Another in the occasional series on “London Settings for Shakespeare’s Plays” …
Smithfield (Henry VI Part II)
Smithfield takes its name from the Old English “smethe”, meaning smooth, and “feld”, in reference to a flat field outside the City Wall. This was a place where, from the twelfth century onwards, apprentices and others practised martial arts, and where fairs and other events were held, including the weekly horse fair, in which, as FitzStephen put it “in another corner are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks and cows and oxen of immense bulk”, and the annual Bartholomew Fair (made famous by Ben Jonson’s satirical play of the same name, written in 1614). It was also a place of public execution: of the Scottish “freedom fighter” William Wallace, under the “Hammer of the Scots” Edward I, in 1305; of the Catholic “heretic” John Forest, under Henry VIII, in 1538; of the Protestant “heretic” Anne Askew, also under Henry VIII, in 1546; and of the Protestant “heretics” John Rogers, the vicar of St Sepulchre, John Bradford, John Philpot and others, under “Bloody” Mary in 1555-7. Moreover, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 came to an end here when one of its leaders, Wat Tyler, was treacherously and fatally stabbed by the Mayor of London, William Walworth. The present meat market was built by Horace Jones in 1868.
Watching from Smithfield’s wings while historical drama unfurled there was 41/42 Cloth Fair, “the oldest house in London”, built between 1597-1614, and still standing. The house was first owned – in Shakespeare’s time – by one William Chapman, who was evidently a businessman of some means. It has been memorably described by the architectural critic Ian Nairn as “ … an embodiment of the old London spirit. Chunky, cantankerous, breaking out all over in oriels and roof-lights, unconcerned with … anything else other than shapes to live in”.