Friday, September 19, 2008

2008 Friday Fun - Back to the 1500's

Usually I take you back to the time of the Industrial Revolution - the era that gave the Black Country it's name but this week my friends at the Bugle had this interesting archive article about a much earlier period in the history of my region.
It's difficult to imagine the heart of the industrial Black Country being as green as the outlying countryside is today. Bricks and mortar and acres of tarmac have successfully squeezed all but a few areas of park out of the region, but how different the world was in the 1500s.

Pensnett Chase dominated whole swathes of the district, where there lived people of an insular and very protective nature who were very wary of any kind of visitor, and travellers journeying along the dirt tracks and lanes did so at their peril. In 1577, the year this map was drawn up, Good Queen Bess was in the 19th year of her reign, and it would be a further nine years before the humble potato would make its first appearance on an English dinner plate. What would the Englishman's favourite take-away meal have been had they not been brought here?
The name Francis Drake meant absolutely nothing to our distant ancestors of those times, forebears who didn't even understand what the seaside was let alone where the oceans were. But it was in December 1577 that Drake set sail from Plymouth aboard the Pelican (later re-named Golden Hind) on his famous voyage of discovery and plunder around the world. Places that were mentioned in William the Conqueror's Domesday survey of England in 1086 still survived on Saxton's map of Staffordshire, such as Amblecote, Swinford Regis (Kingswinford), Oldbury, Smethik (Smethwick), Bilston, Weddesbury (Wednesbury), Cradley, Tipton and Dudley. Whereas places such as Sturbridge (Stourbridge) were relatively new and yet had become important market towns.
Health and sanitation - or a distinct lack of either - were key issues in Mediaeval times, with the Plague and Black Death causing mayhem to communities throughout the land. Very few places, if any, escaped a terrible death toll, and the Black Country was as susceptible as anywhere else. Other diseases were also prevalent; for example at the so-called Black Assize of 1577 in Oxford, all those in court, including the judge and jury, died of typhus which had evidently been carried by prisoners who were up before the beak. In the end everyone received a death sentence.
Our green and pleasant Black Country was fraught with dangers, a far cry from the romantic view which story books would have us believe. The name of the game was to survive the winter and make it through to the next harvest, the land providing what minimal income there was and hopefully enough food to feed the family, and enough animal woollens and hides to use as clothing. Travelling would have been restricted by the seasons, the rough roads becoming impassable in the winter due to thick mud, and equally difficult to travel along in dryer times because of the ruts that formed. Villages were generally self sufficient and many of our ancestors would have remained in the same community all their lives, the church perhaps their only outlet from the hard graft of living.
However, in 1577 the Church in England was still in turmoil after the trials and tribulations of the Tudor dynasty. A peaceful Black Countryman trying to keep the same faith that his father and countless generations of his family had followed, must have been scared out of his wits by the changes that were taking place. Objecting in any way to the new order of Protestant England had a habit of delivering dire consequences to a villager's door. Even - or perhaps especially - those at the top of the religious tree were not immune from Elizabeth I's anger. In 1577 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, refused to comply with the queen's order to suppress all prophesying, and within 15 months of his election he was suspended from his duties.

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