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Quirk of history

The weird world of Tudor England

A scene from Blackadder II: almost as strange as the reality

When Europeans came to visit Tudor England, says Stephen Greenblatt in The New York Review of Books, they found the place utterly baffling. In London, the big entertainment was animal fights: large crowds would pay to see packs of fierce dogs attack bulls or bears tied to stakes. “This sport,” remarked one visitor, “is not very pleasant to watch.” Thanks to the Reformation, Mass was celebrated “not in the time-honoured Latin but in plain English”. Even a dinner invitation could cause confusion. “It is almost impossible to believe,” wrote an Italian merchant in his journal, “that they could eat so much meat.” What’s more, the English wash it down with “a drink from barley and the seeds of hops which they call beer”. It’s healthy, he said, but “sickening to taste”.

In 1597, the French ambassador André Hurault was ushered into the Privy Chamber to find Queen Elizabeth I “strangely attired” in what looked like a dress of gauze. “She kept the front of her dress open,” he wrote in his diary, “and one could see the whole of her bosom.” The following week she received him again, this time in a black taffeta gown similarly slit down the front. “She has a trick of putting both hands on her gown and opening it,” the stunned ambassador noted, “insomuch that all her belly can be seen.” This was no wardrobe malfunction, of course – it was a deliberate gambit to give the queen the upper hand. “Her interlocutors, thrown off-balance, felt they were entering into an unsettling, fantastical world.”