A Newsletter for Lovers of Early English Oak Furniture

May 2010

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A taste of "Merrie Olde Englande," Ipswich, MA, 2010

An authentic maypole dance, Ickwell, England.—both sexes, but, apparently, not very drunken!

The maypole in Castle Bytham church, England, cut in half to make a ladder and inscribed "This ware the may poul 1660." Why, we wonder, was it taken down in 1660, just when maypole dancing was coming back?

Richard Gough's hand drawn title page to Part 1 of his History of Myddle, from the edition of 1981, Dover Books, New York.

Pole Dancing

In the seventeenth century, the maypole was often a highly charged political symbol, enmeshed in the conflict between the Parliamentarians (aka the Puritans) and the Royalists.

In the sixteenth-century, nearly every village and town had its maypole, and in London, apparently, there was one on almost every corner. But as early as 1570 the Puritans began lobbying to get rid of maypoles because they caused such horrors as merry-making on Sundays, drunkenness and, most wicked of all, mixed-gender dancing!  Cromwell's Commonwealth, predictably, outlawed them altogether. Nonetheless, a few maypoles remained defiantly, and dancing around them became an explicit symbol of Royalist resistance to Puritan rule. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, of course, maypoles became widely popular and were re-erected in village after village.

The politics of the maypole appear to underlie a minor incident recounted by Richard Gough in his History of Myddle. Well, it might seem minor to us, but it caused the downfall of the hapless parish "register," one Richard Ralphs:

Not long after the restauration of King Charles the Second, the young people of Myddle, and some drunken fellows, were setting up a May-pole near the churche stile in Myddle, and this Richard Ralphs spoke some words against them; upon which hee was brought before Francis Thornes, of Shelvocke, Esq., the justice of peace, and there it was deposed upon oathe, against him, that hee said it was as greate a sin to sett up a May-pole, as it was to cut of the King's head. (These wordes he denied, even to his dying day.) Upon this hee was bound over to the Assizes, and there indicted for these treasonable wordes, and fined five marks [£3, 6s, 8d]; and an order was made that hee should louse his place.

Myddle was a small town in Shropshire, whose county town, Shrewsbury, had banned maypoles early in the seventeenth century as a result of Puritan pressure. Myddle itself was sympathetic to Cromwell during the Civil War. So, at the time of the newly restored monarchy, opposing the maypole and mentioning regicide in the same sentence may well have come across as pro-Puritan and anti-Royalist. At any rate, the remark was enough to cost poor Richard his livelihood and a hefty fine.

(In 1700, at the age of 66, Richard Gough began setting down his memories of Myddle, the small town in which he'd spent his life. His History of Myddle lay neglected in manuscript form till 1834, when it was first published.)

Incidentally, dancing around the maypole with intertwining ribbons is a Victorian prettification -- part of their construction of "Merrie Olde Englande."




"Glasses to Look In"

Most people in Tudor England did not know what they looked like. "Glasses to look in" were known, but rare. But we've just acquired one. When we got it, it had been fitted with a convex glass which we have replaced with a steel plate, which is what it would have had originally. On the back is a circular groove to receive the rim on the steel plate. In our experience, a steel plate does not make much of a mirror. We had ours polished with jeweler's rouge and a buffing wheel, and still John's reflection appears blurred and faint – no use at all for plucking his eyebrows!

The guilloches carved in the frame are a sixteenth-century form with a simple boss in the center (not the floral centers that became popular in the next century). Very similar guilloches are carved on the ends of a fascinating Elizabethan livery cupboard we owned briefly (see Recently Sold). The bud and leaf spandrels in the corners are found in both the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries.

In the Tudor period the only English-made "glasses to look in" were of polished steel. A few glass mirrors were imported at great expense from Venice, where the use of tin-foil and mercury to produce a reflective surface on flat glass had been developed around 1500. We note that in the late sixteenth century a "glass" could be made of either glass ("cristall") or steel. In 1588, for instance, the furnishings of Leicester House included "three greate glasses, one standing in a verie faire frame, with beares and ragged staves on the top, with a steele glasse in it, the other II of cristall."

Mirrors of "cristall" were so small that today we would class them as jewelry rather than furniture. One was described in 1598 as, "A most perfect looking-glass ornamented with gold, pearl, silver and velvet, so richly as to be estimated at five hundred écus de soleil." Steel glasses could be up to about twelve inches square, but not much larger because steel that was thick enough to keep the surface flat and undistorted was very heavy.

In his delightful Description of England (1577) William Harrison tells us that mirrors were also made of tin and silver -- information that we've not seen quoted in any of our books:

The Romans made excellent looking glasses of our English tin...and very highly were those glasses esteemed of till silver came generally into place, which in the end brought the tin into such contempt that in manner every dishwasher refused to look in other than silver glasses for the attiring of her head.

We love this man Harrison! He's so conflicted about the changes in English society. On the one hand he's proud to bursting that the new prosperity of his beloved England has reached the lower classes: on the other, he's worried stiff that if the lower classes exceed their station in life, the traditional social order will be threatened. We see the same mixture of pride, worry and condescending snobbery in his widely quoted description of silver plate on court cupboards (see Living with Early Oak, p. 11-12 for the full quote).

So in times past the costlie furniture stayed there, whereas now it is descended yet lower, even unto the inferior artificers and many farmers, who...have for the most part learned also to garnish their cupbords with plate.

Dishwashers, after all, should no more do their hair in front of a silver glass than "inferior artificers" should garnish their cupboards with silver plate! Harrison's inferior artificers, it's worth noticing, include the joiners whose work we now drool over!

On a more serious note, however, Harrison does show that glasses to look in were not confined to the wealthiest and were somewhat more common than is generally believed today. But, today, sixteenth-century mirrors are still extremely rare, and there's a good chance that ours is one of the few Tudor mirrors in the country, and probably the only one with a steel plate!
NB: It's on our website in Objects of Interest, not Mirrors.




What Was It Before It Was Modern Art?

What appears to be a modernist piece of "found" sculpture is, in fact, a killick. No wiser? We're not surprised. A killick was an anchor made from a stone held in a wooden frame. Killicks were quite common in seventeenth-century New England, particularly along the coast of Maine, or anywhere where cast iron anchors were hard to come by and expensive. The "wood" in ours is actually from a vine that grows profusely in Maine and, according to the Mainer who identified it for us, is indestructible, alive or dead.

Dohn Cluff. wrote an article about killicks in The American Neptune, a Quarterly Journal of Maritime History (April 1955) in which he illustrated ours. He also quotes an interesting extract from the diary of Christopher Levett, who explored the Maine coast in two boats in 1623:

... the storme being great, and the winde blowing right of the shore, and to runne our boate on the shore among the breaches, (which roared in a most fearfull manner) and cast her away and indanger ourselves we were loath to do so, seeing no land nor knowing where we were. At length I caused our Killick (which was all the Anker we had) to be cast forth and one continually to hold his hand upon the roode or cable, by which we knew whether our anker held or no: which being done wee commended ourselues to God by prayer, & put on a resolution to be as comfortable as we could, and so fell to our victuals. Thus we spent that night, and the next morning, with much adoe we got into Sawco, where I found my other boate. Sailors Narratives of Voyages along the New England Coast, 1524-1624 with notes by George Parker Winship (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1905).

Our killick was dredged up from the bottom of the harbor in Saco, "Sawco" to Christopher Levett  – no, it couldn't possibly be his!!

From our personal collection (not for sale).