The Elizabethan age is celebrated for its literary and dramatic culture, its music and chivalry. The Elizabethan nobility loved to have a good time, and knew just how to have it. The wealthy of the land would entertain each other with great banquets of rich foods, wine, music and dancing. They would play games against each other, play sports such as tennis or bowls, and they would ride and hunt. Women too would participate in some of these sports, as well as play musical instruments, draw, sew and embroider.
Evenings at court were full of entertainments often dedicated to the Queen, and often there would be public performances conducted especially for her, but the Queen also enjoyed less public activities.
Elizabeth loved to horse ride. She would spend many hours riding fast through the Palace grounds. But Elizabeth was undaunted, and continued to ride long distances and at great speed until the end of her life. Even in her sixties she could ride a distance of ten miles, which she once proved to a courtier who advised the ageing Queen to take the carriage. Elizabeth would tire out her ladies by riding hard, and early in her reign, Robert Dudley, her Master of Horse, had to bring over some new horses from Ireland, as the Queen’s own horses were not fast or strong enough for her. Elizabeth and Dudley would ride together often. He was probably the most accomplished horse-man in England, and could match the Queen’s speed and vigour. In the summer of 1560, Elizabeth and Dudley rode together almost everyday, while some of her ministers bewailed that the Queen was neglecting matters of state.
Elizabeth also loved to hawk and to hunt. She would hunt deers and stags with her courtiers, and when the unfortunate animal was caught, she would be invited to cut its throat. In 1575, the French Ambassador reported that she had killed “six does” with her cross bow. Hunting was quite an event, and would take several hours, so the Queen and her courtiers would often have a picnic in the forest.
The Elizabethans had no concept of animal cruelty, and enjoyed violent animal sports, such as bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and dog-fighting. Elizabeth was particularly fond of bear-baiting. However, animals were also kept as much loved pets, and pets were well looked after. Elizabeth’s horses were well cared for. Elizabeth’s favourite horses that meant a lot to her. She also had a little dog that she loved very much, and who went everywhere with her.
As well as participating in sports, the Queen also enjoyed watching them. She would occasionally watch a game of tennis, especially if one of her favourite courtiers was playing, and once she even dressed up as one of her ladies so that she could secretly watch Robert Dudley compete in a shooting match, and afterwards surprise him by revealing her identity. Sometimes tournaments would be held, and from 1572 onwards, a very grand tilt tournament was held to celebrate the Queen’s accession day.
Elizabeth loved the outdoors, and was especially fond of taking long walks in her beautifully ornate gardens. In one of her many palaces, she even had a terrace built so that she could walk away from preying eyes.
She was a skilled musician and played the virginals and the lute. She enjoyed musical entertainments, encouraged musicians and composers, and was fond of dancing. She would dance the difficult and demanding dance, The Galliard, every morning to keep herself fit. She also loved to dance with her courtiers, and was fond of The Volta. Robert Dudley also loved to dance, and he and Elizabeth danced as well together as they rode. A dance was even named after him, “The Leicester Dance”. As she got older and could not dance as much as she used to, Elizabeth enjoyed watching her ladies dance. Elizabeth also liked to sing and reputedly sang well.
Elizabeth was also a patron of arts and literature, and loved watching plays, masques, and other dramatic performances. She had her own company of actors, called “The Queen’s Players”, and these would often perform plays for her and her courtiers.
Elizabeth was also an incredibly gifted scholar, and loved learning. She reputedly would often study for two or three hours a day, and was well read in the Classics, as well as having a very extensive knowledge of history. Her skill for languages meant that she could read books in Latin or French, and especially as she grew older, she loved to translate Classic works into English. She also liked to write poetry.
Embroidery was also a popular pastime for women. Mary Queen of Scots was a very gifted embroideress, and Elizabeth too would sometimes spend an evening embroidering with her maids of honour and ladies in waiting.
There were also games that the Queen could play on wet days or winter nights, such as backgammon, or chess, or cards. Queen Mary I had been an avid gambler, and it is likely that Elizabeth too enjoyed a wager with her courtiers.