Elizabethan England–The Dreadful and the Exciting

Guide to Elizabethan England Book Cover
Destination: Elizabethan England

Book: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England (NEW: Release date June 27, 2013) by Ian Mortimer


Author Ian Mortimer has an interesting idea.  If you want to learn the history of a place, why not imagine yourself in that place? And if you are going to time travel to Elizabethan England, you’ll need a guide book just as you would to travel to today’s London, won’t you?  So in The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, he has melded in-depth historical research with a format that somewhat resembles the things you would need to know if you actually could turn back the clock and visit in person.

Elizabethan England joust re-enacted
Elizabeth at a joust. Some contemporary re-enactors time travel in Elizabethan England.

How much more interesting to learn how people actually lived than the dates of this and that, and the confusion of changing boundaries and rulers. The difference between this book and a guidebook to a country today, is that the background issues such as landscape, people, religion and character covers a lot more territory than the practicalities you look for in a regular guidebook such as what to wear, how to travel, where to stay, what to eat and drink, entertainment.

The only problem is that description of “in-depth” in the first paragraph.  You may feel more than a bit overwhelmed.  I was at places, and I coped by skimming the things I wasn’t totally fascinated with.  For instance the chapter on clothing would prove invaluable for someone in the 21st century who is costuming a Shakespeare production, but I didn’t really need to know QUITE that much.

You may be surprised to learn how many of today’s practices started, or at least continued from the Middle Ages, during Elizabethan England. For example, did you ever get an advertisement claiming to be able to provide you with your family’s coat of arms?  Well, status was very important in the 16th century, and if you have a coat of arms, you are a gentleman, descending from a knight and entitled to be called “esquire.”  There was fraud however, and so, we learn:

Heralds (officers of the College of Arms) make regular visitations of the counties to examine these claims.  Talk about hierarchy: at a time when there is no national police force, there is a national organization devoted to policing the right to bear a coat of arms.

Speaking of family ties, since I have the name Bassett among my ancestors, I was very interested in the discussion about female scholars:

Other families produce female scholars, Mary Bassett, granddaughter of Sir Thomas More, is well versed in the classics and translates works by Eusebius, Socrates, and several other ancient writers, not to mention a book by her grandfather….The educated ladies of Elizabethan England are far freer to reveal the fruits of their intellect than were their mothers and grandmothers.

Before I write this up over at Ancestors in Aprons, claiming to be descended from Sir Thomas More,  I probably should look for a Herald to investigate my heritage, don’t you think?

Elizabethan England-Hampton Court
Hampton Court Gardens, photo by Mike Fleming

Of course, as a traveler, I was interested to learn that some of the sites I visited in England, like the gardens of Hampton Court and the Tower of London, were tourist attractions even in Elizabethan England.

Elizabethan England Tower of London
Tower of London from the Thames River. Photo by Stewart Morris

Speaking of the tower, politics was interesting and dangerous. The Queen had great powers, which she exercised like a dictator. If you mentioned royal succession  you might be executed.  That’s because the Virgin Queen wanted to possible heirs around plotting against her, so carefully designated no one to succeed her. And Catholicism was banished.

If you like recipes, you’ll find some Elizabethan era concoctions here–some for food, but some for beauty and medicine, although you had better have a strong stomach before you attempt them.  It took a lot of perfume and other measures to keep Elizabethans smelling acceptable. Take this recipe:

Take an ounce of the finest garden mold, cleaned and steeped seven days in change of rosewater; then take the best ladanum [a gum resin], benzoin, both storaxes, ambergris, civet and musk; incorporate the together and work them into what formyou plese. Then if your breath be not too valiant, it will make you small as sweet as any lady’s dog.

Even so, that’s better than the recipe for ointment that starts “Take eight swallows ready to fly out of the nest…” Sorry, I can’t tell you what the suggested procedure is.  Likewise, I don’t have a strong enough stomach to suggest to you the mesures of torture and execution used by the Elizabethans.

As Mortimer points out several times, there is a huge disconnect between the literature, particular dramatic literature, particularly the humanism of Shakespeare, and other facets of life in Elizabethan England. This portrait of Elizabeth shows some of the contrasts. She holds a bouquet of flowers, but it was originally a snake. Click on the photo to read the rest of the story.

Elizabethan England was ruled by this woman
Elizabeth I

As the author says in his conclusion…“they show us what human beings are capable of enduring. They cope with plague, low life expectancy, child mortality, endemic violence, superstition, harsh winters, and the taut rope of the law; humanity is remarkably resilient… There might be a gnawing hunger in their bellies but they circumnavigate the world and sail to the Arctic, they laugh and sing, they cut topiary gardens and design banquets of sugar.  They look to the stars and chart a new course that the Earth follows round the sun.”

If all you know of Elizabethan England is through Shakespeare’s plays or a movie or two about Elizabeth the Queen, you’re in for quite a few surprises.  I imagine that any traveler fascinated by the history of the place he is visiting will want to know more about this amazing period of history.  Whether she wants to know as much as in this book, each reader will have to decide for herself. If you DO want an in depth look loaded with details, the research here is quite amazing, and Mortimer manages to set the reader straight about quite a few erroneous assumptions that have crept into “common knowledge.”

Mortimer also wrote The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century in case your time machine malfunctions and you overshoot Elizabethan times.

Final tip: if you prefer to imbibe your history with a splash of fiction, Ian Mortimer alias James Forrester,who has a striking website, has written three novels set in Elizabethan days.  Well, with all the research he has done for both his more scholarly and popularized history books, you will certainly know that the background is going to be accurate.

 Note: The publisher provided me with a copy of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England for review. Wherever my source, I tell it like I see it.  Photos here are form Flickr, and used with a Creative Commons license.  Links to Amazon enable you to shop directly, and to benefit A Traveler’s Library without it costing you more. Thanks for supporting us in that way.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

One thought on “Elizabethan England–The Dreadful and the Exciting

  1. Sounds like this would be a great avenue to explore a deeper appreciation of the context of Shakespeare’s work – I’m going to keep an eye out at the library next time 🙂

    “Then if your breath be not too valiant, it will make you small as sweet as any lady’s dog.

    That line is just so tragically hilarious, in so many ways…

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