Southwark was first settled by the Romans in the years immediately after the conquest in 43AD, i.e., concomitantly with the City of London north of the river. A nunnery was established there in the Saxon period that became the priory of St Mary Overie in the Norman, the priory church becoming the parish church of St Saviour after the Dissolution of the post-Medieval (and the collegiate church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, or Southwark Cathedral, in more modern times).
Historically, Southwark was a so-called “liberty”, free of many of the regulations governing life in the City across the river. Over time it became one of the poor places in which it, the rich City, attempted to locate – and forget – some of its more “undesirable” buildings (including prisons such as the Clink, King’s Bench, Marshalsea and White Lion), industries (including tanning) and activities (including – in the numerous “stews” – prostitution; animal-baiting; and the performance of stage plays; all of which attracted large and unruly crowds).
The area is visited on our “Historic Southwark” standard walk, and on our “Medieval London” and “Tudor and Stuart London” themed specials.
Further details of all our walks are available in the “Guided Walks” section of this web-site.
The first “stews” were founded in Bankside in the early twelfth century (the word “stew” meant originally a fish pond, subsequently a public bath-house, and eventually a brothel). They lay between the Thames to the north, Bank End to the east, what was then Maiden Lane and is now Park Street to the south, and Cardinal’s Cap Alley to the west, on land owned either by the Bishops of Winchester, who had built a palace on nearby Clink Street in c. 1144, or by the Prioresses of Stratford Priory. Ordinances for their governance had to be put in place as long ago as 1161, under Henry II (*). Tax records from the fateful year of 1381 show that there were seven open at this time; further records from the later 1400s, that there were eighteen at this time. The stews were temporarily closed in 1505 by the first Tudor King, Henry VII, after an outbreak of syphilis, although most re-opened within the year. They were supposedly permanently closed in 1546 by Henry VIII, who wished Bankside “no more to be used as a common Bordell[o]”, although most if not all re-opened after Henry’s death in 1547.
There were twenty-two in operation in Bankside in 1546, namely, the “Antelope”, “Barge”, “Bear”, “Bell”, “Boar’s Head”, “Bull’s Head”, “Cardinal’s Hat”, “Castle”, “Cock”, “Crane”, “Cross Keys”, “Elephant”, “Fleur de Lys”, “Gun”, “Hart”, “Hart’s Horn”, “Horseshoe”, “Lion”, “Little Rose”, “Rose”, “Swan” and “Unicorn” (the infamous “Holland’s Leaguer” in Paris Gardens opened during the reign of the first Stuart King, James I, in 1603). Their more-or-less precise locations have been established by painstaking historical work involving a wide range of source materials (including a Tudor mural depicting Edward VI’s coronation procession in 1547, in which they all appear in the background).
Edward VI’s coronation procession,with the stews of Bankside in the background, 1547
The stews of Bankside
Readers interested in further details are referred to E.J. Burford’s estimable “Bawds and Lodgings – A History of the London Bankside Brothels”, published by Peter Owen in 1976 (and republished as “The Bishop’s Brothels” by Robert Hale in 2015).
(*) Some of the ordinances were concerned with the welfare of the working girls, for example “no brothel-keeper to prevent his whore entering or leaving the premises at will” and “quarterly searches of every brothel must be carried out to ensure no woman is imprisoned there against her will … ”. Others, though, restricted their rights, for example “all whores to wear some agreed garment indicating their profession” (and “no whore to wear an apron”). Still others were concerned with public health, for example “no brothel-keeper to let any whore work on his premises if he knows she has ‘the burning sickness’”. Or with public order, for example “no whore to entice any man into the brothel by pulling on his coat or any other item of clothing”, “no whore to throw stones at passers-by or pull faces at them for refusing to come in” and “no whore to chide with any man and make a fray”.
The first animal-baiting arena on Bankside was probably built either in the late fifteenth century or the early sixteenth. The last would appear to have closed down sometime in the late seventeenth century or the early eighteenth, after the opening of a new venue in Hockley-in-the-Hole in Clerkenwell (note, though, that the barbaric practice of animal-baiting was not actually outlawed until as recently as 1835). Henry VIII is known to have witnessed a bear-baiting at Paris Gardens, from a barge moored offshore, in 1539 (see also Henry Machyn’s account of 1554, posted on December 9th, 2014). In succeeding Stuart times, the actor Edward Alleyn and theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe, having just been jointly appointed “Master Overseer and Ruler of the Bears, Bulls and Mastiff Dogs”, announced sometime in 1604: “Tomorrow being Thursdaie shall be seen at the Bear-gardin on the bankside a great mach plaid by the champins of Essex who hath challenged all comers whatsoever to plaie v dogges at the single beare for V pounds and also to wearie a bull dead at the stake and for your better content shall have pleasant sport with the horse and ape and whipping of the blind beare” (see also John Chamberlain’s account of 1623, posted on July 12th, and Samuel Pepys’s account of 1666, posted on August 14th).
At one time or another, there were six animal-baiting arenas in operation in Bankside.
The first play-house on Bankside was “The Rose”, built in 1587, the second, “The Swan”, built in 1595, the third, The Globe”, built in 1599, and the fourth, “The Hope”, built in 1614.
“The Rose” was originally built by Philip Henslowe to a fourteen-sided design in 1587, subsequently rebuilt to a less regular design in 1592, and demolished in 1606. The site is currently conserved in the basement of Rose Court in Park Street, and marked by a Corporation Blue Plaque on the outside of the building. Christopher Marlowe’s plays were first performed here.
“The Swan” was built in 1596, decayed by 1632, and last recorded in 1634. Ben Jonson’s lost play “Isle of Dogs” was performed here in 1597, drawing such criticism for its “seditious and slanderous” content that the author was temporarily thrown into – the first Marshalsea – prison!
“The Globe” was built by the theatrical impresario Cuthbert Burbage in 1599, using some materials salvaged from his father James’s “The Theatre” in Shoreditch, after the expiry of the lease on that latter property. According to the Shakespearean scholar Steve Sohmer, it opened on June 12th, 1599 (see June 12th posting). It was burnt down in a fire on June 29th, 1613, after sparks from a theatrical cannon set some thatch alight during a performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry the Eighth” (see June 29th posting). It was rebuilt in 1614, but fell into disuse after the performance of plays was banned by an Act of Parliament forced through by the Puritans in 1642, and it was demolished, by order of the Puritan City authorities, on April 15th, 1644 (see also April 15th posting). A plaque marks its site, on Park Street. This was “Shakespeare’s (own) play-house, and the venue where many of his plays were first performed”.
“The Hope” was built as a bear-baiting arena cum playhouse by Philip Henslowe in 1614, the year after the original “Globe” burned down. Its use as a playhouse was short-lived, however, as one of the players, Ben Jonson, complained that it was “as durty as Smithfield and as stinking every whit”. It was closed down in 1653, and pulled down in 1656.
Readers interested in further details are referred to Julian Bowsher’s “Shakespeare’s London Theatreland”, published by Museum of London Archaeology in 2012.
“The Globe”, “The Rose” and one of the animal-baiting arenas of Bankside, c. 1602