10 Bizarre Historical Facts

One of the best things about being a writer is I get to make stuff up. But as I researched 16th century England for my historical romance books, I discovered there’s some things that are so weird readers would have a hard time believing they were true. Here’s 10 of them, in no particular order:

  1. Shakespeare’s famous Globe theatre, a multi-story complex that held over 3,000 people, was built from the timbers of an older theater called (unimaginatively) The Theatre. The Theatre was dismantled and transported across London and re-erected on the other side of the river in under a month in the middle of one of London’s coldest winters. Try getting a builder to do that these days!
  2. Clothing was often arranged with the aid of pins. Elizabeth I’s outfits were so elaborate that she went through nearly 100,000 pins in a 6 month period. These weren’t the safety pin variety either, so I can’t imagine how she didn’t have a wardrobe malfunction from time to time.
  3. A gown’s sleeves were often detachable and simply pinned onto the bodice at the shoulder. The benefit of this are 2-fold: (a) a daytime outfit can be quickly spruced up by swapping the sleeves, and (b) a spare sleeve can be given as a “favor” at jousting tournaments.
  4. The first flushing toilet was invented in 1596 by John Harrington, but the idea didn’t take off in England.
  5. 165 days of the year were set aside as “fish days”, or more specifically non-“flesh” days when meat couldn’t be eaten but fish could. Anyone caught eating flesh was punished. A woman was pilloried for breaking this law and another 4 spent the night in the stocks. Naturally the nobles could purchase temporary or annual flesh-eating licenses to be exempt from this law.
  6. Apothecaries sold various remedies in their shops including unicorn’s horn, quicksilver and hemlock. You might see tortoises, alligators, fish and other animal skins hanging in one of their Bucklersbury Street shops. I’d like to know where they got their unicorns from as those horns could cure anything from plague to a bite from a mad dog.
  7. A marriage didn’t have to be conducted in a church service. A couple could consider themselves legally wed by agreeing to take the other as their spouse then having sex. This probably caused more than a few couples to wake up after a night of drunkenness and regret their hasty decision. Not much has changed really.
  8. Prisons were run as private enterprises and jailers weren’t obligated to provide good conditions let alone feed their prisoners. The rich could pay “rent” for a private chamber where they could entertain guests with hearty meals.
  9. Crimes punishable by death included the usual such as rape, murder and treason, but also included the stranger charges of witchcraft, hawk stealing and “letting out of ponds”. The hanging wasn’t conducted by an executioner employed specifically for the task, but by the local butcher roped in (pardon the pun) to do the job.
  10. They were a superstitious lot back in Tudor and Elizabethan England. Some of the most famous medics of the era were also mystics. A doctor might treat you for kidney stones and give you an astrological reading in the same visit, which was no doubt handy if you were busy. One doctor, Simon Forman, wore a ring that protected him against witchcraft, devil’s possession, thunder, lightening and helped him to “overcome enemies”. Now that’s one valuable piece of bling.