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Country Life and Character in Elizabethan Enlgand

From The Elizabethan people by Henry Thew Stephenson: New York, Henry Holt and Company.

As illustrative of life in a country town let us glance for a moment at the birthplace of Shakespeare. Stratford in early times possessed a famous guild, so famous that people from all parts of England were glad to become members of the Holy Cross. Not Stratford merchants alone, but nobles and even kings, were part and parcel of this time-honoured institution, from whose records we derive much of our information concerning ancient Stratford. If one can dissociate mountains and the sea from one's idea of natural beauty, Warwickshire leaves nothing to be desired. "The heart of England," as Drayton calls it, lies in the centre of the lowlands. It is a flat country, but not monotonously flat, the roads bordered with hedges, and the fields teeming with wildflowers. In the immediate neighbourhood are Warwick with its great castle and its associations pertaining to the King-Maker, and the hospital founded by Leicester; Kenilworth is but a step beyond; and Guy's Cliff, one of the most splendid palaces of country England; and Coventry, which played such an important part in the ancient struggle for civic liberty; not to speak of the numerous Shakespeare associations.

Now that the restorations of the Stratford church are complete, it appears much like the church of Shakespeare's day. Before the death of John of Stratford in 1348, the church was a small and incomplete though substantial structure of Norman architecture. John of Stratford provided for the building of several chapels, notably those to the Virgin Mary, and to Saint Thomas a Becket. He remodelled the tower, and probably added the wooden spire that existed in the time of Shakespeare. In 1332, with the permission of the Bishop of Winchester and of Edward III, he formed a chantry out of some of the chapels that he had built, and dedicated it to Saint Thomas the Martyr, and endowed it with some neighbouring lands for its support. There were five priests, one of whom was to be warden. "Among those whose souls his masses were expected to free from purgatory were, besides himself, and his brother Robert, his father and mother, the Kings of England and the Bishops of Worcester."1

In 1351 Ralph of Stratford built for his uncle's chantry priests a stone house in the churchyard that was known in Elizabethan times as the College of Stratford. Many others followed these men in beautifying the local church. In the time of Edward IV, the warden of the college "added a fair and beautiful choir, rebuilt from the ground at his own cost," which still exists.

Ralph Collingwood, the warden at the close of the fifteenth century, renewed the north porch of the nave. "The low, decorated clere-story was removed, the walls pulled down to the crowns of the arches, rude angels (by some 'prentice hand) were inserted to carry the philasters, and the walls were panelled with huge lantern windows, with a flattish roof." (Knowles.) He also improved the service by the introduction of a boy choir, placing them under the rigid supervision of the college priests.

The Stratford guild in the Middle Ages was known by the name of the Guild of the Holy Cross, the Blessed Virgin, and Saint John the Baptist — a name that may indicate its origin in three separate organisations. This guild, and others like it, should not be confused with the livery companies of later date. The Stratford guild was at once religious and social; only later, as a secondary matter, did the idea of trade regulation become a part of its government. Its membership was open upon the payment of an annual fee to persons of both sexes. Besides the importance derived from membership, and the enjoyment of annual feasts and merrymakings, the members were sure of substantial help if they fell into financial trouble, provided always that they were honestly helpless. They were also sure of a good and stately funeral, with a numerous following of the corpse. Orphans and widows were provided for, as well as confirmed spinsters.

In the reign of Edward I, John of Stratford built for the guild its chapel, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, and almshouses adjoining, which, together with the hall, were probably situated in Church Street, where the Guildhall subsequently stood. In 1332 Edward III gave the guild a charter; and the following description of its customs is taken from the report on the ordinances, set forth by a commission of Richard II.

"These are the ordinances of the brethren and sisters of the Guild of the Holy Cross of Stratford.

"First, each of the brethren who wishes to remain in the guild, shall give fourpence a year, payable four times in the year; namely a penny on the feast of Saint Michael, a penny on the feast of Saint Hilary, a penny at Easter, and a penny on the feast of Saint John the Baptist. Out of which payments there shall be made and kept up one wax candle, which shall be done in worshipful honour of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Virgin and of the Holy Cross. And the wax candle shall be kept alight every day throughout the year, at every mass in the church, before the blessed cross; so that God and the Blessed Virgin, and the venerated cross, may keep and guard all the brethren and sisters of the guild from every ill. And whoever of the brethren and sisters neglect to come at the above- named times shall pay one penny.

"It is also ordained by the brethren and sisters of the guild, that, when any of them dies, the wax candle before named, together with eight smaller ones, shall be carried from the church to the house of him that is dead; and there they shall be kept alight before the body of the dead until it is carried to the church; and the wax candles shall be carried and kept alight until the body is buried, and afterwards shall be set before the cross. Also, all the brethren of the guild are bound to follow the body to the church, and to pray for his soul until his body is buried. And whoever does not fulfil this shall pay one halfpenny.

"It is also ordained by the brethren and sisters, that if any poor man in the town dies, or if any stranger has not means of his own out of which to pay for a light to be kept burning before his body, the brethren and sisters shall, for their souls' health, whosoever he may be, find four wax candles, and one sheet, and a hearsecloth to lay over the coffin till the body is buried.

"It is further ordained by the brethren and sisters, that each of them shall give twopence a year, at a meeting that shall be held once a year; namely, at a feast that shall be held in Easter week, in such manner that brotherly love shall be cherished among them, and evil speaking be driven out; that peace shall always dwell among them, and true love be upheld. And every sister of the guild shall bring with her to this feast a great tankard; and all the tankards shall be filled with ale; and afterwards the ale shall be given to the poor. So likewise shall the brethren do; and their tankards shall in like manner be filled with ale, and this shall also be given to the poor. But, before that ale shall be given to the poor, and before any brother or sister shall touch his feast in the hall where it is accustomed to be held, all the brethren and sisters there gathered together shall put up their prayers, that God and the Blessed Virgin and the venerated cross, in whose honour they have come together, will keep them from all ills and sins. And if any sister does not bring her tankard, as is abovesaid, she shall pay a halfpenny. Also, if any brother or sister shall, after the bell has sounded, quarrel or stir up a quarrel, he shall pay a halfpenny.

"It is also ordained that no one shall remain in this guild unless he is a man of good behaviour.

"It is moreover ordained, that when one of the brethren dies, the officers shall summon a third part of the brethren, who shall watch near the body, and pray for his soul, through the night. Whoever, having been summoned, neglects to do this, shall pay a halfpenny.

"It is ordained by the common council of the whole guild, that two of the brethren shall be Aldermen; and six other brethren shall be chosen, who shall manage all the affairs of the guild with the aldermen; and whoever of them is absent upon any day agreed among themselves for a meeting, shall pay fourpence.

"If any brother or sister brings with him a guest, without leave of the steward, he shall pay a halfpenny. Also, if any stranger or servant, or youth, comes in, without the knowledge of the officers, he shall pay a halfpenny. Also, if any brother or sister is bold enough to take the seat of another, he shall pay a halfpenny.

"Also, if it happens that any brother or sister has been robbed, or has fallen into poverty, then so long as he bears himself well and rightly towards the brethren and sisters of the guild, they shall find him in food and clothing and what else he needs."

The annual banquet was the chief social event of the year. "The receipts," says Mr. Lee, "under the various headings of 'light-money,' rents, and fines, increase with satisfactory regularity, and the expenses grow correspondingly. Candles both of tallow and wax, repairs of house and property, the setting up of hedges, form large items of expenditure, but in each year's balance sheet the details of the food and drink provided for the annual feast occupy more and more extravagant space. The small pigs and large pigs; the pullets, geese, veal, and 'carcases' of mutton; the eggs, butter, and honey; the almonds, raisins, currants, garlic, salt, pepper, and other spices were gathered in from all the neighbouring villages in appalling quantities. Gallons of wine and bushels of malt for brewing ale were alike provided in generous measure. Horsemen were often equipped at the guild's expense to bring in the supplies. After the feast was done there came the settlement for such items as washing the napery, rushes for the floor of the dining hall, coal and charcoal for the kitchen, the cooks' and other servants' wages. At times the feast was enlivened by professional minstrelsy. Thirty pence was paid to minstrels from Warwick in 1424, and a single performer was often engaged at a fee of fivepence."

The fee for admission to the guild was from four shillings eightpence to four pounds, and the souls of the dead could be admitted upon payment of the entrance fee. Often those who were unable to pay, worked out their dues: some by cooking the annual dinner, others by labour bestowed upon the carpenter work and masonry; still others gave materials instead of money.

The grammar school of Stratford, which Shakespeare attended, was built in 1427. Attendance was free, and the schoolmaster was forbidden to take anything from his pupils.

The last notable pre-Shakespearean benefactor of Stratford was Sir Hugh Clopton. About 1480 he came from a neighbouring village to make his home in Stratford. In 1483 he erected a large house of brick and timber at the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane. The house became known as New Place, and was bought in 1597 by Shakespeare, who resided there at the time of his death. Clopton built the nave of the Guild-chapel and decorated it with numerous paintings. His chief contribution to the welfare of Stratford, however, was of quite a different kind.

Leland, the antiquary who visited Stratford about 1530, wrote that "Afore the time of Hugh Clopton there was but a poor bridge of timber, and no causeway to come to it, whereby many poor folks either refused to come to Stratford when the river was up, or coming thither stood in jeopardy of life." It was to destroy this evil that Sir Hugh Clopton built a freestone bridge of fourteen arches with a long causeway "well walled on each side at the west." He also left much money to be distributed annually to the deserving poor of the village.

From a structural point of view Stratford was now practically complete, but the organisation of its municipal government had not yet come into existence. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Stratford suffered greatly. The College was finally suppressed in 1547, as was also the guild. The latter had exercised civic control, and its suppression left the city without any organisation whatever. At the end of six years, affairs were in such a state of confusion, that a petition was signed by all the principal men of Stratford and forwarded to the King. Happily, it received favourable consideration. The Guild was reconstituted under the name of the Corporation and given full municipal power. The grammar school was again opened, and a new era for Stratford began.

This, then, is the Stratford in which Shakespeare spent his youth. "It is essential for the student of the social history of Stratford," says Mr. Sidney Lee, "to grasp clearly the leading differences between life in the sixteenth and in the nineteenth centuries, and of the first importance is it to realise how little personal liberty was understood in Elizabethan country towns. Scarcely an entry in the books of the new council fails to emphasise the rigidly paternal character of its rule. If a man lived immorally he was summoned to the Guildhall, and rigorously examined as to the truth of the rumours that had reached the bailiff's ear. If his guilt was proved, and he refused to make adequate reparation, he was invited to leave the city. A female servant, hired at a salary of twenty-six shillings and eighteen pence and a pair of shoes, left her master suddenly in 1611. The aldermen ordered her arrest on her master's complaint. Her defence was that "she was once frightened in the night in the chamber where her master's late wife died, but by what or when she cannot tell"; but this plea proved of no avail, and she spent some months in the gaol by the Guildhall.

Continue to Country Life and Character in Elizabethan Enlgand Part 2


Footnote 1: Sidney Lee, Stratford on Avon. To this book I am indebted for many of the facts of history in the following sketch.

How to cite this article:

Stephenson, Henry Thew. The Elizabethan People. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1910. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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