The poet, the gardener and the witch: forgotten voices of Tudor England
The exploits of monarchs, bishops and explorers have filled volumes, but they don’t tell the full story of life 500 years ago. Lucy Wooding introduces eight people whose experiences shine a light on the hopes and fears of ordinary people in the 16th century
Elizabeth Stile, the condemned witch
Elizabeth Stile was a witch – at least, in the minds of many of her contemporaries. She was 65 years old, widowed, and living in Windsor when accused of witchcraft. Together with her associates, she was accused of killing several people and bringing harm to many others, with the help of familiars including a rat, a black cat and a toad. All of the accused women were poor. Some of their alleged victims had been targeted, it was said, because they had refused to hand out charity, or had been responsible for some other small injustice against these already marginalised women.
We might think that these alleged witches were just scapegoats, picked upon because they were already vulnerable, in an attempt to explain misfortunes for which there was no other explanation. Certainly, the one man implicated – who had rather better social standing – does not seem to have been brought to trial.
It was more complicated than that, though, because Stile herself appears to have believed in her own magical powers. While in prison in Reading, she seemingly had a change of heart, confessed all her crimes, and repented her association with the devil – in the process incriminating the three other women with whom she was, in due course, hanged. Her confession formed the basis of a pamphlet, A Rehearsal Both Strange and True, published in 1579, that both told her story, most likely with the intention of titillating its readers, and also delivered a heavy-handed dose of pious moralising on the evils of witchcraft.
Elizabethan England was full of uncertainties, fears of the supernatural, and tensions within communities. Concerns about invasion from abroad could combine with fears of heresy or conspiracy at home to create a febrile atmosphere in which even the Privy Council was anxious about witchcraft cases. Stile was caught up in this web of anxiety.
But there was also another agenda at work, because whoever was responsible for publishing the pamphlet about her deeds was annoyed precisely because they thought people were not taking the threat of witchcraft seriously enough. The author was critical of those who went to “wise women” for healing or to recover things they had lost, and wanted to warn readers that the devil was behind such women, and that they should beware getting entangled in their evil snares. Caught between the concerns of the authorities and the zeal of the godly, Elizabeth Stile did not stand much of a chance.
Robert Wyer, the publisher with a boundless imagination
We know very little about most Tudor men and women, and Robert Wyer is no exception. We are not sure where he was born, or if he went to school, or who his relations were. But we do know that at some point in the 1520s he showed up in London, selling books, and that soon he was printing them, too. The printing industry was so young in England at this point that many of those involved were, like Wyer, printer, publisher and bookseller all in one.
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Nearly all that survives of this man’s life are the books he helped produce, of which there were at least 145. One of these was his Chronicle, which promised to give an account of the seven ages of the world, to recount all the kings of England, and to describe the dimensions of the globe. Wyer began with God’s creation of the world in “the semblaunce of an Egge”, comparing the shell of the egg to the firmament, the white of the egg to the sea, and the yolk to the Earth. He suggested, however, that in terms of its shape, the world was “as rounde as a bawle, that hathe neyther hedde nor tayle”.
Wyer began with God’s creation of the world in “the semblaunce of an Egge”, comparing the shell of the egg to the firmament, the white of the egg to the sea, and the yolk to the Earth
We cannot know if this was what Wyer himself believed but, looking through the books he published, we might wonder whether such works reflected his own ideas and enthusiasms. These included a guide for surgeons, a book on astronomy, a manual of instructions for running a household, and a history of Troy written by the early 15th-century proto-feminist Christine de Pisan. Several were on the subject of health, and we might speculate whether Wyer himself suffered from the bad health to be expected when living and working in crowded, insanitary Tudor London.
Wyer’s books spanned an amazing array of subjects, and were full of extraordinary reflections on everything from world history and geography to science, philosophy and the price of bread, coal and ale. His own world might have been constrained by London’s muddy streets, but the potential range of his imagination was vast.
Etheldreda Swan, the heart of the community
In a village near Cambridge in the years just before the Reformation lived and died a woman called Etheldreda Swan. Almost all we know about her comes from her will. She was not wealthy, but she gave very careful directions about how her little stock of funds was to be divided. She left seven pence to cover funeral expenses, including two pence for the bellringers; it cannot have been a grand funeral, but the bells would have reminded her fellow villagers to say a prayer for her soul.
She left her best bedcover and sheet to one of the chapels in her parish church – where, perhaps, they would have been turned into altar coverings. She left one shilling for the church bells, one shilling to pay for candles in the church, and one shilling for the high altar, as well as 20 pence for church repairs. Etheldreda Swan’s plates, pots and dishes, as well as one silver spoon, were given to two of the local confraternities – religious societies. Alongside their devotional function, expressed through communal prayer, these were a kind of mutual assurance society which looked after their members when they ran into difficulties.
When we think of early Tudor religion, we might recall the great cathedrals still standing today, or the abbeys that were then soon to be demolished – of which just ruins now remain. But across England and Wales, the devotion of ordinary women sustained the day-to-day life of thousands of parish churches. Many of them, like Swan, seem to have regarded their parish church as an extension of their domestic space, giving thought to keeping it in good repair, and providing it with furnishings, fixtures and lights.
Church accounts show that the women of the parish were just as active as men in their involvement in church life – sometimes even more so. They had strong views on how the priest should behave, how church festivals should be organised, and where everyone was allowed to sit. Religious writers might express the view that a good Christian woman should be meek, silent and obedient, but early Tudor villages and towns in England were full of energetic, opinionated women organising their communities and shaping parish affairs.
Isabella Whitney, the pioneering poet
Isabella Whitney is not a name that is well known, yet she may have been England’s first professional female poet. She published two books of poetry (in 1567 and 1573) and, from the way she described herself, it seems that she was single, poor and suffering from ill health. Some of this may have represented an attempt to inspire sympathy in her readers. However, judging by her writing, it appears that she knew what it was to be living on the margins, plagued by anxiety and insecurity.
Whitney wrote of London’s beauties and riches, but also of its “stynking streetes”, its “lothsome Lanes” and its many prisons, including those that incarcerated debtors. Her depiction of the capital showed a city humming with mercantile activity and crammed with expensive goods for sale. Yet her verses also sketched out the damage that the pursuit of wealth had done to society as a whole.
As a writer, she took inspiration from her male counterparts – but she wrote as a woman, painfully aware of the difficulties that women in London might encounter. She warned readers against flattery and deceit, and against those who shed “crocodile tears”; in particular, she advised young women never to trust a man at first sight. On this subject she made it clear that she was writing from her own personal experience of duplicity, describing herself as one “who was deceived”. Whitney may not have been a poet to rank among the greatest names of the Elizabethan age but her voice was distinctive, eloquent, ironic and powerfully evocative of a woman’s experience.
Richard Gardiner, the ardent horticulturist
A proud citizen of Elizabethan Shrewsbury, Richard Gardiner was a passionate horticulturist. We know about him because in 1599 he published a book called Profitable Instructions for the Manuring, Sowing and Planting of Kitchen Gardens Very Profitable for the Common Wealth and Greatly for the Help and Comfort of Poor People.
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England in the 1590s suffered severely after repeated harvest failures, and many people died from malnutrition in what was generally considered a national emergency. Gardiner was justifiably proud of the fact that he had grown ample cabbages and carrots to help keep his fellow townsfolk going through the years of famine. He gave brisk and practical advice on the growing of carrots, cabbages, parsnips, turnips, lettuce, beans and onions, and was loud in his denunciation of those who sold poor-quality seeds.
Gardiner regarded gardening as a spiritual pursuit, holding that his practical skills as a gardener were God’s greatest gift to him, and something that did “best benefit, helpe and pleasure the generall number of people, better then any other practise that ever I tooke in hand”. His book was the work of his old age; his parting gift. As he faced death, he wrote that “I would willingly take my last farewell with some good instructions to pleasure the general number”. Profitable Instructions closed with a “last farewell to my native soyle of Shrewsburie”, and a prayer for the common wealth (or good of all society).
Gardiner also offered to sell his superior carrot seed at three shillings a pound, and included in his work lavish praise of the carrot as a foodstuff – boiled in broth, or with powdered beef, or in a “dainty” salad of mutton or lamb, with vinegar and pepper, eaten raw, with salt fish or in pottage. “Carrets well boyled and buttred is a good dish for hungrie or good stomackes,” was Gardiner’s opinion. Seldom can a vegetable have found a more passionate advocate.
Andrew Borde, the people’s physician
Imagine a world without painkillers, anaesthetics or antibiotics, and you might come to appreciate the importance of physicians and apothecaries in Tudor England. Andrew Borde was one of these – and he not only practised medicine but wrote about it, too. He began his career as a Carthusian monk at the London Charterhouse, where he got into trouble for being what the record austerely describes as “conversant with women”, and was dismissed.
Having been released from his vows as a monk, he travelled the world, studying medicine in foreign universities and meeting other physicians in cities across Europe. One of the things that Borde’s work shows us is that medicine and religion were inextricably linked at this time, just as they were in his own life. When he went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, it was also to consult with surgeons at the university there.
Meanwhile, he recommended to anyone suffering from disease that, before anything else, they should think of what Christ had suffered during his life on Earth, and take comfort from this. He added that, before they called their physician, they should call their “spirituall Phisicion”, or priest, and make sure their conscience was clean.
Borde was fairly dismissive of ignorant individuals who tried to practise medicine without proper training (as well as a knowledge of Latin and astronomy). But he also wrote medical handbooks in English to benefit ordinary people, making a point of translating all of the difficult Greek, Arabic and Latin words so that they were easier to understand. Borde had a lot to say about the role of lifestyle in staying healthy. His recommendations concerning fresh air, good sleep, healthy diet and spiritual refreshment still have resonance today.
Borde felt so strongly about the importance of laughter in keeping people well that he published a joke book called Scoggin’s Jests, its title page promising that it was “full of witty mirth”
One especially striking piece of advice was about the importance of laughter in keeping people well. Borde felt so strongly about this that he published a joke book called Scoggin’s Jests, its title page promising that it was “full of witty mirth”. We have to hope that Borde’s contemporaries shared his assessment, because the “funny” stories do not always seem so funny to the modern reader, despite his laudable purpose – he hoped that the book would help people “in avoiding pensiveness, or too much study or melancholy”.
He also had advice for those seeking an active sex life, for whom various foods – particularly artichokes – could, he said, have appreciable benefits. It is possible that he followed his own advice too enthusiastically; Borde was accused of various sexual misdemeanours. And his views on fresh air were given melancholy reinforcement by the fact that, in the foetid atmosphere of London’s Fleet Prison, in 1549, he sickened and died.
Alyce Boyle, the ballad singer who performed for a queen
Reportedly a renowned ballad singer, Alyce Boyce is believed to have been of Romany origin. The story goes that, asked to sing at court for Elizabeth I, she travelled down from Cumberland, singing all the way to pay her travel expenses. It is related that she sang Oh the Broom and Greensleeves for the queen – both particular favourites at that time. Ballads were the Tudor version of popular music. As today, they could be protest songs, comic songs or just ones that were good to dance to.
A substantial number were about love and relationships (usually ones that went wrong), but there were also a great many about strange and marvellous happenings – particularly monstrous births or giant sea creatures found washed up on English beaches. Just occasionally, some would be about politics. One such is a song that indignantly denounced the Babington plotters, who in 1586 conspired against Elizabeth I, and which contained pious petitions for the queen’s preservation.
Ballads were printed on a single sheet of paper known as a broadside, usually with a woodcut illustration and instructions about what tune to use (it was common to set new words to an old tune that everyone knew well). In 1520, one Oxford bookseller sold more than 200 ballads, priced at a halfpenny each. By the end of the Tudor era there was a flourishing trade in broadside ballads with thousands in circulation. These flimsy bits of paper were easily destroyed, so those that survive today represent just a small fraction of the many examples of this highly popular form of entertainment.
Thomas Dekker, the penniless playwright
In the spring of 1603, England was mourning the death of its queen. The playwright Thomas Dekker, always on the edge of bankruptcy, saw Elizabeth I’s death in part as a business opportunity, and sought to make money by writing verses for the arrival of the new king. But he also wrote a lament at Elizabeth’s death and, loyal Londoner that he was, he depicted the devastation in the capital at the loss of a woman who had defined an age. The way Dekker told it, it seemed like the whole world was falling apart. Elizabeth’s demise coincided with the arrival of the plague in London, and he described a city weighed down by death, raising its voices in woe as it buried its children.
Dekker himself knew a thing or two about living on the edge of disaster. Over the course of his life, he spent several years in prison for debt. Even when at liberty, he got into trouble for not attending church – probably because he was avoiding being caught by the people to whom he owed money. His life was precarious, partly because of the economic impact of the plague, which periodically closed the theatres, leaving actors and playwrights struggling to make a living.
If the plays and pamphlets he wrote were unusually sensitive to the plight of the poor and the misfits in society, it was likely because these were things he knew at first hand. Dekker’s life and labours remind us of the perhaps unexpected similarities between Tudor England and Britain today. Dekker wrote that news of the queen’s death “tooke away hearts from millions” who had never known any other ruler, and who “never saw the face of any prince but her selfe”. He described a country shaken to the core, thinking it unavoidable “that her sicknes should throw abroad an universall feare, and her death an astonishment”.
Plague, poverty, instability and grief: these were just some of the problems faced by the inhabitants of Tudor England. And they bring us closer to our forebears than we might have imagined possible.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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