Category Archives: Early modern history

Early modern history History

1588 v 1688 – one victory, one defeat

I’ve been reading a provocative exploration of why it was that England wasn’t conquered in 1588 (The Spanish Armada), but was conquered in 1688 by the Dutch (in what is rather eupemistically known, in what may have been history’s most successful piece of spin) The Glorious Revolution.

I’m not going to explore the 1688 arguments here, but I found fascinating an exploration of why the Armada failed and William III succeeeded in Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe by Geoffrey Parker.

In short, the argument runs that ship-building technology had so advanced that the Dutch were able to sweep down to Torbay (aided of course by the “Protestant wind” that kept the English ships in harbour) and unload the troops before the English navy could catch up with them – far faster than the Spanish would have managed even in same conditions. (Their slowest merchantment-transports travelled at roughly “the speed of a rowboat”.)

Also you might say that government systems had so improved in the century, or else William was just a much more effective monarch than Phillip II – William was on the spot and able to take instant decisions wih advice from his commanders, while Phillip gave his commanders rigid long distance instructions and expected them to be obeyed to the letter.

Also, the logistics of 1688 were far more advanced. Gilbert Burnet wrote: “Never was so great a design executed in so short a time … All things as soon as they were ordered were got to be so quickly ready that we were amazed at the dispatch.” The Dutch even loaded large numbers of horses, while the Spanish had almost none (luckily for the equine world, as it turned out).

Also, William understood the propoganda value of having Englishmen prominent in his forces, making this look – as it so successfully turned out – less like an invasion than an internal uprising. Phillip made no effort to do this, which in part explained the resolve and passion of Elizabeth’s forces, versus those of the hapless James a century later.

Nonetheless, Parker exonerates James and his commanders of incompetence or treachery in not anticipating William’s landing place, suggesting that not until the last possible second was William himself sure whether it would be north Yorkshire or the southwest.

Oh, you want to know why it wasn’t a Glorious Revolution? Well Parker cites the arguments of Professor Jonathan Israel that stress the huge size of the Dutch force – over 450 ships, 20,000 men and 5,000 horses, the predominance of foreign soldiers (including Danish, Duch, French Hugenot and German) and the fact that on Williams triumphant entry to London no English regiments were allowed within 20 miles of London and for the next 18 months, Dutch troops occupied all significant buildings in and around the capital.

Early modern history

Please raise your glasses

… to the inventor of them:

Before George Ravenscroft’s invention of lead glass in London in about 1677, most quality drinking glasses used in Britain were fragile luxuries imported from Venice, or made in England in the Venetian style in glasshouses often run by glassmakers from the continent. Ravenscroft’s formula using lead oxide instead of soda produced a new type of glass which was brilliantly clear and strong, and much more like rock crystal than ‘cristallo’, the Venetian soda glass.

The physical attributes of lead glass together with changes in fashion meant that glassmakers began to produce a more simple style of drinking glass, with straight-sided funnel shaped bowls, robust stems with plain baluster shapes, and large feet for stability.

(Hat-tip to Sundries.)

Early modern history

Shakespeare’s problem

Heard tonight at a seminar at the Institute for Historical Research: “The problem with Shakespeare is that he didn’t get into enough difficulties.”

To expand: the speaker was referring to the way that we only know about many early theatre men through the messy court cases they got themselves tangled in – Shakespeare didn’t do that, which helps explain why he’s considered so “mysterious”.

(For the record: I definitely belong to the “Shakespeare was Shakespeare” school, although as soon as I find the time – soon I hope – I will be reviewing a book that has an intriguing alternative hypothesis.)

Early modern history

The language of William Tyndale

A passage you’ll recognise from William Tyndale’s English Bible, but it does some interesting things with gender:

“In the begynnynge was the worde, and the worde was with God: and the word was God. The same was in the begynnynge wyth God. All things were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was made.”

By the time of King James, however, God had suddenly become male.

The disputes between Tyndale and Sir Thomas More yielded even more colourful language. Among their lost words:

“A gorbelly was a fat man, often to be found in a sottys hoffe, a drinking den, where he became sowe-drunke, and a nodypoll was a blockhead who was often apyssche, or fantastically foolish. A prym was a pretty girl, and a galyarde a high spirited young man, with an eye for caterwaywynge, lechery.”

From B. Moynahan, William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life. A Story of Martyrdom, Betrayal and the English Bible, p. 390, p. 192

I do like nodypoll – wonder if it could be resurrected?

Early modern history

Henry wasn’t just hard on wives

… but also on wildlife:

The Preservation of Grain Act, passed in 1532 by Henry VIII and strengthened by Elizabeth I in 1566, made it compulsory for every man, woman and child to kill as many creatures as possible that appeared on an official list of ‘vermin’. ‘Paradoxically, many of these creatures are today highly valued and given the full protection of the law,’ said Lovegrove.
The act was drawn up to counter food shortages and spread of disease caused by a series of bad harvests and a sharp rise in population. Henry VIII put a bounty on each creature, ranging from a penny for the head of a kite or a raven to 12 pence for a badger or a fox. These were considerable sums when the average agricultural wage was around four pence a day.

Early modern history Women's history

A few Bridewell unfortunates

Just been reading a history of Bridewell, the original “house of correction” in London. Arguably the first such attempt to “correct” prisoners, and also perhaps the only long-time such institution to be housed in an honest-to-goodness palace. (Royalty having found the site at the meeting of the Fleet and the Thames rather too smelly.)

The first surviving record of an inmate is that of “a certain woman named Morton” who was charged on December 16 1556 with having abandoned her child in the streets of Southwark. She was whipped at Bridewell, then pilloried at Cheapside, with a paper on her head explaining her “crime”.

1610 George and Agnes Sturton were living in a single room in the parish of St Martin, Ludgate Hill when a man called and asked to be taken in as a lodger. Plague sores had already broken out on his body, and he offered them 30 shillings if they would hide him, and save him from the pest house. They agreed, but he died, and they locked his body in their room and fled. Neighbours, however, broke down their door and sent for the constable. Punishment: whipping.

1639 – Elizabeth Pynfould, alias Squire … petitioned the council. She had been a prisoners for seven years in Bridewell, having been committed by a Council warrant, she knew not why, unless it was for petitioning the Lords to cause her husband to allow her means of livelihood. She prayed for liberty, and to be supplied with means.
W.G. Hinkle, A History of Bridewell Prison, 1553-1700, Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. (Not unfortunately very well organised, and heavily reliant on secondary sources.)