The People for Whom Shakespeare Wrote
QUEEN ELIZABETH being dead about ten o’clock in the morning, March 24, 1603, Sir Robert Cary posted away, unsent, to King James of Scotland to inform him of the “accident;” and got made a baron of the realm for his ride. On his way down to take possession of his new kingdom, the king distributed the honor of knighthood right and left liberally; at Theobald’s he created eight and twenty knights, of whom Sir Richard Baker, afterwards the author of A Chronicle of the Kings of England, was one. “ God knows how many hundreds he made the first year,” says the chronicler, “ but it was indeed fit to give vent to the passage of Honour, which during Queen Elizabeth’s reign had been so stopped that scarce any county of England had knights enow to make a jury.”
Sir Richard Baker was born in 1568, and died in 1645; his Chronicle appeared in 1641. It was brought down to the death of James in 1625, when, he having written the introduction to the life of Charles I., the storm of the season caused him to " break off in amazement,” for he had thought the race of “ Stewards ” likely to continue to the " world’s end; ” and he never resumed his pen. In the reign of James two things lost their lustre, — the exercise of tilting, which Elizabeth made a special solemnity, and the band of yeomen of the guard, choicest persons both for stature and other good parts, who graced the court of Elizabeth; James “was so intentive to Realities that he little regarded shows,” and in his time these came utterly to be neglected. The virgin queen was the last ruler who seriously regarded the pomps and splendors of feudalism.
It was characteristic of the age that the death of James, which occurred in his fifty-ninth year, should have been by rumor attributed to “poyson;” but “ being dead, and his body opened, there was no sign at all of poyson, his inward parts being all sound, but that his Spleen was a little faulty, which might be cause enough to cast him into an Ague: the ordinary high way, especially in old bodies, to a natural death.”
The chronicler records among the men of note of James’s time Sir Francis Vere, " who as another Hannibal, with his one eye, could see more in the Martial Discipline than common men can do with two; ” Sir Edward Coke; Sir Francis Bacon, “ who besides his profounder book, of Novum Organum, hath written the reign of King Henry the Seventh, in so sweet a style, that like Manna, it pleaseth the tast of all palats;” William Camden, whose Description of Britain “ seems to keep Queen Elizabeth alive after death; ” “ and to speak it in a word, the Trojan Horse was not fuller of Heroick Grecians, than King James his Reign was full of men excellent in all kindes of Learning.” Among these was an old university acquaintance of Baker’s, “ Mr. John Dunne, who leaving Oxford, lived at the Innes of Court, not dissolute, but very neat; a great Visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verses ; until such times as King James taking notice of the pregnancy of his Wit, was a means that he betook him to the study of Divinity, and thereupon proceeding Doctor, was made Dean of Pauls ; and became so rare a Preacher, that he was not only commended, but even admired by all who heard him.”
The times of Elizabeth and James were visited by some awful casualties and portents. From December, 1602, to the December following, the plague destroyed 30,518 persons in London; the same disease that in the sixth year of Elizabeth killed 20,500, and in the thirty-sixth year 17,890, besides the lord mayor and three aldermen. In January, 1606, a mighty whale came up the Thames within eight miles of London, whose body, seen divers times above water, was judged to be longer than the largest ship on the river ; “ but when she tasted the fresh water and scented the Land, she returned into the sea.” Not so fortunate was a vast whale east upon the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, in 1575, which was “ twenty Ells long, and thirteen foot broad from the belly to the backbone, and eleven foot between the eyes. One of his eves being taken out of his head was more than a cart with six horses could draw; the Oyl being boyled out of his head was Parmacittee.” Nor the monstrous fish cast ashore in Lincolnshire in 1564, which measured six yards between the eyes and had a tail fifteen feet broad; “ twelve men stood upright in his mouth to get the Oyl.” In 1612 a comet appeared, which in the opinion of Dr. Bainbridge, the great mathematician of Oxford, was as far above the moon as the moon is above the earth, and the sequel of it was that infinite slaughters and devastations followed it both in Germany and other countries. In 1613, in Standish, in Lancashire, a maiden child was born having four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces, — the one before, the other behind, like the picture of Janus. (One thinks of the prodigies that presaged the birth of Glendower.) Also, the same year, in Hampshire, a carpenter, lying in bed with his wife and a young child, “ was himself and the childe both burned to death with a sudden lightning, no fire appearing outwardly upon him, and yet lay burning for the space of almost three days till he was quite consumed to ashes.” This year the Globe play-house, on the Bankside, was burned, and the year following the new play-house, the Fortune, in Golding Lane, “ was by negligence of a candle, clean burned down to the ground.” In this year also, 1614, the town of Stratford - on - Avon was burned. One of the strangest events, however, happened in the first year of Elizabeth (1558), when ” dyed Sir Thomas Cheney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, of whom it is reported for a certain, that his pulse did beat more than three quarters of an hour after he was dead, as strongly as if he had been still alive.” In 1580 a strange apparition happened in Somersetshire, — three score personages all clothed in black, a furlong in distance from those that beheld them; " and after their appearing, and a little while tarrying, they vanished away, but immediately another strange company, in like manner, color and number appeared in the same place; and they encountered one another and so vanished away. And the third time appeared that number again, all in bright armour, and encountered one another, and so vanished away. This was examined before Sir George Norton, and sworn by four honest men that saw it, to be true.” Equally well substantiated, probably, was what happened in Herefordshire in 1571: “ A field of three acres, in Blackmore, with the Trees and Fences, moved from its place and passed over another field, travelling in the highway that goeth to Herne, and there stayed.” Herefordshire was a favorite place for this sort of exercise of nature. In 1575 the little town of Kinnaston was visited by an earthquake: “ On the seventeenth of February at six o’clock of the evening, the earth began to open and a Hill with a Rock under it (making at first a great bellowing noise, which was heard a great way off) lifted itself up a great height, and began to travel, bearing along with it the Trees that grew upon it, the Sheep-folds, and Flocks of Sheep abiding there at the same time. In the place from whence it was first moved, it left a gaping distance forty foot broad, and forescore Ells long; the whole Field was about twenty Acres. Passing along, it overthrew a Chappell standing in the way, removed an Ewe-Tree planted in the Churchyard, from the West into the East; with the like force it thrust before it High-wayes, Sheeep-folds, Hedges and Trees, made Tilled ground Pasture, and again turned Pasture into Tillage. Having walked in this sort from Saturday in the evening, till Monday noon, it then stood still.” It seems not improbable that Birnam wood should come to Dunsinane.
It was for an age of faith, for a people whose credulity was fed on such prodigies and whose imagination glowed at such wonderful portents, that Shakespeare wrote, weaving into the realities of sense those awful mysteries of the supernatural which hovered not far away from every Englishman of his time.
Shakespeare was born in 1564, when Elizabeth had been six years on the throne, and he died in 1616, nine years before James I., of the faulty spleen, was carried to the royal chapel in Westminster, “ with great solemnity, but with greater lamentation.” Old Baker, who says of himself that, he was the unworthiest of the knights made at Theobald’s, condescends to mention William Shakespeare at the tail end of the men of note of Elizabeth’s time. The ocean is not more boundless, he affirms, than the number of men of note of her time; and after he has finished with the statesmen (‘‘an exquisite statesman for his own ends was Robert Earl of Leicester, and for his Countries good, Sir William Cecill, Lord Burleigh ”), the seamen, the great commanders, the learned gentlemen and writers (among them Roger Askam, who had sometime been schoolmaster to Queen Elizabeth, but, taking too great delight in gaining and cockfighting, lived and died in mean estate), the learned divines and preachers, he concludes, “ After such men, it might be thought ridiculous to speak of Stageplayers; but seeing excellency in the meanest things deserve remembring, and Roscius the Comedian is recorded in History with such commendation, it may be allowed us to do the like with some of our Nation. Richard Bourbidge and Edward Allen, two such actors as no age must ever look to see the like; and to make their Comedies compleat, Richard Tarleton, who for the Part called the Clowns Part, never had his match, never will have. For Writers of Playes, and such as have been Players themselves, William Shakespeare and Benjamin Johnson have especially left their Names recommended to posterity.”
Richard Bourbidge (or Burbadge) was the first of the great English tragic actors, and was the original of the greater number of Shakespeare’s heroes,— Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III., Romeo, Brutus, etc. Dick Tarleton, one of the privileged scapegraces of social life, was regarded by his contemporaries as the most witty of clowns and comedians. The clown was a permitted character in the old theatres, and intruded not only between the acts, but even into the play itself, with his quips and antics. It is probable that he played the part of clown, grave-digger, etc., in Shakespeare’s comedies, and no doubt took liberties with his parts. It is thought that part of Hamlet’s advice to the players — “ and let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them,” etc.— was leveled at Tarleton.
The question is often asked, but I consider it an idle one, whether Shakespeare was appreciated in his own day as he is now. That the age was unable to separate him from itself, and see his great stature, is probable; that it enjoyed him with a sympathy to which we are strangers there is no doubt. To us he is inexhaustible. The more we study him, the more are we astonished at his multiform genius. In our complex civilization, there is no development of passion, or character, or trait of human nature, no social evolution, that does not find expression somewhere in those marvelous plays; and yet it is impossible for us to enter into a full, sympathetic enjoyment of those plays unless we can in some measure re-create for ourselves the atmosphere in which they were written. To superficial observation great geniuses come into the world at rare intervals in history, in a manner independent of what we call the progress of the race. It may be so; but the form the genius shall take is always determined by the age in which it appears, and its expression is shaped by the environments. Acquaintance with the Bedouin desert life of to-day, which has changed little for three thousand years, illumines the book of Job like an electric light. Modern research into Hellenic and Asiatic life has given a new meaning to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and greatly enhanced our enjoyment of them. A fair comprehension of the Divina Commedia is impossible without some knowledge of the factions that rent Florence; of the wars of Guelf and Ghibelline; of the spirit that banished Dante, and gave him an humble tomb in Ravenna instead of a sepulchre in the pantheon of Santa Croce. Shakespeare was a child of his age; it had long been preparing for him; its expression culminated in him. It was essentially a dramatic age. He used the accumulated materials of centuries. He was playwright as well as poet. His variety and multiform genius cannot otherwise be accounted for. He called in the coinage of many generations, and reissued it purified and unalloyed, stamped in his own mint. There was a Hamlet probably, there were certainly Romeos and Juliets, on the stage before Shakespeare. In him were received the imaginations, the inventions, the aspirations, the superstitions, the humors, the supernatural intimations; in him met the converging rays of the genius of his age, as in a lens, to be sent onward thenceforth in an ever-broadening stream of light.
It was his fortune to live not only in a dramatic age, but in a transition age, when feudalism was passing away, but while its shows and splendors could still be seriously comprehended. The dignity that doth hedge a king was so far abated that royalty could be put upon the stage as a player’s spectacle; but the reality of kings and queens and court pageantry was not so far past that it did not appeal powerfully to the imaginations of the frequenters of the Globe, the Rose, and the Fortune. They had no such feeling as we have in regard to the pasteboard kings and queens who strut their brief hour before us in anachronic absurdity.
But, besides that he wrote in the spirit of his age, Shakespeare wrote in the language and the literary methods of his time. This is not more evident in the contemporary poets than in the chroniclers of that day. They all delighted in ingenuities of phrase, in neat turns and conceits; it was a compliment then to be called a “ conceited ” writer.
Of all the guides to Shakespeare’s time, there is none more profitable or entertaining than William Harrison, who wrote for Holinshed’s chronicle, The Description of England, as it fell under his eyes from 1577 to 1587. Harrison’s England is an unfailing mine of information for all the historians of the sixteenth century; and in the edition published by the New Shakespeare Society, and edited, with a wealth of notes and contemporary references, by Mr. Frederick J. Furnivall, it is a new revelation of Shakespeare’s England to the general reader.
Harrison himself is an interesting character, and trustworthy above the general race of chroniclers. He was born in 1534, or, to use his exactness of statement, " upon the 18th of April, hora 11, minut 4, Secunde 56, at London, in Cordwainer streete, otherwise called bowe-lane.” This year was also remarkable as that in which “ Ring Henry 8 polleth his head; after whom his household and nobility, with the rest of his subjects do the like.” It was the year before Anne Boleyn, haled away to the Tower, accused, condemned, and executed in the space of fourteen days, “ with sigheing tearcs ” said to the rough Duke of Norfolk, “ Hither I came once my lord, to fetch a crown imperial; but now to receive, I hope, a crown immortal.” In 1544, the boy was at St. Paul’s school; the litany in the English tongue, by the king’s command, was that year sung openly in St. Paul’s, and we have a glimpse of Harrison with the other children, enforced to buy those books, walking in general procession, as was appointed, before the king went to Boulogne. Harrison was a student at both Oxford and Cambridge, taking the degree of bachelor of divinity at the latter in 1569, when he had been an Oxford M. A. of seven years’ standing. Before this he was household chaplain to Sir William Brooke, Lord Cobham, who gave him in 1588-9 the rectory of Radwinter, in Essex, which he held till his death, in 1593. In 1586 he was installed canon of Windsor. Between 1559 and 1571 he married Marion Isebrande, of whom he said in his will, referring to the sometime supposed unlawfulness of priests’ marriages, “ by the laws of God I take and repute in all respects for my true and lawful wife.” At Radwinter, the old parson, working in his garden, collected Roman coins, wrote his chronicles, and expressed his mind about the rascally lawyers of Essex, to whom flowed all the wealth of the land. The lawyers, in those days, stirred up contentions, and then reaped the profits. “ Of all that ever I knew in Essex,” says Harrison, “ Denis and Mainford excelled, till John of Ludlow, alias Mason, came in place, unto whom in comparison these two were but children.” This last did so harry a client for four years that the latter, still called upon for new fees, “went to bed, and within four days made an end of his woeful life, even with care and pensiveness.” And after his death, the lawyer so handled his son “ that there was never sheep shorn in May, so near clipped of his fleece present, as he was of many to come.”The Welsh were the most litigious people. A Welshman would walk up to London barelegged, carrying his hose on his neck, to save wear and because he had no change, importune his countrymen till he got half a dozen writs, with which he would return to molest his neighbors, though no one of his quarrels was worth the money he paid for a single writ.
The humblest mechanic of England to-day has comforts and conveniences which the richest nobles lacked in Harrison’s day, but it was nevertheless an age of great luxury and extravagance; of brave apparel, costly and showy beyond that of any Continental people, though wanting in refined taste; and of mighty banquets, with service of massive plate, troops of attendants, and a surfeit of rich food and strong drink.
In this luxury the clergy of Harrison’s rank did not share. Harrison was poor on forty pounds a year. He complains that the clergy were taxed more than ever, the church having become “ an ass whereon every man is to ride to market and cast his wallet.” They paid
tenths and first fruits and subsidies, so that out of twenty pounds of a benefice the incumbent did not reserve more than £13 6s. 8d. for himself and his family. They had to pay for both prince and laity, and both grumbled at and slandered them. Harrison gives a good account of the higher clergy; he says the bishops were loved for their painful diligence in their calling, and that the clergy of England were reputed on the Continent as learned divines, skillful in Greek and Hebrew and in the Latin tongue. There was, however, a scarcity of preachers and ministers in Elizabeth’s time, and their character was not generally high. What could be expected when covetous patrons canceled their debts to their servants by bestowing advowsons of benefices upon their bakers, butlers, cooks, grooms, pages, and lackeys,—when even in the universities there was cheating at elections for scholarships and fellowships, and gifts were for sale! The morals of the clergy were, however, improved by frequent conferences, at which the good were praised and the bad reproved; and these conferences were “ a notable spur unto all the ministers, whereby to apply their books, which otherwise (as in times past) would give themselves to hawking, hunting, tables, cards, dice, tipling at the ale house, shooting, and other like vanities. ” The clergy held a social rank with trades people; their sons learned trades, and their daughters might go out to service. Jewell says many of them were the “basest sort of people,” — unlearned, fiddlers, pipers, and what not. “ Not a few,” says Harrison, “find fault with our thread-bare gowns, as if not our patrons but our wives were the causes of our woe.” He thinks the ministers will be better when the patrons are better, and he defends the right of the clergy to marry and to leave their goods, if they have any, to their widows and children instead of to the church, or to some school or almshouse. What if their wives are fond, after the decease of their husbands, to bestow themselves not so advisedly as their calling requireth; do not duchesses, countesses, and knights’ wives offend in the like fully so often as they? And Eve, remarks the old philosopher of Radwinter, — “ Eve will be Eve, though Adam would say nay.”
The apparel of the clergy, at any rate, was more comely and decent than it ever was in the popish church, when the priests “ went either in divers colors like players, or in garments of light hue, as yellow, red, green, etc.; with their shoes piked, their hair crisped, their girdles armed with silver; their shoes, spurs, bridles, etc., buckled with like metal; their apparel (for the most part) of silk, and richly furred; their caps laced and buttoned with gold; so that to meet a priest, in those days, was to behold a peacock that spreadeth his tail when he danceth before the hen.”
Hospitality amongst the clergy was never better used, and it was increased by their marriage; for the meat and drink were prepared more orderly and frugally, the household was better looked to, and the poor oftener fed. There was perhaps less feasting of the rich in bishops’ houses, and “it is thought much peradventure, that some bishops in our time do come short of the ancient gluttony and prodigality of their predecessors;” but this is owing to the curtailing of their livings, and the excessive prices whereunto things are grown.
Harrison spoke his mind about dignitaries. He makes a passing reference to Thomas à Becket as “ the old Cocke of Canturburie, ” who did crow in behalf of the see of Rome, and the “ young cockerels of other sees did imitate his demeanour.” He is glad that images, shrines, and tabernacles are removed out of churches. The stories in glass windows remain only because of the cost of replacing them with white panes. He would like to stop the wakes, guilds, paternities, church-ales, and brides-ales, with all their rioting, and he thinks they could get on very well without the feasts of apostles, evangelists, martyrs, the holy-days after Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and those of the Virgin Mary, with the rest. “ It is a world to see,” he wrote of 1552, “how ready the Catholicks are to cast the communion tables out of their churches, which in derision they call Oysterboards, and to set up altars whereon to say mass.” And he tells with sinful gravity this tale of a sacrilegious sow: “ Upon the 23d of August, the high altar of Christ Church in Oxford was trimly decked up after the popish manner; and about the middest of evensong, a sow cometh into the quire, and pulled all to the ground; for which heinous fact, it is said she was afterwards beheaded; but to that I am not privy.” Think of the condition of Oxford when pigs went to mass! Four years after this there was a sickness in England, of which a third part of the people did taste, and many clergymen, who had prayed not to live after the death of Queen Mary, had their desire, the Lord hearing their prayer, says Harrison, “ and intending thereby to give his church a breathing time.”
There were four classes in England, — gentlemen, citizens, yeomen, and artificers or laborers. Besides the nobles, any one can call himself a gentleman who can live without work and buy a coat of arms, — though some of them “bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain.” The complaint of sending abroad youth to be educated is an old one; Harrison says the sons of gentlemen went into Italy, and brought nothing home but mere atheism, infidelity, vicious conversation, and ambitious, proud behavior, and retained neither religion nor patriotism. Among citizens were the merchants, of whom Harrison thought there were too many; for, like the lawyers, they were no furtherance to the commonwealth, but raised the price of all commodities. In former, freetrade times, sugar was sixpence a pound, now it is two shillings sixpence; raisins were one penny, and now sixpence. Not content with the old European trade, they have sought out the East and West Indies, and likewise Cathay and Tartary, whence they pretend, from their now and then suspicious voyages, they bring home great commodities. But Harrison cannot see that prices are one whit abated by this enormity, and certainly they carry out of England the best of its wares.
The yeomen are the stable, free men, who for the most part stay in one place, working the farms of gentlemen, are diligent, sometimes buy the land of unthrifty gentlemen, educate their sons to the schools and the law courts, and leave them money to live without labor. These are the men that made France afraid. Below these are the laborers and men who work at trades, who have no voice in the commonwealth, and crowds of young serving-men who become old beggars, highway robbers, idle fellows, and spreaders of all vices. There was a complaint then, as now, that in many trades men scamped their work, but, on the whole, husbandmen and artificers had never been so good; only there were too many of them, too many handicrafts of which the country had no need. It appears to be a fault all along in history that there are too many of almost every sort of people.
In Harrison’s time the greater part of the building in cities and towns was of timber, only a few of the houses of the commonalty being of stone. In an old plate giving a view of the north side of Cheapside, London, in 1638, we see little but quaint gable ends and rows of small windows set close together. The houses are of wood and plaster, each story overhanging the other, terminating in sharp pediments; the roofs projecting on cantalevers, and the windows occupying the whole front of each of the lower stories. They presented a lively and gay appearance on holidays, when the pentices of the shop fronts were hung with colored draperies, and the balconies were crowded with spectators, and every pane of glass showed a face. In the open country, where timber was scarce, the houses were, between studs, impaneled with clay,red, white, or blue. One of the Spaniards who came over in the suite of Philip remarked the large diet in these homely cottages: “These English,” quoth he, “ have their houses made of sticks and dirt, but they fare commonly so well as the king.”“ Whereby it appeareth,” comments Harrison, “that he liked better of our good fare in such coarse cabins, than of their own thin diet in their prince-like habitations and palaces.” The timber houses were covered with tiles; the other sort with straw or reeds. The fairest houses were ceiled within with mortar and covered with plaster, the whiteness and evenness of which excited Harrison’s admiration. The walls were hung with tapestry, arras-work, or painted cloth, whereon were divers histories, or herbs, or birds, or else ceiled with oak. Stoves had just begun to be used, and only in some houses of the gentry, “ who build them not to work and feed in, as in Germany and elsewhere, but now and then to sweat in, as occasion and need shall require.” Glass in windows, which was then good and cheap, and made even in England, had generally taken the place of the lattices and of the horn, and of the beryl which noblemen formerly used in windows. Gentlemen were beginning to build their houses of brick and stone, in stately and magnificent fashion. The furniture of the houses had also grown in a manner “ passing delicacy,” and not of the nobility and gentry only, but of the lowest sort. In noblemen’s houses there was abundance of arras, rich hangings of tapestry, and silver vessels, plate often to the value of one thousand and two thousand pounds. The knights, gentlemen, and merchants had great provision of tapestry, Turkie work, pewter, brass, fine linen, and cupboards of plate worth perhaps a thousand pounds. Even the inferior artificers and many farmers had learned also to garnish their cupboards with plate, their joined beds with silk hangings, and their tables with fine linen, — evidences of wealth for which Harrison thanks God and reproaches no man, though he cannot see how it is brought about, when all things are grown to such excessive prices.
Old men of Radwinter noted three things marvelously altered in England within their remembrance. The first was the multitude of chimneys lately erected; whereas in their young days there were not, always except those in the religious and manor houses, above two or three chimneys in most upland towns of the realm; each one made his fire against a reredos in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat. The second was the amendment in lodging. In their youth they lay upon hard straw pallets covered only with a sheet, and mayhap a dogswain coverlet over them, and a good round log for pillow. If in seven years after marriage a man could buy a mattress and a sack of chaff to rest his head on, he thought himself as well lodged as a lord. Pillows were thought meet only for sick women. As for servants, they were lucky if they had a sheet over them, for there was nothing under them to keep the straw from pricking their hardened hides. The third notable thing was the exchange of treene (wooden) platters into pewter, and wooden spoons into silver or tin. Wooden stuff was plenty, but a good farmer would not have above four pieces of pewter in his house; with all his frugality, he was unable to pay his rent of four pounds without selling a cow or horse. It was a time of idleness, and if a farmer at an ale-house, in a bravery to show what he had, slapped down his purse with six shillings in it, all the rest together could not match it. But now, says Harrison, though the rent of four pounds has improved to forty, the farmer has six or seven years’ rent lying by him, to purchase a new term, garnish his cupboard with pewter, buy three or four feather-beds, coverlets, carpets of tapestry, a silver salt, a nest of bowls for wine, and a dozen spoons. All these things speak of the growing wealth and luxury of the age. Only a little before this date, in 1568, Lord Buckhurst, who had been ordered to entertain the Cardinal de Châtillon in Queen Elizabeth’s palace at Sheen, complains of the meanness of the furniture of his rooms. He showed the officers who preceded the cardinal such furniture and stuff as he had, but it did not please them. They wanted plate, he had none; such glass vessels as he had they thought too base. They wanted damask for long tables, and he had only linen for a square table, and they refused his square table. He gave the cardinal his only unoccupied tester and bedstead, and assigned to the bishop the bedstead upon which his wife’s waitingwomen did lie, and laid them on the ground. He lent the cardinal his own basin and ewer, candlesticks from his own table, drinking-glasses, small cushions, and pots for the kitchen. My Lord of Leicester sent down two pair of fine sheets for the cardinal, and one pair for the bishop.
Harrison laments three things in his day: the enhancing of rents, the daily oppression of poor tenants by the lords of manors, and the practice of usury, — a trade brought in by the Jews, but now practiced by almost every Christian, so that he is accounted a fool that doth lend his money for nothing. He prays the reader to help him, in a lawful manner, to hang up all those that take cent, per cent, for money. Another grievance, and most sorrowful of all, is that many gentlemen, men of good port and countenance, to the injury of the farmers and commonalty, actually turn graziers, butchers, tanners, sheep-masters, and woodmen. Harrison also notes the absorption of lands by the rich; the decay of houses in the country, which comes of the eating up of the poor by the rich; the increase of poverty; the difficulty a poor man had to live on an acre of ground; his forced contentment with bread made of oats and barley, and the divers places that formerly had good tenants, and now were vacant, hopyards and gardens.
Harrison says it is not for him to describe the palaces of Queen Elizabeth; he dare hardly peep in at her gates. Her houses are of brick and stone, neat and well situated, but in good masonry not to be compared to those of Henry VIII.’s building; they are rather curious to the eye, like paper-works, than substantial for continuance. Her court is more magnificent than any other in Europe, whether you regard the rich and infinite furniture of the household, the number of officers, or the sumptuous entertainments. And the honest chronicler is so struck with admiration of the virtuous beauty of the maids of honor that he cannot tell whether to award preëminence to their amiable countenances or to their costliness of attire, between which there is daily conflict and contention. The courtiers of both sexes have the use of sundry languages and an excellent vein of writing. Would to God the rest of their lives and conversation corresponded with these gifts! But the courtiers, the most learned, are the worst men when they come abroad that any man shall hear or read of. Many of the gentlewomen have sound knowledge of Greek and Latin, and are skillful in Spanish, Italian, and French; and the noblemen even surpass them. The old ladies of the court avoid idleness by needle work, spinning of silk, or continual reading of the Holy Scriptures or of histories, and writing diverse volumes of their own, or translating foreign works into English or Latin ; and the young ladies, when they are not waiting on her majesty, “ in the mean time apply their lutes, citherns, pricksong, and all kinds of music.” The elders are skillful in surgery and the distillation of waters, and sundry other artificial practices pertaining to the ornature and commendation of their bodies; and when they are at home they go into the kitchen and supply a number of delicate dishes of their own devising, mostly after Portuguese receipts; and they prepare bills of fare (a trick lately taken up) to give a brief rehearsal of all the dishes of every course. I do not know whether this was called the “ higher education of women ” at the time.
In every office of the palaces is a Bible, or book of acts of the church, or chronicle, for the use of whoever comes in, so that the court looks more like a university than a palace. Would to God the houses of the nobles were ruled like the queen’s! The nobility are followed by great troops of serving-men in showy liveries; and it is a goodly sight to see them muster at court, which, being filled with them, “ is made like to the show of a peacock’s tail in the full beauty, or of some meadow garnished with infinite kinds and diversity of pleasant flowers.” Such was the discipline of Elizabeth’s court that any man who struck another within it had his right hand chopped off by the executioner in a most horrible manner.
The English have always had a passion for gardens and orchards. In the Roman time grapes abounded and wine was plenty, but the culture disappeared after the Conquest. From the time of Henry IV. to Henry VIII. vegetables were little used, but in Harrison’s day the use of melons, pompions, radishes, cucumbers, cabbages, turnips, and the like was revived. They had beautiful flower gardens annexed to the houses, wherein were grown also rare and medicinal herbs; it was a wonder to see how many strange herbs, plants, and fruits were daily brought from the Indies, America, and the Canaries. Every rich man had great store of flowers, and in one garden might be seen from three hundred to four hundred medicinal herbs. Men extol the foreign herbs to the neglect of the native, and especially tobacco, “ which is not found of so great efficacy as they write.” In the orchards were plums, apples, pears, walnuts, filberts; and in noblemen’s orchards store of strange fruit, — apricots, almonds, peaches, figs, and even in some oranges, lemons, and capers. Grafters also were at work with their artificial mixtures, “ dallying, as it were, with nature and her course, as if her whole trade were perfectly known unto them: of hard fruits they will make soft, of sour sweet, of sweet yet more delicate; bereaving also some of their kernels, others of their cores, and finally endowing them with the flavor of musk, amber, or sweet spices at their pleasure.” Gardeners turn annual into perpetual herbs, and such pains are they at that they even use dish-water for plants. The Gardens of Hesperides are surely not equal to these. Pliny tells of a rose that had sixty leaves on one bud, but in 1585 there was a rose in Antwerp that had one hundred and eighty leaves; and Harrison might have had a slip of it for ten pounds, but he thought it a “tickle hazard.” In his own little garden, of not above three hundred square feet, he had near three hundred samples, and not one of them of the common, or usually to be had.
Our kin beyond sea have always been stout eaters of solid food, and in Elizabeth’s time their tables were more plentifully laden than those of any other nation. Harrison scientifically accounts for their inordinate appetite. “ The situation of our region,” he says, “lying near unto the north, does cause the heat of our stomachs to be of somewhat greater force; therefore our bodies do crave, a little more ample nourishment, than the inhabitants of the hotter regions are accustomed withal, whose digestive force is not altogether so vehement, because their internal heat is not so strong as ours, which is kept in by the coldness of the air, that from time to time (specially in winter) doth environ our bodies.” The North Britons in old times were accustomed often to great abstinence, and lived when in the woods on roots and herbs. They used sometimes a confection, “ whereof so much as a bean would qualify their hunger above common expectation;” but when they had nothing to qualify it with, they crept into the marsh water up to their chins, and there remained a long time, “only to qualify the heat of their stomachs by violence.”
In Harrison’s day the abstemious Welsh had learned to eat like the English, and the Scotch exceeded the latter in “ over much and distemperate gormandize.” The English eat all they can buy, there being no restraint of any meat for religion’s sake or for public order. The white meats, — milk, butter, and cheese, — though very dear, are reputed as good for inferior people, but the more wealthy feed upon the flesh of all sorts of cattle and all kinds of fish. The nobility (“ whose cooks are for the most part musical-headed Frenchmen and strangers”) exceed in number of dishes and change of meat. Every day at dinner there is beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, conie, capon, pig, or as many of these as the season yielded, besides deer and wild fowl and fish, and sundry delicacies “wherein the sweet hand of the sea-faring Portingale is not wanting.” The food was brought in, commonly, in silver vessels at tables of the degree of barons, bishops, and upwards, and referred first to the principal personage, from whom it passed to the lower end of the table, the guests not eating of all, but choosing what each liked; and nobody stuffed himself. The dishes were then sent to the servants, and the remains of the feast went to te poor, who lay waiting at the gates in great numbers.
Drink was served in pots, goblets, jugs, and bowls of silver in noblemen’s houses, and also in Venice glasses. It was not set upon the table, but the cup was brought to each one who thirsted; he called for such a cup of drink as he wished, and delivered it again to one of the by-standers, who made it clean by pouring out what remained, and restored it to the sideboard. This device was to prevent great drinking, which might ensue if the full pot stood always at the elbow. But this order was not used in noblemen’s halls, nor in any order under the degree of knight or squire of great revenue. It was a world to see how the nobles preferred to gold and silver, which abounded, the new Venice glass, whence a great trade sprung up with Murano that made many rich. The poorest even would have glass, but home - made, — a foolish expense, for the glass soon went to bits, and the pieces turned to no profit. Harrison wanted the philosopher’s stone to mix with this molten glass and toughen it.
There were multitudes of dependents fed at the great houses, and everywhere, according to means, a wide-open hospitality was maintained. Froude gives a notion of the style of living in earlier times by citing the details of a feast given when George Neville, brother of Warwick the king-maker, was made archbishop of York. There were present, including servants, thirty-five hundred persons. These are a few of the things used at the banquet: three hundred quarters of wheat, three hundred tuns of ale, one hundred and four tuns of wine, eighty oxen, three thousand geese, two thousand pigs, four thousand conies, four thousand heronshaws, four thousand venison pasties cold and five hundred hot, four thousand cold tarts, four thousand cold custards, eight seals, four porpoises, and so on.
The merchants and gentlemen kept much the same tables as the nobles, especially at feasts, but when alone were content with a few dishes. They also desired the dearest food, and would have no meat from the butcher’s but the most delicate, while their list of fruits, cakes, cates, and outlandish confections is as long as that at any modern banquet. Wine ran in excess. There were used fifty-six kinds of light wines, like the French, and thirty of the strong sorts, like the Italian and Eastern. The stronger the wine, the better it was liked. The strongest and best was in old times called theologicum, because it was had from the clergy and religious men, to whose houses the laity sent their bottles to be filled, sure that the religious would neither drink nor be served with the worst; for the merchant would have thought his soul should have gone straightway to the devil if he had sent them any but the best. The beer served at noblemen’s tables was commonly a year old, and sometimes two, but this age was not usual. In households generally it was not under a month old, for beer was liked stale if it were not sour, while bread was desired as new as possible so that it was not hot.
The husbandman and artificer ate such meat as they could easiest come by and have most quickly ready; yet the banquets of the trades in London were not inferior to those of the nobility. The husbandmen, however, exceed in profusion, and it is incredible to tell what meat is consumed at bridals, purifications, and such like odd meetings; but each guest brought his own provision, so that the master of the house had only to provide bread, drink, house-room, and fire. These lower classes Harrison found very friendly at their tables, — merry without malice, plain without Italian or French subtlety, —so that it would do a man good to be in company among them; but if they happen to stumble upon a piece of venison or a cup of wine or very strong beer, they do not stick to compare themselves with the lord-mayor,— and there is no public man in any city of Europe that may compare with him in port and countenance during the term of his office.
Harrison commends the great silence used at the tables of the wiser sort, and generally throughout the realm, and likewise the moderate eating and drinking. But the poorer countrymen do babble somewhat at table, and mistake ribaldry and loquacity for wit and wisdom, and occasionally are cup-shotten; and what wonder, when they who have hard diet and small drink at home come to such opportunities at a banquet! The wealthier sort in the country entertain their visitors from afar, however long they stay, with as hearty a welcome the last day as the first; and the countrymen contrast this hospitality with that of their London cousins, who joyfully receive them the first day, tolerate them the second, weary of them the third, and wish ’em at the devil after four days.
The gentry usually ate wheat bread, of which there were four kinds; and the poor generally bread made of rye, barley, and even oats and acorns. Corn was getting so dear, owing to the forestallers and middle-men, that, says the historian, “ if the world last a while after this rate, wheat and rye will be no grain for poor men to feed on; and some catterpillers [two - legged speculators] there are that can say so much already.”
The great drink of the realm was of course beer (and it is to be noted that a great access of drunkenness came into England with the importation much later of Holland gin) made from barley, hops, and water, and upon the brewing of it Harrison dwells lovingly, and devotes many pages to a description of the process, especially as “ once in a month practiced by my wife and her maid servants.” They ground eight bushels of malt, added half a bushel of wheat meal, half a bushel of oat meal, poured in eighty gallons of water, then eighty gallons more, and a third eighty gallons, and boiled with a couple of pounds of hops. This, with a few spices thrown in, made three hogsheads of good beer, meet for a poor man who had only forty pounds a year. This two hundred gallons of beer cost altogether twenty shillings ; but although he says his wife brewed it “once in a month,” whether it lasted a whole month the parson does not say. He was particular about the water used: the Thames is best, the marsh worst, and clear spring water next worst; “ the fattest standing water is always the best.” Cider and perry were made in some parts of England, and a delicate sort of drink in Wales, called metheglin; but there was a kind of “swish-swash” made in Essex from honey-combs and water, called mead, which differed from the metheglin as chalk from cheese.
In Shakespeare’s day much less time was spent in eating and drinking than formerly, when, besides breakfast in the forenoon and dinners, there were “beverages ” or “ nuntion ” after dinner, and supper before going to bed, — “a toie brought in by hardie Canutus,” who was a gross feeder. Generally, there were, except for the young who could not fast till dinner time, only two meals daily, dinner and supper. Yet the Normans had brought in the habit of sitting long at the table, —a custom not yet altogether abated, since the great people, especially at banquets, sit till two or three o’clock in the afternoon; so that it is a hard matter to rise and go to evening prayers and return in time for supper.
Harrison does not make much account of the early meal called “breakfast;” but Fronde says that in Elizabeth’s time the common hour of rising, in the country, was four o’clock, summer and winter, and that breakfast was at five, after which the laborers went to work and the gentlemen to business. The Earl and Countess of Northumberland breakfasted together and alone at seven. The meal consisted of a quart of ale, a quart of wine, and a chine of beef; a loaf of bread is not mentioned, but we hope (says Froude) it may be presumed. The gentry dined at eleven and supped at five. The merchants took dinner at noon, and, in London, supped at six. The university scholars out of term ate dinner at ten. The husbandmen dined at high noon, and took supper at seven or eight. As for the poorer sort, it is needless to talk of their order *of repast, for they dined and supped when they could. The English usually began meals with the grossest food, and ended with the most delicate, taking first the mild wines and ending with the hottest; but the prudent Scot did otherwise, making his entrance with the best, so that he might leave the worse to the menials.
I will close this portion of our sketch of English manners with an extract from the travels of Hentzner, who visited England in 1598. and saw the great queen go in state to chapel at Greenwich, and afterwards witnessed the laying of the table for her dinner. It was on Sunday. The queen was then in her sixty-fifth year, and “very majestic,” as she walked in the splendid procession of barons, earls, and knights of the garter: “her face, oblong, fair, but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked; her lips narrow, and her teeth black (a defect the English seem subject to from their great use of sugar). She had in her ears two pearls with very rich drops; she wore false hair, and that red; upon her head she had a small crown, reported to be made of some of the gold of the celebrated Lunebourg table. Her bosom was uncovered, as all the English ladies have it till they marry; and she had on a necklace of exceeding fine jewels; her hands were small, her fingers long, and her stature neither small nor low; her air was stately, her manner of speaking mild and obliging. That day she was dressed in white silk, bordered with pearls of the size of beans, and over it a mantle of black silk, shot with silver threads; her train was very long, and the end of it borne by a marchioness; instead of a chain she had an oblong collar of gold and jewels.” As she swept on in this magnificence, she spoke graciously first to one, then to another, and always in the language of any foreigner she addressed; whoever spoke to her kneeled, and wherever she turned her face, as she was going along, everybody fell down on his knees. When she pulled off her glove to give her hand to be kissed, it was seen to be sparkling with rings and jewels. The ladies of the court, handsome and well shaped, followed, dressed for the most part in white; and on either side she was guarded by fifty gentlemen pensioners, with gilt battle-axes. In the ante-chapel, where she graciously received petitions, there was an acclaim of “LONG LIVE QUEEN ELIZABETH!” to which she answered,
“I THANK YOU, SIY GOOD PEOPLE.”
The music in the chapel was excellent, and the whole service was over in half an hour. This is Hentzner’s description of the setting out of her table: —
“ A gentleman entered the room bearing a rod, and along with him another who had a table-cloth, which after they had both kneeled three times, he spread upon the table; and after kneeling again they both retired. Then came two others, one with the rod again, the other with a salt-cellar, a plate, and bread; and when they had kneeled as the others had done, and placed what was brought upon the table, they two retired with the same ceremonies performed by the first. At last came an unmarried lady (we were told she was a countess) and along with her a married one, bearing a tastingknife; the former was dressed in white silk, who, when she had prostrated herself three times, in the most graceful manner approached the table, and rubbed the plates with bread and salt, with as much awe as if the Queen had been present. When they had waited there a little while, the Yeomen of the Guard entered, bare-headed, clothed in scarlet, with a golden rose upon their backs, bringing in at each turn a course of twenty-four dishes, served in plate, most of it gilt; these dishes were received by a gentleman in the same order they were brought, and placed upon the table, while the Lady Taster gave to each of the guard a mouthful to eat, of the particular dish he had brought, for fear of any poison. During the time that this guard, which consists of the tallest and stoutest men that can be found in all England, being carefully selected for this service, were bringing dinner, twelve trumpets and two kettle-drums made the hall ring for half an hour together. At the end of all this ceremonial, a number of unmarried ladies appeared, who with particular solemnity lifted the meat off the table, and conveyed it, into the Queen’s inner and more private chamber, where, after she had chosen for herself, the rest goes to the Ladies of the court.”
The queen dined and supped alone, with very few attendants.
Charles Dudley Warner.