Book review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

Climb into the passenger seat, sit back and join time traveller Ian Mortimer on a journey into some of the rotten truths about the much-heralded Elizabethan age...

You’ll find the usual high-profile faces loitering about London’s landmark streets and palaces – ‘Gloriana’ herself, Elizabeth I, maritime heroes Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake and literary greats Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare – but there’s also the everyday folk who ground out a meagre living, paid their taxes and died on average in their early thirties.

Yes, the past really is a foreign country and the closest we usually get to learning about it is reading the glory story in school history books – so go to the top of the class, Mr Mortimer, for giving us a fascinating insight into the hidden, tarnished corners of a ‘Golden Age.’

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Applying the groundbreaking approach he pioneered in his bestselling Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Mortimer’s highly original and very readable book allows the Elizabethan world to unfold with all its disease, religion, politics, inequality and, rather unexpectedly, its lingering fears and uncertainties.

As Mortimer so rightly points out, ‘Our view of history diminishes the reality of the past’ and our view of an event like victory over the Spanish Armada ‘restricts our understanding of contemporary doubts, hopes and reality.’

Here we discover what it was actually like to live in Elizabethan England, to walk the streets of London, to eat a typical 16th century meal, wear an ordinary set of clothes, smell the stinking privy shafts and sit alongside the thousands of vagrants who roamed the towns and villages.

England was undoubtedly the crucible of the modern world, making great discoveries and winning military victories, but it was still a troubled country where people starved to death and Catholics were persecuted for their faith.

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The paradox is that while many aspects of life seem to us now both primitive and brutal, the nation produced some of the finest writing in the English language and the most magnificent architecture, and gave birth to those hardy pioneers who settled in America and circumnavigated the globe.

Indeed, contradiction was at the heart of Elizabeth’s world. Predictably, the gap between the wealthy and the poor was huge but all levels of society shared fears over the arrival of the plague and foreign invasion, and could expect to face torture and death for heresy or treason.

Mortimer covers all aspects of life for Elizabethans through themed chapters ranging from food and drink, hygiene, illness and medicine to religion, law and disorder, entertainment and travel.

He shows us what the landscape would have looked and smelled like in the countryside and in the towns, and what life would have been like for people living in the numerous and often confusing social hierarchies.

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We witness the glories, raw truths and tragedies of 16th century England but, more importantly, we begin to understand how and why the Elizabethans saw the world they lived in and the reasoning behind their beliefs and actions.

To this end, he calls on Shakespeare, one of the first writers to get to grips with our ‘humanity,’ to help him give a first-hand account of Elizabethan England’s growing sense of self-awareness, their doubts, their fears and their humour.

‘Elizabethans,’ concludes Mortimer, ‘are not some distant, alien race, but our families – they are us, in a manner of speaking – and they show us what human beings are capable of enduring.’

Fully illustrated and packed with fascinating anecdotes that give life and vibrancy to the facts and figures, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England casts a fresh and invigorating light on the life of ordinary people in an extraordinary age.

(The Bodley Head, hardback, £20)