But in reading the memoirs of the time, it is not so much the licence as the unscrupulousness and brutality that impress one. The Earl of Oxford did not hesitate to achieve seduction by entering into a spurious marriage; Farquhar was deceived by fake heiress. Hired bravi were employed, as in the Italian Renaissance, to execute revenges: Rochester had Dryden beaten up for a supposed slight in one of his plays; Kynaston and Coventry were among others similarly treated. Brawls in theatres were commonplace, and a man might be run through for jostling another in the press. But this violence was not a peculiarity of the Court, it was part of the tenor of the times: even Oxford dons would black one another’s eyes. In the Moorfields, the weavers would fight a pitched battle with the butchers until the butchers, fleeing, were driven to remove and conceal their aprons, while the weavers strode victoriously about crying “A hundred pounds for a butcher”. Even the Inns of Court were the scene of riots, and the Lord Mayor, invited there for dinner, found himself besieged in a room. (28).
Our bowdlerized history books give but a poor impression of the cruelty which was still natural to an age which had tortured so many witches. The taste is best conveyed by quoting not impulsive and individual acts of violence, but a deliberate court decision, the sentence pronounced on the five judges who condemned Charles I to death:
“You shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from that place shall be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and there shall hang by the neck till you are half dead, and shall be cut down alive, and your privy members cut off before your face and thrown into the fire, your belly ripped up and your bowels burnt, your head to be severed from your body, your body shall be divided into four quarters, and disposed as His Majesty shall think fit.”
By the eighteenth century, this violence had become so widespread that men scarcely dared venture on the streets at night: in Kensington and Hampstead bells were rung when parties were about to set out for the city under armed guard, so that all who wished to make the hazardous journey might join them.
“The impunity with which outrages were committed in the ill-lit and ill-guarded streets of London during the first half of the eighteenth century can now hardly be realized”, says Lecky “In 1712 a club of young men of the higher classes, who assumed the name of Mohocks, were accustomed nightly to sally out drunk into the streets to hunt the passers-by and to subject them in mere wantonness to the most atrocious outrages. One of their favourite amusements, called ‘tipping the lion’, was to squeeze the nose of their victim flat upon his face and to bore out his eyes with their fingers. Among them were the ‘sweaters’ who formed a circle round their prisoner and pricked him with their swords till he sank exhausted to the ground, the ‘dancing masters’ so-called from their skill in making men caper by thrusting swords into their legs, the tumblers, whose favourite amusement was to set women on their heads and commit various indecencies and barbarities on the limbs that were exposed. Maid servants, as they opened their masters’ doors, were waylaid, beaten and their faces cut. Matrons enclosed in barrels were rolled down the steep and stony incline of Snow Hill. Watchmen were beaten unmercifully and their noses slit. Country gentlemen went to the theatre as if in time of war, accompanied by their armed retainers. A Bishop’s son was said to be one of the gang and a baronet was among those who were arrested.”