Tapster Jokes

'David Cecil made his home in Stamford and was buried there...We do not really know much about him. When his father-in-law died he acquired, in trust, a public house, the Tabard inn, which probably accounts for the charge which the Catholics levelled at Lord Burghley later - that his grandfather was an innkeeper. Very likely David did oversee the management of the Tabard while he held it.'(1)

The Cecil family today indisputably belongs to the first rank of English aristocracy, having frequently swayed the fortunes of the nation over the last four hundred years. All the more important then to remember that in the sixteenth century they were new men. Burghley might be the most powerful lord in the land but he could not point to a long line of illustrious ancestors, or indeed to any line of ancestors at all. Despite the heralds' best efforts, his line could be traced back no further than his grandfather David Cecil. In a society placing great value on descent this fact must have afforded some mean consolation to those young sprigs of nobility who grew up as Burghley's wards, and whose very marriages were under the pious old tyrant's control. And even more pleasant to them and their followers, I think, must have been the rumour spread at the time that Burghley's grandfather had kept a tavern. This, whether true or not (see Conyers Read above), must have been highly amusing to those who did not love the Cecil name.

And so we we come to tapster jokes. I'm not asserting that every tapster in Elizabethan literature is a coded reference to the Cecils, but if I read a 1590s tapster joke that seems peculiarly pointless or feeble I mentally check it for possible Cecil references. I claim there are at least two in SLW and a much bigger variation on the same theme in The Unfortunate Traveller. (I also think that the unfunny scene in Shakespeare's Henry IV where the Prince and Poins play a meaningless practical joke on a tapster is another. A scene in which a mercenary menial almost swoons with joy at vague promises of preferment from a prince, is asked if he dare run away from his sworn allegiance and then scurries to and fro trying to satisfy two opposing demands until he makes himself dizzy, is fairly pointless in the context of Prince Hal's story; but Henry IV Part 1 dates from the time when the calculating Francis Bacon switched allegiance from the Earl of Essex to his cousins the Cecils - in effect, joined the Tapsters - and it works quite well as a satirical sideswipe at his oscillating, reward-based loyalty. 'Francis' is of course the name repeatedly bellowed at the deluded tapster.)

Well, be that as it may, the two occasions in SLW when I think Nashe slips in an anti-Cecil tapster joke are as follows:

Firstly, in the scene featuring the playboy spendthrift, Ver. Summer addresses him with majestic severity, asking for an account - a reckoning.

Summer: Ver, call to mind I am thy soueraigne Lord,
And what thou hast, of me thou hast and holdst.
Vnto no other end I sent for thee,
But to demaund a reckoning at thy hands,
How well or ill thou hast implyd my wealth.
Ver. If that be all, we will not disagree:
A clean trencher and a napkin you shall haue presently.
Will Summer: The truth is, this fellow hath bin a tapster in his daies.

I'm forced to admit the fact that Summer has asked for a 'reckoning' might furnish an excuse for making fluffy-brained Ver suddenly offer Summer a trencher and napkin, but it's still pretty pointless - except that it allows Will Summer to make the joke about Ver's having once been a tapster. And yet in itself, what's funny in that? I mean, why would Nashe bother? But if 'Ver' represents Edward de Vere, who had indeed formerly been married to Burghley's daughter and subservient to the Cecils, then the joke becomes both topical and saucy: De Vere had indeed been a 'tapster' in his day.

The second tapster reference is in the Harvest scene. Harvest, that staunchly undeferential farmer, is underimpressed when Autumn tries to rebuke him for not answering his lord promptly:

Autumne. Thou Coridon, why answer'st not direct?
Haruest. Answere? why, friend, I am no tapster, to say Anon, anon, sir: but leaue you to molest me, goodman tawny leaues, for feare (as the prouerbe sayes, leaue is light) so I mow off all your leaues with my sithe.

Note that at this point Harvest has only snubbed Autumn; and yet it is Winter, who after all is no friend to Autumn, who suddenly snarls a wrathful threat:

Winter. Mocke not & mowe not too long you were best,
For feare we whet not your sythe upon your pate.

So what's rattled old Winter's cage? He's supposed to be a jolly mild old man. What in Harvest's speech has suddenly caught him on the raw? Well if Winter = Burghley, then of course it's the sly tapster joke. And if I'm right in supposing Harvest represents Sir Roger Manwood, then this brief passage accurately reflects a recent exhange between him and Burghley. Manwood, having been complained against by aggrieved plaintiffs, was called to explain himself to the Privy Council. He ignored the demand, implying the Council was exceeding its jurisdiction. Corydon, why answer'st not direct? In fact his brusque letter of refusal to Lord Burghley gave such great offence Manwood was placed under house arrest till he sent an abject apology.

It's in The Unfortunate Traveller though that we get the real motherlode of tapster and tavern references, in the account of the dealings of Jack Wilton with 'Baron Double Beer'. The Baron, his 'alie honor', has been identified with the Earl of Oxford on the grounds that Double Beer sounds a bit like 'Deux Beer', thus equalling 'de Vere'. Well I completely disagree. I don't even know for sure if 'Vere' was pronounced to rhyme with 'beer' back then but even if it was, there still seems no correspondence at all between the character of the Earl of Oxford - by all accounts a bisexual fashion victim with Italian leanings - and poor old Double Beer, with his motheaten flat cap and his penchant for measuring out cheese portions with thrifty care. But Double Beer does remind me of another Cecil, or at least a Cecilian: one who comes in for a bit of stick even in SLW itself - Sir Henry Killigrew, tireless old diplomatic fusspot and longtime brother-in-law of Lord Burghley. The elderly Sir Henry had accompanied Essex on his French expedition, and shown laudable concern about provisions for the troops - a matter which probably didn't rank high in Essex's vision of what military life was about. It's not difficult to imagine there would be a yawning generation gap between the gallant Earl and his young entourage, and 'little Harry Killigrew'. That he had been sent with the Earl by the Queen as a combination of nursemaid and watchdog, and been so closely associated with Burghley for years, naturally would not help matters.

I may as well say at this point that I interpret all of Nashe's work, in all its varied genres, as always containing at least a partial attempt to comment satirically on current affairs. I'm therefore less interested in The Unfortunate Traveller as an experiment in a new literary form - though that it certainly is - than I am in the likelihood it contains allusions to persons known to Nashe and his contemporaries. And I have no difficulty whatever in reading this fictional account of Henry VIII's expedition to France as partly a gloss on Essex's more recent adventures in the same neck of the woods. I don't of course take any of Jack Wilton's escapades to be accounts of real episodes in the recent wars; I'm sure they're no more than reworkings of familiar jestbook items. What I do look for are flattering accounts of the campaign as a whole, and negative descriptions of persons who would be unacceptable to members of the Essex party. We know the novel was meant to be read from a pro-Essex, therefore anti-Cecil, viewpoint because Nashe originally dedicated it to the Earl of Southampton. Forbidden to go on the campaign himself, he was Essex's greatest admirer and dearest friend. So, finding in a book dedicated to Southampton a flattering picture of a military prince campaigning in France, I naturally interpret him as an idealized portrait of Essex: and those characters who feature as butts of Nashe's humour I suppose to be historical figures disliked by Essex. Sir Henry Killigrew, damned by his Cecilian associations, would be such a one. 'Baron Double Beer' is ridiculed for being old, for lacking noble lineage, for his grubby and unfashionable appearance, for his cautious attention to provisions, and above all for his lachrymose dread of offending the 'king', the expedition's splendid leader, towards whom he is positively crawly. No doubt from a heartless pro-Essex viewpoint that is precisely how the old diplomat looked. His struggle not to alienate the Earl while fulfilling the duty of restraint imposed on him by the Queen left him in an impossible situation, one he must have found deeply uncomfortable. With his links to Burghley, and as the living embodiment of the Queen's determination to control and thwart Essex, he could never hope to be liked or trusted. His efforts not to further antagonize a powerful favourite no doubt made him appear servile. Although physically small Killigrew had had military experience as a younger man, but he was past being useful on the field and could only offer sleeve-tugging advice about admin. It probably wasn't much welcomed.

In The Unfortunate Traveller Baron Double Beer is not alone in his alehouse. There is another tapster there, hovering servilely in the background and only appearing to be bullied for comic effect:

"At the name of dangers hee" (Double Beer) "start vp, and bounst with his fist on the boord so hard that his tapster ouer-hearing him, cried, anone, anone, sir, by and by, and came and made a low legge and askt him what he lackt. Hee was readie to haue striken his tapster for interrupting him in attention of this his so much desired relation, but for feare of displeasing mee hee moderated his furie, & onely sending for the other fresh pint, wild him looke to the barre, and only come when he is cald with a deuils name."

If tapsters are to be associated with Cecils, then only one can be meant by the tapster who only comes 'when he is called with the devil's name'. That would be Robertus Diabolus, Robert the Devil. I happily admit that the portrayal of the tapster in The Unfortunate Traveller cannot in any true sense be called a satire on Robert Cecil, but I think it is an attempt to belittle through ridicule. Portraying the cool and calculating Sir Robert as a forelock-tugging menial isn't satire but it is derision, the literary equivalent of drawing a moustache or blacking out the teeth on a royal portrait. Later Baron Double Beer is even shown physically knocking this same tapster about:

"he...ran hastely to his Tapster, and all to belaboured him about the eares, for letting Gentlemen call so long and not looke in to them."..."I..askt his Lordship what hee meant to...stryke hys Tapster so hastely."

Again the tapster is reduced to a menial, to be smacked around the head for not waiting on 'gentlemen' as promptly as someone of his humble station in life should. True and sustained political satire in print after all was impossible, it would have been picked up on too quickly, and dealt with. I think what Nashe generally aimed at was lightning raids, little tweaks of the lion's tail. A snip and away. There is just enough of a hint as to who these two caricatures are meant to be to satisfy the anti-Cecilians that their enemies are being mocked: there is not enough to nail Nashe.

Mr Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth, Conyers Read, Jonathan Cape, London,