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A guest post by LH Member Catharine Arnold. This article was previously published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of November 2014.

Playwright Ben Jonson [1572-1637], scholar of Westminster School, soldier and one time bricklayer, a trade he hated, is best known for his satires Bartholomew Fair and Volpone. As a dramatist, Jonson was Shakespeare’s greatest rival, and he was fortunate to survive the knockabout world of the London stage, as this anecdote illustrates.

By 1598, Ben Jonson’s dramatic talents ensured that he was much valued by his acting company, the Admiral’s Men, which performed at the Rose. While Francis Meres recorded that Jonson was considered ‘the best for tragedy’, Jonson’s satirical skills were also in the ascendant and he would see a positive reception for his comedy, Every Man in His Humour. This was in spite of the debacle of his previous play, The Isle of Dogs, a political lampoon regarded as so contentious by the authorities that the theatre was raided on the first night and Jonson and his comrades thrown into jail. However, as Jonson’s star rose, so another actor’s reputation sank. Gabriel Spenser, Jonson’s cellmate in the Marshalsea after the disastrous production of The Isle of Dogs had joined him in the Admiral’s Men but a bitter feud had developed between the pair, and plummeted to new depths over the following year. As the 26-year-old Jonson scaled the professional heights, the unpopular Spenser sank deeper into drink and developed an implacable hatred of Jonson. Unpopular among the actors, Spenser had a reputation as a troublemaker, and worse.

Two years earlier, on 3 December, 1596, Spenser had been present at the house of Richard East, along with a man named James Feake, between five and six in the afternoon. According to witnesses ‘insulting words had passed’ between Spenser and Feake. Feake had seized a copper candlestick which he threatened to throw at Spenser, whereupon Spenser seized his sword and stabbed Feake in the right eye, penetrating the brain and inflicting a mortal wound. Poor Feake ‘languished and lived in languor at Holywell Street’ for three days before he died. Despite being accused of murder, Spenser was not executed, or required to forfeit any goods. Perhaps the three days between the fight and Feake’s death gave Spenser the opportunity to assemble friendly witnesses to testify that Feake had provoked him. It was a violent age and men such as Spenser did not hesitate to resort to their weapons if the opportunity demanded it. But Nemesis came for Gabriel Spenser two years later.

On the evening of 22 September 1598, Ben Jonson encountered Spenser in Hoxton Fields in Shoreditch, just around the corner from the Curtain Theatre. The men quarrelled and Spenser challenged Jonson to a duel. Fighting came naturally to both men. Jonson had been a soldier, but as an actor Spenser had trained for fight scenes. All Englishmen had the right to bear arms, and fencing was regarded as a vital accomplishment and an extension of one’s masculinity, as indicated in these lines from The Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I bruised my shin th’ other day with playing at sword and dagger with a master of fence.’ Elizabethan youths flocked to the fencing schools, and swordplay was an everyday occurrence in Elizabethan London, part of the throbbing violent pulse of the times.

ben johnson duel

Fighting for his life. Sword fighting in the late Tudor style. Jonson’s weapon is considerably shorter than that of his assailant, Gabriel Spenser.

So here stood Jonson, the provoked, and Spenser, the provoker, with weapons drawn, about to fight to the death. The protagonists were equally matched in terms of skill, but as the younger man, Jonson had the advantage. The fight between Jonson and Spenser must have been as theatrical as any performed on stage. Once violence is imaginatively re-created, it gains its own momentum. Did this skirmish start as a drunken taunt, a play-fight between two hot-headed hell-raisers? In terms of weapons, it was scarcely a fair fight. Spenser’s sword was ten inches longer and it was only the fact that Spenser had been drinking all day that gave Jonson the advantage. As Spenser staggered about waving his sword, Jonson swiped back at him and, within minutes, Spenser was dead at his feet.

Although he maintained that Spenser had struck first, wounding him in the arm, Jonson was charged with ‘feloniously and wilfully’ slaying Gabriel Spenser’ with ‘a certain sword of iron and steel called a rapier, of the price of three shillings, which he then and there had and held drawn in his right hand.’ According to witnesses, Jonson inflicted a six inch wound to Spenser’s right side which killed him instantly. Despite claiming to have been acting in self-defence, Jonson was arrested and taken to Newgate, charged with murder. For all his genius, it looked as if Jonson’s final performance was to be upon the scaffold at Tyburn. But Jonson had one trump card left. As a former pupil at Westminster School, he possessed one item which nobody could take away from him, and that was his education. Jonson’s life was saved by a legal loophole which permitted the literate man to escape sentence ‘by benefit of clergy’ on the grounds that any man with a working knowledge of Latin was a cleric and therefore immune to secular law. The ‘Benefit of Clergy’ posed no difficulty for Jonson, who was required to do nothing more than recite an extract from Psalm 51 which began Miserere Mei or ‘Have mercy upon me, O Lord.’ This stratagem saved so many prisoners from the gallows that it became known as ‘the neck verse’. Jonson emerged from Newgate with an ‘x’ branded on his thumb to prevent him claiming benefit of clergy a second time. This was a lasting reminder of his imprisonment, but he had at least escaped with his life.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre, was horrified by this turn of events. On 26 September 1598, he wrote: ‘I have lost one of my company, which hurteth me greatly, that is Gabriel, for he is slain in Hogsden Fields by the hands of Benjamin Jonson, bricklayer.’ Jonson, no doubt, would have been hurteth greatly to be referred to as a bricklayer, the trade which he so despised.

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A guest post by Mathew Lyons, author of The Favourite.

Elizabeth 1, The Ermine Portrait, Nicholas Hilliard,permission Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House.Those whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.

Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.

Elizabeth I and Her People, National Portrait Gallery, London

This popular Tudor painting kicks off the show. A fête at Bermondsey by Hoefnagel, c1570. Permission of the Marquess of Salisbury.

A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.

But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments were simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.

Seaman's smock. A very rare survival.

Seaman’s smock. A very rare survival. Museum of London.

For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.

Elizabeth I and her People, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (private collection), Margaret Dudley, Duchess of Norfolk (English Heritage), both by Hans Eworth, 1562, reunited for the first time in decades.

There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.

William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. Unknown artist, The Bodleian Libraries.

William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. Unknown artist, The Bodleian Libraries.

Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.

Elizabeth I and Her People, National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh Unknown English artist, 1588 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth I and Her People, National Portrait Gallery, London

(Detail) Sir Walter Ralegh Unknown English artist, 1588 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Introduction by curator Dr Tarnya Cooper (clip)

Elizabeth I and Her People runs until 5 January 2014.
Tickets £13.50 (incl. Gift Aid). Concessions, half price Art Pass.

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A guest post by LH Member Lissa Chapman.

baited hooks all hallows in the towerNo, you’re not going to meet Henry VIII.   Or Anne Boleyn.   Not even Thomas Cromwell, or Thomas Wyatt who provided the title..   But you might get to talk to someone who saw The Lady once, and someone else who is hoping to supply her with silk, and someone else again who knows her initial is being painted onto the Royal barge.   Most certainly you’ll meet someone who wants your money – for the king’s latest gift, you understand.   And you’ll need to have a good story ready for what you’re going to say when you’re asked to take the Oath of Supremacy.

And that’s how we teach history to London nine-year-olds.   We spent most of March in 1533 or somewhere near it – us and nearly 500 Tower Hamlets and Hackney children.   It’s a project that’s become a habit – 16,000 participants so far, and still counting.   The children come into the past time with us, encountering people and dilemmas of a time when news travels by decree and rumour, nine-year-olds are quite old enough both to work for a living and to be hanged, and hunger is routine.   It is of course a time when political and religious change is happening at dizzying speed.

The plays are specially researched, and are part scripted, part devised so the action is slightly different every day.   Everything that happens either did happen, or could have happened at the church of All Hallows by the Tower in the Lent of 1533, when London was rife with rumours of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn but it might be dangerous to mention it, and fatal to criticise it.   Characters include a barmaid who has become dangerously involved in the New Learning, her childhood friend who has become one of the Lord Mayor’s enforcers and a court lady with a terrible decision to make.   The children become Londoners of different degrees – some from families about to be asked to contribute to the king’s latest “present”, others already part of the working world.

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

baited hooks all hallows in the tower

During the action groups of participants are part of a sequence of scenes taking place in different parts of the church.   All Hallows, like other churches at the time, functioned as a shopping centre, meeting place and informal law court as well as a house of prayer.   During our initial research for the project we discovered both that the church wardens owned an extensive property portfolio at this time, including a pub called the Dolphin, and that they, like many others, made money by hiring out areas of the church to local shopkeepers.  So the south aisle gains a snack-bar, a silk merchant looking for a suitable place to trade and one of the many recorded altars to individual saints reappears.   The day finishes with taster sessions of Tudor music and dance, and the opportunity to write (with a quill pen) to Henry VIII to try to persuade him to be forbearing to Londoners.

Children are routinely angered, usually excited, occasionally bemused, but rarely left indifferent to the concerns of 500 years ago.   Often they learn a great many historical facts, but by a process akin to osmosis.   One teacher commented recently that “it was wonderful to see the children working so hard without realising they were doing so”.

And it’s Boudicca’s revolt in November…

For more details and pictures, please visit www.clioscompany.co.uk

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Recommended Reading

I find I have hopeless writer’s block. I had in mind to write about George Jennings, the Victorian sanitary engineer who died on 17 April in 1882, but discovered that the Victorinanist covered it very nicely about a year ago.  So I shall have a trawl around my unafflicted blogging chums.

First stop, as usual: Caroline’s Miscellany. Ah, good posts on ghost signs and architecture. This site now has a Facebook group: do follow. Check out Criminal London on Wilberforce, the Marshalsea and a large brothel. The Great Wen on Bowie, Burroughs and more sleuthing on London railings.

Library Time Machine delivers the goods every time – astounding pictures and great writing – if you haven’t heard of Edward Linley Sambourne, Punch cartoonist and 1906 papp, read this.

Is it my imagination or is there much Tudor  goings on of late? Books, telly. On the blogs side, nice piece here about Shakespeare’s lost years by Mathew Lyons. Anne Boleyn Files has been extremely productive of late.

How do we shoe-horn Titanic in here? Turnip Rail has done an interesting post about the doomed liner and the London and South Weestern railway.

Two blogs I  have recently added to the list here and warmly commend to you are the TheLondonphile and the blog of the Wellcome Library.

There. Sorry for deserving blogs I have missed out. I’m hoping this will act as a pump-priming exercise and I can offer you something worthy of my own soon.

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A guest post by Mathew Lyons.

A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb.

a visitor's guide to tudor england suzannah lipscombIt was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached Suzannah Lipscomb’s latest book. Was it really necessary? Did the world need another guide book to the historic buildings of England? Would she not be forced into tiresome iterations of ‘We can imagine…’ or ‘If one closes one’s eyes one can almost hear…’ and so on.

Well, so much for my judgement: I stand corrected. A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England is not only a first-class and fascinating guide to the most important of what survives of Tudor England, it also doubles as a deceptively thorough history of the period – and indeed a fine introduction to the complexities of life in sixteenth-century England.

Readers expecting a comprehensive guide to the buildings of Tudor England should look elsewhere: Lipscomb offers something else. Although on paper this may look a more limited work of reference, Lipscomb has used that limitation to create something far deeper and more worthwhile than any mere gazetteer could ever hope to provide.

In essence, A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England takes the reader on a journey through fifty English locations with strong associations to Tudor history. Most of course are buildings – churches, castles, houses and so on – but Lipscomb’s survey also encompasses, among other things, a ship, a park, a battlefield and a solitary tree. These entries are organised geographically by region and are interspersed here and there with sections on other more elusive aspects of Tudor life, covering everything from food and clothing to the purpose of royal progesses and the development of the theatre.

In her introduction, Lipscomb sets out the criteria governing her selection: that there must be something that is actually still worth seeing; that each site should have a story to tell about a significant person or event in Tudor history; that as wide an area of England should be covered as possible; and that the entries should taken together offer a balanced overview of Tudor history as a whole.

Written out like that, I think the difficulty of the task Lipscomb has undertaken becomes apparent. I’m not wholly sure it ought to be possible to tick all those boxes, never mind do it with such elegance and wit. Lipscomb is now an academic historian and a writer – her previous book, the excellent 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, was published in 2009 – but she also worked as a curator at Hampton Court Palace for three years. That experience shines through in the text, since she has a superb eye for telling architectural detail and a subtle, evocative sensitivity to place: the cold winds at Ludlow, say, or the desolation of Pontefract Castle.

The book is aimed at the general reader, but Lipscomb is a clear and insightful writer and there is much for everyone to enjoy, from the judiciously chosen stories she recounts – the public triumphs and private tragedies of an extraordinary period of English history – to the vivid and revealing portraits she draws of the lead actors. Moreover, although of course all the figures one would expect to be here are covered, from Sir Thomas More to William Shakespeare, there are many less well known men and women with fascinating lives. I knew next to nothing of poor Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, for example, and certainly not of her year of five weddings; I loved the workmen at Hampton Court suddenly having to replace Anne Boleyn’s heraldic falcon with the panther of Jane Seymour, working under such pressure that they missed a few up in the roof.

Lipscomb is empathetic in her portrayals – the account of Mary I’s marriage to Philip of Spain at Winchester Cathedral, for instance, is gently moving. But her judgements are no less sharp for all that. I particularly liked Jane Seymour’s “cheerful, bovine tractability”, for instance.

Caveats? The only criticism I can really think of relates to my point about the book being an excellent introduction to the history of the period. There is a timeline of important dates tucked away in the introduction, but it is fairly cursory. A fuller timeline, cross-referenced as appropriate to the relevant buildings and chapters would, I think, be helpful to readers trying to piece 16th century England back together in their minds. But it is a minor quibble, perhaps even a graceless one given how much else here there is to enjoy.

To return to my initial question. Is this book necessary? Emphatically, yes. It is hard to think of a book that offers such a rich, pleasurable and illuminating guide to Tudor England. It should surely be essential reading for anyone travelling to any of the sites it covers, but it would be no less valuable as a companion for anyone simply setting out to explore the history of the period.

A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb (326pp)  is published by Ebury Press. Cover price £12.99, but available for less.

Mathew Lyons is the author of the critically acclaimed Impossible Journeys, described by the Guardian as ‘a non-fiction companion to the tall tales of Italo Calvino’s Marco Polo’. It was the Folio Society’s bestselling title through 2010. His latest book is The Favourite, published by Constable & Robinson in March 2011 and due out in paperback this June. (www.mathewlyons.co.uk)

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The London Anti-University by The Great Wen
Mapping Sixties London by The Great Wen
From the Archives: Tigers in Deptford by Caroline’s Miscellany
Ill words may provoke blows from a cook by Dainty Ballerina
The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour (1737) by Emily Brand
How to Decorate Your House for Christmas, c1880 by Lee Jackson
Terrible Victorian Joke Samples by Lee Jackson
The London Society Christmas Number for 1868 by Victorianist
The Birth of Catherine of Aragon by Anne Boleyn Files
Lely’s Windsor Beauties by Madame Guillotine
Murder on Ratcliffe Highway, 1811 by Madame Guillotine
Anne of Denmark by Madame Guillotine

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A bit meagre on strictly London-related posts just recently from our friends out there. But nice to pick up on some good Tudor stuff. And Lee Jackson, as usual, unearths some entertaining gems.

Anne Boleyn’s Execution Site by The Anne Boleyn Files
Look What They Found in Ye Olde Tudor Family Attic by Tudor Tutor
Prudens Simplicitas at Serjeant’s Inn by Caroline’s Miscelleny
Cads from Lee Jackson
Furious Driving from Lee Jackson

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