A Brief History of England…by way of the Thames

A river runs through it. Well, technically LOADS of rivers run through it. But, of all of England’s rivers, the Thames is the most widely known. Turns out you can learn a lot about England’s history without ever leaving the river. So, let’s go for a swim!

The Thames has been around longer than people have been around it, obvs. But, it’s name goes back aways. When the Romans arrived and started documenting life on the isle (because no one documented minutiae quite like the Romans….and those of us who live on social media…anyway where was I?). Ah, yes. Before the Romans the river was called “Tems” which is basically how it is pronounced today, so you are basically speaking Briton when you say it. Back then there was just a wee village next to a wide river across from a swamp.

The Romans showed up and, like they do, changed the name to Tamesis.

Oh, and changed the town’s name to Londinium.

They kindly built the first bridge over the river in Londinium (round about where London Bridge stands today), probably to much Briton head scratching because why would we want to be connected to the swamp?

Eventually the Romans scarper and the Anglo-Saxons settle in and call the river “Tamyse”. Sure. Why not?

Speaking of the Anglo-Saxons, the oldest weapon ever to be mudlarked off the foreshore is this 9th-century spearhead. Dropping crap in and around the river is a time-honoured tradition.

Then the Normans show up and, like any corporate takeover, just start rearranging and rebranding. William the Conqueror tried to cross the Thames at Southwark. The town blockaded the bridge that wasn’t London Bridge but was near where London Bridge is now so he burnt the town in spite and crossed upriver instead.

The first official London Bridge was built in 1176 by Henry II. Well, not BY Henry II, but you know what I mean. See, King Harry had epically goofed up, making an irritated, off-handed comment about how his best-bud slash irritating thorn in his side, Thomas a Becket, should be taken out and shot, well not shot, but you know what I mean, for getting in the crown’s way with all his God and the Power-of-the-Church rhetoric. And, well, Thomas a Becket was dispatched by some loyal soldiers and Henry realised this had probably cheesed off God and damned his soul, in other words he ROYALLY effed up. So, Henry did what anyone would do…he started building apology-chapels across England, and apparently an apology-bridge. (I only get flowers, what’s with that?!)

As we all learned from the song, London Bridge didn’t fare well. It needed to be rebuilt a handful of times. Here it is in the 17th century.

Here’s the 19th century version….in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Yeah, you read that right. Long story.

Henry’s youngest son, King John I, apparently liked the Thames as a Spot to Sign Things. In 1217 he signed a peace treaty with France called the Treaty of Kingston on an island known as Ravens Ait. Two years before that he MIGHT have sealed the Magna Carta while on Magna Carta Island. The document say “Runnymede” but the ait now known as Magna Carta Island sits at the weir there, so…

In 1252 Henry III, John’s son, was gifted a polar bear by the King of Norway because royal people are weird and he let it swim in the Thames because royal people are weird.

Then blah blah plague. Blah blah poll tax. Blah blah Peasants Revolt. Blah blah War of the Roses. Blah blah Henry VIII. (All that stuff that gets covered everywhere all the time)

So, basically a bunch of stuff happened and cranky Europeans set sail for new lands and brought crap back. Around 1586 tobacco arrived in England and people quickly got themselves an addiction. One of the items most fished out of the Thames is late 16th-century pipes.

Periodically the Thames would freeze over. A combination of The Little Ice Age and large bridges slowing the river’s flow meant during hard freezes people could take to the river for some frosty frivolity. The height of these Frost Faires was during the 17th century, occurring on average around 1 in 10 years. (The earliest Frost Faire recorded was in the 7th century and it is said that in the early 12th century that Empress Matilda made her escape from Oxford to London along the frozen Thames) During these faires, Englishfolk took to the river to play games, shop, get haircuts, watch plays, race horses, and all manner of nutty fun, like bowling on the ice.

Various bowling games have long been popular in England. Around 1635 a bowling alley was installed on Eel Pie Island. I bring this up solely because I wanted to mention Eel Pie Island. There is in fact an island in the Thames named after Eel Pie. Eel Pie is a thing Londoners named an island after.

Along with whimsical history notes, the Thames also gets pretty dark. One such note is that of Execution Dock in London. Without TV or Xbox, people got easily bored and liked to wander off to watch executions. Right at the tailend of our timeline one such famous execution to take place there was that of the possible pirate, William Kidd. He was hung twice then his body displayed over the Thames at Tilbury Point for THREE YEARS! (OG definition of overkill)

Anyway…Thames the breaks!

Class dismissed.

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The Last 12th Century Garb Guide You Will Ever Need

Costumers and reenactors alike will pore over illuminated manuscripts and extant bits of cloth housed in museums to get the right look. This can be trickier for those folks working on earlier period garb, like our group who, while also flitting about other time periods, works a lot with the 12th century.

To save you, dear readers, time, we have put together a handy guide based on one key observation that we’ve made:

12th century nobles dress like woodfowl.

Don’t believe us? Welp, grab your bliaut hems because you’re in for a treat!

We’ll begin with a simple songbird we all know and love, the robin. Rich golden brown and blue-grey plumage and a chest of eye-popping orangey-red. And our noble nailed it! 

The European goldfinch is not a particularly showy bird, but some nobles can definitely pull off the subtle-but-regal look.

And here we have Hildegard von Bingen in all her magpie-inspired glory. Because magpies are awesome and so it Hilde.

And now we come to the birds that the 12-year-old in all of us has been waiting for…tits! We’ve got two tits for you today. The first one, the smaller of the two (they’re always different sizes) is the blue tit. Our noble’s outfit could not be more on point.

It’s the attention to detail that really caught our eye when it came to this great tit – the noble not the bird. The blue stockings deserve a slow golf clap.

The chaffinch may seem an understated and stately bird, but that doesn’t stop our ratite noble from going all out to achieve this feather-inspired fashion.

Surely by now we’ve exhausted our examples. HA! This wouldn’t be A THING™ if there were not a ridiculous amount of evidence to support our ridiculous supposition. So, top off your cuppa because we’re halfway there!

There are few birds as striking as the European starling and nobles never pass up a chance to be striking. Striking deals, striking coins, striking fear…striking a pose.

Sure, you say, but these are not austentatious aves. Well, let us introduce you to the roller. A perfect inspiration for our nature-draped nobbies because they are as graceful as they are gaudy.

True, most nobles tend to find their couture creativity in the more nuanced of nest-dwellers. For instance, the turtledove. It’s all in the contrast and patterns. And an oscine obsession.

Yes, this is good fashion sense. Something basically subtle with dynamic patterning and just the right amount of bling. Like this fairy wren ensemble! Perfection!

Or, not. This guy did not get the subtlety memo and has gone all green woodpecker on us. I mean…It’s a look.

I mean, I guess if you are going to insist on going all out just dress like a pheasant! Pheasant, with a ‘ph’. Not like a peasant. Don’t be ridiculous. (Can we just talk about those chausses for a second though?!)

And now you cannot unsee it. Everywhere you look, woodfowl-inspired haute couture. We bet you are just as shocked as this horse is.

You’re welcome.

Glad you enjoyed this twitter feed.

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What Not to Wear: Medieval Sumptuary Laws

A topic that crops up now and again in Ren faire and reenactment circles is the idea of sumptuary laws. I think most people know that “purple is for royals”. But, is that true? When did that start? What kind of purple? But, more to the point, was it just about purple? 

It is tempting to think of sumptuary laws as something that came into being in Renaissance Europe, but they have been around a long time and in many places. Leviticus 19:19 prevented Jews from wearing cloth woven of two materials. The Japanese Shogunate instituted strict clothing rules to prevent the wealth-gaining merchants from showing up the Samurai. Throughout largely Christian medieval Europe Jews were required to wear a yellow belt, badge, ring, and/or a pointed hat, and Muslims often had to wear a crescent shaped badge.

Just in case you thought that yellow badge thing was something new. Nope.

These are just a few in what could be a very, very long list. The point is that throughout human history people have utilized clothing rules as a marker for social divisions, typically to ensure class distinctions, but sometimes to mark certain groups as “other”. Other reasons for these regulations had to do with trade. To encourage the use of native fibers, imports of certain fibers might be banned or limited. Wool, for instance, was a highly lucrative market, and various rules and tariffs were used by countries in an attempt to get the best profits.

Fun fact! In the 13th century you could be heavily fined for not washing your sheep. And that’s not a euphemism.

Purple gets mentioned a lot, though. Throughout the Bible the color is mentioned (often in conjunction with scarlet and or gold) as a signifier of wealth; the Greek word porphura specifically occurring in the New Testament. Roman law prevented enslaved people and certain citizens from wearing purple, regarding it as for the wealthiest citizens. In 1363, Edward III released a law which restricted diet and clothing of various classes. Purple, silk, and fur were singled out specifically. Silk and fur were for the noble classes and purple for the royal family. Under Elizabethan law the sumptuary requirements of England became perhaps the most restrictive.

Only the Augustus could wear a purple paludamentum.

But, purple is pretty easy to come by as far as dying is concerned. Simply mixing blue-producing with red-producing ingredients would get the job done. So, why are folks’ presumably purple panties in a knot?

The purple in question was not just any purple, but a purple referred to as Tyrian Purple, Royal Purple, Tyrian Red, Phoenician Purple, or Imperial Purple which is produced from sea snails. In ancient cultures it was Murex brandaris and later Hexaplex trunculus was also used. (These little guys got seriously used up basically because they have pretty blood) Depending on the snail (or mixture of snails) and mordant and cloth type the color produced was a vibrant, rich purple with often a bit of red or a bit of blue tint. The process of achieving this particular purple was labor and materials intensive. This made it very expensive. VERY expensive.

In a world where purple doesn’t always mean what you think it means…it’s ISH.

Because it was expensive, most people could not afford it anyway, but as a wealthy member of society you might also get your nose twisted over people mimicking the color. But, we do see evidence of lavenders, indigos, and purplish shades on various people in manuscript images. Because, and let’s be honest here, purple is hella pretty who doesn’t want to look hella pretty?

So wealth. So conspicuous.

Equally reserved to the noble and royal were ermine fur (which sounds so much sexier than stoat stubble) and cloth of gold. A 1520 summit between Henry VIII and Francis I was attended by so many people wearing cloth of gold that the event became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Cloth of gold can be traced back to the Byzantine Empire and it is made from very thin thread of gold or thread wrapped in a thin spiral casing of gold.

MOAR wealth. MOAR conspicuous.

As mentioned above these laws don’t just have to be about clothes, because people seem to be fond of telling people what they can and can’t have generally speaking. Some laws dictate what foods certain people can and can’t eat. Most famously there are the religious regulations which forbid eating shellfish, or pork, or combining dairy with beef, or not eating cow all together. There is a veritable soup of anthropological and historical reasons for how these came to be, but that they are important to their cultures is certainly not debatable.

Edward III’s 1363 “Statutes Concerning Diet and Apparel”  tells the lower classes they cannot have “flesh or fish” more than once a day. Why was Eddy 3 in a tizzy about what people were wearing and eating? After the Black Death there were fewer English, fewer Europeans for that matter…far, far fewer. And that meant that there was more wealth to go around, so folks who had not previously been able to afford such luxuries as pheasant and silk were able to do so. A sort of upward mobility fueled by parasite. But, this angered those people who felt their stations were in jeopardy of being confused with those of lower people. So, the crown stepped in to set everyone straight, you know, so every knew who they were at a glance and were not inclined to forget it.

Errybody so fancy even the brick layers are wearing fur…and crowns.

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SCA Persona Guide (HysHis Style)

The 9 Stages of Persona Building

This one is for our SCA friends. Two members of Hysterical History play in the SCA (we’ll note here that one of us has an English persona and one of us has a Welsh persona). This post comes from a place of love…and snark.

So, you are new to the Society for Creative Anachronism. You’ve been told when fighter practice is and you’ve been invited to some guild meetings. And everyone keeps talking about their personas and you feel like you should get one, too. To help ease the process, here’s a little guide on what to expect when deciding on a persona. 

1. Think of something cool, like Vikings!*

*Yes, I know it's Norse.
This is absolutely NOT what the Norse looked like!

 

2. Realize half of everyone are Vikings.

The invasion has occurred! Hail and welcome, Ulfhild and Oddketil!

 

3. Consider being English, but decide that sounds boring.

Sooooo boooooring! Extra bored just thinking about it.

 

4. Decide to be Welsh instead. (It’s on the same island, after all)

Yeah, Welsh is cool! Odd facial hair notwithstanding.

 

5. Research names and learn you have no idea how to pronounce Welsh.

I'd like to buy a vow...nope...a conson...nope...a phoneme that makes sense!

6. Opt for Italian because Italian is sexy!

I'm too sexy for this book.

7. Realize that you are going to die under all the Italian Ren velvet.

We're not really in danger of a Little Ice Age...

8. See amazing garb on a German persona and decide to be German.

9. Spend a decade improving your German garb only to sit in on a Spanish clothing class at King’s College and then start all over. Viva la toca!

Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's the pellote.

Cool your tits. We couldn't mention EVERYONE!

 

The 5 Types of Persona Play:

Maybe you already HAVE a persona, but aren’t really sure what to do with it. Here is a helpful guide to understanding the options available to you.

  1. The Basic – you have a name, yay!
  2. The Casual – you have a name AND a backstory.
  3. The Ham – you have a name, a backstory AND you play it up in Court
  4. The Ham and Cheese – you have a name, a backstory, roleplay at the entire event, AND write your Facebook posts as your persona
  5. The Succumbed – Меня зовут Василий. Я люблю долго гулять по пляжу и сражения на мостах.

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