Saturday 22 May 2021

Scepter'd Isle: Lamentations of the Flame Princess in Elizabethan England

This is it. The big idea. What if I took Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and plonked it in an Early Modern setting? Original, right? Again, see the blog tagline (and Tim, if by any small chance you read this, thanks for running a great campaign and planting these seeds). Anyhow, here's the plan: Lamentations of the Flame Princess set at some point in the reign of Elizabeth I (1559-1603), with the possibility of continuing into the Stuart era after that. There are several areas that need to be considered for such a real world setting:

  1. Key events and dates
  2. Key personages
  3. Society and technology

In addition there are the usual fantastical elements to consider:

  1. The 'true' nature of gods/deities
  2. Magic
  3. Weird and wonderful creatures, and demihumans

Disclaimer: I am not a historian, I am an enthused amateur with access to Wikipedia.

So without further ado...


Key events and dates

This is a general list of key dates relating to important people, places and things focused on the Kingdom of England in this time period. At this point England was very much in the opening stages of building what would eventually become the British Empire - Columbus' final journey had only taken place some 50 years past, and the survivors of Magellan's circumnavigation returned to Spain only a couple of decades after that. At the start of Elizabeth's reign England's main overseas possessions were a series of Plantations in Ireland (Calais having been lost shortly before Elizabeth ascended the throne) but by the turn of the 17th century two English colonies had failed in North America (I like to refer to them as 'Roanoke: Population 0' and 'Roanoke II: Starvation Boogaloo'), colonies had been established in Jamestown and Bermuda, the East India Company had gained its first footholds in Asia, and the colonisation of Ireland really took off.

As such, while England was by no means a stranger to brutal overseas exploitation most of this was conducted somewhat closer to home than during the mainstream imperial period (although the people of Ireland were continually treated despicably and at times genocidally so). European opposition to England in this period came largely from the Spanish Empire under Philip II as France (England's bitter rival for most of however long the two polities have existed) was embroiled in internal religious strife which left it inward-facing. Scotland, the traditional ally of France, likewise maintained reasonably peaceful relations with England throughout Elizabeth's reign (at least when compared to Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII) and was largely concerned with a similar internal tension between Protestant and Catholic factions as found in England. The Low Countries were a staunch ally of England in the latter part of the era, with Elizabeth supporting the Dutch Protestants in rebelling against their Spanish overlords.

Internally, England was riven with the divisions that arose out of the Reformation and counter-Reformation. This led to open rebellion early in her reign and a number of plots and intrigues that prompted Elizabeth to execute her imprisoned cousin (who had already been forced to abdicate the Scottish throne by a faction of Protestant nobles) and stage a harsh crackdown on Catholicism. At the same time efforts were made to mend the rift between not only Catholics and Protestants, but between conservative Protestants (who supported the Anglican Church) and more radical groups like the Puritans - a settlement was gradually enacted which attempted to include elements of Catholic ritual and symbolism in a 'high church' style while also allowing greater leeway in personal belief regarding certain Christian sacraments and ensuring the Church's independence from the Papacy. It was a decidedly spit and duct-tape solution that remained in place until the Puritan-dominated Parliamentarians dismantled the settlement during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, only for it to be reintroduced with renewed vigour after the restoration of the monarchy following Cromwell's death in the 17th century. A combination of Catholic-Protestant conflict and England's early colonial ambitions in Ireland lead to probably the largest cause of internal conflict in the Nine Years' War where Irish lords fought against English incursions into Ulster and their initial success led to other Irish lords joining them, notbaly in Munster. While the prospect of an initially successful pseudo-rebellion* was disturbing in and of itself, the actions of the Earl of Essex (Elizabeth's favourite at court) in the Irish campaign led to him attempting a coup in London.

*The Irish lords were native Irish chiefs, the Crown only really controlled the Pale and the Anglo-Irish lordships that owed them fealty were often tenuous and prone to revolt - the English occupation of Ireland from the Normans onwards ebbed and flowed in its intensity before the Plantations and Cromwell's genocidal conquest finally cemented English control over the country.

With the above in mind I've prepared a short summary of what I find to be key dates in Elizabethan England, showcasing events relating to internal intrigues, wars and important battles, and important events and accomplishments. The idea being that these provide 'beats' in a campaign to focus certain adventures around or to just affect the flow of the game and the overall setting:

    • 1559 - Elizabeth I crowned Queen of England.
    • 1560 - Elizabeth charters the 'Sea Dogs' with letters of marque to prey upon Spanish shipping in the Caribbean.
    • 1562 - English privateers first recorded taking people as slaves in what is now Sierra Leone and pioneering the Atlantic slave trade in England.
    • 1567 - Mary, Queen of Scots, is forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her infant son, James VI.
    • 1569 - The Rising of the North - Northern English Catholic lords rebel against the Crown in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots.
    • 1576 - Martin Frobisher begins expeditions in search of the North-West Passage.
    • 1577 - Drake’s Circumnavigation.
    • 1583 - James VI of Scotland freed from captivity in Ruthven Castle. The young king begins to solidify his authority among the Scottish nobility. European ships, often fishermem, are known to gather at the site of modern St. Johns in Newfoundland, though no permanent settlement occurred.
    • 1585 - Outbreak of Elizabethan War with Spain. Three ‘Cautionary Towns’ occupied by English troops in the Netherlands. Roanoke colony founded.
    • 1586 - Babington Plot foiled by Sir Francis Walsingham, harsh crackdown on Catholicism. Treaty of Berwick signed between England and Scotland, officialy declaring peace between them. Roanoke colony abandoned, survivors introduce maize, tobacco and potatoes to the British Isles.
    • 1587 - Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Second Roanoke colony founded in the Chesapeake Bay.
    • 1588 - Defeat of the Spanish Armada.
    • 1589 - English Armada fails to stir a Portuguese uprising and is defeated.
    • 1590 - The North Berwick Witch Trials take place in Scotland, sparking off a craze which sees 3,000-4,000 people burned at the stake over the next few decades. Second Roanoke colony discovered abandoned.
    • 1593 - Beginning of the Nine Years’ War in Ireland - Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell rebel against the English Crown.
    • 1594 - Walter Raleigh’s expedition to find El Dorado sets sail.
    • 1595 - Irish victory at the Battle of Clontibret.
    • 1596 - English and Dutch forces capture and sack Cadiz. Second Spanish Armada falters in storms. The Spanish Crown is bankrupted by the cost of the failure.
    • 1597 - Third Spanish Armada falters in storms.
    • 1598 - Irish rebels win a major victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford. Philip II dies.
    • 1599 - Globe theatre constructed in Southwark.
    • 1600 - East India Company chartered by Elizabeth I.
    • 1601 - Earl of Essex attempts a coup d’etat at court, fails, and is executed.
    • 1602 - Major English victory at the Siege of Kinsale.
    • 1603 - Death of Elizabeth I and ending of the Tudor dynasty. James VI of Scotland  is crowned James I of England, beginning the Stuart dynasty. End of the Nine Years’ War in Ireland with the Treaty of Mellifont.
    • 1606 - Private Plantations of Ulster begin.
    • 1607 - Jamestown colony established in Virginia.
    • 1609 - Official Plantations of Ulster begin. Eighty percent of Jamestown colonists die of disease and starvation.



    Key personages

    Further to the above, here's a list of people who played important roles in the above events and/or trends of the day:

    • Elizabeth I, Gloriana, the Virgin Queen of England - daughter of Henry VIII and sister of Mary I, known as 'Bloody Mary'. Cousin of Mary, Queen of Scots. Reigned for 44 years, providing much needed stability to England after several short-reigning monarchs and is seen by many to have ushered in a Golden Age of the English Renaissance.
    • James VI, King of Scotland - son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who inherited the throne after her forced abdication. Concluded a peace with England in the Treaty of Berwick and successfully controlled Lowland Scotland, but failed to suppress the Highland clans. Possessed a keen interest in witchcraft and the threats it posed. Later crowned James I of England after Elizabeth's death.
    • Mary, Queen of Scots - deposed Catholic queen of Scotland who was imprisoned and eventually executed by Elizabeth, her cousin, to remove her as a rival Catholic claimant to the English throne.
    • Philip II, King of Spain - widower of Mary I of England ('Bloody Mary') and self-declared defender of Catholicism against the Ottoman Turks and European Protestants. Hell-bent on invading England, destroying its privateer fleets, and reasserting Catholic dominance.
    • Sir Francis Drake - explorer, military commander, coloniser, slave trader and privateer. A noted thorn in the side of Spain and responsible for many raids against Spanish European and colonial holdings.
    • Sir Walter Raleigh - explorer, military commander, coloniser, politician and privateer. Founded the Roanoke colonies, which ended in failure, and launched several expeditions in search of El Dorado.
    • Sir Francis Walsingham - Elizabeth I’s secretary and spymaster. A devout Protestant, he sought to suppress Catholicism and was alrgely responsible for securing the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Is known to have run espionage networks across Western Europe and set the stage for James I's accession to the English throne.
    • John Dee - Elizabeth I’s astrologer, advisor and spy. Known for his pursuit of alchemy and the occult, he claimed to have discovered a divine 'Enochian' alphabet and strongly pushed for the establishment of overseas colonies and a 'British Empire'.
    • Francis Bacon - philosopher and Parliamentarian. A noted sceptical and scientific mind whose work is considered a forerunner to the scientific method, he also proposed legal reforms, supported the colonisation of North America, and composed treatises on theology.
    • William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley - nobleman and Elizabeth I’s chief advisor. Devoted to ensuring Protestant control of the British Isles and secured peace with Scotland. Supported the strengthening of the Royal Navy as England's primary military force.
    • Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex - nobleman, military commander, later favourite of the queen. Took part in several military expeditions against Spain and later failed miserably to defeat Hugh O'Neill in Ireland, effectively deserting his post. Later led a failed coup in London and was executed for treason.
    • Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, the Great Earl - followed in the footsteps of Silken Thomas and resisted English rule in Ireland during the Nine Years' War. Despite initial success the uprising was eventually quashed, though O'Neill escaped Ireland after the signing of the Treaty of Mellifont.
    • Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester - nobleman, suitor and childhood friend of the queen. Backed Francis Drake and other privateers as well as acting as a patron of the arts. Rumoured to have murdered his wife, Amy Robsart, in an attempt to marry Elizabeth and was eventually ousted from court after remarrying (to Elizabeth's fury) 18 years later, facing serious libel and rumours later in life.
    • Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland - wealthy brother-in-law of Robert Devereux, and Catholic sympathiser. Known by the sobriquet 'The Wizard Earl' on account of his interest in science and alchemy.
    • Thomas Harriot - astronomer, mathematician and translator. The first person to make a drawing of the Moon through a telescope, later accompanied the failed first Roanoke colony and acted as a translator between the colonists and the Secotan people.
    • Nicholas Hilliard - Elizabeth I’s goldsmith and limner. Regarded by most to have set the distinctive style of Elizabethan English painting. Often beset by financial woes.
    • William Shakespeare, the Bard - foremost English playwright, poet and actor. I don't think I need to write much more about him.
    • Kit Marlowe - noted playwright and poet, one of Shakespeare's primary influences. While definitely a rake and roustabout, he was also rumoured to have been a spy, an atheist and a magician. Died in disputed circumstances in 1593.

    With that we should have a good amount of well-connected persons of interest ranging from soldiers and explorers to politicians and hermetic mystics, all of whom have their own agendas to push and their own reasons for wanting to interact with grubby adventurers. As above their actions can serve to move the campaign forward or act as direct points for the party to influence.

    'A fĂȘte at Bermondsey', Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

    Society, technology and culture


    Early Modern England was still a feudal society, but the cracks in the old order of the Three Estates were starting to widen even further. Under the Three Estates society was divided thusly:

    1. The Church (those who prayed).
    2. The Nobility (those who fought).
    3. The Commoners (those who worked).
    4. Don't ask about the king/queen, it's complicated.

    The above were not prescriptive - plenty of commoners and churchmen fought in Medieval conflicts, monks often relied on rents but most monasteries performed some sort of work (brewing, apiculture, vintning, scribing etc.) for profit as well as subsistence, and poorer knights would perform agricultural labour alongside their tenants (if they possessed any) - but served as general categories. By the Elizabethan period the Church had seen numerous reforms (at sword-point), the nobility was emerging as a truly hereditary peerage, and new social strata began to open among the commoners (including a new element of social mobility).

    The Church

    The Dissolution of the Monasteries and the break with the Catholic Church under Henry VIII revolutionised the role of the church in England. Gone were many of the (sometimes conspicuously wealthy) centres of monastic contemplation (which had already often been surpassed by new schools and hospitals as centres of learning and medicine) and their lands were divided up among the Crown and its supporters. Church officials, previously invested by the Papacy (which in and of itself was the cause of massive Medieval strife), now owed their positions and fealty to the Crown instead of Rome. Priests were compelled to accept the supremacy of the Crown as head of the church and the right to formulate canon laws without the assent of the monarch was removed. An underground Catholic Church persisted but by Elizabeth's reign the supremacy of the Crown was seen as absolute and the Catholic faith was becoming synonymous with treason. The list of offences under which one could claim the 'benefit of clergy' to avoid secular prosecution (and avoid the death penalty) was harshly abrogated. A significant result of this was that many of the monastic members of the House of Lords were removed, leaving the Lords Temporal (the secular nobility) with a majority for the first time.

    What does this mean for the game?

    While the church may have undergone radical reforms it still possessed great influence in Elizabethan society, not least as a result of the Act of Uniformity requiring church attendance under threat of a fine. However, unless the players want to get into the nitty-gritty of debating the merits of Arminianism vs Calvinism or what the exact right amount of iconoclasm is, the main opportunity provided is to get involved in underground Catholic skullduggery, or the rooting out thereof. There are records of foreign-trained Catholic priests being smuggled into England to preach to secret Catholics, and enough of the nobility harboured Catholic sympathies to rebel against the Crown on numerous occasions. The patronage of wealthy and powerful people might be enough to risk being burned at the stake or hanged, drawn and quartered...


    The Nobility

    The nobility persisted as the true power base in Elizabethan England, but they too had undergone changes. Noble titles had transitioned from a boon traditionally granted by the king/feudal overlord to the son of the holder subject to a feudal relief (effectively a one-time tax on the heir) to a truly hereditary position somewhat freed from the Medieval perception of a title being contingent on service to the Crown. The Crown still possessed the power to strip noble titles (usuallly in the case of treason) however much of Elizabethan noble politicking and status-wrangling concerned royal monopolies - for example, the loss of a royal monopoly on sweet wine was a major factor in former royal favourite Robert Devereux's attempted coup.

    Importantly, a new sub-class of the nobility had emerged by this point - the landed gentry. These 'upper class gentlemen' lacked the formal titles of the true peerage but gained passive income from inherited land holdings rather than direct labour (as in the case of yeomen). Entry into the landed gentry was possible in a rare case of social mobility but one was expected to sever ties with any businesses or trades - a gentleman did not work - and it would be several generations before your family name could be considered on par with one from 'old money'. This subset of the upper class proved increasingly important in providing soldiers, explorers, Ministers of the Crown and Members of Parliament.

    What does this mean for the game?

    Noble intrigue is still alive and well, though maybe more focused on financial acquisition rather than accumulating land and estates. At the very least the Crown has a sharp axe ready to go at a moments' notice. Any noble plot can use some disposable hired swords for the sharp end of the work. In addition the slight fracture in the otherwise ironbound system of social class can provide wealthy player characters with something to aspire to - a retirement goal, per se.

    The Commoners

    By the 16th century serfdom was obsolete in England and the majority of peasants were free tenant farmers paying rent to the lord of the manor for use of their land, no longer bound to the land and able to move as they wished (one benefit of the Black Death and its effects on the European labour pool). This in turn led to an expansion of urban populations and an exacerbation of all the ills present in pre-modern towns and cities - sanitation was poor and disease outbreaks were regular and devastating (London had a 'plague season' where those wealthy enough would flee the city for the countryside), fire was a perennial risk, and crime was rampant despite harsh penalties. However the concentration of new wealth in urban areas led to an expansion of the so-called 'middle class' (my inner Marxist shuddered writing that) burghers who would eventually go on to kick-start the Industrial Revolution and kick the final, doddering legs out from under the crumbling feudal order.

    In the countryside a new rural sub-class of wealthy commoners emerged in the yeomanry - these were wealthier than free tenants but poorer than the true landed gentry, though they often owned considerable acreages of land. This sub-class often intermingled with the landed gentry through marriage and frequently occupied civic posts in their parish or shire, they were also frequently inducted into the urban 'middle class' via mercantile dealings.

    It should be noted that huge numbers of common folk lived in dire poverty, with towns an cities experiencing influxes of groups of beggars and vagrants. The Poor Laws placed a responsibility on parishes to provide alms for their 'impotent poor' (the disabled, sick etc.) but made no disctinction between 'true' vagrants and beggars and those simply unemployed - all were punished harshly with the stocks, branding, whipping, hard labour, and sometimes hanging. London established a 'House of Correction' (a forerunner to the workhouse) in 1555 and efforts were soon established to organise a system of indentured servitude and penal transportation to new colonies in the early 17th century.

    What does this mean for the game? 

    As commoners you're not tied to the land but you also need to look like legitimate travellers or you run the risk of falling foul of the authorities, especially if you make a ruckus. You can see the other side of the social class system from the bottom and with enough money you may just be able to make your way through. Even if you don't you can still enjoy a comfortable lifestyle with enough silver. Also cities will be foul hives of villainy, which is always fun, and disease, which is less so.




    The Lamentations of the Flame Princess appendix does a fairly decent job at covering the advances in firearms and armour during the Early Modern period so I'll be using that mostly unchanged. However I'll be changing the availability of flintlocks given that earlier styles of the mechanism (namely the snaplock) were common and similar enough to true flintlocks for me to not care. I will make them more expensive to compensate. In summary:

    • Flintlock weapons cost 4 times as much as a matchlock (2 times as much after 1630 and normal cost from 1660).
    • Available from 1550 (records have snaplocks appearing in Germany in 1540).

    On the armour point, I'm disregarding the appendix rules and just using the basic armour rules dressed up as leather > buff coat; chain > pikeman's armour; full plate as is. I don't have time to mix and match armour pieces and faff with encumbrance. Shields, if used, convey a flat +2 AC bonus (as I've mentioned before, do you know how hard it is to stab someone behind a shield?). Similarly, the ship list is fairly good though I'd probably limit the party to galleons - most of craft beyond that seem to crop in the late 17th/early 18th century whereas the galleon was quite well established by the 16th. Rapiers were an elegant weapon to be carried in civilised settings when wearing civilian garb (reflected in their penalty against medium armour+) whereas you'd find a thicker, heavier sidesword on the battlefield. One the battlefield itself infantry were enjoying a resurgence, with most armies adopting 'pike and shot' as their main formation accompanied by heavily armoured cuirassier and lighter harquebusier cavalry, and batteries of gunpowder artillery. The Spanish pioneered this in the form of tercios, which also led the way to forming armies of full-time professional soldiers. English military theorists did cling to the longbow and bill for longer than expected, but the ease of training a soldier to use firearms coupled with a critical yew shortage sealed the deal.

    In the Elizabethan era most scientific advancements came about in the field of navigation and cartography. Handheld magentic compasses were extant - I've not been able to find a cost attached to them but I assume it would be high, given the craftsmanship and knowledge needed to make one. Astronomy was a popular field (astrology also being given credence by many) and English astronomers made important contributions to the field. English privateers and explorers explored new areas of North America and, in the case of Francis Drake, successfully circumnavigated the globe. Elizabeth also hired a Dutch coach-builder who introduced spring-suspension coaches and opened up a whole new field of fashionable transport. Education was widely expanded (relatively) as schooling moved away from the monastic system to one of secular education. While an advanced education was still the preserve of the rich, the emergence of petty and parish schools over the Tudor reign increased the literacy rate from 1-in-5 to 1-in-3 people (who could sign their own names, at least).

    In architectural terms, castles were out and manors were in (or at least castles were converted into stately homes). Stronger central authority and advancements in gunpowder artillery left static defenses in the hands of purpose built forts with sloping embankments to bleed off the kinetic energy of cannon fire. This period also marked a greater separation between homeowners and their servants - with the added space freed up by not fortifying their homes (and the general decline of the 'Great Hall' as an architectural feature) the owners of these manors were able to 'hide' their servants away. Casement windows were all the rage and a serious fashion statement - the more windows you had, the better. By Elizabeth's reign the chimney had become a common house feature for those wealthy enough to afford it, poorer folk made do with a hole cut into the gable end of their cottages.

    What does this mean for the game?

    Guns guns guns! Suddenly random guys become a lot more dangerous when you put a gun in their hand. Navigation is easier with improved maps and navigation equipment. The party can journey to far off lands with new sailing routes and ships. We're very nearly at the cusp of modern nation states forming, and with the expansion of professional armies there's now a new class of full-time soldiers present. PCs are much likelier to be literate, to the point where I'll probably just assume they can read and write.


    Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Next time I'll write about the 'out of the ordinary' setting elements, and will likely do a post in a bit more detail on the key personages.

    No comments:

    Post a Comment

    Mothership: Further Thoughts

    In my previous post I gave a few thoughts on a rough Mothership setting. Have some more. Note: I am not a physicist so the below is probabl...

    Popular Posts