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Onward and Upward

A mid-sixteenth-century map of Moorfields, north of London. Some women dry linen upon the ground, while the citizens engage in archery. The line of Bishopsgate Street marks the accelerating growth of the city.


Rather Dark and Narrow

John Stow, the great sixteenth-century antiquarian, offered the most vivid and elaborate description of Tudor London. He wrote of new streets and new buildings continually springing up beyond the walls and, within the city itself, of “encroachments on the highways, lanes, and common grounds.” Where once there had been sheds or shops, in one of which an old woman used to sell “seeds, roots and herbs,” there were now houses “largely built on both side outward, and also upward, some three, four or five stories high.” Growth is the continual condition of the city, but one which Stow himself lamented when it encroached upon the ancient topography of the place which he had known as a child in Cordwainer Lane.

We can follow John Stow down Butchers’ Alley, beside St. Nicholas Shambles and Stinking Lane, where he discoursed on the rising price of meat. In the old days, he said, a fat ox was sold for 26s 8d “at the most” and a fat lamb for a shilling, but “what the price is now I need not to set down.” In such local touches, Stow stands alone among the chroniclers of the city. It was said that “he reporteth res in se minutas, toys and trifles, being such a smell-feast that he cannot pass by Guildhall, but his pen must taste of the good chear therein.” But that is what makes him such an excellent London surveyor, and such a characteristic Londoner. In his Survey of London, he provides a detailed and immediate account of the lanes and alleys which he had known all his life.

He was born in 1525 and came from at least two generations of tallow chandlers who resided in Threadneedle or Threeneedle Street; Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s familiar councillor, encroached upon his father’s garden there, and Stow ruefully noted “that the sudden rising of some men causeth them in some matters to forget themselves.” Little is known of any formal education which Stow may have received, although it is likely that he attended one of London’s free grammar schools. He himself recalled how he used to walk to a farm belonging to the nuns of the Minories where “I myself have fetched many a halfpenny worth of milk,” thus indicating that there was grazing land by the very walls of the city. But of other juvenile incidents he is silent. It is known that he took up the profession of a tailor, however, and established himself in a house by the well at Aldgate close to the farm where he had bought milk as a child, but his true labours had not yet begun.

Antiquarian studies seem to be an instinctive London passion, and Stow remains their greatest exemplar. It is appropriate that his first work should be an edition of Chaucer; that fine London poet was Stow’s original pursuit before he turned to the city which nourished his genius. He began the study of London records, primarily kept in the Guildhall, as a “fee’d chronicler”; we may imagine him among slips of parchment, manuscript rolls and broken-backed volumes, trying to decipher the history of his city. In one of his first volumes, A Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, he wrote that “It is now eight years since I, seeing the confused order of our late English Chronicles, and the ignorant handling of ancient affairs, leaving mine own peculiar gains, consecrated myself to the search of our famous antiquities.” This might suggest that he had abandoned his trade as a tailor in order to devote himself to historical study, but extant documents show that he maintained his business for some time. He complained about being called a “prick-louse,” an invidious catchphrase for those who sewed as a profession, and he testified that a neighbour threw stones and tiles at his apprentice.

The “antiquities” were all around him. A few yards from his own house, between Billiter Lane and Lime Street, were buried a wall and gate of stone “about two fathoms deep” under the ground. They had been discovered after demolition work in 1590; Stow investigated the curiosity, and believed the old stonework to date from the reign of King Stephen some 450 years before. The ground of London was always rising, built again and again upon the ash and rubble of its previous incarnations. Stow walked everywhere, and once confessed that his labours “cost many a weary mile’s travel, many a hard-earned penny and pound, and many a cold winter night’s study.” He was tall and lean, “of a pleasant and cheerful countenance; his sight and memory were good; very sober, mild, and courteous to any that required his instructions.”

There was much to instruct since, in the early sixteenth century, London would indeed have been an antiquarian’s delight. Stow often mentions the presence of great houses “of old time built upon arched vaults, and with gates of stone” which date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries; there would still have been extant walls, pillars and pavements from the Roman period. Much of the brick and masonry of that early time had been pillaged for modern rebuilding, but there is no doubt that there would have been evidence of the first century in succeeding periods of London’s history. Yet much also was being destroyed even as Stow continued his survey. The Reformation of faith, inaugurated by Henry VIII, wreaked a sudden transformation upon the buildings as well as the beliefs of London. The fabric of the Roman communion, to which the citizens had so fervently attached themselves, was shattered; the uncertainty and bewilderment of Londoners were in turn embodied in the changing fabric of the city itself where monasteries and chantry chapels and lady chapels were vandalised or broken. The dissolution of the abbeys, churches and monastic hospitals in particular meant that the entire city was in a fevered period of demolition and construction. Parts of it would have resembled a vast building site, while other areas were left to slow neglect and in Stow’s words became “sore decayed.”

London was in many respects a place of ruins. Stow notes the remains of an “old court hall” in Aldermanbury Street, now “employed as a carpenter’s yard.” A mayor’s great house in Old Jewry became in turn a synagogue, a house of friars, a nobleman’s house, a merchant’s house, and then a “wine tavern” known as the Windmill. A chapel became a “warehouse and shops towards the street, with lodgings over them,” bishops’ houses were turned into tenements, and so on. Other documentary sources reveal that a Cistercian house was pulled “clean down” and in its place were erected storehouses, tenements and “ovens for making ship’s biscuit.” The convent of the Poor Clares, known as the Minories, was destroyed to make way for storehouses; the church of the Crutched Friars became a carpenter’s shop and a tennis court; the church of the Blackfriars was turned into a warehouse for the carts and properties of the “pageants.” (It is perhaps appropriate that on this same site rose the Blackfriars Playhouse.) St. Martin’s le Grand was pulled down and a tavern built upon its remains.

There are many other examples, but the salient point remains that after the Reformation much of late Tudor London was in a ruined condition, with walls and gateways and ancient stone windows to be glimpsed among the shops and houses which lined the lanes and thoroughfares. Even in the area outside the walls, where the palaces of the bishops and nobles had led down from the Strand towards the river, the grand houses were, according to the Venetian ambassador, “disfigured by the ruins of a multitude of churches and monasteries.”

Yet even in the midst of lamentation there was also renovation. In Goldsmiths Row, between Bread Street and Cheapside Cross, Stow extols the shops and dwellings—built just thirty-five years before his birth— which are “beautified towards the street with the Goldsmith’s arms … riding on monstrous beasts, all of which is cast in lead, richly painted over and gilt.” A fifteenth-century traveller, Dominic Mancini, noted, in the same area, “gold and silver cups, dyed stuffs, various silks, carpets, tapestry.” These are the true tinctures of Tudor London. An old church may be pulled down, but in its place Stow remarks that there has been erected “a fair strong frame of timber … wherein dwell men of divers trades.” An old cross is removed, and on the same site is constructed a glistening water-conduit. An aristocratic dwelling is converted into a market “for the sale of woollen baize, watmols [coarse wool], flannels and such like.” A stone building of great antiquity is gradually taken down and in its place are erected “divers fair houses.”

This is the trade, and energy, of Tudor London. Stow himself, quintessential Londoner as he is, cannot prevent himself from enumerating the gardens, the mills, the houses of stone and timber, the taverns, the conduits, the stables, the yards, the hostelries, the markets, the tenements and guild halls which comprise the city’s life.

The older versions of the grand London house, established around a separate hall and courtyard, were no longer appropriate to the new conditions of the city; they were built over, or encroached upon, by smaller dwellings in streets which were already acquiring a reputation for being “rather dark and narrow.” Even the mansions of the wealthy merchants were now more compact, with a shop and warehouse on the ground floor, a hall and parlour on the first floor and the other living quarters above; it was not uncommon for such a house to rise to five or six storeys, with two rooms on each level, in the customary timber and mortar fashion. Such was the premium upon space in the bustling city that cellars and garrets were utilised as dwellings for the poor. Estimates of population can only be approximate but there are figures of 85,000 by 1565, rising to 155,000 by 1605; this does not include those who lived in “the liberties” or within “the bars,” which would increase the figures by more than 20,000. It represents, to use a perhaps anachronistic phrase, a population explosion.

The price of property had risen so steeply that no one would willingly demolish even the smallest shop or house. So the growth of the city meant that the ancient ditches, used for both defence and refuse, were now filled in and covered over and became the site of more properties. The main roads leading to the city gates were “improved” and paved, so that within a very short time shops and houses were erected beside them. The road to Aldgate, for example, was, according to Stow, “not only fully replenished with buildings outward” but “also pestered with divers alleys on either side to the bars.” Even the fields beyond the city, where once the younger citizens had shot their arrows or walked among the streams, had “now within a few years made a continual building throughout of garden houses and small cottages, and the fields on either side turned into garden plots, tenter yards, bowling alleys, and such like.”

The overcrowding became so serious that, in 1580, Elizabeth I issued a proclamation “perceiving the state of the city of London (being anciently termed her chamber) and the suburbs and confines thereof to increase slowly, by access of people to inhabit the same” so that there was no chance of sustaining “victual food, and other like necessaries for man’s life, upon reasonable prices, without which no city can long continue.” There was further cause for alarm concerning the overpopulation within the city itself “where there are such great multitudes of people brought to inhabit in small rooms, whereof a great part are seen very poor, yea, such as must live begging, or by worse means, and they heaped up together, and in a sort smothered with many families of children and servants in one house or small tenement.” This is one of the earliest accounts of overcrowding in London, and can be considered the first extended version of a description which has haunted the city ever since. The queen’s remedy was to prohibit “any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of the said city of London.” It has been suggested that this was the first venture at a “green belt” around London, a surmise which would at least have the merit of emphasising the historical continuity within all apparently “modern” plans for the city, but it was more likely to be an attempt to protect the trading and commercial monopoly of the citizens within the walls who did not relish the appearances of trades and shops beyond their jurisdiction.

Another aspect of the proclamation is also of some significance, in that passage where the monarch and her city advisers prohibit “any more families than one only to be placed, or to inhabit from henceforth in any house that hereto fore hath been inhabited.” The idea of one family occupying one house was indeed the stated purpose behind much of the city’s development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it has even been considered a peculiarly London solution. It is peculiar to the city because it is historical in spirit; as S.E. Rasmussen put it in London: The Unique City, the Elizabethan remedy represented a “conservative clinging to the medieval form of housing.” In a similar spirit new building was only allowed if it were raised “on old foundations.” Here we have an inkling of that continuity, and sense of permanence, which London still exemplifies.

It did not, however, work. Within three years of Elizabeth’s proclamations the city authorities were lamenting the continual increase in sheds, lodgings and tenements outside the walls. There were further edicts and orders issued at regular intervals throughout the reign of her successors; none of them was ever obeyed, and none of them was in the least successful at controlling the growth of the city.

The truth is that the growth of London could not, and cannot, be controlled. It spread to the east along the high street of Whitechapel, and to the west along the Strand. It spread north to Clerkenwell and Hoxton; to the south, Southwark and its environs became “pestered,” to use Stow’s word, with places of popular resort, taverns, brothels, pleasure grounds and theatres. In turn the Inns of Court, clustered in the “suburbs” of Holborn between the city and the royal palaces of Westminster, were extended and embellished.

Yet the quality of transport from suburb to city was not always of the best. In the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII the high road between the Temple “and the village of Charing,” now known as the Strand, was noted in the Rolls of Parliament to be “full of pits and sloughs, very perilous … very noyous and foul, and in many places thereof very jeopardous to all people passing and repassing, as well on horseback as on foot.” More modern forms of transportation, however, were not necessarily welcomed. The introduction of hackney coaches, known as “chariots” or “whirlicotes,” led Stow to reflect that “the world runs on wheels with many whose parents were glad to go on foot.”

The state of traffic in the capital was a source of constant complaint in the sixteenth century, as it has become for each generation. Stow again noted “the number of cars, drays, carts and coaches, more than hath been accustomed, the streets and lanes being straitened, must needs be dangerous, as daily experience proveth”—dangers not tempered when coachmen lashed their horses forward without checking what was behind them and inebriated drivers quarrelled frequently and violently in the street over who had right of passage. And there was the noise “where even the very earth quakes and trembles, the casements shatter, tatter, and clatter.”

There was, however, a significant improvement in the conditions of urban living at least for those who could afford the new “luxuries” of city life. There were pillows and bedding where there had once lain a log and a straw pallet; even the poorer citizens dined off pewter rather than wood and the “middling” households might boast of wall-coverings, brass, soft linen, cupboards garnished with plate, jars and pots made from green glazed earthenware. There was also a fashion for brick and stone chimneys, which in turn had an effect both upon the appearance and atmosphere of London.

The city had forfeited some of its independence to Parliament and to the sovereign, even to the extent of accepting Henry VIII’s recommendations for the mayoralty, but in turn it had become the recognised capital of a unified nation. The municipal ideal had been displaced by a national ideal—and how could it not be so in a city which was now largely populated by immigrants? The new arrivals came from every area of England, Cornwall to Cumberland (it has been estimated that one-sixth of all Englishmen became Londoners in the second half of the sixteenth century), and the number of foreign immigrants rose at an accelerating pace, making the city truly cosmopolitan. So high was the mortality, and so low the birth rate, that without this influx of traders and workers the population would in fact have steadily declined. Yet instead it continued to expand, with brewers and book-binders from the Low Countries, tailors and embroiderers from France, gun-makers and dyers from Italy, weavers from the Netherlands and elsewhere. There was an African or “Moor” in Cheapside who made steel needles without ever imparting the secret of his craft. Fashion followed population, just as the populace followed fashion. In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) there was a surfeit of silk shops, selling everything from gold thread to silk stockings, and at the time of her accession it was reported that no country gentleman could “be content to have eyther cappe, coat, doublet, hose or shirt … but they must have their geare from London.”

If London had become the centre of fashion, it had also become the centre of death. Mortality was higher than in any other part of the country, the two great harvesters being the plague and the sweating sickness. In poorer parishes life expectancy was only between twenty and twenty-five years, while in the richer it rose to thirty or thirty-five years. These fatal infections confirm the evident truth that sixteenth-century London remained a city of the young. The greatest proportion of the citizens were under the age of thirty, and it is this actuarial statistic which helps to explain the energy and restlessness of urban life in all its forms.

The most striking example comes from within the turbulent body of the apprentices, a peculiarly London phenomenon of young men who were bound by strict articles of agreement and yet managed to retain a high-spiritedness and almost feverish buoyancy which spilled over into the streets. They “wold ether bee at the taverne, filling their heads with wine, or at the Dagger in Cheapeside cramming their bellies with minced pyes; but above al other times it was their common costome, as London prentises use, to follow their maisters upon Sundays to the Church dore and then to leave them, and hie unto the taverne.” There are reports of various fights and “affrays,” the common victims being foreigners, “night-walkers,” or the servants of noblemen who were considered to take on the airs of their superiors. A declaration, in 1576, warned apprentices not to “misuse, molest, or evil treat any servant, page, or lackey of any nobleman, gentleman, or other going in the streets.” There were often disturbances after football matches and three young men were put in the local prison for “outrageously and riotously behaving themselves at a football play in Cheapside.” But drunken high spirits could turn into something more violent, and threatening. Apprentices as well as artisans and children took part in the “evil May-day” riots of 1517, in which the houses of foreigners were ransacked. In the last decade of the sixteenth century there were still more outbreaks of riot and disorder but, unlike other continental cities, London never became unstable or ungovernable.

The accounts of foreign travellers suggest the unique status of London in this period. A Greek visitor reported that the treasures in the Tower were “said to exceed the anciently famed wealth of Croesus and Midas,” while a Swiss medical student reported that “London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London.” There was a standard guided tour for visitors, who were first taken to the Tower and the Royal Exchange before being escorted to the west, with Cheapside, St. Paul’s, Ludgate and the Strand viewed, before a magnificent arrival at Westminster and Whitehall. The roads were unpaved in parts, but a journey on horse was still sometimes preferable to that upon the Thames. Giordano Bruno, spy and magician, has left a graphic account of his attempts to hire the services of a wherry. He and his companions, wishing to travel to Westminster, spent a great deal of time looking for a boat and vainly crying out “Oars!” At last a boat arrived with two elderly boatsmen—“After much question and reply as to whence, where, why, how and when, they brought the prow to the foot of the stairs.” The Italians believed they were at last on their way to the destination but then, after about a third of the journey had been completed, the boatsmen began to row towards the shore. They had reached their “station,” and would go no further. This is a small incident, of course, but it reveals the rudeness and obstinacy which was seen by strangers to be characteristic of London behaviour. Just as typical, perhaps, is Bruno’s arrival on the shore only to find a footpath thick with mud where he was forced to journey through “a deep and gloomy hell.”

Other reports emphasise both the violence and xenophobia of ordinary Londoners. A French physician, in London between 1552 and 1553, observed that “the common people are proud and seditious … these villains hate all sorts of strangers” and even “spit in our faces.” Gangs of apprentices were also likely to set upon foreigners in the street, and one traveller saw a Spaniard being forced to take refuge in a shop from a mob after he dared to wear his national costume. The Swiss medical student was in that respect perhaps too kind when he mentioned that “the common people are still somewhat coarse and uncultured … and believe that the world beyond England is boarded off.”

Yet the city also lives in its details gathered in these foreign accounts. One traveller noted that it was remarkable for the number of kites which were “quite tame” and wandered through the streets as if they owned them; they were the city’s scavengers and the butchers threw out offal for them to consume. The number of butchers’ shops was matched only by the number of taverns. A passion for privacy was also noted, with individual dwellings separated from their neighbours by walls of stone; the same conditions applied in the taverns themselves, where wooden partitions were set up “so that one table cannot overlook the next.” It may be that in a teeming and overcrowded city such attempts at privacy were natural or inevitable, yet they also represent a significant and permanent aspect of the London character.

In other accounts “between meals one sees men, women, and children always munching through the streets.” The same children, when not eating apples and nuts, could be seen “gathering up the blood which had fallen through the slits in the scaffold” after a beheading on Tower Hill. The executioner on this occasion wore a white apron “like a butcher.” We seem to have come full circle in a city dominated by violence, blood, meat and continual consuming appetite.

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