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The String Untuned: A Riot at Hoddesdon, 1534

David Starkey describes a small-scale, regional, sixteenth century event that, nonetheless, illuminates the age.

How could communities,

Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenitive and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,

But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows!

- Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire is now a rather anonymous mass of streets between a trunk road and the lakes of the Lee valley. In the sixteenth century it had no more intrinsic importance, but chance made it the site of one of those events - trivial enough in themselves - which somehow illuminate an entire age.

For when the townsfolk set on a party of their betters in August 1534 they dealt some hard blows not only to their victims but also to the whole doctrine of hierarchy or social subordination that a one-sided reading of Shakespeare has foisted on the sixteenth century as its ‘world picture’.

The background to it all was a death, a funeral and a family connection. Sir William Fitzwilliam (called ‘the elder’ to distinguish him from his younger and rather remote cousin of the same name who became Earl of Southampton) had had a good life. Like many another cadet of a gentry family he first made his fortune in the City and then bought himself back into county society - acquiring, in fact, two main seats: one at Gaynes Park, near Epping in Essex, and the other at Milton and Marholm in Northamptonshire.

He also lent a less usual political dimension to his career by attaching himself to Cardinal Wolsey. In return he was made successively Treasurer of the Cardinal’s Household, his High Chamberlain, and finally, as his client, Royal Councillor. But by 1534 he was an old man - probably about 74 - and on August 9th he died.

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