This week, I was fortunately passing Eastgate House in my (near enough) home town of Rochester, Kent, on the day that they were offering free entry and the opportunity to view work produced by the art students of the University of Kent.
Eastgate House was built in the 1590s by Sir Peter Buck. It contains an original Elizabethan graven ceiling and what appears to be some original wall decoration, preserved amid the later sobriety of wallpaper and plaster. It was common for English houses during the Renaissance to contain illustrations, messages, morals, and images, especially on the ceiling and walls. Emblems, visual forms of allegorical truths, often adorned the bedchambers of the nobility; the interior design of a house was to be both readable and aesthetically pleasing – like Sir Philip Sidney’s view of poetry, domestic interiors served to ‘teach and delight’. The ceiling in Eastgate House was ornate enough, though perhaps not quite at the level of some grander homes of the nobility. On the second floor, foliate curves and carved Gothic heads with grotesque features descend the walls to the mantelpieces and prove a neat illustration of continental Renaissance style meeting the medieval aesthetics of Elizabethan England. The Romanesque turreted staircase (visible in the left of the above picture), coincides with a similar period of architectural ‘humanism’ in the colleges of Cambridge, yet the angular features of the windows and porchway more closely resemble English gothic churches. Unfortunately, if any emblematic imagery or indeed any ‘writing-on-the-wall’ (another popular Renaissance decoration) existed, none survives today, but it is nonetheless easy to imagine the rich curtains, drapery, and hangings adorning the top floors of the house, even in the cold, floor-board emptiness of 2012. Renaissance men and women liked to read surrounded by these fabrics. Such habits have led critics to research the similarities between the weaving of threads and the function of text (from its etymological origins in textile).
The past continually proves itself present in a number of fascinating ways, from the inescapable and imposing to the minute and mundane; the townscapes of Kent contain a number of architectural mementos of early modern England. In the medieval market town of Faversham, the festivities of Shakespeare’s England are on full display, especially during hop season. The annual beer festival provides the sort of revelry and mimicry of pagan customs that officials were earnestly trying to stamp out. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, Kent was something of a lover of theatrical entertainments of all kinds. The Faversham town accounts show money paid to the Lord Hunsdon’s men (Shakespeare’s company), almost certainly for a Lammas-tide performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1596. Today, morris dancers parade through the street half-drunkenly, harassing unamused bystanders and – I have seen with my own eyes – planting unwanted kisses on the lips of angry policemen. The Bacchic carnival of Faversham Hop Festival, probably not dissimilar to an Elizabethan’s experience, would likely ferment the festival cheer of a Shakespearean comedy and foment the discontent of Puritans. Anti-theatricalist William Prynne detested Morris dancing and its popularity (and well-known comic actor William Kemp – who seems to have played Peter in Romeo and Juliet – reportedly morris-danced from London to Norwich, according to his book ‘Nine Days Wonder’). Prynne couldn’t stand such foolery, and said of Morris Dancing:
Witnesse their Corybantes, Curetes, Salii, and such like dancing Priests, who on the solemne festivall dayes of Cybele, Bacchus, Mars, and other Pagan-deities, danced about the streets and Marketplace with Cymbales in their hands, in nature of our Morrice-dances (which were derived from them) the whole multitude accompanying them in these their dancing Morrices, with which they honoured these their Devill-Idols.’
It was Kent’s fondness for ‘old’ ways of doing things – traditional holidays like Lammas-tide and Whitsun, the May games, and other medieval dramatic practices from Robin Hood games to charivari, that earned the scorn of good Protestants like John Bale. Bale is astounded at the chief of the Canterbury Midsomer festivities in 1561:
‘…he made he the boyes to sytt downe on their knees, and to counterfett a mockynge of God in holdynge vp their hands, nin maner of the olde superstition of Saint iohans nyght sumtyme vsed…and that done, he arose and went with them abought the fyer as in procession, with burchyne bowes in their hands, syngynge most fylthie songes of baudrye. And with these mocdkeryes of the Christen religion and preachers, the Mayer and most of the Aldermen hys bretherne were nothynge offended, bug both in silence and in other aperaunce wele pleased….’
Dancing around bonfires, pretending to be King, singing bawdy songs were the sort of activities that horrified reforming Protestants, and here was the spiritual centre of Kent, if not the country, unashamedly relishing these rituals. From Bale’s and Prynne’s viewpoint, Kent appeared an early modern manifestation of The Wicker Man.
Alongside the revelry, as always, there is tragedy. Faversham is home to the house of Arden, the unfortunate victim of a famous murder. Although the Victorians are often credited with bequeathing us a fascination with murders, pamphlets on sensational plots, atrocities, and crimes poured from the presses in Shakespeare’s England, and were very often the source material for London’s plays, from witches to wicked widows (and a lot of wicked widow witches). Arden of Faversham is one of the period’s most well-known domestic crime tragedies, and following hapless murderers throughout Kent, it can only delight the lifelong resident whose chief idea of Kentish romance comprises Chatham kebab shops, a night at Tap’n’Tin, and the occasional jog along the industrial estuary.
Sandwiched between the high-street and a brilliant Shepherd Neame pub with a delightful beer garden, the real location of this great tragedy couldn’t be more in keeping (or inn-keeping) with the spirit of the theatres, caught between ale and arguments and civic popular culture. Regretfully, no blood stains are available, but perhaps it is about time Arden of Faversham is staged again: maybe a local performance in Kent? In times of austerity, when it is difficult to keep in mind the wonder of your home-town, other people’s weariness of those same visual records – the architecture and geography – but five-hundred years ago could strangely prove the perfect antidote:
And but for thee how odious were this life, lo
That shows me nothing but torments my soul,
And those foul objects that offend mine eyes!
Which makes me wish that for this veil of heaven
The earth hung over my head and covered me.