Success and danger

How long the Mountjoys remained with the Dutch tailor Dewman is not known: for the rest of the 1580s their movements are obscure. There were tiremaking businesses in St Martin le Grand - a Frenchman named Morell and a Dutchman, Jonakyn Swanston, are recorded there as ‘attyre-makers’ - and perhaps the Mountjoys had a connection with one or other of them before setting up shop on their own.27 The only event we can be certain of at this time is the birth of their daughter, Mary, though the date remains approximate. In 1582, Marie Mountjoy was about sixteen and recently married: this seems the earliest reasonable date for the birth of Mary. At the other end of the range, Mary was herself marriageable in 1604, so cannot have been born much after 1589. When Shakespeare took up residence at Silver Street she was perhaps in her late teens, at the most twenty-one.

The tenor of these years must be hard work and improving horizons, for by the 1590s - if not before - Christopher is an independent tiremaker, with his own workshop and apprentices. He is upwardly mobile. Perhaps there was some money around to help them - if I am right about the consanguinity of John Mountjoy of Bishopsgate, there was. There is also some luck, in that their specialist skills were increasingly in demand, as head-tiring became more fashionable, elaborate and expensive in the 1590s and 1600s. But one might also call this business acumen. Tiremaking is a nebulous sort of craft, because the ‘tire’ itself comes in many shapes and styles, and with many combinations of materials and effects. It is a creation more than a garment. Thus the successful tiremaker proposes as much as reflects a fashion style - like a ‘great and original writer’, who (as Words-worth says) ‘must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished’.

Christopher Mountjoy does not on the whole get a good press, and this book will not do much to rehabilitate him. But one thing is clear - he was a brilliant craftsman and designer. The head-dresses that issued from his workshop were fit for a queen - a cheesy metaphor, but literally true in 1604, when Queen Anne’s purchases of some Mountjoy creations are recorded in her accounts.

One also applauds the Mountjoys’ success in the fashion world because of the pressures and obstacles they faced as ‘strangers’ setting up business in London. In late-Elizabethan London you might hear the same resentments towards immigrants that are expressed today - they took houses and jobs away from the local population; they were flooding in so numerously that they threatened ‘our way of life’; they did not attempt to integrate. ‘They are a commonwealth within themselves,’ complained a group of petitioning Londoners in 1571. ‘They keep themselves severed from us in church, in government, in trade, in language and marriage.’28

For the government the tide of immigration brought a mix of problems and benefits. The Tudor authorities’ primary instinct was control - to keep tabs on this potentially destabilizing influx. The immigrant censuses or returns are an expression of this: there were at least ten drawn up in London between 1562 and 1593. There were also proposals for a ‘free-hosting’ scheme, with local citizens made officially responsible for foreigners in a neighbourhood. ‘Strangers ought not to take any lodgings or houses within the city,’ it was argued, ‘but to abide at the tables of freehosts, and to dwell in noe other place but with the said hostes to be assigned.’ But the government was also conscious of the benefits brought by the immigrants - primarily, their specialist industrial and handicraft skills, and also their money. Among the penalties of the resident foreigner was a double rate of taxation, and to this burden were added other petty tariffs and imposts.

Particularly vocal in their resentment were London’s businessmen and traders, who felt their livelihoods threatened by the new competition. They organized petitions and lobbied in Parliament for protection. They were ‘greeved at’ the ‘great number of . . . straungers settled here amongst us’, and especially at two groups of them, ‘marchants’ and ‘handycraftesmen’. Christopher Mountjoy was a skilled craftsman, and he is sometimes described as a merchant (not least in his will, which is a self-description), so these complaints, which echo on more or less unchanged for decades, precisely concern him:

They [strangers] ought not to sell any merchaundizes by retayle. Contrary heerunto many of their merchaunts are retaylers also, keep shoppes inward, and private chambers, and therein sell by whole sale and retayle, send to everyman’s house, serve chapmen, send to fayres, and utter their commodities many other ways . . .

They ought to imploy the money taken for the commodities of their countryes upon the commodyties of this kingdome, which they do not, for whereas they have halfe the trade of this kingdome in importe they imploy not a twentieth part thereof, but transport the money or make it over by exchange . . .

They ought not to buy and sell merchandizes one to another, which they do freely amongst themselves, and . . . have ingrossed almost all the new draperie into their hands . . .

This indicates the conflict - on one hand, the government’s half-hearted protectionism, with its restraints and regulations not properly enforced; on the other, a thriving black economy based on the high-quality workmanship which was the Huguenots’ trademark, and which found a ready market among the consuming classes of Elizabethan London.29

There were many such petitions, never effectively addressed, and in 1593 anti-alien feeling was dangerously rekindled. It was a time of plague and war - the long-running conflict in the Low Countries, the renewed threat of Spanish invasion. The economy was stretched, inflation was running high, bad harvests drove up food prices. In London the mood was ugly, and the strangers were convenient scapegoats. ‘The common people do rage against them,’ wrote one observer, ‘as though for their sakes so many taxes, such decay of traffic, and their being embrandled in so many wars, did ensue.’30

On the street, petitions having proved useless, more militant action began. In mid-April there appeared an inflammatory broadsheet, described by the Privy Council as a ‘vyle ticket or placarde, set up upon some post in London, purportinge . . . violence upon the strangers’. It is addressed to ‘you beastly Brutes the Belgians (or rather drunken drones) and faint-hearted Flemings, and you fraudulent Father Frenchmen’. It accuses them of ‘cowardly flight from [their] natural countries’, and of ‘feigned hypocrisy and counterfeit shew of religion’. It complains that the Queen has permitted them ‘to live here in better case and more freedom than her own people’. It issues a dire ultimatum:

Be it known to all Flemings and Frenchmen that it is best for them to depart out of the realm of England between this and the 9th of July next. If not then take that which follows, for that there shall be many a sore stripe. Apprentices will rise to the number of 2336. And all the apprentices and journeymen will down with the Flemings and strangers.31

The Council drafted an urgent letter to the Lord Mayor, Sir Cuthbert Buckle, ordering that those involved be ‘strictlie examined’ and if necessary ‘punyshed by torture’. But further placards appeared - most notoriously the ‘Dutch Church libel’, affixed to the wall of the Dutch Church on the night of 5 May, and still picked over today because of its mysterious connections with the playwrights Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe. It begins:

Ye strangers yt doe inhabite in this lande 

Note this same writing doe it understand. 

Conceit it well for savegard of your lyves, 

Your goods, your children & your dearest wives.

It rehearses the usual grievances against immigrant craftsmen (‘Our poor artificers starve & dye / For yt they cannot now be sett on worke’) and retailers (‘Cutthroat-like in selling you undoe / us all’), but the note of rabble-rousing violence is more strident than ever -

Expect you therefore such a fatall day 

Shortly on you & youres for to ensewe 

As never was seene. 

Since wordes nor threates nor any other thinge 

Canne make you to avoyd this certaine ill, 

Weele cutt your throates in your temples praying 

Not Paris massacre so much blood did spill ...32

This crude doggerel is signed with the nom de guerre ‘Tamburlaine’, an allusion to Marlowe’s popular play, Tamburlaine the Great (1587), about the conquests and cruelties of the medieval Tartar warlord Timur-i-Leng.

One can guess at the feelings evoked in the immigrant community by these rabid ‘placards’. A letter sent from England on 16 May to the Catholic intelligence-gatherer Richard Verstegan in Brussels, gives the following news:

The apprentices of London have dispersed many libels against all sortes of strangers, threatning severely that if they depart not spedely to massacre them all . . . Great fear is thereby conceyved by the strangers. Great companyes of them are already departed, and more daily preparing to follow, so it is thought the most part will away, our Councell not knowing how to protect them.

Verstegan himself (writing on 17 May, and thus before receiving the above) says: ‘There are above 10,000 strangers determyned this somer to departe from England . . . for fear of some comotion to be made by the comon people against them.’33 The figure is exaggerated, but no doubt those who could got out of London at this time.

It was against this backdrop of simmering xenophobia that the 1593 Return of Strangers was compiled. On 6 March, the Mayor instructed the aldermen of each ward, ‘with as great secrecy as may be’, to make ‘diligent search’ to determine:

what and how many foreigners are residing and remaining within the same; of what nation, profession, trade or occupation every of them are of . . . what or howe many servants, either men or women, doth every of them keep in their houses; how long they and every of them have been in the realm; to what church every of them resort; whether they keep any English-born people in their house or otherwise set them to work.

The aldermen were told to complete this census within four days, which expresses the urgency of the surveillance but was entirely unrealistic. The certificates were not actually returned until 4 May.34

Answers to all the above questions are to be found in the surviving returns, and it is a great pity, biographically speaking, that the Mountjoys do not figure among the 1,100 or so households described there. The census is a snapshot, and their absence from it shows only that they were not in London between 6 March and 4 May 1593. They had prudently moved out for a while. They could possibly have been in Brentford, where we know Mountjoy later leased a property. Or they could have been in Stepney, where we later find Mountjoy’s presumed relative John, and his own widow Isabel. These villages lay outside the scope of the 1593 Return.

We know little of the Mountjoys’ early years in London, but these are some of the ingredients of their experience. They are prey to the vulnerabilities of the ’migr’. They live with petty restrictions and swingeing taxes. They are objects of curiosity or derision, shading at times into dangerous hostility. These tensions were no doubt counter-balanced with many benefits, but they are an extenuation to be remembered when we hear the crabby tones of Christopher Mountjoy as reported by witnesses at the Court of Requests.

Though it seems they were out of town in the spring of 1593, it is from around this year that we get our earliest sightings of the Mountjoys in Cripplegate. Two of the deponents in the Belott- Mountjoy suit, both residents of Cripplegate, claim to have known Mountjoy at this time. Daniel Nicholas says he had known him for about twenty years. This would take us back to 1592, which is about the earliest possible date for Mountjoy’s residence in Silver Street, for had he been a householder there in 1591 he would have been listed for taxation in the subsidy rolls of that year. (Thereafter there is a gap in the Cripplegate rolls until 1599, when he is listed.) Humphrey Fludd, meanwhile, says he has known Mountjoy for about eighteen years, i.e. since c. 1594. Retrospective computations by witnesses are not necessarily reliable, but Fludd’s may be accurate. In about 1594, according to his own testimony, he had married Stephen Belott’s mother in France, and not long afterwards he ‘put’ Belott ‘to be the defendant’s apprentice’ in London. Fludd is at least likely to know in what year he was married, and his statement is fairly good evidence that the Mountjoys were in Cripplegate, in business, by about 1594.

This in turn makes it likely that Christopher is the ‘Mr Munjoye’ referred to in a letter of late 1593. It was written by a young Norfolk gentleman, Philip Gawdy, who sent home a number of valuably gossipy letters from London, where he was studying law. Among them are fascinating glimpses from the playhouses, such as the performance by the Admiral’s Men in 1587 when a loaded musket went off onstage and killed a pregnant woman in the audience - the play was probably Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. In his letter of 7 December 1593, Gawdy reports that he has bought his ‘beloved syster’ - in fact his sister-in-law, Anne - various fashion items she had requested:

her fann with the handle . . . a pair of knifes, a vardingale of the best fashion, her gold thread, her heare call [hair-caul], her pumpes, and in short there wanteth no thing she spake for but only a thing I should have had of Mr Munjoye, but he fayled me very wrongfully according to his promyse; but it is coming.35

It is annoying that Gawdy’s very specific list becomes so vague at its point of reference to Mr Munjoye or Mountjoy, but there is little doubt that the ‘thing’ he had ordered was a tire or ornamental head-dress, a suitable item to go with the fan, farthingale, hair-caul and pumps which he had bought for his fashion-starved sister-in-law in Norfolk. This unsatisfied customer brings us the first of many negative comments about Christopher Mountjoy - ‘he fayled me very wrongfully’. He has broken a promise to the young gentleman, as he will do later to his daughter and son-in-law.

The earliest actual documentation of the Mountjoys on Silver Street dates from early 1596. The circumstance is melancholy: the burial of an infant. The child has no name, and no gender is indicated. He or she was either stillborn or had died before baptism, usually a couple of days after birth. The burial took place on 27 February 1596. The entry in the register reads simply, ‘Mrs Monjoyes childe’ (see Plate 14).36

The wording is curious, as it is almost invariably the father who is named as the parent of a dead child, or if the mother is named she is specified as a widow. In the twenty years from 1593 to 1612 - the last decade of Elizabeth and the first of King James - there were buried at St Olave’s 172 children or minors: people young enough for their parentage to be identified in the burial entry. Marie Mountjoy’s child is one of only four instances where the mother is named without the explanation of widowhood. Of the others, two are definitely illegitimate children and the third probably is too. In the register of births, the pattern is even clearer. Out of several hundred baptismal entries only five name the mother, and in each case the wording shows that the child is illegitimate.37

The scribal conventions of the St Olave’s register seem to imply that the unbaptized baby buried in February 1596 was a child of Marie Mountjoy’s by someone other than her husband. It is not so easy to translate this into actuality. Why was the child not presented to the world as Christopher’s even if it was not? Does it mean Marie Mountjoy had a publicly acknowledged lover? I do not think the evidence is strong enough to be sure. It remains a rumour, a whisper of scandal in the faded pages of the old parish register - but it is not the only indication of a certain sexual raciness in the Mountjoy household.

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