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Welcome to Episode #168 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When we study court in Shakespeare history the phrase “appeared at court” or “performed at court” frequently gets used to describe what Shakespeare was doing at various points of his life. However, the overlap between “court” legally (as in, where you go for a legal trial) and the social phenomenon of Renaissance England where the monarch gathered their “court” together can make it hard to know what it means to go to court. This week we’ve set out to rectify this gap in knowledge with our guest, Natalie Mears, who is here to share her research into Courts, Courtiers, and Culture in Tudor England, an article which she published in The Historical Journal back in 2003. In that paper, Natalie cites a play by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville called Gorboduc that was performed in 1561-1562 at court, and that play is an example of how performances were used to not only comment on events of the day by the performers (similar to what you might think of today as an editorial cartoon) but in the case of Gorboduc, the play commented directly to Elizabeth I to try and influence her decision to marry and to comment on Robert Dudley as a potential candidate. Natalie’s work goes on to cite sermons selected by James VI and I to scold the Scottish Presbyterians at Hampton Court in 1606, as well as a sermon by Edward Dering in 1570 that “lambasted the Queen” for perceived failures at political reform. These examples have us wondering if the instances of Shakespeare appearing at court were more than just event entertainment. Were plays like Shakespeare’s similar political weapons in the same way as Gorboduc? Would Shakespeare’s plays have been brought to court for their power to influence politics and if so, does that explain why Shakespeare wrote so frequently about political issues?  Natalie Mears joins us today to answer some of these questions about Shakespeare and Court Life, and to make the case that court life was Shakespeare’s social media, and through his appearances there, the bard may have been a 16th century social influencer.

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Natalie Mears is an Associate Professor (Reader) at Durham University.  Her interest in the Elizabethan period began before she went to university when she worked in the archives at Hatfield House where the papers of Lord Burghley (Principal Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth) and his son are kept. She did her undergraduate degree at Cambridge, followed by a Masters and PhD at St Andrews, under John Guy.  She has published extensively on Elizabeth, Elizabethan politics and religion, the Tudors, James VI and I, and religious worship.  She is currently working on a new book on Elizabeth, influenced by the #MeToo and #BLM movements.

Connect with Natalie here: 

Orcid ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5442-834X


In this episode, I’ll be asking Natalie Mears about :

  • Was this an official governing body of selected people? Who was it that made up a royal court and how many people would typically be at a court session?

  •  When someone was called to “appear at court” is that something like a jury summons?

  • Was a court gathering also an occasion for entertainment?
  • … and more!

Watch the video version of our interview with Natalie on Patreon as a Studio Insider. Sign up here.

I will return perfect courtier; in the
which, my instruction shall serve to naturalize
thee, so thou wilt be capable of a courtier‘s
counsel and understand what advice shall thrust upon


Alls Well That Ends Well (I.1)

Gallery of Courtiers (Scroll Left or Right). Here are some examples of real people in portrait who were members of Elizabeth I’s royal court. In Order:
1. Portrait of Robert Dudley. Attributed to Steven van der Meulen (formerly, now contested due to new discoveries) Information on the new discovery and attribution of the painter of Dudley’s portrait can be found in these books: Hearn, Karen, ed. Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630. New York: Rizzoli, 1995. ISBN 0-8478-1940-X, p. 94 (van der Meulen), p. 96 (this portrait). Leceister’s Coat of Arms is depicted twice, surrounded by (left) the Collar of the Order of St Michael and (right) the Garter. For commentary (including a note that the arms with the Order of St Michael, which Leicester received in 1566, may have been added after the portrait was completed), see Karen Hearn, Dynasties, p. 96. | Image is public domain. Source

2. Portrait of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (1526-1596) by Steven van Herwijck, held at the Weiss Gallery 25th Anniversary e-catalogue, p. 86 (Direct link to the Weiss Gallery exhibition on Carey’s portrait not found at time of this article’s publication). Henry Carey was patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men when Shakespeare was part of that company. The son of Mary Boleyn, he was Elizabeth I’s cousin. Portrait is Public Domain. Source

3. Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Philip Sidney, by unknown artist, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1925. Published in Sir Roy Strong, “Sidney’s Appearance Reconsidered”. In Sir Philip Sidney’s Achievement, ed. M. J. B. Allen, Dominic Baker Smith and Arthur F. KInney, AMS Press, 1990. ISBN 0-404-62297-6. Information about this file in particular claims “18th century copy of an original c. 1578 (see Strong, “Sidney’s Appearance Reconsidered”, p. 4)” Image is in the Public Domain. Source

4. 1583 Portrait of Jerome Bowes, by Unknown artist. Bowes was an English ambassador to Russia and Member of Parliament in England. He died in 1616. He was appointed by Elizabeth I as ambassador to Russia in 1581. Portrait is part of the Collection of Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire, Charlton Park, Wiltshire. It should be in the public domain due to age, however, on the wikimedia website where I originally found this portrait, claims to have uploaded the image from Flickr and asks to be credited as “Flickr: Jerome Bowes, Elizabeth I’s ambassador to Russia Author: {{{1}}}Image Source

5. Portrait of Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, by John De Critz the Elder (died 1647). He was an English statesman, poet, and dramatist. He was the son of Richard Sackville, a cousin to Anne Boleyn. He was a Member of Parliament and Lord High Treasurer. See source website for additional information. This set of images was gathered by User:Dcoetzee from the National Portrait Gallery, London website using a special tool. All images in this batch have been confirmed as author died before 1939 according to the official death date listed by the NPG. Public Domain. Source

Court Gathering of Aristocracy With the Monarch

Natalie explains that “going to court” simply meant going wherever the monarch and the aristocracy were gathered.

“People institutions and places mixed with the fact that historians do not agree about defining “court” the main consensus at the very least is the royal household, members of the aristocracy and gentry who do not heaven official position in the household but are visiting and things like foreign ambassafords. There are spacial elements, too, at very least, it will be the palace where the monarch is residing when courtis in session. The royal household is hte “above stairs” part–the chamber–this group looks after the monarch’s needs, specifically the Privy Chamber which is the monarch’s private lodgings. The chamber is run by the lord chamberlain and the vice chamberlain. Ladies of the bedchamber, ladies in waiting, various others officials, gentleman ushers, guards, etc. The below stairs bit is the kitchens, that is counted as part of the court because it allows the above part ot function but none of these people will ever be considered courtiers. The stables, same as below stairs–they are lowly and not coutiers, excpeution is the master of the horse, which is a prominent position with a cloe connectional relationship with the Queen and under Elizabeth is held by Earl of Leicester, who is certainly a courtier. The aristocracy and gentry do not have jobs at court but they attend/visit/hang around. The outer boundaraies of the court get blurry, because people who have jkobs at court as wlel as membrs of the gentry are not necessarily at the court all the time, so some historians have argued that you need to include the places where those individuals are even if they aren’t “at court” Houses in London, Houses in the county, because of that connection between people who are at court, but not physically in the palace, some historians will include the Inns at Court in the courtiers, reaosns include bc it is a springboard for people entering royal service, but also because Christmas/NewYears they have an important role in drama [so the gathering there afforded an opportunity to network.]”

Which means that the court was always “in session” since the monarch was always with people. Some sessions of court would be more formal than others, with sub-groups like the Privy Council or the Star Chamber being made up of people within the monarch’s inner circle (what Natalie calls “the upstairs”), and at those particular sessions the court did carry considerable political and disciplinary weight. So while the regular “court” or meetings of the court when the monarch was on progress were really just gatherings of artistocracy and gentry. The Privy Council and the Star Chamber worked like a legal court (and while they were made up of members within the regular court, it was a separate arm of government). 

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Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make a Star- chamber matter of it: if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire.
Robert Shallow

Merry Wives of Windsor (I.1)

Engraving of the Star Chamber, published in “Old and new London” in 1873, taken from a drawing made in 1836 | Published in “Old and new London : a narrative of its history, its people, and its places” by Thornbury, Walter, 1828-1876. View the book online here. This image has no known restrictions. At the time of upload, the image license was automatically confirmed using the Flickr API. For more information see Flickr API detail. Image Source


Court and Courtiers Appointed by Monarch

So who gets to be at court? Well, it turns out that you had to be more than just born to privilege. The reigning monarch chose the people they wanted around them at court. These appointments were highly political (meaning someone you were connected with could recommend you and that might result in an appointment at court) but ultimately, the choice about being included in this inner circle was up to the King or queen. As Natalie explains,

The king or queen appoints all the court members, they give final approvals for all the various jobs. Master of the Horse or women of the bedchamber. The actual appointment is done by the Lord Chamberlain, who runs the court. Anyone with an official job at court is employed by the monarch, often given out to the monarch’s relatives and friends. People they like and trust/want to have around them.

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

…he is call’d The Briton reveller.


Cymbeline (I.6)

Cropped detail of Thomas Killigrew, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (died 1641). Thomas Killigrew was Master of the Revels from 1673-1677. Original is housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Public Domain. Original Source

Court gathering always included entertainment

Entertainment at court kept attendees from being bored. Remember, this is a group of hundreds of people (one reason some individuals did not want to host the monarch on progress is because there could potentially be up to 300 or more people you had to feed, house, and entertain while the monarch stayed–an enourmous expense!). When they gathered together, music was a regular part of performance, as was other forms of entertainment. The plays performed at court by Shakespeare on several occasions were to mark larger gatherings of court, generally centered around a holiday. Natalie explains, 

Major entertainment occurs around Christmas and New Year, but otherwise there were lower key kinds of entertainment (music/dancing) and it was more ambience than an official performance. IF Shakespeare’s plys went to court, they were primrarily held at Christmas and New Year. When the court is in it’s usual royal palaces, the big entertainment will take place around Christmas/NewYear which is a traditional time for plays and masques. When the court is on progress, where the queen is travelling around the country, that’s an opportunity for other forms of entertainment (plays, masqwues, displays of trades/weaving, pageants, etc). Entertainment does continue on a more daily basis in the court, but it’s more low key such.

Several times in Shakespeare’s history we see the phrase “performed at court” to refer to specific plays of his being performed before royalty. When Shakespeare was called to appear at court, there were a variety of ways to be informed about the precise physical location to attend. 

Natalie shares that the

Lord Chamberlain and the Master of the Revels coordinated booking the talent. Shakespeare’s knowledge of where court was [was something] he would know [from various cues in society] providing he was in London. At this time, London is tiny. It is the equivalent of the “City of London” which was just about a square mile. Westminster was a separate place. St Martn’s in the Fields, because it’s in the Fields, and that’s nowadays in part of Tragalgar square and central london but that wasn’t the century of the city for Shakespeare. People are very interested in the court and the queen and what’s going on Lots of gossip and rumors nad specific places in London where you could go to get the specific news of the day (st pail’s cathedrayl churchyard at particular times of day, peopel walk and exchange the gossip/rumo) so shakespeare would know where court was located, and even if the monarch is moving in and around London between palaces, it was traditional for parishes to ring their bells when the monarch passed through the town, so that alert[s] you to where they are. 

Sometimes, the entertainment at court was intentionally selected to be political. The risk of presenting something which was designed to send a message is always a loaded decision, which is why institutions like the Master of the Revels were instituted to try and mitigate. In her work Natalie calls attention to Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville’s play called Gorboduc was performed at court in the early 1560s to comment directly to Elizabeth I on the situation with Dudley and a potential marriage [Commenary on Dudley was rife in Elizabethan England, there was even a treatise on toilets written as an allegory on Dudley]. We have similar instances of sermons being selected under James VI and I to comment towards the people on politics, and other sermons aimed at Elizabeth that Natalie writes were designed specifically to “lambast the Queen” for her decisions. Sermons and plays can be placed into the same category as public performance, meaning that even Shakespeare’s plays could sometimes be used as political weapons. Natalie shares, 

Yes absolutely think of sermons as public entertainment. Sermons and plays had a persuasive element, which engages with them, adn you need to perform so preachers cannot just drone on, you have to engage the audience. They are performances, absolutely. As far as plays and sermons as political weapons, there are two ways to categorize them. 1) The obvious advising or criticising ones like the examples I give above. 2) Ones that examine or explore issues on politics/religion a little more generally, perhaps not quite so specifically, or in relations to something going on then and there. There are some sermons ion particular who lambaseted the queen, Edward Dering never preached at court again after basically caling her a silly cow. The best way to critizise the queen was to praise her. 

When I pointed out that Richard II had been used during the Essex Rebellion as this kind of political weapon, Natalie replied, 

Richard II is a good example because Elizabeth turned to an ambassador and said “I am Richard II.” acknowledged the pay was all about her, she really read into things. Robbery Cecil says that she sees things in plays that nobody else possibly would. Shakespeare’s main audience was people outside the court, but this political issue being pervasive across society “plays were an important way of exploring political issues of the day” there were aot of diffocultissues in the late 1590s ainto the early 1600s that were complicated and difficult for society and culture, so many people were interested in exploring them/thinking about them, and pays was where they went to get that knowledge and they wanted to have that kind of information.


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With silence, nephew, be thou politic…
Edmund Mortimer

Henry VI Part I (II.5)

Portrait of Sir Edward Dering (1598–1644), 1st Bt. Courtesy of the collection of the Royal Welsh Regimental Museum Trust. Edward Dering was the author of one of the sermons which lambasted the Queen. Public Domain. Source


England ran on social networks

In her article Natalie cites one researcher, David Starkey, who called attention to the role of “social networks..in Tudor politics.” We like to think that with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that the influence of social networks on society and the concept of “cancelling” someone through public humiliation or swaying politics through social communication is a new, global phenomenon resulting from the digital age and the wide reach of the internet. The history of court life is a part of social networking.

Turn of the 17th century England has very limited bureaucracy. Limited infrastructure, you have to rely on a social network to getthings done (friends and family and people who are prepared to do things for you.)


Natalie’s work identifies court life as the “center of politics” in Tudor England. When I asked if Shakespeare would have been judged more stringently at court than at the playhouse, she points out that there was a system of selection in place that meant the playwright themselves really may not have been primarily responsible for the performance of plays (at least in the eyes of the monarch). Natalie shares,

We today tend to put an emphasis on the playwright as the person in charge of the content and output, but really the mover and shaker of the plays would be the patron, someone likke the Earl of Leicester adn the entertainments who get done at court, they get transgered tothe royal court. The performances were done at intstructed at the behest of the patron, so it wans’tthe playing company who was punished for fallout.

When exploring how individuals presented themselves at court, Natalie cites Stephen Greenblatt’s definition of “self-fashioning” where he says “individuals consciously constructed and presented a persona, for their own ends, which did not always match reality.” This description of court life sounds really very similar to what we think of as an “influencer” on Instagram today where there’s an intentionality about being flashy and wanting to get noticed by people in power who can not only talk well about you, but broker potentially lucrative connections for you. Natalie explains that for the 16th entury, court life was a similar system of social networking, with people called “patronage brokers” organizing connections for people in England. 

Self fashioning is about creating a persona, less about being noticed but living up to an ideal. It’s important for us as historians or literary scholars because it helps us understand the evidence rather than thinking that everyone is being transparent and what they say about themselves is true, but actually they might be creating this persona. That self fasioning is different from being noticed and the patronage brokering that I alluded to because the country is run on social networks, it is important to be part of those social networks and get noticed in that sense, it helps you get a position at court, might help you in marriage negotiations, but the people who patronage brokers, they assume that importance because of their closeness to the queen rather than because of an image they might have created for themselves because ultimately it’s the queen’s decision. If you were seeking patronage or a job at court, you would contact or your parents would content as many of these kinds of patronage brokjers close to Elizabeth as they could sothey had multiplepeople speaking on their behalf (taklign to them, sending gifts, etc) sets up a relationship of reciprcocity.

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This historically illutrated map shows one possible path between London and Stratford Upon Avon that William Shakespeare could have travelled by foot to get from his home to his workplace in London. Using primary documents and quotes from Shakespeare's plays that reference specific inns and taverns along this path, the map pinpoints where the inns were located (including the one owned by the Davenant family, where it is believed Shakespeare frequently stopped when passing by.)

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