Tag Archives: Bankside


Front Cover (0) - Copy

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History contd.

Entertainment and Culture

For the entertainment of the many and the edification of the few, there was at West Smithfield  archery, wrestling and cock-fighting, a weekly horse fair, and an annual Bartholomew Fair every August from the twelfth century, and there were also regular jousting tournaments from the fourteenth.  At   East Smithfield, there was  a further fair;  on Undershaft an annual May Fair; and on Cheapside further tournaments.

In the Tower of London, from the thirteenth century, there was, bizarrely, a menagerie of elephants, lions, bears and so on.


Louis IX of France presented Henry III with an African elephant in 1255, which became one of the prize exhibits in the menagerie, before it died  in 1257, likely of a surfeit of the red wine fed to it by its keeper, one Henri(cus) de Flor (surviving records indicate that the cost of transporting the elephant  to the Tower, building a special house for it there, and feeding it, was well over £50, at a time when a knight could live comfortably for a year on £15).  Visitors to the menagerie were allowed “free” entry if they presented the warders with a cat or dog to feed to the lions.  The polar  bear was able to feed itself by fishing  in the Thames (at the end of a long tether).


On Bankside in  Southwark, from the mid-fifteenth century, there was animal-baiting (the oldest record of the royal office of “Master of the Bears” is from 1484, which was during the reign of the last Plantagenet King, Richard III).  On Moorfields, in the winter, when the Walbrook froze over, which it evidently did repeatedly in the Medieval period, there was improvised ice-skating, as described  by Fitzstephen (“[T]he  younger crowd …  equip each of their feet with an animal’s shin-bone, attaching it to the underside of their footwear; using hand-held poles reinforced with metal tips, which they periodically thrust against the ice, they propel themselves along as swiftly as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a crossbow”).  And on the Thames, when it froze over, which it evidently did repearedly between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, impromptu “frost fairs”.  Records indicate that in all the river froze  over  nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895, becoming the site of “frost fairs” at least in  1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14.  Everywhere, all the time, there was drinking, gambling, and rough sport.  Repeated attempts were made over the years to ban football.  In 1314, the Mayor of London, Nicholas de Farndone, issued the following order: “And whereas there is great uproar in the City, through certain tumults arising from the striking of great footballs in the fields of the public, from which many evils perchance may arise, which may God forbid, we do command and do forbid, on the King’s behalf, on pain of imprisonment, that such game be practices from henceforth within the city … ”.  Also  wrestling within the bounds of St Paul’s!  An order issued in the fifteenth century read as follows: “That no manne ne childe, of what estate or condicion that he be, be so hardy as to wrestell, or make any wrestlyng, within the seintury ne the boundes of Poules, ne in non other open place within the Citee of London, up peyne of emprisonement of fourty days, & making fyn un-to the chaumbre after the discrecioun of the Mair & Aldermen”.  And, of course, there were  “stew-houses”, or brothels.  A set of “Ordinances for the Governance of the Stews” had to be issued as long ago as 1161, and a “Proclamation as to Street Walkers by Night, and Women of Bad Repute” in 1393.  The latter read in part as follows: “Whereas many and divers affrays, broils and dissensions have arisen in times past, and many men have been slain and murdered [!] by reason of the frequent resort of, and consorting with, common harlots … , we do by our command forbid … that any such women shall go about … the … city, … but they are  to keep themselves to the places thereunto assigned, that is to say, the Stews on the other side of the Thames [on Bankside in Southwark], and Cokkeslane [Cock Lane] … ”.

There were also, though, occasional royal spectacles, and civic ceremonials such as the Lord Mayor’s Show.  And miracle, mystery or morality plays, “holy plays, representations of miracles, which holy confessors have wrought, or representations of torments wherein the constancy of martyrs appeared”, from at least as long ago as the twelfth century; including the Creation and Passion performances  staged by the City clerks and apprentices  at the Clerks’ Well in Clerkenwell in the  fourteenth  and fifteenth.


And London was the home of the courtier, diplomat, bureaucrat, poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer (1342?-1400), and figured prominently in his famously bawdy and redolent works, which were originally written in Middle English; and of  his  fellow – “Ricardian” – poet and friend John Gower (1330-1408), the inventor of the iambic tetrameter (Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; Gower in Southwark Cathedral).  Chaucer was variously employed as a  “Varlet de Chambre” by Edward III,  between 1367-74; as the “Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides” by  Edward III and Richard II, between  1374-86; and as “Clerk of the King’s Works” by Richard II, between  1389-91 (he is also thought  to have studied Law at the Inner Temple, in c. 1366).  In the course of his employment, in 1373, he is thought to have come into contact with Petrarch and Bocaccio, and to have been introduced to Italian poetry, in Italy.  Between 1374-86, he would undoubtedly have met travellers from all over the country and continent at his then place of work at the Custom House on the river-front in Billingsgate, including those making the pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, some of them perhaps providing inspiration for the colourful characters he wrote about in the “Canterbury Tales”.  He would appear to have written “The House of Fame”, “The Legend of Good Women”, “Parlement of Foules”, and “Troilus and Criseyde”, and also at least to have begun to write  “The Canterbury Tales”, at this time, at his lodgings in Aldgate.  Earlier, in 1369, he had written   “The Book of the Duchess” in honour of his mentor John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche of Lancaster (who died of the plague that year).


Contemporary representations – most of them, it has to be acknowledged, of the rich –  indicate that the everyday dress of both men and women essentially throughout the Middle Ages consisted of various types of gown.  The materials from  which the gowns were made varied across society, with the wearing of expensive fabrics and furs restricted to the ruling classes, and that of cloth-of-gold to royalty, as stipulated by the so-called “Sumptuary Laws” (and the later “Acts of Apparel”).  Materials that have been found during the course of archaeological excavations in London include variously woven sheeps’ wool, goats’ hair, linen, silk and velvet; variously dyed with madder (shades of red), kermes (further shades of red), weld (yellow), woad (light blue), indigo (dark blue) and indigo purple.  The cuts varied both across society and through time, as a general rule tending to become   shorter and closer through time.


In the church of St Helen, there is a  memorial to the gentleman John (de) Oteswich and his  wife Mary, that is thought to date to the turn of the fourteenth and  fifteenth centuries.  It depicts John  wearing a long, loose gown with flared sleeves, of a type known as a “houppelande”, and also as carrying on his belt a short sword, on his left hip, and a sort of man-bag known as a “scrip” on his right.   And  Mary wearing a similar gown, covered by a “coat-hardie”, and a veiled head-dress or “wimple”.  The Medieval men and women of London were clearly concerned not only about their clothes, but also their hair, eyebrows, ears and nails, as evidenced by the discoveries  in archaeological excavations of diverse  accessories, including  girdles, buckles, strap-ends, mounts, brooches, buttons, lace chapes, pins, beads, chains, pendants, rings, bells, purses, cased mirrors, combs, cosmetic implements  and sets, and needle-cases.  The  physical evidence is supported  by literary sources – the Carpenter’s wife in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” plucked and darkened her eyebrows!


Throughout Europe, men’s shoes became increasingly elongated and pointed at the toe from the twelfth century to the fifteenth, to the extreme extent in the late fourteenth to fifteenth that the points had to be tied to the wearers’ legs to prevent  tripping!  Such shoes, known as “crakows” or “poulaines”, after Krakow in Poland,  became particularly popular in England after the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, though their wearing was subsequently  restricted to Lords, Esquires and Gentlemen by a “Sumptuary Law” in  1463, and eventually banned altogether in 1465 (an anonymous monk of Evesham wrote in 1394: “With this Queen there came from Bohemia into England those accursed vices … half a yard in length, thus it was necessary for them to be tied to the shin with chains of silver before they could walk with them”).  Fine  fourteenth-century examples  have  been found on the foreshore of the Thames near the second Baynard’s Castle, built in 1338, and the Royal Wardrobe, built in around 1361, that  would likely have been worn by high-status individuals  associated with one or other of these buildings (their impracticality would have ruled out their  use by working men).


“Bere-beyten on the Banke side” (1554)

A Medieval depiction of bear baiting

On this day in 1554, Henry Machyn wrote in his diary:

“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”.

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.


Bear-baiting  in Old London

A Medieval depiction of bear baiting

On this day in 1623, John Chamberlain 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.


“Great marvaile and fair grace of God” (fire at Shakespeare’s Globe, 1613)

4 - Shakespeare on Fire

On this day in 1613, the original “Globe” play-house on Bankside in Southwark burned down, after sparks from a theatrical cannon set its thatch alight during a performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry the Eighth”.    It was rebuilt in 1614, before falling into disuse sometime around 1642, when the performance of plays was banned by an Act of Parliament forced through by the Puritans; and was finally demolished in 1644, again by order of the Puritans.

Henry Wotton wrote of the fire in 1613, in a letter to Sir Edmund Bacon (reproduced in “Reliquiae Wottoniae”):

“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:

“[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”.

The 400th anniversary of the fire, in 2013,   was marked by the reconstructed “Globe” by a series of events on the theme of  “Shakespeare on Fire”.



On This Day In London History

On this day, December 9th, in London history …

“Bere-beyten on the Banke side” 

A Medieval depiction of bear baiting - Copy

In 1554, Henry Machyn wrote in his diary:

“The sam day at after-non was a bere-beyten on the Banke syde, and ther the grett blynd bere 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”.

Reversal of Fortune 

In 1621, the Fortune Theatre, built by “Good Master” Edward Alleyn in 1600, burnt down.

The site of the theatre is marked by a plaque on Fortune Street.

Fortune Theatre plaque - Copy

Both the theatre and Alleyn are commemorated in a stained glass window in the church of St Giles Cripplegate.

The Fortune Theatre (left) and Edward Alleyn (centre), St Giles Cripplegate - Copy

Readers interested in further information on the theatre and on the contemporary scene are referred to Julian Bowsher’s excellent recent book entitled “Shakespeare’s London Theatreland” (Museum of London Archaeology, 2012).


In 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“[T]o my chamber, and there begun to enter into this book my journal for September, which in the fire-time I could not enter here, but in loose papers”.