Category Archives: Post-Medieval

Experiences of the theatre in Post-Medieval London 

Thomas Platter

In  1599, Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to London, wrote:

“After dinner on the 21st of September, at about two o’clock, I went with my companions over the water [to Southwark], and in the strewn roof-house [?The 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”.


“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 … ”.

Others took  much less  favourable views of the theatres, and  of the  badly-behaved crowds that they attracted.

The Lord Mayor and Aldermen made repeated efforts to have them closed down, on one occasion petitioning the Privy Council as follows:

“We have signified to your Honours many times heretofore the great inconvenience which we find to grow by the common exercise of stage-plays.  We presumed to do so, … being persuaded … that neither in polity nor in religion are they to be suffered in a Christian commonwealth, … containing nothing but profane fables, lascivious matters, cozening devices, and scurrilous behaviours … .  Among other inconveniences it is not the least that they give opportunity to the … evil-disposed and ungodly people that are within and about this city to assemble themselves … for … lewd and ungodly practices … .  For avoiding whereof we are now again most humble and earnest suitors to your honours to direct … letters … to the justices of peace of Surrey and Middlesex for the present stay and final suppression of the said stage-plays, as well at the Theatre, Curtain and Bankside as in all other places in and about the city … ”.

Indeed, the theatres were eventually temporarily closed down by the Puritans in the 1640s to 1650s, during the  Civil War and succeeding Commonwealth and Protectorate, only reopening in the 1660s, after the Restoration of the Monarchy.


“The number of the plague the biggest yet” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)

1 - Lord have mercy on London

On this day in 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“But, Lord! What a sad time it is to see no boats upon the river; and grass grows all up and down White Hall court, and nobody but poor wretches in the streets! And, which is worst of all, the Duke [of Albemarle] showed us the number of the plague this week, … that it is encreased …  more than the last, which is quite contrary to our hopes and expectations, from the coldness of the late season.  For the whole general number is 8297, and of them of the plague 7165; which is more in the whole … than the biggest Bill [of Mortality] yet: which is very grievous to us all”.

The “Great Plague” was now killing over a thousand people a day, and  at its peak, and it had  grown so deathly quiet in London that throughout the City  the river  could be heard flowing under the nineteen arches of the old bridge.  The Plague eventually killed at least 70000 people in London, and possibly as many as 100000 – far more than the “Black Death” of 1348-9, although far fewer in proportion to the overall population.  The “Bills of Mortality” show that of the 70000 recorded Plague deaths, only 10000 were in the 97 parishes within the walls of the City  – possibly because a significant proportion  of those inhabitants who could afford to do so had fled to the country (see also September 5th posting).  The remaining 60000  Plague deaths were in the 16 parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey.  Stepney was the worst affected, with 6500 deaths.

A visit to the Tower (Frederic Gershow, 1602)

Philipp Julius, the Duke of Stettin-Pomerania.JPG

On this day in 1602, Frederic Gershow, the secretary to Philipp Julius, the Duke of Stettin-Pomerania, wrote, in his diary:

“[H]is princely Grace, having obtained permission, visited the Tower of London, an old but strong castle built by Julius Caesar [sic], where they keep the prisoners.  At first we were led into a long hall, full of harness, maybe for a hundred thousand men, as one might say; but this armour was not properly arranged, nor kept clean”.

Tower Armoury



“The Mortality is encreased” (1665)

1 - Lord have mercy on London

On this day in 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“[M]y finding that although the Bill [of Mortality] in general is abated, yet the City within the walls is encreased and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there.  My meeting dead corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day through the City in Fenchurch Street.  To see a person sick of the sores carried close by me by Grace-church in a hackney-coach.  My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up; and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower Stairs; and more than that, that the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago at night.  To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself.  To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water … is now dead of the plague.  … To hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick.  And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason”.

And  John Tillison wrote, in a letter to Dr Sancroft:

“Death stares us continually in the face in every infected person that passeth by us; in every coffin which is … carried along the streets.  … The custom was … to bury the dead in the night only; now, both night and day will hardly be time enough to do it.  … [L]ast week, … the dead was piled in heaps above ground … before either time could be gained or place to bury them.  The Quakers … have buried in their piece of ground [Bunhill Row] a thousand … .  Many are [also] dead in … other places about the town which are not included in the bill of mortality”.

The “Great Plague” was almost at  its peak.  It eventually killed at least 70000 people in London, and possibly as many as 100000 – far more than the “Black Death” of 1348-9, although far fewer in proportion to the overall population.  The “Bills of Mortality” show that of the 70000 recorded Plague deaths, only 10000 were in the 97 parishes within the walls of the City  – possibly because a significant proportion  of those inhabitants who could afford to do so had fled to the country.  The remaining 60000  Plague deaths were in the 16 parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey.  Stepney was the worst affected, with 6500 deaths.

The Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” for the Plague Year of 1665 are examined at  the church of All Hallows Staining on our “London Wall” standard walk, and on our “Tudor and Stuart London”, “Tudor and Stuart City highlights” and “Great Fire of London” themed specials.  The bulk of the church collapsed in 1671, the foundations undermined by plague burials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section.

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


The History and Psychogeography of Blackfriars

Psychogeography was defined by its founder, the Frenchman Guy Debord, as “the study of the … effects of the geographical environment … on the emotions … of individuals”.

It can also be taken to be an exploration, often literally, on foot, of what it is about a place that evokes a sense of place.

In Blackfriars, that is history: inescapable; and inextricable from that of London as a whole.  History, or, as Peter Ackroyd put it, “chronological resonance”, or “time … moved or swayed by some unknown source of power”.

For it is here that London may be said to have begun, nearly two thousand years, or a hundred generations, ago.  Here, at the lowest point on the Thames at which it was fordable and bridgeable.  Here, on the comparatively high, dry and defensible ground around Ludgate Hill (and, a little to the east, Cornhill).  Here,  where the Romans  founded Londinium, on  the damp maritime frontier of their vast continental empire, with easy access to the sea, and the overseas dominions, and yet at the same time close to the hinterland and heart of England.

1 - Barge.jpg

Here, on the “lost” Thames tributary of the Fleet, where all those centuries ago a Roman barge sank with its fifty-ton cargo of Kentish building stone still aboard.  Here is why London is where it is.

2 - Royal Wardrobe.JPG

Blackfriars first came to be fully developed  in the Medieval period, when the first and later second Baynard’s Castles, and, in between, the  King’s Wardrobe,  were built here …

3 - Poulaine

… and when a fashion victim lost his winkle-picker shoe, or “poulaine”, here (that can now be seen in the Museum of London).   The first Baynard’s Castle was demolished after its Constable was found to have been complicit in a baronial conspiracy against King John in the early thirteenth century …

4  - Plaque.JPG

… and the land was given over to allow construction in 1278  of the Blackfriars Priory, one of the largest and most important monastic houses in the country.   In 1322,  a  large number – possibly  hundreds – of needy poor people were reportedly crushed to death in a rush to beg alms  at the priory gates.

5 - Provincial's lodgings.JPG

Remarkably, given its later history, precious fragments of the stonework fabric of the priory still survive, and can still be seen and touched.

6 - Legatine Court.jpg

Nothing remains, though, at least above  modern ground level, of the Parliament Hall, where, in 1529,  Henry VIII appeared before the Legatine Court to petition for the  annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so as to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn.   The ultimate failure of the negotiations was to have far-reaching consequences for the church, and indeed for the entire country, of England, not the least of which was the Dissolution of the Monasteries, including that of the Blackfriars, which took place in 1538.

7 - Dissolution document.JPG

After the dissolution of the Blackfriars, at the beginning of what we now consider to be the post-Medieval period, its properties and lands were made use of as the King saw fit.

8 - Church Entry.jpg

The priory church came to be owned by his Master of the Revels, Thomas Cawarden, and part of it used as his Office.

9 - Playhouse Yard.JPG

A little later, in 1576, the Great Hall came to be adapted for use as the first Blackfriars Theatre; and, in 1600, the Parliament Hall, the scene of the aforementioned earlier real-life high drama, the second Blackfriars Theatre.  The second Theatre came to be owned by Shakespeare’s company, by then known as the “King’s Men”, in 1609, after the incumbent troupe of child-actors gave grave offence to the King, James I, during one of the performances they put on there in 1608.    Shakespeare evidently wrote some of his later plays, including “A Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest”, specifically for performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”, incorporating noticeably lengthier musical interludes, presumably designed to  keep the audience amused while the wicks on the lighting-candles were   trimmed midway through the performance.

10 - Gate-House.JPG

In 1613, according to the surviving Deed of Conveyance,  he bought for then princely sum of £140 a  “dwelling house or Tenement … within the Precinct, circuit and compasse of the late black Fryers London … ; part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate …”, presumably as an investment.

Essentially the entirety of Blackfriars, and indeed the greater part  of the City of London, was then burned down during the Great Fire of 1666 (the theatre by then already  having been closed down during the Civil War of 1642-51).

11 - Vestry Hall.JPG

The friendless church  of St Ann was never rebuilt, and the parish was united with that of St Andrew.

12 - Blitz

Most of what was rebuilt was burned down again during the Blitz of the Second World War, much of it during the so-called “Second Great Fire of London” on the night of 29th/30th December, 1940.

To walk in Blackfriars is to walk in history.  More than anything, it is to walk  in the footsteps of Medieval monks and lay persons; and   to inhabit, however briefly,  their spiritual as well as their physical world.

Blackfriars is visited on various of our walks, including the “Medieval London”, and “Medieval City Highlights”  themed specials.

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

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

The Battle of Flodden Field, and the bizarre tale of the King’s Head (1513)

St Michael Wood Street

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Flodden Field, one of the bloodiest ever fought on British soil, between the English and the Scots, which took place in 1513.  According to Stow, in his “Survay of London written in the Year 1598”, sometime after the battle, the decapitated head of the defeated Scottish King, James IV, ended up being buried in  the church of St Michael, Wood Street, just off Cheapside (*). The church was later  burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt  by Christopher Wren between 1670-75, and modified  in 1887-88, only to be demolished in 1897. Nothing remains of it at its former site, now occupied by a public house – called not the “King’s Head” but the  “Red Herring”!

(*) The relevant part of the text reads more-or-less in full as follows:

“There is …  , … without any outward monument, the head of James, the fourth king of Scots of that name, slain at Flodden field, and buried here by this occasion: After the battle the body of the said king being found, was enclosed in lead, and conveyed … to the monastery of Shene in Surrey … .  Since the which time workmen there, for their foolish pleasure, hewed of his head; and Lancelot Young, master glazier to her majesty [Elizabeth I], … seeing the same dried from all moisture, and yet the form remaining, with the hair of the head, and beard red, brought it to London to his house in Wood Street, where for a time he kept it … , but in the end caused the sexton of that church to bury it amongst other bones … ”.

My City of Ruins (Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and William Taswell, 1666)


On this day in 1666, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“Up by five o’clock; and, blessed be God! find all well; and by water to [Paul’s] Wharfe.  Walked thence, and saw all the towne burned, and a miserable sight of Paul’s church, with all the roofs fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St Fayth’s; Paul’s school also, Ludgate, and Fleet Street. My father’s house, and the church, and a good part of the Temple the like.”

And went on to write, equally if not more fretfully:

“I home late to Sir W. Pen’s, who did give me a bed … ; … but still both sleeping and waking had a fear of fire in my heart, that I took little rest.  People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity of my Lord Mayor in … this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.  A proclamation is come out for markets to be kept at Leadenhall and … several other places about the town; and Tower Hill, and all churches to be set open to receive poor people”.

John Evelyn wrote:

“I wente this morning on foote from White hall as far as London bridge, thro the Late fleete streete, Ludgate hill, by St Paules, Cheape side, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate, & out to Morefields, thence thro Cornehill, &c; with extraordinary difficulty, clambring over mountains of yet smoking rubbish, & frequently mistaking where I was, the ground under my feet so hot, as made me not only Sweate, but even burnt the soles of my shoes … : in the meane time his Majestie got to the Tower by Water, to demolish the houses about … which …  had they taken fire, & attaq’d the white Towre, where the Magazines of Powder lay, would undoubtedly have not onely … destroyed  all the bridge, but sunke … all the vessels in the river, & renderd … demolition …  even …  at many miles distance:

At my return I was infinitely concerned to find that goodly Church of St Paules now a sad ruine, & that beautiful Portico (for structure comparable to any in Europe, as not long before repaird by the late King) now rent in pieces, flakes of vast Stone Split in sunder, & nothing remaining intire but the Inscription of the Architrave which …  had not one letter of it defac’d: which I could not but take notice of: It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heat had in a manner Calcin’d, so as all the ornaments, Columns, freezes, Capitels & projectures of massie Portland stone flew off, even to the very roofe, where a Sheete of Leade covering no lesse than 6 akers by measure, being totally mealted, the ruines of the Vaulted roof, falling brake into St Faithes, which being filled with …  books … belonging to the Stationers … carried thither for safty, they were all consumed burning for a week following: It is also observable, that the lead over the Altar …  was untouch’d: and among the divers monuments, the body of one Bishop, remained intire.

Thus lay in ashes that most venerable Church, one of the antientest Pieces of early Piety in the Christian world, beside neere 100 more: The lead, yronworke, bells, plate &c all mealted: the exquisitely wrought Mercers Chapell, the Sumptuous Exchange, the august fabrique of Christ church, all the rest of the Companies Halls, sumptuous buildings, Arches, Enteries, all in dust.  The fountains dried up & ruind, whilst the very waters remained boiling; the Voragos of subterranean Cellars, Wells & Dungeons, formerly Warehouses, still burning in stench & dark clouds of smoke like hell, so as in five or six miles traversing about, I did not see one load of timber unconsum’d, nor many stones but were calcind white as snow, so as the people who now walked about the ruines, appeard like men in some dismal desart, or rather in some greate City, lay’d waste by an impetuous & cruel Enemy …

Sir Tho: Greshams Statue, though falln to the ground from its nich in the R: Exchange remain’d intire, when all those of the Kings since the Conquest were broken to pieces: also the Standard in Cornehill, & Q: Elizabeths Effigies, with some armes on Ludgate continud with but little detriment, whilst the vast yron Chaines of the Cittie streets, vast hinges, barrs & gates of Prisons were many of them mealted, & reduc’d to cinders by the vehement heats: nor was I yet able to pass through any of the narrower streets, but kept to the widest, the ground & aire, smoake & fiery vapour, continued so intense, my hair being almost seinged … : … nor could one have possibly knowne where he was, but for the ruines of some church, or hall, that had some remarkable towre or pinnacle remaining … ”.

And the  schoolboy William Taswell, on encountering the body of  one of the few recorded victims of the fire:

“Soon after sunrising I endeavoured to reach St Paul’s.  The ground was so hot as almost to scorch my shoes; and the air so intensely warm that unless I had stopped some time upon the Fleet Bridge to rest myself, I must have fainted … .  … And now … I perceived the metal belonging  to the bells melting; the ruinous conditions of the walls; whole heaps of stone of a large circumference tumbling down with a great noise … , ready to crush he to death.  [N]ear the east walls … a human body presented itself to me, parched up, as it were, with the flames; whole as to skin, meagre as to flesh, yellow as to colour.  This was an old decrepit woman who fled here for safety, imagining the flames could not have reached her …  . Her clothes were burned, and evry limb reduced to a coal”.

“The Great Fire of London and its aftermath” is the theme of one of our special walks.

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 (