On the twelfth night of the new millennium (6th January 1600) Queen Elizabeth I entertained the Russian Ambassador, Grigori Ivanovich Mikulin, to a sumptuous banquet at the Palace of Whitehall in London. The Russian gentleman was highly impressed by the English queen and wrote a detailed account of the event for his master, Prince Boris Fedorovich, Tsar of all Russia. The English Muscovy Company had fought hard to forge trade links with this strange and distant land and wanted to consolidate their lucrative treaties with a memorable performance of state pomp and ceremony. Sadly, poor Grigori wasn’t invited to take part in any of the entertainments which followed the banquet, due to his lack of understanding the English and their manners.
At least that was the opinion of another foreign guest who wrote an eyewitness account of the same event – Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano. In a letter to his uncle, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, he described how the Muscovite ambassador would have been beheaded by his Tsar if he’d failed to eat in the Queen’s presence but also noted that the ambassador wasn’t amongst the ‘honoured’ guests conducted into a public hall after the banquet ended. ‘As soon as her majesty was set at her place, many ladies and knights began a grand ball. When this music came to an end, there was a mingled comedy with pieces of music and dances, and this too I am keeping to tell by word of mouth.’
The ‘mingled comedy’ he mentions was Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. It was likely written and performed, this first time, in honour of Orsino. You might expect the Duke to note how he was immortalised by the playwright or that his character spoke those hauntingly beautiful opening lines –
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
However, it appears Her Majesty barely allowed the Italian gentleman time to concentrate during the play’s performance, ‘I stood ever near her majesty… she withal caused a stool to be fetched for me; and although she willed me a thousand times to sit, I would however never obey her. She conversed continually with me; and when the comedy was finished, I waited upon her to her lodgings, where there was made a most fair collation, all of confections.’
Wouldn’t it be delicious to discover what the writer thought of his audience and whether William took an active role in his new creation? Personally I wouldn’t think he could resist.
Painting of Whitehall from St James Park – before it was destroyed in the fire of London.