An Introduction to Early Modern FairiesWhen attending a Guided…

An Introduction to Early Modern Fairies

When attending a Guided Tour at Shakespeare’s Globe you’ll hear all manner of stories from our passionate and knowledgable guides. Over the last few months we’ve been sharing blogs by our staff in a new series.

Last week, Tour Guide and Exhibition Assistant Jon Kaneko-James explored what the area of Bankside would have been like in Shakespeare’s time. Today, he’d like to talk to you about another one of his areas of expertise…

As well as being a Tour Guide and Exhibition Assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe, I also write and publish historical research on the Early Modern belief in the supernatural. 

Fairies were a definite part of English life in Shakespeare’s era. In 1590 Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene had mythologised Queen Elizabeth as the fairy queen Gloriana. In general, in fact, fairies went through definite period of popularity in literary circles, with the number of published works involving fairies experiencing steady growth from 1598 through to 1610. 

Fairies had also long occupied a place in popular culture. The 10th century Leechbook of Bald included a medico-magical spell for curing elf shot, and medieval chroniclers like Gervaise of Tilbery and Geraldus Cambrensis had written detailed stories of the fairy realm and their visits to our world. 

In Act Five, Scene Five of The Merry Wives of Windsor Mistress Quickly and the others band together to convince the troublesome Falstaff that if he goes to a secluded place in Windsor forest disguised as a ghost, he will meet the object of his affections – Mistress Ford. When Falstaff arrives wearing horns as a chain as his disguise, he is set upon by children dressed as fairies and chastised in verse for his wicked ways. 

For Shakespeare’s audiences, this may well have resonated with the not unamusing crimes of a London con-woman named Judith Philips. The 1595 pamphlet The Bridling, Saddling and Riding of a Rich Churl in Hampshire had documented Philips’ tricking of a rich country miser. 

Philips herself had been the wife of a gunmaker named John Pope, before tiring of his modest income and leaving to seek her fortune elsewhere. Described as a fortune teller and ‘Cunning Woman’ (a magical practitioner who sold remedies), Philips heard that the miser – living in Up Somborne – was both greedy and gullible and decided to turn a profit on him. 

After first climbing into his garden to plant coins at the dead of night, Philips returned the next day to convince the miser and his wife of her magical link with the queen of the fairies by leading them to dig up the coins, seemingly detected by magic. Obviously, having made a profit, the miser offered her anything she wanted. Judith was not shy to demand.

She asked not only for fourteen pounds (and got it) but also for ‘The largest chamber in your house behung with the finest linen you can get, so that nothing around your chamber but white linen cloth be seen, then you must set five candlesticks in five several places in your chamber, and under every candlestick you must put an angel of gold, all of which was done as she required…’ 

The final step in the process was the utter humiliation of her mark: Judith saddled and bridled him, rode him three times between the chamber and the holly tree, and left him with instructions that he and his wife must worship the tree naked for at least three hours. 

Judith, of course, used the time to clean his house out of valuables, and after a brief pantomime as the fairy queen to subjugate her gulls, she escaped the scene of her crime to Winchester, and eventually to London. Embarrassed by his foolishness, the ‘churl’ initially reported nothing.

For Shakespeare’s audiences, this would be neither the first or the last time that fairies – whether honestly or dishonestly – came into their lives. Whether as the mythical builders of iron age mounds, or the supernatural authority behind a local Cunning Woman’s medicine, fairies would have been an almost commonplace element of daily life.

Photo: The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Joseph Noel Paton, Google Art Project / Wikimedia

Read more blogs by our Guided Tours & Exhibition staff

Words: Jon Kaneko-James