Gentry culture and the development of local history in Elizabethan and early Stuart England

People are fascinated by the past. It was in the Elizabethan and early Stuart period that the study of past became an interest of the many rather than the preserve of the few. This book presents a study concerned with the importance of history, and especially the history of their own families and localities, to the provincial gentry of Elizabethan and early Stuart England. The first section presents an overview of the development of local-history writing in England, from its medieval and Tudor beginnings through to the period under discussion. It explores the historiographical context within which the Elizabethan gentry began to explore and express their interest in the past. This section also explores the regional networks that supported the development of local history and how an individual's social and religious status influenced membership of such networks. The second section involves the major historiographical strands represented in local history: genealogical, didactic and topographical. demonstrate how the interests, reactions and concerns of their contributors and readers influenced the content of the works. The genealogical content of local history exhibits the importance of lineage to late Elizabethan and early Stuart society and to the gentry's sense of their identity and status. The behaviour expected of a gentleman was addressed by the didactic content of the works. Finally, the book considers the relationship between developments in cartography and local history, and how they were shaped by the expectations of their gentry consumers.

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This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book. The book begins with an overview of the development of local-history writing in England, from its medieval and Tudor beginnings through to the period under discussion. It explores the historiographical context within which the Elizabethan gentry began to explore and express their interest in the past. The book demonstrates that this gentry interest in the past was not newly minted in the late sixteenth century, but was something that medieval historians had been aware of and exploited. It is concerned with the major historiographical strands represented in local history: genealogical, didactic and topographical. The book considers the relationship between developments in cartography and local history in this period, and how they were shaped by the expectations of their gentry consumers of their gentry consumers.

in ‘No historie so meete’

Local history as a distinctive genre of written history can hardly be said to exist before the fifteenth century. In the fifteenth century, rising literacy among the mercantile classes in London created the preconditions necessary for the development of local history and led to the appearance of the earliest chronicles of the city. John Leland is an important figure in the development of local history, not only as an author, but also as a preserver of the literary heritage of medieval England. The sort of pride in the place of his birth and his family's influence which led William Worcestre to describe Bristol, also led to the growth of the urban chronicle and the development of civic annals. While the publication of Britannia and the appearance of Christopher Saxton's maps encouraged the development of local history, it was in the particular field of county history that they were most influential.

in ‘No historie so meete’

The importance of genealogy in encouraging the early historical interests of many antiquaries, and the significance of the College of Arms as a repository of historical records, made the heralds an important element in the development of local history. There were a number of external forces which shaped the way in which the late Elizabethan and early Stuart gentry approached the past. It is these external forces that are the subject of this chapter. The national history of Britain or the medieval history of Europe had no place within the formal curriculum. The Elizabethan curriculum of the Free Grammar School in Leicester was typical of the period. The historical scholarship that Matthew Parker sponsored was concentrated within his own household. It is also in the context of history as a guide to action through precept that William Camden founded a chair in civil history at Oxford.

in ‘No historie so meete’

This chapter explores the regional networks that supported the development of local history and how an individual's social and religious status influenced membership of such networks. It looks at specific local historians, who occupied different social strata within the gentry and represented a variety of religious views. The development of local history in the Elizabethan and early Stuart period has frequently been interpreted as evidence of a strong sense of and pride in a local identity based on the county. Within the hierarchical society of Elizabethan and early Stuart England, William Burton's social status bestowed upon him a certain automatic respect from his fellow gentry and from those lower down the social scale. Catholic local historians were drawn from the social elite of their counties, suggesting that antiquarian sociability may have been more difficult to establish across the religious divide at lower levels of gentry society.

in ‘No historie so meete’

Several factors militated against the wider use of parish registers as a source for local history. The limited timespan covered, and the dependence on the diligence of individual ministers for their compilation, limited their usefulness. The absence of modern referencing standards in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries means that a certain amount of detective work is required to identify the written sources used by local historians. While the subject of the sources used by local historians may seem somewhat dry and unexciting, it is essential to an understanding of what they wrote and why. The majority of local historians were more concerned with the martial exploits of the medieval gentry and their possession of land, rather than calculating how many sheep they owned or how many barrels their cellars held. The prevalence of coats of arms in everyday use is evidenced by a collection of Elizabethan Essex gentry wills.

in ‘No historie so meete’

This chapter explores the definition and meaning of lineage to the gentry of late Elizabethan and early Stuart England. It discusses how these interests have shaped the contents of local histories as they developed, encouraging authors to include certain material. The chapter also discusses how genealogical obsession influenced one of its most obvious manifestations: the rise of family history as a distinct sub-genre within local history. For Elizabethan and early Stuart antiquaries, the study of what John Smyth described as 'genalogike history' was not concerned with tracing the descents of local families. They were concerned with the importance of a family's lineage that depended on a combination of the length of their pedigree and the continuity of tenure of their lands. In the earliest French aristocratic family histories, dating from the twelfth century, the narrative would be traced back beyond the available genealogical evidence to a mythical Jesse figure.

in ‘No historie so meete’
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The didactic role of history was reinforced as European scholars sought to define and describe the model of civic virtue, which increasingly supplanted the earlier monastic ideal. This led to the literary content of histories being considered by many historians as more important than the evidential. Although local historians thought it provided the principal justification for their endeavours, the didactic aspect of their work has attracted remarkably little attention. Through their interest in funeral monuments, local historians reveal how the ideal of public service influenced the visual culture of the period. Urban histories addressed the civic elite, while the advice contained in the county histories was addressed to the local gentry. Both these forms also addressed a gentry readership beyond their local communities. Sir Thomas Smith asserted in De Republica Anglorum that it was wealth and a reputation for gentility that were essential for acceptance as a gentleman in England.

in ‘No historie so meete’

This chapter is concerned with a number of areas related to the topographical content of local history. It explores the parallels between its development and the appearance of the early county maps and town plans. The chapter examines the ways in which the two forms reflect a similar view of the environment that they describe, and how the perspective of the gentry as the primary consumers shaped their content. It considers the thesis advanced in the 1970s by Margaret Aston, that the physical ruins of monastic buildings and the nostalgia they evoked were a significant factor in the subsequent flowering of antiquarian activity. The chapter also examines how the classical bias of the humanist education received by the gentry influenced their relationship to the physical world. It shows how local historians were predisposed by their education and by the available literary evidence to interpret archaeological remains as Roman in origin.

in ‘No historie so meete’
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This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on concepts discussed in this book. The book shows that within the wider context of early modern antiquarian writing there exists a miscellaneous collection of county, urban and family histories; topographical writings and other related works that justify the use of the term local history. Genealogy, heraldry and the descent of manors remained staples of local history long after they had lost their centrality to the self-identity of local historians and their readers. The Elizabethan and early Stuart gentry saw themselves as socially differentiated from the remainder of the population. There were a number of factors that came together in the mid-sixteenth century to challenge the gentry's sense of cohesion and continuity. The most dramatic was the Reformation, which divided the contemporary gentry into protestants and catholics and separated the protestants from the religious beliefs and practices of earlier generations.

in ‘No historie so meete’