Another in the occasional series on “London Settings for Shakespeare’s Plays” …
Southwark (Henry VI Part II)
Southwark was first recorded as Sudwerca in the “Domesday Book” of 1086. It takes its name from the Old English “suth”, and “weorc”, meaning defensive work or fort, in reference to the Roman defences south of the river. (Note that there is also evidence of pre-Roman here, on Horselydown Eyot). It was also referred to historically as Suthriganaweorc, meaning the defensive work or fort of the men of Surrey. The area was unaffected by the Great Fire of London in 1666, the southward progress of which across the river was halted at a gap in the buildings on London Bridge that formed a natural firebreak. However, it suffered its own Great Fires in 1212 and in 1676. The Great Fire of 1212 reportedly killed thousands of people, many of them trapped on London Bridge. According to a near-contemporary account: “An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.” The fire badly damaged the recently-built bridge, leaving it only partially usable for years afterwards, and necessitating a partial rebuild. It also damaged Southwark Cathedral, necessitating a partial rebuild. Some of the masonry used in the rebuilding of the cathedral was salvaged from the fire debris and shows signs of fire damage.
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 (*); industries, including tanning; and activities, including prostitution, gambling, animal-baiting, and the performance of stage plays, all of which attracted large and unruly crowds.
(*) The Borough Compter, Clink, King’s Bench, Horsemonger Lane, first and second Marshalsea, and White Lion.
The surviving part of the wall of the second, nineteenth-century, Marshalsea Prison, where Dickens’s father was incarcerated for debt, forms the northern boundary of the churchyard of St George the Martyr.