One of the spectacular representations of British royalty we are honored to offer in October comes in the form of a centuries-old, hand-written and signed by one of Britain’s most beloved and revered leaders, Queen Elizabeth I. Besides her majesty’s flowing, grandiose signature – which, in and of itself, makes this document invaluable – the entirety of the order is written in her hand, detailing what seems to be a very ordinary order…and is. But the story this commonplace document tells holds its own historical weight.
Addressed to her life-long Keeper of the Great Wardrobe, John Fortesque, who would have been accustomed to receiving such orders from the Queen, as he served her highness from her days as a princess until she passed away in 1603, Elizabeth orders to be delivered to each “of our eight ordinary footmen” two and one-half yards “of Crymson Velvett for there ordenary runnying coattes, and also to paie for lynynge makinge and emborderinge of the said Coates,” naming the eight recipients as Richard Clarke, James Russell, John Reade, Thomas Harvye, Francis Broughton, Edmond Ducke, John Jordan, and Brian Morrison. These footmen, although labeled “ordinary,” were anything but, as it was their charge to push the Queen’s royal triumphal chair through her many public appearances and processions. According to Roy Strong’s account, “The Cult of Elizabeth,” the ordinary footmen were distinctly dressed in lavish uniforms bearing the royal colors, including, “black skullcaps and crimson tunics embroidered with gold…jerkins with sleeves of crimson velvet with ‘our letters before and behind having the crown embroidered over the said letters’ and velvet nightcaps…” As Strong examines Elizabethan art in his study, he presents the legendary depiction, Queen Elizabeth Going in Procession to Blackfriars in 1600, in which these very uniforms can be seen on the footmen immediately behind the Queen, pushing Elizabeth “along from behind on some sort of triumphal car with a chair of state upon it.” Strong takes this imagery as evidence of an “Elizabethan version of an a l’antique triumph,” much in the same vain as the entry of Alfonso the Great into Naples in 1443.
In “The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth,” John Nichols presents correspondence from a Sir William Cecill, Chancellor of Cambridge, dated July 12, 1564, providing details regarding what would come to be known as ‘The Grand Reception and Entertainment of Queen Elizabeth at Cambridge, 1564,’ stating that she intended to “come thither, wishing him to provide lodgings, and such Academical Exercises for her Entertainment as may be most agreeable to her…about the eight of August next.” Recalling the date on the document we possess in-house, July 17, 1564, this timeline would connect the need for fresh uniforms to her trip to Cambridge. The “Queen Majestie” arrived at King’s College on the 5th of August to great pomp and circumstance, and one can only presume, her footmen in full, royal attire.
Is it not truly amazing what can be learned from connecting the historical dots, based on a simple order for ordinary running coats? This document comes to us from a time of royal splendor, grandiose processions, and an era when our leaders were still carried, by hand, under triumphal canopies, making their political station – and supreme power – unquestionable.