In Sickness and in Health – Part Five

Maypoles and Christmas apart, the one activity which really aggravated the pious Puritan was theatre-going. The characters in plays were almost always ungodly, and included such sinners as necromancers, adulterers, infidels, papists, Jews, loose women, drunks, witches, thieves, murderers, and cheats, not all of whom were seen to get their just desserts.  One spittle-flecked preacher denounced plays as being ‘sucked out of the Devil’s teats to nourish us in idolatry, heathenry and sin’.

Theatre was not confined to London or big towns. When Shakespeare introduced a troupe of travelling players to the stage in Hamlet, he was writing about his own experience as an actor.  Both London-based and provincial companies toured the country, playing in town halls, inns, or inn-yards, churches, churchyards and country houses.  Stages were often improvised, furniture and props borrowed and if necessary the play itself adapted to fit the environment. ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ is not easy to achieve on the London stage, let alone in a provincial town hall.

Trumpets and drums heralded the arrival of the troupe in the town. The peace was disturbed. The plays were strange, exotic and sometimes erotic. Apprentice boys stayed up late and could not get up for work next morning. Quite often, the players were not sufficiently respectful of the town’s dignitaries, and quite often too the plays mocked their sort.  All-in-all, the theatre was dangerously subversive.

The Cinque Ports were on one of the companies’ main travelling routes, from London via Canterbury, and Hythe had its fair share of visits.  Most companies had a royal or noble patron, which was important to avoid being accused of vagrancy, with all the undesirable consequences that entailed.  The King’s Players, the Queen’s players, the Earl of Sussex’s players, Lady Elizabeth’s players and Palsgrave’s men all visited Hythe in the early years of the seventeenth century, by arrangement with the corporation, who usually paid them twenty shillings for each visit.

Something happened in 1615 to upset these arrangements. In December the corporation issued a decree concerning players, which strictly limited when they could perform. They had, in the past, been limited to a specific number of plays, but ‘they disobeyed and have bearded and opposed themselves against the mayor’. Henceforward, they could only perform two or three plays a day, ending before 8pm in winter and 9pm in summer, and none on the Sabbath. If they disobeyed again they would  be completely banned and any inhabitants allowing their houses to be used contrary to this would be fined.  Next year, the Palsgrave company, which had already been contracted to visit were paid, but told to leave the town without performing.

There are two ways of interpreting this turn of events. It may be that the corporation were influenced by Puritan dogma and wished to limit the amount of damage caused to the morals of the townsfolk. Puritan corporations across the country were making similar decrees. In Dorchester in 1607, Lord Berkeley’s Men were banned after playing on the Sabbath, and later the Prince’s Players, even with a warrant from the King’s Master of Revels, were turned away. Or it may be that the Hythe mayor had taken exception to being ‘bearded’ was getting his own back.  In any event, the ban did not last long. In 1618, four different troupes performed in the town.

The repertoire of these companies had something for every taste. Robert Greene’s hit Friar Bungay and Friar Bacon was a complicated story of seduction, love lost and found and a talking brass head.  Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is an even more convoluted tale of the adventures of Moll Yellowhammer, her intended husband Sir Walter Whorehound and her true love Touchwood which involves several cuckolded men, love potions, elopement and a duel, before the main characters are all happily married off. This was a standard of Lady Elizabeth’s Men. The King’s Men, of course, had the whole of Shakespeare’s canon to work with.

Which brings us to the question of whether Shakespeare visited Hythe.  Shakespeare acted with and wrote for the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) for much of his career. Hythe corporation paid the King’s Men twenty shillings for  performances in 1609, but on many other occasions they played in Dover, most notably in 1605, when Shakespeare was writing King Lear and described the cliff on the outskirts of town which now bears his name. Was Shakespeare with the players in 1609? Unlikely – he was by then a successful playwright and part owner of the Blackfriars Theatre. Were there other, unrecorded visits of the company to Hythe – very likely, the records are far from complete. Did he ever make the journey from Dover to Hythe – possibly: he certainly wandered or rode out into ‘the country near Dover’. The answer to the original question – maybe. If he did, then he did not see any feature in Hythe’s flat landscape worth recording, but maybe, just maybe, one of Hythe’s men or women is immortalised in one of the many wonderful minor characters which populate the works of England’s finest playwright.

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In Sickness and in Heath – Part Four

The ever-present spectre of the Grim Reaper did not mean that people were any less willing to enjoy themselves than people in the twenty-first century. The six-day working week, together with long working days of around fourteen hours (and longer for apprentices) meant that holidays were to be made the most of.  Shrove Tuesday was the traditional holiday for young people and apprentices, perhaps with games and races in the town. Mothering Sunday was the day young servants and apprentices could visit their homes, if they were near enough. Easter and Whitsuntide were also celebrated, but it was May Day that was the most important spring holiday. There was dancing, especially round the maypole and gathering branches and flowers to make May garlands; there might be hobbyhorses, Morris dancers, baiting, and wrestling.  It was second only to Christmas as a time of festivities.

Lest a picture of bucolic innocence be conjured up by this description, it must be added that the authorities, secular and religious, were generally uneasy about holiday merrymaking, which invariably also involved alcohol, foul language, fighting and sex. The Puritan government of the Commonwealth years was particularly disapproving of these excesses.

The Puritans latched onto the maypole as the paramount symbol of wickedness and depravity. It was, they said, a ‘heathenish vanity’ and should be removed wherever it was found. Hythe corporation was ahead of the game here, and had removed their maypole in 1615. Removing the maypole did not however remove all ungodly jollifications. In 1655 Thomas Kelsey, then the Major-General in charge of Kent issued an edict to all local magistrates, telling them to ban the traditional Whitsun celebrations which ‘produced no other fruits but drunkenness, swearing and all other kinds of lowness and debauchery’. Christmas was targeted, too, as it was ‘superstitious’ and ‘unbiblical’. Predictably this was unpopular. There were riots in Canterbury in 1647, when the mayor tried to enforce the ban.

There had been a time, under James I and his son Charles I when having some good, clean, fun after church on Sunday had been positively encouraged. The Book of Sports, first issued in 1617 and re-promulgated in 1634 set out what sports were acceptable and included Morris-dancing, archery, dancing and ‘leaping and vaulting’. Bowling, for reasons unknown, was excluded. By the time of the 1634 declaration, the Puritans were in the ascendant, and there was widespread antipathy towards the book, culminating in an order in 1643 that it should be publicly burned. By 1650, the attitude had hardened into a ban on having any sort of fun at all on Sundays: ’No person or persons shall without reasonable cause for the same, travel, carry burthens, or do any worldly labours or work whatsoever on that Day’ and there was ‘a prohibition against wrestling, shooting, bowling, ringing of bells for pleasure or pastime, masque, wake, otherwise called feasts, Church ale, dancing, games, sport, or pastime whatsover’.

Local magistrates had no option but to follow these laws. In 1655 Hythe corporation fined two people for travelling on the Lord’s Day and put one of them in the stocks for six hours. The stocks were probably not often used, as they had to obtain a new lock to secure the miscreant in place.

Bowling might have been banned on Sundays, but it continued to flourish in Hythe on other days of the week. The bowling green was a true civic amenity, owned by the corporation and maintained by a keeper appointed and paid by them. It was situated off the modern day Stade Street, in approximately the position where ‘Oaklands’ now stands, and was conveniently placed next to a horse pond, where players could rest their mounts during the game.  Its demise started in 1687, when the corporation, strapped for cash, agreed to sell part of it off.

Feasting was also banned on Sundays but could be enjoyed on other days. St John’s and St Bartholomew’s hospitals both had feasts to celebrate the small occasions of institutional life. Ordinary people of all stations in life had feasts to celebrate baptisms and marriages. Feasts were held after musters of the Trained Bands. The Bailiffs to Yarmouth were expected both to attend and to host feasts. The corporation had a big annual feast after the election of the mayor and smaller ones after each quarter sessions, usually held in the ‘White Hart’ inn. This was conveniently owned from 1648 by Ferdinando Bassett, a jurat, although the corporation also had an account at the ‘George’ (now the ‘King’s Head’) which was owned by the other Bassett brother, Elias, another jurat.

This is not to suggest that Hythe corporation was particularly greedy or profligate with rate-payers’ money.  Feasting and food gifts were a legitimate form of expenditure for corporations as well as individuals. Wine, sugar and marzipan were often given to notables on their visits to towns, and food changed hands in the form of gifts, bribes and fines at all levels. The Lord Warden, on his brief visit to Hythe in 1615 was served with sugared wine and in 1650 Hythe corporation sent fish to the M.P. Henry Heyman. He reciprocated with a side of venison. Thomas Browning in 1620 wooed the freemen and jurats of the town with dinners in his mayoral election campaign, and towards the end of the century William Honeywood did the same for the electors of Canterbury.

Feasts always included two essentials: a lot of meat and a lot of alcohol. A typical bill from the ’White Hart’ for a corporation supper in 1677 included roast beef, a leg of mutton, three chickens and some bread. No vegetables were served, and dessert was a dish of damsons. Beer and wine together cost nearly as much as the food, and by this time it had become the norm for tobacco to be provided as well. The final item on the bill was hay and oats for the gentlemen’s horses.

Given the quantities of wine and beer consumed, some high spirits were inevitable. In 1626, the corporation, noting the disorder at muster feasts directed the Chamberlain to take note of the wine and beer brought into the rooms, and to allow no ‘superfluyitie’. The boot was on the other foot in 1678 when they were themselves penalised: after a feast at the ‘White Hart, the landlady charged them two shillings and sixpence extra for ‘glasses broke’.

The excessive consumption of alcohol concerned the government and local authorities in the seventeenth century every bit as much as it does in the twenty-first. Alehouses, where beer was cheap, and, until it was banned in 1637, home-brewed, were anathema to the respectable classes, and there were repeated attempts by parliament in early years of the seventeenth century to limit them. In 1608 the king issued orders that licences should be more judiciously issued and strictly monitored.  Old licences were to be repealed and new ones issued, with stringent conditions as to illegal gaming and good order attached. To solemnise this undertaking, each licence was to be ‘sealed with a common seal, ingraven in brass with a rose, and the inscription of the county, city or town-corporate’.

The sting in the tail was that these impressive seals were only to be had from one man, the king’s engraver, who had premises near Goldsmith’s Hall in London. He charged twenty shillings for each seal, and as he said himself, he had been ‘promised the 20s for every county, city, and town’ in England.  James I loved to give money to his favourites, and if that money belonged to other people, so much the better.

 

In Sickness and in Health – Part Three

Death was at the centre of life just as the church was at the centre of the town. It was a normal occurrence in people of all ages, not just the old. The most at risk of death were new born infants. Life expectancy at birth was about forty years, and there were not many over-sixties – possibly only about  4-7% of the population, whereas the percentage of children under sixteen was probably about 35%. The whole country was much younger than it is today.

The exact population of Hythe in the seventeenth century cannot be established. A census was carried out, but not for the purpose of counting total population. The religious Compton Census, of 1676 asked ministers how many Anglicans lived in the town, and how many of other denominations. It showed that Hythe had 274 conformists, 2 Roman Catholics, and 25 Nonconformists. This gives a total population of 301. However, the census did not come with instructions on how it was to be completed. Some ministers counted the whole population, some only those over sixteen, some only those over twenty-one, some only men, some only heads of households. The only thing that can definitely be gathered from the information recorded for Hythe is that it had more Anglicans than others.

It is possible to make a very broad guess at the population. Experts in the field say that the crude birth rate in England was about 32 per 1000 at the beginning of the seventeenth century and about 28 per thousand at the end. ‘Crude birth rate’ means the number of live births in the population as a whole over a year. By counting up the number of baptisms recorded in Hythe and working backwards, it looks like Hythe’s population in the early seventeenth century was about 1100, and by the end of the century only about 650. Of course, this is a very rough estimate and does not take account of the fact that by the end of the century there were Nonconformist baptisms of which we have no record.   However, it is significant that the numbers of marriages and burials were also falling by the end of the century.

If a child survived birth and the first five years of life, he or she had a reasonable prospect of reaching adulthood, although there were many dangers along the way. Quite apart from disease, health and safety concerns seem not to have been at the top of parental worries. The diaries of William Coe (quoted in Ralph Houlbrookes’ English Family Life 1576 – 1716) record that between 1693 and 1703, two of his eight children came close to being choked by pins in their food, two more were bitten by a dog on separate occasions, while  others suffered by having a hat set on fire by a candle, falling into a creek, falling off a horse, being struck in the eye with an oak rail, having boiling fat spilled on his clothes, being accidentally stabbed with an awl, managing to hang himself (not fatally) by the neck from a hall window, falling into scalding water, having his cheek pierced  by a cow’s horn, having his thumb broken by a horse, being thrown from an open coach and narrowly missing death in an overturned wagon.

If a man or woman survived the dangers of childhood, they could expect to marry at about twenty-three to twenty-eight years old (only the daughters of noble families married in their teens). This was relatively late in a short life span, but young people needed to assemble the resources and skills required. Marriage was an assertion of independence from parental ties. It involved setting up a new household with a new household head. There was initial cost of domestic paraphernalia as well as the ability to pay the rent. If a man was setting up a workshop at the home he needed equipment and tools. Skills were needed to be able to run a household. As an apprentice and journeyman, a young man would become master of a set of skills so as to be able to operate on his own with a fair chance of success. His bride needed to know how to bake bread, prepare and cook food, make and mend clothes. In Hythe we see the Bassett brothers, Ferdinando and Elias marrying first at the ages of thirty-four and twenty-six respectively. Thomas Browning, son of the gentleman of the same name married Margaret Huffam of Ash when he was twenty-four. William Gately, the blacksmith, married Ann Dryland of Wye when he was twenty-seven.

If a spouse died, which was often, the incidence of remarriage was high, out of economic necessity for women, and domestic necessity for men.  In England as a whole, about half of widower remarriages took place within a year, but about 15% of widows married within six months.  Ferdinando Bassett, widowed twice, remarried on both occasions within less than a year. His brother Elias, also widowed twice, found new brides again within five months both times.

Death had its own rituals. The body was laid out by local women and might be viewed at home for a couple of days. It was then wrapped in a single linen sheet knotted at top and bottom and carried to the grave either on a pall or in the parish coffin, usually a plank box, which was dispensed with at the graveside. Being buried in your own coffin had great cachet, even if you weren’t there to enjoy it. There was rarely a service in the church: the funeral party went straight to the graveside. Of course, if the deceased was important enough, and rich enough, they may have been buried in the church itself. Thomas Sprott, a jurat  was buried there, as much later were Robinson Beane, a mayor of Hythe, together with his wife and daughter.

 

The memorial to Ann and Elizabeth Beane (St Leonard's Church, Hythe)
The memorial to Ann and Elizabeth Beane (St Leonard’s Church, Hythe)

William Gately, though, another jurat and mayor, was laid to rest in the churchyard, but with rather a splendid tomb as a consolation prize.

The use of linen as a shroud ended in 1678 with the passing of the Buried in Wool Act, which dictated that all bodies should be shrouded in wool, and that a certificate be obtained from a J.P. that this was the case. It was an extraordinary piece of revenue-raising legislation, trading on the one certainty of life – death.