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1603 AD: Shakespearean London

Claes Visscher (1586-1652): Colour version of London Panorama showing London Bridge (1616).
Claes Visscher (1586-1652): Colour version of London Panorama showing London Bridge (1616).
Claes Visscher (1586-1652): Colour version of London Panorama showing London Bridge (1616).

We recently brought you a snippet of Medieval London, the first part of the History of London course offered by Dr. Matthew Green. This week, we take a brief trip back in time to Shakespearean London. 

What kind of a place was Shakespeare’s London? We’re taking a peek into the second lecture of the series, a ‘teaser’ on London in 1603.

Drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde (1525 - 1571). View of London – The Tower of London – 16th century
Drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde (1525 – 1571). View of London – The Tower of London – 16th century.

London is Booming

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) arrived in this fair city in 1589 and ended up living here for as long as he had lived in his home city of Stratford-Upon-Avon. By the late sixteenteenth, early seventeenth century, Southwark has expanded, and London’s tourist culture grew exponentially during this time. London was still a city that divided contemporary opinion; Swiss diarist and physician, Thomas Platter the Younger (1574-1628) visited London in 1599 and loved the city. His diaries about his adventures in the city have enabled historians to accurately date some of Shakespeare’s plays. Conversely, English poet, John Donne (1573-1631) thought London was a place of danger, vanity and vice.

In terms of physical growth, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and James I (1566-1625) were keen in trying to prevent London from sprawling as the population swelled to over 200,000 people. London now constituted the fifth biggest city in Europe. Rome and Paris still eclipsed London, but by the seventeenth century, London surpassed them to become the biggest city in Europe. Green said, “London was a magnet for immigrants, especially after the advent of the Tudor regime in 1485. It sucked in 5,000 migrant per year.” As the Reformation kicked off, a large number of Huguenot refugees arrived. Immigrants predominantly came from France, Spain and the Low Countries.

The Bear Garden, Bankside. Visscher's map of London (1616).
The Bear Garden, Bankside. Visscher’s map of London (1616).

Bankside’s Bull and Bear Baiting

Bull and bear baiting initially took place in fields but in the 1540s, structures were built purposely for these two events. Londoners would watch bull and bear baiting once per week. The event was open to all, with galleries reaching up to four stories high to accommodate the crowds. In the middle of the ring, would be a bull with a chain around its neck and large mastiffs circling the bull. The crowds would scream: “Now dog! Now bull!” The dogs crawled along their bellies with the goal being the bulls flipping the dogs like pancakes. There were four rounds and bets were placed on the dogs. The spectacle was particularly savage and a popular British blood sport. It was horrific but it drove the crowds wild. How could something so gruesome become so popular? Bull and bear baiting had royal legitimacy; while Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) never went to the Globe, she loved this sport and her approval helped make it immensely popular. The most shocking thing was the words used to describe this pastime: sweet, peaceful, and good fun. The only people who objected to this sport were Puritans because animals were God’s creatures. By the early 18th century, bull and bear baiting was seen as distasteful and had come to a stop but it has left its mark on London in the form of a street sign, SE1 Bear Gardens, in the very spot where the baiting was once held.

Tobacco drinker (1623). Library of Congress.
Tobacco drinker (1623). Library of Congress.

Tobacco: “The Smoaking Age”

Tobacco took the city by storm in the sixteenth century. Everyone smoked: men, women, children. People even slept with their pipes under their pillows at night!

Tobacco was warm and dry and considered a sensible addition to good health. Medical practitioners made medicinal claims about the restorative qualities of tobacco, such as it being good for pregnant women to smoke! Tobacco’s praises were also taken up by many writers, “They embrace this miraculous herb as given from the grace of God.” Tobacco was also believed to be a catalyst for creativity, and smokers thought it would bring them closer to God. According to Green, early seventeenth century Loondon contained, ‘the first generation of chain smoking intellectuals.’ There were over 7,000 tobacco houses in the city, more than ale houses and taverns, making it the smoking capital of Europe. Tobacco houses were the forerunners of the coffeehouse. If you had money, you smoked with a Winchester pipe, trimmed with silver and a kept your stash in a decorative tobacco box. Poorer smokers had plain, clay pipes.

King James VI and I (1566-1625) disliked tobacco. He produced a pamphlet lamenting tobacco, concerned that it wasn’t being cultivated in England. He was also concerned about tobacco being produced by heathens, and affecting the English in some bizarre form of reverse colonization. To combat this scourge, he hiked taxes by 4,000% but it just created rampant smuggling. James eventually conceded defeat and then lowered the prices when he saw it was a lucrative commodity.

The course covers a lot of information about early modern London, but you will need to attend to find out more! Stay tuned: Next week, we will feature a teaser on Plague Struck London!

New classes have been announced starting every Tuesday, from January 17th, 2017.REGISTER HERE

For more information about the course and London tours, please visit: Unreal City Audio

Like Unreal City Audio on Facebook

Follow Dr. Green on Twitter: @drmatthewgreen

Dr. Matthew Green runs several fantastic historical tours, such as the Medieval Wine TourCoffee House TourLondon in 7 Drinks, and Chocolate House Tour.

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