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The Tide of the Thames

Text by: Amy Carpenter

The tides of time crash forward with the ages, lifting us and carrying us into the uncharted territory of the future. Sometimes we find a piece of driftwood to cling to, as we are tossed about on the currents of life. The ride is turbulent and frightening, but there are moments of peaceful rest, moments when we are allowed to breathe and get our bearings. Then the tides rise again to carry us wherever they will. Sometimes these tides take us back to the shore, back to the sands, which have fallen from the hourglass of history. Deposited on the safety of the beach, we can look around and find priceless grains of wisdom. These grains whisper to us of the people of the past. They tell us of lives lost in history. They call us to remember them, to identify with them, to know them. They ask us to walk in their shoes, to uncover their stories and passions. We can find our own identities as we look back upon the souls who have walked the shore. What would it have been like to be one of them? Would we be the same person we are now? Would we have the same talents and gifts that we have now? Would we work the same job? Have the same tastes? Been rich or poor?

Let the tides of time take us back now to the period between 1558 and 1603. The tide tumbles out of the North Sea, into the mouth of the English river Thames, pushing us relentlessly up the river during the high tide. The river's source is in western England, and it meanders eastward through the quiet countryside until it reaches bustling London. Though the Thames flows east to west, the high tide from the North Sea brings the river back up on itself as far as 65 miles inland, including back into London itself. The river Thames has been a strategic hot spot for eager conquerors seeking to take England through its great city, London. It has also been a major thoroughfare for commerce throughout London's history.

The river has brought us to the time of Queen Elizabeth I, second daughter of the infamous King Henry VIII. It is a golden age of prosperity, naval might, and advancement of the arts. It is a time when London launches into a sudden growth spurt, and the merchant class grows with it. It is a time when a Queen proclaims herself married to her people, and her people reciprocate in adoration and love. It is a time of high nobility and low humanity. It is the Elizabethan Era.

As the tide carries us further inland, we see an imposing fortress sprawled across the north bank of the river. The fortress, named Tilbury Fort, was built by King Henry VIII to protect London from invaders. Though many of England's stone treasures have tumbled to the earth, Tilbury Fort has been preserved and still stands on the bank of the Thames as a reminder of England's past. The fort was strategically placed on old battlements at a narrow ferry crossing in Essex. When Queen Elizabeth learned that Spain was planning an invasion of England in 1588, she had the fort strengthened with earthworks in the shape of a star. As Spain came through the English Channel with its mighty, naval war ships, Queen Elizabeth rode out to Tilbury Fort to rally the men guarding the mouth of the Thames. At a time when many thought a woman could never lead a country, let alone a country at war, her words still echo through history: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…" Thankfully, the Spanish Armada was defeated in the English Channel, and no defense of the Thames was needed. One can imagine the relief the English people felt at the defeat of the Roman Catholic Spaniards. The Pope himself pledged funds, contingent upon Spain landing on English soil, to bring down the heretic Queen Elizabeth, who continued to promote the Protestant faith and upheld the Church of England, which was first established by her father. If Spain had won, England would have been forced to return to Catholicism — a change that would have been unwelcomed by most of the English population.

As the tide carries us further up the Thames, we see a merchant ship laden with goods and food. The ship rides the tide into London and docks at Billingsgate. Merchants bring spices such as cinnamon and cloves (an exotic but integral part of Englanders' diets), sugar from Morocco, cotton and silk from the Mid-east, wine from various countries (for some reason, grapes do not grow at this time in England), and, strangely, potatoes from Spain. Potatoes are not a popular vegetable. The Spanish conquistadors brought them to Europe from South America, but the Englanders find the potato still too foreign and strange to actually eat. Most potatoes end up as food for the animals.

Goods from the merchant ships are taken to various markets and tradesmen around the city. Some of the higher-end items end up at the Royal Exchange, a shopping mecca commissioned and named by Queen Elizabeth, which opened for business in 1571. The Royal Exchange will soon become the center for commerce in England. It will burn to the ground twice and be rebuilt each time. In our own, modern era, the Royal Exchange is a luxury shopping mall with chic restaurants and high-end stores.

As we ride the current deeper into the city, we leave the merchant ships and pass under the Old London Bridge. Severed heads mounted on pikes gruesomely decorate the bridge, a sickly reminder of the more unpleasant side of Elizabethan England. Political prisoners — people accused (often, falsely) of plotting against the Crown — were taken to the Tower of London, and, if found guilty, would lose their heads on the Tower's grounds, within the sites of other prisoners. These prisoners would have made the river journey that many prisoners, including Queen Elizabeth herself, made. Silently, a boat would have taken them up the river to the Tower of London. They would have passed through a stone gate arching over the water. Arriving at the Tower, they would have stepped out onto the stone jetty and walked up the unyielding steps to their doom.

The Tower of London was not always a house of horrors. It was originally built in the late 11th century by William the Conqueror as a formidable place of defense. During the intervening years, the Tower had been added to and further fortified. By King Henry VIII's time, the Tower was used by royalty as a place of protection. It was only when King Henry decided his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was also Queen Elizabeth's mother, was no longer useful that the Tower became a prison to assumed traitors. Many of the falsely accused were sent to the Tower, where they would face isolation and torture. Queen Mary I, Elizabeth's half-sister and predecessor, sent Elizabeth to the Tower, accusing her of plotting to overthrow her in a failed rebellion. Elizabeth spent months in the Tower, stubbornly protesting her innocence. Unlike most prisoners of the Tower, Elizabeth was eventually released. Thousands of other souls found themselves at the non-existent mercy of the Tower.

As the river slows its course, we pass barges ferrying nobles across the waters to Southwark, one of the more seedy sections of London, located on the South shore of the Thames. They are on their way to the Globe Theater to watch the playwright William Shakespeare's latest work. The men gab on, while the women glide along under their veils, for no noble woman would want her face exposed in the rowdy Globe Theatre. In this age before the electric light, the play takes place during daylight hours. Afterwards, there is time to go catch a round of bear baiting. In this barbaric "game," spectators watch as dogs are set loose on a chained bear. Queen Elizabeth sometimes attends a bear baiting, but not today. After the fight is over (looks like the bear won this one), the lower men of society head to the numerous ale houses that litter the area.

The nobles head back across their barge, enjoying the water and discussing the weather. They return to their host's home, where they are treated to a feast to rival any king's (or queen's) table. During Elizabethan times, generous hospitality was considered one of the highest of attributes. Noblemen spent vast amounts of money on food, both for themselves and for their guests. Noblemen were not known for their frugality, so, more often than not, they did not really have the funds for their bounteous feast. They left it to their servants (who had better sense) to find a way to make up the difference. Our nobleman spares no expense. There are several choices of meat — veal, lamb, fish (if it is a Friday or Saturday, fish may be the only meat on the table, for these days were set aside to benefit the fishermen), and pork. Only the finest white bread, called "manchet," is served. The table is also laden with local fruit such as pears, apples, and apricots. Local vegetables such as carrots and turnips also grace the table, and the finest, imported wine is served. For dessert, a good number of delectable delights are brought out, including marzipan and tarts.

After the feast, the guests retire to another room and play billiards and cards, with a good bit of gossip thrown in. As the hour grows late, we float a little further up the river and spy a different dinner scene: one in a poor laborer's home. The people are more simply dressed, and the food is simpler as well. The family sits down to rough wheat bread with rye and oats mixed in for filler. The butcher had beef today, so it is beef the family eats, along with turnips and carrots (the one similarity to the nobleman's feast). Ale is served, and there is a treat for dessert: gingerbread. It has been a long, hard day for the laborer, and he is thankful for the food on the table and the company of his wife and children. While those who sat at the nobleman's table hold quiet conversations, the poor man's table is rambunctious and rowdy. As the sunlight wanes, the laborer and his family finish their meal and prepare for bed.

The river winds its way around a bend, and we pass quietly by Whitehall, one of the royal residences of Queen Elizabeth. Whitehall is an enormous labyrinth of both royal and servants' quarters. It was originally built by King Henry VIII and will continue to be added onto throughout the next century. Queen Elizabeth is present today, along with her entire court. The Queen and her Ladies walk the halls in their finest clothing, which is quite elaborate. It takes a good half-hour for a lady to get dressed. First, she puts on a linen shift (a nightgown-type dress that serves as a protection for the outer garments against the sweat of the body). Then comes the dreaded corset (the corset aids in looking as flat-chested as possible). A farthingale (hoop skirt) is added, along with a bumroll fitted around the hips, to make the skirt flare out as far as possible around the hips (a lady could eat dinner or play cards on her skirts, they were so puffed out). A partlet can be used to fill in the chest area if the dress is low-cut. A petticoat then goes over the hoop skirt, and finally, the dress is added, with huge, blossoming sleeves tied on at the shoulders. She also wears an enormous, itchy ruff around her neck. Her hair is braided and covered with a veil, and she adds a hat (the French hood is out-of-style by the late 16th Century) to adorn her complex outfit. Sometime during the process, she puts on hose and soft, delicate shoes. The gentlemen of the court are equally attired in their best finery — hose, shoes, shirts, doublets, capes, and hats (along with enormous, itchy ruffs, of course). The Ladies gossip amongst themselves, while the gentlemen scheme, quickly pasting on congenial smiles when the Queen turns her attention towards them.

Sadly, Whitehall will eventually burn to the ground, and there will be no funds to rebuild it. Today, remnants of the enormous palace (a wine cellar and a tennis court wall) can be found within the secured, secret walls of Great Britain's Ministry of Defense.

The tide shifts, and the Thames reverses its course, pushing us back out towards the sea. It is dark now. The city's ships and barges are moored. The candles and torches go out one by one. Shutters and doors close, and the people retire to their beds to dream and snore (many in ale's drunken stupor). The stars glitter across the sky — the same stars we gaze at in our own, future time — and the water sloshes gently against the quays. The current strengthens as it tosses us back out into the North Sea. As we leave the shores of the past, we hold these people from history in our hearts and memories. We reflect on their journeys upon the tide of the Thames as we journey upon our own tides of life towards the peaceful harbors of home.