A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 13

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Circa 1558—1603


FROM the necessarily serious attitude of our forefathers under the religious changes of the early Tudors, it is a relief to turn to the study of England under her first great Queen, to dream once again of that "merrie" country so fantastically described by Spenser, and to realise that

"This happy breed of men, this little world,
 This precious stone set in the silver sea,"

so dramatically represented by Shakspere, resembles more closely than heretofore the England of to-day.

The Middle Ages have gone for ever. Past is the vision of glittering knights pricking over solitary plains, making their way through gloomy and pathless forests in lowering twilight to the relief of phantom ladies in distress; gone is the splendid glow of colour; pierced at last is the impenetrable mist concealing the real humanity of our medieval ancestry. Individuals stand forth from the crowd, and at the head of all reigns the Maiden Queen, Elizabeth, ludicrous perhaps in her artificiality, but very human, frivolous, and fanciful. She knew—who better?—the temper of her people; she was ready to encourage their enterprise, to smile compassionately at their devotion, to reward, however shabbily, their deeds of heroism and daring. Hence the Elizabethan age is one of restless energy and splendid achievement, tempered with unbounded courage and reckless daring. Once more the blood of the Viking was passionately stirred, and across the tempestuous seas the Elizabethan explorer sailed to new lands and new scenes, in boats which showed no very marked advance on those in which our Saxon forefathers had approached our shores, some thousand years before. New worlds had opened before their astonished eyes, and with the delight of children they bounded forward to take possession of their new-found lands across the seas. The expeditions were full of danger, but faith in an omnipotent God steeled their spirits. Every explorer took the sacrament in his parish church before he set forth on his adventures, and his first act on landing in a strange country was to kneel in thanksgiving for his safe arrival in port. There were many who never returned home, and in days of few letters and no telegrams one can picture the anxiety of the eager throng that would crowd round the weather-beaten sailors—bronzed and bearded men with deep-set eyes and hollow cheeks—men who had seen strange sights and heard strange tales. Their ships were laden with gold dust and ingots of silver, pearls, emeralds, and diamonds; they had negroes on board and Red Indians, crocodile skins, chattering monkeys, and gorgeous-hued parrots. "The little world had become … inconceivably large."

Wealth increased by leaps and bounds, and commerce began that more rapid development which till the end of the Victorian era made England supreme among nations. London, too was becoming the wonder of the world, "a large excellent, and mighty city of business, and the most important in the whole kingdom," as a foreigner truly remarked after a residence in this country. "Most of the inhabitants are employed in buying and selling merchandise, and trading in almost every corner of the world, since the river is most useful and convenient for this purpose, considering that ships from France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Hamburg, and other kingdoms, come almost up to the city, to which they convey goods and take away others in exchange. One can scarcely pass along the streets on account of the throng." When Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne the commercial centre of the world was Antwerp; when she died the commercial centre was London. The opening of the Royal Exchange—the gift of a rich merchant—by the Queen herself marks the commercial progress of the day. Foreign merchants, picturesque in their native costumes, brought their wares to the new "Burse." At six o'clock in the morning a bell rang from the lofty tower, summoning all together for the day's work. New luxuries found their way into the country, amongst which may be mentioned apricots, turkeys, hops, tobacco, and potatoes. New manufactures sprang up in England, and for the first time we find such things as pins, needles, shoe buckles, tacks, paper, fans, and wigs being made in this country. This is no place to speak fully of the great woollen industry that grew apace in the Eastern Counties, of the increase in dyeing and spinning, or the fame of English wool. The results are directly visible in the lives of the people. Shopkeepers, merchants, farmers, manufacturers, all grew rich and prosperous, and an increase of comfort and luxury in ordinary life was the natural outcome of the new energy. Yet wise men shook their heads over the growth of luxury, even as they do to-day. That it would "eat out the hardihood of the people" was their growing anxiety, for in the increase of comfort they saw the signs of England's decay.

"We see the change," cries one, "for when our houses were builded of willow, then had we oken men; but now that our houses are come to be made of oke, our men are not onlie become willow, but a great many altogether of straw, which is a sore alteration. Now have we manie chimneys and yet our tenderlings complaine of rheums, catarrhs, and poses. Then had we none but reredosses and our heads did never ake."

"England spendeth more on wines in one year than it did in ancient times in four years," grumbled another. The increase of luxury has undoubtedly its dangers, but there are degrees of luxury after all, and one can hardly regret the substitution of chimneys for the open hearth, of carpets for the stale rushes with their accompanying accumulations of dirt, of forks for fingers, not to mention items which to-day are considered necessaries rather than luxuries, as nightgowns, potatoes, and toothbrushes.

If the great feudal household was a creation of the past, and the hall no longer found the lord and his lady sitting at board with their array of feudal retainers, yet the Elizabethan household was an immense affair. The sixteenth century was the era of palaces, spacious and stately buildings, where open hospitality still reigned as in the bygone days, though the old simplicity of life had past. Elaborate and complicated were these Tudor palaces, with their fretted fronts and gilded turrets, their picturesque gables and castellated gateways. The foreign element was as visible in Elizabethan architecture as in everything else Elizabethan. Everything was ornamented, nothing was plain. Outside and inside there was carving, painting, sculpture, and needlework. Turrets, gables, and domes were decorated, brick chimneys were elaborately carved, towers were surmounted with carved figures, roofs were castellated, and oriel windows ridiculously exaggerated. From the narrow and draughty Gothic loophole of the past the sixteenth-century architect turned to an almost painful extreme of glaring light. We hear of a window with 3,200 panes of glass in it, and remember Lord Bacon's warning, "You shall have sometimes fair houses so full of glass that one cannot tell where to be out of the sun or cold." From these windows the wealthy English owner could look out on to his newly laid out garden, with its stately terrace, its broad flights of steps, its vases and fountains, mazes and grass plots, its yew hedges in grotesque shapes. The primitive medieval garden, which had developed into the pleasure garden of the early Tudors, had now grown into the formal old English garden of the Elizabethan era. The architect who designed the house, as a matter of course in those days, designed the garden also. In front lay the wide terrace, from which a flight of steps led to broad, straight walks, intersected with flower-beds geometric in form. The patterns harmonised with the details of architecture; the tracery surmounting the Elizabethan house found its counterpart in the design of the flower-beds. The garden was square "because it doth best agree with a man's dwelling," and bounded by a high brick wall, often covered with rosemary and "divers sweet smelling plants." But the old formal garden is too well known to need description, for it has many imitations in these modern days. Familiar in our minds are the quaint yew hedges fantastically clipped, the "covert walks" and "shade alleys" formed by intertwining willows and wych elms, where "one might walk twoe myle … before he came to their ends." Familiar the maze set with privet, some six feet high, with lavender, marjoram, or thyme, and cut into "meanders, circles, semicircles, windings, and intricate turnings, the walks or intervals whereof are all grass plots"; familiar the fair fountains with their marble sculpture, Neptune and his horses, Thetis and her dolphins, Triton and his fishes, with water spurting vehemently upwards. Indeed these fountains gave rise to many a practical joke, for it was a favourite pastime to order the gardener at a distance to turn a wheel, which, forcing the water through a number of little pipes, played upon the ladies standing by so as to wet them thoroughly from "top to toe."

On another side of the house lay the kitchen or cook's garden, no longer given up entirely to herbs as of yore. Here grew melons, gourds, cucumbers, radishes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, and salad herbs, for these were no longer the food of the "poor commons," but to be found henceforth at the "tables of delicate merchants, gentlemen and the nobility." Hence more care was given to their cultivation. But by far the most important addition to the kitchen garden was the potato, now brought back from the New World for the first time, "thicke, fat and tuberous," some round as a ball, some oval or egg fashion, some longer and others shorter, which "knobbie rootes are fastened into the stalkes with an infinite number of threddie strings." Such was the potato of these days; it was cooked, "either rosted in the embers, or boiled and eaten with oile, vinegar and pepper, or dressed any other way by the hand of some cunning in cookery."

The Elizabethan orchard, which "takes away the tediousness and heavie load of three or four score years," was usually to the east side of the flower garden, so that the fruit trees might shelter the tender plants, while tall forest trees in their turn sheltered the fruit trees. The newly imported "apricocke" was carefully tended on the south wall with peaches and nectarines; quinces and plums were grown on the west, spread up and fastened to the walls by the help of tacks, now used for the first time. In front of the wall fruit was usually a path bordered with low trained fruit trees, cherries, gooseberries, pippins and currants—a sort of wild grape—while between the raspberries and currants the ground was "powdered with strawberries." What a joy these gardens were to our forefathers is well expressed by a contemporary writer: "A garden then so appointed as wherein aloft upon sweet shadowed walk of terrace, in heat of summer, to feel the pleasant whisking wind above or delectable coolness of the fountain spring beneath; to taste of delicious strawberries, of sweet odours, breathing from the plants, herbs and flowers; to hear such natural melodious musick and tunes of birds, to have in eye, for mirth, sometime there under springing streams, then, the woods, the waters, the deer, the people, the fruit trees, the plants, the herbs, the flowers, the change in colours, the birds fluttering, the fountain streaming, the fish swimming, all in such delectable variety, order, dignity; whereby at one moment, in one place, at hand, without travel, to have so full fruition of so many of God's blessings, worthy to be called Paradise."

Neither can one forget Spenser's joyous voice singing—

"Bring hether the Pinke and purple Cullambine
 With Gelliflowers;
 Bring Coronations and Sops in wine,
 Worn of Paramowers;
 Strowe me the ground with Daffadowndillies
 And Cowslips and Kingcups and loved Lillies."

Indoors, too, flowers abounded. In summer time the chimneys were trimmed with banks of moss and a white flower "called everlasting." "Their chambers and parlours strawed over with sweete herbs refreshed me," says a Dutch traveller in 1560. "Their nosegays finely intermingled with sundry sorts of fragrant flowers in their bed-chambers with comfortable smell, cheered me up and entirely delighted my senses."

But flowers were a small detail of the luxuries which filled the inside of Elizabethan houses. The great hall of feudal fame, now robbed of its ancient importance, was merely the stately approach to a wide and decorated staircase, leading to magnificent banqueting rooms and endless wide galleries, which were hung with rich tapestries and embroideries, and adorned with cloths of gold and silver, with some few pictures of Royal personages carefully tended behind little curtains. Long passages led to suites of gorgeous bedrooms occupied by huge four-post beds—the glory of the Tudors. The massive pillars reaching to the ceiling, richly carved and gilded, bore a weight of heavy hangings, often edged with gold and silver lace, caught up at intervals with long loops and buttons. Over the feather bed, the blankets, and the sheets lay a gorgeous silk and satin coverlet, embroidered in Venetian gold, with silver spangles, and lined with foreign silks of glorious hues. Then there were seats with quilted cushions, inlaid cabinets shining with gold and silver and precious stones, basins of silver "filled at convenient times with sweete and pleasaunt waters," Thus Imogen's bedroom:

                     "Her bed-chamber was hanged
With tapestry of silk and silver, …

                      A piece of work
So bravely done, so rich, that it did strive
In workmanship and value. …
                      The chimney-piece
Chaste Dian bathing. …
                      The roof o' the chamber
With golden cherubims is fretted."

Nor must we omit the looking-glass, a product of this century, often framed in copper and gilt and bordered with gems or velvet.

All this outward show was a direct result of the sudden contact, with other countries. Luxuries and comforts hitherto undreamt of found their way into England and completely revolutionised the social life of the people. And yet, with all this increase of comfort, it is strange to find that a great many of the common necessities of modern life were still entirely absent. Thus, it has been noted, in the absence of soap, clothes were washed with cow-dung, hemlock and nettles, which gave them such a disagreeable savour that we are not surprised at the exclamation of an Englishman of the age, "I cannot abide to weare them on my bodie." A clean shirt was a luxury, not a necessity, as it is to-day. Nightgowns were only just invented. The Queen's first nightgown was made of black velvet with lace of murrey silk and gold, lined with fur, and one smiles at her order for the delivery of fourteen yards of murrey damask for the "making of a nyghtgowne for the Erle of Leycester."

But this brings us to the subject of Elizabethan dress and a brief description of—

"Silken coats and caps and golden rings,
 With ruffs and cuffs and farthingales and things,
 With scarfs and fans and double change of bravery,
 With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knavery."