Nu History Podcast – Episode 8: Legal Records and Bear Gardens

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Dr. Dan Gosling, the Early Modern Legal Records Specialist at the National Archives. He’s here to talk to us about using legal records as a source, and all the untapped potential that is there through the example of a London bear garden!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Some Notes on the Elisabethan Economic Crisis

I’ve been doing some reading on stuff by James Sharpe (University of York), regarding the economic crisis and hardship experiences during Elizabethan times. I found it quite interested me, and this is usually not my bag, so I thought I would do a little update regarding the subject.

I think what attracted me to this topic was that, this is really not the sort of thing we think of when we picture Elizabethan period, right? Well, according to Dr Sharpe, there are many accounts that report severe issues during this time, particularly in the provinces. Edward Hext and William Lambarde seem to be key for this discussion. The former was associated with the Somerset Justice of peace, whilst the former was a veteran for the same in Kent. They reported people stealing more than they were at work, and the paint a picture where living in vagrancy in the urban areas was not uncommon. Moreover, the do suggest that people living in the countryside were seriously struggling to survive. It is acknowledge that the harvests of 1594 and 1595 were particularly bad, but it is the one from 1596 that has disastrous consequences for the population. As a result, Elizabethan society sees the price of grain increase to its highest level in all of the 16th century. This struggle is also reflected in the population levels. In 1500 there was a reported figure of 2.5 million whilst by 1650 the number was doubled, and we find a 5 million magic figure. It does appear that the country was unable to cope with such a population growth, and this was mostly due to the lack of resources and infrastructure. The real wages people were earning were not able to cover the costs and prices of good at the time. At the same time, England also experiences a higher unemployment rate as the chances to find work are diminished. These are the reports of the south though, so what about the rest of the country?

Perhaps unsurprisingly we see that by 16000 the Midlands saw a massive divide between people. The rich and locally powerful were sitting at the top, then we see a modest class of yeomen farmers just about managing, and then a mass of poor people unable to survive. Funny enough, London reports also suggest things were not all so peachy even in the capital. The harvest did have a real big impact which is seen in the population toll. An average year would see the number of burials just above that of birth, however in 1597 twice as many Londoners were buried than baptised…The pattern does confirm a time of seasonal death that indicates the reason behind these extravagant number of passings was the famine. But a place that shows these evidence as well is perhaps something many of us did not suspect: prisons. And it is amongst the inmate waiting trial that the numbers get spooky. There was a livelihood of death whilst waiting in jail due to the inhumane and appalling health and sanitary conditions of such facilities were the treatment was rough at best. But we see an increase in the number of dead prisoners throughout Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Sharpe advises that the average number for these deaths normally would have been around 33. Yet between 1596 and 1597 the staggering 117 can only suggest many of these were the cause of starvation due to bad harvest which is enhances by the contraction of maladies and disease.

Moreover, remember this is the Elizabethan period and war was certainly present at home. With the country at conflict with the Netherlands and Spain we find a major social disruption as those who return from war have nowhere to go. Unsurprisingly these men go into a stage of homelessness, vagrancy, and eventually crime. Theft and grain riots in all of south of England is more than evident, although often forgotten due to their relative lack of success. Such an example is the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. The situation was by then somewhat contained but the pressure still existed on the government to get things right, which is for sure one of the things that promotes the enactment of the Poor Law Act (1601).

I think the reason why it interest me, had something to do with my own teaching of the period from the perspective of the Golden Age of Spain. My students are probably sick and tired of hearing about war, famine and death in the Spanish Empire, where the British Isles always look so much better off…Yet, it was not so golden times over the shores on the other side of the Channel I suspect. I think this really help us understand the biases of national histories and the things we assume to be Golden Ages.

Upper and Lower Class Tudor Fashion

Fashion, along other sociopolitical signifiers, has often been used as a sign of wealth throughout history, and Tudor times were no exception. Most trends were introduced by the royalty, who popularised them and produced the copycat effect, therefore propagating these tendencies amongst other of their same ranks, if not the whole of society. So today I will be looking at some aspects of Tudor fashion that were at their peak back in the day. However, I will also give you the contrast of what was common fashion among those less fortunate; the poor and working classes of early modern England.

Let’s set the scene first. Just so you get an idea of how important clothes and bling were then, it is believed that Henry VIII spent over £2.4 million of today’s pound a year on his wardrobe…I mean, he was a large man but even so, just like the celebs today, huh? Well, as we are talking about Henry, something that became really fashionable during his reign was the codpiece. As a clothing item, the general rule of thumb was big was good and bigger better. In fact, the codpiece was known to be stuffed with a padding called bombast. Codpieces could be big enough to fit and conceal a weapon! But, the trend died out by the late 16th century, giving way to the perhaps more elegant 3 piece Elizabethan suit (jerkin and hose). Henry’s wives were just as fancy as he was, and they set their own trends too. for example, Anne Boleyn is often attributed the introduction of the French hood in England, which was quickly copied by the ladies of the court. Even Catherine of Aragon had impact in a rather peculiar artefact that accompanied women’s attire: the mini prayer-book. This miniaturised books of worship were fastened around the waists of high-ranking female aristocrats and merchants, perhaps as a sign of piety.

You know how the saying goes: like father like daughter, so it is no surprise that Elizabeth I was herself quite a fashion victim. It is well-known that she owned the signature pale make up of the nobility of her age. This look was achieved by the use of a substance called ceruse. Unfortunately for Elizabeth and the rest of Tudor society, ceruse was composed by lead, therefore causing severe skin damage as well as hair loss, which must have been a horrible combination for the Queen and her unfortunate contraction of smallpox…Who said beauty did not come at a high price? But, moving on, there were other items of fashion that were popular amongst Tudor nobility and were not exclusive of the royal family. Brooches were a popular item of jewellery as an ornament for wealthy women in the 16th century. In addition, certain fabrics such as velvet, silk and satin maintained their status of previous centuries as luxurious textiles, therefore only accessible by those who could afford the coin. Interestingly however, and something that perhaps contrasts highly with out modern attire, is the fact that black clothing were exclusively available to the highest ranking members of society. This is due to the fact that black dye was incredibly expensive to maintain and hard successfully stain textiles with it. So if you were good for money in Tudor times, you wouldn’t have looked terribly off from a Goth – funny…

Nevertheless, this was not all joy and colourful extravaganza, as it is seen by the attires of ordinary people. We know thanks to archaeological discoveries, particularly in London, that knitting seems to have become a popular activity for the everyday woman of the 16th century. The poor would have riled in home knitted wear to keep themselves warm. All types of garments have been found made this way, from mittens to underwear vests. There is a particular type of knitted wear that is known to have been worn by the working men in London: caps. These were made with neck and cheek or ear pieces to keep the face warm, but also way from the dirt. In addition, these caps were fairly waterproof and perfectly capable of coping with the bad weather. Interestingly, we have also found leather pattens that would have been layers on top of normal shoes to keep them clean when people went outside. I guess this is what happens when you can only afford a pair of shoes: you must ensure they are kept in the best condition possible, and covering the shoes with multiple layers, could well have been a cheaper fix than buying a new pair every so often. As a final point, I would like to bring attention to the ordinary clothes any man would have worn on a daily basis in comparison to the pompous codpiece and the 3 piece suit. I am talking about them commoner’s shirt and breeches, also known as slops. These are believed to have been a practical attire particularly used by sailors and other labourers.

So, perhaps next time you go shopping or find yourself browsing through a clothes magazine, you will take a moment to consider how fashionable fashion actually is, or how new such and such trend actually are 😉

Interview with Dr. James Ross (25th November, 2016 – University of Winchester)

Today we bring you our latest interview with Dr. James Ross who is currently at the University of Winchester, bringing the later middle ages in England to the heart of the medieval history students of our home institution. He has also recently secured funding for a research project focusing on Henry VII and VIII, therefore we took the opportunity to learn more about it. So we asked James to spare a couple of minutes of his time and tell us about his research and his opinions on diverse matters, and he very kindly gave us some excellent info. The whole text is below:

The Team: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us! To get things started here is an easy questions for you  – If you had to choose a single noble/gentry family to be the most fascinating dynamic contributor to English history, who would you choose?
Dr. Ross: Am I allowed the Plantagenets?!

The Team: Well, of course! The Plantagenets are one of the coolest, meatiest families of all medieval Europe, and we approve and support this choice: A few members of the team have done several posts on the subject! Now, another question so we can pick your professional expertise: can you recommend recent book/articles published recently that have piqued your interest recently?
Dr. Ross: Chris Given-Wilson’s new biography of Henry IV (Yale, 2016) is an excellent study of a king long in need of a fresh approach.

The Team: How do you think your previous work experience (pre Winchester) has helped your position as a lecturer/research supervisor? Are there any other upcoming research in your field that warrants public attention/would be of interest to current History students for undergrad dissertations?
Dr. Ross: I worked for eight years at  the National Archives, which gave me a great grounding in a broad range of medieval and modern records (in addition to my detailed PhD research), and this helps me a lot in supervising PhD students, in teaching palaeography (reading old handwriting) for MA and PhD students, and in informing my undergraduate teaching – using original documents is essential in teaching medieval history, and understanding their strengths and weaknesses key to a good understanding.

The Team: Now, excuse us for the slight controversial question, but considering that Richard III has had a lot of re-assessment in the past few years, do you think there should be any other monarch or noble that badly needs renewed fresh attention?
Dr. Ross: Although more work has been done on Henry VII in the last decade or so, that king is perhaps the least understood of any in the period I work in.

The Team: Excellent! That ties in slightly with our next question: the early Tudors have constant historiography being produced, what do you think your research will contribute most to the literature?
Dr. Ross: The Leverhulme project which I am running will publish freely online the Chamber Books of Henry VII and Henry VIII, 1485-1521, which detail both private and public expenditure of those two monarchs will allow more definitive answers to many questions about the early Tudors than has been previously possible, including, for example, just how wealthy Henry VII was, how different were the regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII, how much did they spend on luxury items, what were the daily and weekly rhythms of the court. We hope to have a fully searchable text online by summer 2018, and a conference and publications exploring some of these themes will follow. By contrast, my work on the late medieval and early Tudor nobility looks to take a step away from a crown-centred view of England, and using the records of the nobility themselves where possible, provide a corrective to the old idea that the Tudors crushed the power of the nobility, by exploring the vibrancy and continuity of noble lordship in the regions, their continuing (and successful) exploitation of various sources of wealth, and the ways in which they served the crown (and why the crown needed the nobility).

The Team: I feel, following from your reply that the next point of query is rather appropriate then: why do you feel there is a natural divide/change in historiography upon the year 1485?
Dr. Ross: There shouldn’t be! Almost nothing structural changes in that year. A change of dynasty is a modern and artificial imposition. Much of early Tudor government and kingship was rooted in what the Yorkists were doing before 1485. There’s a much stronger case for saying that things really changed in 1529, with the start of the English reformation, than in 1485 – certainly for the vast majority of the population, changes in religious practice were of greater importance than which king or family sat on the throne.

The Team: Moving on to a completely different subject: the team also wanted to ask if you thought that the links that your period has with popular culture (for example Game of Thrones) have impacted the public’s perception of the era. And if that is the case, do you think the impact has been positive or negative?
Dr. Ross: Anything that gets people interested in medieval or early modern history is a good thing – be that the discovery of the bones of Richard III, The White Queen or Games of Thrones. The direct connection between Game of Thrones and the Wars of the Roses is overdone anyway, but by exploring what happened in England as well as Westeros more people can engage with shared culture and heritage. If the popular perceptions of the medieval era that emerge from GoT are perhaps on the more negative side (violence, war, betrayal) they are not exactly alien to, say, fifteenth century England.

The Team: Brilliant! I am sure that is something our viewers will be pleased to read! I think we are pretty much done with most of the questions, so just to round-up, if you could perhaps tell us what goals would you like to see the field of academic historical research achieve?
Dr. Ross: Academic research needs to be more accessible to a wider audience. Some research is couched in excessively technical language, seemingly simply for the sake of it, and rendering it unintelligible even to other academics. More accessible work would also allow academics to reclaim some of the ground lost to popular writers; the best of the latter are excellent but there is a lot of derivative stuff published just to make money for the authors.

The Team: That is all great and that will be all from us! Thank you for your time James, we appreciate you are an incredibly busy man. We have thoroughly enjoyed this, and we hope our readers do too!

The entire W.U Hstry team would like to thank Dr. Ross again for his replies, and we wish him the best for his upcoming project. We hope that his work will inspire many prospect history students and graduates to find new ways of exploring the late middle ages, and history in general.


Hand in Hand: Theatre and Politics

In recent weeks the link between politics and theatre has come to the forefront of discussion, with arguments about politics role in the theatre. Whatever peoples’ thoughts are on politics’ place or appropriateness in theatre, it is simply undeniable that the two are inextricably linked and have been since theatre existed.  This is not a simple link either; theatre and politics throughout history have been linked in a variety of ways, whether it be in the play itself, its patrons, its performers and writers or even the physical theatres themselves.

Western theatre is largely based on the theatre of the ancient Greeks. This is also where politics and theatre became intertwined. The venue for theatre and politic discussion during this period were the same; the amphitheatre. This, along with the emphasis placed on rhetoric as civic duty, meant the two often overlapped during this period. While there is no term in ancient Greek for satire, several of the earliest satirists wrote for Greek theatre, such as Aristophanes who was fiercely critical of Cleon, a general and politician, and Menander whose earliest surviving fragment of work was an attack on a politician.

English theatre until the Reformation was mostly restricted to religious plays such as mystery cycles and miracle plays. These plays became unacceptable after the Reformation and secular theatre began to flourish. Theatre companies, to play in public, were required to have a noble patron and many of the companies took their name from their patrons, such as the Lord Chamberlin’s men.

Theatre companies during this period had two audiences: the monarch and court; and the general public. Therefore plays had to straddle a line of appealing to the general public while not offending the court. Sometimes this failed, such as in A Game of Chess which was stopped after several performances for its thinly veiled allegory of the current monarchy.

Even plays that were not about the monarch or court could be dangerous. Shakespeare’s Richard II was paid to be performed shortly before the Essex Rebellion in 1601 by Essex’s supporters in hope that the play, which was deeply critical of Richard II, would encourage people to join the rebellion.  Luckily for Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlin’s men they were not punished for their accidental involvement. However such incidents show that theatre was considered to be deeply political.

After the closure of theatres under the Puritan Interregnum rule of Oliver Cromwell, the ascension of Charles II led to a new flourishing age of theatre. Political plays found new popularity in theatres across the country, such as The Country Wife and The Roundheads. This was despite theatres requiring a royal patent and despite the fact that Charles II was known to frequent theatres unlike his predecessors.

The introduction of allowing women on stage was one of the most politically charged acts of the 17th century, directly challenging gender roles. Female actors attracted controversy on and off-stage: on stage the women portrayed characters far from what was considered ‘acceptable’; and off-stage many actresses who had come from lowly means found themselves thrust into the political spheres of court, and able to wield political power via their affairs with nobility or even the king himself.

The Licensing Act of 1737 had a huge impact on English theatre and was introduced because of the political fears of Prime Minster, Robert Walpole. Walpole feared that the popularity and presence of political satire and dissent on stage undermined him and his government. As a result the act allowed government censorship of the stage, which continued until 1968. The act was strengthened in 1848, making it compulsory for all plays to receive government approval before staging. This meant whole plays could be refused, although in most cases plays simply had certain passages censored. This included all plays, even performances of classical plays. This created a two tier theatre system with legitimate theatres who were licensed and those that were not.

With the power of the censor, plays especially in the 19th century began to focus more on social than political issues, which aligned more with the attitude of the government. When politics did enter the theatre, it was not uncommon for it to come after the scripts had been submitted to the censors. Pantomime became one of the most political genres of theatre. Writers such as George Bernard Shaw and J B Priestly courted controversy by inserting their own politics into plays.

At the dawn of the 20th century political groups began to form theatre groups, such as the Workers Theatre Movement and the Pioneer Players. In 1936, the Unity Theatre was formed with distinctly left wing productions, many of which directly challenged censorship.

After the Second World War, political theatre came into its own. Politically charged theatre first found its footing on the fringe theatres as until 1968, theatres were still censored. Plays such as The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (who would go on to write a number of highly politically charged plays throughout the last half of the 20th century) and Oh, What a Lovely War!, pushed their political messages indirectly.

The lifting of censorship, along with the political atmosphere of the 1960s, allowed an explosion of direct political theatre. Plays such as Saved by Edward Bond, which had previously been severely censored, were allowed in their full political anger. Play writers were no longer restricted to political satire to criticise their government, their monologues could now directly call out those who did not live up to their expectations.

This has continued and expanded through into the 21st century, with even ‘family-friendly’ productions such as the musical Billy Elliot being adamantly anti-Thatcher. Today it seems unimaginable that in living memory that there was not a time where playwrights could not write clear criticism of the current political climate.


Spring of Water Rises: A history of Orpington before 1900

I recently moved to Orpington, part of the London Borough of Bromley, on the border of London and Kent. Despite only becoming part of London in 1965, Orpington has a long and interesting history which has meant my original idea for this blog post has changed several times. Therefore this post only covers the history of Orpington up until 1900, I hope to at some point in the future to blog about the history of Orpington post 1900. The name Orpington comes from a bastardized version of Dorpentune which means ‘where the head or spring of water rises’.

Tools from the Stone Age, pottery from the Bronze Age and a farmstead from the Iron Age show that Orpington has been settled since early human history, however our first concrete history of Orpington comes from the Crofton Roman villa. It is thought to have been occupied from around 140 AD to 400 AD. The villa was the centre of a 500 acre farming estate overlooking the River Cray. The villa underwent various changes during its 240 year existence, possibly containing around twenty rooms with at least sixteen found during its excavation. By 400 AD it was abandoned and eventually due to the remains of the buildings being taken or lost under soil washing from the slopes above, the villa was lost until 1926 when it was found during construction work. Ten of the rooms are now preserved in the Crofton Roman villa museum.

The next records of Orpington appeared in 862 AD in a charter under King Ethelbert of Wessex. It then appears again in 1032 when King Cnut’s chaplain gave his estate to the Christ Church Priory in Canterbury.  Four years later the area was first recorded as Orpedingetune. Ten years before the Domesday Book in in 1076, there were disputes within the church about the lands around Orpington. The Domesday Book however is our best source of information for Orpington as it records its population as around 75-100 people detailing their possessions and livelihoods. It also included who owned what parts of Orpington. The largest manor belonged to the Monks of Christchurch Canterbury, as had been given to them in 1032. There was a second manor, known as ‘Little Orpington’ which belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but not the monastery.

The first major secular records begin in 1111, with the construction of the first manor house in Oprington, built by the de Rokesle family who then let the manor to Philip de Malevil. By 1281 the house reverted back to de Rokesle family, who had risen to prominence with Gregory de Rokesle holding the position of Lord Mayor of London. However the residence of such a prominent figure seems to have done little for Orpington. By 1363 on the death of John de Rokesle, his lands including the manor house were sold to Sir John Peche.

Upon the dissolution of the monasteries the Priory was given to Sir Percival Hart. In 1554 Hart built on the Priory land, retaining some of the existing buildings. In 1573 Elizabeth I as part of her Royal Progress visited Orpington staying at the property known as Bart Hart. She spent three days in Orpington before moving on to her own property in Knolle. The manor and land would remain in the Hart family until 1671.

The seventeenth century saw the beginning of recorded industry. The Colegates Mill was constructed on the River Cray in 1634. This mill would remain until at least the nineteenth century. In 1654, the Hodgson Brothers built their foundry also on the Cray, where not only did they cast bells for the local St Mary’s Church but also the famous Bow Bells for St Mary Le Bow of Cheapside in central London. Those born in the sound of the bells are considered ‘true’ cockneys. As industry spread so did the need for better transport links with the turn-piking of the London to Tunbridge Wells’s road being completed in 1750 which Orpington was situated on. By the early nineteenth century two paper mills were established which would remain until the Great Depressions in the 1930s. Fox and Sons also established a large brewery in Orpington in 1836. They would later build housing in the area for their employees.

Such development of industry lead to the building of train stations in the area. St Mary Cray Station predated Orpington by ten years arriving in 1858, this helped development around the river Cray. The railway helped Orpington gain links not just with the surrounding areas of Kent but also with London. At this time Orpington was still mostly an agricultural area along with the industry around the Cray. The Vinson family for instance who were the largest soft fruit producers in England invested heavily in the area. However Orpington was growing, with its population increasing from 754 in 1841 to around 4000 in 1900.

By 1900 Orpington had developed from a tiny village to the beginnings of a growing town. Despite its small population until the mid-nineteenth century, Orpington had a rich history dating from the Roman period. It began to develop more into what the town appears as today, although much of the events of the twentieth century would truly form it.