Post-Medieval London, Pt. I – General and Tudor History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …


The Medieval period ended, and the post-Medieval or early Modern period  began, when the last Plantagenet or Yorkist King, Richard III, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the Wars of the Roses, and the first Tudor King, Henry VII, came to the throne, in 1485.   The post-Medieval was a time of continuing historical, political, religious and social turmoil, over two hundred years, and under two royal houses  and a Parliamentarian – albeit authoritarian –  Commonwealth and Protectorate.  It  was also a time of  continuing  war: war between the English  and the  Scots and the Irish; war between the English and the French, and the Spanish, and the Dutch; and war among the  English (in the Civil War in the seventeenth century). 

There are sufficient surviving records of one kind or another to enable us to undertake a reasonably accurate reconstruction not only of the history of but also of the social history, of post-Medieval London.  These include court, corporation and ward records, and also parish registers, of “every wedding, christening and burying”, the keeping of which  was mandated in 1538, by Henry VIII’s Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell.    Personal contemporary eye-witness accounts include those of Andreas Franciscus, writing in 1497; Henry Machyn, writing between 1550-63; Charles Wriothesley, writing around 1558, and not later than  1562; Grenade, writing in 1578; John Chamberlain, writing between 1597-1626; John Stow, writing in 1598; John Manningham, writing between 1601-3; John Evelyn, writing between 1631-1706; James Howell, writing in 1657; John Reresby, writing sometime after 1658; and Samuel Pepys, writing continuously between 1660-9, and discontinuously between 1670-86, after his eyesight had begun to fail him.  Contemporary biographical sketches of some of the key historical figures of the period are given by John Aubrey in his “Brief Lives … ”, published in 1696.

The Venetian Franciscus wrote of London in 1497, in early Tudor times: “The town itself stretches from East to West, and is three miles in circumference.  However, its suburbs are so large that they greatly increase its circuit.   … Throughout the town are to be seen many workshops of craftsmen … .  This makes the town look exceedingly prosperous and well-stocked … .    The working in wrought silver, tin or white lead is very expert here, and perhaps the finest I have ever seen.  There are many mansions, which do not … seem very large from the outside, but inside … are quite considerable … .  All the streets are so badly paved that they get wet at the slightest quantity of water, and this happens very frequently … .  A vast amount of evil-smelling mud is formed, which does not disappear … but lasts … nearly the whole year round.  The citizens, therefore, in order to remove mud and filth from their boots, are accustomed to spread … rushes on the floors of all houses … .  Merchants not only from Venice but also Florence and Lucca, and many from Genoa and Pisa, from Spain, Germany, …  and other countries meet here to handle business with the utmost keenness … .   Londoners have such fierce tempers and wicked dispositions  that they not only despise the way … Italians  live,  but actually pursue them with uncontrollable hatred, and whereas at Bruges foreigners are hospitably received … by everybody, here the Englishmen use them with the utmost contempt and arrogance, and make them the object of insults.  They eat very frequently, at times more than is suitable … ”.  It is interesting to note how closely Franciscus’s description follows  the Venetian senate’s written instructions to its ambassadors on intelligence-gathering!  And the Frenchman  Grenade wrote in late Tudor times, in 1578: “[T]he city …  with its buildings is wondrously pleasing on the eye, and in its shape and situation alongside the river, describes an arc of very beautiful form.  …   This river conveys large vessels  of between two and 300 tons burden to the … city : … by which means all manner of goods from all countries abound here.  … She is encompassed on all sides by beautiful meadows … , gardens and cultivable lands, which, on account of their fertility, yield much produce each year.  The villages (of which there is a great number in the environs) are … only about two harquebus shots distant from the city”.  Machyn was  a merchant taylor or clothier but is now best known as a chronicler of Tudor times.  His  chronicles  cover  the Reformation, and the conversion of the country to Protestantism, under Henry VIII, and the Counter-Reformation, and reversion to Catholicism,  under his daughter Mary.  Judging from his actions, as well as from  the tone of his chronicle, Machyn would appear to have been at least  a closet Catholic.  In 1561, he committed the sinful act of “spyking serten [slanderous] words against Veron the [Protestant] preacher”, for which he paid penance at (St) Paul’s Cross. 

Stow was another merchant taylor, but also an amateur antiquarian, and the author of “A Survay of London … ”, recounting  in intricate detail not only the topography but also the social history of the City in  the Elizabethan era, and rather ruing most of the many changes that had taken place  over its course.  The famous last  words of the “Survay” of 1598 were “And so I end, wanting time to travel further in this work”.  An updated  second edition was published in 1603 (and updated versions by Anthony Munday in 1618 and in 1633, and by John Strype in 1720). 

Stow’s memorial in the  church of St Andrew Undershaft shows him with a quill-pen in his hand.  Every third year, on or around the anniversary of his death on April 5th, as part of a special service in the church in his memory, he is ceremonially presented  with a new quill, and his old one is given to the  winner of an essay competition for local children, with London as its subject. 

Chamberlain is best known now as the author of a large number   of letters that, collectively, “constitute the first considerable body … in English history and literature that the modern reader can easily follow”.  His  letters  cover  such  events in late Tudor to early Stuart times as the trial of the Earls of Essex and Southampton, the Gunpowder Plot, and the execution of Walter Ralegh.  Most of the nearly 500 that still survive were written to Sir Dudley Carleton while the latter was serving as an ambassador in Venice and The Hague, and were evidently intended to keep the ambitious diplomat abroad  informed  of events – especially those befalling “the better sort of people” – at home.  They contain much court and City tittle-tattle (“who’s in, who’s out”), picked up, no doubt,  in St Paul’s Cathedral, which at the time had a reputation as  the fount of all such – it appears that  Chamberlain was an inveterate “Paul’s walker”! 

Evelyn was a gentleman of independent means, closely connected to court circles, a keen gardener, an author (of, for example, “Fumifugium” and “Sylva”); and also, like his friend Samuel Pepys,  a diarist.  His diary covers the Civil War and Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Great Plague, the Great Fire and much besides.   The  striking portrait of him painted by Robert Walker in 1648, and now in the National Portrait Gallery, shows a still youthful man with fine slender features, nonetheless wearing a melancholy expression, as he meditates on death, symbolised by a  skull at his left hand.  From 1653 onwards, Evelyn lived at Sayes Court in Deptford.  On February 6th, 1698, he noted in his diary that he had leased his  estate out to “The Czar Emp: of Moscovy [Peter the Great], [his] having a mind to see the Building of Ships [in the nearby royal dockyard]”.  Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, the Czar, who had something of a  reputation for drunken riotous living, proved  far from a model guest.   He  proceeded to comprehensively  trash Evelyn’s house – knocking a hole in the wall to allow easier access to the shipyard, breaking over three hundred windows, twenty pictures and  fifty chairs, ruining all the paintwork, curtains and bedding, covering all the floors with ink and grease, and in all causing – in today’s terms – several tens of thousands of pound’s worth of damage!  Worst of all, he destroyed Evelyn’s pride and joy, the “impregnable” hedge  in his garden, “four hundred foot in length, nine Foot high, and five in diameter … [that] mocks at the rudest assaults of the Weather, Beasts or Hedge-breakers”, making a great play of being repeatedly pushed through it in a wheelbarrow – of the £162 7s compensation eventually paid to Evelyn  by the Office of Works, £1 was specifically to cover the damage   to his wheelbarrows!  Perhaps as an act of atonement, the Czar planted a mulberry tree in Evelyn’s garden, which still stands, albeit now ancient and gnarled, in what is now Sayes Court Park. 

Perhaps the best known of the chroniclers, though, is Pepys, a high-ranking civil servant in the Navy Office, and eventual Secretary to the Admiralty; and, also, famously, a diarist.  Pepys’s diary  covers such momentous events in late Stuart times as the Restoration  of the Monarchy of 1660,  the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.  Pepys  was an Establishment figure, well known in official and court circles; and, as such,  less an “everyman” caught up in events than one very much of his time, and, particularly, place, that is to say, his place in the prevailing social and class hierarchy.  His thoughts and deeds were often to greater or lesser degrees self-serving: he obsessed over his wealth (“To my accounts, wherein … I … , to my great discontent, do find that my gettings this year have been … less than … last… ”); employed sycophancy  and deceitfulness to increase  the same, or otherwise to get his way; and was not beyond resorting to emotional cruelty,  especially towards his wife, Elizabeth, and even to physical violence.  However, his written words were almost always honest and true, and unsparingly and disarmingly so when describing his own shortcomings, or otherwise to his detriment.  There was something of  a child-like quality to the man, characteristically beautifully described by Robert Louis Stevenson, in part as follows:   “Pepys was a young man for his age, came slowly to himself in the world, sowed his wild oats late, took late to industry and preserved till nearly forty the headlong gusto of a boy.  So, to come rightly at the spirit in which the Diary was written, we must recall a class of sentiments which with most of us are over and done before the age of twelve”.  His accomplishments  were many and varied, though, especially those at the Navy Office  (it has been said that, “without Pepys,   there could have been no Horatio  Nelson”).

Tudor History

Under the Tudors, it was above all a time of religious  Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and of religious war – not to mention cold war and espionage.  The Protestant Reformation of the Catholic Church may be said to have begun in Germany in 1517, with the publication by Martin Luther of the “Ninety-Five Theses” or “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences”, which, among other things,  roundly attacked the established practice of the sale of indulgences  (“When a penny in the coffer rings,|A soul from Purgatory springs”).   Protestantism  was to spread through much of northern Europe over the succeeding thirty years.

Henry Tudor was  crowned King Henry VII  of England in 1485.   In   1497, around 10,000 – lightly – armed Cornish rebels gathered on Blackheath preparatory to marching on London to protest against oppressive royal rule and punitive taxation (suspension of the privileges of the “Stannary Charter” of 1305).  Unfortunately for them, they failed to rally  any support there from the Kentish, who were rightly fearful of a reprisal of the sort that had been meted out to them for their support of the “Peasants’ Revolt” in  1381 and Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450.  It was thus a comparatively  weak force, further diluted by desertion,  that eventually lighted out  for London, and certainly one that was easily crushed by the King’s 20,000-strong professional army  at the Battle of Deptford Bridge (also known as the Battle of Blackheath).  Contemporary records indicate that between two hundred and two thousand Cornishmen were killed in the battle, along with between eight and three hundred of the King’s men.  The principal rebel leaders   Michael Joseph the Smith (“An Gof”) and Thomas Flamank were  captured at the battle and later hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, whereupon their heads were put up on pike-staffs on London Bridge.  Flamank was quoted as saying  “Speak the truth and only then can you be free of your chains”.  Nonetheless, the persecution and pauperisation of the Cornish continued for many years to come.

Henry’s son, also Henry, was crowned King Henry VIII in 1512, while still in his early twenties.  According to Hall’s “Annals”, on May Day in 1515: “The King and the Queen [Catherine of Aragon] accompanied with many lords and ladies rode [from the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich] to the high ground of Shooters Hill to take the open air, and as they passed by the way, they espied a company of tall yeomen, clothed all in green with green hoods and bows and arrows, to the number of two hundred.  Then one of them which called himself Robin Hood came to the King desiring him to see his men shoot, and the King was content.  Then he whistled, and all the 200 archers shot and loosed at once, and then he whistled again, and they likewise shot again; their arrows whistled by craft of the head, so that the noise was strange and great and much pleased the King, the Queen and all the company.  Then Robin Hood desired the King and Queen to come into the greenwood and see how the outlaws lived.  … Then the horns blew till they came to the wood under Shooters Hill, and there was an arber made of boughs with a hall and a great chamber and an inner chamber very well made and covered with flowers and sweet herbs, which the King much praised.  Then said Robin Hood: ‘Sir, outlaws’ breakfast is venison, and thereafter you must be content with such fare as we use’.  Then the King and Queen sat down and were served with venison and wine by Robin Hood and his men, to their great contentation”.  On and around May Day two years later, in 1517, the so-called “Evil May Day” riots, marked by attacks on “aliens” and on their places of residence and of business, took place in the City of London, following an inflammatory speech by a Dr Beal or Bell at St Paul’s Cross,  inciting the crowd “to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”.  At the time there was considerable popular resentment towards “aliens”  in general and “alien”  merchants in particular, on account of their perceived preferential treatment by City authorities.  The riots were eventually broken up only after thousands of troops were called in and  hundreds of rioters taken prisoner.  The ring-leaders were then more or less immediately hanged, drawn and quartered, and their remains gibbeted.  The remainder, though, despite also facing the death penalty for the treason of “breaking the peace of Christendom”, were eventually pardoned by the king, Henry VIII, probably largely thanks to pleas for mercy made by his queen, Catherine of Aragon, and by Thomas Wolsey. At this, the prisoners “took the halters from their necks and danced and sang”.  According to a contemporary account, in the  “The Chronicle of the Grey Friars”:“Thys yere was yell [evil] May Day, that yong men and prentes of London rose in the nyght, and wolde have had James Mottas an owte-landych mane … slayne … , but he hyde hym in hys gotters in hys howse; and from thence they wente un to sent Martyns, and there spoyled the … shoppes; and thane rose the mayer and shreffes and wolde have cessyd them, but they cowed not.  … And iiij or v days after … , … at the last there were dyvers of them hongyd within the citte on gallos  … .  And within shorte space the kynge satte in Westmyster halle, and there was commandyd the … rest of them …  to come with halters abowte their neckes … to ask pardone, and soo a generall pardone was gevyne unto theme alle that came that tyme”.  In the aftermath of the riots, the annual May Day celebrations that had taken place for hundreds of years were discontinued, and the May Pole that gave Undershaft its name was taken away. 

One of Henry VIII’s less-well-known contributions to English history was his consolidation of the country’s armed forces both at sea and on land – his construction of an island-fortress.   The Royal Naval Dockyard in Woolwich was opened early in  his reign, in 1512, and prospered in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before eventually closing down in the nineteenth (the Royal Arsenal here became operational  in 1671, and was decommissioned in 1967).  A number of historically important ships were built here, including the carvel-built “Henry Grace a Dieu” or “Great Harry”, in 1514; the “Prince Royal, in 1610; the “Sovereign of the Seas, in 1637; and the “Royal Charles”, in 1655 (not to mention the “Beagle”, in 1820).   The Dockyard in Deptford was opened  in 1513, and, like that in Woolwich, prospered in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before eventually closing down in the nineteenth.   Documentary evidence indicates that a number of naval vessels  were  brought to a  specially constructed “pond(e)” or wet dock here in 1520, possibly for repairs, among them  the recently-salvaged flagship, the “Mary Rose” (now in the Royal Naval Dockyard in  Portsmouth, where it was built), the  “Peter Pomegarnet” or “Peter Pomegranate”, the “Great Bark”, and the “Lesser Bark”.   The Dockyard  in  Erith was opened  in 1514, and closed in 1521, due to persistent flooding.   That  in Chatham in Kent was opened in 1567, that is, early in the  reign of Elizabeth I, and prospered in the late sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, before eventually closing in the twentieth.  Chatham enjoyed the considerable advantage over the London dockyards of being located twenty-five miles downriver, at the point at which  the Thames is met by the Medway, and obviously that much closer to the open sea.  The so-called “Gresham Ship”, an armed merchantman, recently (re)discovered, wrecked, in – and recovered from – the Thames Estuary, is an example of the sort built in the aforementioned dockyards in the Tudor period.  Dendrochronological – tree-ring – analysis of the ship’s timbers has yielded a construction date of around 1574, that is to say, during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Partial reconstruction indicates that the intact vessel  would have measured a little over 80’ from bow to stern, and a little under 25’ from side to side, and weighed some 160 tons, making it similar in size to Drake’s “Golden Hind(e)” (built in 1577).  It was carvel-built, of robust construction, and fitted with gun ports.  Significantly, one of the four cannon recovered from the ship bears  the initials T.G., together with the grasshopper insignia of the City merchant Thomas Gresham, which is how came to be known as “The Gresham Ship” (Thomas Gresham lived from 1519-79, founding what was to become known as the Royal Exchange in 1568, and, by bequest, Gresham College in 1597).  It is possible that  the “Gresham Ship” might actually be the “Cherabin”, which surviving historical records indicate was owned by the Levant Company between 1590-1600; served under Thomas Howard as a privateer in the Azores in 1591, capturing prize cargoes of sugar, ginger, sarsaparilla, brazilwood and suchlike, valued at £2,000 (at least £400,000 in today’s terms); and, significantly, sank, in the Kentish Flats, in 1603 (after losing its rudder in a storm, and striking a sandbank). 

Tilbury Fort in Essex was originally built  by Henry VIII in 1536, and was later extended and reinforced by Elizabeth I in 1588, to counter  the threat from the Spanish Armada. What is now known as the Honourable Artillery Company had its origins in the “Fraternity or Guild of Artillery of Longbows, Crossbows and Handgonnes”, incorporated by a Royal Charter of Henry VIII  in 1537 (and also known – although probably not to his face – as “Fat Hal’s Militia”).  The original roles of the unit were “the maintenance of the science of artillery” and “the better increase of the defence of this our realm”.  From 1572 onwards, it also assumed responsibility for training the City of London’s part-time militia, the so-called “trained bands”.  It remains the oldest unit still serving  in the Regular – if not the Territorial – Army (the Grenadier Guards were formed from its ranks in 1656, and the Royal Marines in 1664).   From around the time its formation in the middle of the sixteenth century up until the end of the seventeenth, the company trained in the Artillery Yard in Tasel Close in Spitalfields.  The remains of the Master Gunner’s House, dating to 1581, have recently been unearthed in an  archaeological excavation in Spital Square, together with the remains of firing platforms.  Nearby are Artillery Lane and Artillery Passage.

In 1527, Henry VIII’s  first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after nearly twenty years of marriage, having borne him a daughter (Mary), but not a longed-for son and heir, Henry decided to petition the Supreme Head of the Catholic Church, Pope Clement VII, to seek an annulment that would allow him to marry Anne Boleyn.  This quest was to become known as “The King’s Great Matter”.  In 1529, the Legatine Court, convened in the Parliament Hall in Blackfriars Priory, under  the Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, and the King’s representative, the Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor and, in practice, alter rex, or “other king”, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey,  ruled against  any such action.  Wolsey  died in 1530, en route from York to London, where he had been due to face a trial for treason  over his failure to  secure the  annulment that Henry sought.  Among his last words were the following: “Had I but served my God with but half the zeal as I served my king [in his “Great Matter”], He would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies”.  The most of his many notable earlier services to the state included arranging the “Anglo-French Treaty” in 1514, and the “Treaty of London” – essentially a pan-European non-aggression pact – in 1518, as well as the “Field of Cloth-of-Gold” (Camp du Drap d’Or) in  1520.

In the event, in the January of 1533, Henry proceeded to marry  Anne in spite of the Legatine Court’s ruling, albeit in secret, and in the June of the same year, had her  formally crowned Queen.  Three short years later, in  1536, he was to order her  execution   in the Tower for treason.  Henry also ordered the executions of Anne’s brother George, on trumped-up charges of an adulterous and incestuous relationship with her; and of William Brereton, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, and Francis Weston, also on charges of adultery.  Accused alongside the aforementioned,  but ultimately spared the axe, was the courtier Thomas Wyatt the Elder (incidentally, also a fine poet, widely credited with introducing the Petrarchan sonnet into English literature).  Wyatt the Younger would enjoy  no such good fortune  under Queen Mary.  On the scaffold, Anne gave a short speech to the assembled crowd, recorded  in Foxe’s “Actes and Monuments” as follows: “Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul”.

The King  made himself, rather than the Pope,  the Supreme Head of the Church in England, through the passing of the Act of Supremacy of 1534, whereafter his subjects were made to swear  oaths acknowledging not only his supremacy  (the Oath of Supremacy), but also that of his children  and  successors to the throne (the Oath of Succession).  Even after the break with Rome, and despite his excommunication by Pope Paul III in 1538, the King  – the erstwhile “Fidei Defensor” or “Defender of the Faith” – appears to have remained theologically essentially Catholic.  At  the same time, though,   the Church in England, and the country at large, became increasingly Protestant.   Among those primarily responsible for the rise of  Protestantism were Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Thomas Cromwell, the King’s  Chief Minister from 1534, and Vicar-General, and Vice-Gerent in Spirituals, from 1535.  The spread of the word was facilitated  by the publication  of an English translation of the Bible, by Miles Coverdale, in 1535, and by the availability of copies thereof in every parish church in the land by between  1538-41.  It was Cranmer who established   the doctrines and liturgies  of the Protestant church, and  suppressed   – certain – Catholic sacraments, the practices of veneration of images and relics, and the belief in Purgatory, through the “Ten Articles” of 1536, the “Bishop’s Book” of 1537, the “Six Articles” of 1539,  and the “Forty-Two Articles” of 1553 (and also through his input into the “King’s Book”, attributed to Henry himself, of 1543).  The “enforcer” Cromwell  was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1540, having  been attainted, or  in other words found guilty without trial, of a range of charges almost certainly trumped up by his enemies, including the Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Stephen Gardiner  (King Henry  is said later to have regretted his execution).    He had finally fallen out of favour, and victim to the sort of court intrigue that to that date he had himself customarily been behind, over his ill-advised choice of Anne of Cleves as the new wife for the King.  The lawyer, politician and chronicler Edward Hall recorded that  “[H]e … committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office [Execution]”.  Cranmer would  be burned at the stake in Oxford in 1556, during the then Catholic Queen Mary’s Counter-Reformation, for Protestant heresy.  At the stake, he thrust into the rising flames the “unworthy” right hand with which he had signed the  earlier coerced recantation of his Protestant faith,  and retracted the recantation with the words: “as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine”.  Coverdale would  be exiled under Mary, between 1553-8, eventually to  return to London in 1559, and die there in 1569.  His body would be buried in the church of St Bartholomew by the Exchange, and later, when that church was demolished, moved to St Magnus the Martyr.

Any Catholic threat to the Protestant Reformation, whether actual or interpreted, was dealt with without mercy.  By way of an example, in 1534,  Elizabeth Barton, otherwise known as the “Holy Maid of Kent”, was hanged and beheaded  at Tyburn for treason, for having prophesied that if the Henry were to break from  the Church in Rome, he would die, and be sent to Hell.  In 1535, John Houghton, the Prior of the London Charterhouse, two further Carthusian priors, a Bridgettine monk from Syon Abbey, and a parish priest from Isleworth, were  hanged, drawn  and quartered at Tyburn, for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy (later, a  further six  monks from the Charterhouse were executed; and nine allowed to die, of starvation, in gaol, in Newgate).  The Bridgettine monk,  Richard Reynolds, famously encouraged those  who suffered alongside him by promising them that after their “sharp breakfast” they would enjoy a “heavenly supper”.    Also in 1535, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester and a Cardinal, and Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, humanist, social philosopher, author (of “Utopia”) and “the King’s good servant, but God’s first”,  were beheaded at  Tower Hill, also for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy  (interestingly, both Fisher and More are honoured as saints  by both the Catholic Church and the Church of England).    More had earlier witnessed, through the window of his prison cell in the Tower, Houghton and his co-condemned being taken to Tyburn to be executed, and had commented to his daughter, Meg Roper: “These blessed Fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage”.  His son-in-law William Roper wrote of his, More’s  execution:  “And soe was he brought by Mr Lievetenaunt out of the Towre, and thence led towards the place of execution, where goinge upp the Scaffold, … he sayde … ‘I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lievetenaunt, see me safe upp, and for my cominge downe let mee shift for my selfe’.  Then desired he all the people thereaboutes to pray for him, and to beare witnesse with him, that he should suffer death in and for the faith of the holie Catholique Church, which done hee kneeled downe, and after his prayers sayed, hee turned to the executioner, and with a cheerful Countenance spake unto him, ‘Plucke up thy spirittes, man, and be not affrayed to do thine office … ’.  Soe passed Sir Thomas Moore out of this world to God … ”. 

And in 1538, John Forest, a Franciscan friar and confessor to Catherine of Aragon, was burned at the stake in West Smithfield for heresy, for refusing to recant his faith; fuel for the fire, according to folk-legend, being provided by a statue of St Derfel from the pilgrimage site of Llandderfel in North Wales, which it had been prophesied would “one day set a forest on fire”. 

Neither were heterodox Protestants immune from persecution.  In 1538, two  unnamed Anabaptists were burned at the stake in West Smithfield for heresy, and the following year  a further three on  Newington Causeway – one named Mandeville, one Collins, and another unnamed.  And, famously, in  1546, the last full year of Henry’s reign, Anne Askew, gentlewoman, was burned at the stake in West Smithfield, for preaching against the then still orthodox  belief in transubstantiation.  She had previously been racked by the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesley, and his henchman, Richard Rich, in the Tower of London, and   she had to be carried from there to,  and seated at,  the stake.    The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, in his “Book of Martyrs” of 1563,  gives the following as Anne Askew’s own account: “They said to me there, that I was a heretic, and condemned by the law, if I would stand in my opinion. I answered, that I was no heretic, neither yet deserved I any death by the law of God. But, as concerning the faith which I uttered and wrote to the council, I would not, I said, deny it, because I knew it true. Then would they needs know, if I would deny the sacrament to be Christ’s body and blood. I said, ‘Yea: for the same Son of God that was born of the Virgin Mary, is now glorious in heaven, and will come again from thence at the latter day like as he went up. And as for that ye call your God …  a piece of bread … ,  …  let it but lie in the box three months, and it will be mouldy, and so turn to nothing that is good. Whereupon I am persuaded that it cannot be God’“.

The Reformation was followed by the  Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536-40, which essentially resulted in the appropriation by the Crown  of all the monastic houses in England, Wales and Ireland, of which there were several hundred, and of all of their assets (monastic houses in Scotland were annexed by the Scottish King, James VI, in 1587).    The smaller  houses, with incomes of less than £200 per year, as evaluated by the Valor Ecclestiacus, were dissolved  under The Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries of 1536; the larger  ones, by The Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries of 1539; and corresponding orders were  given to “pull down to the grounds all the walls of the churches, stepulls, cloysters, fraterys, dorters [and] chapterhowsys”.   

After the Dissolution, the lands and assets of the monastic houses were disbursed, under the auspices of Thomas Cromwell, and his Court of Augmentations.   In London, the change in land ownership and usage is evident in the marked contrast between the “British Atlas of Historic Towns” map of 1520 (Lobel, 1989), from before the event, and the “Copper Plate” map of c. 1559, the “Agas” one of c. 1570, and the Braun and Hogenberg one of  1572, from after the event.  Many of the properties of the monastic houses evidently became parish churches, hospitals, orphanages or schools, or combinations thereof, or playhouses, while others passed into private ownership.  For example, the priory church of St Mary Overie became the parish church of St Saviour, and eventually the collegiate church of St Mary Overie and St Saviour, or Southwark Cathedral; and that part of the priory church of St Bartholomew that was spared demolition became the  parish church of St Bartholomew the Great, the associated hospital remaining in use, and growing in importance.   The Charterhouse became initially a private residence in turn occupied by Sir Edward North, the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, from 1545; and eventually a charitable alms-house and school founded by a bequest from Thomas Sutton,  the one-time Master of the Ordnance of the Northern Parts and the richest man in England, from 1611 (the school relocated to Godalming in Surrey in 1872). Parts of the precincts of Holywell, Blackfriars  and Whitefriars Priories became playhouses.  For a while,  Blackfriars priory church housed  the “Office of the Revels”, where plays were either approved or censored, and then licensed, and also where theatrical  sets and costumes were procured, under the “Master of the Revels” Thomas Cawarden, who held the post from 1544-59.  After Cawarden’s death, the “Office … ” relocated to either the  Gate-House or the Great Chamber – sources differ – of the  Priory of St John in Clerkenwell, in 1560.  And later still, in 1608, to Whitefriars.   Incidentally, Whitefriars Priory  was not dissolved immediately, and its  precinct served  initially as a temporary sanctuary for its  friars, and eventually as a semi-permanent one  for the population at large.  Indeed, the right of  sanctuary,  and exemption from  local law, was upheld by Elizabeth I in 1580 and James I in 1608.  In consequence, the  area was to become notorious for its fugitive criminals and criminality, and,  eventually   to be known as “Alsatia”, after the – literally – lawless territory lying between   France and Germany and outside the jurisdiction of either.  Of the  former monks, nuns and priors of the dissolved monastic houses, of whom there were several hundred city-wide, and several thousand country-wide, most went to work in the newly created parish churches, although a still substantial number were forced to seek out entirely new ways of life.  Most were at least  offered more or less generous pensions.  Note also, though, that some  monks  were executed during the Reformation.

Henry VIII died in 1547, and was  buried in Windsor Castle (it is said that while his body was being transported there for burial, it was temporarily accommodated at at the former Syon Abbey, where it burst open in its coffin, and dogs lapped at  the liquid that seeped out).  On his death-bed, he handed over his kingly power, and with it the responsibility for the defence of the Protestant faith, to his young only son, Edward, borne to him by his third wife, Jane Seymour (who died in the process). 

There is an extraordinary at least broadly contemporary anonymous painting of the scene, entitled “An Allegory of Reformation” (now in the National Portrait Gallery).  It depicts  Edward with a defeated Catholic Pope at his feet!   Lying to Edward’s right is his dying father Henry.  Standing to his left is  his  uncle, Edward Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector.  Seated round a table, under a painting of image-breaking, are: in white vestments, Thomas  Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; with a grey beard, John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford and Lord Privy Seal; and five further gentlemen whose identities are either disputed or altogether unknown. 

Edward duly became the boy-King Edward VI on his coronation.  There  was   a painting of his coronation procession, of which copies survive, the original having been lost.  It is noteworthy for featuring a fine bird’s-eye view of the City of London.  Edward was  a hard-line Protestant.  And a literal iconoclast.  According to “The Chronicle of the Grey Friars”:  “Item the 5th day …  in September [1547] began the King’s visitation at Paul’s and all the images pulled down: and the 9th day of the same month the said visitation was at St. Bride’s, and after that in divers other parish churches … .  …  Item at this same time was pulled up all the tomes, …  altars, …  and walls of the quire … in the church that was at some time the Gray friars and sold, and the quire made smaller … . Item … following [1548] … was Barking chapel at the Tower hill pulled down, and Saint Martin’s [le Grand] … , Saint Nicholas in the chambulles [Shambles], and Saint [Audouen, Ewen or] Ewyns, and within the Gatte of Newgate these were put with the church that was at some time the Gray Friars: and also [St Mary] Strand church was pulled down to make the protector duke of Somerset’s place larger”.  There  was a regal and statesman-like side to the boy-King  as well.  In 1551, he wrote in his diary of how he had, amid much pomp, accommodated and entertained the Catholic Queen Dowager (and mother of Mary Queen of Scots) Mary of Guise at Westminster, after her ship had been forced ashore by bad weather en route from France to Scotland.  His entry reads in part as follows: “[D]ivers … lords and gentlemen, … ladies and gentlewomen went to her, and brought her through London to Westminster.  At the gate there received her the Duke of Northumberland, Great Master, and the Treasurer, and Comptroller, and the Earl of Pembroke, with all the sewers [messieurs], and carvers, and cup-bearers, to the number of thirty.  In the hall I met her, with all the rest of the Lords of my Council, as the Lord Treasurer, … etc., and from the outer gate up to the presence chamber, on both sides, stood the guard.  And so having brought her to her chamber, I retired to mine.  I went to her at dinner; she dined under the same cloth of state, at my left hand; at her rearward dined my cousin Francis, and my cousin Margaret; at mine sat the French Ambassador.  We were served by two services, two sewers, cupbearers, and gentlemen.  Her master hostel [Maitre d’Hotel] came before her service, and my officers before mine.  … After dinner, when she had heard some music, I brought her into the hall, and she went away”.

Edward had stipulated in his will that he wished to be succeeded not by his half-sister, Mary, Henry’s daughter, by his first wife Catherine of Aragon, who was a Catholic, but by Lady Jane Grey, who was a fellow Protestant.  Jane was indeed duly proclaimed Queen on 10th June, 1553, but was overthrown by Mary only nine days later, on 19th June.  She was later tried and convicted on a charge of treason in the November of  1553, and eventually executed in the February of  1554.   Her father, Henry Grey, was  executed a matter of a few days after her, for his role in “Wyatt’s Rebellion”.

Mary was proclaimed Queen on 19th June, 1553.   Stow wrote: “In the year 1553 the 19. of July, the Counsell partlie moved with the right of the Lady Maries cause, partly considering that the most of the Realme was wholly bent on her side, changing their mind from Lady Jane lately proclaimed Queene, assembled themselves at this Baynardes Castle, where they communed with the Earle of Pembrooke and the Earl of Shrewsbury and Sir John Mason Clearke of the Counsell, sent for the Lord Mayor, and then riding into Cheape to the Crosse, where Gartar King at Armes, Trumpet being sounded, proclaimed the Lady Daughter to King Henry the eighth and Queene Katharen Queene of England … ”. As intimated above, she  evidently enjoyed a measure  of popular  support, at least initially.  Henry Machyn described how her coronation was accompanied by “song, and … belles ryngyng thrugh London, and bone-fyres, and tabuls in evere strett, and wyne and beer and alle … ”. 

Under Mary’s reign, the country reverted to Catholicism.  And, under her Counter-Reformation, a number of Protestants were executed for heresy  – hence her nick-name, “Bloody Mary”, and that of one of her most enthusiastic supporters, Bishop Edmund Bonner, “Bloody Bonner”.  The total  number of persons executed under Mary has been estimated to have been 290 (with a further several hundred going into exile).  Note in this context, though, that  the numbers  of those executed under her Protestant predecessors Henry VIII and Edward VI have  been estimated to have between 37,000-72,000, and 5,500, respectively; and the number executed under her Protestant successor Elizabeth I, 2-600. 

In late 1553 to early 1554,  Thomas Wyatt the Younger plotted a rebellion against Mary, and in particular her plan to marry the Catholic King of Spain, Philip. The aims of the rebellion were  to overthrow Mary, and to put in her place her half-sister Elizabeth (and also to  have Elizabeth marry the Protestant Earl of Devon, Edward Courtenay).  These aims were to be achieved by force of arms, with each of the four main rebel leaders responsible for assembling  an army in his respective corner of the country before marching on London: Wyatt in Kent; Henry Grey (the father of Lady Jane Grey), the Duke of Suffolk, in Leicestershire; Sir James Croft in Herefordshire; and Sir Peter Carew in Devon.  In the event, only Wyatt succeeded in raising much of a rebel  army, which grew further on its march to London through desertions from forces sent to oppose it, and eventually became some four thousand strong.     The  army arrived in Southwark in  the February of 1554, to find its way into the City of London blocked at London Bridge by further forces, responding to Mary’s stirring rallying-call at the Guildhall two days earlier (the army  was also  threatened by cannon in the Tower of London, commanded by the Lieutenant of the Tower, John Bruges or Brydges, who intimated that he was prepared to put them to use).   It then  withdrew, wheeled west to Kingston to cross the river there, marched back east and   attempted to enter the City again at Ludgate, where it was again faced down, and where it broke up.  After the failure of his rebellion, Wyatt was tortured at the Tower before being tried, convicted and eventually executed in the April.    His torturers had evidently hoped that he would somehow implicate Elizabeth, but he did not.  Elizabeth was herself temporarily imprisoned in the Tower while her supposed complicity was further investigated, but none was ever  proven. 

In the February of 1555, John Rogers, the vicar of the church of St Sepulchre, was burned at the stake in West Smithfield, becoming the  first of the so-called “Marian martyrs”.   John Foxe, in his “Book of Martyrs”,  gives the following account of Rogers’s execution:  “[He] was brought …  toward Smithfield, saying the psalm “Miserere” by the way, all the people wonderfully rejoicing at his constancy, with great praises and thanks to God for the same. And there, in the presence of … a wonderful number of people, the fire was put unto him; and when it had taken hold both upon his legs and shoulders, he, as one feeling no smart, washed his hands in the flame, as though it had been in cold water. And, after lifting up his hands unto heaven, not removing the same until such time as the devouring fire had consumed them – most mildly this happy martyr yielded up his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father. A little before his burning at the stake, his pardon was brought, if he would have recanted, but he utterly refused. He was the first proto-martyr of all the blessed company that suffered in Queen Mary’s time, that gave the first adventure upon the fire. His wife and children, being eleven in number, and ten able to go, and one sucking on her breast, met him by the way as he went towards Smithfield. This sorrowful sight of his own flesh and blood could nothing move him; but that he constantly and cheerfully took his death, with wonderful patience, in the defence and quarrel of Christ’s gospel.”  A plaque in West Smithfield marks the site of Rogers’s execution.  Later in 1555, John Bradford and John Philpot were also burned in West Smithfield.  In this instance, Foxe gives this  account:  “ … When Bradford and Leaf came to the Stake … , they lay flat on their faces, praying to themselves the space of a minute of an hour.  Then one of the Sheriffs said … , Arise and make an end … .  At that word they both stood … and … Bradford took a Fagot in his hand, and kissed it, and so likewise the Stake.  … And so … Bradford went to the Stake: and holding up his hands, and casting his countenance to Heaven, he said thus, O England, England, repent thee of thy sins, repent thee of thy sins.  Beware of Idolatry, beware of false Antichrists, take heed they do not deceive you.  And … one of the Officers … made the fire … .  [And] Bradford … asked all the world forgiveness, and forgave all the world, and prayed the people to pray with him, and turned … unto the young man that suffered with him, and said, Be of good comfort Brother; for we shall have a merry Supper with the Lord this night: And so spake no more words that any man did hear … ”.  As in the case of Rogers, a plaque in West Smithfield marks the site of Bradford and Leaf(e)’s execution.  And in 1556, eleven  men and two women were burned in Stratford, in front of a crowd of 20,000.

When Mary died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter by his second  wife Anne Boleyn, became Queen, and the  country reverted once more to Protestantism.  The “Recusancy Acts”, intended to enforce  participation in Protestant religious activities, were passed in the first year of Elizabeth’s  reign, in 1558.   Breaches were punished by fines, property confiscations or even imprisonment (the fine for missing a church service was 1s – half a week’s wages for an unskilled labourer).  Elizabeth’s accession was extremely popular, and, as Henry Machyn put it: “All London did eat and drink and made merry”.  Her coronation procession in 1559 paused on its way to Westminster Abbey for the staging of various pageants in her honour (the date having been chosen as a  particularly auspicious one by her astrologer John Dee).  The first of these  symbolised her Genealogy, and emphasised her “Englishness” and Protestantism (in contrast to her late sister Mary’s “Spanishness” and Catholicism), and her descent from Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, whose marriage had  unified the country after the Wars of the Roses.  The second, her Government, and its virtues of True Religion, Love of Subjects, Wisdom and Justice.  The third, during which the Mayor presented her with a gift of gold, the Interdependence of the Crown and the City.  The fourth, during which a figure representing Truth presented her  with a copy of the Bible bearing the English inscription “The Word of Truth”, the Thriving – English, Protestant – Commonwealth.   The fifth, Elizabeth as Deborah, the prophetess of the Old Testament who rescued the House of Israel and went on to rule for forty years.  Elizabeth’s reign was  widely, although by no means universally,  regarded as some sort of “Golden Age” of – comparative – stability, peace and prosperity; of exploration and discovery, and of the arts, in particular the performing arts.  It brought  “Melody and joy and comfort to all true Englishmen and women”.   

The merchant-adventurer, privateer (that is, essentially, pirate), and naval commander Martin Frobisher set sail on board the “Gabriel” from Ratcliff in 1576 on the second of his three ultimately unsuccessful voyages in search of the North-West Passage through the Arctic to Cathay (China) in the Pacific, returning from Canada with a cargo of what turned out to be worthless “fool’s gold”.  The site in Ratcliff is marked by a “London County Council” plaque of 1922 in King Edward Memorial Park. Incidentally, the plaque also commemorates another merchant-adventurer, Hugh Willoughby, who had even earlier, in 1553, set sail on board the “Bona Esparanza” from Ratcliff, in search of the North-East Passage through the Arctic to the Pacific, getting as far as Novaya Zemlya before having to turn back,  and dying on the remote Kola Peninsula, east of Murmansk,   on what was supposed to have been an overwintering stop.  Frobisher went on to be knighted for his services in seeing off the Spanish Armada in 1588.  He died in 1594, of wounds sustained in another action against the Spanish.  His organs were buried in the church of St Andrew in Plymouth, and the rest of his body in the church of St Giles Cripplegate in London, where there is a memorial to him.  There is a portrait of Frobisher,  commissioned by the Cathay Company, and painted by the Dutch artist Cornelis Ketel in 1577, in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  It depicts a man of action, an “uncultured” man, with an “acutely violent temperament”, wearing a bosun’s whistle round his neck, and a scabbarded rapier  on his left hip, and brandishing a wheel-lock pistol in his right hand.   Frobisher also wears  a particularly splendid pair of baggy knee-length breeches called “Venetians”, and a matching jerkin, over a plain white doublet. 

The Devonian explorer, privateer and naval commander Francis Drake set sail from Plymouth on board the “Golden Hind(e)” in 1577 on a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe.  On his return to England in 1581, his ship was “drawn into a creek … at Deptford as a perpetual memorial for having circuited round about the whole earth”, and “consecrated it with great ceremonie, pompe and magnificence eternally to be remembered”, and Drake was knighted by the Queen, Elizabeth I.  The ship  remained at Deptford for about 100 years, until it started to disintegrate and had to be broken up.  A  plaque on the water-front there marks the site.   

There is a replica of the ship in St Mary Overie Dock in Southwark, a couple of miles upstream from Deptford. 

There is a fine miniature portrait of Drake, on the reverse of a playing card, painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. 

The Devonian landed-gentleman, writer, poet,  court favourite,  politician, soldier, spy and explorer Sir Walter Ralegh was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1584 to explore, colonise and rule any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People [in the New World]”,  in return for one-fifth of all the gold and silver that might be mined there.  He first organised, although did not himself participate in, two voyages to Roanoke in Virginia in the 1580s, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish an English colony in North America, under the governorship of John White (it was not until 1607 that a successful colony was to become  established, at Jamestown in Virginia).   White first went out to Roanoke in 1587, but returned to England shortly afterwards in order to pick up further supplies.  He had intended to go back again within the year, but, for various reasons, was not actually able to do so until three years later than planned.  When he finally did arrive back in Roanoke, in 1590, he found no trace of the colony or of the colonists, other than an abandoned stockade, with one of its posts inscribed with the single word   “CROATOAN”.   Ralegh then himself participated in a voyage in  1595 in search of “El Dorado”, the fabled city of gold in South America, again with no success.  In between times,   in 1591,  he had been temporarily imprisoned in the Tower of London, for having married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth I’s  ladies-in-waiting, without first having sought the Queen’s express permission.  Later, after  Elizabeth I died, and James I succeeded her to the throne, Ralegh was imprisoned again, this time on the altogether more serious charge of complicity in the so-called “Main Plot” against the new King in 1603 (which sought to remove him and replace him with his cousin Arbella Stuart).  He was eventually pardoned and released from captivity in 1616, in order to undertake a second voyage in search of “El Dorado”.  This time, he did find gold, albeit by the expedient of ransacking a Spanish outpost, in violation of the terms not only of his pardon, but also of   the Treaty of London of 1604, that had brought to an end the long-running Anglo-Spanish War.  On his eventual return to England in 1618, he was arrested and executed in Westminster Palace Yard, essentially to appease the Spanish.   

There is a miniature portrait of Ralegh, painted by Nicholas Hilliard in c. 1585, in the National Portrait Gallery, depicting him in the Queen’s colours of black and white.  Ralegh is of  course remembered  for supposedly once having made the chivalrous gesture of casting  one of his cloaks upon a puddle  so as to allow the Queen to walk over it without getting her feet wet.  He is also widely credited with  having supposedly introduced the potato, and tobacco, to England.

What is now known as the Anglo-Spanish War, between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, broke out, after a prolonged period of escalating tension,  in 1585, with the seizure of  English ships moored in Spanish and Netherlandish ports.  The war  would only finally be ended in 1604, that is, during the first full year of the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James I, with the signature of the Treaty of London in  Somerset House, an event commemorated by a painting now in the Queen’s House in Greenwich.    At its height, the threat of a Spanish invasion of England was very real, never more so than at the time of the ill-destined Spanish Armada in 1588.  In February, 1587, the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I, had had the  Catholic Pretender, Mary, Queen of Scots, executed.  The Catholic King of Spain, Philip II, vowed revenge, and in July, 1587, obtained Papal authority to overthrow Elizabeth by force of arms and place whoever he chose on the throne in her stead.   To that end, he assembled an armada of 130 ships, and in 1588, despatched it under the Duke of Medina Sidonia to the Netherlands to “join hands” with an army  under the Duke of Parma,  the intention being that the two forces then cross the Channel together, and sail up the Thames to take London.  In the event, the armada arrived early at the rendezvous, harried by the English fleet under Howard and Drake, and the Duke of Parma’s men were not ready to embark.  Later, in attempting to escape English fireships, the armada was dispersed to the four winds, and many of its ships were wrecked, with great loss of life.    Elizabeth I, who had been in Richmond Palace or St James’s Palace in London throughout the crisis, and in consultation with Burleigh and Walsingham, addressed her armed forces at Tilbury Fort, as follows:  “My loving people, We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my Kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.  I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain,  or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.  I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my Kingdom, and of my people”.  Interestingly, a   carved ivory sculpture  of Christ salvaged from an  Armada shop may be seen in the church of All Hallows Barking.

Interestingly, on April 6th, 1580, London was hit by a large earthquake (there had previously been smaller  ones in 1247 and 1382).  This one actually had its epicentre in the Straits of Dover, but its magnitude was such – possibly 8 or more on the European Macroseismic Scale – that its effects were felt over a wide area of south-eastern England and the near-continent of Europe.    In London, it caused significant damage to property.  It also caused the deaths of   the child-apprentices Thomas Gray and Mabel Everite, who were struck by masonry falling from the roof  of Christ Church, Newgate Street (the boy was killed outright; the girl died of her injuries a few days later).  A number of contemporary publications  still survive that describe the earthquake, albeit as a supernatural rather than a natural  phenomenon, as a  divine warning and  call to repentance.  One, issued the day after the earthquake, contains “A godly newe ballat moving us to repent by ye example of ye earthquake happened in London ye 6. of Aprill 1580”, which reads, in part, as follows:

“It came at eve, as Aprill day
Shut up its water eye,
And fill’d all London with dismaye,
And that all suddenly.
In open streete
Did all men meete
Leaving their houses shaking fearfully.
The belles as of themselves did toll
The knell of all the people:
Huge stones fell downe, and others roll
From tower and from steeple.
These none could shun,
Though fast they run:
They soon o’ertooke and kill’d both whole and creeple.
In one short minute, strange to view,
The cittie stood amaz’d,
Confusion rang’d the wardes all through;
Eche on his neighbour gaz’d.
All were agast,
But soone it past:
If it continued, London had been raz’d”.

Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, in   1601, Robert Devereux, the 2nd  Earl of Essex, led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow her and her court, a treasonous act for which he was later tried, convicted, and beheaded at the Tower of London.  Some of his supporters were also executed, although some others, including the Earl of Southampton, were spared.   Essex had earlier been publicly disgraced and politically and financially ruined by being placed under house arrest and removed from his office as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for  failing to execute Elizabeth’s orders to him to suppress an insurrection in that country (the so-called “Tyrone’s Rebellion” or “Nine Year’s War”).  His overthrow plan was once widely believed to have involved taking a  boat from Essex Steps to the “Globe” in Southwark on February 7th, 1601, to bribe the  “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” to overplay the scene in that day’s performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” in which the King is deposed, with a view to encouraging support among the watching crowd.  Sadly, like  all too many good stories, this one has since been conclusively demonstrated to have had no actual basis in historical fact.   Essex’s actual plan, such as it was, simply to march from Essex House to the City of London, began to backfire on the morning of the fateful following day, February 8th, when four of the Queen’s men arrived at the house  to arrest him, and he was forced to take them hostage.  He recklessly decided to carry   on regardless, but when he and his followers, numbering some two hundred, arrived at the City, they were  met with a   hostile reception, having by that time  already been denounced as traitors  (by Robert Cecil, the 1st  Earl of Salisbury, the  Secretary of State).  At this, most of his followers deserted him, and he was forced to return to Essex House, where after a short siege, during which he attempted to destroy any evidence that might incriminate him, he found himself forced to surrender to the Queen’s men (under the  Earl of Nottingham).   

2 thoughts on “Post-Medieval London, Pt. I – General and Tudor History

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