Does the romantisised imagery of verdant fields, sylvan lined cobbled streets and stone walled meadows belie the real England obscured beneath such idealistic mythology?
Being an avid reader of history and subscriber to history magazines such as the BBC History Magazine, I possess a smidgeon of an insight into the medieval world. The error that ordinary people make when they conjure up visions of the “good old days” is that they extrapolate what the Tudor reign would be like by means of picture postcards of the English countryside idyll of half a century ago.
In reality, the Tudor epoch bears no resemblance to such idealistic notions. I am currently watching Series 2 of the TV Series the Tudors. This costume drama essentially deals with King Henry VIII’s adult life. One is almost beguiled into believing that the ostentatious wealth and the elaborate costumes represented the normal life of a British citizen of that era. Instead the wealthy and the middle classes only represented approximately 7% of the population. The other 93% lived in abject poverty. Life for them was “Nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or the matter, forme, and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiasticall and civill, 1651 put it so eloquently. The fuller quotation of this phrase is even less appealing – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
That is a truer reflection of the reality and the daily grind of the plebs.
Even though the life of the wealthy could be classified as indolent with most not having a proper vocation, they were surrounded by servants who catered to their every need and whim. A daily routine of pampering was what they could expect. However for a moment consider the converse. These ladies and gentlemen in waiting were treated for the most part as meaningless and worthless. In fact they took this concept so far as to be largely unaware of their presence.
As a consequence, these servants had a bird’s eye view of their masters in all situations be they romancing a lover and even making love. The simple expedient of drawing the curtains around their four poster bed was deemed sufficient to exclude the purview of the servants standing no more than metres away. Another prestigious job was that of the groom of the stool who would remove the regent’s drawers and assist him to mount the commode. Unlike the practice today where wealth secures one’s privacy, it was not so in the Middle Ages. The Servants were privy to the most intimate details and were often questioned about the sexual habits of their masters. In fact during King Henry VIII’s planned annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, this method was employed to determine whether in fact Catherine had fulfilled her conjugal duties.
Another facet which the wealthy had to endure was the sycophantic behaviour of their inferiors. Honesty in whatever form especially being brutally frank with one’s superiors was not tolerated in whatever form. The upper classes were under the misplaced belief that they were the fount of all wisdom. Thus they expected their subordinates merely to concur with their views. The charge for disagreeing with the regent was generally one of treason usually on baseless grounds.
Such bogus or fabricated charges were often of the most illogical or ludicrous kind yet the courts would accept them without endeavouring to delve into the charge before accepting the regent’s point of view. In the case of Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, Thomas Cromwell accused her of infidelity including an incestuous relationship with her brother. The latter charge, which was totally unfounded, resulted in her execution.
Thomas Cromwell himself was sentenced to death for treason on dubious grounds. His real misdemeanour had been his selection of the Saxon woman, Ann of Cleaves, with whom Henry refused to consummate the marriage as he found her “abominable.” Of course he had also defrauded the king but what resulted in the death sentence was his dubious selection criterion. In truth it was not Cromwell’s inability in match making which was at fault but rather the overgenerous portraiture of the painter Hans Holbein the Younger in which the artistic licence was overstated.
At best, justice was arbitrary for all classes with torture being a frequent method of evidence gathering. Without the more modern CSI methods, the favoured tactic was brutal torture. In such a regime, many pleaded guilty merely to cause the pain to cease. Justice bore none of the hallmarks of modern concepts such as rehabilitation, rather it was narrowly focused on punishment but more importantly on revenge and retribution, the ancient biblical maxim of an eye for an eye.
With no concepts such as habeas corpus, the rule of law or freedom of speech, Medieval England was not unlike present day North Korea where the will of Kim Jong-un is the final arbiter on all matters. Britain at this stage had commenced the long odyssey to democracy by having a Parliament but this was largely a sham. The major function of Parliament related to matters of taxation but it did not pervade any other areas of the realm as these were all within the ambit of the Regal Powers.
What type of life could a peasant expect? If they did not die at birth or within the first few years of life, the 75% who survived could expect to assist around the house until the old enough to commence work usually about 12 years old. Even a Charles Dickens met this fate when his father was imprisoned when he was 12 years old. Even at that tender age, Charles worked a 12 hour shift six days a week.
With no pension one had to work until one dropped usually in one’s early forties.
The life for women was far worse. With no rights and all the cards held by the men in society, they had to endure the vicissitudes of life as best as they could. Like for everybody else, religion was a palliative which ameliorated the worse abuses that they had to endure.
Without machinery, man and animals bore the burden of work. The only jobs available for the low classes were manual labour in a multiplicity of forms. As a stone mason one had to break rocks 12 hours a day for 6 days a week. Canals such as the Suez were largely dug by hand. One cannot imagine the drudgery of hauling massive stones up steep inclines on the pyramids. Hence man sought solace in religion, booze and other magic potions such as the “holy herb” as cannabis is euphemistically referred to.
While such a life would sound abject at best to modern man, in such a milieu one accepted one’s lot and station in life and enjoyed life as best as one could.
In conclusion life as seen in the series The Tudors is an aberration as it represents the merest slither of affluent society and does draw back the curtain on the reality of ordinary life lived on a knife edge of despair. Death was an ever-present companion as many children never survived until adulthood and with the life span a derisory 40 years, one’s parents died young.
Religion and its enticing message of salvation was the strength that people used to endure the rigors and hardships of life. Despite such dismal prospects, human nature endures and if one had to question them today, most would classify themselves as satisfied with life.
From a modern perspective could this situation in any shape, manner or form be considered the idyll as envisaged, I seriously doubt it. Instead the adage “the good old days” is a figment of our imagination and does not represent reality.
Rather cast aside all one’s negative thoughts of how terrible the present is and reflect on what we have so much to be grateful for. Instead like spoilt children we rail against the woes of present without considering our part in making our lives better or assisting those less fortunate than us or even what is like in parts of the present day world.