Friday, May 17, 2013

Question from Alison - Quote at arrest of Earl of Essex

When the Earl of Essex is arrested by Queen Elizabeth I - the mob cry "Saw, Saw, Saw. Tray" What does this mean.

It also appears in the Benjamin Britten opera.


Foose said...

The phrase turns up in the description of Essex's entry into London.

William Reynolds wrote a letter to Sir Robert Cecil in 1600 regarding the executed earl of Essex and describing the passage of the rebel earl and his insurgent troop into London:

"But Orrell before mentioned, who holds his neck awry, did run and leap in the forefront with Sir Christopher Blunt and Mr. Busshell, their weapons drawn, crying "Saw, saw, saw, tray, tray ..."

"Saw" could possibly be an alternative phonetic rendering of "Sa," a common Elizabethan ejaculation that turns up in Shakespeare - defined as "an exclamation of incitement to run or charge." I've seen it turn up occasionally in historical novels, most recently in Firedrake's Eye when a bear-baiter shouts "Sa, sa, sa!" to goad the bear.

"Tray" is trickier. It's tempting to see it as an abbreviation of "traytour," the typical Elizabethan spelling of traitor. But the earl was anxious not to see himself as a traitor. I tried variations, such as trey, the lucky card for Elizabethans that could be used in cheating card games - perhaps the reference was to the earl's sense of betrayal. I wondered if it might be Irish cant. Nothing turned up.

However, some of the descriptions of the incident suggest that Essex's men were shooting or prepared to shoot, so I thought possibly "tray" was a phonetic rendering of the French "tirez," the command to shoot.

Russell A. Frame's book Shakespeare appears to confirm this by stating that the phrase used was actually the wholly French "ca, ca, tirez!" He cites no reference for this and he's actually talking about the Gunpowder Plot under King James, which featured a malcontent who also figured in Essex's rebellion. I can't find any confirmation of the Frenchness of the phrase. Ideally, I'd like to find a book discussing Elizabethan armies, military drills and words of command, to back up this assertion.

The sense would probably be the same if "ca" was actually "sa" - possibly "sa" derives its etymology from the French word. "Go, go, go, fire, fire!" or something similar - maybe the phrase had been used in military actions by Essex's soldiers in Ireland and was naturally fallen back on by strung-out rebels trying to keep their nerves and maintain momentum in a disorganized mess of a situation.

shtove said...

Interesting, but I can't help.

The only reservation I have on Foose's speculation is that the letter doesn't refer to firearms. From the context it seems the men chanting the phrase were using rapiers and daggers - therefore not yet prepared to shoot.

Foose said...

Yes, you're right there about the letter - some other secondary (modern) accounts talk about shooting.

But you prompted me to go back to the definition of tirer - which I should have done in the first place! - and one of its meanings from medieval times onward was to draw (a sword). So it could still apply, with the men being urged to draw swords rather than fire guns.

shtove said...

Tirer is a term in falconry too - to tear the flesh.

Odd that the Shakespeare/Spenser scholars don't have an answer for this one.

Hang on - google found a thesis from 1966 on theatrical battle scenes. Cites the letter at p.236: sasasa is used in Larum for London, so that would be an English stage (per)version of Alba's soldiers at Antwerp. Looks like a version of touche. No insight on tray tray.

It's a PDF but no search function:

Actually the section on battle cries is pretty good.

I guess there's an article in there on continued use of French terms by soldiers. Must be a chivalry thing.

Unknown said...

sa sa sa tre or Three Cheers; like ra ra ra


Unknown said...

sa! sa! sa! TRE!

Three Cheers RA! RA! RA!