Book Review: Everyday Life in Tudor London

Book: Everyday Life in Tudor London

I love books about London. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, another writer falls in love with it and gets the inspiration to churn out a new chapter in this city’s unique history. While most books attempt to encompass the entire story from its Roman past to the present day (an exhausting task), Stephen Porter has decided to brings us London exclusively through Tudor eyes in Everyday Life in Tudor London: Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn

 “This is a powerful and busy city, carrying on a great deal of trade with all countries. In the city are many people and many artisans, mostly goldsmiths and cloth workers, also very beautiful women, but food is dear.”  ~Gabriel Tetzel, 1466.

Artisans, beautiful women, and expensive food.  In that regard, you could say that not much has changed in 550 years. London has fascinated visitors from time immemorial and has been the subject of countless books that have tried to capture what it is to live in this city throughout different periods.

The Medieval to Tudor Shift

London was experiencing a dramatic shift at the end of the Middle Ages. In a relatively short period of time, it went from a staunchly Catholic city to a tumultuous Protestant one. The chain of events that Henry VIII (1491-1547) set in motion with his divorce from Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) kicked off the beginning of a turbulent period in London, throughout England, and across the continent. Intense power struggles shifted the balance back and forth, seeing London rife with with riots, uprisings, and changes in religious rule. The dust finally settled at the end of the century, with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) coming to a close, and the country solidified as a bastion of the new Protestant faith.

Tudor Developments

Power Struggles: Merchants, Guilds, and Newcomers

Tudor London was filled with foreign merchants, mainly Germans, Dutch, and Italians, bringing their wares and trades to sell. While they brought prosperity to the city, much like today, they were also the target of anti-immigrant sentiment and scapegoating by locals. Guilds were protective of their trades and wanted restrictions imposed on outsiders to protect their interests. The new customs, mannerisms, and practices brought by foreign merchants were perceived as a threat. Porter wrote of one incident where the animosity boiled over and on May Day, 1517, riots broke out. Londoners had been incited by the xenophobic preaching of Dr. Beal and attacked foreign merchants:

…”rose up and went to divers parts of the city inhabited by French and Flemish artificers and mechanics, sacked their houses and wounded many of them…” (p.54)

The rioters were swiftly punished, with some executed for their part in the disturbance. While there were attempts to curb foreign trade, such as privileges being withdrawn, those privileges were eventually reinstated as economic demand won over guild self interest.

Economics has never been one of my keen areas of interest, but Porter managed to make this one of my favourite chapters by presenting an intriguing look into how the city managed a massive population and trade surge throughout the period.

The End of an Era: The Dissolution of the Monasteries

I really enjoyed this chapter – although, as a medievalist, it always makes me make me sad when I hear about the Dissolution of the Monasteries; Henry VIII’s policy of ransacking, closing, and destroying Catholic monastic houses and churches between 1536-1541. Reading about the fate of the monastic houses in London was fascinating. Many monasteries fell into the hands of important court officials and noble families, like Sir Thomas Pope (1507-1559), Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations, a court which oversaw the redistribution of Catholic property. Pope acquired Bermondsey Abbey as reward for his work.

Collage of Abbey Street where Bermondsey Abbey once stood.

Collage of Abbey Street where Bermondsey Abbey once stood. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

Aside:I happen to live very close to the grounds of the former Bermondsey Abbey. All that remains now is a shiny blue plaque over a bar and grocery store, and street sign indicating where the abbey once stood.

Another curious point of this chapter was that, contrary to popular opinion, not all images and church decorations were destroyed during the Reformation. A proclamation was issued In 1560 stating that, ‘breakinge or defacing Monumentes of antiquitie being set up in Churches,’ was prohibited. (P.130) Monuments were understood to represent the dead and were not always equated with papist ideologies. These kinds of proclamations helped save some precious Medieval and Early Tudor pieces from destruction.

Lastly, it was interesting to read about the transition in provisioning for the poor and sick. Porter examined the tradition of giving alms to the poor through Catholic church donations, and how the poor were provided for once the The Reformation took hold. Porter found that the poor and sick were provided for by merchants who gave considerable sums to charity in their wills. Many established schools and hospitals to show that English Protestants were as good at giving as Catholics, but even more so because it was minus a ‘middle man’ i.e., the church.

What’s There To Do In This Town?: Recreation in Tudor London

Amid regular outbreaks of plague, religious upheaval, and tensions between locals and newcomers, Londoners found time to enjoy themselves in the city. Football, bellringing, and gambling were popular pastimes in Tudor London.

While completely distasteful to our modern sensibilities, some activities, like bear baiting, were all the rage during the sixteenth century. Bear pits were set up along the river and if you happen to be walking along the Thames Bankside today, there is still “Bear Garden”, a street name indicating approximately where the bear pit stood five hundred years ago.

The Tudor period was also Shakespeare’s time and witnessed the meteoric rise of theatre in London. The Curtain in Shoreditch, and the Globe and the Rose theatres Bankside, provided entertainment to people of all classes. Although theatre was intensely disliked by town and religious officials, they couldn’t do much to stay its popularity, especially after Queen Elizabeth I gave her stamp of approval and even took in the entertainment.

While Porter tends to hop back and forth through decades to illustrate points, or set the stage for current events, he starts his story in late medieval London and gradually moves in a semi-chronological fashion while tackling key events, people, and movements. The storytelling is good, although there are points where Porter gets bogged down with cost figures. Some of these numbers could be omitted, but for the most part, the pace is steady and doesn’t tread into boring territory.

Travellers have been writing about this city for centuries, and no doubt, will continue to do so for centuries to come. Stephen Porter can add his name to the long list of writers who have managed to give readers a compelling, and insightful glimpse into London’s Tudor past. This books makes a good addition to any Late Medieval, Early Modern, or London lover’s book collection. Happy reading!

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