Category Archives: England
James Brown, University of SheffieldAlcohol deaths in England and Wales in 2020 were the highest for 20 years. The Office for National Statistics recorded 7,423 deaths from alcohol misuse, a 19.6% increase compared with 2019. Although this is likely to have many complex causes, data from Public Health England suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdowns are at least partly responsible for the increase. Largely, the disruption of work and social routines have led to a surge of hazardous drinking within the home (with some fairly harrowing personal stories).
The Intoxicating Spaces project, of which I’m part, has been exploring how pandemics also influenced the use of intoxicants, including patterns of alcohol consumption, in the past. As part of this work, we’ve looked at how the successive bubonic plague outbreaks that gripped England, especially London, in the 17th century (1603, 1625, 1636 and 1665) wrought similar changes in people’s drinking habits.
Like today, these sudden and frightening outbreaks of disease restricted access to inns, taverns, alehouses and other public drinking places – the cornerstones of early-modern sociability. While never subject to wholesale closure, these environments were targeted by the equivalent of social distancing legislation. A 1665 London plague order, for example, identified “tippling in taverns, alehouses, coffee-houses, and cellars” as “the greatest occasion of dispersing the plague”, and imposed a 9pm curfew.
The extent to which these regulations altered 17th-century people’s relationship with alcohol is difficult to determine based on surviving information. However, anecdotal evidence suggests there might have been a comparable shift towards drinking at home.
In his classic 1722 meditation on the 1665 London outbreak Due Preparations for the Plague, Daniel Defoe told the story of a London grocer who voluntarily quarantined himself and his family in their home for the duration of the pandemic. Among the provisions he assembled were 12 hogsheads of beer; casks and rundlets containing four varieties of wine (canary, malmsey, sack and tent; 16 gallons of brandy; and “many sorts of distill’d waters” (spirits).
According to Defoe, this impressive stockpile was not gratuitous but “necessary supplies”. This is because, surprisingly from the perspective of today’s public health messaging, in this period alcohol was thought to have had medicinal value and its moderate consumption during plague outbreaks was actively encouraged.
Contemporary doctors and medical writers believed alcohol worked as a plague preventatives, in two main ways.
First, the consumption of beers, wines and spirits was believed to strengthen the body’s key defensive organs of the brain, heart and liver. They were especially beneficial when taken first thing in the morning, with many commentators recommending fortifying liquid plague breakfasts.
In his 1665 plague treatise, Medela Pestilentiae, minister and medical writer Richard Kephale claimed that it’s good “to drink a pint of maligo [Malaga wine or port] in the morning against the infection”. (He was also effusive on “the inexpressible virtues of tobacco”.) Many recipes for the popular “preventative” and “cure” plague water invariably contain wine and spirits, as well as pharmaceutical herbs.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, moderate drinking was believed to ward off those fearful mental states that induced melancholy (early modern terminology for depression), which was thought to make people more vulnerable to contracting the plague.
As Defoe put it, the grocer’s liquor hoard was not for his and his family’s “mirth or plentiful drinking”, but rather “so as not to suffer their spirits to sink or be dejected, as on such melancholy occasions they might be supposed to do”. Likewise, in his 1665 plague treatise, Zenexton Ante-Pestilentiale, physician William Simpson advocated the “drinking of good wholesome well-spirited liquor” to “make the heart merry” and “cause cheerfulness”. This would banish “many enormous ideas of fear, hatred, anxiousness, sorrow, and other perplexing thoughts”, and thereby “fortify the balsam of life against all infectious breaths”.
The key thing for all of these writers was alcohol “moderately taken”. Excessive drinking to the point of drunkenness was still cautioned against, and “living with temperance upon a good generous diet” (in the words of one author) remained the baseline for most plague medicine.
However, then as now, it’s likely that the disruption of patterns of labour and leisure, along with the daily anxieties of living in a plague-stricken city, drove many to the psychological consolations of the bottle on a more dangerous and habitual basis. In A Journal of the Plague Year – Defoe’s other, more celebrated novel about the 1665 London outbreak – he tells the story of a physician who kept his “spirits always high and hot with cordials and wine”. But “could not leave them off when the infection was quite gone, and so became a sot for all his life after”.
Gordon McKelvie, University of WinchesterThe Wars of the Roses are normally portrayed as a series of battles between two warring houses, York and Lancaster, over who was rightly king of England. However, they were about much more than that. In many ways, the wars were really about standards of government.
Remembered mostly as an English-only affair, on the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, a key event in the wars, it is worth remembering how the wider politics of late-Medieval Europe, particularly France, shaped this important, and often commemorated, part of English history.
The Wars of the Roses were three distinct conflicts. The first phase of the wars ended when the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was usurped by the 18-year-old Edward IV, who then cemented his position by winning the Battle of Towton.
Conflict re-emerged a decade later, this time caused by the deteriorating personal relations between the Yorkist king, Edward IV, and his closest ally and advisor, the Earl of Warwick, later known as “the Kingmaker”. During this instability, problems in England were drawn into a wider sets of events. Foreign rulers, particularly the French king, Louis XI, and his main adversary, Charles, Duke of Burgundy, were able exploit these divisions.
A scandalous marriage
The Earl of Warwick started the 1460s as the key figure in government, with key military and diplomatic responsibilities that helped secure Edward’s newly won kingdom. However, as the decade progressed, Warwick’s control over the young king waned as Edward sought his council less and less. The key division between the two men was foreign policy, a key aspect of medieval government.
In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a knight killed fighting for the Lancastrians three years earlier. This was a scandalous marriage. Kings married to form wider alliances that would benefit the kingdom, never for love. The ceremony also occurred as Warwick was negotiating a union with a French princess, causing the earl much embarrassment.
A connected issue was the different visions that Edward and Warwick had of England’s role within wider European politics.
France was also politically unstable at the time, with Louis XI (nicknamed the “Universal Spider”) clashing with many of his leading subjects, particularly the Duke of Burgundy who had significant independent power.
While Warwick favoured an alliance with Louis, Edward preferred an alliance with the Duke of Burgundy.
The duke was more than simply a subject of the French king as Burgundy ruled over the Low Countries, which constituted much of modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. As such, Edward believed an alliance with Burgundy would provide England with stronger commercial ties with many Flemish and Dutch towns.
It also had the added advantage of avoiding an unpopular alliance with one of England’s traditional enemies, the French. The alliance was cemented when Edward secured the marriage of his sister to the duke in 1468.
Crisis and opportunity
While this was happening, many Lancastrians remained at large. The deposed Henry VI was eventually captured as a fugitive in July 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His French wife (Margaret of Anjou) and their son (Prince Edward) spent much of the 1460s trying to gain foreign allies to support a Lancastrian restoration, particularly the French king.
For Louis XI, however, Margaret’s cause was a lost one until divisions in England meant became beneficial to the French king. Little did he know that the situation in England was turning in such a way.
The fractions between Warwick and Edward were too big to fix. So Warwick allied himself with Edward’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, instigating failed popular rebellions in 1469 and 1470, which caused them to flee to France. It was at this point that Louis XI brokered an unlikely alliance between Warwick and Margaret of Anjou, in which Warwick agreed to restore Margaret’s imprisoned husband as king.
The complex history of the following months can be boiled down to the key events. Warwick, backed by the French, invaded England in September 1470, though Margaret and her son remained in France until England had been secured.
Seeing his support collapse, Edward fled to the Low Countries, and Henry VI was restored as king. The Duke of Burgundy eventually backed Edward privately, giving him 50,000 florins and several Dutch ships. This allowed Edward to invade in spring 1471.
However, rather than facing one enemy, Edward IV faced two: Warwick and Anjou. After returning to England, he rallied enough troops and, on Easter Sunday, defeated an army led by Warwick at Barnet. Warwick was killed fleeing from the battle and his body put on display.
This should have ended the war, but Margaret, her son and many Lancastrians did not arrive in England until two days after the Kingmaker’s death. Margaret’s reluctance to cross the channel with her supporters (no doubt to the annoyance of the French king) meant that opposition to Edward was divided, which gave him the advantage in both battles.
The Yorkists regrouped and gathered more troops, before marching west for a second battle at Tewkesbury. The battle occurred just south of Tewkesbury Abbey, where the Yorkist army was able to overwhelm the Lancastrians led by Margaret of Anjou, whose 16-year-old son was killed in the fighting.
The twists and turns that led to Battle of Tewkesbury are more than just a good story. They tell us a lot about how English and European politics were intricately bound together, even during periods of civil war.
Both sides relied on foreign aid. France and the Low Countries were a places of refuge when the tide was turning against them, and the French were important backers. In all, this period in one of England’s most famous wars shows that civil wars, even in the middle ages, could be subject to foreign interference and the machinations of wider geopolitical events. Ultimately, the Wars of the Roses were not an exclusively English set of events.