The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England Part 1 ‘The Common People’


First Broadcast 31.05.2013

Ian Mortimer
Ian Mortimer

Ian Mortimer.

“Continual struggle to survive.”

Quarter of England was wild heaths, moors and forests – no roads, only paths. Dangerous.

Cottages were dark – no light, very basic. Earth floor, one fire always lit, very smoky, holes in walls.

Candles were expensive – most only had a few possessions, pots and pan, a bench, a basket, a straw mattress.

Hierarchical society = rigid class system ordained by God.

Yeoman employs workers and owns land. Husbander rents land. Labourers work on other people’s land.

Most people work on the land dawn until sunset.

Pay for a full day = 1 groat. Also equals 4p=4d. Chicken costs 4p a day to keep. Buys a small amount of ale a day, meat and fish for a week. Not enough to raise a family.

3x as many sheep as people. Modern sheep weigh 200ibs, early modern sheep weigh 40ibs.

Ian Mortimer 'Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England'
Ian Mortimer ‘Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England’

Modern = 1600 people per sq mile, early modern = 60 people per sq mile.

No toilets – against the law to throw toilet contents out of the window. Some built a toilet seat over a river.

Sir John Harrington builds the first flushing toilet and Elizabeth I installs one at Richmond.

No published maps until 1579 and are very expensive.

Different speech patterns – modern people might not have understood = might not get to destination alive.

People thought living next to the sea was unhygienic. People living next to the sea increased.

Illegal to get meat on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and at advent and lent, so meat is replaced by fish.

Only 5 towns over 10,000 people.

Towns double in size on market day – boots ‘buskins’ / caps ‘biggins’ / breeches ‘slops’ – buy meat fish, cheese, eggs and clothes.

Alehouses require money.

Churches are at the heart of the community – have to attend at least every Sunday and on 19 feast days from the age of 14.

Puritans want a purer life – radical Protestants. Elizabeth chooses Protestantism but not Puritanism.

Elizabethans all hate atheists, both Catholics and Protestants as God was a creator.

1581 = Catholics could be accused of treason through informers.

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

Crime – half the population is under 22 years old, many carry daggers and/or swords – gangs who roam highways.

1566 ‘A Warning for Common Cursitors’ was a book written about criminals.

Thieving 13p of goods can lead to death.

Hanging / beheading / burning / weighted down or crushed / hanging drawing and quartering.

Crushing is the punishment if you refuse to plead – inheritance passes intact to heirs.

Writer could have hand cut off, could be branded, no longer boiled.

Baiting – bulls fight against packs of dogs.

Cruelty to children – whipping at home, whacking at school, manuals recommend flogging.

Henry Machyn.

Servant to a wealthy household – can’t refuse and leads to abuse (physical, emotional and sexual). Masters can punish servants.

Equality of the sexes – God created men and women unequal so men could control women. Men’s size was seen as proof – more diseases affect women only.

Women had to clean, cook, look after children, make clothes.

Men could beat wives as much as they wanted so long as they don’t kill.

London Map 16th Century
London Map 16th Century

Modern – 1 in 12,000 women die in childbirth. Early modern 1 in 50 die in childbirth.

Weather = crops fail which leads to rising prices and starvation.

Famine – thousands die, thousands lose everything. Could be fined if you look after a homeless person (vagrant).

1597 act for the relief of the poor.

Death = high levels of disease, infant mortality, most parents lose half their children.

Plague – one eighth of the population every ten years die – flux, dysentery, smallpox, typhoid.

People dig their own graves.

Houses with plague are boarded up until everyone is dead or has survived for 6 weeks.

Superstition vs. knowledge.

Witchcraft – recognised in law = only against the law if you intend harm.

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