Elizabethan Surrey

Elizabethan Surrey

Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving Nonsuch unfinished. Despite his initial enthusiasm and the vast expense, he had stayed there only rarely. Other more pressing matters deflected him and his declining health curtailed his pursuit of hunting. His search for an adequate replacement for his much lamented Jane Seymour had led him into an unfortunate attachment to Anne of Cleves. His chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, persuaded Henry of her supposed beauty via a flattering portrait drawn by Holbein. In reality she was very plain indeed and it required all of Cromwell’s guile to force the marriage through. Henry was soon confiding to Sir Anthony Denny of his Privy Chamber ‘How he would utter plainly to him, as to a servant whom he used secretly about him, … that he could never … be provoked and stirred to know her carnally’. Thus the marriage was annulled. The episode brought Thomas Cromwell’s head to the block but Anne did not share the same fate. Henry had no real argument with her and, more importantly, she had powerful allies abroad. He offered her quiet retirement, which she was happy to accept. She became the Lady of the Manor of Bletchingley.

Henry’s son, Edward VI, was a sickly boy whose short reign ended before his 16th birthday. When Henry’s daughter, the Catholic Mary, came to the throne, intrigue and revolution were expected. In the event, the only serious rising came from a force led by Thomas Wyatt. He threatened London from the south but, just like many before him, he failed to take London Bridge. Wyatt finally crossed the Thames by Kingston Bridge, which at the time was the first bridge upstream from the capital, but on approaching London most of his force melted away, leaving their leader to feeble surrender and the inevitable consequences of his actions.

There was an attempt to implicate Thomas Cawarden, Anne of Cleves’ keeper at Bletchingley, in this plot to remove Mary. Cawarden was arrested and a large arsenal of weapons, which he had accumulated at his house, Place House in Bletchingley, were confiscated. The weapons included 16 cannon and enough arms and equipment for a force of some 100 horsemen and over 300 foot soldiers. It must be remembered that at this period there was no standing army in England, and the shires could be called upon at short notice to provide a force for the defence of the realm. This was undoubtedly the reason Cawarden gave for being in possession of these arms. The authorities chose to believe him and he was soon released, complaining for some time afterwards that the contents of his arsenal had not been returned.

Queen Mary seems to have had little time for Nonsuch Palace and threatened to have it demolished, but in the end she sold it to the Earl of Arundel. Following Mary’s death in 1558, Arundel bankrupted himself completing Henry’s masterpiece, in the vain notion that Queen Elizabeth might be flattered into marrying him. However, Elizabeth was less impressed by Arundel’s attentions than she was by Nonsuch. She loved the place – so much so that she often stayed there. When Arundel died in 1579 Nonsuch passed to his son-in-law, Lord Lumley. His expensive tastes meant that, just like his father-in-law, he was perennially in debt and in 1591 he passed the ownership of Nonsuch to Elizabeth. Lumley continued to live at Nonsuch as the Queen’s Keeper, an arrangement which suited them both admirably.

Most of Elizabeth’s time seems to have been taken up in progresses from one palace to another, or from one of her subject’s houses to another. As the Earl of Arundel fund out whenever she came to Nonsuch, it was a very expensive business entertaining the monarch and her huge retinue. She was f’requently in Surrey – staying at Richmond, Oatlands or, just across the river from Surrey, at Hampton Court. She also stayed at Loseley, the seat of Sir William More between Godalming and Guildford, at Sutton Place where she was entertained by the Westons, and at several other lesser houses in the county. Despite the expense, her subjects vied with each other for the right to entertain their queen. Following a stay of one night at Mitcham, the owner of the house, Sir Julius Caesar, wrote, ‘the Queen visited my house at Mitcham and supped and lodged there, and dined there the next day. I presented her with a gown of cloth of silver richly embroidered; a black network mantle with pure gold, a taffeta hat, white with several flowers, and a jewel of gold set therein with rubies and diamonds. Her Majesty removed from my house after dinner the 13th of September to Nonsuch with exceeding good contentment; which entertainment of Her Majesty… amounted to £700 besides my own provisions and what was sent unto me by my friends.’

For each move she made, even the less well-off of her people were likely to incur expense, when their horses and carts were requisitioned as transport for the chattels of the court. When Jacob Rathgeb, secretary to the Duke of Wurttemberg, visited England in 1592 he noted that ‘When the Queen breaks up her Court with the intention of visiting another place, there commonly follow more than three hundred carts laden with bag and baggage.’ The repeated movement of the court not only enabled the queen to maintain a high profile amongst her subjects, but it also had practical purposes. With a large retinue of rarely washed courtiers within a confined space, the air must have quickly become most foul, especially with the garderobes and privies full to overflowing. The court moved on, leaving others to clean up the mess. And then there was always the threat of plague. The queen was at Windsor at the end of September 1563 when the disease struck the area around Reading and Newbury. With hundreds of people dying, plans were made to separate her from her retinue, who might become a source of infection and’. . . if her Highness shall be forced to move, as God forbid, I think then best the Household shall be put on board wages . . . and herself repair to Oatlands, where Her Majesty may remain well if no great resort be made to the house’, wrote the Marquis of Winchester to Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister.

Just like her father, Elizabeth loved the chase and it was principally for hunting that the court came to Oatlands. John Selwyn, Keeper of the Park at Oatlands, was credited with a remarkable feat of huntsmanship during one such visit – the event is depicted on a brass in nearby Walton church, where he was buried in 1587. Whilst chasing a stag on horseback, in full view of the queen, he managed to get alongside the unfortunate beast and leapt from his mount onto its back. He then, with the aid of his sword, guided the stag to Elizabeth and killed it at her feet.

Elizabeth was often at Nonsuch in the summer and it was here in 1599 that Thomas Platter, a German, and his party were allowed entry to the ‘presence chamber’ to view the queen and her court. The visitors were first impressed by the magnificent tapestries which adorned the walls within the palace. Platter noted that within the chamber the floor was ‘strewn with straw or hay, only where the queen was to come out and up to her seat were carpets laid down worked in Turkish knot’. The entry of Queen Elizabeth was preceded by a number of men from the inner chamber carrying white staffs, followed by a large group of lords. When the queen herself entered she came in alone ‘without escort, very straight and erect’, wrote Platter. ‘She was most lavishly attired in a gown of pure white satin, gold embroidered, with a whole bird of paradise for panache, set forward on her head studded with costly jewels; she wore a string of huge pearls about her neck and elegant gloves over which were drawn costly rings. In short she was most gorgeously apparelled, . . . she was very youthful still in appearance, seeming no more than twenty years of age. She had a dignified and regal bearing.’ Platter was perhaps a little overawed by the whole event to suggest that the queen looked only 20 – she was in fact 66!

After listening to a sermon from ‘a preacher in a white surplice, merely standing on the floor facing the Queen’, Elizabeth withdrew again into the inner chamber. It was now time for the midday meal, the arrival of which was preceded by the entry of a large number of guards and courtiers, all of whom bowed three times as they came into the chamber. Tables were put before the throne, which was decorated with red damask embroidered with gold with low cushions beneath a great ornate canopy fixed to the ceiling. The tables were laid and then there entered a procession of ‘tall, fine young men’, dressed in red tabards, each of whom carried a dish of food. ‘. . . I observed amongst them some very large joints of beef, and all kinds of game, pastries and tarts’, Platter recorded. The carving of the meat was done by a lady-in-waiting and portions were then taken in to Elizabeth who . . ate of what she fancied, privily however, for she very seldom partakes before strangers.’ The meal lasted three courses, but Platter and his friends were not offered any. Afterwards’. . . musicians appeared in the Presence Chamber with their trumpets and shawms, and after they had performed their music, everyone withdrew, bowing themselves out just as they had come in, and the tables were carried away again.’ The hungry Germans were finally given a meal in a tent outside before touring the gardens.

Not all Englishmen in Elizabeth’s reign could rely on their next meal, for it was a time of widely differing fortunes for her people as a whole. Those with land prospered and a whole new class of independent yeoman farmers came into being. The growing population of London brought wealth to Surrey’s farmers and landowners as the capital became the chief market for their produce. For the lords and gentry all the trappings of a comfortable life were easily at hand. Food was cheap and plentiful and there were riches to be made in the trading of commodities such as wool and cloth. Amongst Surrey’s towns, Guildford and Godalming prospered greatly as centres of woollen cloth manufacture during Elizabeth’s reign.

But for the poor these were hard times indeed. For those many thousands who found themselves unable to share in the new prosperity there was only charity to save them. The principal benefactor to the poor of Surrey was undoubtedly Henry Smith, who was born in Wandsworth, at that time in Surrey, in 1548. He became a very wealthy silversmith and City of London alderman who gave generously to most of the towns of the county during his lifetime. When he died in 1627, the bulk of his fortune was left in trust to provide for the poor of parishes throughout Surrey.

An unconfirmed tale has Smith as an old man walking from village to village along the tracks and byways of Surrey, disguised as a beggar, accompanied only by his faithful dog. The level of his later generosity was supposedly based upon the treatment which he had received in each parish he passed through. One unnamed parish, where he was whipped as a vagrant, received nothing at all! This part of the story, at least, is untrue because every parish in Surrey was rewarded in his will.

Over the centuries Surrey’s inhabitants have benefited from a great variety of charities, some of distinctly unusual character – none more so than that established by the will of John How of Guildford, who died in 1674. He left £400 which was to be invested to provide an annual prize in a contest which became known as ‘Dicing for the Maid’s Money’. Two contestants were chosen from female servants of good character who had resided in the ancient borough of Guildford for at least two years. The winner was to be decided by the throw of a dice. The loser, however, gained consolation from the fact that she could try again for the next two years. More recently, the loser has also received the unclaimed money left by John Parsons in his will of 1702 for the benefit of Guildford apprentices. Despite the occasional difficulty in finding suitable contestants these days, John How’s charity still continues. In 1994 the winner threw a double five and won £50. Meanwhile, the loser with a paltry four got £52 from the proceeds of John Parsons’ charity!

A few elderly paupers might have been lucky enough to find accommodation in one of a number of almshouses or hospitals established in Surrey during Tudor or Jacobean times. The most important of these from the reign of Elizabeth I was Whitgift’s Hospital at Croydon. The red brick gabled almshouse, which still stands today amidst the modern roar of suburban Croydon, was endowed by John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, and built between 1596 and 1599. It was to be ‘. . . an hospitall and abiding place for the finding, sustentation and relief of certain maymed poore, needy or impotent people to have continuance for ever . . .’ The statutes of Whitgift’s Hospital limited the number of inmates to between 30 and 40 – ‘. . . of which number, one shall teache a common school in Croydon in the schoole house there by me builded.’ Thus the founding of the hospital was also the origin of Whitgift Grammar School.

The origins of the grammar school at Guildford go back to the will of Robert Beckingham who died in 1512. Beckingham left land to finance the establishment of a free school in the town. Also at Guildford, another Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, founded a hospital similar to Whitgift’s during the reign of James I. Abbot’s Hospital, as it became known, will be mentioned in more detail later.

Charity alone proved insufficient to solve the problems caused by the increasing number of poor and destitute in Tudor England. Eventually, the first Poor Laws were passed. They ensured that all who could afford it were legally obliged to contribute to the welfare of the genuinely needy.

In 1588 all the people of England, regardless of their wealth or status, were under threat. With news of the approach of the Spanish Armada, Surrey was called upon to supply 1,000 troops to help guard against any invasion approaching London up the Thames estuary. A further 500 were sent to London itself. In July 1588, with the Armada in sight in the Channel, all able bodied men were called to arms for the protection of the realm. The motley collection of weapons available to the 5,000 or so Surrey men involved were nowhere near the quality of those confiscated from Thomas Cawarden back in 1554, but they mustered all the same at camps at Dorking, Reigate, Croydon and Godstone. There they waited for the signal from beacons which would be set ablaze on prominences such as Leith Hill, Betchworth Clump and Hindhead when the first of the enemy had landed. They readied themselves as best they could for the onslaught from those well-armed foreign troops, who at that very moment were feeling seasick on the foaming waters of the English Channel.

Although the charismatic figure of Francis Drake is the first to spring to mind when recalling one of England’s proudest moments, it was Lord Charles Howard of Effingham as Lord High Admiral, who gave the lead to the English sailors. As the Armada approached, Lord Howard conducted operations from on board his flagship, The Ark Royal. His brilliance as a commander, coupled with             the fearless persistence of his sailors, plus a little help from England’s most familiar friend, bad weather, saw off the invaders and showed Europe that England was once more a force to be reckoned with. The Armada beacons were never fired.

Lord Charles Howard of Effingham, eldest son of Lord William Howard, had inherited the family estates centred on Reigate Priory in 1581. As a child he had been educated mainly at Reigate by John Foxe, the author of the famous Book of Martyrs. In 1553, when Howard was 17, Foxe, being a Protestant, fled abroad to escape the attentions of Queen Mary. The following year Howard began his career as a soldier when he fought in France, but it was not long before he was serving in the navy, which had been established by Henry VIII. He was popular at court under Mary and managed to maintain his position when Elizabeth became queen in 1558. The following year she sent him as a special ambassador to France. In 1573 he was made a Knight of the Garter and in 1584 Lord High Admiral, an appointment he retained until 1619. He was created Earl of Nottingham in 1596 in recognition of his skills when the English fleet captured Cadiz and destroyed the Spanish fleet sheltering there. Lord Howard died, aged 88, in 1624, recognised by all as one of the greatest men of his time, and was buried in the family vault in Reigate parish church.

Amongst the heroes of 1 588 there was also, of course, Sir Walter Raleigh. His brilliant exploits as a sailor and navigator had made him a favourite of Elizabeth and in 1585 he had been knighted. However, in 1592 he fell from grace for a while as a result of his secret marriage to one of the queen’s maids-of-honour. Both Sir Walter and his bride were put in the lower for a time. This was the first of three visits to the dreaded prison for Sir Walter. Under James I he was distinctly unpopular at court and spent twelve years in the place. He was then released, only to be returned shortly afterwards for a final, fatal visit, which ended when he was beheaded. His widow had the head embalmed and kept it with her until she died in 1647. The head was then passed to Sir Walter’s son, Carew Raleigh, who lived at West Horsley Place. Three of Carew’s children, including his eldest son, Walter also (like his grandfather Sir Walter), died in 1660 and were buried under the floor in St Mary’s church in West Horsley. It was probably at this time that Care decided to pop his father’s head into the family burial place as well and there it lies to this day. The body was interred in St Margaret’s, Westminster, but it is said to walk the corridors of West Horsley Place searching for his head – a gruesome finale for one of the heroes of 1588.

In her last weeks Elizabeth returned once more to Surrey, the county which held many happy memories for her. Her time seemed past, for those most dear to her were already dead. It was the loss of her great confidant and advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in 1598, which particularly laid her low. And then there was her undoubted guilt concerning the execution of the Earl of Essex, a man she surely loved. The mere mention of his name now brought her near to tears. At Richmond Palace she sat long hours in silence, refusing to rest ‘because she had a persuasion that if she once lay down she would never rise.’ Her council begged her to name her successor and she is said to have finally replied, ‘I will that a king succeed me, and who but my kinsman the King of Scots.’ Rest finally came to the great queen at Richmond on 24th March 1603.