Journals 11.2 – England in 1592 (Part 2)

Tower of London

A 15th Century illustration of the Tower of London, from a manuscript of poems held in the British Library.

This is the conclusion of my article on the journal of the travels of Frederick, Duke of Württember in England. For the first part please see the entry posted on 8th February 2016.

The duke was given an audience with Elizabeth I, and here we come to the reason for Shakespeare satirising him in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Frederick set his heart on the honour of Knight of the Garter, and positively nagged the queen for the appointment. She eventually admitted him to the order in 1597 but it just happened to slip her mind to tell the duke about it (funny, that) and he learnt of the honour too late to attend his investiture.

Her Majesty was at that time in a somewhat mean room, surrounded by her principal councillors and ladies in waiting, in court dresses. His Highness was then introduced by the French ambassador, and after having made a profound and dutiful obeisance to her Majesty, was received by her In a very friendly and gracious manner, and for some length of time her Majesty conversed with him on various subjects, and that openly and aloud, so that any in the apartment might understand. His Highness’s pages, as well as all the rest of us, were allowed to enter, — nay, even great English lords made way for us and put us forward that we might the better see the Queen — a thing indeed which rarely occurs to the attendants of foreign ambassadors.

After having again made a low obeisance, his Highness went to his lodging; and in the afternoon of the 18th of August he had another audience of her Majesty, on which occasion she herself made and delivered an appropriate speech, in the presence of Monsieur de Beauvois, in the French language, which, together with many others, her Majesty understands and speaks very well; and since, as before said, her Majesty held Monsieur de Beauvois in especial favour, after he had been conversing with her Majesty very lively and good-humouredly, he so far prevailed upon her that she played very sweetly and skilfully on her instrument, the strings of which were of gold and silver.

Yet, notwithstanding that her Majesty was at this time in her 67th year, seeing that she was chosen Queen on the 16th of November, 1558, in the 33rd year of her age, and has thus borne the heavy burthen of ruling a kingdom thirty-four years, she need not indeed — to judge both from her person and appearance — yield much to a young girl of sixteen. She has a very dignified, serious, and royal look, and rules her kingdom with great discretion, in desirable peace, felicity, and in the fear of God.

She has, by God’s help and assistance, known well how to meet her enemies hitherto: witness that mighty. Spanish Armada, which a few years ago was scattered between Dover and Calais, and beaten by the English, an enemy of inferior force compared with it. Hence she frequently uses this motto: “Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos?” which she also did on this occasion when the discourse happened to turn upon that same Spanish defeat.

As pointed out by Rye, Frederick (or his secretary) was mistaken about the age of Elizabeth I, who was born in 1533 so was 59 years old at the time of the duke’s visit, not 67 as stated. The motto used by the queen is Latin for “If God is with us, who can be against us?”

As we stayed in London the 22nd and also the 23rd of August, his Highness was shown the Tower of London, as well as the Mint and the Armoury therein, which however is not indeed to be compared with the German armouries, for, although there are many fine cannon in it, yet they are full of dust, and stand about in the greatest disorder. At the top of the armoury there is an unspeakable number of arrows, which is a sufficient proof that the English used such things in battle in former times. In the same place his Highness was shown the long barrel and stock which belonged to the last King Henry [VIII.], father of her present Majesty; this he is said to have carried on his saddle, and it may be compared with a musket; also his lance or spear, which a man has enough to do to lift. In this tower also, but in separate small houses made of wood, are kept six lions and lionesses, two of them upwards of a hundred years old. Not far from these is also a lean, ugly wolf, which is the only one in England; on this account it is kept by the Queen — and indeed there are no others in the whole kingdom, if we except Scotland, where there are a great number, and that kingdom is only made distinct from England by the water which divides them.

The lions at the tower were part of the Royal Menagerie, and were barbary lions, which are now sadly extinct in the wild. They were one of the largest subspecies of lion, if not the largest of them all. The claim that they were over a hundred years old is dubious to say the least – the lifespan of lions, even in captivity, is only 20-25 years at best.

Leaving London, the duke embarked on a tour of England, with the particular aim of visiting the two great centres of learning in the country. Travelling from Oxford to Cambridge, Rathgeb described the landscape, a valuable insight into life far away from London and the other major towns.

On the road we passed through a villainous, boggy, and wild country, and several times missed our way, because the country thereabouts is very little inhabited, and is nearly a waste; and there is one spot in particular where the mud is so deep, that in my opinion it would scarcely be possible to pass with a coach in winter or in rainy weather.

About mid-day we came upon a fertile country, where there were little low hillocks, and a fine breed of splendid large oxen, and countless numbers of sheep: the peasants dwell in small huts, and pile up their produce out of doors In heaps, and so high that you cannot see their houses.

Travelling back to London, the duke was shown “the English dogs, of which there were about 120, all kept in the same enclosure, but each in a separate kennel.” These dogs were kept for bear and bull baiting, which Rathgeb also describes, but the detail is rather unpleasant so I will not quote from it here. Times change. The practice was not outlawed until 1835.

Afterwards his Highness rode back again to Gravesend, the night being as dark as pitch, and the wind high and boisterous; he slept there that night. On the road, however, an Englishman, with a drawn sword in his hand, came upon us unawares, and ran after us as fast as he could; perhaps he expected to find other persons, for it is very probable that he had an ambush, as that particular part of the road is not the most safe.

Highwaymen were a common problem at the time for travellers in England, and the practice had been greatly romanticised, although Shakespeare went some way towards correcting the reputation of such criminals with his satirical take on the subject, with the character of Falstaff. However, his was one of few literary voices against the many who continued to cast highwaymen as heroes in fiction. And on the subject of Shakespeare, Rathgeb’s narrative gives an indication that audiences for Macbeth, a couple of years or so after his journal, would have not viewed the three witches as being particularly far-fetched:

Many witches are found there, who frequently do much mischief by means of hail and tempests.

Elizabeth’s successor, James I, had such a strong belief in witches that Macbeth was written by Shakespeare to appeal to him.

Before his departure, the duke was able to observe something of the farming methods in England at the time, and I will end with a quote that sums up how not everything always changes for the better over the years:

Sheep-shearing takes place only once, viz. in the month of June; the heaviest wethers weigh sixty pounds, others from forty to fifty pounds; they bear at the most no more than six, others four to five pounds of wool; one of the best wethers (notwithstanding that they are very abundant) sells for about twenty shillings, that is, ten French francs or five thalers; the inferior sort about ten shillings, or five francs; and the worst about six or eight English shillings. The skin of the best wether and sheep is worth about twelve pence, that is, four and a half German batzen; the worst about eight pence, or three batzen; a pound of wool about twelve pence, or four and a half batzen.

While we progress and life gets better for so many, it is interesting to note that in some respects things get more difficult, because a fleece nowadays is barely worth a pound in England. As I have mentioned on the blog a few times before, it is almost impossible to translate valuations into today’s money, but it is safe to say that the price given for the “best wethers” (woold from a previously shorn sheep) at the end of the 16th Century was the equivalent of at least £200 today, and possibly even a few thousand pounds depending on what criteria is used as the basis of the value conversion. Not everything gets easier.

I will be exploring more from this remarkable collection of journals soon. In the meantime you can keep updated about when I post new articles by clicking on the “follow” button on the right of the screen. If you have enjoyed this article please consider “sharing” to help others find Windows into History via your shares on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for reading!

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 16th Century, Books, Britain, Crime, England, Highwaymen, History, Journals, London, Royalty, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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