Staging the Henrician Court : Policing of court space in Tudor drama

This page last changed on Dec 07, 2009 by Eleanor Rycroft.

The Eltham Ordinances were passed in 1526 to regulate the court. Their aim and scope was sweeping. They were designed to be all encompassing with every facet of court life coming within their purview. For example, the ‘Boche of the Court’, which details the fees to be paid to various members of the court, spells out exactly what Anne Harris, the King’s Laundress, should wash every week.
The said Anne Harris shall weekly wash 7 long Breakfast clothes, 7 short ones, 8 Towels, 3 dozen of Napkins, and Pieces as need shall require; and by the same shall deliver as much … as shall be necessary to serve the King’s Majesty.
Harris was also to ‘provide as much sweet Powder, sweet Herbs, and other sweet things, as shall be necessary to be occupied for the sweet keeping of the said stuff …’. The precision with which Harris’ duties are set out in the Ordinances is typical. Their ultimate aim was to create a court that was entirely fixed and self-regulating. Indeed there is a mechanical logic to their precision suggesting that if everyone carries out their duties as specified, if Harris always provides as much sweet Powder as necessary, the court will function perfectly without further human intervention.

This image of the court as a self-regulating machine can obviously be related to the similar logic that drives Thomas More’s Utopia in which rules set down in the mists of time keep the utopia commonwealth in perfect working order. The Ordinances, however, and again like More’s Utopian state, are haunted by knowledge of their own provisional flawed nature. For example, the Ordinances spend some time discussing court meals and the eating habits of courtiers. They order that ‘all such as have their lodgings within the court’ not to, ‘cast, leave, or lay any maner of dishes, platters, saucers, or broken meat, either at the … galleryes, or at their chamber doors, or in the court, or other place; but immediately after they shall have occupied them, to carry them into the squillery’. Later the Ordinances prohibit the dining of noblemen in ‘corners’ stating that;
…forasmuch as by reason that sundry noblemen, gentlemen, and others, doe much delight and use to dyne in corners and secret places, not repairing to the king’s chamber nor hall … by reason whereof the good order of the said chamber and household is greatly impaired …
The Ordinances seek to create a totalising image of the court as transparent and ordered, but in the process seem unable to avoid creating an alternative court marked by secrecy and mess; a court in which noblemen delight to dine in corners and where dirty plates litter the corridors. There is a basic incompatibility between the court Ordinances seek to bring into being and the one that they actually describe.

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