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From grand palaces frequented by Queen Elizabeth I to the home of William Shakespeare, reminders of the Elizabethan era can still be found across England today. For a taste of this period more than 400 years on, and to celebrate the birthday of the great Bard on 23 April, you can get inspired by a wealth of period architecture, eye-catching art collections and pristine formal gardens. Several digital events will also mark Shakespeare’s birthday in 2021, including an online version of the annual ‘Cradle to Grave’ pilgrimage through Stratford-upon-Avon and a virtual lecture from the Shakespeare Institute, diving into the writer’s life and character.
If you're dreaming of a future trip to London, you can get a taste of Elizabethan life with a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstructed open-air theatre on the South Bank that is based on the Bard’s original 16th century playhouse. After watching a show or enjoying a guided tour, you can look forward to a refreshing pint in the nearby George Inn. First referenced in history in 1543, the original building is said to have been a favourite drinking spot of Shakespeare himself. Having been rebuilt in the 1670s following the Great Fire of London, today this historic venue is London’s last remaining galleried coaching inn.
If you’re keen to explore more, you can join Shakespeare’s London Tour, a free walking tour taking in landmarks such as Southwark Cathedral, the site of the Rose Theatre and St Helen’s Church, in Bishopsgate, which is close to the Bard’s London residence.
Alternatively, travel 21 miles north of London to soak up Elizabethan history at Hatfield House Old Palace and Hatfield House. Not only was the earlier palace the beloved childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I, it was also where she was told of her accession to the throne. Built around 1485, it still boasts a grand Banqueting Hall with exquisite high roof timbers, as well as romantic formal gardens. The newer Hatfield House was completed in 1611 and is another of England’s historic gems. Highlights include the Long Gallery, which now displays Queen Elizabeth I’s stockings, hat and gloves, alongside the Rainbow Portrait, one of the most colourful Tudor paintings found in Britain.
If you’re a fan of gardening, you can look forward to discovering the family home of Anne Boleyn, mother of Queen Elizabeth, at Hever Castle and Gardens. Located just 30 miles south-east of the capital, in Kent, this double-moated castle dates back to 1270, and its panelled rooms host a spectacular collection of Tudor portraits and tapestries, in addition to the bed chambers of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Equally grand is the 125-acre garden, which is home to a giant topiary chess set, a 38-acre lake and a Water Maze, as well as a vast English Rose Garden packed with more than 4,000 rose bushes.
Another favourite for an Elizabethan bucket list is Loseley Park, a mid-16th century country house designed by Sir William More, at the command of Queen Elizabeth I. Situated 40 miles from central London, this spectacular mansion is a time capsule of British history, with opulent rooms filled with artefacts, including George IV’s coronation chair and cushions reportedly embroidered by Queen Elizabeth I herself. Packed with lush furnishings and family portraits that span centuries, it remains a living home to this day and can be explored as part of a guided tour. The sense of majesty is continued throughout the botanical gardens, with highlights including a stunning white garden, an organic vegetable plot and a mulberry tree purportedly planted by Queen Elizabeth I. If you’re a fan of the Netflix series The Crown, you might also recognise Loseley as the filming location of the home of Lord Mountbatten.
Moving over to south-west England, Longleat House offers another glimpse into lavish Elizabethan life. This grand mansion once belonged to Sir Thomas Thynne, whose secret marriage to Maria Touchet, who was part of a rival family, is rumoured to have inspired William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Throughout the 15 majestic rooms, you can browse centuries-old art and tapestry work. Outside, you’ll have the chance to retrace historic footsteps in the formal and pleasure gardens, all framed by landscaped grounds designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
Far from dramatic Elizabethan love stories, modern-day Longleat is known for being one of Britain’s top safari parks, with drive-through and safari bus options available. Here you can look forward to watching monkeys, wolves, tigers and a rescued elephant – among many other species – roam the impressive grounds.
For another taste of everyday Elizabethan life, you can plan to stop at the market town of Devizes, located a short drive from Longleat, in Wiltshire. This historic town is home to more than 500 listed buildings, including along St John’s Alley, a cobbled street lined with timber-framed houses and shops that leads to a Norman church. Tradition also lives on through the Wadworth Brewery, which continues to deliver its brews around the town by horse-drawn dray each week. If you’re a shopping fan, you can look forward to stepping back in time at the town’s outdoor market, a retail experience that has stood since the 12th century. As well as the main Thursday event there are different markets held each day throughout the week, including a farmers’ market, antique market and independent craft fairs.
Lastly, a dream Elizabethan itinerary wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the West Midlands and the heart of Shakespeare country, Stratford-upon-Avon. Home to key sites from the Bard’s life, you can look forward to exploring his birthplace, which displays the ‘first folio’ published in 1623. You can also pencil in a visit to Shakespeare’s New Place, an art-filled commemorative garden standing on the foundations of his last family home, which is also where he penned many of his plays.
Another Stratford-upon-Avon essential is Anne Hathaway’s cottage, where Shakespeare would have courted his bride-to-be. Hall’s Croft, the former home of his daughter Susanna, is another shining example of Elizabethan architecture and comes complete with thatched roof and traditional timbers. Theatre fan? Satisfy your love of the arts with a visit to the nearby Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where the Royal Shakespeare Company put on a rich programme of modern and classic plays.
For a taste of Elizabethan romance, why not add a trip to Kenilworth Castle, a medieval fortress situated just twenty minutes’ drive from Shakespeare’s home. Once a hub of Elizabethan grandeur, the castle belonged to the Queen’s suitor, Robert Dudley, the First Earl of Leicester, who spent fortunes on new buildings to impress the monarch. That lavishness can still be seen today, both in the ornate ruins and opulence of the majestic Elizabethan-style garden.
Restrictions on travel to and around Britain are in place due to Covid-19. You are encouraged to always check individual attraction websites for the latest information, as events and details are subject to change.