Beach Volleyball, Horse Guards Parade and the Accession Day Tilts

Mathew Lyons on why Horse Guards Parade was an appropriate location to host the Olympic beach volleyball.

Mathew Lyons | Published 20 August 2012

George Clifford attired as the Knight of Pendragon Castle for the Tilt of 1590. His pageant shield leans against the tree. The Queen's "favour", a glove, is attached to his hat.
George Clifford attired as the Knight of Pendragon Castle for the Tilt of 1590. His pageant shield leans against the tree. The Queen's "favour", a glove, is attached to his hat.

For two weeks this summer, Horse Guards Parade resounded to the grunt and slap of the world’s finest exponents of beach volleyball as they competed in the London Olympics. Ticket prices reached as high as £450; some 3,000 tons of sand were laid for the event.

It was easy to be seduced by a vague sense of tawdry bathos about that; Telegraph columnist Charles Moore has said his thoughts on the subject are unprintable. What would the Duke of Wellington’s ghost have made of such of spectacle, looking down from his office as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army?

But was it really quite so unfitting as all that? Horse Guard’s parade was built on the site of the tiltyard of Whitehall Palace and was therefore the venue in the last decades of the 16th century for the annual Accession Day tilts on November 17, which marked Elizabeth I’s arrival on the throne. This seems to have been little commemorated in the early years of her reign, but by the early 1570s, following the 1569 rebellion of the northern earls and the subsequent Ridolfi plot, communities across England were being encouraged to honour the day with feasts, bell ringing and other faint echoes of the catholic ritual year that had been stripped from the calendar. 

There is no record of an Accession Day tilt until 1583, but it quickly grew under the supervision of Sir Henry Lee, Master of the Armoury and the Queen’s Champion, into a major court entertainment. Most participants were drawn from the Elizabeth’s Gentleman Pensioners, a group of handsome young men – the male aesthetic was important to Elizabeth – hungry for further patronage and favour at court. But if jousts had once been genuine tests of martial valour, these tilts were mere shadows of such combat: the skill was in the spectacle, the graceful illusion of courage and contest. No jeopardy was intended. 

As such, the event was hugely popular, somewhere to see and be seen, and not just for the court. “Thousands of men, women and girls”, a German visitor to the court named Lupold von Wedel noted, paid 12d for the privilege of watching the spectacle – this at a time when the theatre of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Kyd was yours for 1d a performance. 

But spectacle it was, designed to reinforce the idea of Elizabeth – Astraea, Gloriana, what you will – as the apogee of English nationalism, binding together the tropes of courtly love and an already powerfully nostalgic ideal of military virtue. George Peele captures some of this in his 1590 poem Polyhymia, memorialising that year’s tilt. 

Wherefore it fares as whilom and of yore,

In armour bright and sheene, faire Englands knights

In honour of their peerelesse Soueraigne:

High Maistresse of their seruice, thoughtes and liues

Make to the Tyltamaine: and trumpets sound,

And princelie Coursers neigh, and champ the byt…

Together went these Champions, horse and man,

Thundring along the Tylt, that at the shocke

The hollow gyring vault of heauen resoundes.

And yet the tilts were undoubtedly a serious – and seriously expensive – undertaking for the participants, involving months of thought and planning. In order to win Elizabeth’s favour, and also to position yourself at court – spin-doctoring is by no means a modern invention – it was necessary to develop a symbolic personae which would inform everything from the design on your armour to the livery of your men, which had to be wittily unpacked in a speech to the queen before you were allowed to proceed to the lists. 

Von Wedel estimated that participants spent thousands of pounds each year. That was an exaggeration, although it is testament to the lavishly conspicuous expense of the display. But we do know, for instance, that Sir Robert Cary spent over £400 on the 1593, seeking to return to Elizabeth’s favour after a frowned-upon marriage. 

For all the gilded artifice of the tournament, the stakes then were very real. And if the invention and rhetoric exemplified a self-consciously crafted and fictional ideal of life at Gloriana’s court, the power that Elizabeth wielded over the tilters’ lives and livelihoods was far from constrained by such devices. 

It was, perhaps, a curious way to apportion favour and position, although the young men involved certainly required skill, wit and ambition to succeed. But it is hard to argue that our current system of selecting our statesman is producing political leaders of unmatched aptitude and skill. Indeed, quite the opposite. 

Perhaps the Charles Moores of the world would be happier, then, if it were Cameron and Osborne and Miliband and Balls biffing a volleyball back and forth in Horse Guards Parade. Who knows if such sport would give us a stronger economy; but it would surely afford the nation some small cause for satisfaction as the country drifts further into decay. 

Mathew Lyons is the author of The Favourite published by Constable & Robinson.

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