Tag Archives: John Chamberlain

“The Fatall Vesper”, or “A pittiful accident in the black friers” (John Chamberlain, 1623)

A contemporary engraving of the accident in Blackfriars

In  1623, John Chamberlain wrote in a  letter to Dudley Carleton:

“The next day after I wrote last  here fell out a pittiful incident in the black friers, where the papists had hired a house next to the French Ambassadors (that so they might be as it were under his protection) to hold …  masse, … and perform all other their exercises and rites after the Romish manner; a great multitude being met there on the 26th of the last month [October] to heare father Drurie a famous Jesuit among them preach in an upper roome, the floore sunke under them, or rather the beames and joystes not able to bear the weight brake in the midst.  Many [possibly as many as one hundred] perished, partly battered and bruised, but for the most part smothered, for the first floore fell with such violence that it brake down a second under it.  A number were hurt …, which found little helpe or comfort at first, our people being growne so savage … that they refused to assist them … in their necessitie, but rather insulted upon them with taunts and gibes in their affliction …, but there was as much goode … to represse the insolencie and inhumanitie of the multitude, and for reliefe of the distressed”.

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”.



Shrove Tuesday riots (John Chamberlain, 1617)


On this day in 1617, a riot took place in London, as described in a letter written by John Chamberlain  to Sir Dudley Carleton, as follows:

Bawdy House in 17th Century England

“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.








“Moll Cut-purse, a notorious baggage” (John Chamberlain, 1612)

The Roaring Girle

On this day in 1612, John Chamberlain wrote:

“This last Sunday Moll Cut-purse, a notorious baggage (that used to go into man’s apparel and challenged the field of diverse gallants) was brought to [Paul’s Cross], where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk. Being discovered to have tippled off three quarts of sack before she came to her penance”.

Moll Cut-purse, whose real name was Mary Frith, was  the model for Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s “The Roaring Girle”, written in 1611.

“The Thames is quite frozen over” (John Chamberlain, 1608)

Frost fair diorama, Globe Theatre

In the January of  1608, the Thames froze over  in London, as described  in a letter written on this day, by  John Chamberlain  to Sir Dudley Carleton, as follows:

“Above Westminster the Thames is quite frozen over and the Archbishop came from Lambeth on Twelfthday over the ice to the court.  Many fantastical experiments are daily put in practice, as certain youths burnt a gallon of wine upon the ice and made all the passengers partakers.  But the best is of an honest woman (they say) that had a great longing to have her husband get her with child upon the Thames”.

Further records indicate that the Thames  froze  over  in London nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895.

John Chamberlain

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”!


Cutting his nose off to spite his face (John Chamberlain)

Sir Ralph Winwood

Sir Ralph Winwood

On 10th March 1613, John Chamberlain wrote in a letter to Sir Ralph Winwood:

“[A]n odd fray … happened much about that time near the Temple, ‘twixt one Hutchison of Grays-Inn and Sir German Pool; who, assaulting the other upon Advantage, and cutting off two of his Fingers, besides a wound or two before he could draw, the Gentleman finding himself disabled to revenge himself by the Sword, flew in upon him, and getting him down, tore away all his Eyebrow with his Teeth, and then seizing on his Nose, tore away all of it, and carried it away in his Pockett”.

Ear attack, Temple Church! (Soul in torment)

Ear attack, Temple Church! (Soul in torment)

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”.

Dudley CarletonMost of the nearly 500 that still survive were written to Sir Dudley Carleton, who, like the aforementioned Sir Ralph Winwood, went on to become Secretary of State.