Wednesday 27 March 2013

A Northern Lord in London: The City Richard III Knew.

                                     Panorama of C16th London from the south bank.
Richard III is well known for having been a northerner. The current debate raging over the reburial of his bones indicates the strength of feeling about him in his home county. Yet he was a man of two halves; one foot amid the rolling dales and another firmly rooted in the teeming lanes of the medieval capital. Pleasure may have drawn him to the north but business made him return to London throughout his life and reign.

Born at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, in 1452, Richard spent much of his adult life at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, or the nearby Sheriff Hutton, home to his influential Council in the North. He was a son of York by name and inclination, choosing it as the location for the investiture of his young son as Prince of Wales.
Just weeks after his 1483 coronation, he left London behind and headed north on progress, taking his southern Lords along for the ride, in order to display to them the extent of his support in his homelands. After his death at Bosworth Field, it was the York city’s chronicler who lamented his demise, recording how the King was “piteously slain” through treason, to the “great loss” of his subjects.

Over the centuries, Richard has been accused of many things but being a Londoner is not one of them. Yet throughout his life, he was frequently in the capital, attending sessions of Parliament and ceremonial occasions at court. London was the heart of Government; his presence there was unavoidable. It was a city whose churches, streets and palaces would have been familiar to Richard as a boy and would have proved a cosmopolitan and exciting capital for its future King.

                             This Elizabeth map shows a city comparable in size to Richard's.
The London of the 1460s was much smaller than the present city. It was also greener, with a higher proportion of private gardens and open spaces. Early medieval maps show that most people lived between the Tower in the East and Fleet Street to the West. There was not much development to the north beyond Bishopsgate and Cripplegate, although several large monastic establishments, like St Bartholomew’s, St Mary Spital and St Catherine’s lay outside the walls. Richard would have found London dominated by the estates of the wealthy, whose grand stone townhouses were built around courtyards backing onto the river, with their own gardens and orchards. The high gates of their properties would have been locked and guarded at night by men in brightly coloured livery. Often there would be a swarm of poorer citizens waiting outside at nightfall, for the leftovers from that day’s meals to be distributed by the almoner.

Extremes of poverty and affluence sat side by side. Disease, illness and dirt were everywhere but the city did take steps to clean the streets, regulating the disposal of waste and the wild animals that had historically been a problem. One fourteenth century baby girl was killed in her cradle after being bitten by one of the pigs that roamed loose, scavenging for food. Inquest records also report a large number of drownings, particularly of women and children, who had travelled to one of the many ditches or tributaries of the Thames in order to gather water. There were accidents with runaway horses, heavy carts, collapsing walls, fires, fatal brawls between retainers, drunks and rioting apprentices. Death and violence must have never been very far away.

In contrast with the poverty and danger, the second half of the fifteenth century also saw a surge of upward social mobility. City merchants had got wealthy trading in wool and London was a major international port, with ships arriving from the continent and beyond, bringing and exporting luxury goods. This was one of the reasons they had largely remained loyal to Richard’s brother, Edward IV, whose pro-Burgundian policies had encouraged such trade and the glut of luxury items available. Roads were named after the goods they sold, with signs for the illiterate. Italian diplomat Mancini described three principal streets: Thames Street with cranes and warehouses for the loading and unloading of ships, Candlewick Street with its cloth merchants and Cheapside, where luxury goods such as tapestries, gold and silver, jewellery and silks were on sale.

The Scottish poet William Dunbar, who visited the “sovereign” city of London in 1501-2, compared it with the city of Troy. His pleasant beryl-coloured Thames throngs with swans and sailing barges, running under bridges with white pillars. In the streets, merchants and knights appear dressed in velvet gowns with chains of gold; it was a beautiful city full of wise, attractive inhabitants: the merchants’ wives were fair and “lovesom, white and small” while the girls were “clear” which suggests good health, “but lusty.” The merchants’ modern dwellings spread upwards rather than outwards, several storeys high, with their glazed windows, painted mortar and timber.

Shortly before he became King, Richard would acquire one of these houses himself; one of the grandest and newest of them all. Some time between 1475 and 1483, he rented Crosby Place in Bishopsgate, which was described by Elizabethan antiquarian, John Stow, as a “great house of stone and timber,” with rear gardens, courtyard, great chamber, chapel, solar, great hall with marble floors, carved ceiling, minstrels’ gallery and an oriel window. According to Thomas More, it was here that Richard would hold informal council meetings during the tempestuous summer of 1483 and where, with Buckingham, he would plan his coup. When Shakespeare included references to Richard’s ownership of Crosby Place during the funeral procession of Henry VI, he was out by at least five years!
                             Nineteenth Century Engraving of the Great Hall of Crosby Place

After Edward’s succession, the nine-year-old Richard lived for a while at the Palace of Placentia, at Greenwich. It was a luxurious residence which had previously been used by his family’s adversaries Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Greenwich itself was barely a village, surrounded by countryside. As late as 1554, Wyngaerde’s illustration shows a only scattering of small houses on either side of the waterfront Palace with its enclosed gardens. It had been built in the 1440s by Henry VI’s ill-fated uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, which was fitting as the same title had just been bestowed upon the young boy. Richard was provided for in the King’s household accounts of 1461, during his stay at the Palace and for the transportation of his goods between there and his childhood home of Fotheringhay. It was amid the tranquil green surrounding of Greenwich, that his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, began his chivalric training as a “henxman,” although Richard would leave the city in order undergo his own military education under his future father-in-law, Warwick, at his northern home, Middleham Castle.

The young Richard also spent time in the London household of Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor. Bourchier was also related to the Yorks through marriage and was himself a grandson of Edward III. Having recently crowned Richard’s elder brother, he extended his hospitality to the boy, receiving compensation for supporting the King’s brothers “for a long time and at great charges” so Richard may well have been resident in his household for a period of time. His main residence was at Knole, in Kent, but during Richard’s youth, his title brought with it the use of Lambeth Palace, across the water from Westminster. The present red-brick gateway post-dates Richard, being built by Morton, Bourchier’s successor; the boy would have known a simpler gateway housing the Palace archives, where beggars would gather for alms or “Lambeth Dole.” Richard may even have watched from a window as they were issued with their weekly allowance of fifteen loaves and cuts of beef. Richard would have dined with Bourchier in the Great Hall, recently modernised by Archbishop Chichele, with kitchens to the north and pantry and buttery to the west. An impressive four thousand people could be fed there. Richard would also have known the cloister with its newly build galleries on the first floor and the thirteenth century presence chamber and chapel. By the time he was a guest there, the moated gardens and orchard were flanked by a river walk, allowing the boy to glimpse the comings and goings across the Thames.

Westminster was the heart of the court, set outside the central residential area of the city, connected to it by river and a single long road leading to Charing Cross. Charing was still recognisable as the hamlet it had once been, located on the bend of the Thames, where Edward I had erected a cross in tribute to his wife Eleanor. The Palace grounds were a self-contained little community catering for the court. Shops and workshops catered to the royal family’s physical needs, while the Abbey provided spiritual comforts and printer William Caxton set up his first English press there in 1476, under the patronage of Edward IV’s in-laws, the Wydevilles. The prosperity and bustle of Westminster is captured in London Lickpenny, a poem composed during the reign of Henry VI, once thought to be by John Lydgate. He describes tradesmen callingMaster, what will you copen or buy? Fine felt hats or spectacles to read?” and cooks offering “bread, with ale and wine, Ribs of beef, both fat and full fine; A faire cloth they gan forth to spread…”

                                    Engraving of Westminster Palace as it appeared in 1647

Beyond the confines of Westminster, the narrator is offered strawberries, cherries, pepper and spices, hot sheep’s feet, mackerel, rushes, pies and peasecods as well as fine velvet, silk, lawn and Paris thread. What could be seen of the Palace in the 1470s was mixture of medieval architectural styles, building on the foundations laid by Edward the Confessor. Closely connected with the Abbey, much of the ceremonial business took place in the Great Hall and painted chamber, while the royal apartments formed a right angle overlooking the river and gardens. It was a peaceful location, as the opposite bank was marshy and undeveloped, save for the view of Lambeth Palace. From the steps, Richard could take a barge downstream into the city itself, past the backs of aristocratic homes, along to the imposing white bastion of the Tower. 

The Thames was the city’s main thoroughfare, wider than it is today and bobbing with vessels of all types but there was only one way across on foot.  Already hundreds of years old, London Bridge had played witness to a series of important moments in the history of the city. When Margaret of Anjou had arrived in 1445, Humphrey, the previous Duke of Gloucester had met her on the bridge amid much civic pageantry with men dressed in gilt badges and the blue and scarlet gowns of office.  Only five years later it was the scene of rebellion as Jack Cade’s men advanced across the bridge, slashing its supporting ropes to prevent the royal troops from following. After Cade had been hunted down and killed, his head adorned the bridge as a deterrent to other would-be traitors. More recently, Edward IV had passed over it in triumph on his way to his coronation and a decade later, attacks on the capital designed to free the Lancastrian Henry VI saw the bridge engulfed in flames. Thirteen houses had burned before the citizens had seen the rebels off. By the time of Richard’s succession, the bridge was in poor repair, with houses regularly falling down and drowning the residents.
               London Bridge from an Elizabethan image, showing the impaled heads of traitors

Richard would have been familiar with much of the Tower of London as it stands today. It had long stood as an inviolable fortress, representing the power of the crown, as opposed to the sinister reputation it would later attract. In the 1470 though, while Richard was in exile, it had been attacked by rebels and witnessed the readeption of the unstable Henry VI. Rumours of Richard’s involvement in Henry’s murder the following year are unsubstantiated but persist through popular literature. It was also the site where the volatile Clarence finally met his end, in the legendary butt of Malmsey, in 1478.

Such portrayals are responsible for many of the overriding negative associations between Richard and the Tower, also attributing to him the deaths of his nephews incarcerated there. Yet it was within those thick walls that he passed the day before his coronation, as tradition dictated. It was a multi-functional complex, containing the royal apartments where Elizabeth Wydeville had planned to give birth to Edward V before being evicted by the rebels, chapels, spaces for recreation, offices where coins were minted, the Great Wardrobe, the Crown Jewels and a menagerie, as well as being a prison. He also made some improvements to one of the towers during his reign.
                                                The Tower of London, from a C15th MS

Several great houses of London were also known to Richard through his family connections. His brother George, Duke of Clarence lived at Coldharbour House in Thames Street, in the parish of All-Hallows-the-Less, or perhaps All-Hallows-in-the-Hay, named after an adjoining hay wharf, near where the London Brewery now stands. It was an ancient and important “right fair and stately” house, according to John Stowe, originally two fortified buildings on the river front, which had been home to Henry IV in 1400 and to Henry V during his tenure as Prince of Wales. Following the attainder of Anne of York’s husband, Henry Holland, the property came into the possession of the crown and was used by various members of the York family. It is mentioned in a mid-seventeeth century play, by Heywood and Rowley, as having twenty chimneys, and was reputed to have a number of turrets built around a courtyard and believed to be impregnable. In the 1460s it had been owned by the Lancastrian Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, but was confiscated after his involvement in the Battle of Barnet.

On a more personal note, Richard’s future wife, Anne Neville, was sent to Coldharbour House after being widowed at the battle of Tewkesbury. Aged only fifteen, she was under her married sister’s guardianship. Richard visited them there at Christmas 1471, which was when he may have wooed her and planned their elopement the following spring. The rumours that Clarence concealed her in his kitchens, disguised as a kitchen maid stem from this period. Richard’s sister Margaret of York, wife of Charles the Bold, stayed at the house when visiting the city in 1480, where new beds with red and green hangings were prepared for her comfort, along with fine bed linens, curtains, screens and tapestries, one depicting Paris and Helen of Troy. Richard would give the house to the city Heralds for their support of his succession but after the battle of Bosworth, it passed into the hands of Margaret Beaufort.
                                      Nineteenth century illustration of Coldharbour House

After the death of his brother Clarence, the house named the Erber came into Richard’s possession. It had been owned by his mentor the Earl of Warwick, Anne’s father, but had originally been passed on to Anne’s elder sister, Clarence’s wife Isabel. After 1478, the Gloucesters again had the use of it. It had been used to lodge Yorkist troops during the late 1450s and the kitchens were reputed to be able to feed 2,000 a day, with six oxen needed for breakfast alone. Richard carried out some repairs to it and renamed it, briefly, the “King’s Palace.” In his absences, the property was looked after by a Ralph Darnel, a yeoman of the crown and it reverted to Clarence’s son, Edward, after Bosworth. Anne may well have stayed here in 1475, while she waited for Richard to return from accompanying the King on his campaign to France; they were reunited in London that December, making payments to city merchants on the third and sixth of the month.

Then there was Baynard’s Castle at Blackfriars, residence of the Duke of York, Richard’s father since 1457. It was an impressive waterfront mansion, fortified with turrets and thick walls enclosing a courtyard, originally built in Norman times for a supporter of William the Conqueror. Rebuilt on the water’s edge following a fire in 1428, its huge river frontage was set with narrow turrets flanked by hexagonal towers at each end, enclosing a private courtyard; improvements in the 1440s had created four wings in a trapezoid shape and by the early 1500s it was considered “beautiful and commodious” as well as strong. Supposedly inviolable, the family had recourse to it on many occasions when they, or the city, were under attack. Edward and his Queen, Elizabeth Wydeville stayed there between his return from exile and the Battle of Barnet. Richard would have spent time here during his childhood and after his father’s death, his mother continued to use the property. It was in the hall there, in 1461, that Edward IV summoned a council and declared himself King.

Riding out of the city and heading north, Richard would have passed through the green fields that lay beyond the walls. Much of this land was undeveloped, dotted with hamlets. The sixteenth century historian Stow described the area known as Moorfields as a “waste and unprofitable ground.” It was often marshy and when it froze over in winter, was used for sliding on; the monk Fitzstephen, writing in the twelfth century described the “London youth” tying the leg bones of animals to their shoes to make primate skates. In the early fifteenth century, a new gate had been built allowing access out onto the fields. Another open space was Spitalfields, or the Hospital Fields of St Mary; Richard may have known it as Spittellond, as it appeared in records of 1399. In the shadow of the Tower, it is depicted on maps, with women laying out their washing flat on the ground to dry. There was also Smithfield, a large grassy space or “smoothfield,” long used for livestock markets, public gatherings, executions and drying laundry. It was situated on the Eastern side of the Tower, accessible by the Postern Gate and used for tournaments. In 1467, the teenaged Richard may have witnessed the jousting there between Anthony Wydeville and Anthony, Comte de la Roche, the “Grand Bastard of Burgundy, who was heading a party of Burgundians negotiating Margaret’s marriage. Ten years later, he returned to attend another significant occasion, a feast hosted by his seven-year old nephew, Edward V, with whose fate he would become irrevocably linked. On that occasion, Richard was the first to kiss his hand and swear loyalty.

Old St Paul's, before the fire of London.

Richard was a northerner by birth and by choice. There is no doubt though, that the capital city was of great importance to him. It was where many of the significant events of his life took place: his wooing of Anne, their marriage, the events that led to his succession in 1483, his wife’s death and the important political decisions of his reign. However, Yorkshire was his home; it was here that he established his marital home and where his son was born and died. Perhaps the two locations may suggest the dichotomic struggle between the personal and political which underpinned his downfall.


Friday 8 March 2013

Roads, Hospitals and Shrines: Richard III and the Canterbury Pilgrimage Route

                Detail from a wall painting of the Annunciation inside St Nicholas, Harbledown

On Tuesday 5 March, I published an article in the New Statesman about some information I unearthed regarding a visit Richard III made to Canterbury early in 1484. The King was described in the city accounts as having stayed there on his way to, and on the way back from, the port of Sandwich. The visit had already been identified by a previous scholar, Anne F Sutton, although I had previously seen little other non-fictional material on it. The Victoria County History series, as well as local historian Tim Tatton-Brown, mentioned that Richard stayed in a tent at Blene le Hale. Edward Hasted refers to it as the Tentorium Tent or Pavilion in the Blean. He also relates that in 1481, Edward IV made his last visit there, accompanied by his son Edward, the elder of the Princes in Tower. The present village of Blean overlaps that of Harbledown, which was the established pilgrimage route into the city and in fact, the end of The Pilgrims' Way that connects Winchester and Canterbury, as well as linking with the road from London. I discovered that in advance of Richard’s visit, the city repaired these roads, already documented as being in a poor state, partly from the wear of thousands of penitent feet making the journey down the hill to the cathedral and Becket’s shrine.

                            C19th engraving showing the church and wooden hospital to the left.

I am also aware of another description of this road, written in 1512 by the visiting Humanist scholar Erasmus in Pilgrimages to St Mary at Walsingham and St Thomas at Canterbury. Now, Erasmus was writing to satirise pilgrimage, which by the early sixteenth century, was increasingly coming in for criticism as a vehicle for the exploitation of travellers and the bad behaviour of those considered to be using it as an excuse for a “jolly.” However, he does provide us with an interesting picture of the road leading immediately out of the city in the direction of London, which is roughly the route of the present A2. He describes it as very “hollow and narrow” with banks on either side “so steep and abrupt that you cannot escape,” which is still true of part of this stretch of road as it bisects modern Harbledown. Erasmus then describes the Leper hospital, founded by Lanfranc, just north of the city. The church of St Nicholas, associated with this building still stands in Harbledown, with its sloping floors, allowing for regular cleaning, along with a row of hospital alms houses, although the hospital itself does not. A twelfth century Order of St Thomas of Acre, established in the Holy Lands, for the care and provision of Lepers, was named after Canterbury’s Thomas Becket, although no direct evidence has yet been uncovered to suggest that the establishment at Harbledown was part of this order. The twelfth century chronicler Eadmer describes it as being two wooden buildings, segregating the sexes, built on the hillside. In Erasmus’ day, it housed around sixty old men, one of whom would run out “as soon as they perceive any horseman approaching,” to sprinkle them with holy water and offer them Becket’s shoe to kiss. Erasmus muses whether they may be offered some spittle or other “bodily” excrements to worship before they are allowed to resume their journey.
A map or 1810/1 showing the relative locations of Canterbury and Harbledown; London is to the North West.
Of course none of this proves that Richard killed the Princes. He was a devout King and pilgrimages were undertaken by all medieval Kings and Queens as well as a large number of their subjects. He could have gone to any number of shrines to offer up his prayers, for any number of reasons. We know for a fact that Richard was present in the city, that he stayed in the Tent at Blean/Harbledown, that the route was used by penitent barefoot pilgrims and that the roads were repaired for him. Again, this does not prove guilt of any sort but it interested me in the context of other discussions relating to Richard and the Princes. I was aware of the theory, already seen as credible by many, that the boys may have died in circumstances similar to those in which Thomas Becket lost his life. Following this theory, with Becket’s Canterbury connection, it is possible to speculate that these details offer an alternative reading of Richard’s visit.
   Early C19th interior of the church of St Nicholas with its sloping floor, to allow for cleaning
I offer no apologies for speculating on what “may have” been. Although amazing archaeological discoveries do still happen, we cannot all dig up a king in a car park and a valid aspect of historical study is the continual reinterpretation of known facts to seek plausible new solutions. It is possible that Richard did penance at Becket’s shrine, if a servant of his had killed the Princes. It is equally possible that he did not. It is the discussion of this as a possibility that helps clarify further understanding of his character and motivation, which is certainly not a debate with closed answers. One of the energising aspects of studying the past is that everyone can read the facts and form their own opinions, within the academic world and outside it. There is a place for the academic citation of detail and also for the popular celebration of the man in art, film, literature and discussion groups. Richard is an enthralling figure, who is rightly the subject of ongoing study and able to incite passionate defence. I am pleased to have been able to offer another possible reading of one small slice of his life. My forthcoming biography of his wife, Anne, will continue to seek a balance between the known facts and possible interpretations. I will present all the evidence and theories as fully and clearly as I can and I warmly invite my readers to draw their own conclusions from them.

Sunday 3 March 2013

All the Women We've Never Heard Of: Women's History Month.

March is Women’s History Month or International Women’s Month, depending on whereabouts you are in the world. This is an interesting recent innovation, coinciding with Women’s Day on March 8 and indicative of the increasing social awareness of centuries, perhaps millennia, of female marginalisation. In terms of historiography, the emancipation and study of women’s lives really only moved into focus in the twentieth century. Biographies of queens did exist before that time but they were typically the products of a post-Romantic movement, focusing on figures whose lives had been tragic or dramatic, like Mary, Queen of Scots or Anne Boleyn. A key innovator in the study of women’s lives was Eileen Power, whose work on medieval women in the 1920s made her one of the first to place them on the historical stage in their own right, rather as appendages to their more important menfolk.

                                                                     Joan of Arc

Since then, in the post-Feminist world, the emphasis on the female experience has greatly increased in all fields of study. For historians, the study of queenship in particular has blossomed as a valuable genre, allowing exploration of important women beyond just their function as child bearers or figures to distract men and be wedded or divorced. Significant steps have been taken towards the evaluation of the contributions individual queens made to national politics, the personal nature of their influence and how certain women contributed to discourses of disaffection. In particular, we know the names of women who caused trouble in the past, rather than those who towed the line. Those who lived lives that did not show up in the legal records, who avoided conflict, escaped terrible illnesses and died quietly in their beds are still relatively unknown. This is partly a problem of documentation. The higher up the social scale a woman was, or the more difficult she was in refusing or failing to conform, the more paperwork she created. We know about the glorious coronations of Queens, the rumours about their sexual behaviour and the adoration they inspired. Figures such as the visionary Joan of Arc, Protestant Martyr Anne Askew and the “holy maid” of Kent, prophetess, Elizabeth Barton, along with others who suffered the ultimate price for their beliefs during the Marian burnings or the Seventeenth Century witch trials, are well recorded. So basically, if you were rich or naughty, you got noticed; do things ever change?

Yet, in terms of understanding the female experience, historians have still only scratched the surface. A browse through Amazon’s listings proves that tastes still veer towards the anointed queens and mistresses of Kings. Our current examples would equate to the modern study of a foreign country simply by analysing the lives of their celebrities. The experiences of “average” women in the past are far less recoverable although the existence of such an “average” or “typical” female life is as unlikely as it is for women today.  These are the women who appear on the margins of illuminated manuscripts, scattering corn to chickens, herding pigs or cutting corn. Continual narratives rarely exist for them, which is unsurprising when we consider that even hugely famous women’s birthdates, like those of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard are uncertain. They did not know they were going to become famous, whereas the birthdates of Catherine of Aragon, Mary I and Elizabeth I are practically carved in stone, so significant as they were.

There seem to be two categories of women in the past; the “famous” and the “other.” Often, only a slice of the lives of these others exist, for example, when they fall foul of the courts or are married, divorced or create some scandal, such as falling pregnant outside marriage. That is, at the interface of where their lives clash with the legal and moral codes of men. For Women’s history month, I would like to explore a few experiences of those “others,” the millions and millions about whom little or nothing is known, but whose existence was essential in roles behind the scenes as administrators, facilitators, mediators, educators etc. These are the women we have never heard of and some, no doubt, will question whether they are worthy of study. The answer to this lies in female roles today: we are not all Queens or martyrs. Modern women have many more opportunities than their counterparts in the past and each life is different, shaped by individual choice but we can only come close to understanding how our roles have evolved by studying the breadth of female existence rather than the extremes. I suppose it also depends on whether you think the human experience is an interesting subject matter in itself. I do. These are a few of the women I have uncovered whilst researching other things.

I love seeking out women from the past who have broken the rules. Decades before the Reformation took hold, when the seventeen-year-old Henry VIII succeeded to the throne of England as a good Catholic, there were already criticisms raised against the trappings of religion. In 1509, an Elizabeth Sampson, or Simpson, of London visited the church of St Mary, Willesden. It had long been associated with miracles, possibly named after an early healing spring and by the late fifteenth century, was very popular. Pilgrims visited from all over the country and carried away small phials of holy water to cure all sorts of ills. The famous statue that stood within the church was blackened by centuries of candle smoke and when Elizabeth visited that year, she described the Black Madonna as a “burnt- tailed elf and a burnt-tailed stock.” Then, she added that if the statue could not even take care of itself it was not of much use to those who sought its aid. Elizabeth was made to do penance for her criticism; probably declaring she was wrong and swearing an oath in public, or even receiving lashes in the market place. What made her speak out ? Elizabeth was from London and the church is now in the north-west of the modern city, although in her day, it was a distant village beyond the walls. Did Elizabeth have some particular purpose in making a pilgrimage there? Did she hope for the intercession of saints for her health or fertility, as the traditional association went? Perhaps she had already tried some of the holy water and had not seen the results she had hoped for. This may have been a personal response or an ideological one; was she an early critic of the excesses of Catholicism, or reflecting an increasing discourse of satire against those who exploited it? Only three years later Erasmus would produce his famous satire on pilgrimage. We will never know what motivated Elizabeth. She did her penance. Did she have a choice?

Next, a typical tale of late sixteenth century illegitimacy developed around Sarah Smythe of Elm, Ely, Cambridgeshire, who was at the centre of a paternity debate. In 1584, shoemaker William Wylson of Brentwood, Essex, confessed to having fathered a child with his servant Sarah. According to the Assize rolls, he claimed that “after “divers and several times the use of her body”, Sarah became pregnant and delivered a boy at the house of Wylson’s brother. Wylson was examined at the time and acknowledged the child, declaring that he and Sarah were man and wife. Sarah disagreed; she denied it and ran away. Still Wyslon did not give up but pursued her and brought her back to Brentwood, whereupon she was questioned by the justices and confessed that the child’s father was actually one Abraham Smythe, another of Wylson’s servants who had absconded. Wylson was then “absolved” of both woman and child. This case illuminates only a fragment of the complex connections and legal implications of social and sexual relations of the time. Wylson appears to have acted honourably for the most, despite having had relations with his servant: as he was later calling her his wife, it seems that this was consensual and the he was unaware of her relationship with at least one other man. Abraham and Sarah Smythe were servants in the same household with the same surname and may have been cousins or more distantly related. It would have benefited Sarah socially to have accepted Wylson as her husband but either love or her conscience dictated otherwise. The case raises questions as to her motives in entering a sexual relationship with her master and the degree to which she had a choice; also it seems that Sarah and Abraham were able to find some privacy on at least one occasion and that Wylson was ignorant of the behaviour and morals of his own servants. There is of course, the possibility that Sarah was not telling the truth, accusing a man she desired and who was not present to testify in his defence but that opens more questions than the records of this case can answer.

It’s always interesting when women get accused of using speech as a weapon. One court roll of High Roding in the early Sixteenth century, requested the removal from the village of a woman named Agnes for being a “common scold” and “disturber of the peace to the great annoyance of her neighbours.” At Barking in 1581, the wives of Edmund Body and Geoffrey Wood were reported as “common scolds”, as was Matilda Glascock of Becontree in 1575, although no punishment was recorded. It is difficult not to wonder what they said; it was likely to have been something that damaged the good reputation or “common fame” of an individual that was considered so valuable at the time. This must have been part of a long-running dispute between neighbours, which reached a head when one was deemed to have overstepped the mark. Yet it was clearly a common problem, which men loathed. Bald’s Leechbook contained a cure against a woman’s chatter: the advice to eat a radish at night whilst fasting and one the next day, to ensure the chatter cannot harm you, suggests a real belief in the possibility of tangible harm being done through speech, either bodily, or to a man’s reputation. The potential overlap of female disobedience, secrecy and witchcraft becomes even more apparent in the pseudo-religious advice of receipt books and almanacs. Men might make a salve “against women with whom the devil copulated”, using hops, wormwood, lupin, vervain, garlic, fennel and other ingredients. They should place these in a vat under an altar, sing nine masses over it, boil it in butter and sheep’s grease, add holy salt and strain the liquid through a cloth into running water. The man who anointed himself with this salve would be saved from “evil temptation”. With the majority of women being so powerless in legal terms and voiceless through illiteracy, this social silencing was particularly brutal.

Some of the saddest cases I have come across have featured infanticides. I originally had a section on this in my first book “In Bed with the Tudors” but I found it so upsetting that I took it out. When you study pregnancy and childbirth, there are inevitably sad stories. In this case though, it seems that a stillbirth was mistaken for murder. In May 1566, Margaret Cybson of Writtle, Essex, wife of a labourer, was accused of killing her newborn son. Thirteen men gave their oath that Margaret had given birth at home between the hours of eleven and twelve at night on the last day of March, then took the child and threw it down the well on the green, known as “Greneburie” where it drowned. The child was neither baptised nor named. At the Chelmsford Assizes that July she was found not guilty, with the judge ruling that the child had been dead when born. How exactly did this verdict come about? It may have been a question of gender. Margaret’s accusers were male. Perhaps the women who actually attended her birth were able to verify her version of events, marking a real divide between their knowledge and male supposition and suspicion, as they were traditionally excluded from the birth room. We cannot help but wonder why Margaret was accused with such certainty or exactly how these men thought they had gained their information. Even given the late hour of her delivery, Margaret’s female network would have been on alert and ready to attend her, if indeed she had one. There must have been some women with poor social connections, marginalised by choice, distance, necessity or social tensions who lacked this support. Somehow Margaret was able to convince the justices that what the men may have witnessed was the disposal of a body rather than a murder. And where was her husband in all this? Whatever the circumstances, relations between the Cybsons and their neighbours cannot have been easy after such an accusation.

Some women were making their mark in the medical profession too, albeit unofficially. Two female practitioners in late Sixteenth century London came to the attention of the authorities for their activities. A Thomasina Scarlett made her first appearance in December 1588,when she admitted giving emetics and medicines to in excess of a hundred people and agreed to cease practice. However it seems she did not. For many, lacking the essential funds for a male doctor, such women with their knowledge of herbal treatments represented the only attention they could access; the numbers of Thomasina’s patients testify to her good reputation. Some time before 1595, she was in trouble again and imprisoned, for in February that year, she obtained a letter from “various people of rank” requesting her release. It was denied. Only a week later, still in prison, she confessed to having administered an ointment and purge to a Mr Neeme, despite being illiterate and having no knowledge of the theory of medicine. When pressed, she “utterly refused” to refrain from practice. She was imprisoned again and fined in 1598, 1603, 1610 and 1611. After this, she disappears from the records. More successful was an Alice Leevers, described in April 1586 as an “unskilled and demented old woman who had long practised medicine,” who had the backing of Lord Hunsdon despite having made “errors, harms and offences” in the past. At her appearance before the court, she made the unusual step of asking to admitted as a member of the College of Physicians. In deference to her aristocratic patron, despite the court’s guilty verdict, Alice was permitted to administer external medicine and perform non-dangerous surgery.
The great period of witchcraft accusations and trials was the seventeenth century. Yet, this was always a critical part of the misogynistic dialogue that underpinned gender relations in the past. Such accusations were difficult to substantiate and prove; even if a claim was thrown out of court, the associated mud could stick. Royal women and commoners could suffer alike from this. In 1481, soon after the accusations made against Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Wydeville, a London woman was brought to the bar under similar charges. Named as a sorceress or sortilege, she had reputedly used magic to win lovers for herself, two of whom had nearly killed each other. Her husband lived in terror of her and she had tried to resort to poison when her spells had failed. Her fate is not recorded.
I could go on. As I research, the names of hundreds of women appear on the pages of court records, letters, accounts and manuals. Their complete lives are beyond my grasp but in these small anecdotes, they can be briefly glimpsed in their moments of conflict, which were just one part of their continuing struggle for survival. These are the “others,” all the women of the past we’ve never heard of. And of course, there are all the rest, of whom we will never hear: our great, great, great, great etc grandmothers.