When staying at Richmond Palace Queen Elizabeth I, according to one of her earliest biographers, Edmund Bohan, was always the consummate professional and would start her mornings working on official business. This was usually followed by a walk around the palace’s grounds. Sometimes around the enclosed galleries that looked down across the gardens and tennis courts. which provided a nice place to walk if it was raining or too cold to walk outside. Richmond Palace was the Tudor Queen’s favourite winter residence as the smaller apartments made the Palace one of her warmest, certainly compared with Whitehall and Greenwich. The Queen described it as, “That warm winter box to shelter my old age.”
In the afternoons Elizabeth would often travel to the surrounding areas in her pumpkin-shaped carriage, perhaps to visit her great advisor and friend, John Dee who lived in Mortlake.
John Dee, Royal Astronomer, Alchemist, Occultist, and Astrologer, acted as a tactical and strategic aid for Elizabeth’s ruling and as her spiritual guide. She found his immense and often esoteric knowledge fascinating. He boasted one of the largest libraries of rare manuscripts and books in Europe. Dee’s advice was instrumental in many of the big military and diplomatic moments of Elizabeth I’s monarchy, including the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Dee was one of her most valuable friends and advisors but around 1584 he left the country, it seems with the Queen’s blessing. He went in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. The legend of the Stone was in its ability to transmute base metals into gold and prolong life and a fascination for Dee.
Elizabeth must have been a steely woman. As a child, she had witnessed her father sending her mother to her death. As a teenager she walked the finest lines. A protestant like her father and brother (Edward VII) who died King at the age of fourteen, she then lived under the rule Her Catholic sister Mary who with the weight of Catholic Europe behind her remained ever suspicious of Elizabeth’s threat to her rule and the countries return to allegiance with the Vatican.
As strong and clever as she was, finding herself as Queen at the age of twenty-five must have been daunting. The sole reigning monarch of a religiously divided country. Elizabeth was under the constant threat of being assassinated or imprisoned by supporters of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
Almost daily, Elizabeth would ride or hunt red deer in Old Deer Park (her ‘Newe Parke of Richmonde’, The Richmond Park of today did not yet exist) She would ride with her Master of Horse, Sir Robert Dudley. Dudley was another very important man in Elizabeth’s life. He was her first love and probably remained the truest of her life. She called him her “sweet Robin” they had been childhood friends when Dudley’s father counselled her brother as King and their relationship endured.
During Mary I’s time on the throne, Princess Elizabeth was living at Hatfield she would sometimes visit her sister at Richmond. At this time Dudley and his family were involved in a political rebellion for which he spent time as a prisoner in the Tower of London. Most of his family’s wealth and standing were now lost. No hope of marriage to Elizabeth he was married to Amy Robsart for whom’s family wealth he was now reliant.
But from the moment Elizabeth became Queen in November 1558, she kept her Sweet Robin close, giving him a role requiring regular contact. She gifted him a family home in Kew which stood on the current location of the ‘Dutch House,’ in Kew Gardens. Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester, and the Queen were now regular companions whenever she was at Richmond Palace and speculation on their relationship was rife, across the royal courts of Europe and British citizens alike. Any rumours were certainly not quelled about their relationship when in 1560 Dudley’s wife was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs, having sustained head injuries and a broken neck.
With a constant stream of visiting dignitaries, Richmond was often hosting a lavish supper or ball. One occasion is described by Guzman da Silva visiting in 1564 on behalf of Phillip II of Spain. He paints a fabulous picture of the ornate Great Hall (which would have been where Old Palace Yard is today) dramatically lit by many torches, with piles of glistening candied fruit, like jewels, on enormous tables.
Popular in Elizabethan court was the ‘Medieval Masque’, A court entertainment that was a fusion of music, dance, poetry, and drama. The ‘players’ made up of Courtiers, wore masks and ornate disguises, festivities being led by a professional troupe. The costumes, a key element, were usually of the highest quality and style and in the most opulent and impressive fabrics. The fantastic themes of the masques were mirrored in many of the plays of William Shakespeare such as A Midsummer Nights Dream, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing.
Official papers document performances of Shakespear’s theatre company (The Lord Admirals) although the actual play or participating actors are sadly not recorded. There are no less than nine confirmed occasions between 1598 and Queen Elizabeth’s death that the Lord Admirals played for the Royal Court at Richmond. Their last performance was on the 3rd February 1603, just weeks before Queen Elizabeth I’s death.
One of the numerous assassination attempts on Elizabeth’s life came at Richmond in 1598. According to a letter by her Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil. A Spaniard by the name of Squyre was sent to poison her. By getting friendly with the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, to gain knowledge of key movements court and planned to poison the saddle of the Queen’s horse. His bid to murder to Queen failed.
The Earl of Essex was the Queen’s darling in her later years. Thirty-one years her junior, the queen had transferred all her affections from Robert Dudley to Devereux and by 1587 Devereux was her New Master of the Horse. Dudley died in 1588. The Earl’s behaviour raised eyebrows in court, he showed no respect for senior officials such as Sir Cecil and was petulant and rude to Queen. On one occasion in court, the Queen was reported to cuff the rude Earl about the ear, and he responded by half drawing his sword at her. His principal job for the realm was to crush the Irish Rebellion. He achieved no military success instead, squandering funds, bribing officers with knighthoods and humiliating the Monarch by agreeing on an unauthorised truce with the Earl of Tyrone.
Essex’s punishments were both to his status and income, he had made such enemies at court even the Queen could not defend clemency. The anger and resentment he felt at his reduced position led him into acts of rebellion and conspiring with enemies of the Queen. He was tried for treason and executed at the Tower of London in 1601. This was reportedly against Elizabthes wishes and she was said to have never fully recovered from his betrayal and death.
In March 1602 the Queen now in her late sixties but still a formidable person. A visiting French ambassador commented on the daily walks she took around Richmond Green, remarking that her ‘spirit and activity’ were greater than that expected of someone her age.
A quick decline followed, however, by the end of the same year, she was feeling much frailer and only reluctantly left Richmond for planned events happening in Whitehall that winter. While hosting she kept up outward appearances that she was well; continuing to hunt, dance and take part in all the jollification’s as usual, but underneath she was suffering and expressed so to her closest confidants.
The festivities prevented her from returning to Richmond in time for Christmas. Her passage back up the Thames to Richmond in late January 1603 was miserable, in foul weather and the Queen was suffering from a nasty cold. Encouragingly, she seemed to shrug the illness off once back in her “winter box’. Receiving a visit from the A Venetian Diplomat, Scaramelli, who visited Elizabeth in the weeks before her death to seek damages for losses to the Venetian State perpetrated by British Pirates, he gives the impression of a Queen with all presence of mind and command in tack whilst also still awe-inspiring in appearance.
“Her hair was of a light colour never made by nature, and she wore great pearls like pears round the forehead; she had a coif arched round her head and an imperial crown, and displayed a vast quantity of gems and pearls”
The first story I recall being told as a child about Richmond Palace; was of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth’s death in the room above the Gatehouse. The story was that on her last breath passing her lips, her ring was taken from her finger by her lady-in-waiting and thrown from the small window above the gate to a waiting messenger below. It was then being whisked to Scotland as proof to King James VI of Scotland that he was now also James I of the British Empire.
Robert Carey gives an account of the Queen’s death. The Carey family were the closest living blood relatives of Elizabeth, and Roberts’s sister Lady Scrope was the Queen’s Lady-in-waiting. This intimate circle of people was with the Queen during the three weeks of decline before she died on 24th March 1603. Real-life is never as neat as a legend. Certainly, some aspects of this story appear fictitious, it is impossible to believe the Queen would have died in that tiny room above the Gatehousebut. I believe it is still loosely based on what happened.
With Elizabeth’s death, the Tudor dynasty died too and Richmond Palace’s decline and eventual disappearance set on course. The Gate House now an integral part of the legend of Elizabeth I at Richmond probably simply because it is the most visible remnant of the lost palace.
Palaces and Parks of Richmond and Kew by John Cloake (Chapter X pages 117-148