Thomas More – a summary

A dominant intellectual force of his generation, a devout Catholic and lawyer whose interests extended to philosophy, statesmanship and humanism, Thomas More was born 7 February 1478, the son of Sir John More, himself a successful lawyer and judge. Thomas studied at Oxford and then Lincoln’s Inn before being called to the Bar in 1502. Elected to Parliament in 1504, he became increasingly influential as an adviser to Henry VIII. In 1521, he assisted Henry in writing the Assertio, a formal response to the Protestant radical Martin Luther’s attack on Catholicism. In 1523, More became the Speaker of the House of Commons, and succeeded Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529.

Thomas MoreMore became increasingly worried about Henry’s leanings towards the Protestant Reformation, which he considered to be heretical. He had earlier assisted Wolsey in preventing the spread of the writings of Luther, and was later to suppress the use of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament in churches. His spiritual life is reputed to have included practices such as wearing a hair shirt next to his skin and occasional self-flagellation.

(Pictured: Sir Thomas More painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527).

In 1530, More refused to sign a letter from leading churchmen and aristocrats to Pope Clement VII requesting the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and by May 1532 he was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor. After refusing to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn a year later, he was charged with accepting bribes and conspiracy but successfully defended himself. When he and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the Oath of Supremacy or to acknowledge that Catherine’s marriage was lawfully annulled, he was arrested for treason in 1534 and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

God’s servant first

In July 1535, More was brought to trial. A lawyer to the last, he sought to rely on the legal precedent that ‘who is silent is seen to consent’ and he argued that he could not be convicted of high treason for failing to take the Oath of Supremacy if he did not expressly deny that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church. However, the Solicitor-General Richard Rich testified that More had made such a denial in his presence, and although this testimony was highly dubious, it took just fifteen minutes for the jury to find More guilty. Mounting the steps of the scaffold on 6 July 1535, More said ‘see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself’, and declared that he died ‘the king’s good servant, but God’s first’. In 1935, Pope Pius XI canonized both Thomas More and John Fisher.

Henry VIIISimon Court.

Henry VIII: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also Thomas Cranmer.

Thomas Cranmer – a brief summary

In 1503, at the age of 14, Thomas Cranmer was sent to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was later ordained and named as one of the university’s preachers, and became an admirer of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus. From 1529 onwards he was involved in advising Thomas Wolsey on the theological issues surrounding the ‘King’s Great Matter’, Henry VIII’s need to find a better wife than Catherine of Aragon to provide him with a son and heir.

Cranmer and Anne Boleyn

Thomas CranmerIn 1532 Cranmer was appointed the resident ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, but unsurprisingly he was unable to persuade Charles to support the annulment of his aunt Catherine’s marriage. Despite this failure, Cranmer was appointed the new Archbishop of Canterbury, a promotion secured by the family of Anne Boleyn, whom he had served as family chaplain. In June 1533 it was Cranmer who crowned Anne as queen.

When Thomas Cromwell accused Anne of various sexual infidelities in 1536, Cranmer expressed his doubts as to her alleged guilt in a letter to Henry, but it went unheeded. On 16 May he saw Anne in the Tower of London and heard her last confession before pronouncing her marriage to Henry null and void the following day.

In 1539, Cranmer wrote the preface to the new Great Bible in English. He also officiated in the wedding ceremony of Henry and Anne of Cleves, and led the synod which quickly annulled the marriage.After Thomas Cromwell’s execution, Cranmer assumed a prominent political position, being delegated the tricky task of telling Henry about the marital indiscretions of Catherine Howard. When several conservative clergymen plotted against him in 1543, Henry showed total support for Cranmer and the plot failed. Cranmer acted as an executor to Henry’s final will, and grew a beard, partly in mourning for the king and partly to signify his rejection of the old Catholic Church.

Burnt at the stake

Mary Tudor (queen)When the death of Edward VI, in 1553, ushered in the Catholic ‘Bloody Mary’ (pictured) as queen, the conservative clergy were restored to power. Cranmer was arrested (along with fellow Protestants Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley) and was left to languish in prison in Oxford for two years awaiting trial for heresy, during which Rome deprived him of the archbishopric. Despite a full recantation that should have led to a reprieve under Canon Law, Mary was determined to see him executed, as Latimer and Ridley were.

On 21 March 1556 Cranmer was expected to make a final humiliating recantation from the pulpit of the University Church, Oxford, but he deviated from the prepared script and renounced all his previous recantations, saying, ‘And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.’

He was pulled from the pulpit and burned at the stake.

Henry VIIISimon Court.

Henry VIII: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also Thomas More.

Thomas Middleton – a summary

Thomas Middleton was another leading dramatist and poet of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. Active from about 1597 onwards, he collaborated with William Shakespeare on Timon of Athens,and recently there has been some speculation that he also had a hand in the writing of All’s Well That Ends Well. Macbeth and Measure for Measure are also believed to have heavily involved Middleton, possibly after Shakespeare’s death.

Thomas MiddletonBorn in London to upwardly mobile parents in April 1580, Thomas Middleton was the first son of William Middleton and his wife, Anne. William’s trade as a bricklayer allowed him to join one of London’s trade guilds, the Honourable Company of Tilers and Bricklayers, which brought him prosperity. By 1568 he enjoyed that status of ‘gentleman’ having been granted a family coat of arms. When William died five years after Thomas’s birth, his estate was valued at £335.

Unfortunately for the young Thomas and his sister, his mother remarried hastily. His new stepfather, Thomas Harvey, made a claim on a trust which had been established for the siblings, and a fifteen-year legal battle ensued. Middleton’s plays would later feature biting satires of the legal profession, probably coloured by this experience.

Masterpieces

Middleton enrolled at Queen’s College, Oxford, in April 1598, leaving without attaining a degree. By February 1601, he was in London and writing for the theatre. A prolific and diverse writer, he wrote or co-wrote over thirty plays, as well as fourteen masques, poetry and numerous prose works. Apart from Shakespeare, he is the only one of his contemporaries who is considered to have written masterpieces in every genre of drama – history, comedy and tragedy. The best-known of these works include Women Beware Women, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling. But unlike Shakespeare, he had no allegiance to a particular playing company, preferring instead to work on a freelance basis.

In 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s death and the ascension of James I to the throne of England, Middleton married a fellow Londoner, Mary (or Magdalen) Marbeck, the granddaughter of the famed musician John Marbeck, and niece of Roger Marbeck, one time chief physician to the queen. The couple had only one child, Edward. Although the exact date of the child’s birth is unknown, he is believed to have been born between November 1603 and November 1604.

Thomas Middleton died at the relatively young age of forty-seven on the first or second July 1627, and is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Newington. Despite achieving widespread popularity, Middleton left little money behind to look after his widow. She died, impoverished, a year later.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father, Richard Burbage, a pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era, and Christopher Marlowe.

The Childhood of William Shakespeare

On this, the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, Sinead Fitzgibbon relates the bard’s childhood and eduction.

The works of William Shakespeare are, without doubt, the most studied and admired in the English language. Indeed, they have inspired such a level of acclaim that, in 1901, George Bernard Shaw came up with the term ‘bardolatry’ in an attempt to describe our collective tendency to heap acclaim on our beloved verse-maker. Despite this, and the fact that he has been the subject of innumerable scholarly researches and biographies, we actually know surprisingly little about the man himself.

James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos's portrait of William Shakespeare

In fact, William Shakespeare made only four appearances on various official records before he turned up in London in the 1580s – at the time of his birth, his marriage, and the birth of his children. This was not unusual for the time – lower levels of literacy meant that there was less emphasis on record-keeping and bureaucracy while, in many cases, those documents that did exist have subsequently been lost to the passage of time.

Another reason for this paucity of biographical information lies in the fact that the fashion for diary-keeping and memoir-writing (and the reading of these writings) only began to emerge in the mid-17th century, some forty years after Shakespeare’s death. And even then, no-one had the foresight to record for posterity the reminiscences of his last surviving daughter, Judith, before her own demise in 1662. As a consequence, William Shakespeare remains a ghost-like presence in his own story, a shadow that remains tantalizingly opaque. The first puzzling biographical detail we encounter is the question of his date of birth.

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Christopher Marlowe – a summary

Despite a writing career which lasted only six years, Christopher Marlowe was an early leading light in Elizabethan literary culture.  Ambitious and daring in both his life and his work, he is often regarded as the enfant terrible of the English Renaissance period.  Unafraid to experiment with literary form, his works, which include The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and Dido, Queen of Carthage, influenced many playwrights who came after him, including William Shakespeare.

Christopher MarloweAccording to the baptismal records of St George the Martyr Church in Canterbury, Christopher Marlowe, known as Kit, was christened on 26 February 1564.  Kit was the second child and eldest son of John Marlowe, a cobbler, and his wife, Katherine. 

Despite being born in the same year and into the same social class as his more famous contemporary, Marlowe received a better education than Shakespeare.  While nothing is known of his early education, parish records show that, in January 1579, Kit won a scholarship to the prestigious choir school, King’s School, in Canterbury.  Just over a year later, at the age of 16, he was the recipient of another scholarship, this time to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.  By 1584, he had gained a Bachelor of Arts, and in 1587, after six-and-a-half-years study, he earned his Master of Arts degree.

From Spy to Playwright

Although there is no hard evidence, it is now widely supposed that during his time at Cambridge, Marlowe was recruited into Sir Francis Walsingham’s wide network of spies. Unexplained and lengthy absences from University and trips to Catholic cities in France circumstantially suggest this, as does the fact that when the University threatened to withhold Marlowe’s degree, the queen’s Privy Council (of which Walsingham was a member) intervened on his behalf.  However, upon leaving university, Christopher Marlowe moved to London, where he took up writing for the theatre.

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Richard Burbage – a summary

Richard Burbage was the pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era. He was also a successful theatre impresario and a long-time friend of William Shakespeare.  The two men were founding shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, which would become the King’s Men following James I’s ascension to the English throne in 1603.  Burbage was the first person to play a number of Shakespeare’s now-iconic roles, including Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Richard III.

Born 6 January 1567, Richard Burbage was the son of James Burbage, an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Ellen Brayne.  He was the younger of two surviving children, his older brother being Cuthbert Burbage, who also became an actor of some renown.

Acting

Richard BurbageIt is thought that Richard began his acting career in 1584, just as London’s theatre scene began to flourish.  Initially, he worked mainly for The Theatre, one of London’s first purpose-built playhouses, which had been built and was managed by his father.  Such was the power of his performances, he had gained widespread popularity by the age of 20.

When Burbage Senior died in 1597, a dispute arose between his sons and the owner of the land on which The Theatre was built.  When no resolution was forthcoming, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the playhouse in 1598 and, having transported any salvageable materials across the Thames, they set about building The Globe theatre on a site known today as Bankside.  Construction was completed in 1599.

It was around this time Richard Burbage married Winifred Turner.  Winifred bore eight children, including one born after her husband’s death in 1619, only one of whom would live to see adulthood.

The Bard’s Will

Richard Burbage was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will – the playwright left a small sum with the instruction that his friend buy a memorial ring in his honour.

Burbage would not long outlive Shakespeare, however – he died 13 March 1619, and is buried in St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch.  He was memorialized in an anonymous poem, part of which reads:

He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review’d, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronymus
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him have now for ever died.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father.

Bess of Hardwick and Hardwick Hall

Bess of Hardwick is probably best remembered for two things: having survived four husbands and having built Hardwick Hall, about which Elizabeth I’s advisor Robert Cecil quipped, “Hardwick Hall? More window than wall.”

Bess was born at Hardwick Manor in Derbyshire, probably on October 4, 1527, according to her biographer Mary Lovell. Hardwicks had been living there for two hundred years, and Bess, who was descended from Edward I and Eleanor of Castille, was a gentlewoman. But her father had died when she was a baby, her mother had remarried, and her stepfather was imprisoned for debt when Bess was about ten, so the family lived in genteel poverty.

Lady-in-waiting

Bess of HardwickAt around the age of twelve, Bess was sent to be a lady-in-waiting to her distant relation Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche. This kind of service in noble households was the standard way in which well-born boys and girls were introduced to influential people who could help them rise in the world and to potential mates. Bess is a shining example of how effective this system could be.

Both Lady Zouche and her husband, Sir George Zouche, had been in the household of Anne Boleyn. Lady Zouche served Jane Seymour after Anne Boleyn’s death in 1536, and in about 1540, Sir George became a gentleman pensioner to Henry VIII. This elite group of attendants were never far from the king both in London and when he went on progress during the summer, and it’s likely that Bess was in London and around the court of Henry VIII during some very interesting times.

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Mary Queen of Scots – a summary

Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow in Scotland on December 8, 1542, the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise. Her father had been ailing for some time, possibly of a complete physical and mental breakdown and finally died six days after Mary was born. Mary was crowned Queen on September 9, 1543 at Stirling Castle. Mary’s great uncle, King Henry VIII of England, made it clear he wanted the baby Mary to marry his young son Edward when she turned ten, and come to England to be brought up. The Treaty of Greenwich confirmed the marriage.

Mary Queen of ScotsWhen, in January 1547, the nine-year-old Edward became King of England as Edward VI, his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was appointed his Protector and ran his government. His regime was to harass the Scots unmercifully with the object of capturing the Queen. The government of Scotland decided the young Queen must be spirited out of the country and negotiated a treaty for her to marry the Dauphin of France, thus breaking the Treaty of Greenwich. She left Scotland for France where she grew up with the French royal children in the Catholic Faith. She and the Dauphin Francis were married in April of 1558. She was fifteen. Henry II, King of France died from a grisly jousting accident and Francis and Mary became King and Queen of France on July 10, 1559.

Make sacrifice of me

Francis suffered acutely from an abscess in his inner ear and died on December 5, 1560. Mary had been Queen of France for less than two years. It was decided her best option was to return to Scotland and take over her government. Before leaving she asked permission from Elizabeth I, who had been queen of England, and Ireland, since November 1558, to have safe passage through England if she was blown off course. Elizabeth refused permission. In response, Mary said if Elizabeth “shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure, and make sacrifice of me; peradventure that casualty might be better for me than to live. In this matter, God’s will be fulfilled.” Little did she know she was predicting her own denouement.

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Francis Walsingham – a summary

Queen Elizabeth I had a triumvirate of intelligent, capable and industrious men who served on her council for many years. There was William Cecil, Lord Burghley who served as Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer; Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite and probably the love of her life who served faithfully and diligently as a Privy Councilor; and probably the least recognized of the three, Francis Walsingham, best known as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”.

Francis Walsingham was born, probably in Chislehurst, Kent c. 1532 into a wealthy Protestant family. He was a student at King’s College, Cambridge until 1550-1 when he began travelling on the Continent. He returned to England in 1552 and enrolled at Gray’s Inn to qualify as a lawyer. When the young, Protestant king, Edward VI, died in 1553, he was succeeded by his elder sister, Mary Tudor, a staunch Catholic. Many wealthy Protestants went into exile on the Continent, including Walsingham. While in exile, he continued his studies in law at universities in Basel, Switzerland and Padua, Italy.

Queen Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I. Walsingham returned to England and was elected to Elizabeth’s first Parliament. In 1562, he married Anne, daughter of Sir George Barne, Lord Mayor of London but Anne died in 1564. Walsingham was married again two years later to a widow with an ample estate named Ursula St Barbe with whom he had a daughter, Frances, in 1567.

The Ridolfi Plot

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Mistress of the Sea

My debut novel, writes Jenny Barden, is an epic Elizabethan romantic adventure set against the backdrop of Francis Drake’s first great enterprise: his attack on the Spanish ‘Silver Train’ in Panama.

Francis Drake, national hero

The focus of his campaign was the mule train loaded with bullion in transit from the mines of Peru to King Philip II’s treasury in Spain. Panama was the weak link in the long journey – the point where the treasure had to be transported by land across the isthmus dividing the Pacific from the Caribbean and the Atlantic, and the place where the might of the armada fleets could offer no protection. After more than eight months of failed attempts and set-backs, Drake and his allies, French Huguenot privateers and black runaway slaves called Cimaroons, together enjoyed a remarkable triumph. They captured the Silver Train near Nombre de Dios with little resistance and few casualties, and Drake was able to return home, with about thirty of the seventy-three mariners who had set sail with him over a year before, and a haul in treasure amounting to a sizeable fortune.

It was enough to swell Queen Elizabeth I’s coffers and establish his reputation as a national hero. His success was the first of many and seen as a blow for independence and religious freedom against the hegemony of imperial Spain; these sea-based victories ushered in the Elizabethan Golden Age, and they heralded the rise of England as a great maritime power.

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