Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Short breaks in Elizabethan England

I loved Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England when it was on the telly a few weeks ago and have finally made an effort to read the book, which I got for my birthday almost exactly a year ago.

Mortimer's idea is brilliantly simple: to present the past as if we can walk round it, scouring sources for details on food, accommodation, manners and everything else. He's good at detailing the smells and textures of the period as well as the dry facts, and writing it in the present tense really helps to breath new life into an age that's been well covered before.

This vivid conjuring has a slow-burn effect: you notice it long after reading the words on the page. On Sunday morning, as I wandered round my old home-town of Winchester, I found myself picking out details I'd never seen before - Tudor beams and windows above the shops in the high street, the plan of the backstreets, the medieval buildings that would have seemed old even to the Elizabethans.

A lot of the book is devoted to ordinary life - the limited flavours and colours, the wealth of ripe odours. But he's also good at making sense of the politics, too. Why, for example, did Elizabeth have such a long and successful reign?

Mortimer makes the case that, unlike her predecessors in the Middle Ages, Elizabeth had few relatives - siblings, cousins, those related by marriage - in contention for the throne. She was the last of Henry VIII's children and he was the only surviving son of Henry VII. Even so, Elizabeth had Mary, Queen of Scots, executed and Lady Catherine Grey imprisoned.

But Elizabeth was also careful to establish and underline her authority. Mortimer details her "mannish" behaviour, her progresses round the country so her subjects could see her, and the ways she dominated parliament. Parliament was, for example, banned from discussing the question of who would succeed her, and she called only 10 parliaments anyway in the 45 years of her reign (rather than the customary one a year).
"Like her grandfather Henry VII, Elizabeth has a policy of not creating any new earls, marquesses or viscounts, and she creates very few barons. The reason is to limit the power of her subjects and thus strengthen the authority of her government." 
Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England (2012), p. 46.
What's more, a traditional rival to the English monarchy had been done away with by Elizabeth's father: bishops no longer served the Roman Catholic Church but answered directly to her.
"Elizabethan England is thus devoid of private armies, royal dukes and political bishops. Those considering revolt against Elizabeth have no one to turn to for leadership ... After the execution of the duke of Norfolk [in June 1572], the highest rank in the peerage is that of marquess. Never a common title, there is just one in 1600 (the marquess of Winchester), plus a dowager marchioness (the widow of the last marquess of Northampton, William Parr, who dies in 1571). Third-highest in rank are the earls; there are eighteen of these in 1600. Next come the two viscounts, Lord Montagu and Lord Howard of Bindon. The lowest rank is the baronage: there are thirty-seven barons in all. In total, just fifty-seven peers are summoned to parliament at the start of the reign and fifty-five at the end (underage heirs are not summoned)." 
Ibid., p. 47.
Given my day job, it was interesting, too, to learn that peers could not be imprisoned for debt, and other privileges included "the right to be judged by his peers, paying very little tax and freedom from torture" (p. 48) - though Mortimer explains Henry VIII got round that last one by having peers summarily executed and Elizabeth locked up some nobles for years in the Tower without trial.

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