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Review: “A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England” by Dr Ian Mortimer

It’s Spring—yay! That means it’s time to start Spring Cleaning—boo!

I love to see Tottering Towers clean and shining, but I hate housework. It’s such a bore to be stuck inside when so much is going on outside. One way to make this solitary confinement with hard labour easier to bear is by listening to audio books.

“Words are often as important as experience, because words make experience last.”
William Morris

Listening while I work means my hands can be busy with what William Morris called mindless toil, while my brain relaxes with some fiction. Alternatively, my mind can be occupied with what the Wizard of Walthamstow would have called useful work—research.

This week, I’ve been listening to Dr Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. It’s a real eye-opener. Did you know that in 1557, there was an influenza pandemic which hit the world far harder than Covid has? We’ve all heard of Plague and the Black Death, but that strain of sixteenth-century flu was a real horror too. It is said to have killed 7% of the English population. Compare that to the quarter of one percent death rate in England so far in the Covid pandemic.

Of course, there have been 465 years of improvements in nutrition, living conditions, healthcare, and information technology since then. The even better news is that the Elizabethan flu pandemic, terrible though it was, burned itself out in under two years.

There’s lots of valuable information about life during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and interesting insights into the lives of beggars, aristocrats, and every level of society in between. One of these, the story of Thomas Appletree, shows the limitation of audiobooks. Their data isn’t stored in a searchable form. To make sure I’d got the details right in the story which follows, I had to resort to good old Google, as it was only in retrospect that I thought to include Tom’s story in this review. To paraphrase Omar Khayyam; the spoken word is heard, and having been heard vanishes forever. I didn’t want to rely on my memory alone.

One summer day in 1579, Thomas Appletree was fooling around in a boat on the Thames with some friends. He had a gun, and was showing off by firing it at random. It just so happened that Elizabeth I’s glass-sided barge was passing by. A stray shot from Tom’s gun hit its captain. Tom was caught, tried, found guilty of attempting to assassinate the Queen, and sentenced to hang. He pleaded his innocence all the way through, claiming that it was a complete accident, and he had no idea the Queen was near.

Right up until the second the noose was put around Tom’s neck, nobody would listen—but then a gentleman calmly stepped out of the crowd to hand over a Royal pardon. It turns out that Elizabeth knew all along Tom was no assassin, but thought he needed to be taught a lesson. Talk about a last-minute reprieve!

Image by jo-B

That is only one of a huge number of stories contained in this book. Every chapter is packed with fascinating facts. The music of Tallis and Byrd is so popular now that it’s hard to believe they apparently lost money hand over fist when they first started publishing it. However, this makes more sense when you learn that each piece of sixteenth-century sheet music only contained one part: for a single voice, a viol, or whatever. That meant no musician or singer knew what any other performer would be doing during a performance, so it’s a wonder anyone could a) afford to buy enough copies, or b) manage to organise a performance of something like Tallis’s Spem in Alium, which is written for forty voices.

I particularly liked the illustrations of Elizabethan low-life, with its colourful terms. I couldn’t help wondering whether anyone would really say; “Watch out! That woman’s a demander of glimmer!” rather than “Watch out! She’s a con artist!” (or worse). A second term highlighted another disadvantage of audio books. Despite rewinding and listening twice, I still couldn’t tell whether a horse thief would be called “a prigger of prancers” or “a pricker of prancers”. That’s a criticism of my ears rather than the narrator, actor Mike Grady, by the way.

If you only know Mr Grady’s work from Citizen Smith or Last of the Summer Wine, you’re in for a treat. From direct readings of primary sources to author Dr Mortimer’s own witty asides, he brings everything to life. His narration ranges from sombre to playful, as required.

Image by FotografieLink on Pixabay

Going back to that colourful term for a horse thief, they always say “write the book you want to read, but can’t find”. Listening to this book made me wonder if poor William Shakespeare was driven to write drama because the curriculum at Stratford Grammar was sadly lacking in excitement. I bet Cicero never threatened to “tickle the catastrophe” of any “cream-faced loon”!

I recommend this book as a fascinating read (or listen), and an absorbing introduction to this period in our history. I’ll definitely check out more of Dr Mortimer’s work.

If I go on to use any of this information in my work, I’ll need to get a real, “dead-tree” version of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England in order to go back to the sources quoted.

Queen Elizabeth I— Pic by WikiImages

That touches on something which applies to all non-fiction books, whether audio or actual. If you are researching a subject, always cross check every fact with other reference works. Use the sources cited, where possible (and practical) track right back to primary sources, and look for work on the same subject by other authors.

No matter how learned and talented a researcher might be, each one brings their own prejudices to a subject. When you’re writing non-fiction, it’s vital to watch out for any unconscious bias.

If you only write fiction, you might think absolute historical accuracy isn’t important. Not so! There’s always at least one reader who knows exactly how much your hero should tip an ostler in 1589, for example. You don’t want anybody in your audience to think your drop-dead gorgeous aristocrat is either mean as dirt, or a reckless spendthrift, so look up the going rate—and double-check.

Reading (or listening) widely will give you the best chance of creating a story world based on a foundation of generally accepted truths, rather than a one-sided imaginary version which might disappoint or annoy your readers.

Spending time with books is always enjoyable, anyway!

4 thoughts on “Review: “A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England” by Dr Ian Mortimer”

  1. A very interesting piece I learned a great deal from it.
    How clever of you to have found the book. I am inspired to get my own copy. Listening to books isn’t something I do often and wouldn’t think about doing when doing household chores because I would want to stop and sit down to listen.
    Thank you for such an interesting post Christina.

    1. Thank you, Ann. It’s surprising how the time flies when listening to something interesting. At the moment Clarissa Dickson-Wright’s History of English Food is my companion around the house and garden. I’ve reached the early seventeenth century and so far there’s only been one recipe I fancy trying. The recipe for tobacco syrup —combining the two most fashionable things at the time, tobacco and sugar—sounded particularly horrible. I’ll be trying the salmon cooked with oranges, though. That sounded delicious! Thanks for commenting! x

  2. Oh this looks absolutely fascinating and I will seek it out.

    I’m currently reading Tim Ashby’s new book ‘Elizabethan Secret Agent:The Untold Story of William Ashby 1536-1593’ for a review, and prior to that reviewed ‘The Queen’s Lender’ by Jean Findlay, and I could very much do with some background information about life in that era. My knowledge of the history of that time is woefully lacking.

    Thank you for this excellent review.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Rosemary. I’ve made a note of the two books you mention. Although the Plantagenets were more my style before I listened to this audiobook, I’m now keen to learn more about the Tudors. All I knew about the Elizabethan age I had learned from reading Alison Uttley’s “A Traveller in Time” when I was a lot younger. If you’ve never read it, it covers the Babington plot in the style of what I think would be termed Young Adult fiction , although it’s now a very long time since I read it!

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