As rehearsals for Mary Stuart get underway, members of the cast and creative team went beyond our rehearsal room to Hampton Court Palace to get a taste of what life was like in a Tudor Court. Resident Director Ilinca Radulian recounts what they learnt.
Remarkably, the most important lesson of the day was how adept the Tudors were at branding. They mastered the art of creating images and planting them in people’s minds in order to consolidate their political might. We all know about the grand gestures, like the allegorical portraits of Elizabeth presenting her as the invincible Virgin Queen defeating the Spanish Armada. But what our visit to Hampton Palace revealed was that the Tudors applied branding to most decisions they made, even down to the most seemingly mundane.
It all started with the famous Tudor rose. This emblem was introduced after the bloody Wars of the Roses, when Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII, married Elizabeth of York and established the House of Tudor. The two warring families of Lancaster and York were united by marriage and Henry shrewdly united their branding by combining the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York to create the red and white Tudor rose. This combined emblem projected the message that after years of civil strife there was finally some unity and authority in the land. The red and white rose effectively became the Tudor ‘company logo’, ‘selling’ the Tudor regime to the people.
At Hampton Court we found out a bit more about how this clever branding exercise worked on an everyday level in Elizabeth’s time. Probably the most surprising fact was how food was used to make a point about Tudor power. In Tudor times only the top 1% could actually afford sugar. Whereas today a bag of sugar costs around £1 (depending on how fancy you want to go) back in the sixteenth century the same bag of sugar would cost the equivalent of about £200.
So it was astonishing to find out that at court they served desserts named ‘subtleties’ made of sugar paste. These ‘subtleties’ were miniature models of castles or elaborate recreations of scenes like George and the dragon or the goddess Diana hunting. These desserts were made for banquets where they would be smashed and eaten. The Tudors also had chess pieces made of marzipan and covered in gold and silver foil. These chess sets were actually used for playing and you had a real incentive to win, because when you took your opponent’s piece you could eat it.
The message was clear: ‘I have so much money that I can afford to eat gold and sugar’. However, this wasn’t showing off for the sake of showing off. There was a political reason behind such gestures. They showed political might. Having money means having power, because you could very well spend that money on armies and war fleets to send against any challenger. So the foreign dignitaries at court got a subtle message saying their country should look to be your friend and not your enemy.
Another example of shrewd branding was hanging in the halls of Hampton Court. The walls were hung with rich tapestries made in vivid colours and with gold thread. Each of these was rumoured to cost more than Henry VIII’s best and biggest warship. In modern terms, one of these tapestries would cost more than an aircraft carrier.
The tapestries are now gently faded, but they used to be very bright. The people of the time loved vivid colours, so much so that even bricks were painted to make them look more colourful. They hated anything that looked dull and had no concept of clashing colours. Tudor colours might look garish to the modern eye, but we have to take into consideration the fact that we see more man-made images in an hour than the people of the time saw in a lifetime. They only had church iconography, so seeing such bright and colourful images definitely made a strong impression.
These tapestries were thus designed for maximum impact and only brought out for foreign visits, to impress ambassadors and sway them to advise their princes to keep in England’s good graces.
Perhaps the most successful branding coup under the Tudor dynasty was the Elizabeth’s branding of herself as the Virgin Queen. Resisting pleas from Parliament to marry and secure the succession, she instead created a popular image of herself as a woman wedded to her country and to her subjects. The ‘virgin’ iconography tapped into a religious discourse, and aligned her with the Virgin Mary. She was positioned in the public eye as an idolised figure of purity, and this helped to consolidate absolute loyalty from her subjects. From Elizabeth’s perspective this image of herself, dependent on her staying single, allowed her to resist parliamentary pressure to marry and thereby relinquish most of her power to a husband.
From the Tudor Rose to the Virgin Queen, our trip to Hampton Court helped illuminate to us the power of the brand in the Tudor period, making them one of the most famous dynasties in history, even to this day.
Created by Robert Icke, our new adaptation of Schiller's tragedy Mary Stuart takes us behind the scenes of some of British history's most crucial days. From 2 December 2016 - 28 January 2017.