Life in 17th Century England



AT the beginning of the seventeenth century, when permanent English settlements were begun in America, the people of Great Britain had just passed from the reign of an age of Faith into that of an age of Reason. In the realm of the former, there was such absolute intellectual laziness, and indifference to the exercise of reason in speculative matters, that men accepted tenets in religion and politics, however absurd, as truths, and bestowed no thought upon them.

Theology was like a cast-iron machine, utterly inflexible. It fashioned social life in its most minute details. The people were simply passive portions of that machine obedient to its ecclesiastic movers. The monastery governed the throne and its subjects as a rigid master, and for centuries there had been very little improvement in the condition of the inhabitants. At length the glare of the moral volcano which had suddenly burst out in Germany shot across Western Europe and the English Channel and awoke the British mind from its sluggish repose. Faith gave way to Reason. A secular revolt assumed formidable proportions, and at the close of the same year, when the right of private judgment was proclaimed at Spires, the English House of Commons-the representatives of the people-presented a petition to King Henry the Eighth, which contained the germs of the English reformation. It accused the clergy of disloyalty and immorality, and attributed the disorders which affected the realm to the malign influence of the ecclesiastics. The king presented this petition to the bishops for an answer. That answer was arrogant, and offensive to the House of Commons. The latter stood firm in the position of accuser and champion for the laity, and waged a bitter war with the clergy. Henry, stimulated by his love for Anne Boleyn and angered by the opposition of the church to his unholy scheme of divorcement from his queen, united with the Commons, and employed the resolute Thomas Cromwell to lead a movement for the disseverance of the civil government of England from the controlling spiritual power of Rome. Cromwell did so, with a high hand, sanctioned and assisted by the Parliament, for already the rule of the people through representatives was recognized. That body, by law, suppressed all the monasteries in the kingdom, confiscated their property, and compelled the ecclesiastics to work for their own sustenance. "Go spin, jades; go spin!" was the unfeeling remark of Cromwell to some aged nuns. By law, henry was made the supreme head of the church in England-a pontiff of a church in rebellion-and so was established the principle that canon or ecclesiastical laws must be subservient to the civil laws. It was a new thing under the sun.

England was now partially freed from a long political bondage, and the age of Reason dawned. The English mind was thoroughly aroused to action. Wonderful social changes followed; and during the reign of the adroit trimmer Queen Elizabeth, all classes had more freedom than ever before. Yet the laity were not wholly free. Henry had not specially changed the theology or the rituals of the church in England, and there appeared three powerful and antagonistic parties in the realm. These were the English party, or Churchmen, who adhered to and enforced the doctrines and rituals of the Church of Rome, but who gave their allegiance to the English monarch, and not to the Pope; the papal party or supporters of the authority of the Roman hierarchy, and the doctrinal Protestants who were disliked by the others. When Parliament established a liturgy for the Church of England, the latter refused conformity to it, for they acknowledged no authority but the Bible in matters of religion. They were more austere in manners, more simple in their worship, and demanded greater purity of life, and so they acquired the name of Puritans. It was given in derision, but soon became an honorable title. Each class was intolerant, and for more than a century and a half, there was a chronic triangular contest between the English Churchmen, the Roman Catholics, and the Puritans, which caused many of each class to seek peace in the forests of America. But Reason swayed the age with a potent sceptre, and stamped its insignia of authority upon the movements of society. Individuals and associations found new and promising fields of action, the most attractive of which was the virgin soil of America. As we have seen, its worth was known and fairly estimated at the beginning of the seventeenth century; and then dawned the Era of Settlements within the domain of our Republic, now at the noon-tide of success, and turning the wilderness, everywhere, into a blooming garden.

The condition of the rural population of England had greatly improved under the new order of things. Down to the time of Henry the Eighth, there had been very little improvement since the Romans left the island. There was not much tillage, and that little was unskillfully done. Vast forests and fens covered the land, and malaria (unwholesome exhalations) was a perpetual scourage. The population was sparse and increased very slowly. It did not exceed five million in the whole island of Great Britain, when Henry the Eighth ascended the throne. The food of the common people was not equal in its nutrition and variety, nor their clothing in comfort, to that of our Indians when Europeans first came to America. Our Indians lived in better habitations than did their British contemporaries. Pestilence and famine kept the rural population sparse. The ecclesiastics rioted in coarse luxuries, and the morals of the towns were beastly in the extreme.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, or a hundred years later, all this had materially changed. The methods of agriculture had been greatly improved, and its bounds immensely enlarged. Implements were better and tillage was far more productive. The farmers, generally, had an abundance of good food; lived in better houses; pewter dishes had taken the place of wooden ones; feather beds, those of straw and coarse wool, and the yeoman was fond of entertaining his neighbors. Clover had been introduced from the Netherlands, and increased the food for sheep and cattle. Gardens had begun to be cultivated. From the Netherlands had come the hop; also the cabbage, lettuce, apricot, gooseberry, musk-melon and apple. Cherries had come from France; currants from Greece, and plums from Italy; and from Flanders the Flemmings had brought the rose and other fragrant plants, natives of the East. Rural feasts were common among the yeomanry, and the materials for good cheer are enumerated in the following lines:

"Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall; Braun, pudding and sauce, and good mustard withal; Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best; Pig, veal, goose and capon, and turkey well drest; Cheese, apples and nuts; jolly carols to hear; All these in the country are counted good cheer."

In cities and among the nobility rapidly increasing wealth had fostered a taste for luxuries. Dwellings, furniture, and dress, felt its influence. Elegant and substantial houses were built. Furniture was elaborately carved and inlaid; glass mirrors had been introduced from France early in the reign of Elizabeth, and carpets from Turkey, which English weavers soon imitated, took the place on floors of rushes and mats on which royalty had before trodden. Chairs were cushioned with velvet coverings, and costly beds and bedsteads were seen. In many houses were ornamental French clocks, and knives were seen on English dinner-tables; but forks were not used whilst Elizabeth lived.

An old chronicler tells us of a merry scene in the palace of Henry the Eighth. On the morning after the supple-kneed Archbishop Cranmer pronounced the marriage of his king with Anne Boleyn lawful, the new queen received visits of congratulation from the whole court and the archbishop and several prelates in full canonicals. Henry was delighted with the honors paid to his beautiful wife, and whilst they were pressing about her, and both ladies and gentlemen were giving her tokens of their regard, the king went to a small cabinet, unlocked it, and taking from it a French clock which he had bought in France while he was there with Anne when she was a marchioness, he brought it and put it in her hands as a public pledge of his love and constancy whilst time should endure. It was of "silver gilt, richly chased, engraved and ornamented with fleur-de-lys, little heads, etc. On the top sits a lion holding the arms of England, which are also on their sides." It was about sixteen inches in height.

The costume of this period we are considering was a little less extravagant in mode and richness of materials than it had been when Elizabeth was in her prime, for Puritan simplicity better suited good taste. Crimson and blue velvets embroidered with gold were still worn by the rich and noble; and the ruff was yet seen around the necks of both men and women, but somewhat diminished in volume. Jewelry was yet used to excess, and perfumed gloves bordered with silver were common among the rich. Headdresses were of every variety of pattern, but generally were not offensive to good taste. The pastimes of the common people were ball-playing, bowling, archery and rude theatrical exhibitions, whilst the gentry engaged in bull-baiting and horse-racing out of doors, and chess and backgammon amused them in hall and castle. Learning, until late in Elizabeth's reign, had been much neglected. Nobles and clergy were ignorant; but now a mighty impulse had been given to literature in England, for it was the age of Spenser and Shakespeare. Yet not one in ten of the gentry could write his or her name. The father of Shakespeare could only make his mark with a pen. The fine arts were very little encouraged. Henry the Eighth, who possessed good taste, caused some very fine buildings to be erected, and invited to his court painters and sculptors from abroad. Holbein the painter came from Switzerland, and Torregiano the sculptor came from Florence. But Elizabeth had no artistic taste, and we find only one eminent English painter during her reign-Nicolas Hilliard-to whom she sat for her miniature several times. She encouraged art so far as it ministered to the gratification of her vanity.

Such, in brief outline, is a picture of the social condition of England when the inhabitants of that realm began to make permanent settlements in America, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The Tudor dynasty had ended with Elizabeth, and that of the Stuarts had begun. James the Sixth of Scotland, the only son of Mary Queen of Scots, had ascended the throne as James the First of England in 1603. He was in private and public an unwashed, ill-mannered, vulgar and contemptible man; fond of gross shows on which he wasted the treasures of the kingdom; and so great was his egotism that he considered himself more wise and learned than any man in his realm in church or state. He was a bigoted believer in the royal prerogative or exclusive privileges exercised by divine right; and he was a fickle tyrant who gave continual uneasiness to his subjects. This was the monarch who granted charters to the London and Plymouth Companies, authorizing them to make settlements in America.





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