The neighbourhood

What would you have seen, and who might you have met, if you were walking in and around Silver Street on a day in 1604?

Standing at the front door of the Mountjoys’ house there were three directions in which you might go (that is one of the desirable things about corner-houses). To your right, across the other side of Muggle or Monkwell Street, was the last western stretch of Silver Street, before it veered off southwards into Noble Street. Here stood the grandest house in the immediate neighbourhood, Windsor House, formerly known as Neville’s Inn. Stow calls it a ‘great house builded of stone and timber’. The Neville family, Earls of Westmorland, had owned it in medieval times, before it passed to the Windsor family by marriage. Henry, 5th Lord Windsor was the incumbent in Shakespeare’s day - he features as Lord ‘Windser’ or ‘Windzer’ in the parish register. His wife Ann was a Wiltshire squire’s daughter. Baptisms of some of their children are recorded, but it is noted they were ‘baptized in his house’, rather than at the church: there was probably a small chapel there. In June 1600 an infant daughter, Grizzel - the contemporary form of Griselda - was buried at the church. Lord Windsor does not seem to have done anything very memorable. In 1600 an amorous clergyman’s wife, Alice Blague, had hopes of becoming his mistress. In 1601 he was one of the peers who sat at the arraignment of the Earl of Essex. On his death in 1605, aged about forty-three, Parliament ordered the sale of some of his lands to pay his debts. Windsor House was probably sold, for it seems it was later owned by Sir David Fowles.15

To the south of Windsor House was a large walled garden. At the top of Noble Street, says Stow, ‘ye come to the stone wall which incloseth a garden plot before the wall of the city’. He gives its length as ‘95 elles’ - an ell (an old English word for the arm, still discernible in ‘elbow’) was about 45 inches, so Lord Windsor’s garden was over a hundred yards long. This stone wall is shown in the Agas map. Looking west down Silver Street from the Mountjoys’ front door it would seem you were in a cul-de-sac. You were not, because you could turn south down Noble Street, but that is how it would seem, as your eye met His Lordship’s garden wall built across the line of the street.

We touch here an older part of the street’s story, for this wall was only the latest of the obstructions blocking the western end of the street. Excavations have shown that in Saxon and early medieval times Silver Street led out through the city walls: a minor gateway between the proper city gates of Cripplegate and Aldersgate. Around the twelfth century this exit was progressively blocked off. It was first made impassable to wagons, then later to pedestrians.16 The street became quieter, no longer a thoroughfare. It was after this closure, probably, that it became known as Silver Street - the earliest record of the name, ‘Selvernstrate’, dates from 1279. Before that it was merely the western continuation of Addle Street, the derivation of which is from Anglo-Saxon adel, ‘cow dung’. It was a drover’s road, a short-cut leading west to the great cattle-market of Smithfield. With the blocking of the exit through the walls this usage desisted, making the street more desirable to residents and craftsmen, among them the metal-workers who give the street its new name, and whose presence in the medieval period is evident from archaeological remains. This is the first rise in the respectability of the street that was once just a stretch of Dung Street.

Across the street from the Mountjoys’ house stood the small churchyard of St Olave’s.17 Its area was about 330 square yards, considerably less than Lord Windsor’s garden across the way. The combination of the two makes the immediate prospect from the Mountjoys’ front door a pleasantly leafy one. The church itself stood at the western end of the churchyard, abutting on to Noble Street. The dedication, sometimes miswritten ‘Olive’s’, is to the Norwegian king Olaf II, or Olaf Haraldsson, who fought in England against the Danes in the early eleventh century, and was canonized for converting Norway to Christianity. This suggests a Viking origin for the church, though the earliest record of it is twelfth century. There were other St Olaves in the city (on Hart Street and Bread Street, and in the Jewry) and another across the river in Southwark.

Stow passes the church with scarcely a glance - ‘the parish church of St Olave in Silver Streete, a small thing and without any noteworthy monuments’. This insignificance tends to be confirmed by the Agas map, which does not specify the church at all (most of the city churches are represented with a tower, and some are identified by a keyed numeral). The church was perhaps in poor repair when Shakespeare knew it, for in 1609 it was demolished and rebuilt.18 But though it was small and scruffy, St Olave’s possessed a peal of bells: there are records of payments for ringing the bells on Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

Shakespeare would have worshipped there - a statement which says nothing about his religious feelings or lack of them: regular attendance at church was compulsory, and shirkers were fined. The minister was John Flint, a Cambridge graduate a few years younger than Shakespeare. His college, Christ’s, had a strong tinge of Puritanism, and his reputation there as a ‘great preacher’ suggests he was of that tendency. It was Flint who officiated at the wedding of Mary Mountjoy, and at the burial of her mother, and it is his fluent hand which records these events in the parish register, on the cover of which he wrote shortly after his arrival:

St Olave in Sillver streete 

The Register of this Parishe, truely 

transcripte, or copied out by me John 

fflinte minister and Parson thereof 

in the yeare of our L. God 159319

Opposite the churchyard the narrower Monkwell Street ran northwards towards Cripplegate. You might turn this way if you were in search of fresh air and leisure activities beyond the walls, or indeed if you were headed for the playhouses and pleasure-dens of Shoreditch, north-east across Moorfields (though Shakespeare’s own connection with the northern playhouses was now past).

On the left-hand side, Monkwell Street was dominated by the hall and gardens of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company. In medieval times the barber and the surgeon (or ‘chirurgeon’) were one and the same - a man skilled with a razor and other cutting accessories. Gradually the occupations separated, as surgery became more ambitious in the wake of Renaissance anatomical study, but barbers continued to perform minor surgical and dental operations, particularly ‘blood-letting’ or phlebotomy. The red and white barber’s pole, still seen outside old-fashioned hairdressers, refers to the blood and tourniquet of phlebotomy. Actual surgery, with little in the way of antiseptic or anaesthetic, was alarmingly hit-or-miss. Here is the procedure for removing a bladder-stone, as described by the diarist John Manningham in 1601:

There is a seame in the passage of the yard [penis] neere the fundament, which the surgeons searche with a crooked instrument concaved at one end (called a catheter), whereinto they make incision and then grope for the stone with another toole which they call a duckes bill. Yf the stone be greater than may be drawne forth at the hole made by the seame, the partie dyes for it.20

In Shakespeare’s day the Barbers’ Hall, as it was generally called, lay further east than its later manifestations (post-Fire and post-Blitz), and more or less fronted on to Monkwell Street. It consisted of a large single room, or hall, with a kitchen and other domestic offices for the serving of dinners. In 1605 the company bought up land behind the Hall, formerly let to Lord Windsor, and added a courtroom. The famous circular anatomy theatre next to the city walls, designed by Inigo Jones on the model of the teatro at Padua, was not built until the 1630s, but dissections were performed at the Hall long before that.21 A painting of about 1580 (see Plate 10) shows the Elizabethan surgeon John Banister delivering the ‘Visceral Lecture’ - one of four lectures held at the Hall every year, open to freemen of the Company and their guests. He points to a skeleton, beside which there is an open medical text; in front of him there is a body undergoing dissection. Banister himself lived on Silver Street, as he tells us in the preface of his Antidotarie Chyrurgicall (1589), but as he died in 1599 he was not co-resident with Shakespeare.22 The burials of bodies used for dissection - traditionally the cadavers of executed criminals - are recorded in the St Olave’s register: Henry Stanley, ‘anatomized by the chirurgeons’; Katherine Whackter, ‘anatomised by Dr Pallmer’, and so on. One thinks of King Lear:

Let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her heart ... (3.6.34-5)

Let me have surgeons! 

I am cut to th’ brains . . . (4.5.188-9)

The Dr Pallmer who dissected the body of Katherine Whackter on 17 June 1600 is Richard Palmer, a leading physician of the day. A former Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, he was licensed by the Royal College of Physicians in 1593, elected a Fellow in 1597, and Censor in 1599 (and several times thereafter). ln a Treswell survey of 1612 he is shown as the owner of a property on Monkwell Street adjoining the Barber-Surgeons’ lands; it was perhaps here that these anatomies were performed. In that year Dr Palmer was one of the physicians attending the dying Prince Henry, along with his neighbour Dr John Giffard, of whom more below. He died in 1625, his will describing him as a resident of St Olave’s parish.23

There was another fine garden at Barbers’ Hall. It is first mentioned in the Company annals in 1555, when the clerk was given an allowance for maintaining it. A later entry refers to purchases of a hundred sweet briars for a hedge, together with strawberries, rosemary, violets and vines. The latter were probably for producing verjuice (juice from unripe grapes for pickling and cooking) rather than wine.

The Barber-Surgeons’ garden is of special interest because of its connection with the great horticulturalist John Gerard. He was a surgeon by training, and held a number of official positions in the Company, culminating in the Mastership in 1607, but he was better known for his green fingers than for his dexterity with catheter and duck-bill. He had designed gardens for the great Lord Burghley, and his own garden in Holborn, off Chancery Lane, was a lush acreage of ‘trees, fruits and plants both indigenous and exotic’. In 1597 he published his famous Herball, which remains a landmark in botanical description and classification. It is illustrated with over 1,800 woodcuts, though many of them were plagiarized from an earlier continental work.24 Gerard was also curator of the ‘physic garden’ of medicinal plants at the Royal College of Physicians (similar to the Apothecaries’ Garden still extant in Chelsea), and in the late 1590s he was urging the Barber-Surgeons to plant a similar garden at the Hall. On 2 November 1602 a ‘committee for Mr Gerrard’s garden’ had a meeting. It is not clear what was planted, or where, but it is likely that when Shakespeare lived here there was a physic garden designed by Gerard round the corner from him. Again it is Lear that springs to mind.

LEAR: Give the word. 

EDGAR: Sweet marjoram. 

LEAR: Pass. (4.5.92-4)

Our foster-nurse of nature is repose 

The which he lacks. That to provoke in him 

Are many simples [herbs] operative, whose power 

Will close the eye of anguish. (4.3.12-15)

Shakespeare’s own knowledge of herbs is acute: a countryman’s knowledge. It has been shown that Iago’s herbicultural metaphor in Othello - ‘our bodies are our gardens’, in which we may ‘plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many’ (1.3.320-26) - makes perfectly good sense in terms of contemporary gardening practice.25

Many other livery companies had their headquarters round here - this is one of the features of the neighbourhood which contributes to an idea of its respectability. Just off Monkwell Street by the walls was Bowyers’ Hall. Nearby were Curriers’ Hall (they ‘curried’ or drubbed leather), and Plasterers’ Hall (formerly the site of Pinners’ Hall), and Brewers’ Hall on Addle Street. Further south, towards Cheapside, stood Haberdashers’ Hall, Embroiderers’ Hall and the most opulent of all, Goldsmiths’ Hall.

Goldsmiths - the epitome of flashy Jacobean success - were plentiful in the area. There was at least one, William Pierson, living on Silver Street itself. He leased his house from Thomas Savage of Addle Street, also a goldsmith - and a man known to Shakespeare, as he was one of the sureties of the land-lease for the Globe theatre.26 Another goldsmith on or near Silver Street was Henry Bannister, probably a relative of John Banister the surgeon. This Bannister was also a ‘broker’ or moneylender, as was John Wolfall, a skinner by trade, whose extortionate dealings resulted in a Star Chamber suit in 1593, in which he is described as ‘of Silver Street’. Both of them employed a shady character called Nicholas Skeres as a tout to wind in ‘young gents’ in need of cash. Conman, spy and sometime employee of the Earl of Essex, Skeres has a dubious place in literary history - he was one of the companions of Christopher Marlowe on the night he was killed.27

Continuing up Monkwell Street, you passed on your right a neat row of alms-houses. Thus Stow: ‘On the said east side of Monkeswell street be proper Almeshouses, 12 in number, founded by Sir Ambrose Nicholas.’ Accommodated there, rent-free, were a dozen ‘poore and aged’ people, ‘having each of them seven pence the week, and once the year each of them five sackes of charcoales, and one quarter of a hundreth of faggots, of his gift forever’. Occupants are designated ‘almsman’, ‘almswidow’, etc, in the St Olave’s registers. The charitable founder, Sir Ambrose Nicholas, a salter by trade, served as Lord Mayor in 1575-6. He died a couple of years later, so Shakespeare would not have known him, but he certainly knew his son, Daniel Nicholas (born about 1560).28 This was the friend of Stephen Belott, who testified in 1612 that he had visited Shakespeare ‘to understand the truth’ about the disputed dowry.

At the top of the street, close to the city gate, was a former chapel or ‘hermitage’, St James-by-the-Wall. It was now converted into tenements, one of which housed a private school run by one Thomas Speght. Near by was an old well, formerly belonging to the hermitage. Stow suggests this as the origin of the name Monkwell or Monkswell Street but it seems he is wrong. The earliest records of the street, from the twelfth century, call it ‘Mukewelle’ or ‘Mogwelle’ Street. The first syllable is probably a family or clan name. Thus the rougher-sounding Muggle Street - as used by the apprentice William Eaton in his deposition, and also found on the Agas map - is more correct.

Immediately outside the gate was the extramural parish of St Giles, Cripplegate - the tall-towered church still stands, despite the efforts of fire and bombs, and can be seen clearly from the site of Silver Street. In this parish there were writers living at one time or another - Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare’s future collaborator George Wilkins. Here too lived an actor who appears in the St Giles registers as ‘Edward Shakespeere, player’, but who is more probably the dramatist’s younger brother, Edmund. This was in 1607, the occasion the burial of an illegitimate child. Sixteen years younger than Shakespeare, it seems he had followed his big brother into the glamorous but uncertain world of the London theatres.29 Also near by, in the parish of St Mary Aldermanbury east of Wood Street, lived two of Shakespeare’s closest colleagues in the King’s Men - John Heminges and Henry Condell, the future editors of the First Folio. A monument in the former churchyard notes that Heminges lived in the parish ‘for upward of 42 years’, and Condell for over thirty; between them they had twenty-one children baptized and ten buried at the church, where both served as churchwardens.30

Thus there were fellow-writers and actors living in the vicinity, though none, it seems, living in St Olave’s itself. Other than Shakespeare, Silver Street’s only literary resident was a publisher, Thomas Nelson, who is described on a title-page of 1592 as ‘dwelling in Silver streete, neere to the signe of the Red Crosse’. Nelson also turned his hand to writing, mostly ballads and other topical verse, and so is a minor harbinger of Shakespeare’s presence. That book of 1592, a pamphlet by Shakespeare’s rival Robert Greene, is his last known venture as a publisher, and he was probably one of the two Thomas Nelsons buried at St Olave’s in 1594.31 It seems the street was free of writers - a fractious trade - when Shakespeare took his lodgings here.

Turning eastwards up Silver Street towards the busy thoroughfare of Wood Street you would pass the house of Dr Giffard - he was either the Mountjoys’ neighbour, or possibly next door but one. He is referred to respectfully in the registers as ‘Master John Giffard, doctor of physic’. He was a Wiltshire man of about the same age as Shakespeare; his relationship to the troublesome Giffords of late Elizabethan politics - the spy Gilbert Gifford, the Catholic exile Dr William Gifford, the courtier and adventurer George Gifford - is not proven. He studied at New College, Oxford, and was licensed by the Royal College of Physicians in 1596. Like his neighbour Richard Palmer, Dr Giffard was a respected practitioner, and on 5 November 1612 we find the pair of them in august consultation at the bedside of Henry, Prince of Wales. The cordial they administered to him had no effect, for the Prince died the following day.32

Next door to Dr Giffard’s house was Dudley Court, of which I have already given some account from Ralph Treswell’s survey of it. The date of that survey is c. 1612, thus around the time of the Belott-Mountjoy litigation, but the tenant in the main part of the house, John Cowndley or Cownley, was living there at least ten years earlier and may have been known to Shakespeare. His first wife, Joan, died in the plague summer of 1603, but the following spring he was at the altar again. His wedding to Elizabeth Greenham was on 19 April 1604; their daughter Elizabeth was baptized exactly nine months later, on 20 January 1605. These are the rhythms of parish life within a radius of yards around Shakespeare’s rooms on Silver Street.

Behind Dudley Court, entered via a passageway from Wood Street, was a tavern and wine-shop called the Talbot.33 As far as the evidence remains this was the nearest watering-hole to the Mountjoys’ house. It is Shakespeare’s local. He is more famously associated with the Mermaid on Bread Street - the evidence is anecdotal, but it is plausible he was among the ‘sireniacall fraternitie’ of wits and poets who met there, among them Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and Thomas Coryate; and plausible also that the William Johnson who was one of Shakespeare’s sureties when he purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse in 1613 was the man of that name who ran the Mermaid. The Talbot was not a literary club, just a run-of-the-mill tavern, which may at times be a considerable advantage. The host there was one Francis Wright. He rented the building from the Clothworkers’ Company. It had formerly been a ‘callendring house’ - a ‘calender’ was a weighted box placed on top of rollers, used to press finished cloth. This mechanism was powered by horses, so the building had stables, convenient for its new use as a tavern.

Also close by was the Castle on Wood Street, but this was an inn rather than a tavern, and chiefly offered bed, board and stabling for travellers. There were many such in this neighbourhood at the edge of the city - the Axe in Aldermanbury, the Cock in Philip Lane, and most famously the Swan with Two Necks, which rambled almost the entire length of Lad Lane (now Gresham Street), an alley running east off Wood Street to the top of Milk Street. (The inn’s curious name is still found in English pubs. ‘Necks’ was originally ‘nicks’: it was a privilege of vintners to keep swans, which were otherwise the preserve of the sovereign, and to distinguish them their swans had their beaks marked with two nicks.) This Swan was in business by 1556 when the diarist Henry Machyn noted that a woman had drowned herself in a well near ‘the Swane with the ii Nekes at Mylke Street end’. Around the turn of the century the innkeeper was Richard Bolton. In 1598 he delivered a quarter load of hay to ‘the Muze’ (the Royal Mews): these were the ‘hay dues’ levied from inns. The Swan survived into the nineteenth century. An engraving of 1831 shows the enormous inn-yard, with entrances on three sides, and galleried accommodation on two upper floors.34

These were carriers’ inns - they would later be called coaching inns, but there were as yet no regular stage-coach services. Coaches were essentially covered carts, unsprung, and were not much used for longer journeys (though increasingly fashionable as an urban vehicle). The common mode of travel was on horseback, preferably in the company of the carriers, who travelled the country delivering goods and letters. In 1 Henry IV there is a scene with two carriers, set in an inn-yard in Rochester (2.1). One has ‘a gammon of bacon and two razes [roots] of ginger to be delivered as far as Charing Cross’; the other carries live turkeys in his ‘pannier’. They are saddling up their horses, and waiting for certain gentlemen who ‘will along with company for they have great charge’ - in other words, travellers carrying valuables who will accompany the carriers for safety.

These nearby inns suggest another aspect in favour of the area in Shakespeare’s mind - they are a boarding-point for travel and postage upcountry. Aubrey says, sensibly enough, that Shakespeare ‘was wont to goe into his native country once a yeare’, and here at Cripplegate he was well placed for the journey. The wherryman and rimester John Taylor, known as the ‘Water Poet’, tells us in his Carriers Cosmographie (1637) that the Castle Inn on Wood Street was the place to find carriers for (among other places) Worcester and Evesham.35 This run would also serve Stratford, branching off north after Oxford (where Shakespeare was reputed to stay at the Davenants’ tavern, the Crown).

The well-known Stratford carrier was William Greenaway. It is likely Shakespeare had accompanied him on journeys to and from London, but he did so no longer, for Greenaway retired or died around 1601. On one occasion he carried up to Stratford a letter referring to Shakespeare. Its recipient replied, ‘Yr letter of the 25 October [1598] came to mi handes the laste of the same att night, per Grenwai, which imported that our countryman Mr Wm. Shak. would procure us money.’ In that case the letter took up to six days to reach its destination, but perhaps there were particular delays. The customary journey-time from London to Stratford (just under a hundred miles) was three days. For a horse for the journey Greenaway charged 5 shillings.36

At Wood Street one met the noise and bustle of a large London street. I have referred to the modern London Wall as a ‘traffic-road’, and that is exactly what Jacobean Wood Street was. And together with the travellers’ inns and their transitory population were other associated amenities. The first turning left off Wood Street as you walked south was an alley called Love Lane - ‘so called of wantons’, Stow says, which presumably means sex was on sale there. (Another Love Lane, in Billingsgate, had a ‘stuehous’ or stew-house in it: though technically a steam-room, this invariably means a brothel.)37 It is a discreet presence, perhaps - this was not a red-light district like the notorious Clerkenwell, to the north of the city walls, or indeed Southwark across the river, where the theatres stood cheek by jowl with ‘bawdy houses’.

Further down Wood Street, nearing the great commercial hub of Cheapside, stood another monument to the seamier side of Jacobean life - the Wood Street Counter, one of various prisons in the city known as Counters or Compters. Others were in Bread Street, Poultry, and Southwark. These were primarily (but not exclusively) debtors’ prisons; chronic insolvents could live there for years. A charitable bequest of 1592 provides for the relief of ‘poore Prisoners in the Hole or Twopenny Wardes’ of the Counters. These were the two lowest, darkest ‘wards’ or quarters of the prison. Posher prisoners were accommodated in relative comfort in the Master’s Ward and the Knights’ Ward.38 It was not as dire in underworld lore as the ‘Limboes’ in Newgate, or the ‘Pit’ and the ‘Little Ease’ at the Tower, but life in the Hole cannot have been pleasant. The one at the Poultry Counter was less than 20 feet square, and sometimes held more than forty inmates. The prisons were notorious for their smell - ‘To walk by the Counter gate’, says Falstaff in the Merry Wives, ‘is as hateful to me as the reek of a lime-kill’ (3.3.71-3). This stench contrasts in Shakespeare’s mind with the finest of London smells, mentioned by Falstaff a few lines earlier - ‘Bucklersbury in simple time’, Bucklersbury being a street full of grocers and apothecaries, and ‘simple time’ being spring and early summer when medicinal herbs (‘simples’) were on sale there.

This was Shakespeare’s London habitat - or one of them - in the first years of King James. We find it a leafy neighbourhood, with secretive walled gardens. Birdsong mingles with the noises of trade, the aroma of medicinal herbs vies with chimney-smoke, cooking-smells and cesspits. We note the area’s association with doctors and surgeons and the macabre arts of anatomy. We scent prosperity - goldsmiths and usurers and grave-looking guildsmen on their way to the livery hall. Shakespeare lodges in a quiet, well-to-do street, an urban backwater, though as always in London you were not far from the more pungent life of the city: the taverns and inn-yards of Wood Street, the girls down Love Lane, the penury of the Hole at the Counter.

And between the upper and lower echelons of the neighbourhood there is the middle rank of tradesmen, artisans and servants who perhaps give more acurately the tone of this rather middling London parish. We get a blueprint of trades carried on in the parish from the burial register. In the plague year of 1603 - whether by coincidence, or because of the sudden spate of mortalities - the vicar John Flint decided to add the extra information of a trade to the names of adult males being buried. Living (or at any rate dying) in the parish during the ten years 1603-12 were: Henry Sandon, minstrel; John Smith, porter at Barbers’ Hall; William Linby, painter; John Hely, weaver; Richard Lardinge, tailor; Anthony Spenser, cook; William Burton, needlemaker; William Lightwoode, scrivener; John Browne, scrivener; Nicholas Sharpe, porter; John Dodson, scrivener; Nicholas Cooke, pewterer; William Tailer, embroiderer; William Allen, jeweller; William Smith, salter; William Rieve, salter; Roger Turner, saddler; Richard Roberts, clothworker; and John Walker, porter.

Of these forgotten people who lived in Shakespeare’s vicinity there is one who might be shown to have had some kind of interaction with him - the embroiderer William Tailer or Tailor. He may have known the Mountjoys in a professional context: their tire-business required a supply of embroidered work. On 1 December 1605 a daughter of Tailor’s was baptized at St Olave’s. She was christened Cordelia.39 The name - spelt thus in the register - was still unusual, and was more often found in the Celtic form, Cordula (or Cordell). The most famous Cordelia, of course, is the fictional one - the daughter of King Lear. The Tailors could not yet have seen or read the play: it was first performed in 1606, and first printed in 1608. Just possibly they got the name from the author himself, lodged around the corner and then at work on the play - asked him, sensibly enough, for a nice name for their new daughter, and received from him the beautiful gift of Cordelia.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!