Elizabeth I’s 1598 crest adorns the entryway of Great Fosters and likely marks the year when the queen visited. In the summer, she and her court toured the English countryside for months at a time in journeys called “progresses.” The court left London to escape the disease and heat that settled over the city in the summer. But Elizabeth I also reinforced her power. Her showy retinue and public fêtes made her reign personal even for peasants who lived far from London. And as she visited favored members of the nobility, she strengthened alliances and built bonds of mutual indebtedness.
For the lord at Great Fosters, a visit from Elizabeth I would be both a trial and an honor. She was a capricious, particular guest. She expected bejeweled and gilded gifts. If her ale was not just to her liking, she would remember the faux pas for years to come. Hosts had to spend extravagantly to entertain her in style. And knowing that the host could say nothing, her servants and courtiers freely pilfered from the house where they stayed. Every host conjured up imaginative ways to win her favor. Some added entire new wings to their homes to house her court. After all, her party included several hundred courtiers, over 1000 horses, and 300 carts of royal regalia. Some hosts arranged elaborate pageants with plays and music filled with allusions to favors they hoped she would grant. Perhaps the lord at Great Fosters carved the crest of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s ill-fated mother, into the ceiling of one of the bedrooms to win her favor.
Both Elizabeth I and Henry VIII also may have used Great Fosters as a hunting lodge. Elizabeth I loved the thrill of the chase. The deer she pursued likely roamed among the same, centuries-old oaks that stand outside Great Fosters today. Elizabeth I refused to give up hunting even when her close advisers urged her to stop. They worried over the many ways she could injure herself, and they knew her unexpected death would spark a war of succession. They orchestrated guards to fend off assassins who could attack her under the cover of the thick forest. But Elizabeth rushed head-first into the risks of the hunt. She insisted on riding spirited, fractious horses imported from Ireland and controlled the massive steeds with ease. She was well over 60 when she likely visited Great Fosters, but she was still indefatigable.
A royal hunt was steeped in tradition and pageantry. Bugles called the company together and announced the progress of the race. Often, the queen and her courtiers held abundant picnics in the forest. If the hunt stretched into the night, they processed home bathed by torchlight. At the center of the hunt was the Virgin Queen, powerful and untouchable. Even on horseback, she wore heavy, gilded dresses and abundant jewels. High on a white horse bedecked in diamonds, rushing through the forest after a stag, she embodied otherworldly power. Her admirers hailed her as Diana, the goddess and virgin huntress. Elizabeth flaunted her deadly aim with a crossbow; she once killed six deer from the comfort of her saddle. Yet an arrow was often not enough to kill. Then, she and her retinue would circle around a wounded stag. A courtier would kneel before his queen, presenting a bejeweled dagger. She would cut the stag’s throat. Often, though, she did not bother with this ceremony. Instead, she would watch without so much as a grimace as her greyhounds tore apart her prey.
More about the history of Great Fosters