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  • Everyday Life in Tudor London by Stephen Porter

    Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn

    London in the late fifteenth century looking west; a painting by John Fulleylove based upon a contemporary illustration. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Tudor London was a large and vibrant city holding an unrivalled position within England as the centre of government, political life and the law; the focus of power and patronage; the hub of overseas and inland trade, with a diverse and flourishing economy. Its wealth and the opportunities which it offered drew aspiring incomers from across the country and attracted a significant inflow of people from abroad, together with new ideas and practices, as London’s overseas trade expanded into new trading regions. Its contacts developed, centred on the commercial world of the City, the court’s artistic interests and patronage, and the humanist intelligentsia’s networks.

    Visitors were aware that the city was inhabited by craftsmen and was not dominated by the aristocracy. Shops lined many of the streets, including the one which crossed the bridge connecting the city with Southwark; an impressive structure which was greatly admired. Cheapside attracted attention for the wealth of its goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ shops and Watling Street was dominated by wealthy drapers dealing in all sorts of woollen cloth. The houses of the merchants and wealthy craftsmen were impressive but not showy and the streets themselves gave an unfavourable impression, for they were narrow and lined with tall buildings, and so were rather dismal. And their surfaces were foul, because they were badly paved and often wet and muddy, and that carried into the houses. London’s environment was a smelly one, both indoors and out.

    The entrance to Staple Inn, Holborn, erected in 1586, painted by E. W. Haslehust around 1924. The inn was the largest of the Inns of Chancery. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Within the city were more than a hundred parish churches, the great cathedral of St Paul’s and over 30 monastic houses, all of varying sizes. The monastic orders owned many houses across the city and after they were dissolved, in the 1530s, not only were the sites of the monasteries sold, but so too were their properties, and so the mid-century saw a considerable transfer of ownership of property.

    Londoners enjoyed a good and varied diet, with mutton and beef, and plenty of fish, and they were particularly fond of young swans, rabbits, deer, and seabirds. Markets were held along the streets. The principal one was in Cheapside and the names of the adjacent streets indicate their specialities: Honey Lane, Bread Street, Milk Street and Wood Street. A fish market was held in Friday Street on Fridays, although the biggest fish market was at Billingsgate. The poultry dealers traded in the eastwards extension of Cheapside, known as Poultry; at its western end a corn market was held in a churchyard, and beyond that Newgate Street was used by butchers for their slaughter-houses and stalls.

    The Swan playhouse on Bankside, erected in 1595 and sketched by Johannes de Witt in the following year. His sketch was copied and that copy is the only surviving contemporary illustration of a theatre of Shakespeare's time. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    To supply the Londoners’ needs, goods, fuel and produce were brought by road, along the Thames and in seagoing and coastal vessels. The carts which supplied the city and those which transported goods from the quaysides along the Thames caused traffic congestion, which worsened during the sixteenth century, as London’s population grew and as the aristocracy, gentry and wealthier merchants took to travelling by coach. Congestion of pedestrians and vehicles was a characteristic and frustrating feature of life in the city. The number of vessels on the river also increased and visitors were impressed by the sheer amount of shipping in the Thames.

    As well as the seagoing vessels and river barges, the Thames seemed to be full of small passenger boats taking two passengers and known as wherries; by the end of the century there were said to be 3,000 of them. They were convenient for theatre-goers who attended performances in the new playhouses on Bankside; others were built in Shoreditch. The late sixteenth century saw the birth of the modern theatre as plays emerged from the court and aristocratic mansions onto a genuinely public stage, where a wide-ranging and constantly expanding repertoire could be enjoyed by everyone for a small charge. But the playhouses were viewed with suspicion, as places which attracted ne’er-do-wells, and the magistrates occasionally tried to suppress them, on moral grounds, and during outbreaks of plague, to deter people from crowding together, which was thought likely to help spread the disease.

    St James's Palace was built by Henry VIII in the 1530s; the Tudor gatehouse survives and was painted by E. W. Haslehust in the early 1920s. (Author's collection, Everyday Life in Tudor London, Amberley Publishing)

    Londoners had a range of other recreations to choose from. That was the period when the Lord Mayor’s show developed into a truly impressive day-long spectacle, with hundreds taking part and thousands lining the route. Bowling alleys, gaming-houses and alehouses were all popular, although the magistrates tried to control the numbers, partly because they were thought to be the resort of idle people who should have been at work. But alehouses were lively meeting places for music and conviviality, with ballads pasted on the walls to encourage communal singing. Inns, taverns and beer gardens were scattered about the city and were used by women as well as men. Women and men mixed freely in Tudor London and travellers commented on the practice of kissing as a greeting, with callers expected to kiss the hostess and her whole household both when they arrived and when they left.

    Tudor London, with its overlapping communities, was a complex, lively and rewarding city in which to live. By the time that the dynasty came to an end in 1603 its population had reached 200,000, having increased fourfold since Henry VII’s accession in 1485. That was just one reflection of how dominant the city was within England, in terms of its economic, social, political, legal and cultural influence. And it had gained a far wider international reach, as its merchants traded with an expanding range of ports across much of the world, and the greater volume and ever-widening variety of fine goods that were imported. Many of them reached London’s myriad shops and households; the congestion in the streets and on the river reflected the city’s industrious and prospering society. Problems remained, for growth brought overcrowding and bad living conditions for the poor, and epidemic diseases could not be prevented, but the rapid recovery from the sporadic outbreaks demonstrated London’s social and economic resilience. A French visitor in 1578 was so enthused by the city that he wrote that ‘rumours of the greatness, prosperity, singularities and splendours of London fly and run to the ends of the whole world’.

    Stephen Porter's new paperback edition of Everyday Life in Tudor London: Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn is available for purchase now.

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