Festivals, Masques and Tournaments

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Prince Henry’s Armour, Dutch, c. 1608 © Board of Trustees of the Armouries

Prince Henry’s Armour
Dutch, c. 1608
© Board of Trustees of the Armouries

 

Festivals, tournaments and other kinds of entertainments were an essential part of life at the court of James I. They signalled the importance of the king and the royal family, and Henry was the focus of many such events from early in his life. Elaborately decorated armour and magnificent horses were striking features of such occasions, and known to be particularly acceptable gifts for Henry. The prince’s image, as presented through these entertainments to the court and the world at large, was increasingly that of an ideal, militant prince.

In January 1610 the prince took part in Prince Henry’s Barriers, an elaborate indoor tournament preceded by a theatrical entertainment known as a masque. Masques were vastly expensive performances, staged just once, in which scenes whose aim was the glorification of the Stuart dynasty were acted out by courtiers and members of the royal family. The allegorical narratives, written by playwrights including Ben Jonson, were accompanied by music and dance performed by magnificently costumed participants on spectacular sets designed by the court architect Inigo Jones. The prince himself commissioned Oberon, the Faery Prince, for the Christmas celebrations in 1610–11; he took the lead role, and was presented as an amalgamation of Roman hero and Arthurian knight.