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Staging the World: Review


The British Museum is soon to stage a major exhibition on the world of Shakespeare in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The exhibition provides an insight ‘into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.’ It is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and runs from 19 July – 25 November 2012.

The British Museum Press has released several publications to compliment the exhibition, and kindly sent me review copies. A further book on Shakespeare and Food is forthcoming shortly. The titles I’m reviewing here are Shakespeare: Staging The World, Shakespeare’s Britain, and Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals,

First up is the rather splendid ShakespeareStaging The World by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. This is a big beautiful book, which considers the early modern period through the eyes of Shakespeare; its premise being that the things he, his players, and his audience saw, ‘mattered at least as much as what they read in shaping their vision of the world.’ This is cleverly illustrated by the juxtaposition of a stunning collection of early modern objects with Shakespeare’s characters and plays.

To look at a woodcut of a Jewish household in Venice and a sixteenth-century Caribbean wood carving of a spirit imprisoned in a tree and a pack of playing cards in which Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth appear side-by-side is to be given a new historical and intellectual perspective on the characters of Shylock, Ariel and Cleopatra.

The book not only serves as a catalogue of the objects on display at the exhibition, it features a rich and detailed commentary by the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, and the exhibition’s curator, Dora Thornton, which in and of itself enriches both existing scholarship, and our knowledge of daily life in early modern England. The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which explores a specific theme and the objects which serve to bring it to life. For example, Chapter One gives an overview of London in 1612; a World City. It provides a narrative of aspects of London life at this time, and considers the theatres as bustling commercial enterprises. One of the most compelling objects featured in this chapter is a surviving turned oak baluster excavated from the site of the Rose theatre. It may have been part of the safety rail around the upper galleries:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


Subsequent chapters explore Country, County and Custom, Kingship and the English Nation, The Legacy of Rome, Venice Viewed from London, The Noble Moor, The Scottish Play, and the Matter of Britain. Each is illustrated throughout with truly mouth-watering photographs, illustrations, maps, and woodcuts. One of my favourite objects is this Horn-book from the late 1600s, comprising a sheet of printed paper protected by a layer of horn, similar to the one from which Shakespeare himself would have learned his alphabet and Lord’s Prayer while at school:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


One of the many facts I discovered while reading Staging The World, is that in 1571, a statute was enacted enforcing the wearing of woolly caps by everyone over the age of six on Sundays and holidays. This knitted man’s cap was found in Moorfields, London and dates to the mid-sixteenth century:


 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Perhaps my favourite object is this lantern, traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes. It was given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot. It’s made from sheet iron and would originally have had a horn window so it could be completely closed to hide the lighted candle within:
 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Shakespeare: Staging The World is more than just a museum catalogue, it’s a stunning collection of early modern objects brought vividly to life by Jonathan Bates and Dora Thornton. I’d endorse it for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or early modern England. For the Shakespeare scholar it’s a valuable addition to the bookshelf, for the historian it’s a smorgasbord of early modern artifacts. For the general reader it’s a beautifully illustrated and informative guide to the world of Shakespeare. Highly recommended. Shakespeare: Staging The World, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£25).
A smaller, shorter version of Staging The World can be found in Shakespeare’s Britain, also by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. It contains a condensed overview of some of the objects found in Staging The World and has a specific focus on Shakespeare and Britain; a theme which preoccupied the playwright in his later years, and one which was ushered in by James I who longed for a unified kingdom. Perfect for someone who wants to get a flavour of the period, it neatly encapsulates Shakespeare’s Britain with lavish illustrations. I particularly love the cover image, which comes from a watercolour entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ painted by Michael Van Meer in 1619, and depicts some rather fancy-looking people enjoying a trip across the Thames to Bankside, perhaps to see one of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s Britain, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99)
The final book, Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals, is a fascinating catalogue of the coins on display at the exhibition. As anyone who’s been forced to admire my Elizabethan sixpence will testify, I do love sixteenth and seventeenth century coins. Not because I have any interest in numismatics, but because they give us pause to wonder just who’s pocket they’ve been in, and as such, they connect us with history in a real and immediate way.
© The Trustees of The British Museum
The above ducat dates from the office of Marino Grimani, Doge of Venice from 1595-1605. Ducats were, in origin, ‘the defining gold coin of Venice, but the term also meant any coin of the same standard and it was widely used and familiar.’
Another coin, perhaps my favourite, is a milled sixpence dated 1562, depicting the profile of Elizabeth I. It’s in much better condition than my own. Milled sixpences were machine-made coins circulated in the early 1560s at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. They were treasured at the time, and often used as reckoning-counters.
    © The Trustees of The British Museum

As well as using sixpences as counters, specially-made counters were available for accountants, and a bag or cylinder of counters served as an early modern calculator. The Clown, in The Winter’s Tale, talks of his need for counters before he goes shopping:

I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see, what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pounds of sugar, five pounds of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice?

Below is a set of silver counters depicting the Stuart royal family, dating to the 1600s. The accompanying silver box holds all twenty-nine counters.


 © The Trustees of The British Museum
Angels and Ducats fulfils a valuable role. It enables us to see for the first time exactly what the coins Shakespeare refers to in his plays actually look like. In this way this book enriches our understanding of both Shakespeare’s work and his life. Angels and Ducats is essential reading for anyone interested in the themes of money and finance on the London stage, but beyond that it is a wonderful introduction to the variety of coins in circulation in early modern England. Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99).
All three offerings from The British Museum Press are beautifully written and stunningly illustrated. If I had to recommend one, it would be Shakespeare: Staging The World, since it covers all the objects included in the exhibition. However Shakespeare’s Britain is a neat precis of some of the objects on display and Angels and Ducats is unique in its study of specific coins in England during this period. If you’re intending to visit the exhibition then any or all of the books are a great way to familiarise yourself with the history of the objects on display. If you can’t make the exhibition then each of the books serves as charming compensation. But in their own right, all three deserve a place on any bookshelf.
The books can be bought via The British Museum Bookshop online. Tickets for the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging The World can be bought here.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Biography Court Elizabeth London

The life of Sir Walter Ralegh

Today’s fragments form an overview of the life of one of England’s most famous explorers and courtiers.

Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) was born at Hayes, near East Budleigh, in Devon. He was the second son of Walter Ralegh and his third wife, Katherine. The Raleghs were an old-established Protestant family; Walter senior was the deputy vice-admiral under Mary I from 1555 to 1558, and Katherine Ralegh’s children from her first marriage included the famous mariner and soldier Sir Humphrey Gilbert, whose career greatly influenced Walter.

Little is known of Walter’s early life. It is thought he was an ‘indefatigable Reader’, and remarks gleaned from his History of the World, which he published in 1614, suggest he served as volunteer with the Huguenot armies in France from about 1569.

Walter attended Oriel College, Oxford in 1572, and left without a degree, being admitted to the Middle Temple in 1575. His first published poem appeared in George Gascoigne’s The Steel Glass in 1576.

Walter’s mother’s elder sister, Katherine Astley, had been governess to Elizabeth I from 1544, and she became her chief gentlewoman in 1558. It may have been this connection which offered Ralegh his initial introduction at court. In 1578, Walter’s step-brother Humphrey secured a patent to discover ‘remote, heathen and barbarous lands’ and Walter sailed in his fleet as captain of the Falcon. The expedition was beleaguered with storms and desertions, but Ralegh continued on into the Atlantic in search of adventure, eventually returning to Plymouth in 1579.

In 1580, he secured a captain’s commission and was sent to Ireland to tackle the Desmond rebellion.  Serving under Arthur Grey in county Kerry, Ralegh oversaw the slaughter of a force of Italian and Spanish adventurers who had landed in support of the Irish rebels. It was at this time that he fathered his first child, of which little is known; it has been suggested that Ralegh later betrothed the child to Daniel Dumaresq, his page, and that the girl died of plague.


Walter returned to court in 1581, and soon attracted the attention of the queen. He was a tall man, with dark hair and attractive features. The famous story of him spreading his cloak over a puddle to allow the Queen to walk without getting her feet muddied is probably no more than gossip recorded by Thomas Fuller. Nonetheless, Walter quickly became one of the queen’s favourites, and he wrote her elegant, courtly poems, one of which, Farewell false love, was read widely during the early 1580s. In 1583, Elizabeth granted Ralegh one of her favourite palaces, Durham Place on the Strand. It came complete with a lantern tower which had views across London ‘as pleasant perhaps as any in the world.’

Humphrey Gilbert died in 1583, and Ralegh took up his half-brother’s ambitious plans to colonise the New World. In 1585, having secured his patents, Ralegh set off on his expedition, taking four ships and 600 men, including his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. Ralegh’s grand plans to reach Virginia came to fruition under Grenville, who left men to settle on Roanoke Island, while he himself went on to pursue a private voyage in search of wealth and plunder. By the summer of the following year, the colonists were on the point of starvation, and many chose to return home with Sir Francis Drake, who had anchored at Roanoke on his return from the Caribbean. In 1587, Ralegh embarked on another expedition to the New World, however this enterprise was as unsuccessful as his last; the colonists suffered the same fate as the inhabitants of Roanoke, and by 1590 the settlement was deserted.

There is an historical myth which claims it was Ralegh who introduced both tobacco and the potato to England. However there is nothing in print to link the potato, which originated in Peru and arrived in Spain by 1570 and wider Europe thereafter, with Ralegh until at least 1699. Likewise, Ralegh’s links with tobacco, which is first mentioned by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and was introduced into Europe by Andre Thevet in the mid fifteenth century and was being smoked in England by c.1571. While Ralegh was not responsible for the introduction of smoking in England, he is thought to have popularised it at court.

In 1591, Ralegh began a liaison with Bess, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, and daughter of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton. On discovering Bess was pregnant later that same year, Ralegh and she were married in secret, knowing full well that news of their union would greatly displease Elizabeth I. Ralegh worked hard to quash rumours of the marriage, but the couple’s son was born in March 1592, after which Bess returned to court, while Ralegh set sail on yet another expedition. By May, he was back in England, and news of his illicit marriage broke. His son was brought to him by his nurse at Durham Place, perhaps the only time the two were together. Ralegh’s wife was placed in the custody of Sir Thomas Heneage, and Ralegh was committed to the custody of Cecil. Ralegh made a variety of pleas to the Queen which only worsened the situation, and on 7th August 1592, both he and his wife were committed to the Tower. Fortunately, one of Ralegh’s overseas expeditions returned home the following month with a huge treasure hoard, and Ralegh was released to oversee the division of the loot. Elizabeth I allowed him to keep a tiny share of the spoils, and it appears she had softened her attitude towards Ralegh, even permitting Bess to be released from the Tower in December of that year.



Unfortunately Ralegh and Bess’s son died in infancy, but their second child, Walter, was born in November 1593. The couple was still banished from court (and Ralegh would remain so until 1597), but Ralegh spent his time in politics, representing Dorset in Parliament. During these years he also began to plan an expedition to discover El Dorado, the mythical lost city of gold. In 1595, he set sail from Plymouth, arriving at a Spanish colony on Trinidad, before travelling on to Orinoco. However, despite his efforts, he arrived home seven months later empty-handed, to the mockery of both Queen and court.

The following year, he was still much in disgrace but the mounting fear of an attack from Spain brought a demand for Ralegh’s maritime experience and he returned to court. The Queen, fearing an invasion, insisted on including Ralegh in the expedition to Cadiz in 1596, which became one of the triumphs of her reign.

In 1603, Elizabeth died, and Ralegh, having by now made some dangerous enemies at court, was quickly rebuffed by the new king, James. He was stripped of his monopolies and told to leave Durham House. In the summer of the same year he was detained for questioning on treason charges, and placed under house arrest. Implicated in the Main plot, which intended the death of the King and a Spanish invasion, Ralegh was sent to the Tower. In intense despair, he attempted a failed suicide bid, and lived as a prisoner at the Tower until 1612. He was permitted two rooms in the Bloody Tower (which can still be seen today), books, and a garden. During his imprisonment he wrote his major work, The History of the World, which he began writing in 1607. It was eventually published in 1614.


Ralegh’s room, preserved at the Tower of London

Ralegh was finally released from the Tower in 1616, and he at once began plans for another expedition to find El Dorado. He set sail in August, but illness, desertion, and a demoralised crew ensured that Ralegh eventually returned to England empty-handed, and something of a broken man. This last failure was a hard blow, ‘My braines are broken,’ he wrote to Bess on 22nd March, ‘and tis a torment to me to write.’

In 1618, Ralegh was once more arrested, this time over reports that activity during his final expedition had placed the peace between England and Spain in jeopardy. Placed under house arrest, Ralegh made a failed escape bid to France, and was once again sent to the Tower. Despite moving speeches and entreaties, Ralegh’s pleas for clemency were ignored, and he was executed on 29th October 1618 at Westminster. His head, severed after the second blow, was placed in a leather bag, and kept by his wife, while his body was buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

In the years following his death, Ralegh’s popularity as a poet and adventurer grew. His works were published and republished, and he developed a cult status as a gentleman explorer and pioneer which continues to this day.

Source: Mark Nicholls, DNB.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Death Elizabeth Execution London

Horrid kinds of incontinencies

These snippets of gossip and history about the ‘chief Fortresse or Tower of London’ date from the 1650s.

William of Normandy the Conquerer was the first erector of the Tower of London. The first part that was built was the great square and White Tower (although black to some) which was about the year 1078. It stood naked and single without other buildings a good while. It was by some injury of the Heavens and violence of tempests sore shaken and some part tumbled down, which was repaired by Henry the first, who also caused a Castle to be built under the said White Tower on the South side towards the Thames. The first Keeper of the Tower of London was call’d Constable Ostowerus. About the beginning of the Raign of Richard the first, William Longshank, Bishop of Ely, enclos’d the Tower of London with an outward Wall of stone embattail’d, and also caused a deep ditch to be cast about the same. The Lion Tower was built by Edward the fourth. Frederick the Emperor having sent a present of three Leopards, they were first kept at Woodstock, but afterwards all such wild Beasts, as Lions, together with Leopards and Linxes, have been kept in that part of the Tower.

The first gold that was coin’d in the Tower was in the raign of Edward the third and the peeces were called Florences. In the year 1458 there were Jousts and Tournements in the Tower. Anno 1478 the Duke of Clarence was drowned in a Butt of Malmsey within the Tower, and five years after the young Edward the fifth with his Brother were by the practises of Richard the third, stifled there betwixt two fetherbeds, as the current story goes. Queen Elizabeth, wife to Henry the 7th, died in the Tower anno 1502 in Child-birth, and the year before there was running at tilt there. The Chappel in the high white Tower was burnt Anno 1512. Queen Anne Bullein was beheaded in the Tower 1541 and a little after the Lady Katherine Howard, both Wifes to Henry the eight. In Henry the eights time the Tower was ever and anon full of prisoners, among others, Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, was clap’t there close Prisoner: and they took away from him all his Books.  The young Lady Jane was beheaded there not long after, and upon the Scaffold she made a most ingenious Speech full of pity, That she came thither to serve for an example to posterity, that innocence cannot be any protection against greatness, And that she was come thither not for aspiring to a Crown, but for not refusing one when it was offered Her.

Queen Elizabeth may be said to have gone from the Scaffold to the Tower. In her dayes Robert Earl of Essex lost his head in the Tower, which he might have kept on many years longer had he not been betrayed by the Lady Walsingham; to whom after the sentence of condemnation he sent a Ring, which the Queen had given him as a token that she would stick to him in any danger. The Lady delivered not this ring, and being a little after upon her Death-bed, she desired to speak with the Queen, and having disburdended a great weight which lay upon her Conscience for that act, the Queen flung away in a fury, and never enjoyed herself perfectly after that, crying O Essex, Essex. And this Earl was the last who was executed within the walls of the Tower.

In King James’s time, for 22 years, there was no blood spilt in the Tower or upon Tower-hill, only Sir Gervase Elwayes was hanged there. The Earl of Castlehaven was brought from the Tower to be executed for horrid kinds of incontinencies in Charles the firsts time; afterwards in the raign of the long Parliament, and ever since the Tower of London has had more number of Prisoners than it had in the compasse of a hundred years before.

This stately Tower of London serves not only for a Gaol to detain prisoners, but for many other uses. It is a strong Fort or Citadel, which secures both City and River, it serves not only to defend but to command either, upon occasion. It serves as a royal Rendezvous for Assemblies and Treaties. It is the Treasurey for the Jewels and Ornaments of the Crown.  It is the place for the Royal Mint and Coynage of Gold and Silver. It is the chiefest Magazin and Armory, or Arsenal for the whole Land. There, only, is the Brake or Rack, usually call’d the Duke of Exeters Daughter, because he was the first inventor of it.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Court Elizabeth Love Marriage Poetry

In Stella’s face I read what love and beauty be

Penelope Rich was a notorious Elizabethan beauty, inspiring poetry and praise from the courtly male elite. But as a married women she also achieved a certain notoriety and fame by virtue of a serious of love affairs.   Born into the wealthy Essex family in 1563, Penelope was the daughter of Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex and his wife, Lettice. Well-educated, she spoke several languages including French, and was accomplished in music. Before his death, her father had sought to have her contracted in marriage to the poet and courtier Philip Sydney, however Sydney opposed the match and seemed disinclined to marry. In 1581 Penelope arrived at court and became one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honour, and by the end of the year she was married to Robert Rich, Lord Rich of Essex, later first Earl of Warwick. The wedding took place in November, and afterwards Penelope developed a habit of visiting her mother, who by now had become wife of the Queen’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester; often staying with her brother Robert, earl of Essex (he of the famous Essex Rebellion of 1603).

At the time of her marriage, Sydney, who had previously discounted marriage to Penelope, appears to have had belated second thoughts, and attending court in 1581 he fell in love with her. Astrophil and Stella, his famous sonnet sequence, is thought to have been inspired by Penelope. There are several puns on the name Rich throughout the sequence, and in Sonnet 35 he claims:

long needy Fame
Doth even grow rich, naming my Stella’s name

No evidence survives to confirm Stella ever read Sydney’s poetry, neither is there proof the two became lovers, but Penelope’s biographer suggests it is likely, since ‘on his deathbed in 1586 Sidney reportedly told the preacher George Gifford of a vanity in which he had taken delight, of which he must now rid himself, naming Lady Rich.’


Philip Sydney


Penelope and her husband had five children, four of whom survived. But Penelope was not content to lead the life of a wife and mother, trapped in a country house with no diversions. She insisted on attending court, and soon attracted the advances of another courtier, Sir Charles Blount. Their affair became public knowledge in 1590 when he wore her colours at the Accession Day jousting tournament. Blount and Penelope went on to have six children together, the first, Penelope, born in 1592. However the child was given the surname Rich, and her mother continued to spend some time with her husband. She nursed him through a serious illness in 1600 and he appears to have at the very least accepted the situation he found himself in, even permitting all the children to be brought up together. This may have been because by this stage Penelope was quite a powerful force at court. People petitioned her for favours and for mediation with the Queen, and she would request favours for people from Robert Cecil. However after Essex’s debacle in Ireland in 1599, her brother fell dramatically out of favour with the Queen, and Penelope, ill-advisedly attempted to intervene. The result was a humiliating response from Elizabeth, castigating Penelope for daring to meddle, and although the two later resolved their differences, Penelope was never fully forgiven.

In 1603, Penelope’s relationship with court suffered a catastrophic failure when she was named as one of the ring-leaders in Essex’s botched attempt at a coup:

she had dined at Essex House with the leaders the previous night, and went to fetch the earl of Bedford on the morning of the revolt. After the trial, Essex reportedly insisted that she had urged him on by saying that all his friends and followers thought him a coward. She maintained that she had been more like a slave, and that her brother had wrongly accused her. After a brief confinement, and examination by the privy council, she was released.


Sir Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire


After the death of the Queen, Penelope restored her status and social standing by escorting James I’s wife from the borders, and appearing in a series of masques at court alongside the new queen Anne. In 1605, her marriage to Rich was formally dissolved in the London consistory court, on the grounds of her acknowledged adultery. Although she named no one in the proceedings, she had by this point become involved with the earl of Devonshire, formerly Mountjoy, head of armed forces in Ireland. Remarriage remained illegal while her former spouse lived, but nevertheless the two were married on Boxing Day 1605.  Her new husband prepared a long defence of his marriage to Penelope, writing to James I, claiming that Penelope had ‘protested during the wedding with Rich, that after it Rich had tormented her, and had now not “enjoyed her” for twelve years.’ Their marriage however proved to be short lived. Devonshire died in April the following year, and Penelope outlived him by little more than a year, dying at Westminster in July 1607.

Penelope fascinated men throughout her life. She was celebrated in paintings, poetry, and songs; described as ‘the starre of honor, and the sphere of beautie’. Nicholas Hilliard painted her portrait, and named his daughter after her. The happiness of her relationship with Devonshire was celebrated by John Ford in his elegy Fame’s Memorial.

Sources: DNB; NPG; EBBO

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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