Every summer, Queen Elizabeth I and her massive court set out on a months-long progress, with a mile-long train of dozens of carriages, carts and over a thousand horses. For this elaborate summer vacation, no regular inn would suit the Virgin Queen. Instead, Elizabeth stayed at her monied and titled subjects’ country estates—a great honor for them, but also her right as absolute monarch of the British Isle. “Every nobleman’s house is her palace, where she continueth during pleasure and till she returns to some of her own,” wrote one contemporary.
But for some courtiers, the cost of a royal visit was simply too great. In 1602, Sir Henry Lee was aghast when he was informed that Queen Elizabeth planned to stay with him on her summer progress. According to Adrian Tinniswood, author of Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household, Lee wrote an urgent letter to the Queen’s councilor, Robert Cecil. Elizabeth simply couldn’t come, he stated emphatically: he’d go broke if she did.
Part of the problem was that Tudor monarchs didn’t just travel alone—they brought the government of England with them. The Privy Council, who ran the country with the monarch, came along, as did their servants and servant’s servants. The monarch’s brewer, musicians, jesters and doctors were all considered essential, and all needed a place to stay. This meant that hosts had to find housing, food and entertainment for over 300 people, often at only a few days’ notice.
“Making travel arrangements for a group this large required careful planning,” Tinniswood writes. “This was the job of the lord chamberlain, who drew up an initial list of people and places to be visited on the route, with approximate dates.” He also broke the news to the hosts and organized sleeping arrangements, with sleeping charts distributed so no one was housed below or above their rank.
If there was not enough lodging on the estate, temporary buildings were erected—and barns were converted—at the host’s expense. The amount of meat and mead needed was staggering, and animals were bought or confiscated from miles around. The food was prepared by the monarch’s own cooks, but had to be warmed with massive amounts of fuel, often in temporary kitchens. The host was also responsible for feeding the court's horses.
According to Tinniswood, Queen Elizabeth’s three-day stay at Sir Thomas Egerton’s Harefield estate in 1602 nearly broke him. His expenses included 24 lobsters, 624 chickens, 48,000 bricks, and new ovens to feed the massive party. "It came to a colossal £2,013 18s. 4d., around $10 million in today’s money.”
Despite all these inconveniences, the political and social benefits of having a royal spend the night could be incalculable. In 1535, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn came to stay with Sir John and Lady Margaret Seymour at Wulfhall, their elaborate hunting lodge in Wiltshire. Henry was remarkably cheerful during the stay, hunting vigorously in the dense Savernake Forest, while his Queen brooded and sulked. Anne had reason to be upset: The Seymour’s daughter Jane was rapidly becoming her husband’s favorite—and would soon be his third Queen.
“There is no evidence that Henry VIII’s courtship of Jane Seymour began during this visit,” historian Alison Weir writes in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, “yet it is significant that mention was made of it in diplomatic reports within two months, and it may well be that the traditional assumption that it began at Wulfhall is the correct one.”
While her father’s hosts made sure to supply the King with copious hunting, jousting and other entertainments, nothing could match the lengths that Queen Elizabeth’s subjects went to entertain their illustrious visitor. Wealthy courtiers attempted to outdo each other as hosts to the Virgin Queen, and they had ample opportunity. On her first summer progress in 1575 alone, Elizabeth visited with 41 of her subjects.
The bar was set high by her childhood love and lifelong advisor Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. As Elizabeth arrived at Kenilworth Castle in 1575, she was welcomed with a dramatic pageant featuring some very advanced special effects. Tinniswood writes:
She was greeted by a fanfare from trumpeters stationed on the wall of the castle gatehouse. Then a figure dressed as the Lady of the Lake floated across the waters of the moat on a movable island to welcome her in verse, ending, “Pass on Madam, you need no longer stand, / The lake, the Lodge, the Lord, are yours for to command.”
During the Queen’s days-long stay, the Earl's household offered firework displays, deer hunting and bear-baiting; and "feats of agility put on by an exceptionally nimble Italian acrobat,” notes Tinniswood.
Sometimes hosts’ attempts to please their royal guests could go horribly wrong. One mock battle put on by the Earl of Warwick during the Queen’s stay at Warwick Castle ended with cannonballs used in the show raining down on a nearby village, setting fire to multiple houses.
Not only were Elizabeth’s hosts expected to spend lavishly on her court accommodations and entertainment, they also were expected to give the Queen gifts to thank her for the honor of her stay.
“Wherever she went, her hosts vied with each other to shower her with gifts and lavish entertainments,” Tinniswood writes. “Julius Caesar Adelmare, a judge of the court of admiralty and a man who was eager for preferment, gave his sovereign a gown embroidered with cloth of silver, a black mantle decorated with pure gold, and a white taffeta hat adorned with flowers and ‘a jewel of gold set therein with rubies and diamonds.’ The citizens of Southampton gave her cash—£40, to be exact.”
Some nobles were so terrified of their Queen coming to visit that they went to comical extremes to avoid her. When the Earl of Lincoln heard that the Queen and her court were headed to his home in Chelsea, he made himself scarce.
“Worse,” Tinniswood writes, “after a great knocking at both gates,” the Queen could see some of Lincoln’s servants peeping out from windows and looking over the walls. The situation was so awkward that the Earl of Nottingham and Sir Robert Cecil, who were accompanying the Queen, both stepped in and lied that Lincoln had been suddenly called away but had asked the pair of them to provide a dinner for her at his expense.
But no one played the host quite like Lord Burghley, the son of Elizabeth’s right-hand man. His estate Theobalds House, in the beautiful county of Hertfordshire, was designed specifically with Elizabeth in mind and included custom staterooms just for her use. Not surprisingly, Theobalds became one of Elizabeth’s favorite vacation spots and Burghley paid dearly for the honor. According to his biographer:
His lordship’s extraordinary charge in entertainment of the queen, was greater to him than to any of her subjects; for he entertained her at his house twelve several times, which cost him £2000 or £3000 every time, lying there at his lordship’s charge, sometimes three weeks, a month, yea six weeks together.
For centuries, aristocrats created elaborate homes specifically to host royal visits like this. According to historian Hallie Rubenhold, as late as the Victorian era self-made copper tycoon Francis Tress Barry moved into St. Leonard’s Hill, an estate near Windsor because it was only four miles from the Ascot racetrack. The ruse worked: the race-mad Prince of Wales came to stay, and eventually Barry was made a baronet.
In modern times, no royal houseguest sent potential hosts into hiding more than Princess Margaret, the current Queen Elizabeth’s exacting, demanding sister. Margaret cared little about her hosts’ schedules and would rearrange the furniture in her room, berate the servants and keep her hosts up all night at a moment’s notice. Margaret also expected her hosts to have all the comforts of palace life at her disposal, including her own sealed bottles of Malvern water, the only water she would drink with her whisky.
Even former royals could be a nightmare to deal with. In Caroline Blackwood’s hilariously macabre The Last of the Duchess, she recounts a visit made by Edward, Duke of Windsor (who abdicated the throne in 1936) and his American-born wife, Wallis Simpson, to the country home of Laura Spencer-Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, in 1946.
The Duke and Duchess had arrived with massive amounts of luggage, inexplicably including a portion of the crown jewels. Refusing her nervous host’s offer to put the jewels in the estate’s safe, they were soon misplaced. This sent both the Duke and Duchess into a tizzy. The Duchess took to bed, while a frantic Duke began to tear apart the house. According to the Duchess of Marlborough’s autobiography, Laughter from a Cloud:
The Duke said he was going to continue the search although he looked grey with worry and exhaustion. I was desperately sorry for him, and anyhow I would have stayed to help him in his search, hoping at least to find this one remaining jewel to which the Duchess appeared attached. We stayed up most of the night; he obviously feared to go up to bed empty-handed. I made endless cups of black coffee while the Duke went through his papers, which he seemed convinced was the likeliest place. At about 5 A.M. by some miracle we found it, under a china ornament. Never have I seen a man so relieved. He was still ashen in the face, but he rushed upstairs.
Unlike in the Elizabethan era, people who host royals today are often forced to defend extravagance. In 2019, Elton John was criticized by environmentalists for flying Prince Harry and Meghan Markle by private plane to his home in Nice, France. So, the next time a member of the royal family asks to spend the night at your place, be wary—you might get more than you bargained for.