Category Archives: Post-Medieval

Bear-baiting  in Old London

A Medieval depiction of bear baiting

On this day in 1623, John Chamberlain (see also January 8th posting) wrote in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton:

“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”.

The Swiss visitor Thomas Platter had written of the practice of bear-baiting earlier, in 1599:

“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 … .  The bears’ teeth were not sharp so to they could not injure the dogs; they have them broken short.  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”.

And Henry Machyn, in 1554:

 “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”.

The barbaric practice of animal-baiting began at least as long ago as the Middle Ages: the oldest record of the royal office of “Master of the Bears” is from 1484, during the reign of the last Plantagenet King, Richard III.

Bear Gardens - Copy.JPG

The old  animal-baiting arenas on Bankside in   Southwark eventually closed down in the late 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.


Lady Jane Grey accedes  to   the throne (Henry Machyn, 1553)

The so-called Streatham Portrait, believed to be a copy of a contemporary portrait of Lady Jane Grey

Henry Machyn wrote in his diary in 1553:

“The ix day of July was sworne unto the qwen Jane [Grey] … doythur of the duke of Suffolke …

The x day of July was reseyved in the Towre [Jane] with a grett company of lords and nobulls … and the duches of Suffoke her mother, bering her trayn, … and ther was a shot of gunnes … and the proclamasyon … [of] qwen Jane … and a trumpet blohyng …”.

Machyn is now best known as a diarist or chronicler (see March 17th posting).  His  Diary contains descriptions of such  important events in history as the Reformation, and the conversion of the country to Protestantism, under Henry VIII, and the reversion to Catholicism under Henry’s daughter Mary [Tudor].

The Sweating Sickness in Tudor London (Edward VI, 1551)

On this day in 1551, the boy-King, Edward VI wrote:

“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”.

The 1551 outbreak  of the sweat, also known as the sweating sickness, “carried off many people both noble and commoners”, as Henry Machyn put it (see also July 6th, 2013 posting).

On July 14th of that year, the disease caused the death of Henry Brandon, the Second Duke  of Suffolk, aged fifteen, and only an hour later that of his younger brother Charles, the  Third Duke, aged thirteen or fourteen, at the Bishop of Lincoln’s Palace near Huntingdon, where they had fled in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the epidemic.

There were notable outbreaks in England in 1485, 1507, 1517 and 1528-9 as well as 1551, after which last date the disease disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as it had appeared, never to return.  Even at the time, it was recognised as distinct from the other deadly diseases of the time, such as the ague or tertian or quartan fever (malaria) and the plague.  Contemporary descriptions by Edward Hall and the physician Thomas Forestier in 1485, and  by the physician John Kaye or Caius in 1552, chart the symptoms as progressing from a sense of apprehension, through  sometimes violent shivering accompanied by severe aches and pains, to   “a … burnyng sweate … : by the tormentyng and vexacion of which … men were so sore handled … that if they were layed in their bed, being not hable to suffre the importunate heat, they cast away the sheets & all the clothes” and “an insaciable thirst”,  delirium, and eventually, after a matter of hours, either death (“all … after yelded up their ghost”),  or in some cases (“not one emongest an hundreth”) a  gradual but complete recovery.  It is possible that the disease killed Arthur Tudor at Ludlow Castle in 1502, while sparing  his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who went on to marry his brother, by then King Henry VIII, in 1509.

Modern epidemiologists have suggested that the sweating sickness may  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).

A letter from the Recorder of London to William Cecil, the First Baron Burghley (1585) 


On this day in 1585, the Recorder of London, William Fleetwood, wrote in a letter to William Cecil, the First Baron  Burghley or Burleigh (*).

“[W]e … did spend the daie … searching out … sundrye that were receptors of ffelons … .  Amongst our travells this one matter tumbled owt by the waye, that one Wotton a gentilman borne, and sometyme a marchauntt man of good credyte, who falling by tyme into decaye, kept … neere Byllingesgate … a schole howse sett upp to learne younge boyes to cut purses.  There were hung up two devises, the one … a pockett, the other … a purse.  The pockett had yn it certen cownters and was hunge abowte with hawkes bells … ; and he that could take owt a cownter without any noyse, was allowed to be a … ffoyster: and he that could take a peece of silver owt of the purse … was adjudged a … Nypper.  Nota that a ffoister is a Pick-pockett, and a Nypper … a Pickepurse, or a Cutpurse”.

(*) A statesman and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I through much of her reign.

Shakespeare’s Two Playhouses


I am currently greatly enjoying reading “Shakespeare’s Two Playhouses” by Sarah Dustagheer (Cambridge University Press, 2017) …

The two performance spaces in question are the “Globe” playhouse on Bankside in Southwark, and the less well-known – Second – “Blackfriars” in the City.

The “Blackfriars” was purpose- built or -adapted  by James and Richard  Burbage in 1596-1600, on the site of the Parliament Hall of the dissolved Blackfriars Priory (*).  It was a covered theatre, and was able to be used by theatre companies throughout the year, including in the  winter,  when the open-air “Globe” playhouse  was rendered unusable by bad weather.   It 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 much less (1d a head)).  In time, the theatre became extremely popular with the fashionable set, and equally profitable.    In 1608, it came to be part owned by Shakespeare’s acting company,  “the “King’s Men” (formerly the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”), and became, with the “Globe”, their joint home.  The theatre was eventually closed down by the Puritans in 1642; and demolished in 1655.

On a plot adjoining the reconstructed Elizabethan “Globe” on Bankside is a modern replica of a Jacobean theatre,  named the “Wanamaker”.  Its design was in part based on a set of plans once – although no longer – thought to have been of the “Second Blackfriars”, and its interior conveys a real sense of what that theatre 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 reflecting costume jewellery.  And, perhaps even more particularly,  of being surrounded by sound, and in interludes by the sound of music.  Note in this context that the music in certain of Shakespeare’s later  plays, such as  “A Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest”, was not only well suited to, but probably also  specifically written for, performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”.

(*) Here in  1529 an earlier  high drama was enacted when the  Legatine Court, under  the Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, and King Henry VIII’s representative, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey,  met  to discuss Henry’s   proposed divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – eventually ruling against any such action.

The execution of Sir Thomas More (1535)

3 - Holbein's portrait of More

On this day in 1535, the former Lord Chancellor, also lawyer, humanist, social philosopher, author (of “Utopia”) and “Man for All Seasons” Sir, now Saint,  Thomas More was beheaded on  Tower Hill  for High Treason,  for refusing to take an oath acknowledging the King, Henry VIII, rather than the Pope, as the Supreme Head of the Church in England (being  “the king’s good servant, but God’s first”).

His son-in-law William Roper wrote of the event:

“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, which was so weake that it was readie to fall, 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 … ”.

More’s  headless corpse was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.  His head was put on a pike on London Bridge.  It was later retrieved by his daughter Meg Roper, the wife of William, and buried in the Roper family vault in the church of St Dunstan in Canterbury.

1 - Plaque marking site of More's birthplace on Milk Street

2 - Plaque marking site of More's execution on Tower Hill.jpg

There are plaques in the City marking the sites of More’s birth on Milk Street and of his death on Tower Hill.

4 - Statue of More on Carey Street

5 - Statue of More outside Chelsea Old Church

6 - Memorial to More in Chelsea Old Church.JPG

There are  also statues of him to the west of the City, one on Carey Street just off Chancery Lane, and another outside Chelsea Old Church; and a  memorial to him inside Chelsea Old Church.

7 - The rebuilt Crosby Hall in Chelsea.JPG

Crosby Hall, where he lived between 1523-4, was moved from its past location in Bishopsgate to its present one opposite Chelsea Old Church in 1910.

The Tower of London, where More was executed, is visited, although not entered, on our “London Wall” and “Tower to Temple” standard walks, and on our “Medieval London”, “Medieval City Highlights”, “Tudor and Stuart London”, “Tudor and Stuart City Highlights” and “Rebellious London”   themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (

A description of Whitehall Palace (Baron Waldstein, 1598)

The Banqueting House.JPG

On this day in 1598, the Moravian aristocrat and gentleman-traveller Baron Waldstein wrote in his diary, on a visit to London:

“We … went into the royal residence known as … White Hall.  It is truly majestic, bounded on the one side by a park which adjoins another palace called St James’s, and on the other side by the Thames, and it is a place which fills one with wonder, not so much because of its great size as because of the magnificence of its … rooms which are furnished with the most gorgeous splendour.

First you come to a vast hall which leads through into a very large walled garden where they keep deer and all kinds of other animals.  We then went to see the rooms, every one of them furnished and arranged with perfect taste and elegance, with all sorts of statues and pictures to add to their beauty …

There is … a portrait of Edward VI in 1546 at the age of nine – note the artist’s ingenuity in perspective …

Another room has … some very rich hangings.

A portrait here shows Queen Elizabeth when she was still young, in the dress which she wore when going to attend Parliament …

In another place we saw … the Queen’s couch which is woven with gold and silver thread … .  The Queen’s bed-chamber has rich tapestries all around: The adjoining room is reserved for the Queen’s bath: the water pours from oyster shells … .  In the next room there is an organ on which two persons can play duets … .

The next room to this was the one where the Queen keeps her books, some of which she wrote herself …

From here we were taken into a large and lofty banqueting hall …

In another room Henry VII and Henry VIII and their wives are painted … ”.

The site of Whitehall Palace, which was substantially destroyed in a fire in 1698, is visited on our “St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey” standard walk, and on our “Tudor and Stuart London” themed special.

Inigo Jones's plan for the Banqueting Jouse

The  surviving  incarnation of the Banqueting House, designed by Inigo Jones for James I in 1622, and notable as the first Renaissance building in London, is also visited on our “Rebellious London” themed special (it being outside this building that Charles I was executed in 1649).

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (