Post-Medieval London, Pt. V – Social History contd.

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) …

Entertainment and Culture

There continued to be at West Smithfield  archery, wrestling and cock-fighting, a weekly horse fair, and an annual Bartholomew Fair every August, and also regular jousting tournaments.  At   East Smithfield a further fair;  on Undershaft an annual May Fair; and on Cheapside further tournaments. In the Tower of London, a menagerie; and on Bankside in  Southwark, animal-baiting.  

A Medieval depiction of bear-baiting

In Tudor times, Henry VIII is known to have witnessed a bear-baiting at Paris Gardens, from a barge moored offshore, in 1539.  In    1554, Henry Machyn wrote: “The sam day at after-non was a bere-beyten on the Banke syde, and ther the grett blynd bere [whose name was Sackerson] broke losse, and in ronnyng away he chakt a servyng man by the calff of the lege, and bytt a gret pesse away, and after by the hokyll-bone, that with-in iii days after he ded”.  And in 1599, the Swiss visitor Thomas Platter wrote: “Every Sunday [!] and Wednesday in London there are bear-baitings.  … The theatre is circular, with galleries … for spectators, [and] the space … below, beneath the clear sky, … unoccupied. In the middle of this place a large bear on a long rope was bound to a stake, then a number of English mastiffs were brought in and first shown to the bear, which they afterwards baited … .  [N]ow the excellence … of such mastiffs was evinced, for although they were much … mauled by the bear, they did not give in, but had to be pulled off by sheer force … .  … When the first mastiffs tired, fresh ones were brought in … .  When the bear was weary, another one was supplied … .  … When this bear was tired, a … bull was brought in … .  Then another powerful bear … .  Lastly they brought in an old blind bear which the boys hit  with … sticks; but he knew how to untie his leash and … ran back to his stall”.  In Stuart times, Edward Alleyn and 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”.  In  1623, John Chamberlain  wrote: “The Spanish Ambassador is much delighted in beare baiting: he was the last weeke at Paris garden [in Southwark], where they shewed him all the pleasure they could  … and then turned a white [polar] beare into the Thames, where the dogges baited him swimming, which was the best sport of all”.  And in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote:  “[A]fter dinner, with my wife and Mercer to the Beare-garden [in Southwark], where I have not been, I think, of many years, and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs: one into the very boxes.  But it is a very rude and nasty pleasure”.  The old  animal-baiting arenas on Bankside in   Southwark eventually closed down in the later seventeeth century, although at the same time new ones opened up Hockley-in-the-Hole in Clerkenwell, “the home of low-caste sport”.  Animal-baiting was only finally outlawed, under the “Cruelty to Animals Act”, in the early nineteenth century, in 1835. 

The “Frost Fair” of 1683-84

On  the Thames, when it froze over, there continued to be  “frost fairs”.  In 1683-84 an entire street of stalls was set up on the frozen river, together with a press printing souvenir papers, one of which, entitled “A Winter Wonder of the Thames Frozen Over with Remarks on the Resort thereon” asked “ … [W]ho’d believe to see revived there in January, Bartholomew Fair?”.  The ice was evidently so thick that it was even possible to roast an ox on it!    In 1788-89, there was, according to the all-knowing Encyclopaedia of London, “one continual scene of merriment and jollity” on the frozen river from Redriff to  as far up as  Putney. And in 1813-14, thousands  attended the greatest fair of the nineteenth  century, although only after navigating a gap in the ice created by temporarily unemployed watermen, who demanded a fee of twopence for their assistance!  Then, in 1831, the  demolition of “Old London Bridge”, which had  twenty arches, and the construction of the new one, which only had five, allowed  the rate of flow of the river  to increase to the extent that it became  much less susceptible to freezing  over. 

And everywhere, there continued to be drinking and gambling and whoring.  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 a Royal Proclamation of  Henry VIII, who wished to end  once and for all the “toleration of such dissolute and miserable persons as have been suffered to dwell in common open places called the stews without punishment or correction (for) their abominable and detestable sin”.  

Edward VI’s coronation procession, with the “Stews” of Bankside in the background

At this  time, there were twenty-two in operation in the “common Bordell(o)” of Bankside in Southwark  alone, 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 more-or-less precise locations of which 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).  Most, if not all, re-opened after Henry’s death in 1547. 

The “Holland’s Leaguer”

And the infamous “Holland’s Leaguer” in Paris Gardens opened during the reign of the first Stuart King, James I,  in 1603. 

A facial reconstruction of Elizabeth MItchell

Incidentally, the women who worked in the “stews” in Southwark were known as “Winchester Geese”, because many of the buildings belonged to the Bishops of Winchester.  Many of them ended up being buried, alongside the other “Outcast Dead” in the unconsecrated burial ground known as “Crossbones Graveyard” on Redcross Way, which remained in use until the mid-nineteenth century.  A MoLA monograph describes in detail the findings of recent archaeological excavations at the site.  Lesions in the bones of one of the excavated skeletons, of a nineteenth-century woman, aged only around sixteen to nineteen, indicated that she had been  suffering from advanced syphilis; and chemical residues, that she  had been treated with mercury.  Research undertaken for an episode of the BBC television series “History Cold Case” in 2010 indicated that this skeleton was likely to be that of one Elizabeth Mitchell, who is recorded as having been admitted to nearby St Thomas’s Hospital suffering from the running sores all over the body symptomatic of the disease, and as having died there, aged only nineteen, on 15th  August,  1851.

There also continued to be  occasional royal spectacles, including increasingly lavish triumphal and coronation processions, not to mention  private court masques, to which only the favoured few would be invited; as well as  civic ceremonials such as the Lord Mayor’s Show.  In  1626, the visiting Alsatian Chevalier de Bassompierre wrote in his journal: “November 9th, which is the election of the Mayor, I came in the morning to Sommerset [House] to meet the Queen [Henrietta Maria], who had come to see him go on the Thames on his way to Westminster to be sworn in, with a magnificent display of boats.  Then the Queen dined, and afterwards got into her coach and placed me at the same door with her.  The Duke of Boukinham also by her commands got into her coach, and we went into the street called Shipside to see the ceremony, which is the greatest that is made for the reception of any officer in the world.  While waiting for it to pass, the Queen played at primero with the Duke, the Earl of Dorchit and me; and afterwards the Duke took me to dine with the Lord mayor, who that day gave a dinner to more than 800 persons”.

And   there were enormously popular history plays, tragedies and comedies performed initially in inns, or in Inns of Court, and eventually in purpose- built or –adapted playhouses and theatres.  Inns where plays were performed included the  “Bell Savage”, “Bell”, “Bull” and “Cross Keys”; and Inns of Court, Middle Temple, in whose Hall, as noted above, “Twelfth Night” premiered in 1602 (and was staged again in 2002, in celebration of the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of the event, with an authentic all-male cast,  hand-made costumes,  and period music and instruments).  Open-air playhouses and indoor theatres included   the – recently rediscovered – “Red Lion” in Whitechapel, purpose-built by John Brayne in 1567; an unnamed building in Newington Butts, purpose-adapted by Jerome Savage in 1576; the “Theatre” in Shoreditch, built – on the site of the dissolved Holywell Priory –  by James Burbage in 1576; the “First Blackfriars” in the City, adapted – on the site of the dissolved Blackfriars Priory – by Richard Farrant in 1576; the “Curtain” in Shoreditch, built by Henry Lanman in 1577; the “Rose” on Bankside in Southwark, built by Philip Henslowe in 1587; the “Swan” in Southwark, built by Francis Langley in 1596; the “Boar’s Head” in Whitechapel, built by Oliver Woodliffe in 1598; the “Globe” in Southwark, originally built by Cuthbert Burbage in 1599, and subsequently rebuilt, following a fire in 1613,  in 1614; the “Second Blackfriars” in the City, adapted  by James Burbage in 1596-1600; the “Fortune” in Cripplegate, built by Edward Alleyn, in 1600; the “Red Bull” in Clerkenwell, built by Aaron Holland in 1606/7; the “Hope” in Southwark, built by Philip Henslowe in 1613, after  the “Globe” was burned down and before it was rebuilt; the “Whitefriars”, just off Fleet Street, by Thomas Woodford, in 1606; the “Cockpit” on Drury Lane in the West End, originally built by John Best, Cockmaster to the Prince of Wales, in 1616, and subsequently rebuilt, and renamed the “Phoenix”, in 1617; the “Salisbury Court”, just off Fleet Street, built by William Blagrave and Richard Gunnell, in 1629;  and the “Theatre Royal”,  on Bridges Street, just off Drury Lane, built by Thomas Killigrew in 1663, where the favourite of the restored King’s thirteen mistresses, “pretty, witty” Nell Gwyn(ne), performed from 1665-71.   Theatrical performances were publicised by, among other means,  the running up of flags on the premises: a black one  for a traged;  a white one for a comedy; and a red one for a history play.  The success or otherwise of those staged in the “Rose” is detailed in its owner Philip Henslowe’s diary and accounts covering the period 1592-1609, which, rather remarkably, survive (in Dulwich College).

The site of “The Theatre” under excavation

“The Theatre” in Shoreditch was an evidently at least approximately circular structure and performance space, and it was long assumed that the “Curtain” was also circular, although  recent archaeological evidence has shown it  to have been in fact rectangular, i.e., not unlike an inn. 

The “Globe” in Southwark was another circular structure, perhaps unsurprisingly, as it was actually built out of materials salvaged from “The Theatre” after its twenty-one year lease ran out.  According to one contemporary account, on or around 28th December, 1598,  a number of Burbage’s men “did enter upon the premises [of “The Theatre”] and take down the said buildinge … [and] … take and carrye away from thence all the wood and timber ther of unto the Banckside in the parishe of St Marye Overye and there erected a newe playe howse … ” (albeit “in an other forme”).  In a letter to Sir Edmund Bacon, reproduced in Reliquiae Wottoniae, Henry Wotton wrote  of the fire at the “Globe” in 1613, which took place during a performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII”:  “Now, King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s House, and certain Cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the Paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the Thatch, …  and … kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole House to the very ground.  This was the fatal period … wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw … ; … one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale”; and John Chamberlain wrote: “[I]t was a great marvaile and fair grace of God, that the people had so little harm, having but two narrow doors to get out”. 

Nathan Field

The “Second Blackfriars” was,  like the “First”, a – polygonal  – indoor theatre, and was capable of being used  by theatrical companies throughout the year, including in the  winter,  when open-air playhouses such as the “Globe” on Bankside in Southwark were rendered unusable by bad weather.   The “Second Blackfriars” was also an “all-seater”,  seating 6-700 in some – although not much – comfort, and charging a minimum of 6d a head (in contrast, the “Globe” seated or stood more (2-3000), but charged less (a minimum of only 1d a head)).  In time, the theatre became extremely popular with the fashionable set, and equally profitable.    From 1600-8, it housed performances by a troupe of boy-actors, variously known as the “Blackfriars Children”, “Children of the Chapel Royal” or “Children of the Queen’s Revels”, under Henry Evans and Nathaniel Giles.   Some of the boys were evidently forcibly taken from their homes and families and pressed into service through “impressment warrants”, authorised by the Crown. One, Nathan Field (1587-1620) went on to achieve fame as both an actor and as a dramatist in his own right, and, incidentally,  to be portrayed  “in character” in a picture painted in around 1615,  now in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  In  1609, the theatre came to be  owned by and to stage performances by Shakespeare’s company, by then known as the “King’s Men”, after the incumbent troupe had given grave offence to the King, James I,  during one of the performances they put on there  in 1608!   It was eventually closed down by the Puritans in 1642, and demolished in 1655.  

The modern “Globe”

A modern replica of the Elizabethan “Globe” open-air playhouse, the brainchild of the American film director and all-round good guy Sam Wanamaker,  stands on Bankside in Southwark, a stone’s throw from the site of the original, which stood opposite the “Rose”, on what was once Maiden Lane and is now Park Street.  Here it is possible to experience performances as the common man would have at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,  standing in the open as a  “groundling”- and surrounded by “penny stinkards”!   

The “Wanamaker”

On a plot adjoining the reconstructed “Globe” is a modern replica of a Jacobean indoor  theatre, fittingly named the “Wanamaker”.  Its design was in part based on a set of plans once – although no longer – thought to have been of the “Phoenix”, and its interior conveys a real sense of what an indoor theatre     such as the “Phoenix” or the “Second Blackfriars” would have been like.  A   sense of enclosed space, of intimacy, of proximity to the players, of exclusiveness perhaps.  Of  being surrounded by the shadowy  light of dancing candles, and the reflecting costumes and  jewellery of the actors and audience, “So  Glisterd in the Torchy Fryers”.  And, perhaps even more particularly,  of being surrounded by sound; and in enforced interludes in which the wicks of the lighting-candles are trimmed, by the sound of music.  Note in this context that the music in certain of Shakespeare’s later  plays, such as   “Cymbeline”, “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest”, was not only well suited to, but probably also  specifically written for, performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”. 

The  theatre   was enormously popular with the  citizens of London and with visitors alike in Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration times.  In  1599, Thomas Platter wrote:“After dinner … , I went with my companions over the water [to Southwark], and in the strewn roof-house [possibly the newly-built “Globe”] saw the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius with at least fifteen characters very well acted.  At the end … they danced according to their custom with extreme elegance.  Two in men’s clothes and two in women’s gave this performance, in wonderful combination with each other”.And:“On another occasion, I saw … a comedy; if I remember right, in Bishopsgate.  Here they represented various nations, with whom … and Englishman fought … , and overcame them all except the German … .  [H]e outwitted the German … .  [E]very day at two o’clock  … two and sometimes three comedies are performed, at separate places, wherewith folk make merry together, and whichever does best gets the greatest audience.  … What they … produce daily by way of mirth … every one knows well, who has happened to see them … playing … .  With such …  pastimes … the English spend their time; … [and] …  learn what is going on in  other lands … ”.  And in 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote: “Thence … into Covent Garden to an alehouse … and … to see an Italian Puppet Play, that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw … “.  He added:   “So to the Temple and by water home, and … in the dark there played upon my flageolette [a type of flute], it being a fine still evening … ” (incidentally, Pepys was evidently also proficient on the five-stringed seventeenth-century guitar). 

The theatre was equally as unpopular with the City authorities, who objected to its “profane fables, lascivious matters, cozening devices, and scurrilous behaviours … that … give opportunity to … evil-disposed and ungodly people …  to assemble themselves … ”.  During  the post-Medieval period, plays were first organised, and later  either approved, or in some cases censored, by the so-called “Office of the Revels” (the most famous “Master of the Revels” was Edmund Tilney, who held the post for essentially the entirety of Shakespeare’s time in the London theatre).  In 1564,  Edmund Grindal (then Bishop of London and later  Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote in a letter to William Cecil, the  1st Baron  Burghley: “[I]n my judgement, ye should do very well to … inhibit all plays for one whole year (and if it were for ever, it were not amiss) within the City or three miles’ compass, upon pains as well to the players as to the owners of the houses where they play their lewd interludes”.    And in 1594,  even such a figure as Henry Carey, the 1st Baron Brunsdon, the son of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary (possibly by Henry VIII), and the cousin of the Queen, Elizabeth I, as well as a patron of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, was forced to write in a letter to the Mayor of London: “Where my now company of players have been accustomed … for the service of her majesty  …  to play …  at the Cross Keys in Gracious [Gracechurch] Street; these are to require and pray your lordship … to permit and suffer them to do so.  The which I pray you rather to do for that they have undertaken to me that … they will now …  have done between four and five and will not use any drums or trumpets at all for the calling of people together and shall be contributories to the poor of the parish where they play, according to their abilities”.  Additionally, in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, there were  numerous    actual attacks on playhouses and bawdy-houses, by bands of apprentices and others, on Shrove Tuesdays (the so-called “Shrove Tuesday Riots”).  John Chamberlain wrote in a letter to  Dudley Carleton in 1617: “On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, …  in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule, specially at a new playhouse, some time a cockpit, in Drury Lane, where the queen’s players used to play.  Though the fellows defended themselves as well as they could, and slew three of them with shot, and hurt divers, yet they entered the house and defaced it, cutting the players’ apparel into pieces, and all their furniture, and burnt their playbooks, and did what other mischief they could… .  There be divers of them taken since and clapped up, and I make no question but we shall see some of them hanged next week, as it is more than time they were”.  The  performance of plays was indeed temporarily banned by the Puritans in 1642, under an Act of Parliament forced through by them that read, in part:  “It is … thought fit, and Ordained, …  That, while these sad … Times …  do continue, Public Stage Plays shall cease, … instead of which are recommended … the profitable and seasonable considerations of Repentance, Reconciliation, and Peace with God, which probably may … bring again Times of Joy and Gladness to these Nations”.  The  ban was then reaffirmed in 1647, and made permanent in 1648, when the second and third measures for theatre closure, respectively,  were passed.  Note, though, that there is some evidence to suggest that plays continued to be performed illegally, for example, at the “Red Bull” in Clerkenwell.  The theatres only officially re-opened after the  Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.  After the Restoration, the  audiences’ tastes were mainly for bawdy comedies (note that the court at this time was notoriously dissolute).

London was   the home of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).   It was also the home of an extraordinary company of other Renaissance men and women:  the playwrights and/or poets Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), Edmund Spenser (1552-1599), John Lyly (1553-1606), Philip Sidney (1554-86), Anthony Munday (1560-1633) (who was also an anti-Catholic propagandist and a  “pursuivant”), Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), John Donne (1572-1631), Thomas Dekker (1572-1632), Ben Jonson (1572-1637), John Fletcher (1579-1625), Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), John Webster (1580-1634), Francis Beaumont (1584-1616), Mary Wroth (1587-1651), William Davenant (1606-68), John Milton (1608-1674), Thomas Killigrew (1612-83), Andrew Marvell (1621-78), John Bunyan (1628-1688), John Dryden (1631-1700), George Etherege (1636-92) and Aphra Behn (1640-89); the philosophers Thomas More (1478-1535) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626); the composers John Taverner (1490-1545), Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), William Byrd (1543-1623), John Dowland (1563-1626), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), William Webb (1600-57) and Henry Purcell (1659-95); the artists  Hans Holbein (1497-1543),   Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), John Bettes the Younger (c. 1550-1616), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Peter Lely (1618-80); and the architects Inigo Jones (1573-1652), Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736).    Interestingly, de Vere, Marlowe and Bacon have all been identified by one or other source as the authors of the works conventionally attributed to Shakespeare.    Note, though, that neither de Vere nor Marlowe could possibly have written “Macbeth”.  The play was written in 1606/7, and  contains an allusion  to the “equivocation” of Father Henry Garnet in the aftermath of the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605, by which time they were  both dead.


Shakespeare  was born and died in Stratford-upon-Avon, but spent almost the entirety of his productive working life in London, and in truth is much more a London than a Stratford figure.  He  is known to have arrived in London  sometime between 1585 and 1592,  and  to have lived in the parish of St Helen, near  “The Theatre” and the “Curtain” in Shoreditch, in 1596; in the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark, near   the “Globe”, in 1599;  and in the parish of St Olave Silver Street, a short walk and ferry-ride from the   “Globe”, in 1604; and also to have purchased  a property in Ireland Yard, near the “Second Blackfriars”, in 1613 (according to the Deed of Conveyance in the London Metropolitan Archives, which incidentally bears one of the few surviving examples of his signature, it cost him  £140, at a time when the average annual salary for a professional person was £20).  At least some of his  early  plays are known to have been performed in the “Rose”, by “Lord Strange’s Men”, in around 1592; in the “Theatre”, by the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, a troupe he both acted and wrote for, from 1594; and in the “Curtain”, also by the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”, from 1597 (after the twenty-one year lease on the “Theatre” had expired).  His later plays are known to have been performed in the “Globe”, by the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” and their successors the “King’s Men”, who owned it, from 1599; and in the “Second Blackfriars”, by the “King’s Men”, who owned it, from 1609.   Incidentally, as Ackroyd (2005) put it, in his marvellous “Shakespeare – The Biography”:  “Shakespeare did not need to address London directly … ; it is the rough cradle of all his drama”.  However, as Crawforth et al.  (2014) have suggested, in their thoughtful and thought-provoking “Shakespeare in London”, he may have indirectly referenced the violence of Tyburn in “Titus Andronicus”; the political machination of Whitehall in “Richard II”; the class distinction of the Strand in “Romeo and Juliet”; the legal machination of the Inns of Court in “The Merchant of Venice”; the religiosity of St Paul’s Cathedral in “Hamlet”; the madness of Bedlam in “King Lear”; the misery of imprisonment for debt in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark in “Timon of Athens”; the strange new world of the “cabinet of curiosity” on Lime Street in “The Tempest”; and the rich variety and cosmopolitanism of one of the first true World Cities in the form of an ever-present back-drop: the City was the World, in Microcosm.  Moreover, he did set one of his most famous scenes here, in Ely Palace: that in “Richard II” in which John of Gaunt utters the immortal words: “This royal throne of Kings, this sceptr’d isle,|This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,|This other Eden, demi-paradise,|This fortress built by Nature for herself|Against infection and the hand of war,|This happy breed of men, this little world,|This precious stone set in the silver sea,|Which serves it in the office of a wall,|Or as a moat defensive to a house,|Against the envy of less happier lands,|This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.   


Shakespeare’s sometime mentor  Christopher or Kit Marlowe was a  poet and playwright of the Elizabethan era, best known for the “mighty line” of his blank verse, and for his plays “Dido, Queen of Carthage”, “Tamburlaine the Great”, “The Jew of Malta”, “Doctor Faustus”, “Edward II” and “The Massacre at Paris”, many of which premiered at the “Rose”, and indeed are still performed on the site to this day.  Marlowe was a colourful character, an avowed lover of tobacco and boys, a supposed spy, and a sometime resident of the Liberty of Norton Folgate, where a warrant was once issued for his arrest.  In 1593, he  was fatally stabbed in a tavern in Deptford, apparently in a dispute over the bill, and is buried in the nearby church of St Nicholas.  His  death is alluded to in his friend Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” as “a great reckoning in a little room”. 


Benjamin or Ben Jonson was  a playwright and poet of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, best known for his satirical plays “Every Man In His Humour”, “Volpone”, “The Alchemist” and “Bartholomew Fair”, and for his associations with the “Curtain” and “Hope” (his so-called “lost” play, “The Isle of Dogs”, performed at the “Swan”, earned him a brief spell in the Marshalsea Prison by way of its  libellous  and seditious content).  He himself, though, wrote that  his “best piece of poetry” was his first son, also Benjamin, who died of the plague in 1603, aged just seven.  Jonson senior is buried – famously, upright – in Westminster Abbey. 

It seems that Jonson and his friends, possibly  including Shakespeare and Marlowe, were wont of an evening to gather at the “Mermaid Tavern” in Bread Street, for what we might now call  a  “bard-off”.  Beaumont memorably wrote of the exchanges that took place there: “What things have we seen|Done at the Mermaid!  Heard words that have been|So nimble, and so full of subtle flame|As if that every one from whence they came|Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,|And had resolv’d to live a fool the rest|Of his dull life … ”. 


Milton was a metaphysical poet, man of letters and sometime statesman of the slightly later Caroline, Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration eras.  He is best known now as the author of the epic poem “Paradise Lost”, published in 1667, which Samuel Johnson argued “with respect to design may claim the first place … among the productions of the human mind”.  During the Civil War and Commonwealth, though, he was known as the author of a number of – non-fiction – prose works  opposing  the monarchy and episcopacy, and supporting Republican and Parliamentarian causes.  These included the polemical “Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” and “Eikonoklastes” (a counter-blast to “Eikon Basilike”, popularly attributed to Charles I himself), both published in 1649; and “Defensio pro Populo Anglico”, published in 1652 (“First Defence”) and 1654 (“Second Defence”).  His Republicanism led to his arrest and temporary imprisonment after the Restoration, his release being secured by, among others, Andrew Marvell (then a Member of Parliament).  He is buried in the church of St Giles Cripplegate, half a mile  from his birthplace on Bread Street.

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn was a  playwright, poet and writer, not to mention sometime spy, of the Restoration Era (writing under the pastral pseudonym “Astrea”).  She is now known as much for her importance as a role model to later female writers as for her writings, which include “The Forc’d Marriage”, “Abdelazer”, “The Rover”, “Sir Patient Fancy”, “The Feigned Courtesans”, “The Roundheads”, ”The City Heiress”, “The Lucky Chance” and “The Emperor of the Moon”.   Interestingly, she was  not  the first woman in England to publish a play: Lady Elizabeth Cary, in 1613, and Margaret Cavendish, in the 1650s, both  accomplished this achievement  before her.  However, it is probably fair to say that she was more  influential than those who had gone before her.

London  was also an important centre of  publishing, of books, tracts, pamphlets, handbills, and, eventually, newspapers.  William Caxton’s apprentice  Wynkyn de Worde set up the first printing press in the City, at the sign of the “Sun”, on Shoe Lane, off Fleet Street, in 1500, publishing  his first book there the following year, in 1501.  The industry boomed almost from the start, and by 1640 there were 837  separate publishing businesses in London, most of the reputable ones in the area  around  Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill and St Paul’s, and  the less reputable ones  on Grub Street (now renamed Milton Street).  Foreign-language texts were published in French from the fifteenth century, in Greek from 1524, in Italian from 1553, in Spanish from 1594, and in Dutch from 1615; English-language newspapers, from 1621, and dailies, from 1702.  The Stationers’ Company was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1557.  In 1631, the Stationer  who published what became known as the  “Wicked Bible” – with the word “not” omitted from the Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – was fined was fined £500, and a copy of the offending book was  burned in front of the Company’s Hall.  The  Hall, in Stationers’ Hall Court, off Ludgate Hill, was burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, alongside a number of bookshops in nearby St Paul’s Churchyard and surrounding areas, and a large number of books removed to the cathedral for supposedly safe keeping.  The present  Hall was built on the same site in 1673 (and burned down during the Blitz of the Second World War, alongside a number of bookshops in Paternoster Row, and up to six million books).  Many important dramatic works of the English Renaissance, including some of Shakespeare’s, were published by the stationer Edward Allde (d. 1628), whose business was located at the “Long Shop” on Poultry, adjoining the church of St Mildred, and, from  1593, at the sign of the “Gilded Cup” on Fore Street.  Incidentally, the future  playwright, pageant-writer and “poet to the City” Anthony Munday  served as an apprentice to Allde in 1576-7.  The first complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays, collated after his death in 1616 by his fellow “King’s Men”  John Heminge and Henry Condell,  was published by the stationers Edward Blount and Isaac and William Jaggard in 1623, and is now colloquially known as the “First Folio”.  Heminge and Condell, who had been parishioners at the church of St Mary Aldermanbury, are commemorated on the bust to Shakespeare in Aldermanbury Square, the inscription on which reads in part as follows: “To the memory of John Heminge and Henry Condell, fellow actors and personal friends of William Shakespeare.  … To their disinterested affection the world owes all that it calls Shakespeare.  They alone collected his dramatic writings regardless of pecuniary loss and without the hope of any profit gave them to the world.  They thus merited the gratitude of mankind”.  The Jaggards’ place of business was at the sign of the “Half-Eagle and Key” in Barbican.  Incidentally, one of my distant ancestors,  Simon West (1614-79), was also a stationer, apprenticed to John Bull in 1629, and “made free by servitude” in 1636/7. He owned a shop under the sign of the “Blackamore’s Head” in Wood Street, off Cheapside, and was also a Warden of St Peter Westcheap, both of which were burned down in the Great Fire of 1666.  In 1647, he  wrote  a book about short-hand, entitled “Arts improvement or short and swift writing”.

It was the nourishing womb  of the English Renaissance. 


Dress underwent  something of a revolution in the post-Medieval period.  In Tudor times, during Henry VIII’s reign, in imitation of the King, men began to wear   elaborately embroidered and quilted “doublets”, over  short “breeches” and “hose”, and under short sleeveless “jerkins” and fur-trimmed three-quarter-length overgowns,  and feathered flat caps, and to at least attempt  to  convey  an image of masculinity  – emphasised by enormous “cod-pieces” (witness  any of the many reproductions of Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry of 1536 – the original  of which, housed in Whitehall Palace, was lost in a  fire in  1698).  Women began to wear figure-hugging corsets, and to convey an image of femininity.    

Statue of Elizabeth I

During Elizabeth I’s reign, women began to wear hooped, crinoline-like devices called “farthingales” under their gowns, which imparted flare, and enabled flounce; and increasingly elaborate “ruffs” around their necks (see the statue of  Elizabeth on the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West, dating to 1585). 

Memorial to Piero Capponi

Men also attempted, almost entirely unsuccessfully, to rock the  ruff look (see the memorial in the church of St Olave Hart Street to the Florentine merchant – and rumoured informant to Elizabeth’s spymaster Walsingham – Piero Capponi, who died of the plague in 1582).  Puritan men and women  dressed modestly and simply, and in sombre colours, although not always in black, as is often thought  (black dye was expensive, and mainly used in the manufacture of legal and clerical garb).    In  Stuart times, during James I’s reign, men began to wear buttoned tunics with high-standing collars in place of the previously fashionable ruffs, long boots in place of  shoes, long  coats, and high and pointed hats (see de Critz’s portrait of James of c. 1606   in the Dulwich Picture Gallery).  Women also began to wear high-standing collars in place of ruffs. 

Equestrian statue of Charles I

During   Charles I’s reign, men began to wear unbuttoned tunics with falling collars,  shirts, long breeches, short boots and cloaks (see le Sueur’s equestrian statue of Charles  of 1633 in Charing Cross).  “Cavaliers”   dressed extravagantly and flamboyantly, with   low hats  with wide brims and with or without plumed trims.  French-style  wigs became de rigueur – among men – in fashionable circles after the Restoration (Charles II had spent some time in exile  in France during the Republic). 


Pepys wrote in his diary in 1663 of one that his wig-maker Jervas had attempted to sell to him that had been “full of nits”!

1 thought on “Post-Medieval London, Pt. V – Social History contd.

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