A ruff crowd

A ruff crowd

In an exclusive extract from their new book Ye Olde Good Inn Guide, James Moore and Paul Nero imagine the people one might meet in a Tudor drinking establishment

Header Image: The King’s Arms in Amersham was named after Henry VIII. Amersham was described by Tudor travel writer John Leland as “a very pleasant town”

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A place both of strangers and regulars, the local alehouse be a melting pot of trades and people from all walks of life. Here thee will find labourers, drovers, tinkers, carriers, bakers, hawkers, shipwrights, itinerant weavers, butchers, colliers, shepherds, foreigners, perhaps men at arms or even the local clergyman. In these times there are many beggars tramping the highways and alehouses are also places where such people go to seek work. While rare, ’tis not unknown for a gentleman to enjoy the charms of an alehouse too. The Dover magistrate John Godwin, for instance, be a wellknown fan of local tippling houses.

Women may frequent alehouses, but usually only with their husbands or a group of other ladies. They are a particularly popular place for unwedded couples to cavort on fair days and thee may encounter groups enjoying impromptu, illicit marriages, post-church wedding feasts or those who have repaired to the alehouse after a funeral to drink to the memory of the departed. Alehouses can also sometimes play host to unmarried couples, seeking a place where they can enjoy an illicit encounter away from their spouses.

At this point we should advise that alehouses are also the haunt of many a woman who be no better than she ought. Thomas Platter, a visitor to our country from Switzerland, wrote recently that he found “great swarms” of prostitutes at London’s alehouses. Some are employed not only to service thy sexual needs but to draw thee into gambling games where thee may be beguiled of thy purse.

The reviving nature of drink also makes our alehouses convivial places in which drinking each other’s health and, of course, the Queen’s, be commonplace. Indeed, there are many drinking customs. Some drinking pots have hoops marked upon them which can be used for drinking games, of which there are many sorts. There also be puzzle jugs where thee must put all thy fingers on the right holes, or the beer shall pour out.

Blaggards abound at alehouses too. One report from Netherbury in Dorset tells that in a row of cottages: in which poore people dwell… they take the liberty to themselves to keep unlicensed alehouses and have divers disorderly meetings where manie stolen goods are consumed to the great griefe and losse of their honest neighbours. Note too, in a time when everyone carries a knife it’s important to be wary of getting into fights, which can flare up at any time. This be not helped by the fact that there are many youths; the average age of people in our nation in this year of our Lord 1599 be just 22 years.

As we have mentioned, moneyed folk are rarely to be found at an alehouse, sticking to the tavern and the inn. Here thee will find royal messengers, servants of the government, constables taking wrongdoers to trial, merchants hawking their wares and perhaps a physician travelling to see a patient. In London thee will meet many lawyers. There may be rich farmers too, taking their produce to the big markets in the towns. There also be every chance that thee may rub shoulders with some people of celebrity too. The playwright William Shakespeare be a lover of taverns and inns – even setting the opening of his recent comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, at an hostelry upon a heath. Among other famous people of our age, who are known to partake of their charms, are the likes of writer Ben Jonson and the great explorer Sir Walter Raleigh.

A Tudor tavern scene from a contemporary woodcut
A Tudor tavern scene from a contemporary woodcut

As well as providing inspiration for creative works and places where new colonies and adventures are planned, inns are more oft venues where trade business deals are hammered out. Beware what thee say, however; they are also the haunt of spies both of foreign and domestic governments. Also be advised that thy horse can be requisitioned at a moment’s notice by a royal official. And while the pilgrims may have gone, since Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the some 600 monasteries and religious houses, senior clergy will be found in the inn though it may be better to avoid the topic of religion; a slip of the tongue can still get thee executed.

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If thee are staying in one of the finer inns thee may also, if thee are very lucky indeed, have the opportunity to meet the aristocracy and even royalty. King Henry be known to have used inns, not only on his travels, but for some of his romantic liaisons and Queen Elizabeth be well known for her stately progresses around the kingdom, having visited 25 counties to date. She hath slept in some 240 different places during her reign and while she oft stays with local dignitaries, many inns number among her lodging places too. With more than 500 people to feed in her retinue, we imagine local innkeepers are overjoyed to hear of her imminent arrival though also fearful they will not be found up to scratch.

If unsure whether thee will fit in at a particular drinking establishment look at how the customers are dressed. Working folk in the alehouse will typically be clothed in a linen shirt, woollen doublet, loose-fitting tunic or perhaps a leather jerkin with a woollen hat atop their head and either woollen trousers or hose on their legs. Some shall have shoes or boots; others will be shod in wooden clogs. Better off men may also wear breeches above their stockings, a doublet of fine material over their shirt, a felt hat with a feather and perhaps a gown or cape if they be very important. Flashycodpieces, favoured in earlier decades of the century, are now rarely seen. Beards, however, are in trend, as are earrings. Beware that there are laws to stop unworthy types wearing certain garment and cloth. Even if thee are a middling sort, only a lord or lord’s progeny may wear velvet.

For women a linen smock or shift and woollen gown be most common, with posher ladies wearing elaborate hooped skirts called farthingales. Note that if a woman be showing a good deal of cleavage, not uncommon even for the Queen, she be likely to be unmarried. Ruffs, for well-to-do folk of both sexes, are seen around the neck, mostly made of linen, but of lace among the very wealthy. Size doth matter – the bigger the ruff, the more important thy drinking or lodging partner be, though if yours be not so big thee can always allow thyself a smirk at the weight of the other’s cleaning bill.

At any establishment thee may be shocked at the sight of unfortunate folk who have been the victim of agricultural or archery accidents, which are both common. More troubling are those who are carrying deadly disease. Wherever thee imbibe beware those who perspire too readily. They may have the dreaded sweating sickness, a disease said to take life swiftly. In 1517 it killed half of Oxford’s population. It goes without saying that thee should avoid those who appear to be harbouring buboes in their armpits and swellings elsewhere about their body. The plague be still a regular visitor to these shores and may break out in any given town, at any time.

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