ANYONE who has visited the Tudor Gallery at London’s National Portrait Gallery will understand my choice. Against the pale grey of the walls are ranged the great and the good of Elizabethan England: how grand they look, how vain, how distinguished. The nuances of fashion betray their foibles, while the postures demonstrate both their sense of worth and deference at the court of their great Queen. So I will sit down to dine with five of them: the Queen herself, perhaps advanced in years; William Cecil, First Earl of Shaftesbury (son of Lord Burleigh and inheritor of his role as Elizabeth’s chief adviser); Walter Raleigh; William Shakespeare; and Francis Walsingham.
There will be plenty to talk about. Marlowe’s recent murder, to start with, and how involved he was in spying. Walsingham will no doubt have the lowdown on that, as well as the Babington Plot to assassinate the Queen. Meanwhile, Shakespeare will mourn the loss of his great rival. There will be talk of travel: Raleigh will have tales of founding settlements in America, and perhaps plans to chase the Spanish across the New World, a venture that will one day infuriate James I and lead to his execution. Raleigh will soon be in trouble with the Queen for eloping with one of her Maids of Honour, and become persona non grata at court.
He can also set the record straight on his gallantry with the cloak. I can expect the Queen to be by turns circumspect, vulnerable and vitriolic on the subject of Mary, Queen of Scots. Cecil will be wily and shrewd about European politics, relishing his place as a young man in the Queen’s confidence.
I shall want to ask about the role religion has played in their lives, and the deadly interplay of Catholic and Protestant. We won’t be able to avoid talk of Ireland and the trouble it causes, and the Queen may get very cross: all of them will have known friends and acquaintances executed for offences of state. Perhaps Cecil and Walsingham will have tales to tell.
Each will be steeped in the mores of Elizabethan culture that is so fascinating and inaccessible to us. Several of them will write poetry, taking it for granted as a courtly pursuit, and Shakespeare will be noting on the quiet the discourse and behaviour of the others. The journeyman playwright will probably be the most humble of them all, and would be seeking commissions for his company of players.
Above all the Queen will preside, a proud and intelligent figure at the head of a thriving and assertive country and a duplicitous but admiring court. I shall be all ears for lessos in diplomacy, intrigue, new trade, old rivalries and affairs of state. We shall dine well, perhaps pausing for a galliard or two, and will talk well into the night. And as we leave, each shall pledge not to reveal what has transpired…