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The Elizabethan World


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Before we touch upon the lives of some of the heroes of the Maiden Queen, it were well to consider briefly what life was like in those days, and how it differed from our own.

When on a November day in 1558 Sir Nicholas Throckmorton spurred his steaming horse to Hatfield, in haste to inform the Princess Elizabeth that Queen Mary was dead, he was bidden to ride back to the Palace of St. James's and request one of the ladies of the bedchamber to give him, if the Queen were really dead, the black enamelled ring which her Majesty wore night and day. So cautious had the constant fear of death made Anne Boleyn's daughter.

Meanwhile a deputation from the Council had arrived at Hatfield to offer to the new Queen their dutiful homage.

Elizabeth sank upon her knees and exclaimed: "A Domino factum est istud, et est mirabile in oculis nostris" ("This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes") - a text which the Queen caused to be engraved on her gold coins, in memory of that day of release from anxiety. For the poor young Princess had lived for years in a state of alarm; she had been imprisoned in the Tower, the victim of plots for and against her; she had been kept under severe control at Woodstock under Sir Henry Bedingfeld, where she once saw a milkmaid singing merrily as she milked the cows in the Park, and exclaimed, "That milkmaid's lot is better than mine, and her life far merrier."

And now on a sudden her terrors were turned into a great joy; and what the Princess felt all England was soon experiencing, as soon as men realised that the tyranny of Rome and of Spain was shattered and gone.

Elizabeth was now at the close of her twenty-fifth year, of striking beauty and commanding presence, tall and comely, with a wealth of hair, yellow tinged with red; she inherited from her mother an air of coquetry, and her affable manners soon endeared her to her people. The English were tired of Smithfield fires and foreign priests and princes; a new era seemed to be dawning upon them at last - an era of freedom for soul and body; and imagination ran riot with hope to forecast a new and happier world. The homage of an admiring nation was stirred by her young beauty; and wild ambition, not content with the quiet fields of England, turned adventurously to the New World beyond the Atlantic, where men dreamed of real cities paved with gold. It is true that the Pope had given all the great West to his faithful daughter, Spain; but Englishmen thought they had as much right to colonise America as any son of Spain, and they soon obtained their Queen's leave to land and explore. But the first merchants who ventured west found that Spanish policy forbade "Christians to trade with heretics." Nay, if they were taken prisoners by the Spaniards they suffered the punishment of the rack and the stake; and if they escaped, they came home with tales of cruelty that set all England ablaze to take revenge. "Abroad, the sky is dark and wild," writes Kingsley, "and yet full of fantastic splendour. Spain stands strong and awful, a rising world-tyranny, with its dark-souled Cortezes and Pizarros, Alvas, Don Johns and Parmas, men whose path is like the lava stream: who go forth slaying and to slay in the names of their Gods. . . . Close to our own shores the Netherlands are struggling vainly for their liberties: abroad, the Western Islands, and the whole trade of Africa and India, will in a few years be hers . . . and already Englishmen who go out to trade in Guinea, in the Azores and New Spain, are answered by shot and steel."

We know a good deal of the life in Elizabethan England from an account written by Harrison, Household Chaplain to Lord Cobham. He was an admirer of still older days, as we see from his complaint about improved houses: "See the change, for when our houses were builded of willow, then had we oaken men; but now that our houses are come to be made of oak, our men are not only become willow, but a great manie, through Persian delicacie crept in among us, altogether of straw, which is a sore alteration. . . . Now have we manie chimnies; and yet our tenderlings complain of rheumes, catarhs and poses. Then had we none but reredosses, and our heads did never ache. For as the smoke in those daies was supposed to be a sufficient hardning for the timber of the house, so it was reputed a far better -medicine to keep the goodman and his family from the quake or pose."

Harrison notes how rich men were beginning to use stoves for sweating baths, how glass was beginning to be used instead of lattice, which was made out of wicker or rifts of oak chequerwise, how panels of horn for windows had been going out for beryl or fine crystal, as at Sudeley Castle. Then for lurniture, it was not rare to see abundance of arras in noblemen's houses, with such store of silver vessels as might fill sundry cupboards. There were three things that old men remembered to have been marvellously changed; one was the multitude of chimneys lately erected, whereas only the great religious houses and manor places of the lords had formerly possessed them, but each one made his fire against a reredosse in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat in the smoke and smother; the second thing was the improved bedding. Formerly folks slept on straw pallets covered only with a sheet, and a good round log under their heads for a bolster. "As for servants, if they had anie sheet above them, it was well, for seldom had they any under them to keep them from the pricking straws that ran oft through the canvas and rased their hardened hides."

The third thing was the exchange from wooden cups and platters into pewter or tin. Now the farmers had feather-beds and carpets of tapestry instead of straw, sometimes even silver salt-cellars and a dozen spoons of pewter.

Harrison bewails the decay of archery, and says that all the young fellows above eighteen wear a dagger. Noblemen wear a sword too, while desperate cutters carry two rapiers, "wherewith in every drunken fray they are known to work much mischief"; and as the trampers carry long staves, the honest traveller is obliged to carry horse-pistols; for the tapsters and ostlers are in league with the highway robbers who rob chiefly at Christmas time, "till they be trussed up in a Tyburn tippet."

There was a proverb, "Young serving-men, old beggars," because servants were spoilt for any other service or craft; so that the country swarmed with idle serving-men, who often became highwaymen.

A German traveller writes of England thus: "The women there are charming, and by nature so mighty pretty as I have scarcely ever beheld, for they do not falsify, paint or bedaub themselves as they do in Italy or other places, but they are some deal awkward in their style of dress; for they dress in splendid stuffs, and many a one wears three cloth gowns, one over the other. Then, when a stranger goeth to a citizen's house on business, or is invited as a guest, he is received by the master of the house and the ladies and by them welcomed: he has even a right to take them by the arm and to kiss them, which is the custom of the country; and if any one doth not do this, it is regarded and imputed as ignorance and ill-breeding on his part."

Erasmus, writing in 1500, after a visit to Sir Thomas More, exclaims merrily: "There is a custom which it would be impossible to praise too much. Wherever you go, every one welcomes you with a kiss, and 'the same on bidding you farewell. You call again, when there is more kissing. . . . You meet an acquaintance anywhere, you are kissed till you are tired. In short, turn where you will, there are kisses, kisses everywhere." It was the same before and after a dance: you bowed, or curtseyed, and kissed your partner in all formal ceremony. So Shakespeare -

"Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtseyed when you have, and kissed,
The wild waves whist" (hushed).

Another foreigner describes the English as serious, like the Germans, liking to be followed by hosts of servants who wear their masters' arms in silver, fastened to their left arms: they excel in music and dancing, and their favourite sport is hawking: they are more polite than the French in eating, devour less bread but more meat, which they roast in perfection. They put a great deal of sugar in their drink, a habit which may account for their teeth turning black in age. Harrison tells us that the nobles had "for cooks musicall-headed Frenchmen, who concocted sundrie delicacies: every dish being first taken to the greatest personage at the table."

We are told that Sir Walter Raleigh was once staying with a noble lady, whom he heard in the morning scolding her servant and crying, "Have the pigs been fed? have the pigs been fed?"

At eleven o'clock Master Walter came down to dinner, and could not resist a sly remark to his hostess, "Have the pigs been fed?" The lady drew herself up haughtily and rejoined, "You should know best, Sir Walter, whether you have had your breakfast or no." So the laugh was turned on the wit for once: for indeed it had become unusual for people to require any breakfast before eleven o'clock in Queen Elizabeth's time. Formerly they had four meals a day, consisting of breakfast, dinner, nuntion or beverage, and supper. "Now these odd repasts," says Harrison, "thanked be God! are very well left, and each one (except here and there some young hungrie stomach that cannot fast till dinner-time) contenteth himself with dinner and supper only." It was the custom at table amongst yeomen and merchants for the guest to call for such drink as he desired, when a servant would bring him a cup from the cupboard; but when he had tasted of it, he delivered it again to the servant, who made it clean and restored it to the cupboard. "By this device much idle tippling is cut off, for if the full pots should continually stand neare the trencher, divers would be alwaies dealing with them." Yet in the houses of the nobles it was not so, but silver goblets or glasses of Venice graced the tables.

They, were content with four or six dishes, finishing with jellies and march-paine "wrought with no small curiosity"; potatoes, too, began to be. brought from Spain and the Indies. The best beer was usually kept for two years and brewed in March; of light wines there were fifty-six kinds, mostly foreign, from Italy, Greece, and Spain, clarets from France, and Malmsey wine.

"I might here talk somewhat of the great silence that is used at the tables of the honourable and wiser sort, likewise of the moderate eating and drinking that is daily seen, and finally of the regard that each one hath to keep himself from the note of surfeiting and drunkennesse."

They were a proud, self-respecting people in those spacious times, and even the poorer sort, when they could get a time to be merry, thought it no small disgrace if they happened to be "cup-shotten."

In regard to their dress the English at that time seem to have been somewhat extravagant, copying first the Spanish guise, then the French, anon the Italian or German - nay, even Turkish and Moorish fashions gained favour; "so that except it were a dog in a doublet, you shall not see any so disguised as are my countrymen of England."

Our good friend Harrison waxes quite sarcastic as he describes, "What chafing, what fretting, what reproachful language doth the poor workman bear away! ... Then must we put it on, then must the long seams of our hose be set by a plumb-line: then we puff, then we blow, and finally sweat till we drop, that our clothes may stand well upon us."

It became the fashion for ladies to dye their hair yellow out of compliment to the Queen, who however in her later years used wigs, and was reputed to have a choice of eighty attires of false hair.

In 1579 the Queen gave her command to the Privy Council to prevent excesses of apparel, and it was ordered that "No one shall use or wear such excessive long cloaks; being in common sight monstrous." Neither were they to wear such high ruffs of cambric about their necks as were growing common, both with men and women. Quilted doublets, curiously slashed, and lined with figured lace, Venetian hose and stockings of the finest black yarn, with shoes of white leather, betokened the courtier, the clank of whose gilded spurs announced his coming.

In regard to weapons, the long-bow had gone out of use, but they shot with the caliver, a clumsy musket with a short butt, and handled the pike with dexterity. Corslets and shirts of mail still remained; every village could furnish forth three or four soldiers, as one archer, one gunner, one pikeman, and a bill-man. As to artillery, the falconet weighed five hundred pounds, with a diameter of two inches at the mouth; the culverin weighed four thousand pounds, having a diameter of five inches and a half; the cannon weighed seven thousand, and the basilisk nine thousand pounds.

In 1582 Queen Elizabeth had twenty-five great ships of war, the largest being of 1000 tons burden, besides three galleys: there were 135 ships that exceeded 500 tons, which could fight at a pinch, for many private owners possessed ships of their own.

A man-of-war in those days was well worth two thousand pounds, and "it is incredible to say how greatly her Grace was delighted with her fleet." After all, it is the men that count most, and the men of that day were as full of good courage as the best of us.

On the Continent they had a saying that "England is a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a purgatory for horses"; for the females had more liberty in England than on the Continent, and were almost like masters; while the servants could not escape from England without a passport, and the poor horses were worked all too hard.

For instance, when the Queen broke up her Court to go on progress, there commonly followed her more than three hundred carts laden with bag and baggage. For you must know that in Tudor England, besides coaches, they used no waggons for their goods, but had only two-wheeled carts, which were so large that they could carry quite as much as waggons, and as many as five or six horses were needed to draw them.

In those days they knew full well what deep ruts could do in the way of lowering speed, and the jaded horses must sometimes have thought that they were pulling a plough, and not a coach.

Fynes Moryson, a traveller, gives a pleasant account of his journeyings: "The world affords not such Innes as England hath, either for good and cheap entertainment after the guests' own pleasure, or for humble attendance upon passengers. For as soon as a traveller comes to an Inne, the servants run to him, and one takes his horse and walks him till he be cold, then rubs him and gives him meat. Another servant gives the traveller his private chamber and kindles his fire: the third pulls off his boots and makes them cleane. Then the Host or Hostess visits him; and if he will eat with the Host, or at a common table with others, his meal will cost him six pence, or in some places but four pence: but if he will eat in his chamber, the which course is more honourable, he commands what meat he will, according to his appetite, and when he sits at table the Host or Hostess will visit him, taking it for courtesie to be bid sit downe: while he eats he shall have musicke offered him: if he be solitary the musicians will give him the good day with musicke in the morning. It is the custom to set up part of supper for his breakfast. Ere he goeth he shall have a reckoning in writing, which the Host will abate, if it seem unreasonable. At parting, if he give some few pence to the chamberlain and ostler they wish him a happy journey."

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