Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Sunday, January 31, 2016

And gentlemen in England now a-bed, Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here...

In the U.K.?

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Law & Order: Policing & Prisons in Elizabethan London

“The Lawyers they go ruffling in their silks, velvets and chains of gold…It grieveth me the pitiful cries and miserable complaints of poor prisoners in durance for debt and like so to continue all their life, destitute of liberty, meat, drink….and clothing to their backs, lying in filthy straw and loathsome dung, worse than any dog…”
- Philip Stubbs, Anatomy of Abuses, 1585

Policing and law enforcement in the Elizabethan era was problematic at best.  Elizabeth’s London lacked anything that could be considered a formal police force by modern definitions, however it did not lack for enforcement. Sheriffs, wardens, beadles, constables, watchmen and bailiffs, reeves and churchwardens, alongside all manner of private men-at-arms, enforcers and hired men all carried various levels of responsibility and authority to apprehend miscreants and enforce the laws.  Private “thief-takers” and debt-collectors added to the confusion and multiple lines of authority and ward jurisdictions.

The consistency and competency of these parties varied wildly, resulting in “a compound of self-importance, ineptitude and willful idleness”, as Shakespeare’s immortal portrayal of the wayward constable Dogberry and his men so aptly illustrates.

Dogberry:  This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand, in the prince's name.

Second Watchman: How if a' will not stand?

Dogberry:   Why, then, take no note of him, but let him go; and presently call the rest of the watch together and thank God you are rid of a knave.

Another example cited was John Earle, an English Bishop, who noted in his work Microcomsographie published in 1628 (more Jacobean than Elizabethan admittedly):

“A Constable is a viceroy in the streets, and no man stands more upon’t that he is the King’s officer. His jurisdiction extends to the next stocks, where he has commission for the heels only, and sets the rest of the body at liberty. He is a scarecrow to that alehouse, where he drinks not his morning draught, and apprehends a drunkard for not standing in the king’s name.”

This view of the Elizabethan constables as inept, bumbling and foolish was probably exaggerated to an extent, in particular in London with its varied levels of criminality, dense bustling commerce, noisome population and frequent transgressions.

The court system was a similarly complex set of jurisdictions including four royal courts at Westminster. These were the Court of the Exchequer (dealing with money owed to the Crown), The Court of the Queen’s Bench, the Court of Common Pleas, and the Court of Chancery.  These dealt with the Crown interests, legal disputes between subjects, inheritances, trusts and property, and marriage settlements. The Star Chamber and Parliament dealt with treason and high-level cases of the national interest.

Serious criminal cases were brought before the Assizes (major courts held periodically) and the Justices of the Peace.  Local county courts dealt with less serious, non-capital offences, and other issues including small claims. Mayorial courts (held by incorporated towns) and manorial courts (presided over by landholders or their appointees) picked up the myriad civil and petty criminal disputes ranging from theft, vagrancy, land usage disputes to playing unlawful games.

In additional to the secular courts, there were also ecclesiastical courts which governed religious and moral behavior, encompassing such infractions as adultery, living immorally, incest, blasphemy, sodomy, failure to observe the rites of the church, recusant  (aimed at practitioners of Catholicism), and defamation (among others). Public humiliation, imprisonment shaming, penance, and stiff fines often accompanied any ecclesiastical crimes.

Sentences and punishments were often brutal.  They included death by hanging; beheading (generally reserved for the nobility or persons of note); and drawing and quartering. Drawing and quartering was usually reserved for treasonous offences and consisted of being dragged to the gallows in a hurdle, hanged, cut down while still alive, followed by evisceration and castration. After which the private parts were burned and the body cut into four quarters, which were then dipped in pitch to preserve them and sent to prominent towns / locations for display. The head was dipped in pitch and spiked onto the gatehouse at London Bridge as a warning to others.  Hangings were usually carried out in London at the notorious Tyburn Tree scaffold, a unique triangular multi-person gallows erected in the village of Tyburn in the western “suburbs” of London built in 1571. Hangings were a particularly social occasion, drawing large crowds of spectators, particularly when a felon was infamous or well-known.

As an added bonus, the sentence for heretics was to be burned alive at the stake.  Two Dutch Anabaptists were burned at Smithfield in 1572.

Other common punishments included whipping at a post or a cart tail; being secured in the pillory or the stocks (not as gentle as tourist images may imply. On occasion, pilloried prisoners would have their ears nailed to the pillory and upon completion of the sentence, the ears would be cut off rather than taking the effort to pry out the nails…), amputation of the hands, being placed on a ducking stool and dunked into water or suspended in the air (often reserved as a punishment for women), being placed in a tumbrel (a cart) and wheeled through public locations for public mockery and humiliation, and the old stalwart solution of imprisonment.

London had approximately 14 major prisons (more than any other European capital, according to Peter Ackroyd’s superlative city biography London) including the Tower (usually reserved for Royal prisoners and prisoners of particular note), the Gatehouse, Fleet (for debtors), Newgate (debt and serious crimes), Ludgate, Poultry Counter, Wood Street Counter (for theft), Bridewell (vice-related crimes such as prostitution), White Lion, the King’s Bench, Marshalsea, Southwark Counter, the Clink (often Catholic priests & recusants), and St. Katherine’s. Imprisonment was not a punishment; it was a waiting room or holding area for punishment.

Prisoners with ready cash were expected to pay for their own upkeep. Prompt and regular payments to the Keepers (wardens) would allow prisoners to live in relative comfort on what was called The Master’s Side. This included better food, bedding, privacy, visitors (including family members) and, at times, the privilege of leaving the prison during the day.   Prisoners without coin found themselves relegated to the common area of the prison, the Knight’s Side, in association with common criminals.  The poorest, most notorious and worse-off prisoners eventually would find themselves shifted into the dank darkness of the basement dungeons, often fettered or chained.  In the Fleet prison, the oldest of London’s prisons, these cells were ironically nicknamed Bartholomew’s Fair.  At Newgate, they were called the Hole, and few, if any prisoners ever emerged as they were usually claimed by pestilence or disease. Newgate in particular had a grim and deadly reputation, such that a legend arose of the Black Dog of Newgate, a demon hound that supposedly would appear the night before an execution, to drag the souls of the condemned to Hell.

London’s prisons saw a steady stream of well-known visitors, among them several Elizabethan playwrights, including Ben Jonson.  Jonson was imprisoned in the Marshalsea in 1597 for "Leude and mutynous behavior” for writing the play The Isle of Dogs, again imprisoned in Newgate in 1598 for killing a man in a duel, and in 1605 for offending King James’s Scottish sensibilities with his satirical play Eastward Ho.

Thomas Nash (who co-wrote The Isle of Dogs with Jonson), noted of the Counter, “a gentleman is never thoroughly entered into credit till he hath been there” observing also,

Trace the gallantest youths and bravest revelers about town in all the by-paths of their expense, and you shall infallibly find, that once in their lifetime they have visited the melancholy habitation….there is no place of the earth like it, to make a man wise…I vow that if I had a son, I would sooner send him to one of the Counters to learn law, than to the Inns of Court or Chancery.

There is no record as to whether William Shakespeare ever saw the inside of any of London’s prisons, but it would probably not be surprising.

“No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.”
- King Lear, William Shakespeare

Friday, January 8, 2016

Shakespeare at the Movies: Hamlet

Hamlet (1996)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi

Continuing on the Kenneth Branagh Shakespearean riff started with Henry V, today we look at Hamlet, that melancholy Prince of Denmark that so famously dithers endlessly before avenging his father’s murder.

Branagh’s Hamlet is an ambitious, star-filled, gorgeous set-piece….that last four hours. Yes, that’s
right, four hours, 242 minutes. Branagh decided to make the definitive film version of the play, unabridged, drawn from the 1623 version printed in the First Folio, with some additions and amendments.

Hamlet, on the off-chance you aren’t familiar with it, tells the story of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, who returns home to Elsinore Castle from his studies in Wittenberg upon the death of his father, the King. Hamlet (played by Branagh with serious brooding intensity and, at times, manic energy) discovers, to his intense anger, that his widowed mother (Julie Christie) has incestuously married his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), the King’s brother, who has now assumed the crown. The introspective Prince is further driven into his moody thoughts when he encounters his father’s ghost, a paternal haunt that tells the young Prince that he was murdered by Claudius. Hamlet, driven by his own internal angst and spurred to action, spends much of the following acts of the play alternating between feigning madness, making moody and profound pronouncements on the nature of life, and plotting how to “catch the conscience of the King” to get proof of his Uncle’s perfidy.

After much back-and-forthing, driving his lady-love Ophelia (well-played by a young Kate Winslet) to madness, accidently murdering her father Polonius (the King’s advisor, well played by Richard Briers as the most portentous windbag you have ever seen. Never have I been more pleased to see a relatively harmless character die.), before using a travelling playing troupe to “entrap” the King. Now convinced of the ghost’s veracity and his uncle’s guilt, Hamlet is exiled to England for the murder of Polonius. Hamlet escapes, returns to Elsinore and is tricked by Claudius into a duel with Ophelia’s brother Laertes who is seeking revenge for his father and sister’s deaths. Unbeknownst to Hamlet, the swords are poisoned, the wine is poisoned, and before you can say “Good God is this still going on…?” pretty much everyone of note meets a tragic end.  Roll credits.

I will say it again – Four. Hours. Long. I come back to it mainly because Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and arguably his most famous. This film version is most probably the most complete you will ever see – mostly uncut, intact, unadulterated brilliance.  You can’t watch Hamlet for more than five minutes without running across some recognizable aphorism, quote or saying. Hamlet is justifiably one of the most oft-quoted pieces of literature in history, with many not even realising that common sayings they may have used in conversation actually derive from Shakespeare’s most famous play. Here’s some examples:

“to thine own self be true”
 “conscience does make cowards of us all”
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in't”
“Brevity is the soul of wit”
“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
“Sweets to the sweet.”
“The lady doth protest too much”

Branagh’s Hamlet is less moody and more banked anger, standing in somber black contrast against the colourful pageantry of Claudius’ Court. The setting for the film is a 19th C period rather than medieval Denmark, a setting resonant with declining empire, corruption, social change and decadence. The acting, for the most part, is superb, with the long cast list offering up a veritable who’s who of Shakespearean and Hollywood actors, including Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Richard Attenborough, Judy Dench, Brian Blessed, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and, apparently, the 11th Duke of Marlborough as a Norwegian Captain.

The only misstep in casting was probably the late Robin Williams as the supporting role of Osric, who looks intensely self-conscious and uncomfortable, even when just standing still. Billy Crystal on the other hand is terrific as one of the caustic gravediggers, trading barbs with Branagh over the disinterred bones in the graveyard scene.

Filmed at the palatial vastness of Blenheim Palace for the exterior and a huge  interior set extravagant with mirrors and vaulting ceilings, the film does a terrific job in making Elsinore look both expensive, rich and disconnected from the reality of the exterior world. To an extent, it mirror’s Hamlet’s own abrupt shifts from ordered world / sanity to chaos / madness, from lawful order to murder. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (the longest Shakespeare ever wrote) is staged beautifully with an introspective Hamlet, in an odd moment of calm, contemplating his reflection in the mirrored hall, dagger in hand, intensity at maximum, while his uncle and Polonius are hidden behind the mirrored glass, transfixed.

With the innocent bodies piling up in his wake, Branagh’s Hamlet seems more and more disconnected from the bloody reality trailing him, intent on his interior journey of revenge and self-destruction.

Great movie. Damn long.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Shakespeare at the Movies: Henry V

William Shakespeare has a total of 37 plays and a 154 sonnets credited to him. The first play (Henry VI, Part 1) was written and performed in 1590-91, the last (Two Noble Kinsmen), in 1613.  In between lies some of the greatest stage works ever created.

Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into countless films, television shows and stage-plays over the years, and influenced such a broad range of entertainment that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to completely tally.

To follow-up on my brief movie review series looking at Elizabethan-era films, here’s another look at some of the straight-up Shakespeare that has been adapted to the big screen. The choices are mainly looking at the adaptations of the stage-plays, rather than some of the more esoteric interpretations that have permeated the screen over the years, although I will violate that adage a few times to look at some of the more exceptional interpretations. Be advised, it doesn’t cover everything as there are a damn lot of ‘em…

So let’s get started….

Henry V (1989)

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Simon Shepherd

First, right from the top: this is a rousing, blood-stirring, powerful (and fairly straight) adaptation of the play and very, very good film to boot.

Henry V is the story of King Henry V’s war with France (part of the Hundred Years War), culminating in the bloody triumph of the battle of Agincourt in 1415.  One of Shakespeare’s “historicals”, Henry V was originally performed in 1599 at the Globe, “the wooden O” as immortalized by the Chorus:

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Kenneth Branagh headlines as Henry V, backed by such theatrical luminaries such as Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed and Ian Holm. The film opens with Henry’s advisors debating and outlining his legal claim to the throne of France (barred by the Salic Law) progressing to the arrival of a messenger from the disdainful Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) and an insulting gift of a chest of tennis balls.

At this point, the viewer gets the first taste of Branagh’s icy and controlled take on Henry V, a character in direct contrast to the new King’s reputation among his foes as a wastrel and an immature brat princeling. Branagh portrays a Henry with a banked, almost visceral anger that only slips to reveal itself at the most climatic and stressful moments, such as the unmasking of the traitors at Dover, the siege of Harfleur and bloody chaos at Agincourt.

Derek Jacobi as the Chorus serves as de facto narrator, speaking directly to the viewer, criss-crossing scenes throughout the play to introduce new locations, plot points and background. The choice of having him in modern dress while all other characters are contemporaneous with Henry’s era, helps to set him aside and define his role for the audience.

The acting is superb and solid, even in minor supporting roles. Interestingly enough, the film setting is spare, almost stage-like in how it is implemented. Interior scenes are tight, dark and highly focused on the participants while exterior scenes rarely evoke any epic sense of either grandeur, geography or vast armies arrayed upon the field, even once the armies arrive at Agincourt. The film pre-dates the extensive use of CGI as seen in so many historical epics today, and it is possible budget constraints may have prevented large-scale sets and extras. The tight sets, close scenes and grim realism give the film and the characters a strong resonance and serve to help pull the viewer into the scene, focusing on the dialogue, the characters and the rich, rolling language. When Henry tours his lines in disguise the night before the battle, it drags the viewer into the small groups of soldiers, huddled around damp and sullen campfires, hungry, outnumbered and wet, awaiting their inevitable death at the hands of the vast French force that has cut them off from Calais.

Sets and costumes are gritty and realistic and the production for the most part takes the action in-close, particularly in the vicious and muddy slaughter of the climactic battle. As with any Shakespearean production, the crux of the film lies in how these actors handle the key scenes and long soliloquies that pepper the play, and Henry V is filled with terrific moments, brilliantly delivered, from Henry’s horrific threats to the besieged citizens of Harfleur, uttered with chilling venom by Branagh, to the climatic finale of Henry’s “We few. We happy few” speech, which is staged and presented as possibly the best version I’ve seen. Branagh nails it, helped of course by the superlative writing…

One additional scene stands out, as a great piece of cinematic film-making. After the battle, when Henry is lamenting the fallen and concluding his disposition of the day, he hoists one of the dead pages on his back and carries the lifeless body through the muddy aftermath of the battle, as the soldiers sing Non nobis.  This is a four-minute long, one-shot, tracking shot and it is brilliant. It’s not just a lifeless tracking shot done for scale - there is lots of story setting stuff going on here, from the dead Constable of France surrounded by his beaten nobles, glaring at the King as he passes; to widows churning through the field, cursing the English King before being shoved away by Henry’s men. It is absolutely terrific cinema.

As an added note, the dead boy he is carrying across the field: it’s Batman. By that I mean, it’s a very young Christian Bale, playing Robin, the Luggage Boy, who is slaughtered alongside the other boys and pages when the French loot Henry’s luggage train.

So. Henry V.  Definitely give it a watch.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Great Way to Start a New year!

What a great way to start 2016!

Woke up this morning to the news that THE JESUIT LETTER has been selected for the Historical Novel Society's 2016 HNS Indie Award Shortlist, alongside eight other terrific books!

About 38 books were long-listed by HNS reviewers throughout 2015, then the list was narrowed to a short-list of nine, to be followed by a selection of four finalists, and then, in September, the Indie Award winner!

It is a huge honour to have made the short-list, as there are some excellent books in competition. Best of luck to everyone! Have a look at the shortlist below, you are sure to find some great historical fiction to get you through the winter!

HNS Indie Award 2016 shortlisted titles :

WHEN SORROWS COME Maria Dziedzan https://historicalnovelsociety.org/revie…/when-sorrows-come/

BLOODIE BONES Lucienne Boyce https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/bloodie-bones/

AURELIA Alison Morton https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/aurelia/

A PRIDE OF POPPIES Julia Bozza & others https://historicalnovelsociety.org/revi…/a-pride-of-poppies/

FOSSIL ISLAND Barbara Sjoholm https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/fossil-island/

FAR AWAY Victoria Blake https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/far-away/

THE JESUIT LETTER Dean Hamilton https://historicalnovelsociety.org/revie…/the-jesuit-letter/

ONE SUMMER IN ARCADIA Bill Page https://historicalnovelsociety.org/r…/one-summer-in-arcadia/

OUT OF TIME Loretta Livingstone https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/out-of-time/

From these nine books, four will be selected as finalists and the winner and runner up announced at HNS Oxford 2016 Conference in September.