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Reviewed by:
  • Elizabethan Triumphal Processions
  • Elizabeth Zeman
William Leahy . Elizabethan Triumphal Processions. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. 171 pp. index. append. illus. bibl. $79.95. ISBN: 0–7546–3984–3.

Elizabethan Triumphal Processions examines English pageantry from the perspective of a common audience and is a welcome addition to the study of [End Page 259] Elizabethan royal entertainment. William Leahy convincingly disputes earlier critics' examinations of pageant literature from the perspective of the culturally dominant, as well as the marginalization or omission of the common people who would have been present during these events. Leahy challenges the critical assumption that Elizabeth was a popular queen beloved by all her subjects, and that her processions successfully impressed the common people. These events were, he argues, at least more ambiguous than previous critics have suggested.

Leahy spends his first chapter carefully outlining an argument against the New Historicist treatment of processions as impressive events that successfully interpellated the audience. He draws on Foucauldian notions of dissymmetry and ambiguous spectacle to argue that an Elizabethan audience would have likely contained some skeptics. The next two chapters examine specific processions and progresses, including the 1558 precoronation procession, the 1575 Kenilworth progress entertainment, the 1588 royal entry celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the 1592 entertainments at Ditchley and Rycote. Leahy closely reads documents of these events alongside records of surrounding social events and with emphasis on "ambiguities and anxieties that have been traditionally ignored or overlooked" (101). The book's conclusion analyzes an often-discussed painting of Elizabeth in procession. Leahy turns away from discussions about the identities of those at the painting's center to focus on the marginal figures he believes represent common people. Describing them as "a shadowy, ill-defined and perhaps threatening presence," (149) he suggests that the painting reflects the dominant culture's perceptions of commoners.

Throughout the book, Leahy deconstructs propagandist images of an all-knowing, all-powerful queen by placing them in the context of social reality. In a compelling case study, Leahy discusses inconsistencies among multiple descriptions of the 1558 procession to stress that Elizabeth was not necessarily welcomed by a united, enthusiastic public. Instead, she may have been received by a more skeptical and poverty-stricken crowd in a "much more sporadic, reluctant, attenuated way" (67) than has been traditionally assumed. Leahy also provides a particularly productive reading of the Ditchley portrait as displaying an idealistic "mutual exchange" (59) between progress host and queen, while arguing that the progresses did not necessarily accomplish this ideal (59). He proposes that, at least in certain areas at certain dates, the passing of the Queen presented an encounter with disease rather than affection and "prompted fear perhaps, rather than admiration and loyalty" (85-86).

Although Leahy does an excellent job of pointing out previous scholarship's shortcomings, his own argument is less tightly constructed. His claims are largely speculative — a problem that can be partially blamed on the lack of conclusive evidence in his sources. These sources, in Leahy's words, "indirectly refer to the possible presence that an audience of common people may have constituted" (82). This unclear, limited evidence leads to arguments filled with hesitancy and rather tenuous connections between specific processions and events. Leahy's constant deconstructing and his emphasis on ambiguity leave little room for certainty. [End Page 260]

The genre he studies remains somewhat ambiguous as well. This review follows the book in using the terms procession, progress, and pageant interchangeably. Leahy is careful to define certain terms — allegory, spectacle, and marginal, for example — but he groups together documents from various royal entertainments without clearly defining genre or pinning down what counts as a "procession." Finally, Leahy's project of bringing marginalized lower-class men to the center relegates any concern with gender to the margins. He mentions certain women involved in rebellions, but he misses opportunities to discuss gender as a defining and potentially divisive trait amongst his common audience.

Still, the main strengths of Elizabethan Triumphal Processions lie in its careful rereadings of pageant propaganda and its argument for drawing the critical gaze away from sovereign power. Leahy rightly identifies a lack of concern with common...


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