Queen Elizabeth comes to town
A one-act historical fantasy performed in Long Crendon, 2017
Notes on the characters
Queen Elizabeth’s public character is well known: imperious and sardonic at times but with a popular touch. At the start of the play, however, she is in private mode, talking with a friend more or less as an equal.
Margery Norreys is an aristocrat but not of ancient lineage so she too speaks naturally, if with a slightly upper class accent.
Alice: ‘a country bumpkin’, speaking with an Oxfordshire accent, not the brightest star in the firmament.
Jane Stribblehill, a gentleman’s wife, an old-established Thame family. ‘Middle Class’ accent.
John Hester, senior almsman, old and a bit doddery, inclined to stutter, Oxfordshire accent.
Edward Harris, Master Elect of Thame School, scholarly accent but speaks enthusiastically though with due deference to the Queen.
Francis Hall, vicar of Thame, smooth, obsequious, ‘churchy’ accent.
Conventions in the text
The words of the narrator are in italics, as are any spoken indications of how characters speak and act. The narrator introduces the characters prior to their first speech. Thereafter, individual players speak as indicated. Guidance to the speakers, not spoken by the narrator, appears in brackets.
Narrator. The year is 1570, in the month of August. Queen Elizabeth, aged 35 and a striking figure, sits at her desk in the royal apartments of Rycote Palace, not one of her own many palaces but belonging to her friend Margery Knollys, daughter of Lord Williams, who treated Elizabeth well when he was in effect her jailor during the reign of her elder sister Mary.
Elizabeth (sighing) Not another plot. Another death warrant to sign. She wields her quill elegantly but reluctantly.
There is a gentle knock at the door.
Elizabeth: Enter. Margery comes in
Margery: I’m sorry to disturb you Your Majesty but I have a suggestion to make.
Elizabeth: For heaven’s sake Margery stop this ‘your majesty’ thing; we are friends and alone. Sit down, call me Elizabeth and tell me your suggestion.
Margery: Well (hesitates) Elizabeth, I know you are very busy with affairs of state but it’s a beautiful afternoon and I wondered if you would care to go riding. You usually ride when you stay with us.
Elizabeth: (brightening up) Splendid idea. That idiot bishop of Rome and his ridiculous Bull of Excommunication against me has led to nothing but plots by the wretched Catholics against my life. Thomas Walsingham is doing a great job rooting out the plotters but I really hate to have to sign so many death warrants for treason. I need a break. Where shall we ride?
Margery: Well, I know the recently finished new almhouses in Thame endowed by my father are very handsome and the building of the new school he founded is just about finished, so I wondered whether a ride over to Thame to visit them would interest you.
Elizabeth: Excellent suggestion, and while we’re there I could also visit the church and pay my respects to the memory of your father, my old friend and protector by praying at his tomb. I hear the tomb is very fine and I’d like to see it. Summon a couple of grooms to bring us horses and to accompany us. We don’t need anyone else; you can be my lady in waiting. We’ll give the good people of Thame a bit of a surprise.
Narrator. Half an hour later they set off, not with any great pomp but with riding clothes that marked them out as people of high degree and the queen with her flaming red hair instantly recognisable. After a dry summer, Rycote Lane was deeply rutted so they cantered across the fields until they came to the rising ground that overlooked Thame and then followed the lane down towards the town. The water level was low in the Cuttle Brook so they forded it easily and road slowly now up Priest End. It was a working day so most people were out in the fields harvesting but just as they were approaching Stribblehills at the junction of Priest End and the High Street, Alice, a chambermaid to Jane Stribblehill was looking out of an upstairs window, from which she had just finished, fortunately, emptying into the street a chamber pot which she had overlooked earlier in the day. On seeing the Queen and Lady Margery approaching she almost died with astonishment and excitement.
Alice, running downstairs. (breathlessly), Mistress Jane, Mistress Jane, The Queen and Lady Margery are riding into Thame.
Jane: Nonsense girl, what are you shouting about. Don’t be ridiculous.
Alice. But it’s true, it’s true; look for yourself.
Jane. (Looking out of the window) Good heavens, you are right. Whatever is the Queen doing in Thame? I can’t believe it; no-one has said anything. Quick girl, run and find the Vicar and the Churchwardens and tell them the Queen is here.
Narrator So Alice scampered off as fast as her legs would carry her, which was not so fast as she was a plump girl, shouting out the amazing news to anyone she met. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, Margery and the grooms turned right and rode slowly up the High Street.
Elizabeth: (interrupts, speaking quietly) I think ‘your majesty’ might be better now Margery.
Margery: I know that the new almshouses back on to the High Street Your Majesty but I’m not quite sure where the school is. I’ll ask when we see someone.
Elizabeth: If we see someone: it is really strange for me to enter a town and not be greeted by cheering crowds. I rather like it (pauses) but only as an occasional change.
Narrator. They ride a little further up the High Street and just before they reach Church Road, an old man appears carrying a bucket. He is John Hester, the senior almsman, who is just returning after clearing the sewer from the almshouses to the school privy. Though his bucket is fortunately empty, the smell of him is even stronger than usual in that age of rarely washed bodies. He is slightly stooped by age and has rheumatic eyes. Elizabeth signals one groom to approach the man and bring him to her. The groom wrinkles his nose as he approaches John but does as he is bidden by the Queen. John approaches the Queen’s horse.
Elizabeth. Well met my good man. What is your name, where do you live and where is everyone else in this town?
John. Blinking up at her without at first recognising her. My name is John Hester ma’am, I’m the senior almsmen of Thame and I live just here in this wonderful new almshouse on the corner.
Narrator: While he is speaking Margery behind the Queen’s back is gesticulating wildly to John, trying to tell him that he is talking to the Queen, pointing at her red hair and miming a crown. John finally catches on, is overcome, sinks to his knees, with difficulty and continues to speak
John: (with a trembling voice) Your Majesty, I crave pardon. I meant no disrespect. My old eyes failed me. I humbly ask your forgiveness. Everyone else is out harvesting but I am too old and frail to be of any use to them.
Elizabeth: There is nothing to forgive master John. Old men deserve respect. I’m glad to hear that you are comfortable in your new home that my old friend Lord Williams has provided for you. But I have one more question for you.
Narrator. John looks alarmed
John: I’ll do my best to answer your Majesty but I am not a learnéd man.
Elizabeth: Lady Margery and I just need to know where to find the new school. We want to visit it.
John: (Excitedly) I know that Your Majesty; it’s just a few yards down Church Street here. You can’t miss it. It’s a wonderful stone building. I just wish I were young again and could be a pupil there.
Elizabeth: You have been most helpful John. I am delighted to have met such a gracious subject. She signals to one of the grooms to give John a coin.
Narrator: John, again overcome, sinks to his knees again with tears in his eyes, words fail him, he stutters)
John; ‘God Bless you Your Majesty’
Narrator: The Queen and Margery dismount, leaving the grooms with the horses and walk down Church Road. While all this has been going on Edward Harris, Master Elect and the two executors, John Doyley and William Place have been busy inside the new school building, discussing final details before the school is due to open in three months time. Just as the Queen arrives opposite the entrance door, the three men emerge, still deep in conversation. They look up, totally astonished, rub their eyes as if to banish a mirage, look up again and sink to their knees covered in confusion.
Harris: Your Majesty. I had no idea you were coming to visit the school; we would have made suitable preparations for such an auspicious royal visit.
Elizabeth: Don’t worry Master Harris. I did not know either of this visit until two hours ago when the Lady Margery suggested we ride over to Thame. We thought a surprise visit might be just the thing on such a beautiful day, but a pleasant one for you I hope.
Harris: A pleasant one does not begin to describe it your Majesty, it is a deep honour.
Elizabeth: (firmly but kindly) No more of the honeyed words Master Harris. I can already see that is a fine building from the outside. I am impatient for you to show me round the inside and tell me all your plans for the new school. As I am sure you know, I am fortunate to have been given a good education. It was my greatest pleasure during my rather (pauses) chequered youth and I am anxious that as many of my subjects as possible receive a good classical education. It will be a rare pleasure for me to talk with you in the Latin tongue.
Harris (deferentially but animatedly). If I may your Majesty, I will lead the way. He and the Queen enter the school building already discoursing in Latin on the New Learning. The executors and Margery follow behind, also chatting but in English.
Narrator: Time passes. By the time the Queen and her party emerge again they do so to deafening cheers. (Deafening cheers from audience!] The harvesting has been suspended and just about the whole population of Thame pack themselves into Church Road, anxious to get a sight of her. At the head of the crowd is the vicar Francis Hall, flanked by his three churchwardens, Richard Benson, John Farmer and Hugh Parker all of whom have hurriedly changed into the dress appropriate for the occasion. At the start of the Queen’s reign she had deprived Hall of the rectory at Aston Sandford for ‘favouring the old order’, that is to say her sister Mary’s Catholic regime.
Narrator. Hall steps forward
Hall (ingratiatingly) It is the greatest honour imaginable Your Majesty to welcome you to our town even if our welcome comes a little late in the day. We trust that you have enjoyed your visit and that you will complete it by visiting the tomb of our greatest benefactor, the dearly missed Lord Williams, (adds hurriedly) though (with heavy emphasis) of course we are still greatly blessed by the presence of his daughter the Lady Margery.
Narrator. Elizabeth, never one to avoid the opportunity for a slightly barbed quip, replies
Elizabeth: (tartly) Exactly what I propose to do Mr Francis, and I would be grateful if you would accompany me to the church door, but not beyond as the Lady Margery and I wish to pray privately for the soul of her father at her tomb. (Pauses) And by the way Mr Francis, I trust you are finding the New Order to your liking (slight pause) now?
Hall: (stammers) I am your most loyal subject your majesty in matters of both Church and State.
Elizabeth: (ironically). Very glad to hear that Mr Francis.
Narrator: She turns to Harris.
Elizabeth: I bid you good day Master Harris. I found what you had to say most interesting and heartening. I am pleased that you approve my idea of placing the Royal Arms in the schoolroom window alongside those of your dear father. I am sure your school has a great future before it and that, inspired by the two coats of arms in the stained glass its pupils will emerge from their education with sound faith, acquire great learning and always serve their monarch loyally.
Narrator: She turns towards the church accompanied by Margery and the church dignitaries, and followed, at a respectful distance, by the still cheering people of Thame. (more cheering, dying away). And there we must leave them rejoicing in a surprising and memorable visit and, most fortunately, all thankfully unaware that within 60 years one of Thame School’s most famous pupils, John Hampden would defy the will of the autocratic monarch Charles the First over the Payment of Ship Money; another former pupil, Lord Justice Sir George Croke in the second most famous court case of the century, would enter judgement for Hampden against the King on this issue; Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall, would rebuff the king’s attempt to arrest the Five Members in parliament, and a few years later Simon Mayne would be one of those who signed the King’s death warrant in the most famous, or infamous, trial in all English history. All of them well educated old Tamensians; all disloyal to the King.
The curtain falls,