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Welcome to Episode 157 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

As students of Shakespeare’s lifetime, often we see the phrase “of certain status” to describe 16-17th century limitations on clothes, housing, and other material realities for various people. Particular if you study Elizabethan sumptuary laws, it seems like society was strictly controlled based on social status, and one’s place in society was decided at birth, with little mobility allowed. The life of people like William Shakespere, however, who in his own life was able to rise in the ranks of society and establish himself as a gentleman, we have evidence that social mobility was a strong force in England for the 16-17th century. One key place that contemporaries of William Shakespeare were able to show off their status, and stake their claim to a certain place in the social order was through the design, and architecture, of their homes and grand estates. Our guest this week, Matthew Johnson, is here to explain the social phenomenon of upward mobility, define the levels of society that were present for Shakespeare, and walk us through some famous architecture of the 1500s-1600s that reveals where the lines were drawn between the classes for Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

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Matthew Johnson works on the archaeology and history of Europe and the Atlantic world.  He has written six books on a range of themes, including castles, traditional houses, landscape, and an archaeology of capitalism.  His best known book is Archaeological Theory:  An Introduction and is the author of English Houses 1300-1800 that he joins us to talk about today. Born in Austin, Texas, and is a dual US/British citizen.  He has held visiting fellowships and positions at UC-Berkeley, Heidelberg University, UCLA, Flinders University, University of Cambridge, and the University of Pennsylvania.  After a PhD at Cambridge and posts at Sheffield, Durham and Southampton, he returned across the Atlantic in 2011 to be Professor and sometime Chair of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Find out more about Matthew here

In this episode, I’ll be asking Matthew Johnson about :

  • Moats, or these large deep holes filled with water and extending around the exterior wall of a large manor house are often portrayed on film as defensive fortresses, put there to dissuade an enemy attack. Matthew’s research indicates that by the 16th century, moats were still being installed on new structures, like Hampton Court Palace, but they had long stopped being used as a strategic weapon. Matthew, why was it important in the 16th century for a large manor house, or palace, to have a moat, specifically? 
  • When it comes to indicating your place in society through architecture, towers, were a popular choice in the 16th century. Matthew, how were the addition of towers, or even the maintenance of towers left unused in any practical sense, considered markers of social prominence? 
  • From the social mobility of someone like Shakespeare to the elaborate decorations of the aristocracy that feel almost farcical in their extravagance, it seems there is some blurring of the lines between social layers in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Matthew, what were the rungs of the social ladder for Shakespeare’s life? Are there clearly defined social stations that we can name and define?

… and more!

Download this guide to social order in Shakespeare's lifetime

This printable maps out the ladder of major classes on the social ladder of Shakespeare's lifetime, to show you visually the general classes of society that existed. It also shows you where Shakespeare stood in society once he became a gentleman. Download this printable guide for free when you sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    This precious stone set in the silver sea,

    Which serves it in the office of a wall,

    Or as a moat defensive to a house,

    Against the envy of less happier lands,

    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

    John of Gaunt

    Richard II (II.1)

    Moats Reflect the Grandeur of the House

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    Castle Moat and Watermill Steinfurt by Nordhornerll| CCASA3.0 | Image Source

    Moats, or these large deep holes filled with water and extending around the exterior wall of a large manor house are often portrayed on film as defensive fortresses, put there to dissuade an enemy attack. Matthew’s research indicates that by the 16th century, moats were still being installed on new structures, like Hampton Court Palace, but they had long stopped being used as a strategic weapon. 

    Matthew explains, “Moats are really important in terms of showing the property off. A property reflected in water looks much bigger than one that has no such reflection”

    17th Century Town | Naarden | Fortified with Moats | By Kleik | CCASA3.0 | Image Source

    Moats were more than just defensive features, they also demonstrated the power and establishment of the owner. As well as status symbols, moats could be used in the service of a mill for grinding grain and other practical sources of water.

     

    Bodiam Castle | East Sussex England | Surrounded by a Moat | Photography by Wyrdlight.com | CCASA3.0 | Image Source

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    He hath a garden circummured with brick,

    Whose western side is with a vineyard back'd;

    And to that vineyard is a planched gate,

    That makes his opening with this bigger key:

    This other doth command a little door

    Which from the vineyard to the garden leads;

    There have I made my promise

    Upon the heavy middle of the night

    To call upon him.

    Isabella

    Measure for Measure (IV.1)

    william strachey mermaid tavern group

    Kenilworth Castle, England | Photo by Jd Forrester | CCBY1.0 | Image Source

    Towers and a Courtyard

    When it comes to indicating your place in society through architecture, towers, were a popular choice in the 16th century. Matthew explains, 

    By Shakespeare’s time, people are deliberately building things in order to look old. [Towers were] also about being able to survey the landscape.In the 16th century, along with towers, you also have long galleries right at the top of the house, from which you look out at your estate.” 

    17th Century Dalhouise Castle, Scotland | Photo by Roger W Haworth | CCBY2.5 | Image Source

    Matthew writes that “The courtyard formed a central focal point for the activities of the household.” His work outlines that the design of the courtyard itself was laid out intentionally to emphasize social inequality.

    Whenever someone of power or status was in the garden, they walked through it on display for those around them. The gesture was about more than just pride, but a way to establish yourself in society as reliable, capable, and powerful. Matthew shares in this episode that someone contemporary to Shakespeare would have known the various parts of a house and grounds, and that each part would have had a function related to social standing.

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    You are looked for and called for, asked for and

    sought for, in the great chamber.

    First Servant

    Romeo and Juliet (I.5)

    The Great Chamber Vs The Great Hall

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    Great Chamber at 15th C Bunratty Castle, Ireland | Bea y Fredi | Bunratty Castle | CCBY-SA2.0 | Image Source

    Contemporaries to Shakespeare would have recognized thehte difference between a Great Hall and a Great Chamber. The Great Hall was a holdoverhold over from times past where great homes featured a grand entrance to a large room where guests, visitors, and family alike all gathered for large events and entertainment. 

    The Great Hall at Stokesay Castle, England | Photo by Nick Hubbard | CCASA.20 | Image Source

    Off of this Great Hall a door leadslead into a Great Chamber, which is essentially the private apartment of the land owners. It, too, typically has a large fireplace, a table for eating, and leads off to a sleeping quarters for the owners. The Great Hall is distinguishable by a large window. Matthew shares this is usually a bay window.

    Great Hall with a Bay Window | The Abbey, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England | Photo by The Abbey at Sutton Courtenay | CCASA4.0 | Image Source

    Stirling Castle Great Hall, Scotland | Built for James IV | Photo by DeFacto | CCASA4.0 | Image Source

    As he walks us through the layout of a 16th century manor house, Matthew explains that as society members, 

    We would know where all the different parts of the house are laid put in terms of social presence. As contemporaries, we would know that that's the door into the lower end, and we would turn in one direction or another to face the upper end of the hall. Beyond the great hall is the great chamber, the private lodgings of the master and his wife, at the lower end of the hall is the servant quarters, butler, and then the kitchen. 

    This is a gallery of three images. You may have to mouse over the first image for the left and right arrows to appear. You can click them to scroll through the list. Citations for each image are provided here: 

    1. Doorways to Service Rooms | Old Rectory, Warton | Humphrey Bolton | CCBY-SA2.0 | Image Source 

    2. The Hall at Penshurst Place from Ancestral Homes of Noted Americans by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton | 1915 | Public Domain | Image Source

    3. Hardwick Hall Fireplace | Tony Hisgett from Birmingham UK | CCBY2.0 | Image Source

    Matthew explains that the distinction between a Great Hall and a Great Chamber for Shakespeare’s lifetime was pronounced since, 

    The Great Hall was being used less and less by Shakespaer’s lifetime and only then for large scale entertainments…The Hall was used for everyday life, main meal, and in upper class households for court functions. If you were entertaining your social equals, you invite them into your Great Chamber. Contemporary social commentators complain about this social change. Now, they prefer to dine by themselves in the chamber (instead of in the public area) getting invited into that chamber beyond was an important social status. 

    17th Century Great Chamber at Chatsworth House, England | Photo by Daderot | Public Domain | Image Source

    See where the huntsmen stand.

    Now, brother of Gloucester, Lord Hastings, and the rest,

    Stand you thus close, to steal the bishop's deer?

    King Edward IV

    Henry VI Part III (V.5)

    The Layers of Social Classes in Elizabethan England

    Comedy of Errors Lithograph

    Ightham Mote | Photo by Katie Chan | CCASA4.0 | Image Source

    As students of Shakespeare’s lifetime, often we see the phrase “of certain status” to describe limitations on clothes, housing, and other material realities for various people. Social status, and one’s place in society is taken as an outside force that’s inflicted upon someone at birth, that person left to deal with their lot in life from then on. 

    Matthew’s research sheds light on the reality that social status was a fluid establishment. One way to increase your social standing was through the acquiring of land and acreage. 

    Matthew explains, “Land in some ways was the basis currency of social status. When a merchant became wealthy, very often they would tender as soon as possible was land or an estate” 

    Matthew’s research writes of a man named Richard Clement, who fought to win a property called Ightham Mote

    ^^ This is a gallery of images. You may have to mouse over the first image for the left and right arrows to appear. You can click them to scroll through the list. Citations for each image are provided here: 

    1. Ightham Mote Moat | Public Domain | Image Source

    2. First Floor Plan | Ightham Mote | Henry Taylor (1845-1927) | Archaeologia Cantiana, Volume 27, 1905 | Public Domain | Image Source

    3. Grounds at Ightham Mote | Henry Taylor (1845-1927) | Archaeologia Cantiana, Volume 27, 1905 | Public Domain | Image Source

    When Richard Clements purchases Ightham Mote, it is an example of someone who was not born to privilege using means available to him for advancing his station. Matthew explains that there are three main ways a person could move up in the world for Shakespeare’s lifetime:

    Clement buys it in the 1530s, himself having been raised in Sussex. It is an ancient building of hospitality and lineage, and is a place that Clements has purchased, so it's a microcosm of many of these social tensions between traditional conception of the importance of ancestry, and the emergence of new ideas about purchasing status. There’s three things Clements does to bolster his social status. [First] He marries twice, and women come with dowries, and each time he acquires substantial wealth. Second, he works for the King, and thirdly, he uses and deploys violence. Organized a gang together of a couple hundred of his followers, to intimidate his rivals within the Kent landscape around Ightham Mote. These three things are classic strategies from the 15th century.

    This is a gallery of images. You may have to mouse over the first image for the left and right arrows to appear. You can click them to scroll through the list. Citations for each image are provided here: 

    1. Blenheim Palace, England | Copyright Blenheim Palace 2014 | CCBY-SA4.0 | Image Source

    2. The 1834 Ordinance Survey shows the castle to the south of the town, next to the River Avon Ordinance Survey of Great Britian | Public Domain | Image Source

    3. The Grounds at Warwick Castle, England | Gernot Keller www.gernot-keller.com | CC-SBY-3.0 | Image Source

    Clement’s story, while telling about social order, precedes Shakespeare’s lifetime. In his more recent book, English Houses 1300-1800, Matthew writes about a man contemporary to Shakespeare named Phelps whose building also speaks to social order.

    Original Entrance to Montacute House | Commissioned in 1588 by Sir Edward Phelps | Mike Searle | Montacute House East Front | CCBY-SA 2.0 | Image Source

    Sir Edward Phelps builtbuilds Montacute house in the 1590s. Matthew points out that this is the same time period during which Shakespeare is writing Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and various other plays. Phelps’ decision to build Montacute House, and the means to do so, demonstrate the rise and power of the state.

    The window of the Great Chamber, featuring Phelps family arms | Photos from Tiverton, UK | CCASA 2.0 | Image Source

     

    Matthew explains that Phelps’ case is distinct from Ightham Mote because 

    Phelps was more or less peaceful in terms of his use of violence. He was a Justice of the Peace, leader of the House of Commons, and he’s used to deploying state sanctioned violence.

    Despite not using violence in the same gang related way as Clements, Phelps does use the other two strategies to his advantage in creating Montacute House, which serves as a 

    Typical example of a great house built at the end of the 16th century during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It had an external period…, symmetrical, above the central entryway there are a series of busts of classical figures.The plan itself is much more traditional, and recognized by anyone…The great hall, the great chamber beyond, and so on. Combination of old and new that’s very tpyuical of late 16th century architecture. Phelps himself is somebody who wants to present himself as from an older lineage and inspire deference and part of the way to do this through architecture. 

    This is a gallery of images. You may have to mouse over the first image for the left and right arrows to appear. You can click them to scroll through the list. Citations for each image are provided here: 

    1. Montacute House, Somerset | 1598 | Nine Worthies Architecture | Lobsterhermidor at en.wikipedia | Public Domain | Image Source

    2. The Grounds at Montacute House| Photos from Tiverton, UK | CCASA2.0 | Image Source

    3. Former Great Chamber at Montacute House (now a library) | photos from Tiverton, UK | CCASA2.0 | Image Source

    4. The Long Gallery at Montacute House | Built in 1598 | Richard Walker | CCASA2.0 | Image Source

    In Elizabethan England, the rules about what kind of clothes you could wear, which fabrics you could use, and on what days it was appropriate to make these choices, all changed based on your status. Whenever someone was able to, through marriage, knighthood, or other means, to change their station in life, they were allowed to change the sumptuary rules to which they adhered.

    This is a gallery of images. You may have to mouse over the first image for the left and right arrows to appear. You can click them to scroll through the list. Citations for each image are provided here: 

    1. 16th-17th Century Brocade | only allowed for lords | Public Domain | Image Source

    2. 1600-1650 Damask Fabric | allowed for yeoman | CCBY0 | Image Source

    3. Flat Cap | 1571 | Act of Parliament decreed all men must wear flat caps on Sundays and Holidays | Woollen flat cap worn by Jason Isaacs from Liverpool | Public Domain | Image Source

    One of the main ways to outwardly state that you are now of a new status was through your house. Matthew explains,

    You need a house because it’s a stage setting from which you play out your own conception of who you are and your social status. For a high status home at the end of the 16th century, you needed a Great Hall, even if you’re not using it, it shows that you are playing the role of the lord, giving out hospitality, people stand when you come in, and beyond that the Great Chamber, and beyond that the kitchens. One of the most important ways to show off your social status is through the deployment of large quantities of food to your followers and tenants and you have to show that you are able to do that. And beyond that a Great Gate, which is a complex and elaborate method of getting in and out of the gate, opening your door to people is your opportunity to impress them. Increasingly, as you get into the 1500s and 1600s, you need a larger and larger estate around the house with formal gardens, perhaps after the Italian manner, gardens through which you can walk to show off your civility and breeding, and a long gallery. 

    Images from the video version of our show that you may want to explore further:

    This is a gallery of images. You may have to mouse over the first image for the left and right arrows to appear. You can click them to scroll through the list. Citations for each image are provided here: 

    1. Longleat House | A View of Longleat | Jan Siberechts | 1675 | Public Domain | Image Source

    2. Remains of Theobalds House | Robert Cecil's Estate | Nigel Cox | Cheshunt: Theobalds | CCBY-SA2.0 | Image Source

    3. 15th Century Kitchen | Public Domain | Image Source

    4. Medieval Baker with his apprentice | Public Domain | Image Source

    5. 15th Century Christ College | Cambridge | Great Gate | Verbcatcher | CCASA4.0 | Image Source

    6. Tudor House and Gardens | Photo by Ethan Doyle White | CCASA4.0 | Image Source

    This is a gallery of images. You may have to mouse over the first image for the left and right arrows to appear. You can click them to scroll through the list. Citations for each image are provided here: 

    1. Gallery at Hardwick Hall | Photo by George Washington Wilson (died 1893) | Public Domain | Image Source

    2. Medieval Illustration of Peasants | Peasants were just above slaves, still forced labor and limited freedoms | Public Domain | Image Source

    3. Peasants in a Tavern | 1635 | Painting by Adriaen van Ostade | Public Domain | Image Source

    4. Peasant Wedding | 1566-1569 | Painting by Pieter Bruegal the Elder | Public Domain | Image Source

    5. Peasants dancing | 18th-19th Century | Artist Unknown | Public Domain | Image Source

    6. Hertfordshire Yeomanry | 1890 | HantsAV scanned this image from the Navy and Army Illustrated Magazing 1890's | Public Domain | Image Source

    7. 16th C Bourgeoisie | Financial Sector | Supported the Crown | office of Jacob Fugger, with his main accountancy M. Schwarz | Public Domain | Image Source

    8. 17th Century Playwright, Moliere, who catalogued the rise of the bourgeoisie | Nicolas Mignard | 1656 | Molière (1622-1673) dans le rôle de César de “La Mort de Pompée” | Public Domain | Image Source

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