The Legacy of Tudor and Jacobean England: Part Two: Poets, Ports and Puritans.   Leave a comment

001
002

Above: pages from Spot the Style: A Mini Guide to architecture in Britain, by David Pearce. London: P Murray.

Below: Seckford Street in Woodbridge, Suffolk, named after the Tudor lawyer, parliamentarian and benefactor. In 1587 he decided to donate a large measure of his wealth to endowing ‘certain almshouses’ in the town. He died the same year, and his tomb can be seen in St.Mary’s Parish Church.

              DSC09854

Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Languages of Anglicanism and Puritanism; East Anglia and New England

017As Anglicanism became established, parish churches continued to hear the celebration of the eucharist (holy communion) in the form set out in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and readings from the translations of the Bible later consolidated in the Authorised Version of 1612. The repetition of prayers and readings, noble in expression, brought linguistic unity to England. The adoption by the Scottish Kirk of English translations of the Bible may have thwarted the separate development of Lallans (lowland Scots) and a different cultural tradition, which made the transition to the unity of the kingdoms much easier. Those devising the new services had a long tradition of devotional literature to draw on. Tyndale and Cranmer had a language ready for expression and translation of the complex Judaeo-Christian tradition  in new forms. This was due to the creation of English as a language of intellect and the higher emotions by authors of vernacular works by poets and writers who drew their themes and inspirations from shrines, pilgrimages, visions and the telling of legends of saints and Arthurian heroes.

Some of those writers were women, such as the turbulent visionary Margery Kempe, who wrote the first autobiography in English, and the gentle, reclusive Julian of Norwich. The poets and writers included, most notably, Geoffrey Chaucer, who set his greatest poem in the framework of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. William Langland’s Piers Ploughman arose from a vision on the Malvern Hills. Thomas Malory gave new life to the common British tradition in his Morte D’Arthur. The holy place that most fully commemorates the English literary tradition is Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where the names of those buried among kings and knights make it a resting place of genius unrivalled in Europe. The only name missing is that of England’s national bard, William Shakespeare, but it is perhaps appropriate that he lies by the altar of his parish church, Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was also baptised and grew up listening to the language of Cranmer’s English Bible and Prayer Book.

 

003Looking back on the achievements of Elizabeth’s reign, historians have referred to it as an age, one in which England survived national and international crises to be recognised as a centre of artistic splendour. During her reign and that of James I, a total period of seventy years, or one full lifespan, the English language achieved a richness and vitality of expression that even contemporaries marvelled at. However, contemporaries at the beginning of this period had recognised that their native tongue was barely ready, after centuries of Latin and French dominance, for serious literary and scholarly purposes. England, not even yet united with the Tudor homeland of Wales, was a small nation, just beginning to flex its international muscles. Its statesmen tended to indulge in hyperbole, like the poet, courtier and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney, who claimed that English hath it equally with any other tongue in the world. It was the confluence of three historical developments, at least two of which were common to much of Europe, and occurred earlier in many countries, the Renaissance and the Reformation, which really propelled England forward during these years. The third, most dynamic factor, was its emergence as the leading maritime power.

 

The Renaissance had different effects in each European country. In England it had coincided with a communications revolution following Caxton’s setting up of his printing press at Westminster. This revolution has only recently been surpassed by the present age of computer and internet technology. The printing press transformed society. Before 1500 there were only about thirty-five thousand printed books in Europe as a whole, mostly in Latin. Between 1500 and 1640, some twenty thousand items were printed in English alone, ranging from pamphlets and broadsheets to folios and Bibles. The result was to accelerate the education of the middling sort and even some of the lower orders of society, so that by 1600, it has been estimated, as much as half the population had some kind of minimal literacy, and a much higher proportion in the cities and towns. In a growing free market in the printed word, the demand for books in English outstripped the demand for the old classical media of the universities, and booksellers and printers were keen to meet this new market. Lexicographers were keen to introduce new words, like maturity, from Latin, as part of the necessary augmentation of our language.

001English could not escape the influence of the classical languages in the age of the Renaissance, as the revival of learning produced a new group of scholar-writers from Thomas More to Francis Bacon who devoted themselves to the cultivation of style in Latin. Although they wrote their scholarly works in Latin, when they wrote their letters in English, they embellished their prose with Latinate words. They ransacked the classical past for words like agile, capsule, absurdity, contradictory, exaggerate, indifference (Latin) and monopoly, paradox, catastrophe, lexicon, thermometer (Greek). The scientific revolution of the time also prompted new borrowings, such as atmosphere, pneumonia, skeleton. An encyclopedia would now be required to explain the idea of gravity. Vesalius’ transformation of anatomy meant that English would need descriptions like excrement and strenuous. In physics, the work of scientists like William Gilbert were introducing words such as external and chronology. There were also further borrowings from French, like bigot and detail. Besides some specific architectural words from Italian, and some bellicose Spanish words, there were also important nautical words from the Low Countries like smuggler and reef. Sailors also brought Low Dutch into English at this time, words which are sometimes falsely attributed to the Anglo-Saxons, like fokkinge, kunte and bugger.  These words are not what we would normally associate with the Renaissance, but they form part of the same desire to make English a communicative, everyday language with a broad vocabulary. Altogether, the Renaissance added as many as twelve thousand words to the English lexicon.

002

These innovations and inventions were typical of the kind of adventurousness we associate with the Elizabethans, especially in their brave explorations of the New World. Francis Drake traveled well beyond the bounds of Christendom, circumnavigating the globe, plundering Spanish ships in the Caribbean and exploring the Americas. It was the guidance and inspiration of Drake’s fellow Devonian, Sir Walter Ralegh (pronounced Rawley), which led to the first English-speaking communities in North America. A lesser-known adventurer was Thomas Cavendish of Trimley St Martin in Suffolk. He was one of the many sea dogs who served Queen Bess and his own pocket by harassing Spanish shipping and settlements in the Americas. In 1586 he decided to emulate Drake’s great exploit of sailing around the globe. Setting out with three ships, he completed the incredible journey in a little over two years. In 1591 he set out to repeat the venture in order to open up commercial relations with the Orient, but was worn down by storms and disease, dying off the coast of Brazil, where he was buried at sea.

 

The story of what was to become the first North American settlement starts in the late 1570s when Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under charter from Elizabeth, claimed Newfoundland for England. (One of his fellow explorers was a Hungarian, about whom I have written elsewhere.) Heading South, Gilbert was then drowned in a storm with the famous last words, We are as neer to heaven by sea as by land. Sir Walter Ralegh then took up the cause of founding a new colony, temporarily establishing the Cittie of Ralegh in Virginea, on today’s coast of North Carolina. The story of The Lost Colony, as it became known, exemplifies the adventurous mariners of the Elizabethan era, but also shows how hazardous and difficult the settlement of the New World was. Ralegh, now out of favour with the Crown, continued to express his undying faith in an English empire overseas. With hindsight, the colonisation of the new huge land-mass of North America by English-speaking settlers seems inevitable and Ralegh’s boast to Sir Robert Cecil in 1602, that he would yet live to see it an English Nation might not seem so idle, had he been allowed to live on. However, at the time neither Ralegh nor the prospective settlers could envisage what they were taking on, let alone confront the harsh realities of the new frontier on the other side of the ocean. In the meantime, raiding and trading was continuing to prove far more lucrative. 

In contrast to the internationalism of scholarship and commerce,  Tudor politics – the Reformation and its creation of a distinctly English Church, emphasised the age-old desire of the English, and to a lesser extent the Welsh and the Scots, to establish their independence from French and other continental influences. The breach with Rome, followed by the almost continual wars with France and Spain, the superpowers of the age, culminating in the defeat of the Armada, with the small island nation beating off the huge invasion fleet of a transatlantic Empire, was matched by the declaration to Parliament of an independent-minded Queen:

 I thank God I am endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom. 

002In reality, the threat of 1588 failed to strike much of a patriotic fire in the coastal towns of Suffolk. The decayed coastal defenses had to be rapidly repaired and when the eastern ports were required to provide a quota of ships for the royal fleet they all pleaded poverty. The Spanish wars had already caused them severe loss of trade, they argued, and they could only afford a fraction of the ships needed. When the time came for the county levies to assemble before their Queen at Tilbury, the men of Suffolk had to be cajoled once more, for they were reluctant to leave their farms at harvest time and even more reluctant to leave their county. In the event, they were not really needed, as Drake’s fireships scattered the heavy Spanish galleons, laden down with heavy cannon and balls which disintegrated on impact, and God’s wind did the rest.

The long war with Spain disrupted the cloth trade with the Spanish Netherlands, an important cause of its decline, or rather of transition, with old draperies giving way to new ones. The old system had been badly hit not just by wars and market changes, but by the introduction of new techniques and the growth of monopolies. The planting of European colonies in Africa and the Americas provided new and often captive markets for the goods of the Old World, but the requirements of these new consumers were not the same as those of England’s old trading partners. The inhabitants of tropical and sub-tropical lands did not want to drape themselves in heavy Suffolk broadcloth. The county’s clothiers could probably have risen to this challenge as they had to previous market changes, but powerful mercantile groups saw regional specialisation as the solution to the problems.

Fulling could be carried out more efficiently and cheaply in counties like Yorkshire with its abundant supply of fast-flowing tributaries running off the Pennine moors into its great, navigable rivers, flowing into the North Sea. Within a few years, Suffolk’s small-scale yet integral fulling industry dwindled and many craftsmen had to take to the Great North Road to find work.

DSC09762Growing control over the East Anglian industry was being exercised by London merchants, most of whom belonged to trading companies which had official or unofficial monopolies in large trading areas overseas. These merchants could therefore combine to outbid the local clothiers for yarn and to pay more for unfinished cloth than the exporters of Ipswich and Colchester. Suffolk clothiers who tried to break these monopolies were frequently prosecuted through a growing volume of legislation. The erosion of free trade by sharp mercantile practices led to prohibitions and restraints of trade which, in 1588, left the merchants of Ipswich unable to transport Suffolk cloths even to the continent, and especially to Spain. By the second decade of the seventeenth century, this stranglehold on trade had left the cloth industry in Suffolk extremely exposed to the sharp practices of some unscrupulous London merchants. In 1619, one Gerrard Reade refused settle payment with eighty Suffolk clothiers for the cloths he had already sold for twenty thousand pounds. The Suffolk magistrates complained that the work of at least five thousand weavers was at stake. The clothiers did not have the funds to pay them, having not been paid themselves for the cloth, and were they to be thrown on the parish for relief, there would not be enough funds to relieve them.

DSC09679The Elizabethan Poor Law, which reached its final form in 1601, made the parishes responsible for all their inhabitants unable to care for themselves. Throughout the country the number of those in need of relief rose and the poor rate with it. The magistrates heard frequent pleas for leniency from overseers and churchwardens who simply could not collect the necessary money. Three years later the same justices reported to the Privy Council that bankruptcies were continuing among the Suffolk clothiers, unable to sell the 4,453 broadcloths they had left on their hands, distributed across twenty different towns, worth more than thirty-nine thousand pounds. Poor houses and alms houses were built in many places, including inside the castle walls in Framlingham (pictured left)

DSC09737

The clothiers reacted to these pressures by banding together themselves into local organisations capable of resisting them. A company of cloth-workers was formed at Ipswich in 1590, with the avowed intention that the said mysteries and sciences may be better ordered, the town better maintained, and the country near about it more preferred… A similar trade organisation was formed at Bury in 1607. However, they failed in protecting local trade from the tycoons in London. What they did achieve was to help the clothiers to restrict the wages and impose strict conditions upon the craftsmen who worked for them and who were already experiencing severe hardship. They also tried to restrict to check the import of new, lightweight cloths from the Low Countries, but the Flemish weavers were producing a fabric which, while warm, was easier to work and lighter to wear, and whose popularity was therefore irresistible. Many Suffolk craftsmen, especially the persecuted puritans among them, decided to practice both their trade and their religion in the Netherlands, before some later emigrated with the Pilgrim Fathers to New England. At the same time, some cloth-makers had been copying the skills of earlier Flemish immigrants, turning their attention to spinning yarn and weaving new draperies. These new cloths included fustian, bay, say and stuff. The Suffolk centre for these was Sudbury, but the kembing (spinning) of yarn was more widespread. At first the spinners were independent and made their own arrangements for selling the yarn in London or Norwich, but before long merecantile capitalists took over the organisation of the industry.

DSC09865In Tudor times, fishing, shipbuilding and coastal trade continued to be thriving activities along the coasts and estuaries. Two hundred or more ships out of ports of Lowestoft, Southwold, Walberswick, Dunwich, Aldeborough and Orford plied the North Sea herring grounds and Icelandic cod fields throughout most of the sixteenth century. In 1572 these ports, together with Ipswich and Woodbridge owned 146 coastal trade vessels, carrying cloth, oil, flax, hemp and wine across the Narrow Seas and plied along the coast with timber, fuller’s earth, hides and Newcastle coal. The growth of maritime enterprise in these times brought prosperity to the shipyards of Ipswich and Woodbridge. Ipswich was the principal supplier of large merchant ships to London, and thousands of Suffolk oaks went into a succession of fine vessels.

Woodbridge was always a close rival to its neighbouring port but Ipswich added to its prosperity by producing the cordage and sail canvas. By the turn of the century business was booming and a succession of fine ships were laid down, including the 320-ton Matthew in 1598.

However, coastal erosion posed a continual threat to the east coast ports, in particular, Dunwich. In 1573, The Queen’s majesty’s town was by the rages and surges of the sea, daily washed and devoured. The haven was so badly silted that no ships or boats could get either in or out, to the utter decay of the said town. Year after year more houses, churches and sometimes whole streets simply vanished. The inhabitants lacked the technical skill and resources necessary to construct sea defenses and, despite desperate pleas for help, there was none forthcoming from the government. Southwold was also fast silting up by 1620 and fishermen could no longer rely on access to the harbour at Walberswick. These ports were also plagued by piracy, which had become particularly virulent in the North Sea from the late sixteenth century. Operating out of Dunkirk, Ostend, Sluys and Nieuport, the privateers caused havoc to coastal and international shipping. In 1596 a small fleet of Dunkirkers blockaded Harwich and in 1602 east coast merchants were forced to adopt a convoy system. In 1619 a national subscription was raised to relieve the people of Dunwich, Southwold and Walberswick whose misfortunes were, in part, blamed on pirates. In 1626 a Dunkirk privateer sailed into Sole Bay at Southwold with guns blazing. While the townsfolk fled from the harbour the pirates cut out a merchant ship and made off with her. Between 1625 and 1627 no less than thirteen Aldeburgh ships of a total value of 6,800 pounds were lost to pirates.

DSC09763Despite these problems, many Suffolkers were as proud of their mother-tongue, in all its vernacular plainness, as they were of defying the pope and denying the might of Spain access to their island’s shores.  Some writers such as Ben Johnson and even Shakespeare himself wanted to defend the language against the incursions of Latinate terms, calling them inkhorn terms and showing a preference for plainnesse. When Berowne finally declares his love for Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, he announces that he will shun taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, and instead express his wooing mind … in russet yeas and honest kersey noes.

The combination of these twin traditions, homespun and continental, led to the emergence of a language, to quote Logan Pearsall Smith of unsurpassed richness and beauty, which, however, defies all the rules. Almost any word could be used in any pat of speech, adverbs could be used for verbs, nouns for adjectives, and nouns and adjectives could take the place of verbs and adverbs. In Elizabethan English, you could happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. Shakespeare himself wrote of how he could out-Herod Herod, ask that ye uncle me no uncle and describe how she might tongue me.

When Shakespeare moved to London, he would have encountered the speech of the court, which was sufficently different from the standard speech of a market town like Stratford for a sharp-eared contemporary to note what he called a true kynde of pronunciation (what, today, we would call received pronunciation). We find some clues as to how this might have sounded in Shakespeare’s own plays, where he puns with minimal pairs like raising and reason, which would then have sounded much more like its French original, raison. Similarly, in All’s Well that Ends Well, a lot of the humour is conveyed in language rather than action, based on exchanges of puns as with the words grace and grass, much more similar among the courtiers then than they are now. Shakespeare would also rhyme tea with tay, and sea with say. Elizabethan English would have sounded much more like the English of Banburyshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire to twentieth-century ears than that of East Anglia, London and the South-East.

008However, it was the English of London and East Anglia which was first to take hold in Massachussets, the language of the rigorous Puritan mind. The text owed much to earlier translations, especially that of Tyndale, but also to the scholarship of John Bois in ensuring the faithfulness of the overall text to the original Hebrew and Greek. He was born in 1560 and grew up East Anglia, reading the Hebrew Bible at the age of six, and becoming a classics scholar at St John’s College at fourteen. He passed through the examinations at record speed, and soon became a Fellow of the College. When this expired he was given a rectorship at Boxworth, an isolated hamlet a few miles north of Cambridge, on condition that he married the deceased rector’s daughter. This he did, moving into the Fens, but still rising at four o’clock to ride into Cambridge to teach, reading a book on horseback. Bois continued  to live quietly in Boxworth, a man with a brilliant scholarly reputation. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, called by James I to discuss matters of religion, Dr John Reynolds of Oxford proposed a definitive translation of the Bible to ameliorate the developing friction between Anglicans and Puritans. The rex pacificus gladly assented to the idea of one uniforme translation, though he doubted whether he would see a Bible well translated in English.

By June 1604 it was settled that there would be six groups of translators, two in Westminster, two in Oxford and two in Cambridge, each made up of eight scholars. John Bois was recruited for one of the Cambridge committees, and he was put in charge of translating the Apocrypha from the Greek, but his level of scholarship soon made him indispensable to other committees. The six committees were instructed to base their Version upon the previous English versions, translating afresh, but also comparing their work with that of the previous translators, from Tyndale to Parker. At the end of six years, the six committees delivered their texts to Westminster for a final review by two scholars from each centre. John Bois went from Cambridge, together with his old tutor, Dr Anthony Downes. For the next nine months in 1610, the six scholars worked together on the final draft of the AV, refining and revising the texts. Their brief was to re-work the text not just in order to make it read well, but also sound better when read out loud. In their Preface to the finished text, the translators commented interestingly on this process, addressing their remarks to The Reader.

During these nine months, Bois kept a diary containing notes on the revisions which still survive, and through which we can see how the six translators honed the text to near perfection. In the First Epistle of Peter, chapter two, verse three, the key word is pleasant. Bois had several choices from previos versions; pleasaunt  (Tyndale), gracious (Great Bible), bountifull (Geneva), gracious (Bishop’s), sweete (Rheims), …if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious… (KJV), …how gracious the Lord is… (Bois’ revision). Not only does he make the right choice with the word gracious (pleasant would sound like nice in today’s English, and have roughly the same far too general and everyday meaning), but by inserting the adjective before the proper noun, Lord, he also makes the sentence sing (compare it with the great hymn, How great Thou art.) If we also compare the King James’ Version with Henry VIII’s Great Bible in the translation from the Hebrew, we can also detect the work of a brilliant linguistic and literary scholar. In chapter twelve of Ecclesiastes, the preacher says:

Or ever the silver lace be taken away, or the gold band be broke, or the pot broke at the well and the wheel upon the cistern, then shall the dust be turned again unto earth from whence it came, and the spirit shall return to God which gave it. All is but vanity saith the preacher, all is but plain vanity. (Great Bible).

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. (KJV).

005The King James Version at once reads more clearly and sounds more poetic. It is an irony of the process by which the final text was created that only the king himself is credited with its creation. The version he only had to authorise came from the hard work of a scholarly committee, rather than a single writer. Compared with Tyndale and Cranmer, Bois is now almost forgotten. He returned to the Fens, where in 1628 the Bishop of Ely offered him a canonry at the cathedral, in which position he remained for the rest of his life, being buried in the cathedral in 1643.

The King James Bible was published in the same year as Shakespeare produced his last play, The Tempest, in 1611. Both the play and the Bible are masterpieces, but there is one crucial difference between them. While the playwright used more words than ever, inventing new ones as he wrote, the King James Version employed a mere eight thousand words, God’s English for Everyman. The people for whom the new, simplified yet poetic text became a weapon saw themselves as God’s Englishmen and Englishwomen. They became known to others as Puritans. Their heartland was East Anglia, birthplace of John Bunyan and Oliver Cromwell. Besides these very English revolutionaries, about two-thirds of the early settlers of Massachusetts Bay came from the eastern counties, from Lincolnshire in the north to Essex in the south, from Suffolk and Norfolk in the east to Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire in the west.

007Throughout the seventeenth century, the villages and towns of these counties supplied the New World with a ready and steady stream of immigrants, country people with country skills who were already well adapted for the hard life of the pioneer. The speech-features of East Anglia that were transplanted to the place the Pilgrim Fathers named New England are still to be heard in the rural parts of Norfolk and Suffolk. People there still say noo instead of new and don’t sound the r in words like bar, storm and yard, very different from the burr of western English counties from rural Oxfordshire and Worcestershire down to Dorset and Devon.

009Many, perhaps most, were Puritan dissenters, or separatists, who would not conform with the liturgy and practices of the Church of England, and their story became the story of American English. Their motives were a tangle of idealistic, colonising, self-interested and religious ambitions. The Pilgrim Fathers went to escape, in the words of Andrew Marvell, the Prelate’s Rage. They were also escaping from a monarch of Great Britain who hated both Scottish Presbyterians and English Independents among his subjects, vowing to harry them out of the land. Their impulse to migrate was both profoundly conservative and revolutionary in religious terms. They hoped to find an austere wilderness where they could establish an authentically English Christian community. They were not abandoning their East Anglian identity, but rather purifying and transplanting it. They did not see themselves as creating a new country, America, but recreating the old country, free from what they felt were the papist poisons prevalent in the national church. When the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on 16 September 1620, the largest group on board came from East Anglia, but they represented thirty different communities from all over England. These can still be seen in the place-names of New England… Boston, Bedford, Braintree, Cambridge, Lincoln and Yarmouth. By the middle of the seventeenth century, there were some already a quarter of a million colonists on the North-Eastern seaboard of North America, mainly from London and the eastern counties.      

Today, it is claimed that over 360 million people speak English as their mother-tongue, many of these with a recent history in North America. However, their heritage as English-speaking peoples goes back for a millenium and a half. The role of churches and holy places in the creation of the language and literature, and therefore in its creation as a worldwide language, whether first, second, or as a foreign tongue, means that they form part of a much greater heritage. From the religious strife that followed the breach with Rome there remain many holy places, but they are sectarian in nature, such as the sites of the burning of the Protestant martyrs at Smithfield, Oxford, Canterbury and Hadleigh, or the hanging, drawing and quartering of the Catholic martyrs at Tyburn and the site of the beheading of Sir Thomas More in the Tower of London. There was, however, a wider spirit at work to reconcile these differences. The spirit in which the King James Version of the Bible was consolidated from earlier translations, mostly based on Tyndale, in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, in a conscious effort to appeal to as wide a cross-section of beliefs as possible. The spirit of toleration in forgiveness and reconciliation which informs the last plays of Shakespeare, before he went back to rest in his parish church in Stratford. Perhaps Prospero’s speech from The Tempest (c 1611), often thought to be Shakespeare’s own valedictory speech, can be seen as the supreme antidote to the speech of the dying John of Gaunt in one of his earlier plays, Richard II (c 1595):

 

005This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,…
 

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,

 Like to a tenement or pelting farm: (2.1.3) 

 Prospero, in The Tempest:

 And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep. (IV.i. 148158)

 

By the time The Tempest was written, England had been given a renewed identity by the first Elizabethan age, and, though the Essex Rebellion, late in 1601 and the Midland Rebellion of the Catholic gentry of 1605 threatened to disrupt this new vision, it became a vision of Great Britain. Under the dual monarchy of the Stuart kings, this was to become more than simply a geographical entity, Grande Bretagne as opposed to little Brittany, but a vision of an island and an independent people chosen by God for great deeds and heroic achievements. The expression of this is found not only in Shakespeare, but also in Spenser’s mythical history of Britain in The Fairie Queen and in the great antiquarian work, Camden’s Britannia. History, or rather national mythology, was to become a potent political force in the seventeenth century, with the myth of the Norman Yoke and the legends of Robin Hood finding their usage among counter-cultural nonconformists.

Legacy of the Tudors: The Island Myth in Word and Image

A later visionary portrayal of the unity of Britain appears in Blake’s prophetic poems, in which he sees the dawning of a new form of consciousness when sleeping Albion, the spiritual essence of Britain, will awake with the light of the Divine imagination and be joined to his female emanation, Jerusalem, a holy shrine re-built in England’s green and pleasant land. In one of the versions of the Glastonbury legends preserved among Cornish and Somerset miners, on which Blake based his poem, Jerusalem, now England’s alternative national anthem, Joseph of Arimathea had visited Avalon, Ynys yr Afal (Apple Island in the Cymric), bringing with him the young Jesus of Nazareth who, as a trained carpenter, built a shrine made of wattle and daub, dedicating it to his mother.  Even the coronation oath of both Elizabeth I and II refers back to the mythology of a Christianity dating back to the time of Joseph’s second visit, sent by the Apostle Philip in 63 A.D. with a band of missionaries, to establish the Christian faith in Britain. As the last Welsh-speaking monarch, Elizabeth, like the first,  her grandfather, was not averse to using popular British legends as propaganda, to point out to a Papacy about to excommunicate her that she owed her title as Defender of the Faith not to the Bishop of Rome, nor even to St Augustine, but to the ancient British saints and rulers who went into battle with pagans, like Arthur, carrying crosses and pictures of the Virgin Mary, as well as their dragon emblems. After Blake, the legends were again reinterpreted in the Gothic and Celtic revivals of the Victorian period, inspiring both Anglo-Catholics and Pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones, who created so much of the stained glass for churches built in this period.

 004Any traces which may have remained of this most ancient shrine to Mary were destroyed by a great fire in 1181. All that survives to claim credence for the legend is The Glastonbury Thorn, marking the place called Wearyall, a hill on which Joseph thrust his hawthorn staff into the ground and it immediately burst into blossom, though it was winter. It still blooms around Christmas-time. The branch is on one of the several trees descending from the one, thought to be the original, which was cut down at the Dissolution. Originally surrounded by marsh and water, the four-hundred-foot Tor (which means rocky outcrop in the Cymric), with its fifteenth-century tower of the ruined St Michael’s Church, the site of the abbey and the town to its west, all formed an island until the Somerset levels were drained in Stuart times. The association of this island with Arthur’s resting place received a great boost when, a decade after the great fire, a monk apparently discovered the coffin of Arthur and Guenevere.

 The resulting flood of pilgrims must have helped to fund the abbey’s rebuilding, by the thirteenth century, but this early tourist industry was also what led to its ultimate destruction. Nevertheless, few of the ruins of the Dissolution bring about such a pang in the visitor as those of Glastonbury, whether because of the destruction of a great architectural work of an abbey rebuilt in the Transitional and Early English styles, or because of the psychological damage done to both England and to the British Isles as a whole by the sudden and violent denial of a contemplative tradition in the expulsion of the monks.

Excavations have shown traces of the original British monastic settlement, first recorded as existing in 658, and there are strong traditions that St Patrick, St Brigid and St David all visited the monastery. Re-founded by King Ine of Wessex in the eighth century, ravaged by Danes in the ninth, the abbey began its great period in 940 under Abbot Dunstan, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. We know, from the chroniclers, that some of the Kings of Wessex were buried there, including Edmund Ironside, in 1016, but there no Anglo-Saxon remains have yet been discovered.

003Ascending to the summit of the Tor, the modern-day pilgrim stands on the place where in 1539 Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, was executed as a traitor on Henry VIII’s command. After the death of the previous abbot in February 1525, the community elected his successor per formam compromissi, which elevates the selection to a higher ranking personage, in this case Cardinal Wolsey, who obtained King Henry’s permission to act and chose Richard Whiting. The first ten years of Whiting’s rule were prosperous and peaceful. He was a sober and caring spiritual leader and a good manager of the abbey’s day-to-day life. Contemporary accounts show that Whiting was held in very high esteem.The abbey over which Whiting presided was one of the richest and most influential in England. Glastonbury Abbey was reviewed as having significant amounts of silver and gold as well as its attached lands. About one hundred monks lived in the enclosed monastery, where the sons of the nobility and gentry were educated before going on to university.

Whiting had signed his assent to the Act of Supremacy when it was first presented to him and his monks in 1534. Henry sent Richard Layton to examine Whiting and the other inhabitants of the abbey. He found all in good order, but suspended the abbot’s jurisdiction over the town. Small injunctions were given to him about the management of the abbey property.  Whiting was told a number of times over the years which followed that the abbey was safe from dissolution.

However, by January 1539, Glastonbury was the only monastery left in Somerset. Abbot Whiting refused to surrender the abbey, which did not fall under the Act for the suppression of the lesser houses. On 19 September of that year the royal commissioners, Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyle, arrived there without warning on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, presumably to find faults and thus facilitate the abbey’s closure. Whiting, by now feeble and advanced in years, was sent to the Tower of London so that Cromwell might examine him himself. The precise charge on which he was arrested, and subsequently executed, remains uncertain, though his case is usually referred to as one of treason. Cromwell’s manuscript Remembrances contains the following  entries:

Item, Certayn persons to be sent to the Tower for the further examenacyon of the Abbot, of Glaston… Item. The Abbot, of Glaston to (be) tryed at Glaston and also executyd there with his complycys… Item. Councillors to give evidence against the Abbot of Glaston, Rich. Pollard, Lewis Forstew (Forstell), Thos. Moyle.

 Marillac, the French Ambassador, wrote on 25 October that;

“The Abbot of Glastonbury. . . has lately, been put in the Tower, because, in taking the Abbey treasures, valued at 200,000 crowns, they found a written book of arguments in behalf of queen Katherine.” 

As a member of the House of Lords, Whiting should have been condemned of treason by an Act of Attainder, and beheaded, but his execution was an accomplished fact before Parliament met. Whiting was sent back to Glastonbury with Pollard and reached Wells on 14 November. There some sort of trial apparently took place, and he was convicted of robbing Glastonbury Church. The next day, Saturday, 15 November, he was taken to Glastonbury with two of his monks, John Thorn and Roger James, where all three were fastened upon hurdles and dragged by horses to the top of the Tor, overlooking the town. Here they were hung, drawn and quartered, with Whiting’s head being fastened over the west gate of the now deserted abbey and his limbs exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. His gruesome death at so peaceful a place was symbolic of how 1539-40, the year of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the dissolution of the great monasteries and the official publication of the Bible in English, marked the key point of transition to the development of a distinctively English form of Christianity, based on the word, rather than on the image.

 

Printed Sources:

See Part One 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: