A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 15

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Circa 1603—1642


"Go, and in regions far such heroes bring ye forth
 As those from whom we came; and plant our name
 Under that star not known unto our north."

JAMES I. loved show and magnificence quite as much as his predecessors, Henry VIII. and Elizabeth, so that we find the dress of the last period yet more exaggerated, extravagant sums of money spent on luxuries, banquets, masques, and other entertainments, and a general light worldliness pervading society during the early part of the seventeenth century. The Court itself was a "nursery of intemperance"; we hear rumours of the King being carried away from the dinner-table in his chair, unable to stand, ladies rolling about in intoxication. Thus the honour, glory, and prestige of the nation bequeathed by Elizabeth soon vanished under her thriftless heir. The manners and customs of the Court became the manners and customs of the nation, until we are told "every great house in the country became a sty of uncleanness." Masques, coarse plays, and bear-baiting deteriorated public taste and mocked the past glory of the drama. Dress, too, had grown so exaggerated that in a rush of ladies to see a masque at Whitehall four or five got wedged together by reason of their huge farthingales, unable to move themselves, and effectually blocking the entrance to others till half through the play. For a time these "impertinent garments" were forbidden by the King, but neither this incident nor the Royal proclamation made any difference, and the size of the farthingale grew ever larger and larger. Indeed, the Queen, Anne of Denmark, even rode in a huge "wheel farthingale," with a ruff standing up round the back of her neck, stiff as pasteboard, starched with the fashionable yellow starch. The King himself figured daily in a new suit. But matters reached a climax when the Duke of Buckingham went to the French Court to fetch Henrietta Maria to England as a bride for the King's son Charles, dressed in a suit of uncut white velvet, a cloak set all over with diamonds valued at eighty thousand pounds, a diamond feather in his hat, sword and girdle all set with precious stones. Feasting and riotous living were as conspicuous as extravagance in dress, until the household expenses of the King amounted to double those of his predecessor.

While such were the habits of the Court, one recalls with satisfaction the fact, that there were many of the country gentlemen left who followed the routine of the last generation. There was still in England the family rising at daybreak and assembling at family prayers read by the domestic chaplain. Breakfast consisted of a pint of beer and a pint of wine for each person, a piece of salt fish, some baked herrings, a chine of mutton or "three mutton bones boiled," together with the inevitable manchet, for which this is a seventeenth-century receipt: "Take a bushel of fine wheat flour, 20 eggs, 3 lb. of fresh butter; then take as much salt and barm as usual; temper it together with new milk pretty hot, then let it lie the space of half an hour to rise, so you may work it up into bread and bake it; let not your oven be too hot." After breakfast, the master of the household and his sons got into the saddle and went off to hunt the deer, followed by scores of attendants, while the lady and her daughters superintended the dairy and buttery, dealt out bread and meat to the poor at their gates, and ordered the day's spinning. Indeed, the spinning of wool and flax was laborious and incessant, and the beautiful linen was handed down from generation to generation, as was also the hand embroidery, which often took some generations to complete. Needlework was a very necessary part of a woman's education in the seventeenth century; not less important was a knowledge of fine cooking, curing, preserving, distilling, candying, the making of syrups and jellies, beautifying washes, vinegar, pickles, and essences. Thus we get a lady excusing herself for not writing her letters, "Being almost melted with the double heat of the weather and my hotter employment because the fruit is suddenly ripe and I am busy preserving."

At noon came dinner, proclaimed by a noisy bell—a large and solid meal, after which sack and home-brewed ale, foreign wines, card-playing, love-making, dancing and other amusements passed the time to sunset, when the hour for bed was at hand. For those who could read, there was the library, which usually consisted of some six or eight huge printed volumes. Here was the great family Bible, Fox's "Acts and Monuments," Froissart's Chronicles, "The Seven Champions of Christendom," and others of like description.

But even as the century passed, we find a more mercenary spirit creeping over domestic life. Here is an amusing letter from a newly married lady stating her requirements:—

"My sweet Life,—I suppose it were best for me to bethink and consider within myself what allowance were meetest for me. I pray and beseech you to grant to me, your most kind and loving wife, the sum of £2,600 quarterly to be paid. Also I would, beside that allowance, have £600 quarterly to be paid for the performance of charitable works and those things I would not, neither will be, accountable for. Also I will have three horses for my own saddle that none shall dare to lend or borrow. Also I would have two gentlewomen, lest one should be sick, also, believe it, it is an undecent thing for a gentlewoman to stand mumping alone, when God hath blessed their lord and lady with a great estate—also for either of these said women I must and will have for either of them a horse. Also I will have six or eight gentlemen, and I will have my two coaches, one lined with velvet to myself with four very fair horses, and a coach for my women lined with cloth and laced with gold, with four good horses. Also I will have two coachmen, one for my own coach, the other for my women. Also, for that it is undecent to crowd up myself with my gentleman-usher in my coach, I will have him to have a convenient horse to attend me. And I must have two footmen. And my desire is that you defray all the charges for me. And for myself, besides my yearly allowance, I would have twenty gownes of apparel, six of them excellent good ones, eight of them for country, and six other of them very excellent good ones. Also I would have to put in my purse £2,000 and £200, and so you to pay my debts. Also I would have £6,000 to buy me jewels and £4,000 to buy me a pearl chain. Now, seeing I have been, and am, so reasonable unto you, I pray you do find my children apparel and their schooling, and all my servants—men and women —their wages. Also I will have all my houses furnished and my lodging chambers to be suited with all such furniture as is fit; as beds, stools, chairs, suitable cushions, carpets, silver warming pans, cupboards of plate, fair hangings, and such like. So for my drawing chamber, in all houses, I will have them delicately furnished both with hangings, couch, canopy, glass, carpets, chairs, cushions, and all things thereunto belonging."

Marriage in these days was very much a commercial proceeding, so much portion against so much income. The love of husbands and wives, of parents and children, was as strong as it had ever been and will ever be, but the ordinary falling in love of young men and women was not considered of the slightest importance.

"I mean to marry my daughter to £2,000 a year," wrote one Englishman of this period to another.

"I am afraid in these bad times you will not match your sisters as you desire," wrote another.

Thus a man was an appendage to fortune, children but pawns to advance the position and wealth of their parents. There was bargaining about money matters, discussion as to what the bridegroom elect was bound to supply, the unscrupulous dropping of one proposal after another with the barest motives of interest. Here is the triumphant announcement of an engagement: "Sister Pegg is suddenly to be married to Mr. Elwes, of Northamtonshire; his estate is knowne to the world to be at the least £2,000 a year. He makes her of his owne offer £500 a year good security Joynter"; but a few weeks later follows a lamentable account of this commercial union: "Poor peg has married a very humersome cros boy has ever I see in my life, and she is very much altered for the worse since she was married; I do not blame her, because sometimes he maks her cry night and day."

Large families gave the mother of the period ample occupation; the infant mortality was tremendous, and, if over half the children survived babyhood, the mother was considered a remarkable manager. We hear of a healthy baby of a month old overlaid by his nurse, of another "seven weeks languishing, breeding teeth and ending in a dropsy," of another dying after six fits of a "quartan ague," suffocated by the "women and maids that attended him and covered him too hot with blankets as he lay in a cradle, near an excessive hot fire in a close room." Children were unsuitably fed and unsuitably dressed. They were little miniatures of their parents, and must have suffered much in the big ruffs and padded breeches of the period. A great deal was expected of them. We hear of a child of three years old being complained of for being "shy and rustic" by his father, till even his stern old grandmother is obliged to intercede for him. "Sonn," she writes, "Edmund must be woone with fiar menes. Let me begge of you and his mother that nobody whip him, but Mr. Parrye; yf you doe goe a violent waye with him, you will be the furst that will rue it, for i veryly beleve he will reseve ingery by it." There was little happy childhood for the children of these days. Lucy Hutchinson has told us that at four years old she could read English perfectly, and was "carried to sermons," which she could afterwards repeat word for word, while at the age of seven she was receiving instruction from no less than eight tutors. But even this pales before the knowledge of poor little Richard Evelyn, a few years later, who died at the age of five. His accomplishments are almost incredible, but his father declares that at two and a half years old he could perfectly read any of the English, Latin, French, or Gothic letters, pronouncing the three first languages exactly. "He had before the fifth year not only skill to read most written hands, but to decline all the nouns, conjugate the verbs, regular and most of the irregular, got by heart almost the entire vocabulary of Latin and French primitives and words, could make congruous syntax, turn English into Latin, and vice versa, construe and prove what he read, and did the government and use of relatives, verbs, substantives, ellipses, and many figures and tropes; began himself to write legibly, and had a strong passion for Greek. The number of verses he could recite was prodigious; he had read Æsop, he had a wonderful disposition to mathematics, having by heart divers propositions of Euclid that were read to him in play, and he would make lines and demonstrate them. He had learned all his Catechism early, and understood the historical part of the Bible and New Testament to a wonder."

Letter-writing, too, was on the increase, encouraged by improved means of communication. In 1635 the first inland post was established by Charles I., who commands his "Postmaster of England … to settle a running post or two to run night and day between Edinburgh and London, to go thither and come back again in six days, and to take with them all such letters as shall be directed to any post-town in or near that road." Five years later eight postal lines were running in England, the rates of postage being 2d. for 80 miles, 4d. for 140 miles, while to Scotland cost 8d. Distance was little considered in these days. Prince Henry, the delicate son of James I., rode 96 miles to meet his father, setting out at one o'clock in the morning to avoid riding through the heat of the day. Hackney carriages were as yet in their infancy. It was not till 1625 that some twenty of them made their appearance in the streets of London, and one smiles at the proclamation ten years later forbidding hackney coaches in London, Westminster or the suburbs to travel more than three miles an hour because they "pestered the streets, broke up the pavements, and made walking dangerous." A few years later, some fifty hackney coaches were plying in London and the suburbs, but a greater luxury was the sedan chair, in which ladies and gentlemen who could afford it, might be carried from place to place.

It was against these and other luxuries that the Puritans now directed their fiercest attacks. These Puritans had been growing in numbers and strength since the times of Queen Elizabeth. Their aims have been summed up by Carlyle as: "The struggle of men intent on the real essence of things against men intent on the semblances and forms of things … fierce destroyers of Forms; but it were more just to call them haters of untrue Forms."

That worship at this time needed reform, few denied, but by suppression and persecution during the reign of Elizabeth the Puritans had become martyrs and their cause grew apace. The new King (James I.) had hardly crossed the Border when the Puritan ministers pressed further for reform. Among other things, they demanded certain alterations in the Prayer-book of Edward VI., they pleaded against the sign of the cross in baptism and the ring in marriage, against the use of cap and surplice, against the "longsomeness of service and the abuse of Church songs and music." They did not want to separate themselves from the Church of England, only to reform the abuses that had crept in; A conference took place, but neither party would concede ground. The King definitely declared for the historic tradition of the Church service, but agreed to the Puritan demand for a new translation of the Bible. This accordingly was made by forty-seven scholars and dedicated to King James I. in the year 1611, since which date it has been in general use till to-day.

The results of the conference were far reaching. Two irreconcilable parties had arisen in England—those who clung to the historic Church of England and those who dissented from it or refused to conform to it. Hence the name Dissenter and Nonconformist. Statesmen who had little sympathy with the religious spirit pleaded for the purchase of national union by ecclesiastical reform.

"Why," asked Bacon, "should the Civil State be purged and restored by good and wholesome laws made every three years in Parliament assembled, devising remedies as fast as time breedeth mischief, and contrariwise the Ecclesiastical State still continue upon the dregs of time and receive no alteration these forty-five years or more?"

But James was resolute against changes in Church discipline, and matters took their natural course. The first congregation of nonconformists crossed the sea to Holland, where they might feel free to follow their ideal life and develop those principles of a free worship for which they had struggled in vain at home. Thence they sailed to the New World. The beautiful, if pathetic story of the Pilgrim Fathers is well known; every detail of the terrible voyage, of the stout hearts and calm endurance of the stricken travellers to the little settlement of New Plymouth, is familiar.

And "over the wintry sea, to the desolate shores of New England," our ancestors carried the manners and customs of their country. As time went on, more and more Nonconformists sailed across the broad Atlantic to make new homes. In 1630 some thousand men of education and culture, of fortune and position, left their English hearths, their estates, their friends, for the privilege of worshipping God as they chose in a new land. "Farewell, dear England; farewell the Church of God in England. We do not go to New England as Separatists from the Church of England, but we go to practise the positive part of Church reformation and to propagate the Gospel in America. We esteem it an honour to call the Church of England our dear Mother … we wish our heads and hearts may be fountains of tears for your everlasting welfare, when we shall be in our poor cottage in the wilderness." Such were the Englishmen—statesmen, theologians, pioneers—who went forth into the waste lands to enjoy the freedom that they thought the old country had lost. English houses, English gardens, orchards, cornfields, all sprang up in these lands beyond the seas. Into the New World the Englishmen carried all that was dear to them at home, and the traditions of English endurance, of courage, perseverance, and dogged resolution carried thence have been large factors in the moulding of the American nation. For "truly they come of the Blood," and though some three hundred years have rolled away since our fathers left their English homes, and the little Puritan colonies have grown into a great and independent nation, yet their ancestors are our ancestors, and no width of stormy sea can wash out the old blood relationship which is a bond stronger than love, a force mightier than time.

"While the manners, while the arts,
     That mould a nation's soul,
 Still cling around our hearts,
     Between let ocean roll,
 Our joint communion breaking with the sun;
     Yet, still, from either beach,
     The voice of blood shall reach
     More audible than speech,
 'We are one.'"