Red Rose Chain’s new play dramatises the scandal behind Elizabeth I’s visit to Ipswich

The cast of the Red Rose Chain production of Progress at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.
Elsie Ben

The cast of the Red Rose Chain production of Progress at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. Elsie Bennett, Daniel Abbott as Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester - Credit: Archant

Into a bedchamber at Christchurch Mansion, a heavily pregnant woman crept. But whose bedchamber was it? And who was asleep next door? Writer-director Joanna Carrick talks to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about her new play, Progress, which explores Elizabeth I ‘s time in Ipswich.

A scene from the film Elizabeth with Queen Elizabeth I (CATE BLANCHETT)and Lord Robert Dudley( JOSEP

A scene from the film Elizabeth with Queen Elizabeth I (CATE BLANCHETT)and Lord Robert Dudley( JOSEPH FIENNES). In real life Dudley accompanied Elizabeth on a royal visit to Ipswich and uncovered a scandal in the royal household.

In 1561 Queen Elizabeth I arrived in Ipswich with great pomp and ceremony. She visited the town as part of a nationwide royal tour designed to promote a feeling of unity following the religious and social upheavals which characterised Bloody Mary’s reign and her own ascendancy to the throne.

If the arrival of the monarch was enough drama, overnight there was the unauthorised arrival of an aristocratic baby which put the young mother, Lady Catherine Grey, in the Tower of London.

This dramatic story has been researched and turned into a new play by Joanna Carrick.

It is being staged by Ipswich-based theatre and film company Red Rose Chain to open their newly built studio theatre The Avenue, which is located at the rear of their Tudor headquarters Gippeswyk Hall.

Joanna Carrick, director of the Red Rose Chain, pictured in a Tudor doorway at Gippeswyk Hall in Ips

Joanna Carrick, director of the Red Rose Chain, pictured in a Tudor doorway at Gippeswyk Hall in Ipswich

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For Jo, the writing of the play has been a labour of love and thematically follows on from her previous work Fallen In Love which documented the three-way relationship between Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and her brother George, and the events which led to the downfall of both the Boleyns.

It was during the research for this play that Jo came across the fact that Elizabeth I not only came to Ipswich but that there was also a scandalous late night confession and an unexpected birth.

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“At the time there was a massive scandal. Lady Catherine Grey, sister of the recently beheaded Lady Jane Grey, turned up in Robert Dudley’s bedchamber in Christchurch Mansion.

“Lady Catherine was potentially Elizabeth’s heir as she was unmarried and Elizabeth was contemplating adopting her. However, Catherine had secretly married Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford.

The cast of the Red Rose Chain production of Progress at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.L-R David R

The cast of the Red Rose Chain production of Progress at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.L-R David Redgrave, Elsie Bennett, Daniel Abbott,Robert Jackson,Lucy Telleck, Tom McCarron. - Credit: Archant

“She not only managed to hide her pregnancy from the court for eight months but when she visited Robert Dudley in the middle of the night, it was clear that the baby was just about ready to arrive.

“Dudley’s bed chamber was directly next to the Queen’s and he understandably didn’t want to be discovered with a pregnant woman in his room and ushered Lady Catherine away. The following day he told Elizabeth, who was absolutely furious that her would-be ward had married without her permission and immediately banished her to the Tower of London, where she spent the rest of her life.

“This was the stuff of drama and it happened in real life and it happened in Ipswich. But, just as importantly for me, was finding out about Peter Moone and the people of Ipswich who welcomed their Queen to the town.

“When Elizabeth visited, 40 people imprisoned for their protestant religion were immediately released. Elizabeth was looking to heal the wounds inflicted by the killing of the Ipswich Martyrs, nine protestants who were burned alive on The Cornhill, during the reign of Queen Mary.

“Local people often referred to Elizabeth as an angel because of that act.”

She said that the genesis of the play came about when she discovered that Elizabeth visited Ipswich in the early part of her reign when she was still only 27 and was accompanied by her favourite courtier and would-be suitor Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester.

“The iconic image we have of Elizabeth is when she was older and I thought how fantastic it would be to write a play about her when she was a young woman and based on a real historical event of her visiting Ipswich. The more I investigated the events, the more interesting they became.”

She said that any writer of historical fiction – whether as a novel or a play – finds themselves at some point having to balance the demands of good story-telling with the requirements of historical research.

“You can’t forget that you are writing a play. You have to put on a good piece of theatre and drama requires conflict but on the other hand you can’t ride roughshod over the historical facts which you have been painstakingly excavating.

“I think I have developed a method and an ideology which hopefully keeps me on the straight and narrow. This came about without me really thinking about it but I have a policy when writing a historical piece that insists that I am not a historian, I am a historical playwright, which means I decide what I am going to write about and then really research that subject.

“For example, this play takes place in 1561, so I don’t really bother about anything that happened in 1562. I write about what those characters would have known about then. What happens to them later on is irrelevant. The past is very relevant because their current circumstances are informed by what has gone before – that’s where they come from as characters.

“What I do is research as much as I can, find out loads and loads of stuff from primary sources, from other historical books and I get as much information down as I can find.”

She said that when it comes to writing the first draft, she tries to assemble all the information she can. In this case, it was finding out about Elizabeth’s visit to Ipswich, everything about Elizabeth’s past, information about Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who accompanied her and then adding details about the Ipswich martyrs.

“Once I have got all the information, I then structure a piece. My rule is that I will never contradict something we know. So if we know something happened on a certain date, it happens on that date. If we know somebody was here, I don’t say that they weren’t here.

“I don’t fly in the face of proven historical fact. But, if there are gaps in the historical record then I don’t mind filling those with conjecture. For example, we don’t know what Elizabeth and Dudley said to each other when they were on their own, so I feel free to imagine that.

“But, my imagination is informed by the research that I have carried out, so it’s not wild flights of fancy.”

She said that this attention to details is also applied to props and costumes. “We don’t want to do anything that’s anachronistic, we want to be as faithful as we can possibly be but at the same time the past is the past and there is some mystery and romance about it.

“Also to create drama we have to craft and structure what we know to create a work of fiction that’s based on real events and is recognisably true.”

She said that well-written, well researched historical drama is the closest we can get to time travel and getting to know the minds and the character of the historic figures.

A good play has the ability to conjure up not only the people but give them some context and supply atmosphere, so the audience understands what their world was like and what they were having to fight against.

“When people come and see the play I want people to feel like they are stepping back in time. In order to help that feeling, I don’t write cod Elizabethan dialogue or fake Shakespeare. I write in ordinary everyday English. I use slang because it’s a language that the people of the time would understand.

“I am not wanting to put up barriers to understanding or want to do anything which prevents the audience from engaging with the piece. Also I think it’s good that a contemporary play has a modern edge to it.”

She said that throughout rehearsals, she drummed into the actors that everything they did should seem natural and modern. It was their normal. This was daily life. Only history has given the reign of Elizabeth I added weight.

“For these characters, the events we are talking about were in the here and now. I think the trap that historical drama frequently falls into is having people marching around, knowingly being in the past and declaring things. Basically telling the audience: “This is history. This is important.” But, for them it wasn’t. It was daily life.

“This is play is modern. In many ways this play is about people who are incredibly cutting edge and modern. They weren’t living in the past. They were reshaping England for the future.”

Progress is at The Avenue theatre, at Gippeswyk Hall, Ipswich from February 3-28

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