Sin City: thievery, prostitution and murder in medieval London

If you were looking for a rich stew of criminality, 14th-century London was the place to find it. Bruce Holsinger walks the mean streets of the medieval capital.

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

A thief hangs from the gallows.

A thief hangs from the gallows. Evidence suggests that brutal punishments did little  to deter criminal behaviour in medieval London. (Getty Images)

 

On the night of 6 January 1337, John le Whyte, an animal skinner down from Cambridge, broke into a mercer’s shop on the Lane of St Lawrence Jewry, around the corner from the London Guildhall. Among the goods that Whyte lifted from the shop of Geoffrey Punte were gold and silver rings, pearls, thread and bracelets – a nice haul, with a total value of 100 shillings.

According to Punte’s suit against Whyte, preserved in one of the letter-books from the reign of Edward III, these goods had been “feloniously stolen at night”, an offence with grave consequences for the condemned. John le Whyte was hanged, one of many petty thieves executed for such offences in the period.

While medieval England often made short work of its criminals, frequent capital punishment was no more successful a deterrent in 14th-century London than it is in Texas today. Thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market made the medieval city ripe for exploitation by those with a skill for the quick blade or picking a pocket.

In this respect, London in the later Middle Ages has more in common than we might expect with the modern urban milieus of TV series Prime Suspect and The Wire. As often as citizens observed church-mandated fasts and repented their sins, they hired prostitutes, cut purses, bribed wardmoots (small courts), and threw corpses into sewers.

Thanks to the patient archival work of urban historians over the past 20 years, medieval London’s criminal underworld has come into increasingly vivid focus, giving us intriguing glimpses of the many lives it shaped and affected.

It is important to understand that ‘medieval London’ was three towns, not one. Much of the character of urban life (and thus urban crime) was shaped by the two smaller suburbs lying outside the walled city itself – and largely beyond its jurisdiction. One of the defining elements of urban life in the London–Southwark-Westminster triangle was the constant clash of laws, liberties, regulations and petty jurisdictions that could intensify the conflicts among a diverse citizenry with competing interests and affiliations.

 

Geography of vice

Significant, too, is what we might call the urban geography of vice. Consider the Southwark bankside, current home of Shakespeare’s Globe, Southwark Cathedral and the ruins of Winchester Palace, still visible among the touristy bustle of Clink Street. At first glance, the location of this former residence of the bishops of Winchester would seem to suggest a degree of episcopal surveillance sufficient to ward off vice. In fact, it was in the bishop’s own liberties that the city’s most popular brothels were located for much of the medieval era.

The bishop himself served as their effective landlord (often shutting them down during parliament for appearance’s sake), and it is surely no accident that some of the most frequently identified patronisers of prostitutes in surviving records of court proceedings turn out to be priests, monks and friars. The church and its moral teachings were hardly a guarantee against venial transgression.

Despite a series of regulations that sought to confine the practice to Southwark and narrow its appeal, prostitution thrived in London too, whether in the ward of Farringdon Without, known as a frequent haunt of ‘common women’, as prostitutes were often called, or in a small neighbourhood nestled between Cheapside and the church of St Pancras, Soper Lane that must have been a notorious district of sexual vice.

Evidence for the trade’s flourishing here comes in the suggestive names given to streets and alleys: Gropecunt Lane and Popkirtle Lane, narrow byways cutting north from the St Pancras churchyard and intersecting with Cheapside just across from Mercers’ Hall.

An account of another such precinct, uncovered by Ruth Karras in her history of medieval English prostitution, claims knowledge of a “privy place” behind a tavern in Queenhithe ward. It was “a good hiding place for thieves… many evil agreements are made there, and many whores and bawds have there their shelter and leisure to make their false covenants”.

 

Sex “as a woman”

Perhaps the most fascinating document of sexual vice to survive from medieval London is the record from the mayor’s court of the interrogation of John Rykener, a male transvestite prostitute who lived and worked in Oxford and London in the 1380s and 1390s. Appearing in the Guildhall in women’s clothing, Rykener named any number of men – including multiple rectors and chaplains, several Franciscans, a Carmelite and three Oxford scholars – with whom he had performed sex “as a woman”. He also cited several women – wives and nuns alike – with whom he’d copulated “as a man”.

Rykener testified that he had received his training in the “unmentionable act” from a certain Anna, the whore of a servant in the household of Sir Thomas Blount. This was likely the same Thomas Blount who would take an active role in the Epiphany Rising of 1399 against Henry IV and be executed gruesomely the following year. 

Londoners of the 14th and 15th centuries had a sophisticated understanding of the vice-ridden city they inhabited, often associating particular districts with certain criminal proclivities. In the satire London Lickpenny, a Kentish man walks through the neighbourhood of Cornhill, “where there is much stolen gear to be found”. There he spies his “own hood, that I had lost in Westminster among the throng” – though he lacks the funds to purchase his headwear back from the thief openly peddling it on the street.

The city’s merchants and craftsmen were additional targets of suspicion, ire and prosecution, particularly when the health and safety of the populace were seen to be threatened by the mercantile cutting of corners. In July 1345, four butchers were forced to forfeit all of their meat, to the value of over nine shillings, for the offence of blocking the street with their wares.

The company of Spurriers (or spur-makers) was certainly concerned about the nocturnal behaviour of its own members. At night, the company’s medieval articles contend, “they introduce false iron, and iron that has been cracked” into their product, and they cheat by putting “gilt on false copper”. Wandering about the streets all day “without working at their trade,” such miscreant spurriers begin to smith only once “they have become drunk and frantic”.

At the other end of the criminal spectrum from drunkenness and vagrancy were assault and murder, not infrequent occurrences in the city. By one historian’s estimate, in the first half of the 14th century as many as two men a month died in drunken brawls in London, with the surviving perpetrators facing certain death on the gallows.

Some cases of murder proved particularly notorious. In one horrific incident from near the end of the Middle Ages, found by historian Shannon McSheffrey in a King’s Bench indictment, two silkwomen, Elizabeth Taillour and Alice Rolff, lay in wait for a woman named Elizabeth Knollys, an apparent rival in the craft. After seizing their victim, Taillour and Rolff drowned Knollys in a tub, burned as much of her body as they could, then threw the rest of the corpse down a latrine.

Though the murder apparently occurred on 12 September, the inquest did not take place until early November – suggesting that the charred remains may not have been found in the privy channel for weeks following the crime. Taillour admitted her guilt while Rolff ‘plead[ed] her belly’ (under English common law, pregnant women could sometimes receive a reprieve on a death sentence until they had given birth), claiming a pregnancy that a jury of matrons soon disproved. Both women hanged.

With such sordid behaviour a constant threat, how did the London authorities manage to keep a lid on things and guard against excessive outbreaks of crime and vice? The city’s mechanisms of enforcement were many and varied, enlisting aldermen, constables and other officials as well as citizens on volunteer patrol in the night watch.

 

Habitual drunkards

The mayor required the wards to provide regular lists of habitual drunkards, civil offenders and women of ill repute. Meanwhile royal and civic proclamations were shouted by criers at key landmarks, announcing new edicts or strengthened regulations – audible reminders of the Guildhall’s never-ending efforts to maintain civic order.

Within the wards themselves, such duties often fell to the beadles. Though originally charged with overseeing the raking and cleaning of streets, during the course of the 14th century London’s beadles assumed primary responsibility for keeping their wards free of ne’er-do-wells, including prostitutes, thieves and known highwaymen. The beadles and their men would often accompany the night watchmen on foot patrol after curfew, gathering up violators and tossing them in the Counter, the Tun, or other of the city jails designated for offenders of public order.

Yet the Guildhall was hardly a beacon of lawfulness. The fierce rivalry between two lord mayors of London, Nicholas Brembre (see box, right) and John Northampton, during the 1380s marked a period of great urban strife and corruption at the highest levels. Several mayoral elections during these years were won by force of arms, with murders in the streets going largely unprosecuted. Civic regulations and prescribed means of enforcement can give us only a dim understanding of the actual criminal practices they were designed to control.

No one understood this gap between prohibition and practice more acutely than John Gower, a friend and literary rival of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived at the Southwark priory of St Mary Overy in the later years of the 14th century. Though Gower rarely mentions London or Southwark in his verse, his poetic corpus is a catalogue of urban vice and crime, and with a distinctive flair for the local.

“Just as one sees the neighbours’ wives selling their hens in the market,” he writes in his Mirour de l’Omme, “in the same way the bawd sells and bargains over virgins, and she makes them concubines to wanton lechers”.

Bribery, murder, theft, rapine: all come in for scrutiny under the poet’s pen – as does the justness of punishments small and large. “That robbery is worthy of hanging,” Gower dryly observes, “we learn in the Bible.”

In a city defined in part by the moral hypocrisies of its lay and ecclesiastical leaders, Gower’s wry imagination delighted in the moral compromises that made medieval London’s criminal underworld a rich stew of violence and vice, oddly tasteful to a poet’s tongue. 

Bruce Holsinger is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. His debut historical novel, A Burnable Book, which is set in London in 1385, was published by HarperCollins in January.

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