Background to Shakespeare by M. M. Badawi (auth.)

By M. M. Badawi (auth.)

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The clergy had their own parliament, the Convocation, and the higher clergy were elected on the nomination of the Pope. However, the king also had a say in the matter, for he rewarded his clerics in the government service by giving them higher and more lucrative positions in the Church. The English bishops had their mansions in London and they either attended the king or acted as his ambassadors abroad. The higher clergymen then performed the functions of higher civil servants in the state and that was natural in an age when they were the only learned people.

Beheading was the punishment reserved for noblemen who had been convicted of high treason. Hanging took place at Tyburn (where Marble Arch stands now), while the scene of beheading was the Tower. Offenders about to be hanged were taken from their prisons to Tyburn on an open cart with a rope round their necks. The skulls of the beheaded noblemen were fixed to stakes and displayed on London Bridge. Death, bloody death, was a common sight. People flocked to watch scenes of hanging with the same zest as they saw spectacles of bear-baiting.

This was sometimes an important social event in the life of a borough and some guilds, like those of Coventry and Chester, had their chief annual festival on the day they performed their play. Such, in brief, was the social picture of England in the Middle Ages. The king, the barons or peers of the realm and the bishops or peers of the Church ruled over the land and the whole system 30 BACKGROUND TO SHAKESPEARE was one of a rigid hierarchy and oflegal subordination of villeins to lords. Among the villagers and townspeople corporate life was all-important, as can be seen in their submission to the Church and to the medieval guild.

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