12 November 2021

Description of England, by William Harrison (1535-1593), an Essex clergyman, in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577)


Of Palaces belonging to the Prince

What shall I need to take upon me to repeat all and tell what houses the Queen’s Majesty hath? since all is hers, and when it pleaseth her in the summer season to recreate herself abroad and view the estate of the country and hear the complaints of her poor commons injured by her unjust officers or their substitutes, every nobleman’s house is her palace, where she continueth during pleasure and till she return again to some of her own, in which she remaineth so long as it pleaseth her.

The court of England, which necessarily is held always where the prince lieth, is in these days one of the most renowned and magnificent courts that are to be found in Europe. 

I might here make a large discourse of such...grave councillors and noble personages as give their daily attendance upon the Queen’s Majesty there. I could in like sort set forth a singular commendation of the virtuous beauty or beautiful virtues of such ladies and gentlewomen as wait upon her person.

It is a rare thing with us now to hear of a courtier which hath but his own language. And...how many gentlewomen and ladies there are that, beside sound knowledge of the Greek and Latin tongues, are thereto no less skilful in the Spanish, Italian, and French, or in some one of them.

Our ancient ladies of the court do shun and avoid idleness, some of them exercising their fingers with the needle...divers in spinning of silk, some in continual reading either of the Holy Scriptures or histories of our own or foreign nations about us, and divers in writing volumes of their own or translating of other men’s into our English and Latin tongue, whilst the youngest sort in the meantime apply their lutes, citterns...and all kinds of music, which they use only for recreation sake when they have leisure and are free from attendance upon the Queen’s Majesty or such as they belong unto.

Many of the eldest sort also are skilful in surgery and distillation of waters. As each of them are cunning in something whereby they keep themselves occupied in the court, so there is in manner none of them but when they be at home can help to supply the ordinary want of the kitchen with a number of delicate dishes of their own devising.

In some great princes’ courts beyond the seas...it is a world to see what lewd behaviour is used among divers of those that resort unto the same, and what whoredom, swearing, ribaldry, atheism, dicing, carding, carousing, drunkenness, gluttony, quarrelling, and such-like inconveniences do daily take hold...all which enormities are either utterly expelled out of the court of England or else so qualified by the diligent endeavour of the chief officers of her Grace’s household that seldom are any of these things apparently seen there without due reprehension and such severe correction as belongeth to those trespasses.

Finally, to avoid idleness and prevent sundry transgressions...such order is taken that every office [of the household] hath either a Bible or the books of the Acts and Monuments of the Church of England [by John Foxe] or both, beside some histories and chronicles lying therein for the exercise of such as come into the same, whereby the stranger that entereth into the court of England upon the sudden shall rather imagine himself to come into some public school of the universities, where many give ear to one that readeth, than into a prince’s palace.

I might speak here of the great trains and troops of serving men also, which attend upon the nobility of England in their several liveries and with differences of cognizances [badges] on their sleeves whereby it is known to whom they appertain. I could also set down what a goodly sight it is to see them muster in the court...much like to the show of the peacock’s tail in the full beauty or of some meadow garnished with infinite kinds and diversity of pleasant flowers.

William Harrison, 1577 

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