeled “Ruinosa Respublica” the character of “ruined republic”. The dead tree had signs hanging from it with sentences describing bad governance that led to decay. The stage-right hill was “made fayre, freshe, grene, and beawtifull” with a healthy tree and a well-dressed actor underneath called “Respublica bene instituta”. 

Between the two hills was a hidden door, out of which emerged on cue Time, dressed as an old man with a scythe, having “wynges artificiallye made”. Behind him emerged a smaller person (likely a boy playing a woman), dressed all in white silk – the daughter of Time, also labeled Veritas, Truth. Truth carried a Bible over to the green and bountiful republic character, as a child orator read verses about good governance coming from divine truth – directly front the Bible, rather than interpreted through Catholic priests. This Bible was then handed from the stage to one of Elizabeth’s company, Sir John Parrat, who delivered it to her. She received the book, kissed it, and thanked the city, thereby indicating her intention to rule as a Protestant monarch. 

Elizabeth then processed past St. Paul’s churchyard, where a schoolboy of St. Paul’s school recited, in Latin, an essay on the “philosopher king” as represented in Plato’s Republic. She marched through Ludgate then turned towards Fleetbridge (a small bridge that once crossed the River Fleet, which has since been filled in but lends its name to Fleet Street). The fifth pageant was staged at the “Fleet Conduit”, a large structure at the corner of Fleet Street and Shoe Lane. 

  • to cōsult for the worthy gouernment of her people”. From the Fleet Conduit to the northern side of the street was a stage with four towers at the corners, and a stepped pyramid in the center. At the top of the pyramid was a throne, shaded over by a large artificial date palm. In the throne was a “semelie and mete personage” (a pretty actor) dressed as the biblical judge Deborah. The lower steps of the pyramid had pairs of actors on each tier, representing the nobility, clergy, and “cominalitye”. A child orator explains how Deborah led the Israelites well in her own right, in part due to her consultation with her people: “it behoueth both men & women so ruling to use aduise of good coūsell”. 

After the last pageant, she passed through the Temple Bar, decorated in giant images of mythical figures from British history, Gogmagog the Giant and Corineus of Briton, pictured with verses summarizing the lessons she learned in London. A choir of children sang her away to Westminster Abbey, as one labeled “Poet”, “gaue the quenes maiestie her fare well in the name of the hole citie”.

My Procession

This historical ceremony was the perfect inspiration for a Peerage elevation: we already traditionally have 5 “worthies” (a Laurel, Pelican, Knight, Rose, and Master of Defense) speak to the Vigilant’s deservedness – these would become my 5 “pageants”. Instead of direct praise, I wanted the Peers (and Populace) who spoke for me to instead instruct me on the qualities of a good Peer, which often arises in these speeches already.

I also already had a clear beginning and end point for my “procession” – like Elizabeth cloistered in the Tower of London, I would spend the day shut away on vigil, only to be escorted from the vigil to my elevation in Court. And thus, the plan was crafted. 

Ultimately, this is where my control of the endeavor ended: without a writ, I had to rely on those planning my elevation to execute this vision, which they did with aplomb!

Meisterin Kolfinna, left, spins the thread of my life as Clotho in her portion of the pageant. Ollamh Ruaidrhi, p0laying Atropos center, waits to cut my previous times by taking my apprentice belt. Photo by Thomas Beebe.
Meisterin Kolfinna, left, spins the thread of my life as Clotho in her portion of the pageant. Ollamh Ruaidrhi, playing Atropos center, waits to cut my previous times by taking my apprentice belt. Photo by Thomas Beebe.

First, the three fates, in classical Greek theatrical style, judged the thread of my life, and eventually cut my previous bonds with their scissors. In this case, this pageant was played by three instrumental Laurels in my SCA journey: Meisterin Kolfinna Valravn, Magistra Iselda de Narbonne, and Ollam Ruaidhri an Cu, my formal Peer. 

My next stop on the procession was to Mistress Wyn, who read the words of my Pelican, Mistress Ceridwen ferch Owain. Although unable to be at the event, she recounted the virtues of the Arthurian round table, just as Elizabeth’s orators compared her to Deborah.

I was halted halfway through my procession by the Knight, Count Eckehard Thurn. He stopped my path as the Aldermen stopped Elizabeth, wielding a sword and wearing the Golden Fleece, , only allowing my procession passage after he had determined I contain Liberality, one of the Chivalric Graces – like Elizabeth’s list of virtues and vices. 

Lady Marta de Lyon, reading verse representing the Masters of Defense, written by Master Tors Hartman. Photo by Thomas Beebe.
Lady Marta de Lyon, reading verse representing the Masters of Defense, written by Master Tors Hartman. Photo by Thomas Beebe.

After a reading by Mistress Ysabeau ferch Gwalchaved on behalf of Duchess Melisande de Belvoir and the Roses, the next pageant represented the Masters of Defense. 

While a sonnet written by Master Tors Hartman was read by Lady Marta de Lyon, a rapier duel was planned to be renacted by Provosts Ffernfael of Carleon and Nicolo Santorio. 

And finally, my very own classical Greek chorus, made up of members of my local Shire, and led by Choragus THL Nyvein bat Rav Adam, challenged me to swear I was not leaving behind all of those who have supported me along the way, in shouted unison. 

At this point, I had reached the end of my procession – along with Their Majesties Atlantia, who had processed with me along the way, and were then ready to hear my oath as they opened Court. 

Overall, I think this Elevation Procession was an incredible way to connect our practice in some small way to the history we study. It was, I hope, an engaging experience for those who participated… I know it was for me! I encourage everyone who reads this article to consider the ceremonies they will be a part of in the SCA: Courts, elevations, investments, the taking of students, and more. How can you use a prepared phrase, a rehearsed action, or a symbolic item to enhance that experience, both for you as a player and for those who have their own responsibilities as an audience? We already imbue so much significance into the tokens of our society – the belts, medallions, favors and crowns. If we can follow historical practice, and treat the words we say and the actions we take in these moments with the same careful level of preparation, the results would be extraordinary. 

Photo of me during my Elevation in Court, by Thomas Beebe. The square-sewn "Scholar's Cap" and furred "Scholar's Coat" are symbolic of University and clerical scholars on the time- the scholar's cap evolved into the square board cap used in graduation ceremonies today. These were the perfect symbols of this peerage for my persona.
Photo of me during my Elevation in Court, by Thomas Beebe. The square-sewn “Scholar’s Cap” and furred “Scholar’s Coat” are symbolic of University and clerical scholars on the time- the scholar’s cap evolved into the square board cap used in graduation ceremonies today. These were the perfect symbols of this peerage for my persona.

Further Reading

The Map of Early Modern London website, maintained by the University of Victoria, has links to a full map of London from the time period, as well as primary documents like surveys and the full text of the pamphlet by Mulcaster

The Diary of Samuel Pepys website has maps to the locations described in his 17th-century daily journal, and is run by the solo dynamo Phil Gyford (you can use Ko-Fi to donate to him if you like, I know I did)! His encyclopedia of the diary was crucial to cross-reference with modern London considering how much development has occurred there in the last 400 years – I would never have been able to find the conduits otherwise. 

Finally, for more theatrical reading I recommend The Mediaeval Stage by E.K. Chambers and The Drama of Coronation by Alice Hunt, as well as the Historical Royal Palaces blog, all of which provided background research for this article. 

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