Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part II: Nightmare neighbours and Tudor ASBOs

Jonathan Willis

This post is, if not a follow-up, then perhaps a sequel to my investigation last month into the eccentric Elizabethan Miles Fry, aka Emmanuel Plantagenet, who claimed to be the secret lovechild of no less a coupling than Elizabeth I and God Himself. My next archival oddball is Goodwife Dannutt, from Rose Alley in London. Dannutt is described in the calendar of the Lansdowne manuscripts as ‘a poor distracted woman’, writing to Lord Burghley and ‘begging him for Jesus Christ’s sake to punish a constable and two watchmen, who are so noisy in the night she can take no rest’.[1]

Modern society seems more than a little preoccupied with the idea of nuisance neighbours. A quick google search reveals the website http://www.nfh.org.uk/ – designed to help embattled residents deal with, you guessed it, ‘Neighbours from Hell’. Newspapers, it appears, love to run stories about neighbours from hell; from the story of an academic whose experience of hellish neighbours may (the Telegraph speculates) have contributed to her tragic suicide, to the Mirror’s more risible account of Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s decision to install a nine-foot gate at the entrance to their $10,000,000 California mansion, ‘without permission’. The UK’s Channel 5 is currently screening a television series called The Nightmare Neighbour Next Door, which promises to reveal ‘the traumatic, shocking, humorous and occasionally bizarre experiences of nightmare neighbours’; that’s people who live ‘next door’, in case anybody was in any doubt. In recent years even governments have taken this sort of thing increasingly seriously with the advent of the ASBO, or ‘anti-social behaviour order’, such as that given to a noisy Burnley resident.


Gwyneth and Chris – no longer a couple, but still neighbours from hell?

Elizabethan communities did not have to cope with electric gates, celebrity (ex-) couples, domestic cannabis farms, electronically amplified dance music or an influx of stag and hen parties to ‘party houses’ in affluent parts of Dorset. However, they were no less affected by noise. Just as Mary Douglas observed in Purity and Danger that ‘dirt’ was ‘matter out of place’, so we can usefully think of ‘noise’ as ‘sound out of place’. Sounds that might be acceptable, even appropriate, in one time or place or context could be deeply disturbing or offensive in others. I’ve written about this myself, in terms of religious music.[2] But clearly the principle can be extended to all forms of noise pollution.

The exact nature of the noise that disturbed Goodwife Dannutt is unknown, but in her frantic letter to William Cecil she noted that the time of the disturbance was ‘at one of the clocke at an unlawfull time’.[3] She requested Cecil ‘be so good unto me’ as to force her neighbour, ‘my good man Johnson’, to reveal ‘the counstables name that dwell next house’ and also the names of two watchmen, who were presumably responsible for the unseemly night time interruptions.

Dannutt’s desperation is palpable. She beseeched Burghley ‘for godes sake’ to help her, ‘for godes sake your honour’ and that she ‘may have some ende of it for cryste Jesus sake’. This sort of language, incidentally, would not have endeared her to any particularly religious neighbours, who would have viewed this sort of casual swearing as a serious breach of the Third Commandment.[4] Dannutt also requested that Burghley help her ‘have some ende upon it without gret expense’, suggesting that the constable and his accomplices request ‘pay every nighte’ and that she ‘can never take coste for them’. Quite what was going on here is unclear – some sort of nocturnal racket? – and if anybody has come across any similar cases I would be intrigued to hear about them.

No ‘nightmare neighbour’ story is complete without a sense of how powerless law-abiding citizens are to resolve their desperate situation. Not only was Dannutt complaining about a constable and a pair of watchmen, she also noted that ‘the judges of the Kinges Bench ar a kinde’ to the offenders, and that they have ‘so maney frendes that I coud never reste day nor nighte’. Reaching out to Cecil was therefore her last hope for peace, quiet, and a good night’s sleep.

Nightmare neighbours - not just a modern problem.

Nightmare neighbours – not just a modern problem.

The goodwife ended her letter on a strange note. She also claimed that ‘moste of the lands that the queen gave he meanes to kepe it from me’, and also lamented that ‘every one cossus me & decevses me’. There are perhaps two conclusions to be drawn. The first is that, like many neighbourly disputes, this one may well have concerned the more serious question of property rights, as well as the nuisance issue of antisocial behaviour. The second is that Dannutt appears to have been socially isolated, and therefore may not have been as innocent a party as she herself claimed. There is no evidence as to whether Burghley slapped whatever the Elizabethan equivalent of an ASBO was on to the noisy constable, or even whether or not Dannutt ever managed to get a decent forty winks. Even if this incident was resolved amicably, we can at least say for certain that the problem of noisy neighbours has unquestionably never gone away.


[1] Catalogue of the Lansdowne MS in the BL, p. 191.

[2] Jonathan Willis, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England (2010), p. 225.

[3] Lansdowne vol. 99 no. 28, f. 77.

[4] John Dod, for example, forbade idle, curious, vain or unreverent speaking of God’s word titles, attributes or works. John Dod, A plaine and familiar exposition of the Ten commandements (1604), p. 92.

Samuel Clarke’s Martyrology: images of religious violence

Laura Sangha

On Friday, one of my fellow tweeters, Early Modern World @EMhistblog, retweeted an image from a 1651 martyrology that I had originally posted last year. Here’s the tweet:

Original tweetIt proved popular, so I wanted to post the full details of the original work and author here (though I make no claim to be an expert on early modern martyrologies). Click on images for enlargements.

Clarke’s Martyrology

The image is one of many graphic illustrations in Samuel Clarke, A generall martyrologie containing a collection of all the greatest persecutions which have befallen the church of Christ from the creation to our present times (London, 1651), Wing / C4513. Clarke’s compilation was first published in 1651. A second edition in 1660, and a third in 1677 suggests that the work was popular. The Martyrology is almost entirely derived from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563). Indeed, in the preface to the third edition, Clarke defended himself against the claim that his work was a superfluous repetition of Foxe’s monumental work – Clark argued that Foxe’s was a general history of the church, not just a martyrology, and he also claimed that he had ‘turned over many other Authors’ to supply what was wanting in ‘Master Fox’ – although a cursory perusal of the work suggests this claim is false. Probably closer to the truth was Clarke’s assertion that:

in these times many want money to buy, and leasure to read larger Volumes, who yet may find both money, and time to purchase, and to peruse so small a Volume as this is. (Preface, A2r).

Though even this should be taken with a pinch of salt, because later editions of Clarke would have been reasonably expensive – the third edition was more than 700 pages long; and it contained many illustrations, making it an object of prestige as well as a marker of preferred churchmanship. That said, the images are certainly cruder and less sophisticated than in the large, expensive editions of Foxe. The original image that I tweeted can be seen in context here, bottom right (p. 125, 1677 edn.)Original pic in contextThere were twelve of these plates in the book, each depicting the sufferings of the martyrs in extremely graphic detail. The reader can gaze upon the brutality of religious persecution and be struck by the ingenious capacity of humans to inflict ever more horrible suffering upon their fellows. The enormous variety of types of torture, and the inventiveness of punishments is constantly surprising. Page 18Page 18bpage 52 hung and animal clawsFor the modern viewer, the crude images probably provoke a variety of conflicting emotions. Organised in (what looks to us) a comic book style, the presentation, and the poses and expressions of the victims and torturers often seem terribly mismatched against the outrageous violence that the images depict. The result is both shocking, but at the same time it can also be humorous – as with the nonchalant chap in the ‘boiling oil’ boots. We are used to a extraordinary level of realism in modern media: high definition reproductions of crime scenes, the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the devastating effects of modern warfare. Early modern efforts can seem basic, stiff and even silly, by comparison.

page 74 full page

ATROCITY PROPAGANDApage 242 papist hearts




The images also provoke a sense of disbelief – we would prefer to think that this is religious polemic, on a par with the atrocity propaganda of the First World War. Surely no Catholics actually ate a Protestant heart, and the Hun didn’t really crucify a Canadian soldier in Belgium? Though we accept terrible violence happens, the presumption is often that these acts have been exaggerated for greater effect – though countless atrocities throughout history offer plenty of evidence to the contrary.

At other times, the violence is so absurd or extreme that humour is almost a logical response:

page 220 face plainedIt’s not really possible to ‘plain’ someone’s face off is it?

page 220 frogs and toadsBeing thrown in a cave with some toads and frogs hardly seems comparable to some of these other tortures, does it?

page 180 geeseHow long did it take them to tie those geese and hens on?

Undoubtedly martyrologies are a form of religious polemic and we shouldn’t assume that the atrocities they depict happened. As with all source material we must recognise the cultural dynamics that have shaped the content and presentation of the material. But of course we mustn’t assume that the viewing experience was the same for the early modern person. Early modernists were used to sub-standard or less accomplished woodcuts, and these visuals would presumably have represented the events they depicted to their imagination as effectively as a photograph does to us today. Early modern readings of these images would also have been informed by their own visceral experiences of religious violence – in the mid-seventeenth century, England had suffered about a 3.7 percent loss of population during the Civil Wars (more than during World War I, around 2 percent) and religious violence was part of everyday existence. Thus in their historical context, these images would perhaps have been just as affecting as Azadeh Akhlaghi recreations of Iran’s most notorious murders are to us today, though in the future they may also be seen as amateurish and slightly absurd.

The Author[1]

Samuel Clarke (1599-1682) was born in Sam Clarke headshotWarwickshire, the son of a vicar, and he grew up in a notably Puritan parish. He was well educated – first at Coventry school, and then Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In February 1626 he married Katherine Overton, with whom he had six children.

Following his education Clarke had a successful career as a clergyman. He was constantly in trouble for his nonconformity (his refusal to wear the surplice and omitting some of the ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer), although he was pleased with the reformation that he achieved at Alcester in the 1630s – according to Clarke, as a result of his ministry the town ‘which before was called drunken Alcester, was now exemplary and eminent for religion’.[2]

Clarke campaigned against Laudian innovations in Church government and theology, and witnessed the suffering that the Civil War bought to the Midlands in the 1640s. In 1643 he moved to London, becoming minister at St Benet Fink and getting involved in London Presbyterian circles. In the 1650s he was a more moderate voice, prepared to work with the Cromwellian regime, and he initially welcomed the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. However, the religious settlement of 1662 was too conformist for Clarke’s tastes, and he was ejected from his position in the Church, along with two of his sons.

Excluded from the Church, Clarke then dedicated his time to writing and publishing works that would promote his religious beliefs, including A Generall martyrologie. Clarke specialised in compiling biographies, gathering his material from already published works and the manuscript writings of other godly ministers. His other works included: The Lives of Thirty-Two English Divines, appended to the third edition of A Generall Martyrology (1677) and Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons in this Later Age (1683).

[1] The information about Samuel Clarke is from: Ann Hughes, ‘S. Clarke (1599-1682)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004); online edn. May 2007 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.lib.exeter.ac.uk/view/article/5528, accessed 12 April 2014].

[2] S. Clark [S. Clarke], The lives of sundry eminent persons in this later age (1683), quoted in Hughes, ‘S. Clark (1599-1682)’.

I consulted all three editions of Clarke on Early English Books Online.

No place like home: Seventeenth-Century Portishead

I suppose it is natural when you are on the other side of the world to turn your thoughts towards home. And so it is that on a trip to the Huntington Library in California (to attend this ace conference on ballads) I’ve felt inspired to write a post about my home town: Portishead in North Somerset.

The Huntington: A long way from home...

The Huntington: A long way from home…

One of the areas I focused on in researching alehouses for my forthcoming book was the county of Somerset, which has excellent quarter sessions records. Of course, as I scoured the archive looking for evidence of alehouse regulation and instances of good fellowship, I kept an eye out for references to my home town. I didn’t find much – it was no more than a small village before the Victorians adopted it as a seaside resort in the nineteenth century – but there were a few cases I came across which suggest something of the character of the place and its inhabitants. They don’t necessarily portray my ancestors in a positive light.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

The first thing I discovered was the following order, made by the county magistrates, at a meeting of the Somerset quarter sessions in Wells, in 1656:

‘Whereas one Susan Gulston a poore cripple is lately come into the parish of Portishead in this County; and itt appearing that shee was last settled att Takeley in the County of Essex, this Court uppon complaint of the parishioners of Portishead doth order: That the said Susan bee retorned from parish to parish by the officers of each parish to Takeley aforesaid there to bee provided for according to lawe.’[1]

Basically, a poor crippled woman had turned up in the parish, and the locals did not want to be responsible for paying her poor relief. So they had asked that she be escorted from parish border to parish border all the way back to her home parish some 154 miles away to claim relief. That’s 51 hours of walking, according to google maps (assuming she stuck to the most direct A roads). That’s some walk, especially given that this poor woman was disabled:

The Long Walk Home

The Long Walk Home


The case doesn’t, I think, reflect particularly well on my Portishead forebears – but it is not by any means an untypical response to a poor stranger turning up in an early modern parish. As Brodie’s recent post on a 101-year old vagrant woman attests, the world’s first nation-wide welfare system was not necessarily a deeply compassionate one.

The next reference I found came from a meeting of the quarter sessions at Taunton in 1630. This time, the county magistrates were issuing an order that:

Fifty pounds be raised by a County rate and the money arising therefrom to be paid unto Rice Davies and Richard Cole, Esquires, to be by them imployed for and towards the transportinge of a greate number of Irish people from the parishe of Portishead.[2]

The precise details of what was going on here are not entirely clear, but it seems once again like a case of a cold Portishead welcome for outsiders – perhaps a group of Irish migrants had landed a ship at the beach in the parish, only to be apprehended by the locals who then asked for assistance to fund sending them straight back.

A stony welcome at Portishead beach?

A stony welcome at Portishead beach?

I was starting to fear that the only imprint left by my ancestral townsfellows on the historical records of the early modern period were a few cases of a pronounced, if not unusual for the period, lack of hospitality and compassion to outsiders – ‘local xenophobia’ if you will.[3]

Then I recently came across another reference rather more to my liking. In 1637, the churchwardens of Portishead – a local voluntary office whose duties included maintaining peace and good order in the community – were reported to their superiors for their tolerance of:

‘fives playeinge [an early racket sport like squash], dauncing, Cudgill playeinge [an early form of cricket perhaps?], and fightinge in the churchyard there’.[4]

Since the Reformation, church authorities had worked hard to banish games and pastimes from taking place in the church grounds, as they sought to establish clear lines between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’, and increase a sense of sober reverence in and around the church itself. But here were the parishioners of Portishead, having a merry old time in the churchyard, whilst local officials willingly turned a blind eye to this defiance of authority.

Fun and games at the parish church - now Grade I listed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Peter,_Portishead

Fun and games at the parish church – now Grade I listed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Peter,_Portishead

As Chris Marsh puts it, such ‘inveterate traditionalism’ was probably unusual by this date and these kind of activities had been largely suppressed. So here at last was something for me to hold on to: a sense of pride that Portishead had, albeit in a small way, played its part in the West Country’s long tradition of non-conformity and libertarianism. Even better, it sounds as though an afternoon of cricket, dancing and fighting was as popular in seventeenth-century Portishead as it is today.

* If anyone else happens to have come across a reference to seventeenth-century Portishead, please share it in the comments section.

[1] Bates Harbin, E.H. (ed.), Quarter Sessions Records for the County of Somerset, Vol. III, Commonwealth, 1646-1660 (London: Somerset Record Society, 1907-12)

[2] Bates Harbin, E.H. (ed.), Quarter Sessions Records for the County of Somerset, Vol. II, Charles I, 1625-1639 (London: Somerset Record Society, 1907-12)

[3] For more on the ‘culture of local xenophobia’ in early modern England see: Keith Snell, ‘The Culture of Local Xenophobia’, Social History, 2003, 28 (1), pp.1-30.

[4] The case is from REED (Somerset, p.207), though I encountered it through reading Chris Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2010), p.375.

The many stages of writing: a personal take

Laura Sangha

For the past few years, I have been asked to contribute to a postdoctoral training session on ‘Preparing to write’ which I deliver jointly with a professor in the English department. It is something that I really enjoy doing, because it is a chance to compare my own experiences and practice with other researchers. And each year I am struck anew by the similarities in the way that we approach our research, as well the fact that there are always new techniques and ways of working out there that I haven’t considered. Whilst the English professor has a complicated system of index cards and quotations, I tend towards colour-coded excel spreadsheets, both of which methods have something in common with Keith Thomas’ labour (and envelop) intensive working practices. The informal and inclusive nature of the discussion of the training sessions are a great way to encourage reflection on our working practice, many of which seem to organically emerge and ossify throughout our training and early career.

Excel is currently my favourite note taking tool.

Excel is currently my favourite note taking tool.

Alongside thinking about preparing for writing, I have just bashed out my first paper on my new research into Ralph Thoresby, and found this blog post on what we might mean by ‘pace’ in writing incredibly useful for thinking about the processes involved. Recently Matt Houlbrook’s lyrical photo essay/ biography of a book chapter had also set me wondering just how similar our experiences are when it comes to writing. Does everyone feel the same deep unease [terror] when you open the new document and begin to formulate that first sentence? Or derive the same small comfort from putting the title at the top of the page, formatting it nicely, and saving the (as yet still blank) document to file? Why is it that I can only write 1,000 words a day, whether I have finished them by 11am, or 9pm, and does everyone have a ‘natural’ daily word limit? Is there an optimum number of jokey asides to include in a paper? And how do you turn off autocorrect in the latest version of Word?

With all that in mind, I thought I would be therapeutic to briefly summarise the main stages that I pass through when I am writing.

The dreaded introduction.

Undoubtedly my least blank docfavourite part of writing. The uncertainty, the weight of expectation, the fear that you have forgotten how to do it. The enormously intimidating existing scholarship and the huge pile of primary material. The plan that made sense when you wrote it but which is now an undecipherable mass of crossed out paragraphs, arrows pointing to nowhere, and an obscene number of question marks. NB. This entire post could have been written just about this point.

The false start.

Continuing the theme, the false start. You finally start getting something down, you pick your way through a particularly difficult bit of historiography, and you are feeling quite pleased with yourself. You stop for a cup of tea, and when you return, realise that you have 2,000 words of a 4,000 word paper, but you haven’t even mentioned the topic in the title yet. None of your 2,000 words are essential and most will need to be cut so you can actually address some of the important things. But the great news is: a false start is infinitely better than no start, and you can just deal with the editing later. NB. Save the original file because you might be able to use it somewhere else.

The comforting middle bit.

Before this post descends into paralysing misery, I usually find that once I get going, I tend to get into a groove and progress reasonably steadily. I generally target either a certain number of words each day (c. 1,000) or completion of a particular section from my plan. Attacking longer pieces of writing in bite sized chunks is essential and helps to make me feel accomplished every day, not just at the last. That said, there will inevitably be…

Possibly blasphemously, I also fondly think of the darkest day as the Slough of Despond [William Blake, Frick Collection New York].

Possibly blasphemously, I also fondly think of the darkest day as the Slough of Despond [William Blake, Frick Collection New York].

The darkest day.

There are lots of reasons for the darkest day, that day when your muse deserts you, and writing simply does not happen, or progress is so slow that an outsider wouldn’t notice it. For me it is usually when I am tackling a bit that is tricky conceptually, or if I am trying to synthesise and reduce something rather complicated into a manageable and not too distracting size. After hours of furrowing my brows, picking up and putting down books, groaning, re-reading articles, chewing my fingernails, cutting, pasting, and standing up to look out of the window, I usually have something useable. That’s the moment I save those precious 300 words, put my whip down, and leave that dead horse alone.

The race for the finish.

Finally, your steed has miraculously revived, the wind is in your hair, and you are heading into the final straight! Everything is great. You have crossed out the majority of your plan, you have discarded all the boring and inessential parts, you have mastered that horrible bit about predestination. You are so excited about finishing you write two sections in one day. Your conclusion is so close you can smell it. Your examples are fitter, your jokey asides are funnier, your analogies more similar, and your argument more persuad-ier. It turns out that dreaded introduction was worth it after all. Now – to the pub*!

*It is important to celebrate your accomplishments, but please drink responsibly.

Norwich Entertainments – Part VI: The science of music

Brodie Waddell

I live in Cambridge, a well-touristed little town, and when the sun is out the streets are Cambridge bin buskerawash with buskers. Some are quite good. For instance, there’s the chap who strums tunes on his guitar from inside a litter bin who always makes me chuckle even when his playing isn’t brilliant.

But there are also some that are decidedly displeasing to the ear. If only – I find myself muttering – these unmusical musicians had been sufficiently trained in the science of music.

In the seventeenth century, it seems the authorities took such renegade buskers much more seriously. Hence, on 2 October 1678, the Norwich Mayor’s Court ordered a clamp-down on those public menaces who wandered the streets both day and night spreading aural pollution.

‘Upon complaint of the Weights [i.e. Waits] of this City against Daniell Hot, George Ellis, Samuel Suffield, Mathew Crotch & Thomas Turner that they notwithstanding they were not bound apprentice to the Science of Musick doe goe from howse to howse & play not onely in the day but at unseasonable times in the night to the great prejudice of severall persons & their friends in this City & also to the Weights of this City, It is ordered for the future that if they or any other person besides such as are the Weights of this City shall in Companyes play in any part of this City eyther in the publique or private houses unless it be in the Assizes weeke, at the Sessions at the Guild time or the choice of parliament men shalbe punished according to the lawe.’1

A renegade piper rampaging through the English countryside?

A renegade piper rampaging through the English countryside?

The prosecution of these five men seems to have had two main motives. First, as I mentioned above, the fact that they were disturbing the neighbourhood by playing ‘at unseasonable times’ was definitely a factor. However, perhaps more importantly, they had also not been trained as apprentices ‘to the Science of Musick’ and were not part of the city’s official company of waits.

Who were the waits? They were, in essence, municipal musicians. According to the OED, they were:

‘A small body of wind instrumentalists maintained by a city or town at the public charge. … They played for the daily diversion of the councillors, on ceremonial and festive occasions, and as a town or city band they entertained the citizens, perambulating the streets, often by night or in the early morning.’

This group in Norwich appears to be the same body that later called themselves ‘the Company of Musicians’ and had their by-laws affirmed by the town’s authorities in 1714.2 In London, the Company of Musicians there were petitioning against ‘diverse Forreigners’ who were practicing ‘the Arts of Musick and dancing’ in 1699.3 They successfully won the support of the city which passed an act against such dangerous practices the next year.4

What’s clear from all this is that professional music-making – just like other skilled trades such as carpentry or metalworking – was regarded by many as a vocation that could not be pursued by mere laypeople. Instead, it was expected that if you wanted to earn money by playing catchy tunes in public, you would submit to a seven-year apprenticeship under a master musician who could train you in this ‘science’ or ‘mystery’. Those who failed to follow the proscribed route were liable to be suppressed and prosecuted by the civic authorities.5

The question, then, is whether it worked. Did these apparently strict rules governing public performances significantly raise the quality of the aural environment by shutting out untrained bunglers? Or did it simply protect the jobs of the handful of official musicians against competition from talented amateur buskers?


1. Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 33.

2. NRO, NCR Case 17d, f. 81ff (by-laws of the Company of Musicians, 1714)

3. London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/05/01/0005/1699 (petition of Company of Musicians, 1699)

4. LMA, COL/CC/01/01/050,  f. 317, 358-359

5. Many of these issues are discussed in Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010), ch. 2-3

Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part I: Not such a Virgin Queen; or, that’s one DNA test I’d like to see the results of!

Jonathan Willis

This post is the first in what may (or may not) become an occasional series about the ravings of assorted Elizabethan ‘madmen’.  This is a topic I’ve become quite interested in recently, after stumbling over some fascinating letters in the state papers.  This has nothing to do with a desire to procrastinate because I need to start writing up my monograph on the Ten Commandments.  Nothing at all…

Anyway, the letter I want to talk about today is one I came across quite accidentally because of its proximity to another letter which I have been using in my teaching and research.  The calendar entry for said letter reads as follows:

Miles Fry, a madman (who calls himself Emanuel Plantagenet), to Lord Burghley; saying he has an embassage from God to the Queen his (Fry’s) mother, he himself being the son of God and Queen Elizabeth, but was taken from her by the angel Gabriel and carried to one Mrs. Fry to be kept by her for a time, June 28, 1587.

A small amount of digging confirms that the letter is certainly not unknown to history or historians: other than its presence in the catalogue of the Lansdowne MSS, it also features in Henry Ellis’ nineteenth century edition of Original Letters, Illustrative of English History, and it merits a (very) brief mention in Christopher Haigh’s important biography of Elizabeth I.  Still, the letter was new to me, and I expect that the contents are unfamiliar to all but the geekiest Tudorphiles.

Miles Fry's mother?

Miles Fry’s mother?

The letter itself is relatively brief – just over half a single side – and, for a ‘madman’, Fry has a style which is lucid and concise, and a hand which is surprisingly legible to the modern reader (it beats most Tudor churchwardens’ accounts, that’s for sure!).  The concision and neat appearance of the letter, however, belie its extraordinary contents.  Addressed ‘To the right honourable the lord burley, lord tresorar of the queen of england’, it begins:

My lord I am sent an embassador from god the father unto the quenes highness to declare unto her that I am the sonne of the both…

Now that is an episode of Jerry Springer I would actually want to watch!  Fry explained to Burghley that, after his birth he was taken from Elizabeth to ‘one mistres ffry’ by the angel Gabriel ‘for to be kept’; but that ‘the time of this keeping is ended’, and that Fry had been sent by God to reveal himself to his mother.  His true name revealed both his royal and divine origins, for he signed his letter off, ‘your honors to use emanuel plantagenet’.  For Christopher Haigh, the significance of this event lay in the fact that ‘the official image of Elizabeth as virgin mother of her people … seems to have been effective – even if it was taken too literally by some’.[1]  That is certainly true.  Fry explains that he writes his letter because he is ‘in great extremity and redi to perish for lak of helpe’.

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer...

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer…

His divine ‘embasage’ and royal birth, however, mean that Fry also demanded a personal audience with the Queen.  He was nothing if not persistent.  In his letter to Burghley, he explained that he had made first made a similar plea to Sir Francis Walsingham some four years previously, and that Walsingham had ‘promised to helpe me unto the queen but did it not’.  In the intervening time, Fry wrote letters to the queen herself, assorted members of her counsel, and again to Walsingham, with whom he even claimed he had spoken ‘at divers times’.  Leaving aside the contents of his communications, this tale highlights the extraordinary ease which ordinary people could speak to the powers-that-were in Tudor England, even if they could not necessarily expect a response.

And not that his letters did Miles Fry much good.  As he lamented, ‘I am so far from helpe of my ladi that I have not the favour of a subiect in her relme thou I be her sonne: and during this sute I have bin hardli used’.  This, he explained to Burghley, was his last attempt to force the Queen ‘to accept me for her sonne’.  Thirty-five year old Miles was the (adopted?) son of John and Jone Fry, and he claimed that Burghley knew John Fry ‘wel’.  The Fry clan lived near Axminster in Devon, and Fry (writing from ‘the signe of the rose and crowne in Saint Johns street beyond smithfelde in london’) explained that it was not convenient (and it was too expensive) for him to remain in the capital for long.  The consequences of refusing to help him, Fry threatened, were not only that ‘immediatli upon my returne thither I shal end my life’ but that, as a consequence, god would ‘punish this land’.

Fry’s embassy was not only one of family reunion and material aid, however.  He explained:

My calling is not to redeme the worde but to shewe the end of generation and the love between christ and his church: which Salomon began to do and did it amisse…

History does not record the fate of Miles Fry, a.k.a. Emanuel Plantagenet.  Dismissed by the state papers as a ‘madman’ and ‘distempred in his wytts’, we can be fairly confident that his plea was also dismissed by Burghley, and it seems unlikely that a story with such a sad beginning can have had a very happy ending.  Fry was clearly a somewhat disturbed character, but it seems likely that the fiction he created was, in part at least, a response to an extremely difficult reality.  His misguided insistence that he was the queen’s son was juxtaposed several times with the desperate plea that he was not even being treated as favourably as ‘the quenes pore subiects’.  Perhaps because of the realisation that his life was of such little value that the threat of suicide was no threat at all, Fry attempted to gain greater leverage by appealing to a providential framework, in which a failure to treat him with charity would bring down the wrathful judgement of his divine progenitor.  In many respects Fry had a lot going for him: he was literate, educated, and possessed the wherewithal to make the one-hundred-and-fifty mile trip from his home to London (indeed, it seems likely that he had made the 300 mile round trip several times before).  He knew not only how to write, but also who to write to, even if his attempts to persuade were clumsy and heavy-handed.  Goodness only knows what his elderly parents made of their son’s delusions, but if we ever needed more evidence that ordinary people in Tudor England could be just as troubled, complex, thoughtful and pathetic (in the sense of arousing compassion) as in society today, then we have it in Miles Fry.

[1] Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I (London: Pearson, 1998), p. 161.

The 100th Post

You are currently reading post number 100 on the many-headed monster. On realising this (statistically) significant event was approaching, we monster heads decided it would be worth marking in some way. The blog has been enormously rewarding as an arena to think through our ideas and to share our archival discoveries, but also as a way to connect with you, the reader. Since our first post in July 2012, we have had more than 40,000 views and 541 comments, and we are enormously grateful that so many people have read our musings and engaged with us on the blog. Thus, this is a round-up of some pearls from the blog archive: our most popular posts, collectively and individually,  alongside a nominated personal favourite from each contributor. Enjoy, and we look forward to continuing to work with you in the future!

Our heaviest traffic on the ‘monster comes from the ‘The Future of History From Below Online Symposium’, a collection of multi-authored papers based on two conferences on the topic. For the heads, this has become an important resource for research and teaching, and was also responsible for our busiest day in July 2013 when we received a spectacular 481 views.

Mark Hailwood

Most popular post: The Immersive Turn: Or, what did a seventeenth-century drinking song sound like? (Nov. 2013)

Nominated post: “many of my favourite ‘monster posts are those that have generated a lot of debate about aspects of ‘the craft’ – digital v archival sources; the use of jargon etc – but the post I would like to nominate here does something rather different: it’s one of Brodie’s ‘Norwich Entertainments’ series, ‘Ballad-singers and dangerous news, with coffee‘ (Nov. 2012). Historians of early modern England now make a lot of use of printed materials like ballads and pamphlets, but we know less than we would like about their dissemination and consumption. This fascinating little post provides us with some valuable insight into the social history of print in an early modern city.”

Laura Sangha

Holy TableMost popular post: John Dee’s conversations with Angels (Nov. 2012)

Nominated post: “Jonathan’s Idols of the mind, or What does God look like? (June 2013) tackles a ticklish question: how did people in the past visualise God? The delightful post explores this central and controversial aspect of the early modern mentality, taking in some wonderful illustrations along the way.”

Brodie WaddellDante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Fair_Rosamund

Most popular post: Norwich Entertainments – Part III: A medieval royal mistress in the 17th century and beyond (Aug. 2012)

Nominated post: “Laura’s two History and Analogy posts (Sept. 2013). A light-hearted look at one of the least-discussed but most-important aspects of historical writing and teaching. Some of the examples, including some offered in the comments, got me chuckling.”

Jonathan Willis

david-starkey_2622826bMost popular post: Tudor history on TV, and a partial review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’ (Aug. 2013)

Nominated post: “Mark’s three-part ‘Workers Representation’ series. As someone who’s worked on ballads primarily as musical and textual artefacts (and for the evidence they provide about religious identity), the use of ballad images for information about occupational identity had never really occurred to me and these are a fascinating series of discussions. If I had to pick just one of the three, I think I’d go for ‘spinning a yarn’ (Sept. 2012): one of my favourite quotes has to be ‘a woman of lower or middling status didn’t need to wear the highest quality clothing to win a man’s heart – she needed to be able to make it’.”