A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 14

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Circa 1558—1603

"Merrie England" (continued)

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players."


THE same outward show and display of wealth that characterised the Elizabethan dwellings likewise characterised their dress. "Oh, how much cost is bestowed nowadays upon our bodies, and how little upon our souls!" laments the historian of the period. "How long time is asked in decking up of the first and how little space left wherein to feed the latter. How curious, how nice also, are a number of men and women, and how hardly can the tailor please them in fitting their bodies! How many times must it be sent back again to him that made it! What chafing, what fretting, what reproachful language, doth the poor workman bear away!" Words that might be uttered to-day as well as three hundred years ago, yet they are not surprising if we examine for a moment the elaborate dress of the Elizabethan era. Artificiality reigned supreme. No regard was paid to the natural form of the body, but the whole figure was deformed by means of steel and whalebone. There were no more loose and flowing sleeves, no more trailing skirts with tight-fitting bodies, as in the past—all was rigid and stiff and uncomfortable as artifice could make it. And this was greatly admired by Englishmen in the sixteenth century:—

"Her long slit sleeves, stifle buske, puffe verdingall,
 Is all that makes her thus angelicall."

The vanity of the Queen herself was proverbial, and the three thousand dresses found at her death bore witness to it. She would endure no criticism, and when the Bishop of London preached before her on the "vanitie of deckinge the bodie too finely," she remarked sternly, "If the Bishop held discourse on such matters she wolde fitte him for heaven, but he sholde walke thither without a staffe and leave his mantle behind him."

Such being the case, fashions became more ludicrous and pronounced. The crinoline, appearing in France in 1530, soon made its way into England. It was first worn as a round petticoat stiffened with whalebone; later it was distended at the hips till the circumference below the waist was greater than round the bottom, and formed a sort of table, on which the arms could rest. The upper part of the figure was squeezed into a stiff pointed bodice, involving severe compression and consequent discomfort. Round the neck was worn the famous ruff, so familiar to students of Elizabethan times.

This was of Spanish origin. It began as a large slender collar of cambric, which grew larger and higher as time passed on, till the wearer found it so inconvenient, "flap-flapping" in the wind, that wires were inserted to hold it out from the neck. Six years after the accession of Queen Elizabeth, the ruff was re-organised by the introduction of starch, "the devil's liquor" as it was afterwards called by the Puritans. The wife of the Queen's Dutch coachman set up a clear-starching establishment in London, and soon had her hands so full of crumpled ruffs to stiffen and starch that she took pupils at five guineas each to learn the trade, which every good laundress to-day knows so well. The innovation was greatly opposed at first. "The devil's kingdom of great ruffs is underpropped … by a certain kind of liquid matter, which they call starch," cries an angry contemporary, "wherein the devil hath learned them to wash and die their ruffs, which being dry, will stand stiff and inflexible about their necks." The ruff reached so nearly to the top of the head that hair could no longer be worn long, as in the last century. Elaborately dressed hair now took the place of head-dresses. It was "curled, frizzled and crisped, laid out on wreaths and borders from one ear to the other"; it was dyed golden to match that of the Queen, and false hair was abundantly added. "Her hair shall be of what colour it please God," says Benedick, describing the woman of his choice, in condemnation of the prevailing fashion. Indeed, in such demand was false hair that it was not safe for children with good hair to be seen alone, lest it were cropped by the women who sold long tresses for curls and twists. Freely, too, were the dead robbed:

                   "The golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away
To live a second life on second head,
And beautys dead fleece made another gay."

Then, as now, the Court was the model for fashion. Queen Elizabeth had a pale complexion, hence the ladies of the realm swallowed "gravel, ashes, and tallow," and one has but little doubt that they successfully achieved their object. The Queen had a variety of new ostrich feather fans, hence no well dressed lady could be seen without one suspended by a gold chain from her wrist "to flit away the flisking flies." The Queen also wore silk stockings with clocks instead of the old cloth hose; she wore high-heeled shoes or Venetian "chopines"; she also carried a pocket-handkerchief too richly trimmed with gold and silver to be of much use; she had gloves "trimmed with tufts of rose coloured silk," and "sweet as damask roses" from perfume. Gloves for women were quite an innovation; hitherto they had been a distinctive feature of men's dress.

But not everybody might copy the Queen's toilet. By the sumptuary laws of the period, only the nobility might wear woollen goods made out of England; only those with an income of £200 a year might wear velvet or embroidery ornamented with gold and silver; none but those receiving over £100 might wear satin, damask, silk, or taffeta. The size of men's breeches, the texture of their material, the woolly caps to be worn by all maidens above the age of six, the very length of the apprentices' blue gowns—all these details were rigidly settled by law.

Not only apprentices, but the numerous domestic servants of these days wore blue coats. "The English are lovers of show," observes a contemporary, "followed wherever they go by whole troops of servants who wear their master's arms in silver, fastened on their left arms." These servants were subject to very strict regulations, and heavy fines were imposed for every misdemeanour. Thus to be absent from morning or evening prayers without just cause involved a fine of 2d.; to be found in bed after 6 a.m. or out of bed after 10 p.m. a fine of 2d.; breakages in the household were deducted from the quarterly wage, and if there was uncertainty as to the culprit, the butler paid 12d. Unpunctuality was severely punished, and if the tablecloth were not laid at 10.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. for the main meals of the day, the fine was 6d. Further it was enacted, "That none toy with the maids on paine of 4d.: That no man weare foule shirt on Sunday, nor broken hose or shoes or dublett without buttons on paine of 1d.: That all stayrs in the house be made cleane on Fryday after dinner, on paine of forfeyture 3d." These fines were deducted from quarter-day wages and bestowed on the poor. Perhaps it is no wonder that England was called by foreigners "a paradise for women, a prison for servants, and a purgatory for horses." A paradise for women when compared with other countries it undoubtedly was.

"Wives in England," says an Antwerp merchant who lived long in this country, "are entirely in the hands of their husbands, their lives only excepted. Therefore, when they marry, they give up the surname of their father and take that of their husband … yet they are not so strictly kept as they are in Spain and elsewhere. Nor are they shut up, but they have the management of the house or housekeeping … they go to market to buy what they like best to eat … they are well dressed … and commonly leave the drudgery to their servants … they sit before their doors decked out in fine clothes, in order to see and be seen by the passers by. In all banquets and feasts they are shown the greatest honour: they are placed at the upper end of the table, where they are first served. All the rest of their time they employ in walking and riding, in playing at cards … in visiting their friends and keeping company, conversing with their gossips, and making merry at child-births, christenings and funerals, and all with the permission and knowledge of their husbands."

Indeed, this making merry on solemn occasions was characteristic of Elizabethan days. At Christmas, commemorated in other countries by devotional practices, England "rang from one end to the other with mirth. Sports and fooleries, feasts and frolics, games and revels filled the joyous days from All Hallows Eve to the Feast of Pentecost. They loved a noise: the firing of cannon, the beating of drums, the blast of trumpets and the ringing of many bells was as music in their ears. Our Elizabethan forefathers were not yet afflicted with the nerves of the twentieth century. Bear-baiting and bull-baiting presented no horrors to their minds; men and women watched, with varying degrees of pleasure, the hoodwinking of the wretched animals; they applauded the circle of those who plied the tethered beast with whips till it madly charged its unknown foes. But then they were familiar with the sight of public executions, performed by the local butcher on market days, and their fathers had watched the martyrs in the cause of religion tied to stakes at Smithfield while the flames consumed them. It was the age of rack and thumb-screw, and familiar to all were the heads of traitors freely exhibited to a callous public.

Of out-door sports, hawking and hunting still held their place, while within, dancing was becoming more and more popular. Elizabeth herself was a famous dancer, and woe betide the courtier who could not tread a measure or go through the stately movements of the "peacock." Card-playing had now superseded the game of chess, and was growing more and more in favour. Primero, trump, and gleek were the favourites, involving heavy stakes, which bring back the cry of Falstaff: "I never prospered since I forswore myself at primero."

But all these amusements pale before the growing delight of play-going. To the allegorical morality play—revived to-day by the Elizabethan Stage Society in the representation of "Everyman"—succeeded historical representations, at first crude, but carried to a triumphant height by Shakspere. When Elizabeth ascended the throne there was no theatre: miscellaneous plays were acted in the courtyards of great inns or other open spaces, on temporary stages standing on four legs and protected by an awning in bad weather. But in 1576 a regular playhouse was established and called The Theatre. Here the stage literally was a stage—a platform erected against one end of the square building. On the other three sides stood the spectators in the pit or yard, while all round ran galleries, boxes, or rooms, like the galleries of an old inn-yard. There was no arrangement for scenery; everything was very simple, and much was left to the imagination. The locality was indicated by a ticket bearing one such word as "Garden," "Thebes," and the spectators pictured the scene according to experience. The coarseness of some of the early plays may be inferred from the stage directions, such as "Enter Anne in bed," &c. Sir Philip Sydney laughed openly at the inadequacy of scenic effect: "Now you shall see three ladies walk to gather flowers," he says, "and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of a shipwreck in the same place; then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock; upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke; then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave." A regular company of players was appointed, and on Sundays at one o'clock the flag was hoisted on the top of the theatre to announce that the play was about to begin. A flourish of trumpets ushered in an actor in a long black velvet cloak to speak the prologue. Then the play began, lasting some two hours, the women's parts all being taken by young men and boys. Then, as now, a new play had to pass through the fiery furnace of public criticism, and our ancestors were evidently as capricious and successful as their descendants in howling down a piece. The passion for plays increased, and we hear the complaint that there were now "four or five Sundays in every week": new theatres were built and more companies formed, one of which included William Shakspere. The representation of stirring scenes from past history grew and grew, till the young actor came forward to supply the demand. Comedies, tragedies, and historical plays succeeded one another, each of surpassing greatness, each complete in its knowledge of human nature, unexpressed by the ages that were passed. For the first time, men and women, convincing in their reality, played out their lives on the stage, and the drama reached a height hitherto undreamt of.

But if the amusement of theatre-going owes its origin to this period, there is another important addition to the social lives of our forefathers. The habit of smoking dates from the sixteenth century. The story of its introduction from the New World is too well known to repeat, but the process is quaintly described by a contemporary. "In these days (1573)," he says, "the taking in of the smoke of the Indian herb called Tabaco by an instrument formed like a little ladle, whereby it passeth from the mouth into the head and stomach, is greatly taken up and used in England against rheums and some other diseases engendered in the lungs and inward parts, and not without effect." Though used at first as a drug and for medicinal purposes. Sir Walter Raleigh made it fashionable, till to "take" tobacco soon became a necessary part of a gentleman's education. "They have pipes on purpose made of clay," says a foreigner, "into the farthest end of which they put the dry herb, so that it may be rubbed into powder, and, lighting it, they draw the smoke into their mouths, which they puff out again through their nostrils like funnels." For some time smoking was an expensive luxury, for tobacco cost as much as 18s. an ounce in modern money. One pipe was often handed round the table for several people to use in turn, while in the inns the landlady often hired out a pipeful of tobacco to her guests. The inns of the period were a great advance on old days, and the comfort of the guests was much studied. "As soon as a passenger comes to an inn the servants run to him, and one takes his horse and walks him till he be cold, then rubs him down and gives him meat. Another servant gives the passenger his private chamber, and kindles the fire; the third pulls off his boots and makes them cleane." Each newcomer, we are specially told with pride, is sure to lie in clean sheets, "wherein no man hath been lodged" since they came from the laundress or out of the water wherein they were last washed. But evidently in the minds of the travellers some doubt yet lingered. "My she friend, is my bed made? is it good?" asks a traveller of the chambermaid "Jane."

"Yes, sir, it is a good featherbed; the sheets be very clean."

"Pull off my hose, and warm my bed; draw the curtains and pin with a pin, my she friend; kisse me once and I shall sleep the better. I thank you, fair maiden." Presumably, according to the free-and-easy manners of the day, "Jane" acquiesced, for we hear the traveller called for her in the morning and tipped her well at his departure.

The large beds of Elizabethan days found their way into the inns and accommodated many travellers:—

"At Ware was a bed of dimensions wide;
 Four couples might easily sleep side by side."

The charge was somewhat elastic, and great good-nature usually prevailed. Having eaten at dinner as much as he can, the guest is free to set by a part for the next day's breakfast. His bill is then made out, and should he object to any charge, "the host is ready to alter it." Coaches as yet were rare as a means of conveyance, and the roads were bad for travelling. "For, indeed, a coach was a strange monster in those days, and the sight of it put both horse and man into amazement; some said it was a great crab shell brought out of China, and some imagined it to be one of the Pagan Temples in which the canibals adored the devil." Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth drove in her coach and the ladies of the land strove to follow her example. Luggage was for the most part carried in a chariot with "seven great trotting horses," and here is an amusing list of personal possessions which a gentleman's servant had to remember not to leave behind in inns—purse, dagger, cloak, nightcap, kerchief, shoeing-horn, wallet, shoes, spear, hood, halter, saddle cloth, spurs, hat, bow, arrows, sword, horn, leash, gloves, string, pen, paper, ink, parchment, red wax, pumice, books, penknife, comb, thimble, needle, thread, bodkin, knife, and shoemaker's thread.

So passed life in England during the forty-five momentous years of Elizabeth's reign. Our country had grown up around a Queen whose instinctive sympathy with her people had suggested possibilities hitherto undreamt of. "Round her, with all her faults, the England which we know grew into the consciousness of its destiny."