This is the second in a series of posts to mark the publication of my new book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England. Each post focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.
On an October evening, in the year 1604, a weary traveller by the name of John Oultings entered Turner’s alehouse in the Essex parish of Layer Marney. It was around 6 o’clock, and Oultings ordered himself some beer and cheese, and requested a room in which to rest overnight. It was the kind of routine stopover that was a common occurrence in England’s seventeenth-century alehouses, as the institution represented an important component of the country’s hospitality infrastructure.
So far, then, nothing particularly remarkable. But what Oultings was to witness during his stay was a sequence of rather more intriguing events. On his arrival he found John Lufkin – the central character of this post – drinking with one Thomas Marsh and several other men. Whether Oultings joined these men is not clear, but at around 9 o’clock he saw John Lufkin call to the alehousekeeper to bring forth ‘a huge great stone pot’, which contained ‘very near two gallons’ (that’s 16 pints) of beer, a vessel that the drinkers referred to as ‘Fowler’—a rather odd nickname for a drinking vessel, but its provenance will become clear. Oultings was not interested in participating in whatever drinking ritual was about to ensue, and retired to his bed chamber.
Yet when he rose the next morning, between 4 and 5 am, he found that John Lufkin and his fellows drinkers were still ‘playing’, as he put it, with the great stone pot. But one of the company had apparently been defeated in the attempt to drain this mighty vessel, for Thomas Marsh was, as Oultings observed, ‘so drunk he fell fast asleep at the table, hanging down his head, foaming, slavering, and pissing as he sat’. He had, in short, got so drunk he had befouled himself.
That was not the end of his indignity. One of the company fetched a sack, and placed it over Marsh’s head, whereupon John Lufkin, the ring-leader of the drinking company, bellowed in Marsh’s ears that he too would forever after bear the nickname ‘Fowler’. Just to top off the shaming ritual, Lufkin undid Marsh’s codpiece, and left him sitting there, unconscious, soiled, and with what contemporaries would have referred to as his ‘carnal instrument’ publicly exposed: a gesture intended to literally and symbolically expose his manhood, or rather, his lack of.
Here then is an example of alehouse antics that reinforces some of the points I made in my first post: that alehouse ‘good fellowship’ was not simply about drinking heavily to blot out the horror of seventeenth-century life, but was instead a highly ritualised practice, and one in which men often sought to express their masculinity and define their honour in relation to being able to hold their drink. Ending up in a drunken stupor, and losing control of mind and body, would end up in shame and ritual humiliation, as the unfortunate Thomas Marsh all too cruelly found out.
But there is another story that relates to the character John Lufkin, the good-fellow-in-chief, that highlights one of the other major themes of the book. As the number of alehouses in England began to rise rapidly between 1570 and 1630, so too did concerns about their increasingly prominent role in society. Religious reformers and the central government feared that the alehouse was providing a serious rival to the Church, and one that encouraged all manner of vice, from adultery, violence, idleness, money-wasting and even open political discussion, something that the lower orders were not deemed to have a right to at this time.
As a consequence Church and State embarked on a concerted campaign against alehouses, manifested most clearly in a raft of legislation passed against the institution in the opening years of the seventeenth century. It’s fair to say some of the measures were draconian: a one hour time limit was imposed on drinking in an alehouse in your own parish (only overnight travellers could stay longer). Closing times of 9 o’clock were stipulated (the time at which our Essex good fellows were just about to take their drinking up a gear), and drunkenness was made a criminal offence for the first time, with a 5 shilling fine attached (not an inconsiderable sum at a time when a labourer might expect to earn 8 pence a day).
This was a remarkably ambitious campaign on the part of the state to micro-regulate people’s leisure activities, and the book dedicates a lot of attention to examining just how successful it was. Indeed, this campaign against the alehouse provides a valuable test case for exploring the reach of central government in this period: could they really control people’s everyday lives this closely?
I don’t want to give too much away about the conclusions I reach, but the events I’ve described above do provide a clue. There was no professional police force in the seventeenth century, so the enforcement of the legislation against alehouses fell on the shoulders of local village constables. This was an office held, essentially, by unpaid amateurs, appointed from the ranks of the local community and charged with upholding the law for a year, before they could pass on responsibility to a neighbour. This was no easy task, especially when it came to enforcing unpopular legislation. Turning up in your local pub after 9pm and politely asking everyone to head home was not a job to be relished.
So, how successful were the village constables of seventeenth-century England at leading the charge against the increasingly popular alehouse and its culture of good fellowship? Well, if we take the example of Layer Marney, you may well have guessed by now who was the local constable… it was of course John Lufkin, the ringleader of the Fowler drinking ritual. Indeed, the events in Turner’s alehouse were described by John Oultings as he was giving testimony in a case in which Lufkin stood accused of neglect of the office of constable. The man charged with prohibiting good fellowship was in this village its greatest champion. With men like this in the front line, the campaign against the alehouse was likely to be an uphill struggle. But, as we will see in the next post, it was not only the authorities who sought to challenge the growing popularity of good fellowship…