“No beer, only ale,” a housemaid might have whispered to a valet.
“Nuthin’ but huf-cap [strong ale] in the Queen’s buttery [liquor room],” some scullery maid must have snickered to some footman.
What we know for certain is that on June 28, 1575, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leister, sent a handwritten note to Secretary of State William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England. “There was not one drop of good drink for her,” wrote Leister “Her own [ale] here was so strong as there was no man able to drink it…. It did put her far out of temper.”
The crown employed 60 brewers in London and the provinces plus one traveling brewer to supply the court with suitable refreshments. And yet, Queen Elizabeth I was now in a grumpy mood because one of them had neglected to brew sufficient quantities of beer, the hopped, low-alcohol tipple that was replacing potent, unhopped English ale throughout the kingdom.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Leister, who was planning perhaps the most audacious marriage proposal in English history. A distant cousin but close childhood friend who knew the monarch better than anyone, Leister would soon be welcoming Elizabeth and her entourage of 31 barons and a staff of 400 to his private estate, Kenilworth Castle. He had hired two of London’s leading architects to transform the historic 10th-century fortress into a “Renaissance Palace,” hoping to impress the Queen into marrying him. The party went on for 19 days—a record for a royal visit—and included nightly banquets, concerts, and fireworks, as well as deer hunting, bear baiting, and cutting-edge theater from London’s leading playwrights, one of whom would have been able to see the fireworks from his residence in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.
Despite the spectacle and pageantry, Leister did not prevail. Since their chaste but passionate romance first blossomed 15 years earlier, Elizabeth had lavished “dear Robin” with estates, royal contracts, and numerous sinecures. By now, the Virgin Queen, aged 42 and 17 years on the throne, had famously announced to Parliament that her only husband would be the Kingdom of England. Leister, once a dashing courtier and skilled equestrian, also 42, was now bald, gimpy, and in failing health. Their romantic entanglement, always politically fraught, now seemed sad and pointless. In the end, Elizabeth rejected the final proposal from perhaps the only man she ever loved, telling him, “I will have but one mistress here and no master.”
Modern readers might be shocked to learn that Queen Elizabeth was a beer drinker. But in a pre-industrial Europe scarred by centuries of waterborne epidemics, thin, barely alcoholic “small” beer comprised the majority of liquid consumed every day by commoner and nobility alike—especially in the British Isles. In those pre-coffee, pre-tea days, virtually everyone, including good Queen Bess, started their day with a glass of beer: a neat package of hydration, nutrition, and stimulation. Juice, cereal, and coffee rolled into one convenient meal.
Elizabeth was a thoroughly modern woman and embraced the new leaner, drier “beers” from Holland that had largely replaced the potent, thick, sweet ales of her father’s time. “Only the old or the sick” still drank ale, wrote William Harrison in 1577 in his Description of England. In fact, court brewers produced a special light beer for Elizabeth that was hoppy enough to endure two months of aging before drinking. The rest of the royal household drank a one-month-old small beer. These beers probably contained between two and three percent alcohol by volume and were the forerunners of “dinner ale,” a kind of family-friendly table beer that survived into the 20th century.
Despite her enthusiasm for Dutch beer, Elizabeth was one of England’s earliest temperance advocates. She oversaw the first licensing of ale houses and introduction of the first civil penalties for public drunkenness, in which inebriants were paraded through town in a “drunkard’s cloak” (actually a barrel with holes for the head and arms). Throughout her reign, she railed against “doble-doble” beer, a malt liquor made extra strong by running the wort through a second bed of grain before fermenting. In 1560, she demanded that brewers brew as much “single” beer as the more profitable doble-doble beer, though there is little evidence that the brewers complied. She championed legislation in 1597 that restrained the excessive use of malt, though this too seemed to have little impact on her subjects’ thirst for potent beers and ales.
The Queen’s own taste for less-intoxicating brew was ultimately satisfied by former paramour Leister, who built two personal breweries for Elizabeth: one to the west of London in Sion and another at Puddle Dock, along the Thames. The Queen would never run out of beer again.