Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

A Picture of England Three Hundred Years Ago

In that month of April, 1603, when King James I was enjoying his first taste of English hospitality in the houses of great noblemen and wealthy gentlemen, whilst passing on his way from Edinburgh to London, Cromwell was a boy of four, perhaps playing about the house of his rich uncle, another Oliver Cromwell, who feasted King James for two nights at Hinchinbrook, in Huntingdon. John Hampden, Cromwell's, cousin, an orphan, nine years old, the heir to great and ancient estates in Buckinghamshire, was beginning to go to school. at Thame. Wentworth, a year older, the eldest son of a rich Yorkshire baronet, was already preparing for Cambridge University, Laud was a clergyman and a learned Fellow of St. John's College, Oxford. Charles, the future "royal martyr," was a baby of three.

Of the other great actors in the struggle that was to make the age famous, only John Pym was at this time a grown man. Rupert and Fairfax, the rival cavalry leaders; Falkland and Hyde, the worthiest counsellors of the royalist cause, were not yet born. Many things were in preparation for the coming struggle in James's reign of twenty-two years, and it was the people then growing up who made the great Puritan Revolution. What sort of an England was it that they saw around them? How did the men and women of that time live, and what were they thinking and doing?

In its outward appearance the country has not wholly changed even in three hundred years, and those who will use their eyes can still see much that our forefathers saw then. In every cathedral city, in every large town, in all our older villages, there still stand the very buildings, cathedrals, old parish churches, mansions, even cottages and inns, that were in daily use in King James I's days. The gabled and timbered houses, with their heavy oak beams, their paneled rooms, their galleries and staircases, their carved chimney-pieces and huge open fireplaces, are still to be found in hundreds. We can still see the very pictures and portraits that hung on the walls of mansion and manor-house, and the carved furniture that adorned the rooms. We can still walk on the terraces and garden-paths laid out by the famous gardeners of that age, and enjoy the shade of the very trees they planted.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


Yet for all that, what we can see to-day are mere relics of a bygone England, and if we could go back to that age we should feel as if we were in a foreign country. It must have looked very different even in the open country; for the now familiar hedges did not then divide the fields, except in the few districts where scientific farming was beginning. The old open-field system of farming—without hedges and without rotation of crops—was still largely practised.

Wastes and commons, and woods of great extent, were plentiful even in the south and middle of England, whilst the north was almost a wilderness, A few wild boars were still to be found in the royal forests; the last wolf had not yet been killed in the north; foxes were so plentiful as to be shot and trapped as vermin; deer wandered in great herds. Badgers and wild cats were not uncommon. Eagles and bustards were numerous, and in the fens clouds of cranes sometimes darkened the sky.

The south and east of England were then the most civilised parts. They contained the richest and most thickly peopled counties. The north was a wild region, thinly peopled, possessing only a few cities such as York, Newcastle, and Carlisle, and a few new manufacturing towns such as Leeds, Sheffield, and Manchester. The population of England and Wales to-day is over thirty-six millions. It was then only about four millions—less than the population of London to-day. The greatest towns were London, with 400,000; Bristol and Norwich, with about 25,000 each. Few other cities had a population of 10,000. Besides York, Newcastle, Exeter, and Plymouth, the chief towns lay in the middle and south—Oxford Gloucester, Nottingham, Lincoln, Coventry, Leicester, Southampton, Portsmouth, and Shrewsbury. Hull was a great port. Chester was then more important than Liverpool. Manchester and Sheffield, Birmingham and Leeds, were old villages rising into new towns, through their manufactures of cloth and hardware. But the biggest of them had not more than 4,000 inhabitants.

The old walls still stood round the ancient cities of York, Oxford, Exeter, Lincoln, Chester, and Colchester, whilst many English and Welsh towns still had standing large portions of the old defences and gates, of which there is now little trace. The walls were generally too weak to admit of defence by artillery; but as the Civil War proved, they were still useful. For nearly all these cities withstood regular sieges, as did also a score of old castles that had lasted since the Middle Ages. Such were the castles of Pembroke, Harlech, Raglan, Pontefract, Scarborough, Beeston, Sherborne, Arundel, as well as others less famous. Even more modern houses could still be fortified. Lathom, Basing, Faringdon, Wardour, Lacock, and many others, resisted for weeks, and sometimes months, the local forces brought against them.

The towns themselves were picturesque. No rows of houses, every one alike, existed as nowadays. Huge gables, quaint windows, beams arranged to form a pattern, porches and pillars, allowed plenty of scope for individual taste. But the streets were narrow, and the houses consequently dark; drainage was bad, and so floods and damp were a constant evil; open sewers were a great danger to health.

"Long in populous city pent,

Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air,"

wrote Milton, thinking of his own London. Want of proper sanitation made plague and fever a constant scourge.

Procession near cheapside


In spite of ever-growing trade, all but the very largest towns were still almost self-supporting. To-day every town draws its food and other supplies from the whole world, whilst its special manufactures are carried in turn to supply the needs of other towns and countries. In those days trade was still chiefly local. Flour, beef, mutton, bacon, poultry, eggs, butter, and cheese, came into each place from the immediate neighbourhood. Beer was home-brewed. Workmen of almost every imaginable trade worked in their own homes or in small workshops with a master craftsman, a few journeymen, and two or three apprentices.

Saddlers, painters, coach-builders, wheelwrights, joiners, weavers, dyers, combers, spinners, embroiderers, skinners, glovers, cutlers, shoemakers, plumbers, founders, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, farriers, pewterers, brewers, bakers, coopers, masons, carpenters, etc., were all to be found in every big town. A few places were noted for special wares, and the cloth trade was gradually spreading from the Eastern Counties to the Northern, but no factories had yet arisen.

By far the larger number, probably three-quarters, of the people, lived not in the towns, as nowadays, but in the villages and the countryside. And life in the country was simpler and ruder than in the towns. Even the oldest industry, farming, was conducted very clumsily, although new ideas were coming in from a country which taught England many things in the seventeenth century. Most of the improvements in the common arts of life came to us just then from Holland. Farming, gardening, various methods in manufacture, painting, ship-building, draining, banking, and many other things, including republican ideas and religious doctrines, were influenced by contact with Holland during the whole of the century.

It was in James's reign that root crops began to be properly cultivated. This gave better supplies of food to the cattle in winter. Hitherto large numbers of cattle had to be killed and salted before winter, for want of good cattle food. Consequently people ate salt meat throughout the winter. The sheep and cattle of those days were much smaller than ours; for it is only through special selection and breeding that our modern beasts have been produced. The best breeds of horses came from abroad, and the Netherlands furnished some of the finest.

One of the greatest hindrances to trade, and to progress in other ways, was the badness of the roads. A horseman might gallop, with frequent changes on the road, from London to Edinburgh in three days, as, did the man who carried the news of Elizabeth's death to James. But a journey by coach or waggon was an affair of weeks. In winter, even the few main roads were often impassable. Beyond the Trent, even the Great North Road became in places a mere cart-track. Travellers between one town and another often lost their way in rough weather. After rain, coaches stuck fast, and had to be rescued by a team of oxen brought from a neighbouring farm. The floods between even London and Ware, in Hertfordshire, sometimes compelled passengers to swim for their lives. A. traveller at Stamford was stopped four days by floods, and only attempted to proceed when he found a company of fourteen members of Parliament, with guides, on their way to Westminster. A viceroy going to Ireland took five hours to travel fourteen miles between St. Asaph and Conway.

Hatfield House


For all but the heaviest goods, pack-horses were the best means of transit, as they were less dependent than coaches or waggons on the state of the roads. The age of stage-coaches had not yet begun. Only in the days of the Commonwealth did hackney coaches first appear. The state coaches of royal personages and of the nobles and great gentlemen were oftener seen in the towns than on the country roads.

Not only were the roads bad; they were dangerous from another cause. The days of the most famous highwaymen were not until after the Civil War, but already the roads were infested by robbers, many of them being younger sons of gentlemen. Bad roads and the absence of any real system of police made highway robbery a secure and profitable employment, whilst inn-keepers in remote parts were often suspected of being in league with the thieves. The parish constable, who was often at the same time a small farmer, would raise the hue and cry among his neighbours when a robbery was heard of but the pursuit ended at the parish boundary, and the tired farmer and his rustics would be glad to sit down and then return to their farms, thankful to be rid of a troublesome fellow and to have escaped a broken head or a shot from a pistol.

Stuart embroiderers


John Evelyn tells a story of riding within three miles of Bromley, in Kent, when two cut-throats started out of a thicket, and striking with long staves at his horse, threw him down, took his sword, and hauled him into the wood, where they could rob him securely. "After robbing me," he says, "they bound my hands behind me and my feet, having pulled off my boots. They then set me up against an oak with most terrible threats to cut my throat if I offered to cry out. They told me they had pistols and long guns and were fourteen companions!" This was in populous Kent.

In the wild Northern Counties rough private warfare had only just died out, and on the Scotch borders moss-trooping and marauding still went on occasionally. Bands of robbers long survived in Northumberland and Yorkshire. Even in Charles II's time it was still the custom for the judges on circuit, with the whole body of barristers, country, attorneys clerks, and serving-men, to travel from Newcastle to Carlisle armed and escorted as if in an enemy's country. No wonder that houses were still fortified, and that the inmates slept with arms by their sides.

Nevertheless the country was growing richer and more peaceful. The Tudor period had seen the decay of the castle and the rise of the palace and mansion. Old castles might still be defended in a civil war, but no nobleman now ever dreamt of building a new castle. Palaces and mansions, like that of the Cecils at Hatfield, Holland House at Kensington, or the houses of that famous lady called Bess of Hardwick at Bolsover, Hardwick, and Chatsworth, were being built not for defence, but for beauty and comfort. The famous architect, Inigo Jones, was employed by the first two Stuart kings and their nobles. He built largely in the Italian style, and the Banqueting House, Whitehall, designed to be part of a new royal palace which was never completed, is the best example of his work.

The feudal system had all but gone. There were still relics in the shape of troublesome customs. But Parliament was already bargaining with the king to get rid of them.

The nobility no longer possessed the great powers they had enjoyed in the Middle Ages; the Tudors had done away with all. that. But they were still the leaders of social life, and supplied most of the great politicians and statesmen, except during the Commonwealth. In the Civil War they raised troops from their own tenantry. One of them, the Marquis of Hertford, was rich enough to furnish 120,000 at one time to the king's war-chest, whilst the Marquis of Newcastle estimated what he spent in the same cause at nearly a million pounds sterling. These sums would equal five or six times the same amount in our money.

Yet it was the other side, the side of the more numerous middle classes, that won. The country gentry, and the middle classes, and the merchants and citizens in the towns were rising both in wealth and in influence in the State. It was mostly the country squires of good family, like Hampden, Cromwell, Hutchinson, and Ludlow, who came to the front in the war and in Parliament.

The greatest changes since the early seventeenth century have taken place in the position and influence of the towns. Life and society in the country have changed far less. Labourers, tenant-farmers, freeholders, squires, and great landowners, whose families have been settled in one spot since the Norman Conquest, are still found all over England.

In every county some great nobleman was lord-lieutenant and responsible for raising and arming the militia, which was then the principal and almost the only armed force in the country; No standing army existed. The county train-bands or militia had never seen actual warfare, and were badly equipped and officered. On special occasions men were "impressed" or compelled to serve as soldiers or sailors. It was the question of the raising and control of an army and navy that, amongst other things, brought Charles I into conflict with the Parliament and led to civil war.

Arms and armor


How were soldiers armed, and how did they fight? The foot-soldiers relied chiefly upon the pike and the musket. The days of archers were over a generation ago. The pikemen wore steel caps, breast-plates and back-plates, and a covering of steel for the thighs. The musketeers had enough to do to carry and use their muskets without burdening themselves with armour, so their coats of mail and steel plates were not used. The musket itself was a clumsy and rather ineffective weapon. It was so long and heavy that few men were strong enough to hold one and take aim steadily. So the barrel was laid in a forked rest, which, of course, had to be carried. As there were no cartridges, the soldier had to carry a smouldering string—the match. What with his bullets in a pouch and his powder in a flask, his wads of paper or rag, his burning match, his forked rest, and the heavy musket itself—remembering that the shot did not after all carry very far—the musketeer was not by any means the most dangerous sort of enemy.

No wonder such soldiers were swept off the field by horse-soldiers or cavalry. The pikemen, when trained to stand firm, did far more damage in a battle, and, in fact, pikemen were always used to protect the musketry while they fell back to reload their guns.

The knights, of olden days had given place to the more quickly-moving cavalry. Generals and a few of the higher officers still wore suits of complete armour, as is shown by a visit to the Tower of London, where some of the very suits worn at that time are kept. But the bulk of the cavalry only helmet, breast-plate and back-plate, and tasset for the thighs, carried a couple of pistols, and, instead of a lance, relied chiefly on the sword.

Dragoons—that is, horsemen armed with a short and light musket—were used to precede an army, sometimes by acting as dismounted infantry and seizing positions before the regular foot-soldiers could come up. The seventeenth century was, however, the great age of cavalry, and most of the important battles of the Civil War were chiefly decided by the skilful use of horse and sword, not by gunpowder.

Under James I the navy was in a poor state. The Admiralty was not only inefficient, but so dishonest that money voted for ships and stores was pocketed by officers and contractors, whilst the ships were rotting and their sailors were disbanded. Charles I made many improvements, and the famous "ship-money" was spent in building and equipping a better fleet than had ever been sent out.

Charles's finest ship, the Sovereign of the Seas, was, a three-decker, 230 feet long and of 1,700 tons burden, and carried about 130 guns, the heaviest being 60-pounders. This ship had a long life. It was rebuilt, and at different times it was under the command of Blake, Monk, Penn, the Duke of York, Rupert, Russell, and others. At last it was burnt by accident. The common ships of that time were small vessels of 200 to 500 tons. Compare these with our huge "Dreadnoughts" of to-day!

Far away in the West Indies and the Spanish Main, Englishmen were still carrying on in their own fashion the traditions of Drake and Hawkins, but the sea-dogs of Elizabeth were becoming buccaneers, that is, adventurers; who were mere pirates; under self-appointed leaders. More respectable adventurers and traders were exploring North America and the East Indies, where they came in conflict with the Dutch. Elizabeth had sanctioned the formation of the East India Company in 1600. Virginia and Newfoundland were beginning to be colonised. Baffin and Hudson left their names in Baffin's Bay and Hudson's Bay, whilst in 1620 the Mayflower  sailed with the Pilgrim Fathers, the founders of New England, across the Atlantic Ocean.

If we turn from what men were doing to what they were thinking and saying, we come upon some striking facts. The plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, written mostly in the early years of the seventeenth century, are full of thoughts so modern that they might have been uttered to-day. Both writers had left the Middle Ages behind them, and would have felt at home with the writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century. There are passages in both writers that might have been written as a satire—to poke fun at many of the popular notions put forward in the last century, and even in our own days. Of a somewhat different character were the writings of the great Puritan poet, John Milton, whose lofty verse gave expression to all that was best in the religious thought of the age.

John Milton


There were two main directions in which men's thoughts were bent, especially during the first half of the century; and there were two great passions that left their mark on our history. Ever since the country had, been set free from the danger of invasion by the defeat of the Spanish Armada, people had had time to think about the internal affairs of the nation and to brood over religion. They began to wish for more freedom in both politics and religion. They wanted a greater share in government and in deciding what the national religion should be. We shall find these two passions asserting themselves over and over again throughout the age of the Stuarts. Religion and politics are mingled in almost every great event Thus, the Pilgrim Fathers and many of the later American colonists were religious refugees; the wars with Scotland were "Bishops' Wars," fought for the sake of establishing bishops in Scotland; the great Civil War was a war of Church and Crown against Puritans and Parliament. Cavaliers were Churchmen; Roundheads were Nonconformists; and these two eventually merged into Tories and Whigs, names which will become very familiar to us from the reign of Charles II onwards.

It was to be an age of intense seriousness on one side, and of licence and dissipation on the other. Puritans, who thought it sinful to play games, who turned Sunday into a sombre and joyless day, who made of the Bible a guide for the smallest concerns of life, and who found in prayer-meetings inspiration for the execution of a king, were to match themselves against dissolute pleasure-lovers, who scoffed at praying tinkers and preaching soldiers. There were, of course, saints and sober Christians on both sides, but the two parties had very different ideals of life.

The greatest learning and the noblest poetry existed side by side with the grossest superstition. Nearly eighty thousand so-called witches are said to have been put to death—many of them by being burnt alive—in less that eighty years.

It was to be an age of strife, but the strife was not for ignoble things, and it produced heroes in plenty on both sides. Well might a later poet cry:—

"Great men have been among us: hands that penned,

And tongues that uttered wisdom,—better none:

The later Sidney, Marvel, Harrington,

Young Vane, and others who called Milton friend

These moralists could act and comprehend:

They knew how genuine glory was put on;

Taught us how rightfully a nation shone

In splendour: what strength was, that would not bend

But in magnanimous meekness."