Historical Background

Fairies in Elizabethan England

In 'The Onion Stone' we see Gilbert toying with the idea of composing a tale of magic with nymphs or fairies small as cowslips, tiny as an agate stone though none shall see them with the eye.

Shakespeare's tiny flying fairies in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' would have surprised an Elizabethan audience accustomed to the notion of them as wingless creatures, similar in size and shape to humans. Traditionally they were of dark complexions, usually dressed in nature-green, closely linked with farms and cattle for they loved their cream and milk.

Shakespeare's sprites are pranksters, love practical jokes and playing tricks, use magic to disguise and deceive, They are more than capable of pinching people with messy homes, blighting crop, stealing babies and cows. But they do not inspire fear and awe as more traditional fairies did, for these were seen as akin to fallen angels or soul-less beings half way between Heaven and Hell. Shakespeare's flowery, dancing tricksters are harmless shadows, only the figments of dreams.

The Wrath of God in Tudor England

In 1567 Anne Cecil was taken ill with a fever that lasted 40 days. Her father, William Cecil, feared her life was 'very doubtful'. His anxious prayers are full of pleading but also show an acceptance of a God whose 'wrath shall be very burdensome' but nevertheless righteous and just if he required the life of a daughter in recompense for her father's sins.

I am reminded of Katherine Brandon in the hot summer of 1551 who, grieving for the loss of her two sons to the sweating sickness, still saw the deaths as God's punishment and an example of 'his power, his love and mercy.'


‘With your head and my purse, I could do anything,’ said Elizabeth to Cecil. Many times, however, it became Cecil’s purse as well for the queen was known for her royal progresses round the land, vast retinue in tow, staying for weeks at a time with her wealthy lords, saving her own expenditure but costing them a fortune. Theobalds, Burghley’s home in Herfordshire, was one of her favourite places to stay and set up court.

An extravagant, showy age for some, this Elizabethan era, even if excess came perilously close to debt. Status meant grandeur and pride in possessions and nowhere more so than in the mansions and gardens of England.

Descriptions of Theobalds are well documented. We read about exotic plants, lawns made green with the droppings of doves, hidden fountains that showered the unwary, bathing pools with miniature bridges, peacocks, swans, hives and orchards, vines and bowers, walkways lined with tubs of carnations, a maze of canals with barges round the house ... I like to think the Cecil family may have had some quiet moments to explore and enjoy.