Fun Footnotes to Elizabethan England

While researching Elizabethan England for my tale MAID OF SECRETS, I learned about a wide range of strange-but-true experiences and every day events for the intrepid Elizabethans–who also seemed more hardy than I would have been in the same situation. As Claire pointed out in her research blog earlier this week, personal hygiene was quite a different experience for the men and women of that day: the men and women of the lower classes would bathe infrequently, while those of the upperclasses might bathe every few weeks. Because clothing was so expensive, however, people from all classes would dress with a shift of plain material close to their bodies–usually of linen. This shift would be laundered as frequently as possible, keeping bodily oils away from the more costly heavier garments that would only be hand-cleaned.

I’m very cold! And so is my parrot!

Dang. That was Cold.

And the garments were heavier. During Elizabethan England and for hundreds of years after, Earth endured what was known as “The Little Ice Age.” NASA defines the term as a cold period between AD 1550  and AD 1850, with three particularly cold periods:  one beginning about 1650, another about 1770, and the last in 1850, each separated by intervals of slight warming. The winters got so cold that the River Thames would freeze over — in fact, in 1683-84, considered the worst frost in English history, the Thames froze for two solid months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches in London. Solid ice was reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries). Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to 27 inches, and in Somerset to more than four feet. This is COLD.

What did this mean for Elizabethans? Lots of clothing, particularly in wintertime. This is why you often see the nobility dressed in what would seem to be suffocating layers of material in many of their portraits. This particular fact made things a little difficult for me, as my spies had to slip in and out of costumes to make sure they moved through the castle undetected. This was no mean feat, as many Elizabethan garments were actually separate pieces that were tied together at the seams… so assembling a garment was not unlike putting together a puzzle.

To help make their jobs a little bit easier, I set my first tale of spies during the Elizabethan high summer. Still not a warm summer by our standards, but at least the girls weren’t buried in yards of extra cloth!

Fake it ’til you Make it.

John Dee, Elizabethan soooooper-genius

But Elizabethans kept busy to combat all of that cold, and one of the more interesting things I discovered was their penchant for new inventions. My favorite inventor plays a minor role in Maid of Secrets, but will be seen much more actively in later books: John Dee, astrologer to the Queen.

John Dee is credited with building a wooden beetle that could fly. He was an avid scholar, and filled his life with science, experiments, astrology and mathematics, which he aligned with magic, the supernatural, and alchemy. He had arguably the largest library in Europe, and was considered a master of both science and the arcane. Also in Maid of Secrets, you’ll read about a character named Sophia Dee, ward to this famous man and potentially a master of the arcane in her own right.

But Dee wasn’t the only experimenter or inventor. During the Queen’s long and illustrious reign, here are just a inventions that also came into use–I take this list from, a site I used as a jumping-off point for many cool research journeys into Elizabethan England:

1565: Conrad Gesner of Switzerland invents the pencil
1568: Bottled beer is invented in London (Cheers!!)
1583: Leonard and Thomas Digges invent the telescope
1589: William Lee invents the knitting machine
1591: Sir John Harington invents the flush toilet in England (Woohoo!!!)
1593: Francis Bacon invented the frozen chicken (See “The Little Ice Age,” above?)
1593: Galileo invents a water thermometer
1600: William Gilbert publishes treatise “On the Magnet”. William Gilbert is referred to as the father of the science of electricity and magnetism

Whew! And that’s just the beginning of cool things that you can find in Elizabethan England. They definitely kept busy!

SNEAK RESEARCH PEAK: What fascinating book do I have on tap for future reading? Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House, a study of science and scientific theory in Elizabethan England. Can. Not. Wait.

Because the first thing you learn the moment you start researching… is there’s always more you can learn.

Jennifer McGowan has been writing fiction since well before she knew any better. A past Romance Writers of America Golden Heart winner and 2011 Golden Heart finalist, Jenn is represented by agent extraordinaire Alexandra Machinist, of Janklow & Nesbit.

Jenn’s debut novel, MAID OF SECRETS, will be published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on May 7, 2013. You can find Jenn online and on twitter.


8 thoughts on “Fun Footnotes to Elizabethan England

  1. Liz Bemis says:

    Hey Jenn! Fun blog! I knew about the cold (and the method of attaching clothes via tie) but who knew on the inventions! (Bottled Beer: Brought to you by the Elizabethan age.) 😀

  2. Jenn McGowan says:

    They definitely had their priorities in order! Thank you for stopping by!!

  3. KAK says:

    If Sir John Harrington invented the flushing loo in 1591 and John Mouras invented the septic tank in 1860 … whither traveled the poo in the meantime?

    (And why do I suddenly understand why the toilet is often referred to as “the john”?)

    Scatological minds want to know. 😀

  4. Jenn McGowan says:

    KAK, the short answer is: you don’t want to know. 🙂 And the longer one is: straight into the ditch/nearby creek/neighboring field. It was not a particularly tidy time, it must be said…

    Thank you for stopping by, and I think you HAVE to be right about “john!”

  5. Really interesting stuff! Thanks, Jenn! Your book sounds great, too. I look forward to reading it.

  6. I had no idea about the cold/clothing but that’s a good thing to keep in mind if I ever write a book set in that time

  7. Jenn McGowan says:

    Kimberley and Christa, thanks for stopping by! And Christa, yes–definitely be prepared to dress folks warmly if they venture out on a winter’s eve. 🙂

  8. […] It’s true! Elizabethans were known for their inventiveness. Come see what interesting facts I uncovered while researching Maid of Secrets, as I blog at Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks! […]

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