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The People For Whom Shakespeare Wrote
by [?]

By Charles Dudley Warner

Queen Elizabeth being dead about ten o’clock in the morning, March 24, 1603, Sir Robert Cary posted away, unsent, to King James of Scotland to inform him of the “accident,” and got made a baron of the realm for his ride. On his way down to take possession of his new kingdom the king distributed the honor of knighthood right and left liberally; at Theobald’s he created eight-and-twenty knights, of whom Sir Richard Baker, afterwards the author of “A Chronicle of the Kings of England,” was one. “God knows how many hundreds he made the first year,” says the chronicler, “but it was indeed fit to give vent to the passage of Honour, which during Queen Elizabeth’s reign had been so stopped that scarce any county of England had knights enow to make a jury.”

Sir Richard Baker was born in 1568, and died in 1645; his “Chronicle” appeared in 1641. It was brought down to the death of James in 1625, when, he having written the introduction to the life of Charles I, the storm of the season caused him to “break off in amazement,” for he had thought the race of “Stewards” likely to continue to the “world’s end”; and he never resumed his pen. In the reign of James two things lost their lustre–the exercise of tilting, which Elizabeth made a special solemnity, and the band of Yeomen of the Guard, choicest persons both for stature and other good parts, who graced the court of Elizabeth; James “was so intentive to Realities that he little regarded shows,” and in his time these came utterly to be neglected. The virgin queen was the last ruler who seriously regarded the pomps and splendors of feudalism.

It was characteristic of the age that the death of James, which occurred in his fifty-ninth year, should have been by rumor attributed to “poyson”; but “being dead, and his body opened, there was no sign at all of poyson, his inward parts being all sound, but that his Spleen was a little faulty, which might be cause enough to cast him into an Ague: the ordinary high-way, especially in old bo’dies, to a natural death.”

The chronicler records among the men of note of James’s time Sir Francis Vere, “who as another Hannibal, with his one eye, could see more in the Martial Discipline than common men can do with two”; Sir Edward Coke; Sir Francis Bacon, “who besides his profounder book, of Novum Organum, hath written the reign of King Henry the Seventh, in so sweet a style, that like Manna, it pleaseth the tast of all palats”; William Camden, whose Description of Britain “seems to keep Queen Elizabeth alive after death”; “and to speak it in a word, the Trojan Horse was not fuller of Heroick Grecians, than King James his Reign was full of men excellent in all kindes of Learning.” Among these was an old university acquaintance of Baker’s, “Mr. John Dunne, who leaving Oxford, lived at the Innes of Court, not dissolute, but very neat; a great Visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Playes, a great writer of conceited Verses; until such times as King James taking notice of the pregnancy of his Wit, was a means that he betook him to the study of Divinity, and thereupon proceeding Doctor, was made Dean of Pauls; and became so rare a Preacher, that he was not only commended, but even admired by all who heard him.”

The times of Elizabeth and James were visited by some awful casualties and portents. From December, 1602, to the December following, the plague destroyed 30,518 persons in London; the same disease that in the sixth year of Elizabeth killed 20,500, and in the thirty-sixth year 17,890, besides the lord mayor and three aldermen. In January, 1606, a mighty whale came up the Thames within eight miles of London, whose body, seen divers times above water, was judged to be longer than the largest ship on the river; “but when she tasted the fresh water and scented the Land, she returned into the sea.” Not so fortunate was a vast whale cast upon the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, in 1575, which was “twenty Ells long, and thirteen foot broad from the belly to the backbone, and eleven foot between the eyes. One of his eyes being taken out of his head was more than a cart with six horses could draw; the Oyl being boyled out of his head was Parmacittee.” Nor the monstrous fish cast ashore in Lincolnshire in 1564, which measured six yards between the eyes and had a tail fifteen feet broad; “twelve men stood upright in his mouth to get the Oyl.” In 1612 a comet appeared, which in the opinion of Dr. Bainbridge, the great mathematician of Oxford, was as far above the moon as the moon is above the earth, and the sequel of it was that infinite slaughters and devastations followed it both in Germany and other countries. In 1613, in Standish, in Lancashire, a maiden child was born having four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces–the one before, the other behind, like the picture of Janus. (One thinks of the prodigies that presaged the birth of Glendower.) Also, the same year, in Hampshire, a carpenter, lying in bed with his wife and a young child, “was himself and the childe both burned to death with a sudden lightning, no fire appearing outwardly upon him, and yet lay burning for the space of almost three days till he was quite consumed to ashes.” This year the Globe playhouse, on the Bankside, was burned, and the year following the new playhouse, the Fortune, in Golding Lane, “was by negligence of a candle, clean burned down to the ground.” In this year also, 1614, the town of Stratford-on-Avon was burned. One of the strangest events, however, happened in the first year of Elizabeth (1558), when “dyed Sir Thomas Cheney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, of whom it is reported for a certain, that his pulse did beat more than three quarters of an hour after he was dead, as strongly as if he had been still alive.” In 1580 a strange apparition happened in Somersetshire–three score personages all clothed in black, a furlong in distance from those that beheld them; “and after their appearing, and a little while tarrying, they vanished away, but immediately another strange company, in like manner, color, and number appeared in the same place, and they encountered one another and so vanished away. And the third time appeared that number again, all in bright armour, and encountered one another, and so vanished away. This was examined before Sir George Norton, and sworn by four honest men that saw it, to be true.” Equally well substantiated, probably, was what happened in Herefordshire in 1571: “A field of three acres, in Blackmore, with the Trees and Fences, moved from its place and passed over another field, traveling in the highway that goeth to Herne, and there stayed.” Herefordshire was a favorite place for this sort of exercise of nature. In 1575 the little town of Kinnaston was visited by an earthquake: “On the seventeenth of February at six o’clock of the evening, the earth began to open and a Hill with a Rock under it (making at first a great bellowing noise, which was heard a great way off) lifted itself up a great height, and began to travel, bearing along with it the Trees that grew upon it, the Sheep-folds, and Flocks of Sheep abiding there at the same time. In the place from whence it was first moved, it left a gaping distance forty foot broad, and fourscore Ells long; the whole Field was about twenty Acres. Passing along, it overthrew a Chappell standing in the way, removed an Ewe-Tree planted in the Churchyard, from the West into the East; with the like force it thrust before it High-wayes, Sheep-folds, Hedges, and Trees, made Tilled ground Pasture, and again turned Pasture into Tillage. Having walked in this sort from Saturday in the evening, till Monday noon, it then stood still.” It seems not improbable that Birnam wood should come to Dunsinane.