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Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Having read Ian Mortimer’s wonderful Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I sort of knew what to expect when I began reading The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England and was so looking forward to immersing myself in Elizabethan times as if I was a tourist with an extremely knowledgeable, obliging and sympathetic tour guide for company. For this is the magic of Mortimer’s work – he places the contemporary reader in the landscape and culture of a bygone era, ensuring we’re rubbing shoulders with people of all classes, and talks us through what we’ll find both familiar and strange and in doing this brings the past to life.

Beautifully written, this wonderful book invites us into a time that we sort of know through literature and film but in many ways we do not. Mortimer is at pains to overturn or at least challenge many of thThe Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan Englande shibboleths that accompany this period – such as those around cleanliness: personal and household. Of the brutality of the times, he doesn’t hold back, and descriptions of executions, fights, brawls and their victims litter the book in much the way severed heads did the Tower or London Bridge. Gird your stomach before reading.

A violent era where it really wasn’t safe to wander towns or cities at night and if you chose to move along the highways you should do so with guards, it was also a period where culture boomed – particularly music, poetry and theatre. Elizabeth, a proud, haughty queen who firmly established Protestantism as the faith of her land and had to cope with assassination plots, as well as disgruntles Catholics, foreign rulers, wars and Puritans, was also a great patron of the arts and it’s because of the context she created that it flourished.

While bear-baiting, cock-fighting and other amusements are, to the modern reader, an anathema and would have us calling the RSPCA, and taverns, ale-houses and other places you could get “cupshotten” (drunk) and often find a whore or two, dotted the landscape, especially of London, there were also places and spaces (such as the courtyards of inns and nobles’ establishments) where poetry and plays were performed much to the crowds’ delight.

The last chapter devoted to “entertainment” reminds us that it was during these times that William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe wrote their plays as well as Ben Johnson, Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser their gorgeous poesy (and more besides). Despite plague and petitions that sought to shut down the playhouses of Southwark and London, they grew in number and size, some entertaining around 2000 people a day each.

Popular entertainment also diverted the masses from the problems that beset them in this period such as famine, numerous outbreaks of plague and lack of work. Homelessness is not peculiar to the modern world and in Elizabethan times it exploded as more and more land was fenced to cater to sheep and the new market of wool and tenant farmers were ruthlessly thrown out without any regard for their welfare by greedy landholders. Laws were passed that made succouring or offering a roof to a vagrant illegal and so these destitute souls, who moved to the towns and cities seeking work, resorted to stealing just to feed themselves and their children and were more often caught and given a grim sentence. What the book tells us briefly, is that Poor Laws were later introduced that ensured villages and towns took responsibility for their homeless and thus the Poor House (which morphed into the notorious Workhouse) was born.

Mortimer doesn’t hold back when discussing the legal system in Elizabethan times, a system that required and had a great deal of policing at all levels but, as he also makes clear, not much justice.  Brutal and quick or painful and slow were the most common forms of rough justice and those administering it were not above some torture too. The only way of avoiding it was by bribery and as corruption was rife, it might be the only way to save your skin.

Social hierarchy was strict and generally adhered to – from nobles, to gentry to the rising middle class and merchants to yeomen and peasants. Mortimer also points out that due to the invention of printing in the last century, literacy was on the rise and many people could read, even if it was just to be able to quote a passage from the Bible and thus claim “Benefit of the Clergy” if they were caught committing a crime! This reduced if not abolished the sentence.

Of course, if you want wealth, a rounded education and even the prospect of change this is still very much the time to be a man (preferably a noble or the gentry), women are still chattels and objects of exchange, despite Elizabeth being on the throne. Being a woman and reading this book makes you glad you’re time-travelling and not, as interesting as the era is, confined to it.

The book also discusses food, clothes, accommodation (the latter two, while improving over the course of Elizabeth’s reign often being flea and louse-ridden, again depending on class), bathing, washing, modes of address, the landscape, travel and manages to answer most questions about the era – even how women dealt with menstruating and both sexes with going to the toilet!

This was also a period of great discovery and travels, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake being among the illustrious explorers and Mortimer tells some wonderful anecdotes about these men and others.

There’s a reason this period is called “Elizabethan” and that’s because the monarch cast her spell over the country in ways other kings did not. “Gloriana”, the “Virgin Queen”, Queen Elizabeth managed to rule Britannia with an iron fist, imposing her will and ways beyond mere religion. Her mercurial personality, low tolerance for fools, disloyalty and “popery” and her patronage of those she felt deserved it, served to confuse suitors, advisors and enemies alike and allowed her to maintain sole power for such a long and rich period.

A fabulous trip, Mortimer’s book is a great read for lovers of history, those curious about times gone by and, of course, for time-travellers. This is the literary person’s Tardis and I look forward to another journey with Dr Who – I mean, Mortimer – soon.

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