Elizabethan Life in Town and Country

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If The Lisle Letters are Muriel’s magnum opus, then it would be fair to categorise Elizabethan Life in Town and Country as her little gem.  First published in 1925, it was sufficiently popular to be reprinted a further eight times - the last edition being reprinted in 1961.


Muriel freely admits in the Preface that she had shared the mainstream view in the early part of the twentieth century that had pushed the study of Elizabethan social history well down the popular scale - “Elizabethans were not for me nor I for them, in 1914”.  Nevertheless, by 1923, when she started to write this book, she had begun to appreciate that fascinating lessons could be learnt from a comparison of Elizabethan life with our lives today.  In short, she had fallen in love with the the “ordinariness” of Elizabethan life as revealed by her detailed and scholarly studies of the documentary and literary evidence that had survived from that period.

The thrust of her Introduction is that, the more we accumulate and study significant detail about Elizabethan life, the greater will be our sensation of an intimate understanding of the average Elizabethan “and his ordinary ways of thought”.  Muriel has written this book to help us understand the normal pattern of Elizabethan thought and activity in order that we may put into perspective the contrasting descriptions of the romantic writers, who on the one hand describe the Elizabethan era as ‘picturesque’ and on the other as ‘filthy and brutal’.


Muriel has divided the book up into seventeen chapters - each tackling a different aspect of Elizabethan Life in Town and Country and each fascinating in its own right - and she begins in her first chapter, England’s Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s England, by assessing Queen Elizabeth, the person, and by demonstrating that she:


“created in a whole people a passionate loyalty, half personal, half national, wholly English, which was the one thing necessary if the promise of the destiny of Tudor England was to be fulfilled.  It is perhaps most simply explained by saying that she possessed that touch of genius for kingship which had been denied to her calculating grandfather and lost by her undisciplined father.”


and that she:


“had served her country’s need so effectually, given it peace in which to develop and grow, that by the time her long reign was over she had enabled her people to outgrow the need for her and her kin.”


Muriel has chosen the unusual title of ‘The Great Amendment of Lodging’ for her second chapter.  This expression occurs in William Harrison’s Description of England which was first published as part of Holinshed’s Chronicles in 1577.  Harrison, an English clergyman, was referring in this case to the great improvements in living arrangements that had taken place in his lifetime.  With the theme of improvements in mind, Muriel begins this chapter by highlighting the desire of foreigners to witness first hand the great Elizabethan success story, and she writes:


“As the years passed and the marvel of this little kingdom’s survival and of its greatness as a European power grew more and more impressive, ‘the four winds blew in from every coast Renowned suitors’, especially in the last two decades of the century.  A few were literally suitors, in that they came upon diplomatic missions; but the fame of England and her great Queen drew most of them to dare the Channel or the North Sea simply to satisfy their curiosity, as Thomas Platter [a Swiss scholar], one of the youngest of them, frankly admits to the officials at Dover when he lands there and they inquire his business.  He and his like wanted to see England for themselves.  It was the fashionable thing to do, just as cultivated young Englishmen took their journey to France and Italy as part of their education.”


It would appear that we owe these foreign ‘tourists’ to our Elizabethan shores a huge debt of gratitude, because it was they who diligently recorded in considerable detail in their diaries what they saw on their sightseeing tours to view our national monuments, national institutions such as our universities, royal residences, the Elizabethan houses, and the myriad of items associated with Elizabethan life - especially those belonging to the Queen and her courtiers: furnishings, furniture (especially beds!), pictures, jewels, plate, etc.  If these tourists were impressed with one thing above all other, then it was the amount of gold used in the royal palaces to enhance, for example, walls, ceilings cushions and hangings.  Thomas Platter, was to remark about Hampton Court: ‘such elegant tapestry of good gold, silver and pure silk that the like is nowhere to be found in such quantity in one place’.  There is no doubt that these ‘foreign’ diary records add great value to our store of knowledge about the Elizabethan era, and Muriel provides us with tantalising glimpses of what they contained.


In her third chapter, The Elizabethan at Home, Muriel turns to the way of life itself, to the domesticities and the everyday aspect of things.  What could be just a boring list of items used in every day Elizabethan life is presented in a lively and very informative way.  We move seamlessly from bedroom to breakfast to dinner and to supper, examining each environment in sufficient detail to determine the differences, however small, between an Elizabethan’s way of doing things and ours.  Muriel then skilfully presents a colourful picture of the Elizabethan’s love of cloth, clothing and jewellery in conjunction with the fashions of the period.  With this survey of the Elizabethan’s house, furniture, food, clothing and domestic habits completed, Muriel concludes by saying: “Looking at this everyday aspect of things the life of the ordinary man seems near enough to our own to evoke at once our sympathy and understanding . . . The picture is in some respects a familiar one, but it is not modern, nor was the Elizabethan quite the same man as his Tudor fathers; he demanded greater luxury in his home and had created a new standard of comfort, but the present age would be hard put to it to accommodate itself to his way of life”.


Elizabethan London was the largest ‘town’ in Europe, and Muriel devotes the next two chapters of her book, London Town and Round the Town, to a gloriously colourful description of both the place and the hive of activity that went on there.  One passage is worth quoting:


“Tudor London, more particularly towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, was an overcrowded and insanitary city, but it was, as a whole, undeniably picturesque and parts of it were beautiful.  The Thames with its bridge, its palaces, its gardens, its swans, and its multitude of vessels was the pride of every Londoner; old St Paul’s was the finest ecclesiastical building in the country, and was, indeed. England’s pride.”


Using an imaginary “honest countryman, setting foot in the city for the first time”, Muriel takes us “round the town” - introducing us to all the sights and sounds of a city teaming with life.  We hear the cry of street vendors whilst making our way on foot from one bustling venue to another.  For our countryman “The diversity of things to hear was only rivalled by the astonishing variety of things to see.  As he stood admiring the handsome buildings of Goldsmiths’ Row every imaginable kind of personage came passing by, and he stared at them all in frank delight”.  Whilst Muriel’s descriptive prose is a tour de force that paints a dazzling picture of Elizabethan London in the mind’s eye, today’s reader can also take advantage of a staggering advance in technology in the form of a digital version of the ‘Agas Map’ - freely available online at:



An Extract from the Agas Map

This digital map of early modern London allows us to follow the exact route of Muriel’s vivid sightseeing tour and benefit from the extraordinary level of additional detail that is available at the click of a mouse button.


Having guided us around the ‘relatively’ safe environment of London, Muriel then introduces us to the far less secure environment that is The Queen’s Highway which is the title of her sixth chapter.  The fact that the “roads were almost non-existent” was not in itself a life-threatening issue, but the ever present risk of being accosted by a wide variety of ne’er-do-wells, felons and cut-throat criminals most certainly was!  Highway robbers, footpads, tramps, vagrants, beggars, vagabonds, rogues who deliberately disfigured themselves to elicit sympathy - Muriel describes them all in colourful detail.  When encountering any or all of these the hapless Elizabethan traveller could suffer anything from just plain annoyance through robbery, to assault and, in the worst case, to death!


Nor did the problems vanish when the traveller reached an inn for a night’s rest.  Although the innkeeper invariably provided a good service in the form of warm and pleasant surroundings, a comfortable bed and good food, the servants employed there were often in league with gangs of highwaymen, and they were adept at discovering whether a traveller would make a good ‘prize’ when back on the road.


That there was a desperate need for improvement to the Queen’s Highway was not in doubt, and, during Elizabeth’s reign, one remarkable man, was “authorised and appointed by Her Majesty to travel through England and Wales to make more perfect descriptions, charts and maps”.  In her seventh chapter, The Queen’s Map-maker, Muriel introduces us to this extraordinary man; he was John Norden, a map-maker and surveyor, who “undertook his great task of a ‘survey of Britain’ not merely from business motives but prompted equally by his own real love of the countryside itself”.  With Muriel as our guide, we accompany John Norden on his travels - learning a great deal about what the English country looked like in Elizabeth’s time.


As John Norden travelled the land, primarily as a map-maker and surveyor, he would nevertheless have been aware of the signs of sweeping social changes affecting every class of person who lived and worked in the countryside.  Evidence of these changes would have been plain to see - not least in the way that land was being used.  Landlords that regarded land as a commercial asset to be exploited for profit were growing in numbers, and, in her eighth chapter, Country Life and the Countryside, Muriel spends some time looking at the emergence of this new class of land owner and the effect that this commercial - as opposed to communal - approach to land management had on the rural population.  Muriel also provides a fascinating insight into the way that the Tudor system of local government controlled the lives of all classes of country folk.  In particular, she traces the developing role of the justices of the peace and how the whole administration of the government of the counties came to be concentrated in their hands.


Elizabethan life in the counties was certainly very different to life in the cities, and Elizabethan literature contains many examples of written work extolling the advantages of country life vis-à-vis city life and the virtues of country folk vis-à-vis their city counterparts.  In her ninth chapter, Country Folk and Country Ways, Muriel introduces us to those folk - from the country gentleman at one end of the scale to the shepherd at the other; and she examines the environments in which they all lived and worked, and the roles that they played in ensuring that the self-contained communities to be found dotted throughout the land functioned effectively.  At the top end of the scale: “The household of a considerable landowner in Elizabethan times formed a more or less self-sufficing and self-supporting community.  Its numbers would often run to a hundred or more. . . .  Situated, as a rule, in some remote country spot, far from any town, and often with not even a village nearby, a household of this kind was accustomed to supply nearly all its own wants”.  Whilst, at the other end of the class divide: “The poor folk of the tiny country villages lived a hard life in Elizabethan times.  When forced to depend on their own exertions for every meal they ate and the very clothes on their backs, still more for the implements with which they cultivated the ground and the utensils in which they cooked their food, it is not surprising that men and women alike had generally little leisure in their long day, which began with the dawn and sometimes before it.  Each village was self-supporting just as the great country household was.”  Muriel looks in detail at the individuals that comprised these communities and shows how they interacted to achieve an acceptable balance of work and leisure.


In her tenth chapter, Master and Man and Masterless Men, Muriel focuses on the way that the Elizabethan age dealt with its social problem of poverty and labour.  Muriel looks in detail at the way Elizabeth’s government controlled: the wages, the employment, the welfare of those unable to find work, and the treatment of those unwilling to work.  A whole series of legislative enactments were introduced throughout Elizabeth’s reign to deal with the problems of a growing disparity between those enjoying the new age of prosperity and the vast numbers of those who were not.  For example, there were Acts dealing with working hours, wages, conditions of trade and labour, and the responsibility of a parish to provide for its aged, impotent and sick poor, as well as for its disabled soldiers and sailors.  In recognition of the growing threat to individuals and communities from those such as “rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars” who were deliberately work-shy, an Act of 1572 made the refusal to work for lawful wages a punishable offence.


Muriel succinctly sums up this absorbing chapter by concluding that:


“at all costs the Government had determined to deal with the whole social problem of employment, destitution and vagrancy.  In spite of every difficulty, it may safely be said that Elizabeth’s reign saw the whole matter satisfactorily taken in hand.  Solutions of each of its component problems could not, of course, be achieved in one reign - have not yet been achieved; but the remedies put forward in these successive enactments known collectively as the Elizabethan Poor Laws were effective and far-sighted enough to check the evils against which they were directed and to form a satisfactory basis for modern legislation.”


Muriel devotes her eleventh chapter, Religion, to how Elizabeth and her ministers dealt with this highly emotive and apparently intractable issue, and it is worth quoting the first paragraph of this chapter in full:


“The picturesque quality of the Elizabethan age is apt to divert our gaze from certain essentials, with the result that it is possible to pick up many books purporting to deal with the period which are yet silent regarding its religion, although nothing in the life of the age is in reality more fundamental or more necessary to our proper understanding of it.  An individual might be definitely hostile to the State religion, as were the Roman Catholics, or fiercely critical of it, as the more advanced Reformers.  Atheism, or a complete denial of religion, was not unknown; the one attitude which cannot be found was indifference.  It was an age in which religion mattered supremely, to the individual as to the nation.”


Within the final paragraph of this chapter, Muriel states, when referring to the religious settlement created by Elizabeth, that:


“Elizabeth and her father had, between them, established something so appropriate so congruent to English life and thought, that it was able to survive all the storms of the seventeenth century.  They had the opportunity, at a critical period in their country’s history, not of making the Anglican faith, but of determining, in an era in which toleration of a diversity of religious opinions had not yet been envisaged, just how much Catholicism and how much Protestantism could be combined together to form a compromise suitable to the English temper.”


In the nineteen pages that separate these two paragraphs, Muriel reveals how Elizabeth used her incredible skills as a scholar, a politician, and a manager of people together, when necessary, with her willingness to act as a ruthless monarch, to build on the changes wrought by her father and bring about a religious settlement that appealed “to the large majority of moderately minded people”.  This was a religious compromise that, whilst compromising upon the ritual and dogma of two faiths, made no compromise at all in the matter of faith itself, and that afforded the country a rest from its religious preoccupations.


Having credited Elizabeth with success in dealing with the thorny matter of religion during her reign, Muriel turns to the subject of Childhood and Education, the title for chapter twelve, where she is again unstinting with her praise when she says:


“Elizabethan educational endeavour and the founding of schools must be regarded as one of the most impressive and characteristic achievements of the reign.”


In this chapter, Muriel traces the development of an Elizabethan school system that was based upon “the conception that education should be available to everyone, for the good of the state and the good of the individual”.  She goes on to say that “All the great schools founded at this time were in the main designed to educate the children of their particular locality, either for no cost at all or for some more or less nominal entrance fee.”  She provides examples of these schools together with a multitude of fascinating details on the conditions of entry to these schools, the numbers of pupils taken, the charges made, the master’s salaries, their qualifications and their duties, and the curriculum.


As regards what was taught, how it was taught and, perhaps most importantly, how well it was taught, Muriel looks at the wide variety of Elizabethan educational establishments available.  For those children who were fortunate to have both wise and wealthy parents there were some excellent privately run schools, but, in the main it was not unusual for children to start their education at the most rudimentary of preparatory schools, often run by “poor old dames” who “were often nearly as ignorant as their charges” and then move on to the smaller grammar school.  Some, be they rich or poor, might end up in the really good grammar schools like the Merchant Taylors’ School.


The timetable for the Elizabethan school day is a far from attractive proposition when compared to that of today.  The Elizabethan boy was expected to attend school from the age of seven or eight.  From this age onwards a typical timetable required him to be at school in time to start work at six in the morning, and the school day would not finish until half past five in the afternoon.  This eleven and a half hour day was punctuated with only one break of a quarter of an hour before the midday break, which ran from eleven o’clock until one ‘o’clock, and, in the afternoon, there was just one other break of a quarter of an hour before it was time to end the day with prayers and the singing of part of a psalm!  Small wonder Shakespeare would describe this unfortunate child in As You Like It as:

the whining school-boy with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.


Earlier in this chapter Muriel credits Elizabeth and her ministers for bringing into being an infrastructure which sought to enable the provision of education for everyone.  She ends it with a belief that, whilst the educational system used within that infrastructure was Spartan, “it served as no inadequate instrument to mould the characters of some of the greatest Englishmen of all ages”.

The next rung on the Elizabethan educational ladder was, as it is now, The University, which is the title of Muriel’s thirteenth chapter, in which she focuses to a large extent on Oxford and Cambridge.  These two great universities, founded originally for the benefit of poor scholars, had begun in Elizabethan times to attract the sons of the rich, and whilst university statutes at the time stipulated fifteen as the age for attendance, we find that boys were often admitted at a much younger age - especially the sons of noble birth!  Nevertheless, the majority of students were still poor men’s sons.


Muriel provides us with an insightful description of both the infrastructure of these two universities and also of what the English clergyman William Harrison, who we met in chapter two, describes as an ‘almost monastic’ college life.  In the Elizabethan age the breadth of subjects studied at university was extraordinarily narrow in comparison with today.  Rhetoric was at the centre of university teaching, and Latin was the working language.


Whilst the daily routine of disputations, lectures and study undertaken in the Elizabethan university could hardly be described as festive, there were lighter moments, and Muriel provides us with colourful descriptions of occasions when this was so.


As this chapter comes to a close, Muriel succinctly sums up the value of Elizabethan university life, when she says:


“there is ample evidence that at this period Oxford and Cambridge, both in point of intellectual culture and disciplinary conduct, could challenge favourable comparison with the most famous continental universities . . . as centres of national learning and a training ground for all servants of the public they were reverenced by the majority of Englishmen, and together with the Court were described as ‘the compendium of all England’.

Muriel opens chapter fourteen, ‘Young and Old come Forth to Play’, with this:


“The Elizabethan worked hard, and when he took a holiday he took it whole-heartedly, stretched his limbs and his lungs, feasted himself and entertained himself on a generous scale.  He loved the riot and noise of Bartholomew Fair or its country equivalent, with its side-shows, its monsters, its fat women, its ballad-mongers, its gilt gingerbread, its hobby-horses, and its roast pig.  He loved to gape at pasteboard and finery and fireworks; pageantry of all kinds delighted him, and he indulged at every opportunity in trials of strength and skill.  He seized upon any excuse for a junketing: when his child was born he feasted his neighbours as lavishly as his means allowed; when the parish needed to raise funds for some particular purpose he brewed a noble quantity of good ale, and then retailed it to the surrounding villages.  He danced at weddings, and ate heartily of the baked meats at a funeral; and, above all, whatever the occasion, he was ready to sing and make music with a zest and a mastery that his nation has never since been able to recapture.”


She then takes us on a breathtaking journey through the enormous variety of ‘games’ that Elizabethans enjoyed - some peaceful and passive, but many extraordinarily rough and brutal, not only to Elizabethans themselves but also to animals who were treated to extremes of great cruelty.


Whilst dancing was popular with all classes, Muriel takes time to introduce us to the colourful spectacle and formality of Elizabethan Court dances.


Moving away from London and Elizabeth’s Court, we are taken on a vividly descriptive journey to visit many of the popular festivals that were celebrated throughout the year during Elizabeth’s reign.  After a final indulgence on Shrove Tuesday, Elizabethans would have to suffer the rigours of Lent before letting themselves go in style during Easter.  May Day celebrations were far more lively than they are today including activities that the Puritans of the time regarded as licentious!  The festivals of Church Ales, as alluded to in Muriel’s opening paragraph of this chapter, were popular events that have not been carried down to the present day - maybe because of objections from the moralists who questioned why the church appeared to be encouraging drunkenness so as to raise money!  The harvest festivals were again far more focused on community celebration than they are today.  Perhaps with Hallowe’en we have managed to preserve the essence of communal fun, as we have to a degree in London with the Lord Mayor’s Show.  Muriel describes the Elizabethans’ Christmas as their “only holiday season - when, for about a fortnight, work was more or less suspended both in town and country, and all classes held high festival.  Hospitality and entertainment were the order of the day”.  And so we roll round to New Year’s Day, which, unlike now, involved a special ceremony of present giving, observed by both rich and poor.


Muriel concludes this chapter with a lively discourse on Elizabethan music.  “Ordinary Elizabethan men and women felt ashamed if they could not take part in the singing of a madrigal or accompany their songs upon the lute.”  And, in her final sentence of the chapter she says:


“However we may deplore the brutality of certain of his chosen pastimes such as bull and bear baiting, the Elizabethan undoubtedly had music in his soul.”

The opening lines of Muriel’s fifteenth chapter, The Theatre, make it perfectly plain that:


“This chapter is concerned with Elizabethan theatre, not with the Elizabethan drama - with the multifarious life which we sum up in the phrase ‘the world of the theatre’ and not with what is properly an aspect of the history of literature”.


She then takes us on a colourful journey outlining the birth of what we know today as commercial theatre, and she starts by reminding us that “actors were an organised profession long before anyone saw the commercial possibilities of erecting buildings for them”.  These actors, when not giving private performances to their wealthy patrons, would, for example, perform in-front of members of the public on portable, temporary stages in the courtyards of inns.  And then, in 1576, along came James Burbage, previously a joiner and then an actor, who saw the commercial potential of a permanent, bespoke theatre building, and he erected the first English theatre in Shoreditch.  It proved to be a success with ordinary members of the public only too willing to part company with a small, affordable sum of money in order to watch a performance in relative comfort.  Commercial undertakings that prove to be successful, invariably attract rivals, and soon other theatres were being built.


The birth of the English theatre during Elizabeth’s reign, was in many ways a drama in its own right.  The good guys could be said to include the entrepreneurs willing to invest in the buildings, the actors willing to play in them, the wealthy patrons of the acting companies, and the members of the public willing to pay to see the performances.  The good guys could also be said to include Elizabeth herself, who loved watching plays and thereby encouraged competition among playwrights.  On the other hand the bad guys included the London City fathers, who were opposed to theatres within their areas of influence, and who, by way of the Mayor and Aldermen, used their powers to prevent the erection of theatres within the city boundaries and to regulate the places, such as the yards of inns, the hours and the seasons for playing in those places; also they were quick to take advantage of situations like an outbreak of the plague or any disturbance of the peace to stop plays being performed altogether.  There was also a strong Puritan element in London that was fiercely opposed to the very existence of theatres, plays and players!  As a result, the entrepreneurs were forced to build their Elizabethan theatres outside the city boundaries and thus in the less salubrious and less central areas of London; and, in addition, they had to remain on the alert for the introduction of legislation to limit their activities.  They were also required to deal with the Queen’s Master of the Revels, who charged a fee for licensing each each play and exercised strict censorship on content.


Employing her great talent with the written word, Muriel brings all this to life before us, and, for good measure, she provides us with colourful glimpses inside what was arguably one of the most famous theatres of the day, the Globe, to see the stage management in action and the actors dressed in an amazing array and variety of costumes and makeup, whilst using only the barest minimum of scenery and props necessary to guarantee a lively and well-received performance.  Not for these actors the modern day gimmicks of computer generated imagery and fantastic backdrop images; the Elizabethan actor took to the stage to “unpack his heart with words” - relying on his skill to stimulate the imagination of the audience and thereby bring the play into thrilling perspective!

In her penultimate chapter, Wonder-Books and Old Wives’ Tales, Muriel introduces us to the Elizabethan world of fantastic beasts, potions, spells, monsters, devils, ghosts, ghouls, fairies, witches, and stories from far away lands.  What was accepted in all seriousness as a fact by an Elizabethan may well be categorised today as superstition or myth, and as a consequence be the subject of ridicule.  For example, the scientific approach to subjects such as zoology and medicine during the Elizabethan age was still in its infancy, and facts could so easily be inferred from what was generally believed to be true at the time.  Many facts were simply regaled by word of mouth, having been acquired from travellers from one English county passing through another - for example a claim that there was a wonderful healing spring in Cheshire; other facts took the form of what we would call old wives’ tales - for example, the belief that dogs howling at night were a portent of death.  Yet more facts were found in the literature of the age, and whilst many of these books traded on myth alone, there were serious and substantial books of facts available for the educated Elizabethan.  For example, one of these dealing with the subject of zoology tell us in all seriousness that, if we reject the existence of the unicorn, we reject the teachings of Scripture!

This image of a Unicorn is taken from ‘The Elizabethan Zoo’ edited by Muriel St Clare Byrne


Small wonder then that a piece of unicorn’s horn was considered to be an unrivalled antidote to poison.  Medicine and, especially, the remedies that could be obtained for an astonishing variety of ailments was a subject of great interest to the Elizabethan.  For example, the humble mouse, whilst considered a pest when alive, suddenly became the main ingredient, when dead, for an astonishing number of remedies!


Muriel concludes this lively and exciting journey through the Elizabethan world of fact and folklore with a brief examination of books devoted to the wonders of the world.  Elizabethans were now stretching their horizons of knowledge through travel, and books based on these travels told graphic stories of voyages to foreign lands and of the discovery of many a wondrous sight - including unicorns!

In her final chapter, An Elizabethan Day, Muriel takes us through a day in the life of a variety of characters ranging from rich to poor in both the town and the county.  For this picture of the Elizabethan day she draws upon the contemporary works of the following writers: the English poet and novelist Nicholas Breton; the English playwright Thomas Dekker; the English poet Barnaby Googe; the English diarist Lady Margaret Hoby; and two Huguenot refugees, Claudius Hollyband and Peter Erondell, who taught French for their livelihood in Elizabethan London.  Between them these well respected Elizabethan writers provide us with the materials with which to construct a vivid and lively picture of an Elizabethan day.


At three o’clock on a summer morning, whilst the well to do remained abed, those working in the country would begin to stir - “the milkmaids would be off to the dairy, the ploughman harnessing his horses, and the porridge pot simmering for the servants’ breakfast”.  At five o’clock in town “The bells ring to prayer, and the streets are full of people, and the highways are stored with travellers; the scholars are up and going to school, and the rods are ready for the truants’ correction”.  Of course there are those at Court and those who lead a dissolute life who start their day much later after late night revels, but in the main the vast majority of Elizabethans, particularly those in the country, rose before sunrise and were in bed not long after it set, having given most of their waking hours to work and little to pleasure.  By cleverly extracting the salient points from the written works of her sources, Muriel takes us step-wise through the typical Elizabethan day in town and country, and she paints a most colourful and vibrant picture for us to enjoy.  It is a fitting end to her extraordinarily comprehensive account of an Elizabethan life in town and country.


On the inside flap of the dust cover to this book there is a quote from Punch magazine:


“It is a book rich with the fruits of scholarship and research, and yet carries its authority so easily that it is more readable than most novels . . . . A book overflowing with good things.”


It is hard to imagine a better description.

The Elizabethan Home

The Elizabethan Home, was published originally in 1925 in a limited edition of 725 copies.  A second (revised) edition was issued in 1935, and a further revised edition was published in 1949.


This small book of less than 100 pages comprises selections by Muriel St Clare Byrne, the book’s Editor, of the work of Claudius Hollyband and Peter Erondell.  These two Huguenot refugees, who taught French for their livelihood in Elizabethan London, have already been introduced as sources for Muriel’s wonderful gem of a book - Elizabethan Life In Town And Country.

In her introduction to The Elizabethan Home, Muriel says:


“It seems almost incredible that any books which give us a vivid and attractive picture of the ordinary daily life of Shakespeare’s fellow-citizens could have remained inaccessible and even practically unknown till the present day.  Such, however, has been the fate of the extremely rare volumes from which these selections have been made.”


Although Hollyband and Erondell primarily intended their books to help their Elizabethan students learn the French language, the unintended consequence of their wonderfully descriptive texts, referred to as dialogues, is to provide us with what Muriel describes as “an amusing yet veracious picture of the normal.”  And she goes on to say that: “In reading these dialogues we are constantly reminded of the literary as well as the social background of the time.”


Hollyband provides us firstly, with scenes of schoolboy life in his own schoolroom; and then he introduces us to the father of one of his pupils who takes us home to dinner with him.


Erondell introduces us to a more aristocratic household, and we watch and follow the fictitious Lady Ri-Mellaine through a busy day.  Having completed the complex process of dressing she takes us on a journey around her extensive house - during which she checks on her staff, her sons’ home-tutored lessons, her daughters’ needlework, and the nursery.  We then join her on a shopping expedition in London, before returning home to see her entertain her friends to dinner!  During the afternoon, we stroll with her along the banks of the Thames and admire the gardens.  The final dialogue in this highly entertaining book introduces us to the rituals of bedtime in an Elizabethan aristocrat’s household.

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