LONDON IN THE 15TH ­16 CENTURY

 

Remember the clocks,

Look well to your locks,

Fire and your light,

And God give you good night

For now the bell ringeth

 

 

Such was the cry heard throughout London town each night when Bow Bell sounded and the huge doors of the city gates were shut for the night. It was then that the Bellman began his rounds, calling the hour and guarding the citizens against fire and robbery.

London's eastern limit was marked by the great bulk of the Tower and those who lived to its west felt a degree of comfort as the Tower's guns protected the great river, the busiest thoroughfare in the realm. In 1600 the river was spanned by only one bridge which was one of the city's glories. Made of 20 arches the western edge of the bridge supported the houses of wealthy merchants and tradesmen and was much admired by foreign visitors. One distinctive feature which all gossiped about could be found at the gatehouse tower where the heads of executed traitors, sometimes as many as 30 to 40 heads, in various state of rotting decay where placed on pikes for all to see. For those who sought more action in their blood lust one had only to peer over the side of the bridge to see various criminals chained in the water to the bases of the arches.

Those looking for lively and interactive entertainment paid the penny fare to cross to the south side of the river where the playhouses, bear-baiting rings and the ever crowded brothels stood.

Strong stomachs were needed to handle the smells which assaulted each individual as they stepped outdoors each day. The inside of the homes of the upper and middle class were kept fresh by freshly strewn rushes and the air was perfumed with pomanders. The poor had to make due with the fragrance of stale cooking and smoke. But outside was an entirely different matter.

Other than the two grand paved streets (Cheapside and the Strand) London had no streets of which to speak. The rest were narrow tracks which when wet were nothing more than channels of churned up mud and in all weather smelled with the filth and daily garbage. When plague struck or when some city official cried loud enough mandates were issued which required each man to burn his own garbage twice a week. However, officials were usually willing to leave garbage disposal to the ever present kites who circled in hoards overhead. Citizens were left to traverse the streets as warily as possible.

In addition to the constant assault to ones nostrils there was the ever present din which nearly shattered the eardrum. Londoners then were much louder than their present day counterparts. It seemed to a visitor that the louder one cried out the better was the chance of making a sale. Booksellers stood outside tempting passers by with an extract from current books, Fleet Street puppeteers screeched about their latest "motions". Yet above all this was the din of lathes and hammers turning out barrels and candlesticks, pots and pans. By eight in the morning the city was alive.. By far the most startling and feared sound of the city was the cry "Clubs" which rang from the lips of any individual who felt they had been wronged. If the cry came from a local tradesman, his apprentices would call upon their friends and cronies and together they would set about the streets seeking and beating anyone whose misfortune it was to cross their path. In the aftermath of these beatings many a purse was to be had from fellows laying unconscious on the street.

In many ways the center of the city was St. Paul's Church where the rich and poor gathered for every purpose imaginable. Servants gathered to read the notices of employment, Lawyers and doctors seeking clients stood near the west wing, horses sold outside the main gate and seamstresses begged for work on the east side. With all this crowd gathered St. Paul's was as much a den of thieves as a house of prayer. Cutpurses and pickpockets worked the crowd with much success while tricksters sought to win the confidence of the gullible. Even the most careless and down and out crook was assured of obtaining a mean if he worked the crowd.

The best place to "tag a mark" was at the hangings which frequently took place in the main courtyard. There while the crowd pushed and shoved to get a front row position the thieves did their best work. Hangings were a real spectacle as a good hangman was supposed to first "drop" the victim and then cut the body down before life expired, slit open the victim's belly and show him his entrails before his eyes closed in death. Most often the hangman was not a seasoned professional, but a butcher seeking better wages.

St. Paul's was a tourist landmark, fashion center, information and employment exchange and shopping arcade rolled into one. Notably, Divine services were preached at Paul's Cross in the Church Courtyard daily. It was at these services that one Londoner penned the following:

There the nip and foist, as devoutly as if he were some zealous person, stood soberly, with his eyes elevated to heaven, while his left hand was on another's purse and his right within still another's pocket searching for a coin.

The nip and foist usually worked in teams and to listen to them speak they were experts on nearly everything. Some were equipped with the Elizabethan equivalent of "dirty" postcards, , a set of "French" engravings" and Aretino's erotic sonnets. They could locate the "finest" clean ladies, or offer an infallible formula for making gold out of goose-grease. They had tales to tell of the places to which they had never traveled and charms to enchant, bewitch, or make lovers of strangers. For the more sinisterly inclined poisons were available and even a early prototype of the mechanical letter-bomb (a letter full of needles, which when opened allowed the needles to fly about so as to forcibly enter the individuals body as if they had been launched by gunpowder.

Another crime duo were the curb and hook. As the name implies the curb served as lookout on the street while the hook, using a pole of sorts reached through open windows to snag anything that was within reach.

Although gambling was not legal---cards and dice were played so commonly that in 1576 Elizabeth passed a law allowing the practice, but obtaining for the crown a 10th part of all exchanged. The making of false dice was so common an entire industry sprang up around this. Foolish indeed was the mark who played with any but his own dice.

One cannot leave the world of crime without acknowledging the most famous member of the London crime world---Moll Cutpurse. She had such fame that Middleton and Dekker, two writers of the times, wrote a play about her life which appeared in 1607 called the "Roaring Girl". Moll was so famed that people who had items stolen went to her and paid to have her steal them back. She was captured and sentenced to be executed at least 4 times. She usually just "escaped' but there is one account of Moll bribing the axeman to the sum of 2000 pounds to "allow her to fly."

The south side of the great river Thames was well known for its lively entertainment centers which included not only the playhouses which, even though supported by Elizabeth were at best, dens of iniquity. Men who owned theatres most often also owned and operated brothels thus helping to maintain the theatres reputation as one of crime and sin. Actors practiced their skills duping the unwary at local taverns which many frequented while waiting for a play to begin.

While most of us know that the Puritans and Cromwell were against plays and the theater few would actually know the reason why. The real reason lies in the fact that women were not supposed to "cavort" about on a stage as only a harlot would thus perform. Thus men and young boys took to dressing as women and playing the role of women in the plays. This, according to scripture was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Thus the places of this activity had to be closed.

In addition to the play houses, the alehouses and brothels the south side of the river featured the beastiality centers. Here patrons could witness the great variety of cruel sports of the times including bull-baiting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting.

Most people lived their lives in small social groups and rarely saw large crowds. The largest gathering a "good" Londoner would likely see was his church congregation which usually numbered less than 100 souls (which explains the great number of churches sprinkled throughout modern London). The exception to these doldrums was the faire. Elizabethan England was far from the home of the free. To travel outside of ones community and to avoid being marked as a vagrant one needed a warrant or passport. Naturally, this lead to a lively trade in forged papers. City officials were against these events because they always brought in vagrants and trouble makers and usually brought an end to the normal peace and harmony of the town. Still, the faire was a lucrative source of income for the community. Most faires were held in the summer and early autumn though there were exceptions such as the Newport Cold Fair which was known for horse-dealing and horse ­stealing. This fair boasted sale items from stallions to stampers (shoes) The two largest fairs were Stourbridge, near Cambridge and St. Bartholomew's at Smithfield. Both were hundreds of years old by the time of Elizabeth.

Why people frequented these is a mystery for the goings on were widely known to be criminal. A fixture at St. Bartholomew's was the "Lady" Ursula, widely known as Pig Woman. She usually worked together with Joan Trash, who was noted for her gingerbread dolls with a most unique flavor. These dolls were known as Bartholomew's Babies and as long as you were not picky about the ingredients and where they came from, they were quite tasty. Ursula's booth was to be found "Under the Boughs" where she offered "HERE BE THE BEST PIGS//AND SHE DOES ROAST THEM AS WELL AS EVER SHE DID." In the back, where no sign was needed, her booth was by day a center for receiving stolen goods and by night the busiest brothel. A client could obtain a drink of ale and a pipe of tobacco although the waiters had been charged to froth the beer well before serving and to remove an unheld cup as quickly as possible. The tobacco was mixed with dried coltsfoot to make it go further. A supposed remedy to prevent frothing was to rub the cup with a dead herring and as most people brought their own cups with them, this offered some deterrent to the practice of frothing. Bartholomew Pig was highly craved by pregnant women who believed that the eating of such would allow them to deliver healthy male children. In 1600, Sir Nicholas Ems' wife refused the offered pig and less than a month later delivered a stillborn male child. For this transgression she was shortly thereafter divorced and accounts state that she spent the rest of her life in a nunnery.

The selling of horses at the faire was both an art and an event. Concealing defects in animals offered for sale was an exact science. The tricks of coursers (horse traders) are described in detail by Thomas Dekker in his book Lanthorn and Candlelight. According to Dekker, Smithfield was only the largest and most notorious of

'those markets of unwholesome horseflesh which were found throughout the land in every 'blind country fair'. The courser knows his beasts far more completely than the whoremonger's knows his wares. Both agree that as long as the outside looks fair neither cares what diseases are harbored within. On this basis the horse-courser prefers to acquire for resale horses with sought-after coloring and marks, such as the milk-white, the dapple-gray and the coal-black with white heels or a white star on the forehead. Any wise fellow known full well that such well-colored animals are rarely sold unless they have some defect in them; let the prospective buyer be warned."

Having purchased his horse at as low price as he can, the horse-courser (or 'jingler') proceeds to prepare the animal for resale in a variety of ways ranging from resprays to replacement or modification of various parts. Here in Dekker's own words is the courser's cure for "landers", a disease which gives horses a running nose:

"In the very morning when he is to be rifled away amongst the gamesters in Smithfield, before he thrust his head out of his master's stable, the horse-courser tickles his nose, not with a pipe of tobacco, but with a good quantity of the best sneezing powder that can be gotten; which with a quill being blown up into the nostrils to make it work the better, he stands poking there up and down with two long feathers plucked from the wing of a goose, they being dipped in the juice of garlic, or in any strong oil, and thrust up to the very top of his head, so far as possibly they can reach, to make the poor dumb beast avoid [i.e. bring out] the filth from his nostrils; which he will do in great abundance. This being done, he comes to him with a new medicine for a sick horse, and mingling the juice of bruised garlic, sharp biting mustard, and strong ale together, into both the nostrils with a horn is poured a good quantity of this filthy broth; which by the hand being held in by stopping the nostrils close together, at length with a little sneezing more, his nose will be cleaner than his master's the horse-courser, and the filth be so artificially stopped that for eight or ten hours a jade will hold up his head with the proudest gelding that gallops scornfully by him, and never have need of stripping."

But Dekker also explains how to avoid being taken in by this kind of horse-trick.

"grip the suspect animal 'hard about the wind-pipe, close toward the roof of the tongue till it coughs'. If, when you release your hold, the horse's chaps 'begin to walk as if he were chewing down a horse-Loaf' have no truck with the horse-courser at all, 'for his jade is as full of infirmity as the master of villainy'.

Some of the most frequent devices had to do with concealing a horse's age. One way to do this was to burn black marks on an animal's outermost upper and lower teeth with a small round heated iron, such marks being characteristic of a young animal. If the beast was so ancient that these teeth were missing, the answer was to prick its lips with a pin or nail so that it could not open its mouth properly. 'Dekker continues, 'a reasonable-sighted eye, without the help of spectacles, may easily discover this juggling, because it is gross and common'.

To conceal the fact that a horse has foundered and can hardly stand on his four legs, the horse-courser kept tickling it with a straw so that it would not stand still and thereby make its weakness evident.

A favorite trick in disposing of a lame horse was to remove the shoe from the lame leg in order to make it appear that its absence was the only cause of the horse's halting; if necessary, witnesses could be found who were prepared to swear that this was indeed the case. If a defect in a horse's legs could not be hidden by any other means, the horse-courser would ride it up and down in the thickest and dirtiest mire he could find till the caked mud

'like a ruffled boot drawn up an ill-favored gouty leg hid the beast's infirmity from the prospective buyer.

To make a slow and heavy-footed horse appear swift and alert, the horse-courser would beat it on the buttocks with a cudgel repeatedly for several days until the animal was so sore that the slightest touch on the back made it run away instantly. The courser then took it to the fair and, when the hopeful customer mounted the animal for a test ride, tapped it on the back end 'away flies Bucephalus as if young Alexander were upon his back'. The same technique was used to make a horse keep its tail between his legs instead of thrashing about with it, a sign of a beast with spirit.

Remember that London was supposed to be a Christian city but the new Protestant faith had greatly changed the way in which people worshipped. The Catholic church had been built around religious magic (trans vs. consubstantination) Religious magic held out that there was a way to get mankind out of his misery and into paradise. The new religion taught that man examine himself and work to lessen his misery---cold solace when natural disaster struck. Prior to Puritan times the congregation behaved little different than they did at the playhouse. They drank (well services were long weren't they??) spat, heckled the preacher and swore their objections to any matters that concerned them.

When people realized the new church did not offer instant solutions they quickly turned to those who did., An entire industry of "cunning men, "wise women", "charmers", sorcerers" and "witches " could be found in any Elizabethan village. Two types of Witches appeared---the White Witch or blessing witch, did as the name implied and filled the void left by the church. The White Witch could be of either sex and was a real threat to the Church since people turned to them often in time of trouble. These White Witches had answers for everything from Banishing a toothache, Protection in battle, Winning at dice, safeguarding cattle from lightening, making children sleep, corn grow and providing rainfall.

Naturally the most sought after potion was the LOVE potion. In actuality, the white witch had a better track record than the doctors of the time since the witch's cures were grounded in traditional herbal medicine while the doctor's remedies were tied to the theory of humours and blooding letting which was the most common treatment of all.

The vein above the thumb is good against all fevers....

The vein between the thumb and the forefinger, let blood

for the hot headache, for frenzy and madness of wit.

Besides the saying of prayers and the like, many of the cures involved the performing of some act. Thus mad dogs and their victims could be cured by feeding them charms written on pieces of paper, Beings possessed by a devil was curable by releasing a live bat in the room who would snatch the devil and carry him out of the room. Headache was cured by cutting a locket of hair, and boiling it in the person's urine before offering it as a sacrifice. One Anthony Wood was told to jump off a bridge several times in an attempt to drown the demon within him. It should be note that the Bridge was Old London Bridge and that Anthony was washed away by the currents. But nothing seems more macabre than the cure for goiter which required the victim to be touched by the severed hand of a freshly hanged corpse. The success of the white witches can be attributed to their ability to fill a need within the population and then to a certain amount of luck. After all, someone had to commit the crime, and since villages were small--- a good educated guess had to have some accuracy.

England, unlike the continent does not support evidence that there were covens and black sabbaths or aerial flights (broomsticks)

Astrology and Alchemy (the terms were interchangeable) were an integral part of Elizabethan society. Elizabethan society was tied to both agriculture and the sea. Both of these professions looked to the heavens for basic guidance. But astrology in Elizabethan times was part of everything that went on. For example, the actual date for the coronation of Elizabeth was set not by the church but when the Earl of Leicester consulted John Dee the noted astrologist of the age and he proclaimed the perfect date. In English society the people who most frequently consulted the astrologist were, those tied to agriculture since even to the most ignorant of people the connection between the planets, stars and weather was an observable fact. Thus crop failures, epidemics and even civil strife were objects of general prediction. Since these were necessary it opened a whole market for frauds.

The astrologer always had elaborate and intricate calculations to produce his theory. However if the prediction turned out to be false, he could always demonstrate that this was not due to any fault in the calculations but perhaps due to a "new" star that suddenly appeared from behind some other body. Since sightings of "shooting stars" were common, people accepted this explanation quite readily. Naturally the fee for services was still due since the astrologer had clearly done his part.

A sampling of the astrologer's work will shed light on this occupation. In 1601 John Chambers writes that a man consulted an astrologer to find out who had stolen a silver spoon from his house. After due deliberations and divination, the astrologer pronounced that the guilty party was one who was "born in a high place in the west, had long legs and a beak nose, wore a black coat and red stockings and spoke in a strange tongue." It was eventually discovered that the spoon had been taken by a bird, a Cornish Chough, who perfectly fit the description.

The most lucrative part of the profession consisted of personal consultation and the production of what we would term horoscopes. Two printers, Watkins and Roberts were licensed by Elizabeth in 1571 and given the monopoly in London to produce these documents.

Astrology began to decline around 1627 when the Royal Society of Physicians examined John Lambe a noted astrologist and discovered that his actual knowledge of the heavens and celestial bodies was none existent. When released by the society, after being exposed, he was met on the streets outside the Society by an angry mob of clients he had duped and was stoned to death.

Elizabethans did not like to travel. Small wonder when other than London's two paved roads the only other roadways that deserved the name were the four great Roman roads left from classical times. For all purposes everything else was nothing more than tracks made by the feet of the people and animals that used them. Since there was nothing by the way of law enforcement highway men were plentiful. Most of these individuals frequented the inns and alehouses along the roads. These businesses sold more beer than ale as it tasted much better, but was harder to brew. There they could easily size up their marks for the next day's heist. While law enforcement was limited at best, those highwaymen that were apprehended were swiftly hung as examples to others.

Many used the roads as opportunities to beg for a living. These individuals were skilled at inflicting wounds upon themselves to make them look more pitiful. According to one writer of the time:

"they take crowfoot, spearwort and salt, bruising these together, they

lay them upon the place of the body which they desire to make sore. The skin by this means fretted, they first clap a linen cloth, till it stick fast, which when plucked off, the raw flesh hath ratsbane thrown upon it to make it look ugly. They then cover this with a cloth which is always bloody and filthy."

One particular type of thief made his way directly from the highways into the communities and was even welcomed. This unique individual was the tinker. The traveling repairman who could fix nearly anything made of metal. Kettles, pots and pans that were worn through could be patched and repaired by the tinker. But it required a sharp eye to make certain that the tinker didn't slip the items into his bag to be repaired later and sold to willing consumers in the next town. Because the tinker needed to carry such a variety of items to make his repairs and often spent a long period of time at a single dwelling, it was easy for him to come prepared to delve into what Elizabethan referred to as the "black arts"---lock picking.

England in the 1600's was well populated with gypsies. The initial attraction seems to be a desire for entertainment but the gypsies association with witchcraft and sorcery was an even greater magnet. The gypsy's skill at fortune telling offered particular appeal to women who were willing to part with nearly anything to obtain a favorable fortune.

Prisons in the Elizabethan age were an entire culture unto themselves. A man or women could be put in prison for virtually any offence. Vagrancy, petty theft, being out of a parish without lawful cause, slander, debt, assault, disorderly conduct, suspicion of witchcraft, showing the evil eye were all crimes which could lead to imprisonment. The two most common causes seem to have been debt and assault. In a city where quick profit from gaming was popular, many people quickly found themselves in debt. Anyone could swear out a warrant against anyone else and have him arrested. It only took the time to locate a law enforcement officer and write the paper and just that quickly an unsuspecting individual could be on their way to prison. The only thing that kept the prison from absolutely overflowing was the incredible inefficiency of officials in arresting the individuals they sought. Constables came from the lowest levels of society, were ill paid and required to work long hours. They were thus most efficient when offered some type of bribe.

Each of the city's fourteen prisons (officially called Counters) had its different grades of accommodations and in which one a prisoner ended up depended not on the nature of the offense, or with the severity of the sentence by entirely on how much money (garnish was the proper term) he was prepared to lay out in bribes to the jailers. The three grades of lodging, in descending order were the Master's Side, the Knights' Ward and the appropriately named Hole. Upon arrival the prisoner was allowed to choose his quarters, provided he could pay for it. A prisoner signed in (the Black Book) and at each doorway he passed until he reached the Master's Side he had to pay a turnkey anything from a shilling to a half crown to have the door opened. Once in the Master's Side he was shown his own cell, a narrow cobweb-festooned room with some straw and a pair of dirty sheets and a candle end for light. This was the best grade available.

Food and drink was not inadequate by contemporary standards---if you could pay the garnish. Meals consisted of various meats, washed down with claret and a well stuffed pipe of tobacco. However at the first meal a prisoner had he was required to pay for everyone else's meal as well. After dinner anything could be had for the proper garnish, clean sheets, lights, books, a woman to keep the bed warm. The prisoner could also have furnishings brought in, and even conduct his business from jail and have any guest or associate he wished meet with him---all for the proper garnish. If was said one could even get a speedy trial with a guaranteed acquittal for the right price. One could even pay to be released for the night and return at an agreed upon time the next morning.

Conditions in the Knight's Ward were less comfortable than in the Master's Side but still tolerable. Here too, everything could be obtained for the proper garnish However the poorest denizen of the Ward found his quarters next to the unwholesome privy (the jakes in contemporary terms).

Then there was the Hole. Here it was just as easy to starve as it was to freeze. There was no cost to be imprisoned here. There were no public funds set aside for the provision of food and drink. The prisoners were entirely dependent on donations from charitable minded folks. Churches usually took up collections for "Souls in the Hole." Profit minded folks scoured the various food markets for the refuse left behind, collected it and took it to the prison for sale to the inmates. The only light in the Hole came from a barred window from which the prisoners took turns thrusting their arms out and begging for anything from those who passed by. What ever food, clothing or the like that was collected was shared by all prisoners equally.

London did feature several special prisons. Fleet Street housed those condemned by royal decree, The Marshallsea was reserved for religious prisoners as well as those charged with maritimne crimes. The Gatehouse at Westminister was for political prisoners and was controlled by the Privy Council and the King's Bench prison was mainly for debtors and was also controlled by the Privy Council. The Tower of London was reserved for special political prisoners who only entered through Traitors Gate, their last sight of the free world.

 

The best source for this type of common and social information , other than posters of the period are the writings of Ben Johnson, one of Elizabeth's favorite writers.