I often wonder what Henry VIII would have thought if he had watched his daughter, Elizabeth grow up and become queen. I have a feeling that he would have been proud and maybe he would have reflected on all the angst, battles, head rolling and political and social upset; all this in order to have a son for his heir. It exhausts me just to think of Elizabeth’s path to becoming queen. Maybe it was this struggle that made her one of the most famous and revered monarchs ever to have sat on the throne of England.
We know a lot about the lady herself; there were many authorized portraits in order to get people to focus on her, to be delighted by her fashion, jewels and beauty. She also made sure she travelled up and down the Thames on her personal barge on both state and unofficial business. Glimpses of her and her enormous entourage were made all the more exotic as her highly decorated barge was covered in garlands of flowers. People would talk about the spectacle as they went about their work. Elizabeth I was not a retiring wallflower!
Courtiers, explorers, foreign dignitaries and playwrights seemed hell bent on impressing her, keeping her in favour and maybe hoping for her hand in marriage. We know less about London at this time. We don’t have the great diarists, Pepys, Evelyn and even Samuel Johnson to inform us of everyday life but we do have John Stowe who filled in some details with his 1598 Survey of London. We can also rely on the words of overseas visitors, many of whom came to learn more about English Protestantism and we also get a wonderful perspective of London from the various playwrights and writers of the time.
So what was London like at this time? The population of the two cities that made up London (The City of London and the City of Westminster) grew from an estimated 120,000 to a shocking 200,000 by the end of Elizabeth’s reign. How could they cope?! Courtiers with London houses as their second homes were encouraged to stay at their country piles but although many wanted to stop its growth, this was a boom time for building in London. Land that was owned by the church had been taken by the crown and redistributed to its supporters. Monasteries were raised to the ground and grand homes, municipal buildings, livery halls and Anglican churches sprung up in their place. There are still hints of old monasteries in the street names of London – Austin Friars (which sounds rather like a medieval secret agent!), Carmelite Street, Whitefriars Street and Carthusian Street, which is a corruption of the Chartreuse Order of Monks, to name but a few. There is even the remains of an old Carmelite inn underneath the wonderfully atmospheric Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street.
Housing was relatively cheap and really quite beautiful. There isn’t much left of the wonderful black and white or half-timbered buildings that we have come to know and love. They were easy to put up and easy to move – a form of Tudor prefab! Sadly, they were not flameproof and would burn easily. Londoners were terrified of fire for good reason, and although we talk of the Great Fire of 1666, there were other fires that caused more deaths but without affecting so many of the buildings. To cope with the sheer amount of open fires in homes and businesses, we instilled a curfew – not the requirement to be indoors, as we know today - this was an Anglicisation of the French couvre feu meaning ‘cover your fire’. Every night at 8pm, fires had to be covered or deadened in order to prevent devastating blazes.
An image of London might be easy to conjure up if you enjoy films about Shakespeare or Elizabeth I but what about the atmosphere and the day-to-day mood? The general lot of the working poor had not changed much but although there were a few improvements, nothing could prepare them for the outbreaks of disease, especially smallpox and plague at this time. 1563 was a particularly bad year when 25% of London’s population died of plague.
The life of the growing merchant class would have been improved by better sanitation, food, medicine and space. They would have experienced the sense of a world opening up to them as new and exciting riches seemed to be pouring out of both the East and West Indies. Aside from the gems and jewels, it is hard to imagine the excitement caused by precious cargoes of cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and ginger. The demand for these new spices was enormous. They were expensive and everyone wanted to taste and savour them. Noble households even brought in foreign cooks and chefs to prepare new foods as local ones lacked the knowledge and talent. There was no denying that you were what you ate and serving the right food in Elizabethan society ensured the family was considered fashionable and wealthy.
Explorers came back not just with promises of new lands and laden with fancy goods but also with tales of countries far away, some of which would, one day, become part of the British Empire and whose foods and spices would become household favourites. The playwrights and the theatre used these tales and created plays about the Orient and exotic sounding places such as Bohemia, although someone should have told Shakespeare, when he mentions its rugged coastline in A Winter’s Tale, that this part of latter day Czech Republic is very much landlocked! We even used the name Alsatia to describe an anomalous territory between the City and Temple. Although it may have sounded exotic, this little piece of London was pretty wild and ungoverned and made an interesting journey between the two affluent areas.
Playhouses and theatres flourished in the Elizabethan age and if you found this all a bit too public, you could sit at home and read the many books that were being produced at this time and imagine you are with your beloved queen in a country far, far away. I wonder what Henry VIII would have made of that!