The great Kenilworth booze-up: how to party like it's 1575

It's gone down as the social event of the age- Robert Dudley's three-week bash for Elizabeth I. Now new documents reveal just how lavish it was

If you want to marry the Queen, you have to know how to party. At least, that seems to have been the Earl of Leicester's thinking more than 400 years ago.

Almost no one in England had a good word to say about Robert Dudley, one of the most colourful figures from the years when Elizabeth reigned apart from the monarch herself, and other women who fell for him. In the eyes of the court, he was a murderer, a schemer, and an adulterer. When he died, soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, it was said that there was more rejoicing in England over Dudley's end than over the humiliation of the Spaniards.

But for all his faults, he was a charmer with a remarkable knack for cajoling titled ladies to join him between his expensive, monogrammed sheets. If there was one man that Elizabeth really fancied in all her self-denying life, it was Robert Dudley.

And he certainly knew how to party. The bash he threw in Kenilworth Castle, near Coventry, in the summer of 1575 failed in its political objective to ensconce him as the most powerful man in England but it lived on in the memory of Tudor partygoers as indelibly as the Woodstock festival has lingered in the recollections of old hippies. It set the standard for every other lavish party thrown for the remaining 28 years of Elizabeth's reign. Other rich aristocrats tried to do a Kenilworth, but nobody did it quite like the Earl of Leicester.

Obviously, if the Queen of England had travelled all the way from London to Warwickshire for a party, it didn't end with carriages at midnight. It carried on, day after day, until Elizabeth and everyone else was exhausted. The great Kenilworth booze up lasted for three weeks of music, masques, morris dancing, bearbaiting, hunting, lavish banquets and extravagant firework displays. Historians call it the high watermark of Tudor culture.

That party was not just a display of virtually unprecedented hospitality. It was also an opportunity for the Earl to display to all the world his accumulated wealth, the vast scale of which will be revealed this month when an inventory of Dudley's possessions drawn up after the party is published for the first time. The previously unpublished manuscript was kept for years at Christchurch College, Oxford, which sold it in 1995 to the British Library. It has now been transcribed, edited and annotated by Dr Elizabeth Goldring, of Warwick University, a consultant to English Heritage, which owns Kenilworth Castle, and is printed in full in this month's English Heritage Historical Review.

The 1578 manuscript describes in meticulous detail the weight, dimensions, materials, colour and decorative motifs of objects that include plates, hangings, beds and bedding, carpets, curtains, chairs, stools, pictures, chessboards, weapons and musical instruments. Many were decorated with the Earl's initials and coat of arms, the bear and staff that was the Dudley motif, and the family's motto, "Droit et Loyal", was emblazoned on objects ranging from chairs to table linen and bed linen.

The list makes it clear that Dudley was going all out to impress his guests and one in particular. Some of the more lavish items on the inventory include a chessboard of black ebony, the tusk of a sea bear and curtains of crimson satin. Under just one heading, "Beddings &c", there are nearly 100 entries. He owned about 50 paintings and more than 20 maps, and commissioned four new paintings of himself and Elizabeth especially for the festivities. Two, by anonymous artists, have survived, and are kept in the National Portrait Gallery and the Reading Museum. The other two, by the Italian Federico Zuccaro, have been lost, but the preliminary drawings are in the British Museum. Three of these images have been temporarily reunited for the English Heritage display "Queen and Castle" at Kenilworth.

"This document offers a rich insight into the material culture of the Elizabethan elite," says 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 Elizabeth's annual summer progress through the English countryside. 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."

That castle and that party must have convinced many of the people gathered that nothing would ever stop the rise of Robert Dudley. In fact, the royal favourite was about to be brought crashing down to earth. The summer of 1575 was not just the high-point of Tudor culture; it was the zenith of his chequered career.

The purpose of the festive marathon was to persuade the Virgin Queen to marry Dudley, a prospect which certainly tempted her. Unfortunately, England was rife with a nasty rumour about the Earl. His previous wife, Amy, had been found dead from a broken neck at the bottom of a stone staircase. No one believed the most probable explanation, that she was weakened by illness and simply fell. Even her husband suspected murder. Everyone else in the English court assumed that he had had her killed.

So when the Earl went down on bended knee and begged the Queen to accept his hand in marriage, she let caution be her guide, and said no. If she had accepted him, the rumour mill would have put it about she was an accomplice in the death of Amy Dudley, and the newlyweds would have been so hated that her throne could have been in danger.

He was not the first member of the much-hated Dudley family to hit upon the notion that he might rule by proxy . His father was John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland and Protector of England during the reign of Henry VIII's sickly young son, Edward. When Edward died in his early teens, the elder Dudley thought that he could prevent either of Henry's daughters from coming to the throne, by declaring that the 15-year-old Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry's sister, was the rightful Queen. He also forced poor Jane to marry his son, Guilford. The plot was a disaster for all concerned. Lady Jane, her husband, and her father-in-law were beheaded, and all other members of the Dudley family, including Robert, were imprisoned in the Tower of London.

This turned out to be not so bad for Robert Dudley; Beauchamp Tower, where he was held, was only a minute or two's walk from the Bell Tower, where the young Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned. They were both aged 21, and became fast friends. When she became Queen, she showered titles and riches on him. She made him an Earl, and gave him Kenilworth Castle.

But she was not the only woman to take a fancy to this handsome, arrogant young aristocrat. If malicious Tudor tongues were right, the resilient Earl did not let his famous party end without enticing at least one lady with royal connections into his bed. Lettice Knollys was a close relative of the Queen, through her grandmother, Mary Boleyn, and the wife of the Earl of Essex, who was away governing Ireland. She and Dudley had been friendly, to say the least, for several years. She was soon pregnant.

A year later, the Earl of Essex died. Once again, rumour had it that Dudley was to blame. A pamphlet published a few years later, while the Earl of Leicester was still alive, claimed that "The like good chance had he in the death of my Lord of Essex and that at a time most fortunate for his purpose; for when he was coming home from Ireland with intent to revenge himself upon my Lord of Leicester for begetting his wife with child in his absence."

Soon after Essex's death, Dudley secretly married the dowager Countess at Kenilworth. Her father then insisted on a second wedding, which he could witness, so that there would be no dispute about the legitimacy of their son, born soon afterwards. Sadly, the boy did not live long.

This was a sensible precaution because years later, in the reign of James I, after Dudley had died childless, another aristocratic lady stepped forward claiming to have been bedded and then secretly married by him, hoping thus to claim the vast estate he had left behind. The claim was not upheld.

The Queen was furious when she discovered what her favourite had been getting up to, and considered locking him up, but eventually she forgave him, and he continued in her service until he died. But he never threw another party like the one that enlivened the summer of 1575.

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