Coffee-houses of London

Stretching from the West End to the City, the coffee-houses of 17th and 18th century London formed the capital’s intellectual and social heartbeat. Coffee, a relatively new and exotic import, was only half the attraction: coffee-houses were forums for intellectual discussion, havens for dirty business deals and places where lords and sharpers won and lost enormous fortunes.

When coffee-houses first appeared in London in the mid-17th century they were largely indistinguishable from one another. However, as they faced ever-stiffer competition over time, each coffee-house developed its own character, playing host to diverse clienteles and catering to different needs. Some coffee-houses became so closely identified with specific groups or interests that Tatler, an early newspaper-journal, decided to group its stories under the names of coffee-houses. The first issue, in 1709, proclaimed that “all accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under the title of Graecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’ Coffee-house”.

 

17th-century London coffee-house
17th-century London coffee-house

Literature
There were many coffee-houses frequented by literary men, the first famous one being Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. John Dryden and his literary circle, known as the ‘Wits’, gathered there to discuss and review the latest plays and poems, and to read out their own work. As well as serious literary criticism, much amusement was to be had over the latest scurrilous pamphlets. Samuel Pepys records having heard a “very witty and pleasant discourse” at Will’s, though whether this was about weighty matters of allegory and hexameters, or gossip about Charles II’s latest mistress, he doesn’t say.  After Dryden’s death, Will’s began to decline: in April 1709, Steele lamented in Tatler that “this place is very much altered since Mr. Dryden frequented it; where you used to see Songs, Epigrams, and Satires, in the Hands of every Man you met, you have only now a Pack of Cards, and instead of the Cavils about the Turn of the Expression, the Elegance of the Style, and the like, the Learned now dispute only about the Truth of the Game”.

With Will’s now falling out of fashion, the literary focus of London shifted to Button’s Coffee House, just up the street. This was frequented by the next generation of writers and satirists: Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift among others. Pope’s satirical poem “The Rape of the Lock” was based on coffee-house gossip he heard at Button’s. Addison was particularly influential in raising Button’s status as a literary meeting-place. He advertised it heavily in his newspaper The Guardian; ultimately, it earned its fame from the quirky letterbox which Addison had built next to the front door. It was in the shape of a lion’s head, inspired by those Addison had seen in Venice. The idea was that writers could deposit their writings in the lion’s mouth, and these would then get discussed in the coffee-house by leading literary men.

 

An illustration of the lion's head letterbox at Button's Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
An illustration of the lion’s head letterbox at Button’s Coffee House, into which aspiring writers put their works in to be discussed and reviewed
Trio of notables at Button's Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730
Trio of notables at Button’s Coffee House. ~ William Hogarth, 1730


Science

Other coffee-houses branched out from literature into learned fields such as arts and sciences. Quite a few scientific institutions which are still around today had their beginnings in coffee houses. The Grecian, for instance, was particularly associated with science as it was the preferred meeting place of the Royal Society, Britain’s pioneering scientific institution. You would go to the Grecian to hear lectures and witness novel experiments; on one memorable occasion, several scientists, including Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, dissected a dolphin on the premises. The walls of Don Saltero’s Coffeehouse in Chelsea, a favourite haunt of scientists such as Isaac Newton and Sir Hans Sloane, were covered with stuffed animals which included rattlesnakes, turtles and crocodiles.

Trade and finance
The 18th century saw a great rise in trade and commerce in Britain, with the development of a consumer society and the expansion of global exchange networks. London’s coffee-houses were central to how business was done, as they were frequent meeting places for merchants and traders. The very first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s Coffee House, hard by the Royal Exchange. Some businesses even started operating out of coffee-houses. The most famous example is Lloyd’s Coffee House, which became the place to go for naval officers and merchants, who would gather to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd’s continued as the focal point for all matters maritime for the best part of a century, and in 1771 a group of 79 underwriters (men who insured ships) formed the Society of Lloyd’s, now known as the famous insurance market, Lloyd’s of London.

Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House
Lloyds of London insurance market, which started out as a Lloyds Coffee House

Politics
The streets around Westminster were also full of coffee-houses, frequented by politicians and observers interested in current affairs. Westminster coffee-houses, which were often divided up on party lines, functioned as political rumour-mills, making and breaking reputations. Richard Steele collected a lot of the political news for Tatler at these coffee-houses: “I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’ Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner-Roome, as one who comes there to hear and improve”.

 

Sociability
Other coffee-houses had purely social functions, such as White’s Chocolate House. White’s was founded in 1693 by an Italian, Francis White. It was increasingly known as a haven for gentlemen gamblers of the highest rank and fashion. Jonathan Swift called White’s the “bane of half the English nobility”, referring to how aristocrats could gamble away their patrimony in a matter of minutes. It managed to outlive most of its coffee-house rivals by turning into a private member’s club, thus enabling it to keep the air of exclusivity which still remains today.

 

Eccentricity
Some coffee-houses were altogether more quirky. At Moll King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden (an area notorious for brothels) you could flick through a directory of local prostitutes which listed their age, appearance, personality and area of expertise. At Lunt’s Coffee House in Clerkenwell Green the proprietor would cut your hair while you enjoyed your coffee. Hoxton Square Coffee House was renowned for its inquisitions of insanity, where suspected lunatics were tied up and wheeled into the room, awaiting the judgement of the patrons as to whether they should be locked up in an asylum. In an example of how not to be successful, William Hogarth’s father set up the Latin Coffee House in which the patrons were only allowed to speak Latin; perhaps this reminded people too much of dreary school-days spent declining Latin adjectives, as it was a miserable failure.
White's Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, 1735
White’s Chocolate House. In this painting, a man has just lost his fortune in the gaming room. ~ From William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, 1735

I have superimposed some of the most famous London coffee-houses, along with brief descriptions, onto a modern map of London. They only represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of coffee-houses which London boasted in its 17th and 18th century heyday, but the map also includes coffee-houses I have not mentioned.

The wicked waltz

In her 1771 novel Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche, writing no doubt for an audience of genteel ladies, portrayed the waltz as a “shameless, indecent whirling-dance [which] broke all the bounds of good breeding”. The early version of the German waltz which she was describing was a variant of the Ländler, a peasant dance dating from the 16th century. The Ländler was notorious for its closed position where men and women embraced each other round the waist and shoulders, and for its rapid turns which made dancers dizzy, breathless and (allegedly) open to all sorts of lustful abominations.

Notwithstanding such criticism, by the end of the 18th century, waltzing was all the rage in polite society in Germany and Austria. In England it was received with suspicion by the self-proclaimed arbiters of morality, as were most foreign innovations at the time. Until the introduction of the waltz, the most popular dances were the country square dances which involved very limited contact between the sexes. Therefore, one of the most criticised aspects of the waltz was its couples-only nature, with men and women dancing in a closed position. The Oxford English Dictionary called the dance riotous and indecent, and it was frequently satirised by caricaturists. Even Lord Byron condemned the waltz, though less for its alleged indecency than its antisocial nature, saying that it was “like two cockchafers spitted on the same bodkin”.

Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)
Caricaturist James Gillray mocks the dance in La Walse (1810)

When the waltz appeared at the Prince Regent’s grand ball in 1816, the Times of London wrote:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last…it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it our duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”

It’s hard to tell how “voluptuous” the “intertwining of the limbs” really was. It could well be that, influenced by wine and a heated, packed ballroom, the dancers did hold each other very close in an immodest fashion. Yet the most popular instruction manuals of the day suggest that the Regency era waltz was a relatively decorous dance which does not fit the Times of London‘s description. In the illustrated frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s 1816 Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (see below), the men and women are dancing at arm’s length in quite a dignified manner.

Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson's Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance
Frontispiece to Thomas Wilson’s Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816), showing nine positions of the dance

Perhaps the waltz was not always as raucous and indecent as its critics maintained. At any rate, it was given one seal of respectability when the patronesses of Almack’s gave married women and those debutantes “whose deportment was impeccable” the permission to waltz in 1814. This was no unimportant decree; Almack’s was the most respectable and socially exclusive dancing assembly in Regency England. Primarily designed for debutantes, one of its main functions was as a marriage mart; the young women were expected to be on their best behaviour. The fact that waltzing was gradually allowed indicates a slow acceptance of the dance among the higher classes, at least.

Over the course of the 19th century, though, it seems that the waltz became less decorous. Paintings from the late Victorian era portray a very fast and energetic dance sure to leave dancers breathless. There were evidently plenty of opportunities for amorous expression, with some couples shown in a very close embrace. This was partly due to greater acceptance of the dance, and partly due to to a change in the dance itself. Around 1830, the Austrian composers Lanner and Strauss composed a series of waltzes which set the tradition for the later ‘Viennese Waltz’. These were very fast, played at 165-180 beats a minute; certainly a contrast to the early waltz, which was generally danced at an andante con moto: a sedate walking pace. The fast waltz did not replace the slower, but it became wildly popular among younger dancers who wanted to show off their athletic prowess. Since then, the waltz has of course become the best-known and most respectable ballroom dance around; a far cry from its initial reception in polite society.

Anders Zorn, Valsen. 1891
Anders Zorn, Valsen (1891)
Dance at Bougival, Renoir, 1882-3
Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1882-83)

Dancing the lewd La Volta

Dancing, wrote Philip Stubbes in 1583, is altogether a “horrible vice”. In his infamous work The Anatomie of Abuses, Stubbes protested, “what clipping, what culling, what kissing and bussing, what smouching and slabbering of one another: what filthy groping and unclean handling is not practised everywhere in these dancings”. For dancing “provoketh lust, and the fires of lust, [which] once conceived…burst forth into the open action of whoredom and fornication”.

An Elizabethan country dance probably was a good excuse to take certain liberties with the opposite sex. However, I imagine that very near the top of Stubbe’s mental list of dances to be banned was the la volta. Also known as the volta or lavolta, this dance, which is believed to have originated in either Italy or the medieval Provençal courts, was introduced in Paris in around 1556 by Catherine de Medici. Like all French fashions, it made its way across the English Channel soon enough, quickly becoming a hit with the Elizabethan court.

What made the la volta different from most court dances was its bawdy nature. Contemporary critics (often strict Puritans like Stubbes) raged at its alleged indecency. The la volta required highly intimate contact between two partners of the opposite sex. It eschewed most of the stately parading which characterised the pavane and similar fashionable dances, instead consisting of an intricate series of quick steps and leaps. A guide to the dance advised that “if you wish to dance the la volta…you must place your right hand on the damsel’s back, and the left below her bust, and, by pushing her with your right thigh beneath her buttocks, turn her”.

A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along
A dance in Augsburg, c. 1500. Such slow and stately movements were the norm in couple dances until the la volta came along

Small wonder, then, that the lavolta was swiftly condemned throughout Europe among certain circles. In his 1592 work, Ein Gottseliger Tractat von dem ungottseligen Tantz (‘A Godly Treatise on the Ungodly Dance’), Johann von Münster fumed that even kings were promoting the wicked dance:

“In this dance the dancer with a leap takes the young lady – who also comes to him with a high jump to the measures of the music – and grasps her in an unseemly place…With horror I have often seen this dance at the Royal Court of King Henry III in the year 1582, and together with other honest persons have frequently been amazed that such a lewd and unchaste dance, in which the King in person was first and foremost, should be officially permitted and publicly practiced.”

A century later, another German, Johannes Praetorius, condemned the la volta in his book on the practices of witchcraft, Blockes-Berges Verrichtung. He wrote:

“A new galliard, the volta [is] a foreign dance in which they seize each other in lewd places and which was brought to France by conjurors from Italy…[It is] a whirling dance full of scandalous, beastly gestures and immodest movements…[The volta] is also responsible for the misfortune that innumerable murders and miscarriages are brought about by it”.

Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school
Several couples dancing the la volta, late 16th century. The participants have not been identified, but the painting is certainly of the French Valois school

One critic of the dance went so far as to call for forcible state intervention, saying that “the volta should really be looked into by a well-ordered police force and most strictly forbidden”. Yet unfortunately for its detractors, the la volta remained in fashion until the second half of the 17th century. According to some historians, the la volta was actually the precursor of the waltz, a dance which would shock Europe in the later 18th century. If they are right, then perhaps the la volta lives on to this day, although its scandalous nature has been so diluted that the waltz seems an innocent and old-fashioned dance. Of which more in my next post…

On a final note: for the most accurate recreations of the la volta we have to turn to modern re-enactment; the first video below is a beautifully executed la volta, performed in the hall of Ightham Mote in Kent. The dance has also featured in period films and television series, with less success. Directors tend to take advantage of the la volta’s highly intimate nature in order to help ramp up sexual tension, but they lose the dance’s lively, spirited character.

The second video below, a clip from the 1998 film Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, recreates an actual event when the queen danced the la volta with her court favourite, Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester). The dance is not very accurate; it leaves out the most indecent parts, for one thing. It is, however, certainly more accurate than the dance in the following extract from The Tudors, which, despite its claims, is not a la volta at all. Rather, it is some dance designed solely as a showpiece for Anne Boleyn in her attempts to seduce the king – which, judging by Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ expression, seem to be proceeding very well.


Further Reading

Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (originally published 1583, this edition 1836)

“This murdering play”: the violent origins of English football

Football in the form that we recognise today didn’t really begin to coalesce until the 16th and 17th centuries, but English references to games of “fote-ball”, “fute-ball”, “ffootballe”, and so on, start in the late medieval period. At this early stage there were few, if any, regulations. There was no set number of players and no clearly marked out pitch. The game involved an unlimited number of people, which could number several hundreds on the annual Shrovetide football match between neighbouring towns and villages. If that many people were involved, the area played on could cover several miles and the game could last for hours or even days.

The aim was to drag an inflated pig’s bladder to the marker in the opposing side’s town or village. Sometimes the mob would attempt to kick the bladder into the balcony of their opponents’ church, something which the local priest probably didn’t appreciate (unless, of course, he was also playing). It’s not surprising that without solid rules or a referee, the game could easily become nasty. Punching, biting, kicking and tripping up your adversary were all, in theory, allowed. A large-scale local football game must have been a flashpoint for inter-community tensions, as well as the perfect excuse to beat up that loathsome neighbour of yours under the cover of sport.

Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.
Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between
Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.

The authorities didn’t turn a blind eye to this violence. Indeed, the earliest references to football are to be found in official legal documents relating to football-related fatalities. A Cornish plea roll from 1238 mentions a man named Roger who was accused of striking a fellow player with a stone, a blow which proved fatal. Forty-two years later at a game in Ulgham, Northamptonshire, a player was killed as a result of running against an opposing player’s dagger. These are dry accounts yet, clearly, football-related violence involved much personal tragedy, particularly when a death was accidental.

In 1321 William de Spalding, a canon of Scoldham monastery, accidentally murdered his lay friend William in a game of football. As de Spalding was kicking the ball, his friend ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife which de Spalding was carrying. He died within six days. William de Spalding was distraught, and applied for and was granted a papal dispensation to absolve him of all blame. The dispensation read, “no blame is attached to William de Spalding, who, feeling deeply the death of his friend, and fearing what might be said by his enemies, has applied to the pope”.

The next few centuries saw numerous attempts to ban football. The game was generally frowned upon by the authorities as it distracted men from their archery practice, created a lot of noise, resulted in damage to houses and crops and was potentially fatal. In 1314 Edward II was so concerned about the rowdy and violent consequence of football matches that he got the Mayor of London to ban it in the city on his behalf, saying:

“Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls in the field of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid; we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that football was very popular among university students. The first reference to it being played at university is a 1555 decree by St John’s College, Oxford, which bans the game. Given that this was the year of the college’s foundation, it is possible that football had such a bad reputation that it was forbidden preemptorily. Other Oxford and Cambridge colleges soon followed suit.

St John's College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance
St John’s College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance

By 1500, football was looking more like the game we know today. A late 15th century Latin account of a football game in Cawston, Nottinghamshire, says that “throwing [the ball] into the air” was prohibited and that the players were supposed to kick the ball with their feet to opposing goals. The game was nevertheless still very rough. At a match in Somerset in 1508, Thomas Bryan accidentally fell onto his knife, and died immediately. The official verdict, that he killed himself “by misfortune”, was an important distinction to make in an age where suicide was considered a terrible sin. A Yorkshire death record from 15 years later reads, “John Langbern of Allerston was playing football with Roger Bridkirk of Allerston, labourer, and many others…Roger fell on top of John and crushed his body by misfortune, so that John immediately died”. As in the case of William de Spalding, “there was no malice between them”; this was an unfortunate accident.

As with almost any popular pastime in the medieval and early modern periods, football came in for a a lot of criticism. One 15th century description of football laments its violent nature, whilst the Tudor diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Elyot dismissed the game as “beastly fury and extreme violence whereof proceedeth hurt; and consquently rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded”. Most virulent of all was the Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes. Stubbes was the author of The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), a polemic which attacked every imaginable aspect of popular culture. Football was not excluded from Stubbes’ righteous wrath; he abused the immoral game of football at length. This extract from his book shows how much football has changed since the late 16th century:

“Football may rather be called a friendly kind of fight than a play or recreation; a bloody murdering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime. For doth not everyone lie in wait for his adversary, seeking to overthrow him and to pitch him on his nose…by this means sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms…sometimes their noses gush out with blood, sometimes their eyes start out…Is this murdering play now an exercise for the Sabbath day?”

Medieval reenactment in Victorian England

One of the most important cultural developments in Victorian England was the growth of medievalism. Medievalism was an expression of the yearning for a medieval golden age and as such was very much a reactionary movement. Those who felt alienated by industrialisation and modern capitalism looked back to a mythical past in which romance, chivalry, religion and honour created a stable and moral society. Medievalism was all-pervasive; it was represented in literature by Sir Walter Scott, in architecture by Augustus Pugin (a leading proponent of the Gothic Revival and the architect of the Houses of Parliament), and in art by men such as Edmund Leighton, John William Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

 

The Accolade ~ Edmund Leighton, 1901. Leighton presents an idealised version of the medieval era in which chivalry, honour and feudalism create a stable and moral society
The Accolade ~ Edmund Leighton, 1901
The End of the Song ~ Edmund Leighton, 1902 In this painting, Leighton emphasises the romantic aspect of medievalism
The End of the Song ~ Edmund Leighton, 1902
Medievalism also found its way into the pastimes of the elite. Members of the aristocracy, and to a lesser extent the newly wealthy middle classes, enjoyed dressing up in historical costume and reenacting famous moments in medieval history or scenes from Arthurian romances. This might take the form of simple amateur dramatics at home, or it could be a much larger affair. One of the most elaborate medieval reenactments of the 19th century was the 1839 Eglinton Tournament, which is little-known today but was renowned in its time. It apparently grew out of the disappointment felt by the Earl of Eglinton at the relative lack of pageantry in Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. She deliberately eschewed the pseudo-medieval trappings of George IV’s 1820 coronation; no Queen’s Champion would ride into Westminster and throw down his gauntlet, and there would be no medieval-style banquet. Eglinton felt aggrieved that the aristocracy had been denied their hereditary roles and costumes, and his frustration was echoed by those who called Victoria’s coronation ‘The Penny Crowning’.

 

Perhaps as a result of this disappointment, Eglinton decided to recreate a full scale medieval tournament at his castle in Ayrshire, southwest Scotland, with thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators. There was to be a grand procession of costumed knights and ladies, jousting, a medieval feast and a costume ball. Eglinton and his friends spent the best part of a year practicing for the jousting, which was the main focus of the event. Practice tilting was set up, incredibly, in Marylebone Road, and it attracted thousands of spectators. Fulfilling public expectations came at a price; Eglinton spent at least £40,000 on the tournament, a huge outlay which left him distressed for money for the rest of his life. Other participants also spent a great deal on their clothing and armour. Lord Glenlyon, for example, paid £346 for his own costume and a staggering £1000 for the outfitting of his retinue.
<br.

An invitation to the Eglinton Tournament, to 'Mr. & Mrs. Brown & family'
An invitation to the Eglinton Tournament, to ‘Mr. & Mrs. Brown & family’


“On one small spot time had revolved; it appeared as though five centuries had rolled and left all unchanged. The antiquarian might close his volume and look on the living picture his lore pondered o’er – no scenic delusion; no dramatic artifice; no character sustained in masquerade – all true, all natural, real as on the battle-eve, all the nobler feelings swelled the bosom and dignified the part”.

The knights processing to the lists, where the jousting took place
The knights processing to the lists, where the jousting took place
The Queen of Beauty (played by Lady Seymour), surrounded by her ladies. The dresses have more in common with late 1830s fashion than medieval clothing.
The Queen of Beauty (played by Lady Seymour), surrounded by her ladies.The dresses have more in common with late 1830s fashion than medieval clothing.
Jousting: Participants had been honing their skills for some months
Jousting: Participants had been honing their skills for some months

 

The medieval banquet, looking a lot less rowdy than an actual medieval feast
The medieval banquet, looking a lot less rowdy than an actual medieval feast
The costume ball
The costume ball

When the tournament was held on Wednesday 28th August 1839, the size of the audience more than answered Eglinton’s expectations. The Examiner estimated that around 60,000 to 80,000 spectators showed up at Eglinton Castle, many of them having come up all the way from London. However, the weather did not prove obliging; as the day wore on it started to rain. For the initial procession, the Queen of Beauty (played by Lady Seymour) and her ladies were forced to ride in carriages rather than upon their richly caparisoned steeds. This, together with the sight of spectators pulling out their umbrellas, ruined the intended effect. The Chronicle afterwards complained that “there is nothing chivalrous about an umbrella”, and Bradshaw’s Journal noted how the rain pushed the tournament “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. The jousting began, but the rain worsened and the tents and grandstands collapsed, forcing the spectators to flee for shelter. The collapse of the banqueting pavilion meant that thousands of guests who had expected to be fed and entertained that evening were left to wander through the rain-sodden countryside, their medieval finery ruined and their stomachs empty.

By Friday 30th, however, the weather had improved substantially, and with the return of 10,000 loyal spectators the tournament went ahead as originally planned. One observer of Friday’s tournament described the atmosphere in typically overblown Victorian language:

The press reaction to the tournament was lukewarm. Some newspapers heralded it as a triumphant portrayal of medieval chivalry, whilst others – particularly those with Whig sympathies – viewed it as a ridiculous farce. The Earl of Eglinton himself had mixed feelings about the event. He admitted its “manifold deficiencies” and was disappointed that it was only “a very humble imitation” of the scenes which his imagination had portrayed. However, he thought that he had “at least done something towards the revival of chivalry”, and indeed the tournament did stay in the popular consciousness for some time. Several paintings displayed at the next summer exhibitions were titled The Tournament, and in the following years a pantomine, an opera and a novel made references to it. The earl could also be comforted by the lucrative line in tournament memorabilia, which included crockery depicting the jousting and trophies featuring himself dressed up as a medieval knight.

Drunken church bell ringing, then and now?

To hear church bells ringing continuously for as long as half an hour, several evenings a week, is no surprise if you live in central Oxford as I do, so I was particularly amused at something I read about today. In 1797 a book called Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth was published by the Earl of Orford. It was a translation of a travel account written around 1600 by Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer who set out on a 3-year European tour with his protege, a young Silesian nobleman. Hentzner remarked that the English “are vastly fond of great noises that fill the air, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells, so that in London it is common for a number of them, when drunk, to go up into some belfry and ring the bells for hours altogether”.

I can only trust that the bell-ringers in central Oxford are law-abiding citizens who live a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’ according to the dictates of the Book of Common Prayer, though as it’s now approaching the end of exams, one does wonder whether some drunken students might have taken it upon themselves to resurrect this old tradition…

No, this isn't Oxford. But it's a nice painting. ~ Bernhard Stange, Das Abendläuten, 1880 ~
No, this isn’t Oxford. But it’s a nice painting. ~ Bernhard Stange, Das Abendläuten, 1880 ~