Life in Elizabethan England
In art galleries, we are shown pictures of the Elizabethan countryside and what we see are ruggedly beautiful landscapes of sweeping meadows full of flowers and banks of lush green trees on hillsides. In the countryside, dotted around you would see cottages but in reality they were far from idyllic. Families were poor and their houses were dark. Few people could afford the luxury of candles. Most houses were basic dwellings consisting of one room with a single fireplace. It was gloomy and smoky and windows were no more than a hole in the wall so little light entered the house. Their only possessions were a few pots, a ladle, some plates and if you were lucky, mats on the ground to sleep on. At night, the only sounds would have been the crackle of the fire, raindrops on the roof and the soft breathing of the children. And vermin were plentiful. And of course, with vermin came disease.
You would have been very aware of the diseases that could affect your everyday life. There were so many diseases lurking in the shadows: the flu, dysentery, small pox, the sweating sickness, typhoid and of course, the plague. By the sixteenth century, the plague was not as prominent as it had been in the fourteenth century. In earlier days, half of the population of Europe was wiped out. By the sixteenth century, a quarter of a million people would still die from this disease alone. If you had a swelling in your arm pits, if you were very thirsty, had a racing pulse, a headache or vomiting you knew you were in serious trouble. You also knew it was fleas that caused the disease so you made sure to air your bedding. But by then, it was way too late.
With the amount of disease so prominent, death was common in everyday life. Most children lost one parent by the time they had grown up and most parents lost half their children. In 1560 alone, there were 63 baptisms and 43 burials. Of course, added to everything else, sanitation was almost non-existent and it would be another 300 years before wealthy people could afford a flushing toilet. Until then, you had to make do with squatting over a running stream. With that came the stench and most times you could smell a village before you saw it.
For most people, options for work were very limited and your best bet was to go from farm to farm asking for work. You grew your own vegetables if you could and you made your own clothes. The question of whether to marry or not was based on the whether you could earn enough money to feed and support a family.
At the heart of everything, was your church. In these days of religious upheaval, attending church was compulsory every Sunday and if you didn’t attend, you were fined £20. In England’s chequered religious history, there were Protestants and Catholics but a new religion was raising its head with members calling themselves Puritans. Everyone believed in a God and if you said you were an Atheist, it was like saying you did not believe in trees and you could expect to be hated for it.
Where there is population there is crime and after dark, it was terrifying. In a place where so many had so little, it is hardly surprising. Many people carried a dagger and they kept their eyes open and their wits about them especially as ale was the only liquid available to drink due to a lack of clean fresh water. The combination of tempers and alcohol produced a dangerous and volatile situation and everyone could expect to be punished severely if they were caught breaking the laws.
Punishments varied and the level of cruelty won’t come as a great surprise. The first was straightforward hanging on a gallows; the second was being hung, drawn and quartered. The third was to be burned at a stake but the fourth was more severe and longer lasting. With this punishment, you were laid on the ground and a large rock was placed on your body. Blocks were added one by one until your body was crushed under the weight. It could take up to twelve hours to die.
It was an unbelievably painful, harsh time for most but it was a time of power and glory for a few others. Not everyone was at the bottom of the ladder. For the elite, it was a time of extravagance and wealth. In the same art galleries that depict a typical English countryside are portraits of noble men and women displaying these luxuries. When you look at these paintings what you see in their eyes is supreme confidence and a lifetime of privilege. But if you look a little closer and deeper, you may also see something else. Perhaps doubt and uncertainty? Perhaps fear? It was a dangerous time and it is worth remembering that those who possessed the most had the most to lose. Everyone liked to complain a little over a glass of wine or two, but you had to be very careful what you said and in whose company you said it.
To be accepted into the elite was to be accepted into the strict hierarchy of Elizabethan society. But all round, this was a very expensive exercise. At court, there were servants, visitors, courtiers and clergy and you wouldn’t have any trouble telling them apart. All were distinguishable by their clothes. Courtiers bought back ideas and trends from Europe and these would be copied and reproduced for all to see. Gorgeous appearance was a must at court. At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, both men and women started wearing ruffles over the tops of their shirts and tunics. The introduction of starch allowed the collars to grow even bigger until eventually 18 feet of material was used and it needed a circular board underneath to support all of it. If you wanted to show off vibrant colours you had to be a part of the elite as it became a law that only the aristocracy and gentry were allowed to use certain fabrics like cloths of gold and silver, blue velvet and purple silk. As for Elizabeth, her dress was mainly black and white meant to symbolise consistency, purity and eternal virginity, which she was keen to project. It was not a good idea to turn up at court dressed too vibrantly and risk upstaging her. If you were unsure, you could check yourself in a mirror, which was a rarity anywhere else. These mirrors were called by the Puritans as ‘devil’s glass’ reflecting only pride. Those that look at them may be said to ‘look in the devil’s arse’.
During Elizabeth’s reign, her whole court was packed up on more than two dozen separate occasions and hit the road as she visited many of her nobles and selected gentry. She would be absent from London for many months at a time. Tapestries and paintings were removed from the walls and put in storage along with the silverware and other valuables, ready for her return. Even though this was supposed to be an exercise to show herself to her people, I can see how this would have been financially beneficial for her as well. The outings were a huge undertaking requiring around 2000 men and women in her entourage. Also needed were 300 – 400 carts driven by 2400 horses, all carrying what was needed, including 200 of Elizabeth’s dresses. All of this was the Tudor propaganda of showing the people that she really was just like them after all.
To the nobles she visited, it must have been an enormously costly two day visit. The grocery list for her entourage would have included 11½ cows, 17½ calves, 8 stags, 1200 chickens, 2500 pigeons, a cart load of oysters and so the list goes on and on. Take into account an average cow in those days cost people around 2 pounds each and was a labourer’s wage for six months. And then there was something needed to wash all this down. Water was far too risky and anyway, Elizabeth’s court liked something a little stronger. In two days, they would go through 2500 gallons of beer alone. But that was not for the gentlemen. They preferred to drink wine, which was imported at great expense and regarded as a status symbol. For these gentlemen and ladies, they drank an average of 63 gallons of white wine and 378 gallons of claret. In just two days.
Manners were very strict on these royal visits. You must always wash your hands before eating, you didn’t eat before your superiors and if you had to spit or blow your nose, you didn’t do it across the table. You did it at your feet and you tread it out discreetly on the floor. And it was good manners to take your hat off if someone urinated in your company.
Elizabeth didn’t travel too far as she only visited the parts where she was popular and she never went near the Pro-Catholic north. But if you wanted to keep up with her progress, you needed transport. Most people travelled by foot but as gentry, you would need a set of wheels. You would have had a coach drawn by horses and the cost of this could be enormous as it included paying a coachman to drive you and you would need to feed the horses, which could sometimes cost more than your own food. Your comfort, on these trips, was dependent on the state of the roads. Roads in those times were meant for feet and hooves not heavy coaches and the road ruts were deep especially during the wet winter months. Bridges were wooden and dangerous and the stone bridges were extremely narrow. But more sinister than a wonky bridge or uneven ground were the highwaymen.
The word ‘highwaymen’ conjures up characters like Dirk Turpin but these men were not so polite. In 1560 in Essex, there were sixty court cases alone relating to the theft of money and jewellery stolen on the highways and unlike the 18th century, these robbers were just common thieves. If you were unlucky enough to come across these ruffians, there would also be another group cutting off your retreat. They would not only take your money and jewels, they took your clothes as well. Some killed their victims but most were left tied up in the forest in such a way that you could work yourself lose in an hour or two and make your way to the nearest inn or town in your underwear. If you survived the trip, you would be grateful to arrive unharmed but even these establishments housed thieves and unsavoury characters. On the whole, it was much safer to make arrangements for accommodation at the house of a local gentleman. These gentry were sheriffs, magistrates and men who oversaw the militia. In parliament, it was the gentry who filled the House of Commons.
If you were the owner of such a manor, you needed to take care as well. If a gentleman came to your door and if a woman opened it, it was seen as gentlemanly behaviour to grab the woman by the arm and kiss her smack on the lips, even if she was the wife of the house. You might want to rethink that when the plague was in town.
Naturally, inside these houses, there was a lot more in common with the palaces than there was in the squalid homes of the poor. You would have seen carved wood, carpets and maybe even a mirror. And there would be weapons such as pikes, swords and shields hanging on the walls available if the lord of the manor was called to arms. There would be servants ranging from two to twenty depending on the gentleman’s wealth as male servants cost two pounds a year and female servants cost one pound. Even though the servants were desperate for their wages, it was not unheard of for these gentlemen to overlook payments by several months, sometimes several years. Even taking this into account, servants were expected to be loyal. You would not be surprised to find that a lord was beating his servants, sometimes his wife. And he was expected to beat his children. Not to do so was seen as quite irresponsible as long as he stopped short of actually killing someone.
He would also have expected sexual favours even if he were married. This put the female servant into a terrible position. Should she risk refusing, she would be dismissed. If she agreed, she risked disease and pregnancy and she would be dismissed anyway and be ostracized by her church and her community as well.
Elizabethan England did not share our obsession with soap and water. In fact, they thought that using water could make you unwell through the pores of your skin. Looking at the rivers running with excrement, they had a good point. So the key to hygiene and keeping clean was not through water but through linen. Linen cloths were rubbed over the body and through their hair to soak up the sweat while shirts and undergarments were made of linen. So you kept yourself clean, not by washing, but by washing these linen clothes and by using perfumes to improve the smell of your clothes. While taking care of your body odours, you had to take care of your breath. There were no toothbrushes so you had to use a toothpick made of wood or bone or the quill of a feather. As to freshening your breath, you would have chewed cumin seeds or aniseed but most just rinsed their mouths out with white wine. Having done all your hygiene requirements, most gentry still believed that you should still take a bath once a month, whether you needed it or not.
Even after using these basic health care tips, you could also come across some illnesses like dysentery, typhus and scurvy. With dysentery you could die in as little as two weeks but with syphilis, you could live for twenty years, gradually and slowly going mad and at the end, dying from it.
For the rich it was a time when Tudor architecture blossomed with oak-panelled rooms, bay windows and gable roofs. Mining companies began setting up shop and began to distribute copper goods and crystal glass and Hadwick House was said to contain more glass than wall. Houses were filled with tapestries, curtains, covered chairs, chests and cupboards. Lace became the craze for both sexes from cuffs to ruffs, aprons and handkerchiefs. The appetite for luxuries was endless for those who could afford them.
Through it all, Elizabeth dazzled everyone with her clever wit, and even her enemies were enthralled. But it would seem that Elizabeth’s sense of duty came at a great personal cost.
Six months before Mary died, a comet was seen blazing across the London sky, half the size of the moon. It streaked fire behind it and lit up the skies in glorious shades of red, white and gold for days, much the same colours as the Tudor rose. It was what England had been waiting for – a sure sign of better times to come. And heaven knows, they needed it. Under Queen Mary, they had suffered persecution worse than any generation before but hopefully this would mean it had come to an end. That queen was dead now and a new queen had come to the throne. Their future lay in the hands of this bright-eyed intelligent woman who promised a magnificent future for everyone.
What she hadn’t promised was an heir and her words, “I would rather be a beggar and single than a Queen and married” niggled at the back of their minds. She had also said, “This end shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin”. That had not filled them with confidence either. “I am married to England”, were her next words.
But what was to become of them if she died without an heir? Was Scotland their fate? Did she really have their best interests at heart after all? Hadn’t her sister, brother and father promised the very same things?
Incidentally, Elizabeth's birthday was 7th September. The birthdate of the Virgin Mary.