Courting the Queen: New Book Explores Persuasion through Elizabethan Lens

John Mark Adrian
John Mark Adrian, professor of English, holds a copy of his newest book, which has inspired his teaching in several of his courses, from Italian Renaissance to London and Literature.
Photo by: Kristi McKinney

John Mark Adrian, professor of English and director of the Peake Honors Program, has been curious about regional differences in music, food, culture and architecture since he was a child growing up in Birmingham, Ala. His new book, Feting the Queen: Civic Entertainments and the Elizabethan Progress, explores how communities in Renaissance England used regional assets and performances to communicate their character, as well as their financial and political needs, to noble guests. According to its publisher, “While previous scholars have studied Elizabeth I and her visits to the homes of influential courtiers, Feting the Queen places a new emphasis on the civic communities that hosted the monarch and their efforts to secure much-needed support.”

We recently caught up with Adrian to learn about this recent publication and hear how it influences some of his UVA Wise courses.

What is you book, Feting the Queen, about?
This book looks at Queen Elizabeth I’s visits to English cities from the cities’ perspectives. A lot of scholars have looked at Elizabeth’s travels from her perspective, but her visits were also incredible opportunities for towns. I looked at six different towns, asking questions like “What was going on in Canterbury during the 1570s and what impressions did they want to convey to Elizabeth?” I tried to determine “How did they use her visit to get her to see them a certain way?” If someone came to Wise, we’d highlight what’s important or distinctive about our community. In fact, we do!

How did you conduct the research to find these answers?
For this book, I examined the speeches and entertainments towns provided for Elizabeth. I examined the buildings, markets, churches and houses they had her tour, reconstructing street patterns as they existed during her time. I used old maps, drawings and engravings, and I was able to go to each city and dig through their archives. I looked at the architecture of buildings and how space was used rhetorically. I was guided by questions like, “Why did towns show her what they chose to show her?” What was it about that building they wanted her to see? Why did they have a grade school class perform for her, and what did they ask those children to present?

Each chapter of the book addresses a different city and its challenges and advocacy. The book also features maps of each town. 

How does this translate to what your students experience in the classroom?
In my composition class, we study rhetoric: the persuasive techniques that writers and speakers use to make their messages convincing. But rhetoric isn’t only verbal, so I encourage them to see the world itself as a kind of text. We walk campus, and go into the ROTC building and the football offices, asking, “How are those spaces meant to give a particular impression to recruits?” People decorate in meaningful ways, and students learn to pay attention to that.

Students have written some really good papers about these topics. There was one especially good project from an ROTC student who analyzed the way in which his building prominently displays the pin that each cadet is working for in a cabinet inside the front entrance.

What do analyses like this do for students?
We want to produce intelligent students who can be aware of rhetoric and how people are trying to influence them. We also want to prepare them to use rhetoric as well. Whether you’re talking about an advertisement or a building, messages are being directed at you all the time. But, those messages are also tools you can use and master in whatever field you go into.

For instance, a lot of my students know, with social media, that you’re getting a carefully crafted image of a person that may not reflect reality. But those sorts of analytical skills need to be cultivated. At a liberal arts college, we prepare you for a career in a well-rounded way but we also help you become a well-adjusted happy person who has quality of life because they can be more aware.

How do students engage with this work beyond the classroom?
I teach both a “London in Literature” course and a “Renaissance Venice” course that incorporates both the spatial layout and prominent landmarks of these two cities. We also learn how to “read” cultural artifacts like buildings and paintings. We then put these skills into practice visiting these cities on study abroad trips.

Some students will say, “I’m not an art critic,” but if you ask them, “What dominant emotion is in this painting?” they can point it out. Over time, they learn to look for the author’s efforts to lead you to a conclusion. They’ll observe how banks and town halls near Wise have classical architecture that’s meant to convey stability. By the end of the semester, they are very good at talking about the ideas behind things.

It sounds like this book has helped you achieve a lot of teaching goals. What can we anticipate from you next?
I spent the fall semester on sabbatical in London working on the question of, “What is it about London that allows writers to talk about different ideas?” I examined landmarks, like Old London Bridge, the Royal Exchange, and the Tower of London—as well as poetry and nonfiction—to find patterns. These buildings and spaces were designed to project authority, but did they succeed in doing so? I’m examining the plays, literature, and travelers’ accounts to see.

I spent a lot of time at all the sites, and I’ve got some good momentum, but it takes me years to write a book. I’m very grateful for the College’s support—they’ve been very generous—to pursue this work. I really enjoy teaching here at UVA Wise because I get to teach a broad array of subjects, and explore topics that I’m passionate about . Being here has broadened my interests and confirmed my belief that, with education, we all can become better.