Post-Medieval London, Pt. III – Social History

Blue Plaque marking site of Pasqua Rosee’s Head, just off Cornhill

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) …

Social History

Everyday life in London in post-Medieval  times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.   For most women, it  continued to  revolve around the “daily grind”.  For some, there would have been  opportunities for advancement in education,  in paid employment  or self-employment, albeit in the trades rather than in the professions, and in public office.  However, as the anonymously-authored “The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights” pithily put it in 1632, “Women have no voice in Parliament, they make no laws, they consent to none, they abrogate none”. 



The predominant religion of the period  before the Reformation was Catholicism; and after the Reformation, either Protestantism – or a hard-line form thereof known as Puritanism – or Catholicism, depending upon Royal patronage.   Sadly, if not entirely atypically of human history, there  was much  persecution of the one sect by the other, such that the fortune and fate of a man could  be determined by his faith and allegiance, or by scheme and intrigue, as by the toss of a coin. 

Father John Gerard

In 1597, the Jesuit priest Father John Gerard was imprisoned and tortured in the Tower of London, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get him to reveal the whereabouts of Father Henry Garnet (who eventually went on to be executed in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605).  And in 1655 “one of earliest Sufferers [among the early “Quakers”]  in the City of London was Anne Downer, a Maiden about thirty Years of Age, the first Person of that Sex who preached publickly in that City:  … , committed to the House of Correction, …  detained there ten Weeks, and because she refused to work, …  beaten with a Rope’s End”.  There was also persecution of believers in  other faiths, and of non-believers. 


Jews had been expelled from the country in 1290, and for the most part for the next few  hundred years lived there only either  as coverts or “Marranos”, or as converts to Christianity, some of the latter in  London in the Domus Conversorum on Chancery Lane. 

Roderigo Lopez

There was, though, at least one acknowledged Jew in a position of prominence in London in Tudor times – the Portuguese Roderigo Lopez, the sometime Physician-in-Ordinary to the Queen, Elizabeth I (who was eventually executed for allegedly attempting to poison her in 1594).  And another in early Stuart times – the Portuguese Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, a wealthy Leadenhall Street merchant and trader in silver, gunpowder  and cochineal (who went on to be the first Jew to be endezined as an English citizen in 1655). 

Menasseh ben Israel

Jews were finally  formally readmitted,  under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, and following a personal approach to Cromwell by  one Menasseh ben Israel, in 1656.  The first to arrive were Sephardim, escaping religious persecution in Portugal, Spain and elsewhere in western Europe.  Slightly later came the Ashkenazim, from central and eastern Europe.   A  Sephardic Synagogue was built on Creechurch Lane, on the eastern fringe of the City, in 1657, and later relocated torebuilt on an adjacent site on  Bevis Marks in 1701, where it still stands.  The Bevis Marks Synagogue was built by Joseph Avis, a Quaker, who refunded to the congregation the difference between the final cost of the construction and his original – higher – estimate, not wanting to profit(eer)  from working on a House of God. And the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue was built on nearby Duke’s Place in 1690.  Sadly, it was destroyed during the bombing of the Blitz of the Second World War.  The old Jewish cemetery in Cripplegate, until 1177 the only one in all England, to which bodies would be brought for burial from as far afield as Exeter and York, was also destroyed in the War.  New  cemeteries  were opened in  Mile End in the East End of London in the late seventeenth century (Betahayim Velho), and in the early eighteenth (Betahayim Novo).  The latter lies in what is now  the Mile End campus of Queen Mary College.

Some Londoners were curious as to Jewish  observances; others suspicious, mistrustful or fearful.  In 1662, one Joseph Greenhalgh wrote in a letter:  “Lately … I lighted upon a learned Jew with a mighty bush beard, …  with whom … I fell into conference … ; at which time he told me that he had special relation as Scribe and Rabbi to a private Synagogue … in London, and that if I had a desire to see their manner of worship … he would give me such a ticket,  as, upon sight thereof, their porter would let me in … .  When Saturday came, … I … was let … in … , but there being no Englishman but myself, … I was at first a little abashed to venture alone amongst all them Jews, but my innate curiosity to see things strange …  made me confident … .  I … opened the inmost door, and … went in and sate me down among them; but Lord … what a strange … sight was there … [as] would have frightened a novice … .  Every man had a large white … covering … cast over the high crown of his hat, which from thence hung down on all sides, … nothing to be seen but a little of the face; this, my Rabbi told me, was their ancient garb, used in divine worship in … Jerusalem … : and though to me at first it made altogether a strange … show, yet me thought it had in its kind, I know not how, a face and aspect of venerable antiquity ”.

And in   1663, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: “[A]fter dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue [on Creechurch Lane]: … Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service … would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”.  Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had witnessed the service of Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in the Torah”), marking the end of the Sukkot(h), the  annual cycle of readings from the Torah, which is always a celebratory rather than a solemn event.  The associated activity  that most bewildered him was the Hakafot (dancing with the Torah).   There would almost certainly also have been drinking of ritual wine (symbolising life), although he does not mention it.  Indeed, a traditional source recommends performing the priestly blessing earlier than usual in the service, to make sure that the priests are still sober  when the time comes!


The earliest records of Muslims (“Mahometans”) visiting if not living in London are from the Tudor period.  There were a number of important emissary visits by Muslims to London during the reign of Elizabeth I, as she sought to build  an alliance between the Islamic World and Protestant England against Catholic Spain. 

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud

One was by Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, the principal secretary to the King of Barbary, depicted in an extraordinary contemporary portrait of 1600  in turbaned dress, an exotic scimitar on his left hip, a full beard – and forthright expression – on his face.  The alliance essentially ended when the Anglo-Spanish War ended in 1604 (the first full year of the Stuart King James I’s rule).

Food and Drink

The rich  continued to gorge themselves on meat, and the poor, whose wages were still only 2s/week or less,  to subsist on potage, as in the Medieval period.  According to surviving records, the guests at a banquet in the Great Hall in Ely Palace in 1531, who included  Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, managed over the course of five days to work their way through 24 oxen, 51 cows, 91 pigs, 100 sheep, 168 swans, 444 pigeons and 720 chickens – not to mention 340 dozen, that is, 4080, larks!  The lack of fibre in the diet of the wealthy evidently led to  widespread constipation!  In  Pepys’s time, it was common practice to  take  purges to relieve the condition – and days off work to recover from the consequences! 

By the sixteenth century, the water supply system had become inadequate  to meet the demands of the rising population (it had also become subject to much abuse and over-use by individuals and by commercial and industrial concerns).  A short-term solution to this problem  was provided  by the construction by the Dutchman Pieter Maritz in 1582 of a – rather rickety – apparatus under one of the arches of London Bridge that  allowed water to be pumped from the Thames  into the heart of the City – or, in the case of the original demonstration to City officials, over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!  The apparatus was destroyed in the Great Fire, but thereafter replaced by Maritz’s grandson, and  continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.   

Surviving Section of New River, Canonbury Grove, Islington

A longer-term solution was provided by the construction by the Welshman and wealthy merchant, goldsmith, banker and Member of Parliament Sir Hugh Myddelton or Myddleton in 1609-13 of a  10’ wide and 4’ deep canal, or “New River”, all the way from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire into the City, an incredible 37 miles away, parts of which  may still be seen along the “New River Walk”, for example in Canonbury Grove in Islington.  The “New River” was formally opened on September 29th, 1613, by Myddelton’s older brother Thomas, the Mayor of London.   The playwright, poet and writer of pageants Thomas Middleton (no relation)  wrote in “The manner of His Lordships entertainment … at that most famous and admired worke of the running streame from Amwell head, into the cesterne neere Islington … ”: “Long have we laboured, long cherished and prayed|For this great work’s perfection, and by th’aid|Of heaven and good men’s wishes ‘tis at length|Happily conquered by cost, art and strength.!And after five years’ dear expense in days,!Travail, and pains, besides the infinite ways!Of malice, envy, false suggestions,!Able to daunt the spirits of mighty ones|In wealth and courage, this, a work so rare,|Only by one man’s industry, cost  and care|Is brought to blest effect … ”.  Myddelton had to overcome any number of technological  obstacles, and much land-owner and political opposition, to see this major civil engineering project through to completion, (the “New River” relied on gravity to allow flow, and hence had to be constructed on a gradient, of as little as two inches per mile).  He did so with a mixture of drive and determination, the financial support of 29 investors or “adventurers”, and the tacit backing of the King.  His backers had to wait some time until they   profited from the enterprise (actually, until 1633, although by 1695 the New River Company ranked behind only the East India Company and the then newly-constituted  Bank of England in terms of its capital value).  The public  health benefits of Myddelton’s project were immediate, though,  and immeasurable,  and indeed it has been described as “An immortal work – since men cannot more nearly imitate the Deity than in bestowing health”.  Myddelton died in 1631, and was buried in the church of  St Matthew Friday Street, where he had served as a warden.  Concerted  attempts to locate his coffin and monument following the church’s demolition in 1881 were ultimately unsuccessful.  However, fittingly, there is a statue to the great man on Islington Green in Islington.  And some of the fittings from the New River Company’s offices, including Grinling Gibbons’s (?) “Oak Room”, may still be seen  in the  London Metropolitan Water Board building, also in Islington.

Ale and beer  continued to be staple drinks.  By 1656, there were a quite literally staggering 1153 drinking establishments in the City, ranging from basic ale-houses through middling taverns, where wine could  also be had, to up-market inns, where there would be food and drink of the finest, accommodation and often also entertainment.  Among them were the “Bell Savage” of 1452 on Ludgate Hill; the “Olde Mitre” of 1546 in Ely Court; the ”Devil and St Dunstan” of 1563,  the “Olde Cheshire Cheese” of 1584, the “Cock” of 1600, and the “Mitre” of 1602/3 all on Fleet Street; the “Seven Stars” of 1602 on Carey Street;  the “Wig and Pen” of 1625 on the Strand; and the “Olde Wine Shades” of 1663 on Martin Lane.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, drunkenness became something of a social problem.  So  did the so-called “dry-drunkenness” caused by  smoking tobacco, first introduced from the Americas  in the 1570s.   In the post-Medieval period, tobacco was smoked in clay pipes, the remains of which came to litter  the City like the cigarette ends of today, and are common finds on the foreshore of the Thames. 

Coffee-House jests

More socially acceptable was the consumption of equally addictive, although less harmful, coffee and tea, first imported from Arabia and China respectively  in the 1650s.  Coffee and tea were expensive commodities in the later seventeenth century, and  consumed  exclusively  by  the  rich.  The coffee- and tea- houses that began to spring up all over London at this time became places where respectable wealthy gentlemen, who would not be seen dead in ale-houses, might congregate to converse,  and to transact  business: one, Lloyd’s, eventually evolved into an entirely separate  business enterprise, and another, Jonathan’s, into the Stock Exchange.

Blue Plaque marking site of Pasqua Rosee’s Head, just off Cornhill

The very  first of the coffee-houses to open was at the sign of  “Pasqua Rosee’s Head”, just off Cornhill, in 1652.  The eponymous Pasqua Rosee was employed as a man-servant by one Daniel Edwards, a London merchant,  member of the Levant Company and trader in Turkish goods; and he, Rosee,  appears to have run the coffee-shop as a sideline, in partnership with one Christopher Bowman,  a freeman of the City and former coachman of Edwards’s father-in-law, Alderman Thomas Hodges.   It is thought that Rosee and Edwards  met in Smyrna in Anatolia, although also that Rosee was ultimately of ethnic Greek extraction.  The “Coffee House”, also just off Cornhill, the “Globe” and “Morat’s”, in Exchange Alley, and an unnamed coffee-house in St Paul’s Churchyard, were also all open by the early 1660s, and all referred to in Samuel Pepys’s diary, as was an unnamed tea-house, where in 1660 he   “did send for a cup of tee, a China drink, of which I had never drunk before”.  A contemporary advertising handbill  described the “Vertue of the Coffee Drink First publiquely made and sold in England by Pasqua Rosee” as follows:  “The Grain or Berry called Coffee”, groweth upon little Trees, only in the Deserts of Arabia.  It is brought from thence, and drunk generally throughout all the Grand Seigniors Dominions.  It is a simple innocent thing, composed into a Drink, by being dryed in an Oven, and ground to Powder, and boild up with Spring water, and about half a pint of it to be drunk, fasting an hour before, and not Eating an hour after, and to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured … .  The quality of the Drink is cold and Dry … .  It quickens the Spirits, and makes the Heart Lightsome … .  … It suppresseth Fumes exceedingly, and … will very much … help Consumption and the Cough of the Lungs [hmm, not so sure about that].  … It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for business … ; and therefore you are not toe Drink it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours”.  One  George Sandys    described the coffee of the time  as “black as soote, and tasting not much unlike it”.  Incidentally, the first chocolate-house opened in a Frenchman’s house in Queen’s Head Alley, off Bishopsgate, in 1657, and “Mr Bland’s”  in 1664, the latter  also referred to in Pepys’s diary, as the place where he went to drink his “morning’s draft in chocolate”.   Chocolate was a very considerable luxury in the mid 1600s, costing as much as 13s/lb (£50/lb in today’s terms, according to  the National Archives “Currency Convertor”). 

Bow on the River Lea remained  the site  of a cottage industry involving  the milling of grain for use in baking and distilling.  Indeed, milling  continued here  right up until the last century, and one – eighteenth-century – tidal mill, the House Mill, on Three Mill Island, has recently been restored as a working museum.


The systems and standards of sanitation remained as in the Medieval.  Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary one day in 1660 of how he had gone down into his cellar and “ … stepped into a great heap of **** ”, by which he found that his neighbour Mr Turner’s “house of office” was full to bursting!  The open sewer that the  River Fleet had become  by the fourteenth century was only finally  enclosed in the eighteenth.   The line of the river is followed by that of Farringdon Road, Farringdon Street  and New Bridge Street.

Medical Matters

The diagnosis and treatment of disease continued to be based essentially on Galenic principles.  Treatments remained largely plant-based, with medicinal herbs being widely grown both at monastic sites, for example at Syon Abbey, and also,  commercially, elsewhere, for example, in the herbalist and Apothecary John Parkinson’s garden in Long Acre in Covent Garden. 

John Parkinson

Parkinson (1567-1650) made his living preparing and dispensing plant-based and other medicines from a shop on Ludgate Hill, a short walk from the Apothecaries’ Hall.   He  was one of the founder-members of the Apothecaries’ Company, and also the Apothecary to James I, and Royal Botanist to Charles I.   (Another of the co-founders of the Company, of whom there is a fine marble bust in its  Hall, Gideon de Laune, was the Apothecary to James’s queen, Anne of Denmark.)  Parkinson also wrote  “A Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers” in 1629, and  “The Theatre of Plants” in 1640. 

Nicholas Culpeper

Another herbalist and writer – of “The Complete Herbal” –  Nicholas Culpeper,  of Spitalfields, died in 1654  of Consumption, or possibly of some other lung disease  caused by excessive smoking, and was buried in Bedlam.  (Note here, though,  that simply breathing the London air of the time, badly polluted as it was by the burning of coal, would also have had deleterious effects on health.)  Sad to say, the herbal treatments  remained largely ineffectual against the diseases of the day, including Sweating Sickness in addition to  Plague, Ague and Consumption (interestingly, the incidence of Leprosy  had become extremely low throughout Britain, and indeed western Europe, by the beginning of the post-Medieval period, possibly on account of an acquired collective immunity).

Sweating Sickness   was diagnosed by  “a … burnyng sweate … : by the tormentyng …  of which … men …  being not hable to suffre the … heat, … cast away … sheets & …  clothes”, leading to  delirium, and in almost all cases,  after a matter of hours, death (“all … after yelded up their ghost”).  The disease  is now thought to have been either Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) or Pulmonary Anthrax (the latter caused by inhaling spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, perhaps contained in contaminated wool).  It appeared in England – by way of Wales – with the arrival from France of Henry VII in 1485, and in the October of that year killed numerous people in London, sparing neither aristocracy nor bourgeoisie.   There were notable subsequent outbreaks in England in  1488, 1506/7, 1517, 1528/9 and  1551/2, after which last date the disease disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as it had appeared, never to return (it is also possible that it  killed Arthur Tudor at Ludlow Castle in 1502, while sparing  his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who went on to marry his brother, Henry VIII, in 1509).  The boy-king Edward VI wrote of the outbreak of  1551/2 as follows:  “At this time came the sweat into London, which was more vehement than the old sweat.  For if one took cold he died within 3 hours, and if he escaped it held him but 9 hours, or 10 at the most.  Also if he slept … , as he should be very desirous to do, then he raved, and should die raving”.  As Henry Machyn put it, it  “carried off many people both noble and commoners”.   Dyer estimates that 1-2% of the population died  of sweating sickness in England in 1551/2, based on analysis of surviving parish records.  However, the figures were at least locally   much higher  in closed religious communities, in which the disease was readily spread from person to person during services or even auricular confessions.   In the case of Syon Abbey, the Martyrologium records that 10% of the brothers and sisters died in the outbreak of 1488, including Robert Bryde on 16th May, Thomas Westshaw on 1st June, Robert Derham on 4th June, Robert Hall on 7th, Robert Frynge and Alice Hatton on 10th June,  Isabel Lambourn on 15th  June, Catherine Dymock on 17th June, Marion Cross on 4th July, Catherine Fogg on 2nd October, and Joan Payne on 20th October.

Surgical operations continued to be performed by Barber-Surgeons.  Somewhat against the odds, Samuel Pepys survived having a gallstone the size of a billard ball removed, without anaesthetic, by the skilled surgeon Thomas Hollier, on March 26th,  1658.   Each year thereafter, he celebrated the anniversary of the event rather like a second birthday, writing  in his diary on March 26th, 1660: “This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone at Mrs Turner’s in Salisbury Court; and did resolve while I live to keep it a festival, as I did last year at my house, and for ever to have Mrs Turner and her company with me.   … I can and do rejoice, and bless God, being at this time, blessed be his holy name, in as good health as ever I was in my life”.

Some of the   hospitals that had been attached to monastic houses in the Medieval period survived the Dissolution and into  the post-Medieval.  The mental hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, or “Bedlam”, was cruelly depicted  a mad-house even on the  Jacobean stage.  And in 1669, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: “I to the Office, while  the young people went to see  Bedlam” – to view and mock the antics of the inmates, as a low form of  entertainment.  It was subsequently rebuilt by Robert Hooke in Moorfields in 1676, relocated to  the junction of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road  in the Borough of Southwark in 1815, and relocated again to the site of a former country house estate in Beckenham in the Borough of Bromley in Kent in 1930.   The Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber’s (1630-1700) extraordinary statues of figures representing “Raving and Melancholy Madness”, that used to stand outside the old hospital in Moorfields, may now be seen inside the museum of the new one in Beckenham.  Also inside the museum may be seen  a padded cell, a strait-jacket and other restraints, and an Electro-Convulsive Therapy kit, from the hospital’s later days.

3 thoughts on “Post-Medieval London, Pt. III – Social History

  1. Margaret

    is it true that people would advertise run-away slaves at the coffree houses which ship owners & captains frequented?


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