Welcome to On the Tudor Trail Ashlie – aka ERI Tudor! Could you share with us a little about your background and the work you do at the Higgins Armory Museum?
Certainly! I have been drawn to European history for as long as I can remember. In particular, English history has always been close to my heart. For years I independently researched history, specifically from the fall of Rome until 1603. My senior year in college I decided to apply for an internship at the only museum in the North Eastern part of the United States solely dedicated to a medieval topic-the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had grown up going to this museum regularly, so acquiring an internship in the Education Department was a dream come true! Finally, I had an outlet for all my historical knowledge. After my internship ended I stayed on as a volunteer. Several months later, I was hired. I like to joke that once the department realized they couldn’t get rid of me, they decided they might as well hire me, but the truth is I had finally found a group of people who love and honor all the same things I do, and I think they recognized that common trait in me as well!
In the education department I interpret our collection of arms and armor on a daily basis for visitors, as well as give tours and run educational programs for school groups. On Saturdays I participate in special programming, including running a Women in Viking Times auditorium show, an interactive medieval arms and armor show, and my own Elizabethan programming. Also, once a month the Higgins has a special themed event that I help to plan and run. My favorites include our Women in Arms and Armor month, which is March, and Robin Hood Day!
You run a wonderful blog, Being Bess, dedicated to celebrating the life and reign of Elizabeth I. What sparked your interest in this Tudor queen?
As strange as it may sound, I think Elizabeth Tudor was always waiting patiently in the wings for me to discover her and her life. When I read my first book about her in middle school, a historical fiction book on her childhood for a book report, an instant spark was lit inside of me and I immediately wanted to know more about the real Elizabeth and her life. For Easter I asked for my first biography on the queen, Behind the Mask by Jane Resh Thomas, and my mother gave it to me on Easter morning. I read the whole book in one day! Ever since then, it has been trips to the library, the book store and travel that have given me the means to connect to her. I think the paramount reason Elizabeth captured me is her spirit: her perseverance in the midst of certain danger and deceit was something I admired, and unfortunately related to. My parents divorced when I was young and I can relate my weekends at my father’s house to survival in the Tudor court! Elizabeth’s tenacity gave me the strength to pull through my difficult childhood. Also, Elizabeth’s love of learning and the arts was something we shared, having always been a bookworm myself, and an admitted school-nerd. And finally, the things that Elizabeth accomplished that no woman (or man!) had ever accomplished before inspired me to want to become my best self.
You regularly perform first-person interpretations of Elizabeth Tudor. What are the challenges and rewards of taking on such a persona?
The rewards always outweigh the challenges, but as you can imagine, representing your idol is a huge responsibility, and one that I take very seriously. The foremost challenge of portraying Elizabeth is constantly doing research about her and her time; I never want to be at a loss for words or unsure of an answer when museum visitors ask me about her life. Another challenge is that I have to find a way to relay all the facts about her life in an accessible, understandable way to the average person who may not have the background in Tudor and Elizabethan history that I do, all while remaining in character! Also, as fans of the Tudors and Elizabeth herself know, there are many mysteries that prevail that we may never know the answer to, like the ever-popular “was Elizabeth really a virgin?” matter? I have to be absolutely certain of my own position on these matters so that my choices when portraying Elizabeth are informed by my own research and understanding of her. The reward of portraying Elizabeth is that I get to bring her and her accomplishments to those who may not have otherwise discovered her on their own. I will consider my life a success if I can make one little girl as excited about Elizabeth Tudor as I am.
How do you prepare for a show and get in character?
A lot of things go into preparing a show. First and foremost is comfort with my monologue. While I always entertain questions at the end of each presentation, answering each in character, the bulk of the content is in my monologue. To write a good monologue I have to decide what research is relevant to include and how to relay the information in a clear and interesting way. Then I have to write the monologue and memorize it. When I am memorizing the monologue, I am doing so while utilizing an upper-class English accent. Though “British at heart”, I am American, so researching and practicing how certain words are said is crucial for an accurate portrayal. I try to keep Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth in my mind when I practice!
Certain presentations call for memorizing Elizabeth’s actual words. For instance, in March I have a show entitled Elizabeth Addresses her Troops at Tilbury, and I would not dream of ever running such a show without reciting the Tilbury Speech! If there are other cinematic interpretations available of her words, I will view them, but I try to keep my portrayal as organic as possible. How do I think she would say them? How would she want me to say them? I feel most connected to Elizabeth when I speak the words she herself spoke. I feel an enormous sense of responsibility when I portray her.
What do you believe were Elizabeth’s greatest achievements as queen?
It is hard to pick only a few, but I will try! I always judge Elizabeth’s achievements, or any historical figure’s, for that matter, by the standards and practices of their time, not our own. Keeping that in mind, I would choose the following as her greatest accomplishments as queen: Firstly, in a time of great religious unrest, I would count one of Elizabeth’s crowning achievements her moderate stance on religious matters. Queen Elizabeth bridged the gap between her brother Edward’s stoic Protestant church and Mary’s zealous Catholicism. Her policies and own personal attitude toward religion gave her people the security they needed so that they could focus on other matters in the kingdom. Elizabeth helped her subjects to gradually see themselves as English even before they identified as Catholic or Protestant.
Secondly, Elizabeth’s foreign policy is something she should be remembered for. Her combination of diplomacy and her vast network of spies and privateers helped to keep England safe despite the great unrest on the Continent.
Finally, Elizabeth’s political skills brought about the necessary national security that was needed for the kingdom to have the leisure time and resources to cultivate art, music and theatre on an even grander scale than the court of her father. We get Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, and Spenser in theatre and verse. We get Byrd in music. Elizabeth personally becomes a patron to university academics and a few women artists. England starts manufacturing more of its own goods at home than ever before.
In my opinion, Elizabeth’s religious stance, her foreign policy and her support of the arts would be three of her greatest achievements!
In your research into the Elizabethan court have you come across any customs, rituals or traditions that you’ve found particularly interesting or peculiar?
What was considered attractive in 16th century England is always interesting to me. Standards of beauty have always changed with time, and will continue to indefinitely. To this day I am still amused when I come across a contemporary source that cites a man’s “very fyne calf”! I also find the splendor and excess of the fashion very appealing; For instance, did you know that for court masques the men would sometimes dye their facial hair to match their ladies dresses? More specifically, when Elizabeth came to power, so many customs changed because of her gender; unsurprisingly, no longer was it expectable to have a groom of the stool. Also, the decline of the size of the codpiece in the English court at this time is particularly interesting!
I have read that you believe there are a lot of misconceptions about Elizabethan and Tudor costuming. What do you think are some of the worst?
Well here is a topic I could go on for days about! I have always taken historical costuming very seriously, but working in the education department of a museum has only heightened my awareness. The people I work with are just as committed to historic accuracy as I am. Our general rule is, if you cannot back it up with a contemporary source, don’t bother to sew it or to wear it!
I guess it never ceases to amaze me how many people think that I cannot sit down in my farthingale, or that I must have trouble breathing in a pair of bodies! Also, to be frank, I think that the preoccupation with Ren-faire culture here in America contributes to the misconceptions. For instance, many Americans think “wench-wear” is a real thing, like that is what all lower-class 16th century women wore! Over time I will be expanding my Elizabethan costuming page on my blog with references, photos and trusted vendors, so keep checking that if you want to know more!
In your opinion, who do you think were the most influential people in Elizabeth’s life? Who helped shape her character?
For better or for worse, her father was an overwhelming influence in her life. Elizabeth both revered and feared him. She wanted to command the same attention that he did from his subjects, but she strived to be loved rather than feared. Her fathers relationships with women and his own children obviously informed Elizabeth’s own views on men and marriage. Also, as I am sure you would agree, Anne Boleyn undoubtedly influenced Elizabeth. While Elizabeth did not grow up with her mother’s guidance, Anne’s memory was kept alive for the young princess by those who had known her. While Elizabeth rarely spoke of her mother aloud, I know she carried her in her heart, and on her hand, as the Exchequer ring proves! Among the many Elizabeth replica pieces I own, I have a replica of the Exchequer ring because it is such a beautiful testament of Elizabeth and Anne’s bond.
Katherine Parr and Kat Champernowne-Astley were undoubtedly Elizabeth’s mother-figures in her formative years. Katherine Parr gave Elizabeth the academic and spiritual guidance that she craved, and Kat’s loyalty to Elizabeth even when faced with bodily harm in prison gave her the feeling of security she needed.
I also think that William Cecil and Robert Dudley were crucial to Elizabeth’s character development. While they did not influence her in her young life to the extent that the others did, they constantly pushed her to be a better woman and queen. Elizabeth was not a humble woman, but she did express her gratitude on numerous occasions to Cecil and the Earl of Leicester.
Do you have a favourite Tudor portrait?
I have three! The Rainbow Portrait has always been my favorite portrayal of Elizabeth’s majesty. While the Tudors were all experts at propaganda, Elizabeth perfected the technique. The symbolism in the portrait is everywhere, from the fabric of her dress, to the jewels on her whisk, to the bow in her hand! She also looks eternally youthful in this portrait, and Elizabeth was always young at heart.
The Armada Portrait is another favorite. The event it commemorates and the triumph it conveys are just so powerful and crucial to Elizabeth’s journey as queen.
And finally, I will always be a captivated by the portrait if a 13 year old Elizabeth, in red. Her dark eyes in the portrait reveal the soul of a girl who has already seen so much strife, contrasted with hope for the future, which I think is portrayed through her love of learning, represented by the book under her long fingered hand! (Elizabeth was always very proud of her long fingers!)
There is one other portrait, a sort of oddity that I figure I will also share -It is of Henry VIII with his three children, and his fool Will Sommers is included, painted in the background. As far as awkward family photos go, I think this one stands the test of time!
What is your favourite Elizabeth moment or quote?
I cannot pick a favorite moment; they all mean so much to me for different reasons. But my favorite words that she spoke are in her Golden Speech, delivered in 1601. It conveyed her immense gratitude for her privy council and her love for her subjects. I have included an excerpt below:
There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a price, which I set before this jewel: I mean your love. For I do esteem it more than any treasure or riches; …And though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves. This makes me that I do not so much rejoice that God hath made me to be a queen, as to be a queen over so thankful a people.”
I encourage everyone to read it in its entirety; it is a beautiful, poetic testament by Elizabeth herself to her reign, her accomplishments, and the people she dedicated her life to.
And I just want to express my own gratitude at having been asked by you, Natalie, to participate in this interview! I am honored to be included among the other historians and authors you have interviewed on your site. I really value being a part of this international community of Tudor and Elizabethan enthusiasts who treasure the time and the people as much as I do!
Visit Ashlie’s website Being Bess for more great articles about Elizabeth I and life in Elizabethan England.
Visit the Higgins Armory Museum to find out more about their demonstrations and programmes.
Read Elizabeth’s Golden Speech here.