Nostlagia: ‘The revelling time’

An Act of Parliament stipulated that all males except clergymen and judges should use and exercise shooting longbows.
An Act of Parliament stipulated that all males except clergymen and judges should use and exercise shooting longbows.

The only hours of the week recognised nationally as leisure time were on Sunday afternoons; yet by Shakespeare’s generation Puritan clergy were beginning to deplore what they called “the revelling time”.

During the previous century, Tudor governments had complained repeatedly that fewer men and boys were using Sunday afternoons after church services for practising with the long bow. An act of Parliament passed during the reign of Henry VIII stipulated that all males, except clergymen and judges, between the ages of seven and 60, should “use and exercise shooting in longbows”. Fathers were required to provide their sons with a bow and a minimum of two arrows. Archery practice, whether at the butts or “roving”, was a patriotic duty.

Road and place-names containing the word “butts”, meaning former archery targets, were often near churchyards or alehouses, and have survived to this day in a few locations. Tibby Butts in Scalby might be one local example.

Sunday afternoon pastimes which lacked official approval would make a very long list. They included indoor games such as “slidethrift” or “shovegroat”, an ancestor of “shove ha’penny”; playing cards, dice, shovelboard and bowling; and outdoor pursuits, such as stoolball, football and tennis. Gentlemen played cards and dice for high stakes; some had their own private bowling greens and alleys. Though Henry
VIII jousted and played
tennis, he also had a pair of “football boots”, which he probably never wore.

Football was largely the preserve of the common populace and was played without much in the way of rules. In Scarborough it was played on the sands at low tide at Shrovetide. There it was condemned by local “bigwigs” as “nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence whereof proceedeth hurt”.

Condemnation of dice and playing cards was often based on their close association with cheating, gambling and sleight of hand. In his Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584, Reginald Scot debunked witchcraft and astrology and other popular superstitions and warned his gullible readers against crooks and card-sharpers who tricked the unsuspecting. “If you play amongst strangers,” he wrote, “beware of him that seems simple or drunken.” (Good advice now as well as then).

To make matters worse, table games, cards and dice were often to be found in ale and tippling houses where drunkenness, swearing, pickpocketing and brawling were commonplace. Christopher Marlowe, the gifted playwright, was only the most famous victim of a tavern brawl, mortally wounded by a stab in the eye from his own knife.

However, before the end of Shakespeare’s life, Puritan hostility to gambling on dice and card games was increasing so rapidly that it was confined to London and the private houses of irreligious gentry and nobility. At Hackness, the Hobys banned such activities from their home and were outraged by local gentry who defied the ban.

Probably more popular than football, board games, blood-sports such as bear-baiting, or even archery, were music and dancing to it. Many of the medieval celebrations such as church ales and guild feasts, saints’ days, and the old pagan festivals of Easter, Mayday, Midsummer and Yuletide, were condemned and officially outlawed by Protestants, but they were still going strongly throughout the country during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Almost invariably they still included musical accompaniment to outdoor dancing.

Most rural communities had no more than a piper and a drummer. The former was recorded locally at Wykeham, Marton, Hovingham, Normanby, Pickering and Middleton. The towns had their waits, groups of three or four musicians, who were employed to play their instruments at feasts, weddings, funerals and street processions. At York and Beverley, these minstrels had their own guild, dressed in uniform, wore silver chains and badges, and excluded “foreigners” from singing or performing within their boundaries. Scarborough’s own waits were required to play music at Common Hall feasts and lead the street processions on August 15, Assumption Day, which marked the opening of the town’s great fish fair. As late as 1598, when Christopher Johnson joined them, Scarborough’s waits were still functioning.

Outdoor dancing in churchyards, which were then still open spaces uncovered by gravestones, and round maypoles, was invariably a summertime activity in May and June. Accompanied by a piper, women took part as well as men. A manual of the time describes a series of simple steps performed in a circle holding hands. (Holding ribbons attached to the top of a maypole was a later Victorian invention).

Contrary to many popular modern assumptions, the attitude to sex in Shakespeare’s days was complicated and controversial, yet judging by contemporary literature it was a subject of general interest and frank debate. Most Tudor adults were married or widowed. In Protestant England there were no privileges or prestige for celibacy. At every level, men needed wives and women needed husbands. A farmer had to have a wife to cook, brew his beer, milk his cows, pick his fruit, manage his vegetable plot, his dairy and his laundry. A farmer’s wife needed a man to plough, sow, harvest, and shepherd sheep. No single man could take on an apprentice or servant or hold public office. So marriage was above all a mutually practical arrangement. Moreover, whereas sexual conduct outside marriage was castigated by church and state, inside marriage it was approved as a necessity for procreation and a God-given pleasure and duty.

Perhaps because marriage was early and punishment for illicit sex so severe, illegitimacy rates were low. Society regarded children born out of wedlock as a burdensome responsibility of the parish. In Yorkshire, however, it seems that a promise of betrothal between potential bride and groom was often regarded as sufficient to legitimise sexual consummation. How widespread this custom was we do not know, but in Monmouthshire fathers usually recognised their bastard children and included them in their wills. Perhaps this was an old Welsh custom unrecognised in English law.