Queen Elizabeth (as arts patron)

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Queen Elizabeth I was one of England’s most famous and beloved queens. During her reign from 1558-1603, England flourished and experienced a time of stability and prosperity. During the Elizabethan era, the arts experienced a renaissance, and Elizabeth encouraged their revival. Elizabeth herself was an arts patron, most notably the patron of her own acting company, the Queen’s Men, formed in 1583. She is also the inspiration for many poems and plays, and she had an immeasurable impact on the arts during her reign.


History of Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I Coronation Portrait

Queen Elizabeth I was born in 1533, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. After the execution of her mother, Elizabeth was demoted from “Princess Elizabeth” to “Lady Elizabeth”, as she was no longer the heir to the throne [1] During her formative years, Elizabeth received a stellar education that would make her the best-educated woman of her era. She also developed an appreciation for the arts during this time. She had a passion for languages, and learned many, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, and French. Elizabeth translated many classical works, and she took great pride in her beautiful handwriting. She also learned how to play instruments and even wrote poetry. Her education fell in line with her mother’s wishes for her daughter, that she would become well-educated and intelligent.

After the death of King Henry VIII in 1547, his nine-year-old son Edward was crowned King Edward VI. Because Edward was so young, his advisors ruled for him; Edward was essentially only a figurehead. Edward also suffered from poor health throughout his life, and his reign ended after only six years, with his death at the age of fifteen in 1553 from illness. After a brief nine-day rule by Lady Jane Grey and her subsequent execution, Edward’s older half-sister, Mary, took the throne. There was much bloodshed and turmoil during Mary’s reign. Mary was a devout Catholic, and she wished for all of her subjects to be Catholic as well. She earned the infamous nickname “Bloody Mary” because many Protestant “heretics” were executed and burned at the stake during her reign. England was in a state of turmoil during Mary’s reign, and her death in 1558 came as a relief to Protestants throughout the country.

After Mary’s death, Elizabeth became Queen of England. She reversed Mary’s imposition of Roman Catholicism amongst her subjects. Elizabeth was known as a well-liked, intelligent, and devoted queen. Her reign brought stability and prosperity to a country that had been suffering for many years.

Elizabethan Renaissance

Spenser's The Faerie Queene

The stability brought by Elizabeth brought forth a cultural Renaissance. During this time, the arts experienced a great revival. Many important playwrights, such as William Shakespeare [2], Edmund Spenser [3], Sir Philip Sidney [4], Thomas Dekker [5], and many others. Many plays, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, were inspired by her or written to be performed for her enjoyment.

The Acting Companies

During this time, there were many prominent acting companies in existence, including the Admiral’s Men, Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and Leicester’s Men. A rivalry began between some of these acting companies, all striving to gain Elizabeth’s favor. There was a competition where each company would perform a play for Elizabeth, and she would pick the best one. Naturally, this led to tensions between the companies. Elizabeth and her advisors noticed that this rivalry was beginning to get out of control, and she decided that she needed to regulate the acting companies. She determined that the best way to do this would be to essentially break apart the other acting companies by creating her own.

The Queen's Men

Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Walsingham

In 1583, Elizabeth decided to create her own acting company that she would be the patron of. She appointed Sir Francis Walsingham to find the best actors and select twelve to form Elizabeth’s all-star acting company. Walsingham selected Robert Wilson, John Dutton, Richard Tarlton, John Laneham, John Bentley, Thobye Mylles, John Towne, John Synger, Leonall Cooke, John Garland, John Adams, and William Johnson to form the Queen’s Men [6]. They first performed at Elizabeth’s court during the Christmas season of 1583, to high acclaim. Elizabeth very much liked these men, and it has been suggested that she even allowed some of them to live in her household, becoming her grooms and receiving a salary from her. However, this claim is disputed, and the truth is unknown. It is known, though, that Elizabeth was the patron of the Queen’s Men, and she did provide for her players.

Richard Tarlton

The two most famous players from the Queen’s Men were Robert Wilson and Richard Tarlton. Robert Wilson was a playwright during this time. The works The Three Ladies of London and Fair Em have often been attributed to Wilson. In addition to being a playwright, Wilson was also a well-known actor. He was known to be a clown, and he was especially known and revered for his ability to improvise. The other famous member of the Queen’s Men is none other than Richard Tarlton. Tarlton was Elizabeth’s favorite clown, so it makes sense that he would become the star member of Elizabeth’s acting company. Tarlton was a celebrity at that time, and he was also known for writing Tarlton’s Jests, which was published after his death. Tarlton remained a member of the Queen’s Men until his death in 1588.

Bel Savage Inn

In addition to performing for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen’s Men also travelled around and performed for commoners. Two of their commonly-used venues were the Bell Inn and the Bel Savage Inn. The Bell Inn has evidence to suggest that it offered indoor venues, and was therefore used primarily during the wintertime, when weather would not permit outdoor performances. The Bel Savage Inn was an outdoor venue and was used more during favorable weather seasons.

The Queen’s Men not only served as actors working for Queen Elizabeth I. They also served as spies, since they were able to travel around the country and had access to information that Elizabeth and her advisors might not have been privy to. They also were able to gauge the mood of the people in the country. In addition to serving as Elizabeth’s spies, the Queen’s Men also incorporated messages from Elizabeth into their plays, using their performances to serve as a sort-of propaganda for Elizabeth’s rule, as well as to gain favor and support from the people.

The Queen’s Men remained intact and performing until after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. After their patron died, the Queen’s Men disbanded and many of the actors rejoined their old companies, or went on to do other things.


  1. Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward, was born in 1537, and immediately became the heir to the throne, as he was male.
  2. Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing
  3. The Faerie Queene
  4. Astrophil and Stella
  5. The Shoemaker’s Holiday
  6. sometimes known as Queen Elizabeth’s Men


  • Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. Vol. II. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967. Print.
  • Collinson, Patrick. "Elizabeth I (1533–1603), Queen of England and Ireland." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2008. Web. 20 Sept. 2011.
  • Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642. Cambridge, 1970. Print.
  • Thomson, Peter. "Tarlton, Richard (d. 1588), Actor and Clown." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography / 2004. Web. 20 Sept. 2011
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