Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part III: Puritans, Plums, and a Cereal Complainer…

Jonathan Willis

I don’t know about you, but I’m always delighted and intrigued when I’m unexpectedly reminded of the humanity we share with the inhabitants of early modern England. I’ve been reading through a large quantity of godly lives recently (spiritual diaries, memoirs, biographies, books of remembrance, etc.), and if I’m honest the content is often rather unedifying – by which I mean, far, far too edifying! It’s therefore quite pleasing when, amidst the intensely personal but also strangely generic soul-searching, you come across something which gives you a flavour of the individual. This happened while I was reading the diary of Samuel Ward. Ward finished his career as a moderate, establishment puritan figure and Master of the recently founded puritan college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge. In the 1590s, however, whilst a student (later Fellow) at Emmanuel, Ward was ‘a vigorous and outspoken puritan’.[1]

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget?  'Wicked child!'

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget? ‘Wicked child!’

Outspoken or not, though, his diary reveals his ongoing struggles with sin, and particularly with food and drink. In June 1595, for example, he recorded ‘to much drinking after supper’ on the 21st, ‘going to drink wyne, and that in the Taverne, befor I called upon God’ on the 27th, and ‘immoderate’ eating of cheese at 3 o’clock in the morning on the 22nd (perhaps a snack to satisfy the hunger cravings brought on by drinking too much the night before?). Cheese was a recurrent weakness. He recorded ‘immoderate eating of walnuts and cheese after supper’ on October 3 1595, and ‘intemperate eating of cheese after supper’ on August 13 1596. Perhaps the catalyst for this binge was the fact that, the day before, Ward recorded in his diary ‘my anger att Mr. Newhouse att supper for sayng he had eaten all the bread’. As well as bread, cheese and wine, Ward also hankered after fruit: references to damsons, plums, pears and raisins pepper his diary.[2] On 8 August 1596 Ward noted that after observing ‘my longing after damsens … I made my vow not to eat in the orchard. Oh that I could so long after Godes graces…’

Lovely cheese...

Lovely cheese…

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Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part II: Nightmare neighbours and Tudor ASBOs

Jonathan Willis

This post is, if not a follow-up, then perhaps a sequel to my investigation last month into the eccentric Elizabethan Miles Fry, aka Emmanuel Plantagenet, who claimed to be the secret lovechild of no less a coupling than Elizabeth I and God Himself. My next archival oddball is Goodwife Dannutt, from Rose Alley in London. Dannutt is described in the calendar of the Lansdowne manuscripts as ‘a poor distracted woman’, writing to Lord Burghley and ‘begging him for Jesus Christ’s sake to punish a constable and two watchmen, who are so noisy in the night she can take no rest’.[1]

Modern society seems more than a little preoccupied with the idea of nuisance neighbours. A quick google search reveals the website http://www.nfh.org.uk/ – designed to help embattled residents deal with, you guessed it, ‘Neighbours from Hell’. Newspapers, it appears, love to run stories about neighbours from hell; from the story of an academic whose experience of hellish neighbours may (the Telegraph speculates) have contributed to her tragic suicide, to the Mirror’s more risible account of Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s decision to install a nine-foot gate at the entrance to their $10,000,000 California mansion, ‘without permission’. The UK’s Channel 5 is currently screening a television series called The Nightmare Neighbour Next Door, which promises to reveal ‘the traumatic, shocking, humorous and occasionally bizarre experiences of nightmare neighbours’; that’s people who live ‘next door’, in case anybody was in any doubt. In recent years even governments have taken this sort of thing increasingly seriously with the advent of the ASBO, or ‘anti-social behaviour order’, such as that given to a noisy Burnley resident.


Gwyneth and Chris – no longer a couple, but still neighbours from hell?

Elizabethan communities did not have to cope with electric gates, celebrity (ex-) couples, domestic cannabis farms, electronically amplified dance music or an influx of stag and hen parties to ‘party houses’ in affluent parts of Dorset. However, they were no less affected by noise. Just as Mary Douglas observed in Purity and Danger that ‘dirt’ was ‘matter out of place’, so we can usefully think of ‘noise’ as ‘sound out of place’. Sounds that might be acceptable, even appropriate, in one time or place or context could be deeply disturbing or offensive in others. I’ve written about this myself, in terms of religious music.[2] But clearly the principle can be extended to all forms of noise pollution.

The exact nature of the noise that disturbed Goodwife Dannutt is unknown, but in her frantic letter to William Cecil she noted that the time of the disturbance was ‘at one of the clocke at an unlawfull time’.[3] She requested Cecil ‘be so good unto me’ as to force her neighbour, ‘my good man Johnson’, to reveal ‘the counstables name that dwell next house’ and also the names of two watchmen, who were presumably responsible for the unseemly night time interruptions.

Dannutt’s desperation is palpable. She beseeched Burghley ‘for godes sake’ to help her, ‘for godes sake your honour’ and that she ‘may have some ende of it for cryste Jesus sake’. This sort of language, incidentally, would not have endeared her to any particularly religious neighbours, who would have viewed this sort of casual swearing as a serious breach of the Third Commandment.[4] Dannutt also requested that Burghley help her ‘have some ende upon it without gret expense’, suggesting that the constable and his accomplices request ‘pay every nighte’ and that she ‘can never take coste for them’. Quite what was going on here is unclear – some sort of nocturnal racket? – and if anybody has come across any similar cases I would be intrigued to hear about them.

No ‘nightmare neighbour’ story is complete without a sense of how powerless law-abiding citizens are to resolve their desperate situation. Not only was Dannutt complaining about a constable and a pair of watchmen, she also noted that ‘the judges of the Kinges Bench ar a kinde’ to the offenders, and that they have ‘so maney frendes that I coud never reste day nor nighte’. Reaching out to Cecil was therefore her last hope for peace, quiet, and a good night’s sleep.

Nightmare neighbours - not just a modern problem.

Nightmare neighbours – not just a modern problem.

The goodwife ended her letter on a strange note. She also claimed that ‘moste of the lands that the queen gave he meanes to kepe it from me’, and also lamented that ‘every one cossus me & decevses me’. There are perhaps two conclusions to be drawn. The first is that, like many neighbourly disputes, this one may well have concerned the more serious question of property rights, as well as the nuisance issue of antisocial behaviour. The second is that Dannutt appears to have been socially isolated, and therefore may not have been as innocent a party as she herself claimed. There is no evidence as to whether Burghley slapped whatever the Elizabethan equivalent of an ASBO was on to the noisy constable, or even whether or not Dannutt ever managed to get a decent forty winks. Even if this incident was resolved amicably, we can at least say for certain that the problem of noisy neighbours has unquestionably never gone away.


[1] Catalogue of the Lansdowne MS in the BL, p. 191.

[2] Jonathan Willis, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England (2010), p. 225.

[3] Lansdowne vol. 99 no. 28, f. 77.

[4] John Dod, for example, forbade idle, curious, vain or unreverent speaking of God’s word titles, attributes or works. John Dod, A plaine and familiar exposition of the Ten commandements (1604), p. 92.

Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part I: Not such a Virgin Queen; or, that’s one DNA test I’d like to see the results of!

Jonathan Willis

This post is the first in what may (or may not) become an occasional series about the ravings of assorted Elizabethan ‘madmen’.  This is a topic I’ve become quite interested in recently, after stumbling over some fascinating letters in the state papers.  This has nothing to do with a desire to procrastinate because I need to start writing up my monograph on the Ten Commandments.  Nothing at all…

Anyway, the letter I want to talk about today is one I came across quite accidentally because of its proximity to another letter which I have been using in my teaching and research.  The calendar entry for said letter reads as follows:

Miles Fry, a madman (who calls himself Emanuel Plantagenet), to Lord Burghley; saying he has an embassage from God to the Queen his (Fry’s) mother, he himself being the son of God and Queen Elizabeth, but was taken from her by the angel Gabriel and carried to one Mrs. Fry to be kept by her for a time, June 28, 1587.

A small amount of digging confirms that the letter is certainly not unknown to history or historians: other than its presence in the catalogue of the Lansdowne MSS, it also features in Henry Ellis’ nineteenth century edition of Original Letters, Illustrative of English History, and it merits a (very) brief mention in Christopher Haigh’s important biography of Elizabeth I.  Still, the letter was new to me, and I expect that the contents are unfamiliar to all but the geekiest Tudorphiles.

Miles Fry's mother?

Miles Fry’s mother?

The letter itself is relatively brief – just over half a single side – and, for a ‘madman’, Fry has a style which is lucid and concise, and a hand which is surprisingly legible to the modern reader (it beats most Tudor churchwardens’ accounts, that’s for sure!).  The concision and neat appearance of the letter, however, belie its extraordinary contents.  Addressed ‘To the right honourable the lord burley, lord tresorar of the queen of england’, it begins:

My lord I am sent an embassador from god the father unto the quenes highness to declare unto her that I am the sonne of the both…

Now that is an episode of Jerry Springer I would actually want to watch!  Fry explained to Burghley that, after his birth he was taken from Elizabeth to ‘one mistres ffry’ by the angel Gabriel ‘for to be kept’; but that ‘the time of this keeping is ended’, and that Fry had been sent by God to reveal himself to his mother.  His true name revealed both his royal and divine origins, for he signed his letter off, ‘your honors to use emanuel plantagenet’.  For Christopher Haigh, the significance of this event lay in the fact that ‘the official image of Elizabeth as virgin mother of her people … seems to have been effective – even if it was taken too literally by some’.[1]  That is certainly true.  Fry explains that he writes his letter because he is ‘in great extremity and redi to perish for lak of helpe’.

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer...

Definitely a case for Jerry Springer…

His divine ‘embasage’ and royal birth, however, mean that Fry also demanded a personal audience with the Queen.  He was nothing if not persistent.  In his letter to Burghley, he explained that he had made first made a similar plea to Sir Francis Walsingham some four years previously, and that Walsingham had ‘promised to helpe me unto the queen but did it not’.  In the intervening time, Fry wrote letters to the queen herself, assorted members of her counsel, and again to Walsingham, with whom he even claimed he had spoken ‘at divers times’.  Leaving aside the contents of his communications, this tale highlights the extraordinary ease which ordinary people could speak to the powers-that-were in Tudor England, even if they could not necessarily expect a response.

And not that his letters did Miles Fry much good.  As he lamented, ‘I am so far from helpe of my ladi that I have not the favour of a subiect in her relme thou I be her sonne: and during this sute I have bin hardli used’.  This, he explained to Burghley, was his last attempt to force the Queen ‘to accept me for her sonne’.  Thirty-five year old Miles was the (adopted?) son of John and Jone Fry, and he claimed that Burghley knew John Fry ‘wel’.  The Fry clan lived near Axminster in Devon, and Fry (writing from ‘the signe of the rose and crowne in Saint Johns street beyond smithfelde in london’) explained that it was not convenient (and it was too expensive) for him to remain in the capital for long.  The consequences of refusing to help him, Fry threatened, were not only that ‘immediatli upon my returne thither I shal end my life’ but that, as a consequence, god would ‘punish this land’.

Fry’s embassy was not only one of family reunion and material aid, however.  He explained:

My calling is not to redeme the worde but to shewe the end of generation and the love between christ and his church: which Salomon began to do and did it amisse…

History does not record the fate of Miles Fry, a.k.a. Emanuel Plantagenet.  Dismissed by the state papers as a ‘madman’ and ‘distempred in his wytts’, we can be fairly confident that his plea was also dismissed by Burghley, and it seems unlikely that a story with such a sad beginning can have had a very happy ending.  Fry was clearly a somewhat disturbed character, but it seems likely that the fiction he created was, in part at least, a response to an extremely difficult reality.  His misguided insistence that he was the queen’s son was juxtaposed several times with the desperate plea that he was not even being treated as favourably as ‘the quenes pore subiects’.  Perhaps because of the realisation that his life was of such little value that the threat of suicide was no threat at all, Fry attempted to gain greater leverage by appealing to a providential framework, in which a failure to treat him with charity would bring down the wrathful judgement of his divine progenitor.  In many respects Fry had a lot going for him: he was literate, educated, and possessed the wherewithal to make the one-hundred-and-fifty mile trip from his home to London (indeed, it seems likely that he had made the 300 mile round trip several times before).  He knew not only how to write, but also who to write to, even if his attempts to persuade were clumsy and heavy-handed.  Goodness only knows what his elderly parents made of their son’s delusions, but if we ever needed more evidence that ordinary people in Tudor England could be just as troubled, complex, thoughtful and pathetic (in the sense of arousing compassion) as in society today, then we have it in Miles Fry.

[1] Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I (London: Pearson, 1998), p. 161.