Identifying a clearly defined subset of ‘country house’ entertainments from the innumerable events included in Nichols’s Progresses, and catalogued in Mary Hill Cole’s The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony (1999), is by no means unproblematic, but Kolkovich’s principle of selection is largely dictated by her interest in the conflicted relationships between the court and the provinces (p. 21). For her, the defining characteristics of the country house form are ‘its provincial landscape setting, episodic and mobile structure, characters and tropes from courtly and popular literature, collaborative authorship, and interactive and somewhat improvised performance’ (p. 7). The word ‘entertainment’ was seldom used in the Elizabethan period with quite the passive overtones it has since acquired; then, it was the sense of mutuality inherent in its etymology that was generally to the fore. ‘We princes’, Elizabeth I famously remarked, ‘are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world…The eyes of many behold our actions’. Progress was performance and she travelled to ‘entertain’ as much as to be entertained. At Elvetham in 1591, for example, she alighted from her horse, raised the Countess of Hertford from her knees and kissed her, ‘using manie comfortable and princely speeches, as wel to hir, as to the Earle of Hertford standing hard by, to the great rejoysing of manie beholders’ (p. 100). Hertford had mounted ‘the grandest country house entertainment since Kenilworth’ in an attempt to regain the royal favour forfeited early in the reign through his ill-advised marriage to Catherine Grey, a great grand-daughter of Henry VII with a claim to the throne (p. 92). His second wife, the recipient of Elizabeth’s very publicly staged courtesy, was Frances Howard, a former maid of honour, whose role in the affair was to act as mediatrix for her husband. In this, according to the printed accounts—two distinct editions in 1591—she was singularly successful, yet Elvetham marked no significant rise in Hertford’s fortunes. The favours Elizabeth displayed on such occasions were often dramatic but ephemeral, not unlike the paraphernalia of the pageants that supplied their backdrop.
The Elvetham experience encapsulates two of Kolkovich’s most significant themes: the neglected, but crucial, role of women in the country house entertainments, and the dubious relationship between the actual events and their printed memorials. The two are intimately related. Although the guest everyone was desperately trying to ‘entertain’ was female, the perspective of the printed accounts is generally male. Kolkovich’s careful reading of the Elvetham pamphlets reclaims something of the Countess’s role, but their paratexts focus exclusively on the Earl’s agency. Male devotion is the invariable leitmotif of the genre’s rhetoric—except, that is, where independent female hosts commissioned the texts. The entertainment presented to Elizabeth by the widowed Elizabeth Russell at Bisham in 1592, for example, offers female solidarity over male service, and the Countess of Pembroke’s device for the abortive Wilton reception of 1599 seems designed to critique the jaded topoi of conventional ‘Petrarchan’ panegyric.
Generally speaking, it is likely that women played a far greater role in these festivities than the surviving records would suggest. The scene enacted between Elizabeth and the Countess at Hertford was in no sense unique. Visiting Cowdray, the home of the recusant Lord Montague, earlier in the same progress, the queen ‘embraced the Ladie Montecute, and the Ladie Dormir her daughter. The Mistresse of the house (as it were weeping in her bosome) said, O happie time, O ioyfull daie!’ (p. 175). ‘As it were’: was the emotion real or really well acted? We shall never know, but some such ‘display’ of emotion was mandatory on this occasion. Both host and guest had a point to make. The Cowdray entertainment was designed to proclaim recusant patriotism, and Elizabeth, so often criticized for leniency to Roman Catholicism, was vindicating her own judgement by publicly acknowledging Montague’s loyalty. Like the Elvetham account, that of Cowdray appeared in quick succession in two distinct editions. In both cases, Kolkovich argues, the second is ‘more queen-centred, communal, and conservative as it transitioned from news pamphlet to historical record’ (p. 157). It is from the second edition of the Cowdray account that the scene involving Lady Montague comes, and the text is notable for narrating away any implications of implicit discontent in the ‘Petrarchan’ songs of the first, any sense, that is, that Recusants were unrequited lovers of their queen.
The role of the publishers in all of this is the major concern of the second half of Kolkovich’s fine study. The translation of event into print was seldom straightforward, and hosts and publishers had quite different agendas. There was a vibrant market for royal news that canny entrepreneurs such as Richard Jones, who published The Princelye Pleasures, at the Courte at Kenelwoorth (1576), were keen to exploit. Although his principal motif was profit, Jones represents himself as responding to public demand by affording his readers only ‘true Copies’ of the relevant documents—a recurrent claim in this form of literature. Viewed from the perspective of the events’ hosts, the gain from print lay rather in cultural than financial capital, in projecting unto a national canvass an allegedly close, if not intimate, relationship with the monarch. While hosting the queen was an expensive business—and there were those who actively sought to avoid the honour—it provided all sorts of valuable dividends in kind. The Cecils, for example, were frequently pilloried for their extravagant building projects, but the broadside celebrating the Queen’s visit to Theobalds in 1571 represented the extensive renovations as undertaken solely for her majesty’s comfort. Thereafter, to complain of the host’s extravagance might be seen to imply that the guest was not worth it! Not surprisingly, of the 17 country house entertainments Kolkovich handles, 12 appeared in print.
Although print transformed a localized into a national event, Kolkovich is surely right in emphasizing the fundamentally regional nature of the occasions themselves. The distinctive feature of every progress was its particular topography, and local issues and customs differed widely. In the provinces the court was as frequently resented as admired, particularly by those to whom it offered no hope of admission. The irony here was that it needed to exclude them because central governance of the provinces depended on the maintenance of strong ‘rural courts’—hence the Royal Proclamation of 2 November 1596 forbidding country magnates from migrating to London and abandoning their local responsibilities. In affording hospitality to a court dislocated to the same regions, they could register their discontent, however obliquely—for instance, by commissioning pastoral pageants designed to praise rural over courtly life. ‘Printed country house entertainments’, Kolkovich concludes, ‘did not imagine a nation fully united around Elizabeth; instead, they explored multiple definitions of nationalism … and demonstrated an active, unresolved debate in the Elizabethan period about what it meant to be English’ (p. 192). For that very reason they provide invaluable perspectives on the more formalized, institutionally regulated genres of court masque and civic reception. But whatever the venue, the royal actor always left them wanting more.