Bawdy House in 17th Century England — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
According to the endlessly fascinating “A London Year” by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison, a riot took place in London on this day in 1617. Four days later John Chamberlain described the event in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton, as follows:
“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”.
It was not an isolated event. Between 1606 and 1641, there were a total of 24 such Shrove Tuesday riots, generally targeting “bawdy-houses”. And on Tuesday March 24th, 1668, there was another particularly large one, involving tens of thousands of the populace, and described by Samuel Pepys in his diary.
John Chamberlain, who lived from 1553/4-1628, and was baptised and buried in the church of St Olave Jewry in the City of London, is best known now as the author of a large number of letters written between 1597-1626, that “constitute the first considerable body … in English history and literature that the modern reader can easily follow”.
Most of the nearly 500 that still survive were written to Sir Dudley Carleton while he was serving as an ambassador in Venice and The Hague, and were evidently intended to keep the ambitious diplomat abroad informed of events – especially those befalling “the better sort of people” – at home (incidentally, Carleton went on to become Secretary of State). The letters contain descriptions of such important events in Elizabethan and Jacobean history as the trial of the Earls of Essex and Southampton in 1601, the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, the trial of the Earl and Countess of Somerset in 1615, and the execution of Sir Walter Ralegh in 1618. They also contain much court, City and country tittle-tattle (“who’s in, who’s out”), picked up, no doubt, in St Paul’s Cathedral, which at the time had a reputation as the fount of all such – it appears that Chamberlain was an inveterate “Paul’s walker”!