Description of a Pageant Witnessed in the Courtyard of Old Somerset House During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I

Old Somerset House from an 18th century drawing

Queen Mary I of England died on November 17, 1558 and her half-sister Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen. She was living at Hatfield at the time of her proclamation and she held her first council there three days later. On November 23, she made her way to London and on her journey, the Bishops met her along the road and all kissed her hands. First, she stayed in the Charterhouse and then lodged in the town residence of Lord North for five days. On November 28, she took possession of the Tower of London where she remained until December 5 when she traveled by water to Somerset House on the Strand.

While at Somerset House, she sat in meetings with her Council on fifteen days throughout the month of December. The London historian John Stow remarks that the Queen began to put in practice the Oath of Supremacy which her father had first instituted. Queen Mary was buried according to Catholic ritual at Westminster Abbey and on the 23rd, and then Elizabeth transferred her court from Somerset House to Whitehall.

Somerset House continued to play an important role in matters pertaining to politics throughout the Queen’s reign. Elizabeth’s Council made a habit of meeting at convenient locations and regularly assembled at Somerset House. In 1588, the year of the attack on England by the Spanish Armada, Bishop Gabriel Goodman gives us a detailed description of a pageant witnessed in the courtyard of Somerset House after a meeting of the Council:

“In the year ’88 I did then live at the upper end of the Strand, near St. Clement’s Church, when suddenly there was a report (it was then December, about five, and very dark) that the Queen was gone to Council; and I was told, ‘If you will see the Queen, you must come quickly’.

Then we all ran, when the Court gates were set open, and no man hindered us from coming in. There we staid an hour and a half, and the yard was full, there being a great number of torches, when the Queen came out in great state; then we cried, ‘God save your Majesty!’ and the Queen turned to us and said, “God bless you all, my good people!’ Then we cried again, ‘God save your Majesty!’ And the Queen said again to us, ‘Ye may well have a great prince, but ye shall never have a more loving prince’

And so the Queen and the crowd there, looking upon one another awhile, her Majesty departed. This wrought an impression upon us, for shows and pageants are best seen by torchlight; that all the way long we did nothing but talk of what an admirable Queen she was, and how we would all adventure our lives in her service. Now this was in the year when she had most enemies, and how easily they might have gotten into the crowd and multitude to do her mischief.”

How lucky we are to have such a wonderful description of this spectacle. Bishop Gabriel Goodman was dean of Westminster Abbey and founder of Christ’s Hospital in Ruthin, Wales and played an important role in one of Queen Elizabeth’s integral religious projects. Goodman was born in 1528 in Ruthin and was educated at Cambridge. In 1555, he entered the service of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, acting as his chaplain. Goodman sympathized with the religious resolutions of King Edward VI and compromised under Queen Mary I before fully accepting the Elizabethan Religious Settlement.

Bishop Gabriel Goodman – 19th C. depiction by G.P. Harding (now in the National Portrait Gallery)

Goodman served as tutor to Cecil’s household at Wimbledon and taught Cecil’s eldest son Thomas. Goodman and Cecil established a lifelong friendship and the Bishop would serve as one of the executors of Lord Burghley’s will. He was also responsible for the translation of 1 Corinthians into English in the Bishop’s Bible of 1568. This text would later serve as the foundation of the King James version of the Bible.

His influence with the Cecil family made him an important link between Wales and the Court.  A 1563 legal document in the House of Commons archives verifies that Queen Elizabeth I introduced a law which required Welsh churches to maintain Welsh translations of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible. Goodman would give a great deal of support in the production of Bishop William Morgan’s translation of the Bible (1588) into Welsh. The publication of this version was an important moment in the history of the Welsh language. The book gave the Welsh people easy access to biblical teachings and created a standard version of printed Welsh for the first time.

Further reading: “Somerset House: Past and Present” by Raymond Needham and Alexander Webster, Gabriel Goodman (1528-1601), dean of Westminster and founder of Christ’s Hospital, Ruthin entry in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography written by Glyn Robert, Gabriel Goodman entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by C.S. Knighton

5 thoughts on “Description of a Pageant Witnessed in the Courtyard of Old Somerset House During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I

  1. Interesting. Learning how people lived, what they saw, what they ate and wore , that’s what interests me as much as political history. Thank you.


  2. Great managers are the foundation of a thriving society, For me Elizabeth’s great skill was recognizing, encouraging and keeping a team of diligent men.


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