The gunpowder plot story – contextualising

Plots unfold in real time and space. Characters walk around in the clothes of their time (mostly), they travel – if travel is required – in whatever way their means and social station allow them and inhabit a world whose technologies are defined by what has been discovered and known and developed before their now. Anachronisms are not permitted.

Before I write I need to know something about the story’s context…

context-diagram
Context and its influence in a story…

What was life like in early 17th century England?

Our focus, re the Gunpowder plot, is early 17th century England: let’s think in terms of a sub-set of questions.

  • Who had the power?
  • Was power shared?
  • What was life like for those at the bottom of society, compared with those at the top? (One can always, unfortunately, assume there is a bottom and a top.)
  • What were homes like?
    • Were they heated, did they have sanitary facilities, how many rooms, what kind of furniture, sleeping arrangements, artificial lighting… ?
  • How did people move about (transport)?
  • Did people move about much or was society relatively settled or inert (one knew one’s place)?
  • What did people do for entertainment?
  • How did one earn one’s living?
  • Could one read and write?
  • Education?

What was life like in early 17th century England? becomes our key search string (let’s face facts and admit that our research – once we have reached this stage – begins on the Internet).  AND what do we find?

“Tudor society was divided into four broad groups. At the top were the nobility who owned huge amounts of land. Below them were the gentry and rich merchants. Gentlemen owned large amounts of land and they were usually educated and had a family coat of arms. Most important gentlemen never did any manual work. Below the gentry were yeomen and craftsmen. Yeomen owned their own land. They could be as wealthy as gentlemen but they worked alongside their men. Yeomen and craftsmen were often able to read and write. Below the yeomen were the tenant farmers who leased their land from the rich. There were also wage laborers. They were often illiterate and very poor.

In the 16th century about 50% of the population lived at subsistence level. In other words, they had just enough food, clothes and shelter to survive. For them life was very hard…” [See http://www.localhistories.org/tudor.html]

While this provides useful contextualising information about power and status in the society we need to note that the ‘information’ relates to Tudor England and, as such, pre-dates our 1605 target year. We therefore need to specify dates or look for a more specific search term… something like ‘What was life like in early 17th century England under King James 1?’ or ‘What was life like in early 17th century STUART England?’

So we find this video:

Fashion in 17th century London:

It’s interesting in that it gives as a sense or mood of the times but, given its fashion focus, it is perhaps not a rich vein to work.

And thus we are led back to wondering if ‘localhistories’ site has information for the period after the Tudors…

AND it does:

“In 1600 Westminster was separate from London. However in the early 17th century rich people built houses along the Thames between the two. In the late 17th century many grand houses were built west of London. Meanwhile working class houses were built east of the city. So as early as the 17th century London was divided into the affluent west end and the poor east end.

17th century towns were dirty and unsanitary. People threw dirty water and other rubbish in the streets. Furthermore the streets were very narrow. At night they were dark and dangerous.

However there were some improvements in London. In the early 17th century a piped water supply was created. Water from a reservoir traveled along elm pipes through the streets then along lead pipes to individual houses. However you had to pay to be connected to the supply and it was not cheap.

In 1600 people in London walked from one street to another or if they could afford it they traveled by boat along the Thames. However from the early 17th century you could hire a horse drawn carriage called a hackney carriage to take you around London…”

“Plague broke out in London in 1603, 1636 and in 1665. Each time it killed a significant part of the population but each time London recovered. There were always plenty of poor people in the countryside willing to come and work in the town. Of course, other towns as well as London were also periodically devastated by the plague. However, the plague of 1665, which affected London and other towns, was the last. We are not certain why…” [See http://www.localhistories.org/stuart.html}

And with a little work and reading and thinking we can proffer ourself (the writer) this whirlwind summary:

  • Who had the power? – The king is no. 1; James 1 believes in the ‘divine right of kings’. The aristocracy is next in line and then others with land (including yeoman class). Land ownership, it would seem, is key to power.
  • Was power shared? – There must be some power sharing as there exists a parliament (Westminster). Given that the Gunpowder plot is about power and the recognition of another non-state sanctioned religion it would seem that there is some resentment of existing power arrrangements in 1605.
  • What was life like for those at the bottom of society, compared with those at the top? (One can always, unfortunately, assume there is a bottom and a top.) – Those at the bottom are poor and suffer lives of not-much-better quality than those of hundreds of years ago, even though England has grown in commercial power… The poor eat poorly, they live grubby and dirty lives and face an average life expectancy of <40 years. Power struggles are not really about creating a a more equal world, however.
  • What were homes like?
    • Were they heated, did they have sanitary facilities, how many rooms, what kind of furniture, sleeping arrangements, artificial lighting… ? – NO electricity, no significant artificial lighting (candles?), shared accommodation, few rooms, no refrigeration… 
  • How did people move about (transport)? – The main way in which people move about is on foot. In London, boats transport people up and down the Thames; carriages became more common later in the century but again these were mostly for those with property.
  • Did people move about much or was society relatively settled or inert (one knew one’s place)? – Essentially a population that remained where it was. Most people were born, lived, worked and died within a small radius of ‘home’.
  • What did people do for entertainment? – Gambling, fights, betting… Not a lot of entertainment provided for the poor.
  • How did one earn one’s living? – The population was still largely rural so as itinerant workers or as labourers for those with property. Vagrancy was apparently quite common.
  • Could one read and write? – Literacy rates probably less than 50%; the poor were generally illiterate.
  • Education? – See above. Public education is essentially a thing of the future.
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