Thursday, August 25, 2016

Question from Allyson - Resources for c. 1520 England

Hello, I'm doing research for a novel I'm writing which takes place in or close to 1520 Reading, England. It is fiction but I want to have the details as factual as possible. Some questions that have come up.

What were the rolls of viscounts at the time? Who were they, what did they do, how did they live, who were they above and under?

Can you tell me anything or refer me to something that will give me information about the industries, jobs, etc. of the time (specifically the book and printing industry)

Another question I have is about the levels of law enforcement at the time. What were offenses to the law? How were they reported, enforced, investigated, etc.?

Also, a lot of information goes around about how the common people lived. Where could I look for an educational, factual representation of everyday life in the 1520s.

Thank you.

1 comment:

PhD Historian said...

Wow! Sounds like you are in the earliest stages of your writing project, with a very great deal of research to do!

I am not entirely sure what you mean by “the rolls of the viscounts.” I wonder did you mean “roles”? Viscount is a noble rank and title awarded by the Crown, with greater precedence than barons and lesser precedence than earls. The noble title ‘Viscount’ was relatively new in England at the time of your story (and quite different from the viscounts of the Norman period). The few viscountcies that had existed in the fifteenth century following the creation of the first English viscount in 1440 (John Beaumont, Viscount Beaumont) had largely become extinct by 1500, in the wake of the ‘Wars of the Roses.’ I know of only one in 1520: Charles Brandon, Viscount Lisle. He would later be elevated to the Dukedom of Suffolk, and the Lisle viscountcy would be re-created in 1523 for Arthur Plantagenet. Thomas Boleyn would be created Viscount Rochford in 1525, five years after the setting of your story. But I am not aware of any viscounts other than Brandon in 1520.

Viscounts of the Tudor period did not have a defined “role,” as such. There was no viscount job description or list of specific responsibilities, any more than there was a job description for a baron or duke. Instead, they were tasked with performing the duties of any administrative, bureaucratic, or military office to which the Crown might see fit to appoint them.

For information on jobs and industry, you would need to start by reading some of the basic social and economic histories of the period. Agriculture was, of course, the economic mainstay. But there was a woolen and cloth ‘industry,’ as well as various occupations governed by a variety of guilds. Printing was still quite new in England in 1520, with the first printing press having been introduced there in 1476. Most printing businesses were located in Westminster and London, though presses also existed in Oxford and St Albans. The Reading area would not acquire a printing press until considerably after 1520.

Again, the answer to your question regarding laws and law enforcement requires that you seek out some basic works on social history. There was, of course, no police force in 1520. Communities were largely self-policing. For a narrow look at one community, see Marjorie McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370-1600.

Likewise, the answer to your question on “how the common people lived” will require you to read some basic texts on social and economic history.

In short, there are unfortunately no one- or two-paragraph answers to any of your questions. Each of them will require extensive reading in introductory texts, and perhaps some additional reading in specialized subjects, e.g.: the early publishing industry.

I do not know where you are located, but if you are in the UK, you might try contacting the Berkshire Local History Association ( for guidance on researching the history of Reading and its immediate vicinity early in the sixteenth century. They may have some privately printed books and articles that are not readily available otherwise.