The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England
By Ian Mortimer
‘They fastened the bar with a pin to prevent it slipping, and then, removing the wicker steps one by one from beneath my feet, they left me hanging by my hands and arms fastened above my head. The tops of my toes, however, still touch the ground and they had to dig away the earth from under them.” So wrote Fr John Gerard, a Catholic priest taken to the Tower of London in 1597, when he had suffered the seven types of tortures used on priests, including the pit, the rack and the “Scavenger’s Daughter”, an iron ring that forced heads, hands and feet together.
The situation for England’s Cath-olics had steadily deteriorated after Henry VIII’s younger daughter ascended the throne in 1558, as Ian Mortimer illustrates in this social snapshot of the late 16th century. Mortimer, perhaps Britain’s most renowned historian of the late medieval period, scored a hit with a similar look at 14th-century England, but the sequel, naturally, places more emphasis on religion.
The early years of Elizabeth saw the last of the whitewashes, finishing the cultural destruction initiated by Thomas Cromwell under her father’s reign. It was not until January 1564, the author notes, that John Shakespeare paid workmen to obliterate the Day of Judgment images in Stratford church.
Anti-Catholic hostility steadily grew, inflamed by the Pope’s declarations against Queen Elizabeth. In 1571, Parliament passed a new Act making it high treason to claim the Queen was “a heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper”. It became illegal to import papal bulls, crucifixes or rosary beads.
Just as in later secular regimes where the old religion was suppressed, ordinary people could end up in serious trouble if they said the wrong things. Essex tailors George and William Binkers were hauled before magistrates in 1577 for saying that the Host became “the very body, flesh and blood of Christ”. John Howard was brought to court for stating that “it was never merry in England since the scriptures were so commonly preached and talked upon”.
The situation intensified in 1580, when scholars from Douai set up an illegal printing press in Oxfordshire and 100 Jesuits arrived with the mission “to preserve and augment the faith of the Catholics in England”. From then on anyone trying to persuade people to join the Catholic Church was guilty of high treason and executed, and anyone missing an Anglican service was to be fined £20 per month.
After 1593, Catholics could travel no more than five miles from home without forfeiting all property and had to register with local authorities and obtain a licence if they wished to go anywhere. Things had changed a lot since 1564, when half of all justices of the peace had hesitated to swear Oath of Supremacy.
The harshness of Catholic lives was particular, but not exceptional, for this was a violent and hard age. In the decade John Shakespeare’s son William was born, the town of Stratford baptised 63 children and buried 43. Because of this former figure the country’s population was finally recovering back to the levels it had enjoyed before the Black Death.
London, for the first time, became an important place, the population rising from 70,000 to 200,000 in the Queen’s reign. This had brought problems, illustrated by Mortimer’s sketches from court reports, diaries and other contemporary accounts, of a place where “the poor lie in the streets upon pallets of straw … [and] are suffered to die in the streets like dogs or beast without any mercy or compassion”.
The number of paupers on the streets mushroomed and Parliament passed increasingly harsh and cruel laws until it settled on the 1597 Relief of the Poor Act which, however tough, lasted for 237 years. Care for the poor was now paid for out of tax – secular responsibility taking over from a traditional religious role.
There were famines from 1594-7, while far more died from influenza, the strain of 1558-1559 killing five per cent of the population (compared to 0.5 per cent in 1918-1919). Malaria was also widespread in East Anglia, but far worse in Romney Marsh in Kent, a notorious child’s graveyard where a third did not see their fourth birthdays.
Fate is cruel, and so are men. At the south end gatehouse on London Bridge, one would see 30 or so skulls rotting away in various states of decomposition. Capital punishment was inflicted liberally and torture was common, such that “some of the extreme cruelty that we usually associate with the medieval world is in reality more common in Elizabeth’s reign”. But although Henry VIII introduced boiling alive as a punishment for poisoning, Elizabeth abolished it. Expressing conspiracy theories was a capital offence, while those, like Margaret Clitherow, who refused to testify were crushed under eight hundredweights of stone.
Men were legally allowed to beat “an outlaw, a traitor, a pagan, his villein and his wife”, but education had become the norm for upper-class women, so that Lady Jane Grey, for instance, spoke Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and Italian by the time of her death, aged just 16. And things are improving: many of England’s most famous schools were established in their period, including Shrewsbury, Rugby and Harrow. William Harrison notes that every town in England has a grammar school by the end of Elizabeth’s reign.
Male literacy increased from about 10 per cent in 1500 to 25 per cent in 1600, while book production rose from 1605 titles in the 1550s to 4040 in the 1600s.
The written word galvanised the Puritans, who remained a threat until 1593, when the “middle way” for English religion was buttressed by Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, by which time the Elizabethan cultural revolution had established the Anglican domination that would last until the 20th century.
Fr Gerard, incidentally, stood firm. “The Lord saw my weakness with the eyes of His mercy,” he said, “and did not permit me to be tempted beyond my strength.”