Philobiblon: A Tudor letter: this is what bad news really looks like

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Tudor letter: this is what bad news really looks like

I spend a lot of time trying to get inside the Tudor mindset - but sometimes you realise it is impossible, as when I read this letter from the widow Margaret Baynham.

Anno domini 1545, the first day of April, at Calais.

Master Johnson, I do right heartily thank you for the good beer you sent me, albeit that a great part of the same hath been drunk with much, much lamentation and mourning. For upon Palm Sunday in the morning perceived we manifestly that John Grant (which had complained seven days before) was sick of the plague, whereupon I and all my household were glad to void my house.

The same self day after Evensong, Margery, one of my sister Plankney's daughters, waxed suddenly sick also of the same disease, whereupon my said sister forsook her own house also, with such wares as she had in her shop, and went to my garden in Maisondieu Street, where she and I with a great number of young fruit do continue in great sorrow and heaviness of heart, God be merciful unto us, help and comfort us.

And what shall become of these two sick persons we are uncertain yet, but they are very weak and feeble. They be in God's hands — Almighty God be merciful unto them, and restore them their health again if it be his pleasure.

Thus doth God chastise and scourge me from time to time (first by the death of my husbands, then by the death of my two brethren-in-law, my sister's husbands, and now with John Grant, on whom of late I bestowed so great cost) to keep me in awe and under correction still. I beseech his almighty goodness, even as he daily reneweth my sorrow and heaviness, so mercifully to send me patience in all my trouble and adversity, and to obtain the same the better, I desire you and good Master Cave to pray for me.

From Calais, as is above rehearsed.
By yours to her power,
Margaret Baynham,

This being written in the morning, John Grant and Margery my sister's daughter departed this world about eleven of the clock before dinner. Now is our lamentation and mourning greater than ever it was before, Almighty God be our comfort.

Our current culture - when we worry about miniscule risks and are inclined to try to find someone to sue if we don't make our three-score-and-ten and then some - is a long, long way from this.

It is not hard to understand why religion was so important, as the only crutch available. But can you really get inside that mindset?

(From Tudor Family Portrait, Barbara Winchester, Jonathan Cape, London, 1955, p. 56)


Blogger Ally said...

I like to think that one can - I don't believe people really change all that much. We are still driven by the same things; the need for shelter, food, nurture. We just live in a safer world; in their position, I think we would behave and feel in the same way.

Fantastic letter. It has prompted me to start re-reading The Paston Letters; I've been meaning to for a while.

1/18/2006 01:42:00 pm  

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