Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan Londonby Liza Picard
She begins with the
This Picture of the London of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) is the result of Liza Picard's curiosity about the practical details of daily life that almost every history book ignores. As seen in her two previous, highly acclaimed books -- Restoration London and Dr. Johnson's London -- she has immersed herself in contemporary sources of every kind.
She begins with the River Thames, the lifeblood of Elizabethan London. The city, on the north bank of the river, was still largely confined within old Roman walls. Upriver at Westminster were the royal palaces, and between them and the crowded city the mansions of the great and the good commanded the river frontage. Liza Picard turns her spotlight on the streets and the traffic in them. She surveys building methods -- London was a vast development site as the former monastic properties were absorbed into the housing stock -- and shows us the interior decor of the rich and the not-so-rich, and what they were likely to be growing in their gardens.
Then the Londoners of the time take the stage, in all their amazing finery. Plague, smallpox, and other diseases afflicted them. But food and drink, sex and marriage and family life provided comfort, a good education was always useful, and cares could be forgotten in a playhouse or the bull-baiting or bear-baiting rings, or watching a good cockfight.
Immigrants from the Low Countries and France posed problems. Londoners were proud of the religious tolerance that attracted Protestant victims from the Continent, but were not so sure about the effects these skillful migrants might have on their own livelihoods. This was a city ruled by the livery companies and their apprentice system, and foreigners were closely watched. For many, poverty was never far away. And Henry VIII's destruction of the monasteries had caused an acute crisis in poverty management. Begging was one answer. Forcing the wealthy to pay for the poor -- through a parochial poor rate -- was another.
Liza Picard's wonderfully skillful and vivid evocation of the London of four hundred years ago enables us to share the delights, as well as the horrors, of the everyday lives of sixteenth-century Britons.
- St. Martin's Press
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Elizabeth's LondonEveryday Life In Elizabethan London
By Liza Picard
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Liza Picard
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe River
Thames, the most famous river of this island, beginneth a little above a village called Winchcombe, in Oxfordshire, and still increasing, passeth first by the University of Oxford, and so with a marvellous quiet course to London, and thence breaketh into the French ocean by main tides, which twice in twenty four hours' space doth ebb and flow more than sixty miles in length, to the great commodity of travellers ...
So said that devoted London supporter John Stow.' The Thames drove some poets to verse:
Thou stately stream that with the swelling tide 'Gainst London walls incessantly dost beat Thou Thames, I say, where barge and boat do ride, And snow-white swans do fish for needful meat ...
And so on. The poet, George Turberville, is asking the river not to be beastly to his loved one when she embarks on it, by weltering up and surging in wrathful wise as rivers sometimes do, but just to stay in its normal channel and 'in wonted gulf to glide'; a very practical suggestion. Edmund Spenser went in for a more rhapsodic approach. To cure his irritation at having got nowhere at Court, he
Walked forth to ease my pain Along the shore of silver streaming Thames Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems Was painted all with variable flowers, And all the meads adorned with dainty gems ... Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song ...
Michael Drayton wrote a song to Beta - can this possibly be his dread sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth? - which begins:
O Thou fair silver Thames, O clearest crystal flood! ...
All very lovely, if that's your taste; but was the river really like that?
The Thames rises near Kemble in Gloucestershire, and flows for 215 miles through the English countryside until it spreads into a wide estuary and reaches the sea at Gravesend. The distance from Chelsea to Greenwich is 16 miles, and from Greenwich to Gravesend 20 miles. The river flows at 3 1/2 knots an hour. On its way it gathers silt, which makes its water an opaque grey, very far from a 'clearest crystal flood'. It is tidal as far as Teddington, with high tides twice every 24 hours. The difference in water level between low and high tide can be as much as 25 feet.
The Lord Mayor had jurisdiction over the whole stretch from Staines to the Medway, dating back to a deal with Richard I, in 1197. The King transferred to the City his authority over this part of the Thames, in return for cash, which he badly needed, having overspent on the Crusades. This enabled the City to impose a unified traffic policy on the main approach to the capital. The river was the most convenient route to the markets and bright lights of London, for traders, farmers from Kent and the home counties, and foreign visitors from the continent. As John Stow put it, 'this river opens indifferently [impartially] upon Dance and Flanders, our mightiest neighbours, to whose doings we ought to have a bent eye and special regard'.
The long ferry from Gravesend
A visitor from the continent had first to survive the Channel crossing. The plight of Frederick Duke of Würtemburg, in 1592, will be all too familiar to passengers on a Channel ferry on a bad day. 'Not being used to the sea we were seized with horrible vomitings and most of our party ... thought they were dying.' He completed his journey, wan and shaken, by land. He could have landed at Gravesend and gone up to London by the 'long ferry'. This regular public service had the possible disadvantage of carrying livestock as well as passengers, such as lambs (20 for 8d), calves (2d each) and boars (alive 8d, dead 4d). In view of the boars, it might be pleasanter, if you could afford it, to hire a barge for 4s, including four rowers and a steersman.
River traffic was - in theory at least - tightly controlled. Yet in 1598 a tilt-boat (a large rowing-boat with an awning or canopy over it) carrying ten passengers over the legal limit was run down by a hoy at Greenwich, with the loss of nearly everyone on board, and wherries were still plying which were so 'shallow and tickle [sic]' that they were under the legal requirements of at least 22 1/2 ft long and 4 1/2 ft wide, 'thereby great peril and danger of drowning hath ensued'.
Apart from the other river traffic there was not much to look at between Gravesend and London, unless you were as lucky as the Duke of Würtemburg. Despite his rough Channel crossing, on his way home he must have felt stronger, or had a short memory, so he decided to take the long ferry down to Gravesend. 'The waves were very high and boisterous, and we saw a great many large black fishes called sea-hogs which are from 8 to 10 feet long.' Another German visitor, Thomas Platter, who took the long ferry up to London in 1592, merely noted that 'the banks of this river ... are wooded and gay with pleasant hamlets and homesteads'. He did not notice the shipbuilding yards at Blackwall and Woolwich, but he could not miss the tall lead-roofed turrets of the Tudor palace of Placentia at Greenwich, twenty miles from Gravesend on the south bank, with its stairway down to the river, and a massive water gate to admit the royal barge.
Henry VIII had been born at Greenwich, his brother Arthur had married Katherine of Aragon there, and Henry's son Edward VI was sent there to profit from the fresh country air, but he died of tuberculosis three months later. Elizabeth had been born there, and loved the place. Apart from going on progresses to stay with lucky nobles - whether or not they could afford it - she mostly lived in Greenwich in the summer. When Martin Frobisher arrived at Greenwich with his fleet in 1576 on his way down the river to Canada and, he hoped, China, 'her Majesty, beholding the same, commended it, and bade them farewell with shaking her hand out of the window'.
After Greenwich the tiny hamlet of Rotherhithe on the south bank had only a church and a few houses to attract the tourist's attention. From time to time an alehouse could be seen, near enough to the bank to be used by ships waiting for a berth upriver. On the north bank, the gallows at Wapping in the Woze was usually occupied. For pirates a special death was waiting for them there: they were hanged down at the low water-mark, 'there to remain till three tides had overflowed them'. A few more bends in the river, and the ancient stone walls of the Tower of London rose on the right (north) bank.
Opposite the Tower the visitor could probably see among the trees Bermondsey House, built after the dissolution of the ancient Benedictine abbey of Bermondsey, recycling the stones from its demolition. The abbey orchards and gardens, pastures and pools still survived on the twenty-acre site. From 1567 the Earl of Sussex lived here, and Queen Elizabeth visited him, even coming to his death-bed in 1583. (In Hofnagel's painting of a wedding at Bermondsey, there is what looks like a church tower on the right, through the trees; this must have been the new house, as the abbey had been demolished in 1541.) After Bermondsey House there were three corn-grinding windmills on the south bank of the river. The City had spent £2,600 on those mills, but it ran into trouble with the Privy Council and building was held up until the dispute - whatever it was - had been resolved.
The legal quays, and up-river
The long ferry ended at the legal quays, just before London Bridge, where cargo had to be loaded and landed and assessed for customs and other duties. Another German visitor was impressed:
Ocean-craft are accustomed to run in here in great numbers as into a safe harbour, and I myself beheld one large galley next the other the whole city's length from St Catherine's suburb [just east of the Tower] to the bridge, some hundred vessels in all, nor did I ever behold so many large ships in one port in my life.
There were ingenious cranes, which caught the eye of Alessandro Magno from Venice. The sketch in his notebook shows a boat discharging its cargo of barrels at a wharf. Alongside the boat is a small cabin raised on poles, containing a large skeleton wheel, big enough for a man to sit inside it. From the wheel a rope goes up, out of the cabin, over a pulley, along a jib, over another pulley and down to the boat, where a barrel is attached to it with hooks. By pedalling in his wheel, the man can raise the barrel without undue strain. Someone at ground level then turns the cabin round, and the man takes up position on the other side of the wheel - still inside it - and gently lowers the barrel down to the waiting cart.
To go on, up-river, from the legal quays you would take another boat. Most people who wanted to continue their journey past the Bridge landed on one side of it and walked round to the other side of it to take another boat. It was possible to 'shoot the Bridge', but only if the tide was exactly right. When Queen Mary sent her sister Elizabeth to the Tower under suspicion of plotting against her, in 1554, the barge she was in
could not shoot the arch, and lay hovering upon the water for a time, the danger was too great for the bargemen to plunge into it as they were ordered. Their unwillingness gave way to peremptory command, but in trying it again the stern of the boat struck the ground, the fall was so big and the water was so shallow; the boat paused a while under the bridge and at last cleared it, and she was landed at Traitor's Gate.
Where, according to tradition, Elizabeth sat down on a stone - she must have needed to after that ordeal - and said, 'Here landeth as true a subject as ever landed at these stairs.'
After the Tower, the narrow streets of the City crowded down to the river's edge, until they gave way to the beautiful mansions along the Strand, and finally the royal palaces of Whitehall and Westminster. On the south side the land was marshy, and had not been built over except for Southwark, but it provided ideal sites for the animal-baiting rings and the playhouses, easily reached by water, but away from interference by the City. After them there were only rather soggy fields, until the village of Lambeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury's London palace there, conveniently opposite the seat of secular government at Westminster.
The river's moods
The river could be temperamental, from glassy to choppy, 'weltering up and surging' to almost dry. Without Bazalgette's Victorian embankments it was shallower than now, and much wider, though a contemporary statement that it was 1,000 feet wide at Westminster is surprising. The winter high tides often brought floods, which made the water so muddy that 'you shall take haddock with your hand beneath the bridge as they float aloft upon the water, whose eyes are so blinded with the thickness of that element that they cannot see where to become'. (More modern thought suggests that the lack of oxygen in the mud had driven the poor fishes up to the surface, to breathe.) In January 1564 'the river Thames was so agitated that the tide recoiled twice, five hours before its time'. In 1579 there was a heavy snowfall; when the thaw came 'the water rose so high in Westminster Hall that fishes were found there after the waters had subsided', which must have smelt appalling, although someone had the sense to sweep them up and leave them in the palace yard outside 'for who so list, to gather up'. Yet just the year before a freak low tide had meant that 'men might stand in the middle of the Thames'.
The river sometimes froze solid. In 1537 Henry VIII and his then queen, Jane Seymour, and the whole cavalcade of courtiers had crossed the river on horseback, to Greenwich Palace. There was a famous Frost Fair on the river in the winter of 1564, with archery contests and dancing, and football played 'as boldly as if it had been dry land', and 'all sorts of carriages and diversions', and 'the people went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street in the City of London'. But it took less than a complete freeze to put the watermen out of business, and force them to beg until the river was clear again.
Fog must have been a constant river hazard. One evening in 1575, Elizabeth took her barge down-river to see her friend the Countess of Pembroke at Baynards Castle, and stayed later than she meant. By ten o'clock 'being so great a mist as there were divers of the barges and boats that waited of [for] her lost their ways and landed in wrong places but thanks be to God Her Majesty came well home without cold or fear'.
The poets liked to dwell on the 'crystal stream' of the Thames. Far from being translucent, it was, and is, a uniform opaque grey because of the silt it carries, but it must have been fairly unpolluted, judging from all the fish in it. Down in the narrow streets by the Bridge, in Pudding Lane, 'the butchers of Eastcheap have their scalding house for hogs there, and their puddings [intestines] with other filth of beasts are voided down that way to their dung boats in the Thames'; and at the other end of London, the Queen's slaughter-house at her palace of Westminster gave directly on to the river. Although industrial waste and effluent was not supposed to be dumped in the river, it was difficult to stop it, especially on a dark night with no watchmen about.
The river provided a superb processional route between the royal palaces of Westminster, Whitehall and the Tower. After Mary's death Elizabeth came to London and stayed for a week in the Tower before she 'went in procession by water, to Somerset place [sic], trumpets sounding much melody accompanying'. In 1559 she went from Westminster to the Tower 'attended by the Lord Mayor and aldermen in their barges, and all the citizens in their barges, decked and trimmed with targets [shields] and banners of their mysteries [livery companies] ... shooting off lustily as they went, with great and pleasant melody of instruments which played in most sweet and heavenly manner'. All this shooting off lustily could be risky. In 1568, 'on the occasion of Her Majesty proceeding in her barge on the river, one Thomas Appletree discharging his piece [gun] the bullet ran through both the arms of one of her watermen, but the Queen understanding that the shot was by casualty [accident] pardoned the offender', not before he had had some very nasty moments.
The Queen seems to have enjoyed river trips, quite apart from state occasions. On another visit to the Pembrokes, but in better weather, 'after supper the Queen's Grace rowed up and down the Thames, and a hundred boats about her Grace, with trumpets and drums and flutes and guns and squibs, hurling on high to and fro till ten at night ...
Excerpted from Elizabeth's London by Liza Picard Copyright © 2003 by Liza Picard. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
LIZA PICARD was born in Essex in 1927.She is the author of Restoration London and Dr.Johnson's London.
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