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Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

  • Everyday Life in Tudor London by Stephen Porter

    Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn

    London in the late fifteenth century looking west; a painting by John Fulleylove based upon a contemporary illustration. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Tudor London was a large and vibrant city holding an unrivalled position within England as the centre of government, political life and the law; the focus of power and patronage; the hub of overseas and inland trade, with a diverse and flourishing economy. Its wealth and the opportunities which it offered drew aspiring incomers from across the country and attracted a significant inflow of people from abroad, together with new ideas and practices, as London’s overseas trade expanded into new trading regions. Its contacts developed, centred on the commercial world of the City, the court’s artistic interests and patronage, and the humanist intelligentsia’s networks.

    Visitors were aware that the city was inhabited by craftsmen and was not dominated by the aristocracy. Shops lined many of the streets, including the one which crossed the bridge connecting the city with Southwark; an impressive structure which was greatly admired. Cheapside attracted attention for the wealth of its goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ shops and Watling Street was dominated by wealthy drapers dealing in all sorts of woollen cloth. The houses of the merchants and wealthy craftsmen were impressive but not showy and the streets themselves gave an unfavourable impression, for they were narrow and lined with tall buildings, and so were rather dismal. And their surfaces were foul, because they were badly paved and often wet and muddy, and that carried into the houses. London’s environment was a smelly one, both indoors and out.

    The entrance to Staple Inn, Holborn, erected in 1586, painted by E. W. Haslehust around 1924. The inn was the largest of the Inns of Chancery. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Within the city were more than a hundred parish churches, the great cathedral of St Paul’s and over 30 monastic houses, all of varying sizes. The monastic orders owned many houses across the city and after they were dissolved, in the 1530s, not only were the sites of the monasteries sold, but so too were their properties, and so the mid-century saw a considerable transfer of ownership of property.

    Londoners enjoyed a good and varied diet, with mutton and beef, and plenty of fish, and they were particularly fond of young swans, rabbits, deer, and seabirds. Markets were held along the streets. The principal one was in Cheapside and the names of the adjacent streets indicate their specialities: Honey Lane, Bread Street, Milk Street and Wood Street. A fish market was held in Friday Street on Fridays, although the biggest fish market was at Billingsgate. The poultry dealers traded in the eastwards extension of Cheapside, known as Poultry; at its western end a corn market was held in a churchyard, and beyond that Newgate Street was used by butchers for their slaughter-houses and stalls.

    The Swan playhouse on Bankside, erected in 1595 and sketched by Johannes de Witt in the following year. His sketch was copied and that copy is the only surviving contemporary illustration of a theatre of Shakespeare's time. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    To supply the Londoners’ needs, goods, fuel and produce were brought by road, along the Thames and in seagoing and coastal vessels. The carts which supplied the city and those which transported goods from the quaysides along the Thames caused traffic congestion, which worsened during the sixteenth century, as London’s population grew and as the aristocracy, gentry and wealthier merchants took to travelling by coach. Congestion of pedestrians and vehicles was a characteristic and frustrating feature of life in the city. The number of vessels on the river also increased and visitors were impressed by the sheer amount of shipping in the Thames.

    As well as the seagoing vessels and river barges, the Thames seemed to be full of small passenger boats taking two passengers and known as wherries; by the end of the century there were said to be 3,000 of them. They were convenient for theatre-goers who attended performances in the new playhouses on Bankside; others were built in Shoreditch. The late sixteenth century saw the birth of the modern theatre as plays emerged from the court and aristocratic mansions onto a genuinely public stage, where a wide-ranging and constantly expanding repertoire could be enjoyed by everyone for a small charge. But the playhouses were viewed with suspicion, as places which attracted ne’er-do-wells, and the magistrates occasionally tried to suppress them, on moral grounds, and during outbreaks of plague, to deter people from crowding together, which was thought likely to help spread the disease.

    St James's Palace was built by Henry VIII in the 1530s; the Tudor gatehouse survives and was painted by E. W. Haslehust in the early 1920s. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Londoners had a range of other recreations to choose from. That was the period when the Lord Mayor’s show developed into a truly impressive day-long spectacle, with hundreds taking part and thousands lining the route. Bowling alleys, gaming-houses and alehouses were all popular, although the magistrates tried to control the numbers, partly because they were thought to be the resort of idle people who should have been at work. But alehouses were lively meeting places for music and conviviality, with ballads pasted on the walls to encourage communal singing. Inns, taverns and beer gardens were scattered about the city and were used by women as well as men. Women and men mixed freely in Tudor London and travellers commented on the practice of kissing as a greeting, with callers expected to kiss the hostess and her whole household both when they arrived and when they left.

    Tudor London, with its overlapping communities, was a complex, lively and rewarding city in which to live. By the time that the dynasty came to an end in 1603 its population had reached 200,000, having increased fourfold since Henry VII’s accession in 1485. That was just one reflection of how dominant the city was within England, in terms of its economic, social, political, legal and cultural influence. And it had gained a far wider international reach, as its merchants traded with an expanding range of ports across much of the world, and the greater volume and ever-widening variety of fine goods that were imported. Many of them reached London’s myriad shops and households; the congestion in the streets and on the river reflected the city’s industrious and prospering society. Problems remained, for growth brought overcrowding and bad living conditions for the poor, and epidemic diseases could not be prevented, but the rapid recovery from the sporadic outbreaks demonstrated London’s social and economic resilience. A French visitor in 1578 was so enthused by the city that he wrote that ‘rumours of the greatness, prosperity, singularities and splendours of London fly and run to the ends of the whole world’.

    Stephen Porter's new paperback edition of Everyday Life in Tudor London: Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn is available for purchase now.

  • William Shakespeare and Henry V by Teresa Cole

    One of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays is Henry V. Indeed Henry appears as a main character in three plays, although in the first two his star is undoubtedly eclipsed by the fat knight, Falstaff. Despite the fact that Shakespeare was writing some 180 years after the death of his subject, Henry’s story had never been allowed to fade from the public consciousness, championed first by those who survived him, and later by Tudor kings such as Henry VIII, who saw himself as a similarly heroic figure.

    There were, therefore, many sources available to Shakespeare on which to base his works. Notable among them was the Chronicle of Edward Hall and the collaborative work known as Holinshed’s Chronicles, while the play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, being performed in the late 1580s, has so many points in common with Shakespeare’s own acknowledged work that some have suggested it might have been an early attempt by the bard himself. Given this wealth of material to draw on, it is interesting to consider how much of the story is told in the plays matches what we know as historical fact about this ‘star of England’.

    Henry V 1 The battlefield at Shrewsbury

    Certainly Shakespeare telescoped the timescale within his three plays. We see Henry first as a grown man, Prince Henry, king-in-waiting, consorting with thieves and scoundrels at the time of the Percys’ revolt and the battle of Shrewsbury. In fact at that time Henry was a boy of sixteen, while Hotspur, shown as his contemporary, was a generation older and recently the Prince’s mentor and governor. In spite of this the boy did fight in the battle, not rescuing his father as depicted in the play, but still contributing substantially to the king’s victory, and in the process receiving a severe wound to the face that might easily have ended his career there and then.

    As for the tales of consorting with low-lifes and frequenting the taverns in Eastcheap which make up a large part of the first two plays, there is again some basis for this in the records. Henry, made Prince of Wales immediately after his father’s accession to the throne, spent a large part of his teens actively and dutifully subduing the Glendower rebellion in his principality. There was, however, a period in his early twenties when something of a rift appeared between him and his father, Henry IV, though this seems to have been more of the king’s making than his son’s.

    The Prince had been effectively running the country for some time during the king’s prolonged illness when abruptly he was dismissed and stories began to circulate about his behaviour. Accused of drunken brawling, womanising and even stealing the wages of the Calais garrison while Captain of Calais, Henry himself always flatly denied these stories, claiming that someone was deliberately trying to blacken his name. Certainly he was present in Eastcheap. He had a house there, formerly known as Poulteney Inn, given to him by his father, but the only concrete evidence of brawls names his brothers rather than himself.

    Maybe the strongest evidence for these accusations is the fact that many people commented how much the Prince changed for the better as soon as he became king. Shakespeare’s comment, “The breath no sooner left his father’s body but that his wildness … seemed to die too,” only reflects what people were saying at the time.

    The strangest part of the unruly episodes depicted in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, however, is the naming of the fat knight himself. Though he comes down to us today as Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare originally called him Sir John Oldcastle, and only changed the name under sustained pressure from the descendants of the real Oldcastle, one of whom was chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth I. Why the playwright originally chose that name is puzzling since there seems nothing whatever in common between the historical character and the drunken head of a thieves’ kitchen.

    Henry V 2 Oldcastle escaped from the Tower of London

    Sir John Oldcastle was indeed a friend of Prince Henry, first becoming acquainted with him during the Welsh wars. On marrying an heiress he became Lord Cobham with a seat in the House of Lords, and his notoriety is based not on thieving and drunkenness but on his membership of what was at the time seen as a heretical sect, the Lollards. These predecessors of the Protestant revolution to come, followed the teaching of John Wycliffe, believing that the Catholic Church was corrupt and in need of reform, and far too involved in meddling in state rather than religious matters. Lollard involvement in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 led to the sect being banned, and from 1401 Lollards in England who refused to recant could be burned as heretics.

    In 1413, soon after Henry became king, Oldcastle was arrested, put on trial for his beliefs which he made no attempt to deny, and condemned as a ‘most pernicious and detestable heretic.’ The king, however, intervened and insisted Oldcastle should have 40 days to consider his situation before the death penalty should be carried out. In that time Sir John escaped from the Tower, led a failed plot against Henry, escaped again and then spent four years at large, probably in his own territory of Herefordshire, before being captured and finally put to death in December 1417. At that time Henry was busy at the siege of Rouen so we don’t know whether he would have tried again to save the life of his old friend.

    Of course by the time Shakespeare was writing the Protestant religion held sway in England and it was dangerous to be a Catholic. Oldcastle’s stand against the old church would, by then, have been seen as heroic. When the bard changed the name of his character, therefore, he added a clear disclaimer in the epilogue to Henry IV Part 2. “For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.” Some have suggested that the Shakespeare family held secret sympathies with the outlawed Catholic Church, and it is just possible that the name Sir John Oldcastle was chosen deliberately in an attempt to blacken the name of that martyr. If so it seems the playwright did not allow for the determination of high-placed family members to protect the image of their ancestor.

    9781445655413

    Teresa Cole's new paperback editon of her book Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King and the Battle of Agincourt is available now.

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