Life in Tudor London
From the stench of fish markets to the raucous racket of playhouses and pedestrian traffic jams, visitors to Tudor London were accosted by the vibrant sights, sounds and smells of a booming metropolis. Stephen Porter takes us on a trip through the city streets…
The large and vibrant city of Tudor London held an unrivalled position within England as the centre of government, political life and the law. It was also the focal point of power and patronage and the hub of overseas and inland trade, with a diverse and flourishing economy.
New ideas and practices emanated from the continent in many fields. London’s overseas trade expanded into new regions and trading contacts developed, centred on the commercial world of the City. Meanwhile, the court’s artistic interests and patronage grew, as did networks of the humanist intelligentsia.
A trading hub
The wealth and the opportunities offered by London drew aspiring merchants from across the country and abroad. In 1497, a Venetian visitor wrote that throughout the city he saw “many workshops of craftsmen in all sorts of mechanical arts, to such an extent that there is hardly a street which is not graced by some shop of the like”. Shops also lined the street across London Bridge, an impressive structure which was greatly admired.
Districts developed their own specialities. In Watling Street were “wealthy drapers, retailers of woollen cloth, both broad and narrow, of all sorts, more than in any one street of this city” and by the end of the 16th century, Bread Street Hill contained “fair houses, inhabited by fishmongers, cheesemongers, and merchants”. Meanwhile, Fish Street Hill was home to “fishmongers and fair taverns… grocers and haberdashers”, while Bucklesbury was “possessed of grocers and apothecaries towards the west end thereof”.
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Housing and hygiene
Tudor London’s streets most likely gave an unfavourable impression, narrow and lined with tall buildings, they must have appeared rather dark and dismal. Most of London’s houses were timber-framed, filled in with lath [wooden slats] and plaster. Brick was also used and the chimneys were generally made of stone or brick. Following regulations in the 13th century designed to reduce the threat of fire, roofs were generally tiled.
Surfaces were foul. One visitor described them as “so badly paved that they get wet at the slightest quantity of water, and this happens very frequently” with rain and spillage by the water carriers, who regularly went around the streets with their packhorses selling water to the householders. This produced a “vast amount of evil-smelling mud” which did not “disappear quickly but lasts a long time”. To remove mud and filth from their boots, Londoners spread fresh rushes on the floors of their houses. This practice disgusted the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who recounted that although the rushes were renewed occasionally, that was done “so as to leave a basic layer, sometimes for 20 years, under which fester spittle, vomit, dogs’ urine and men’s too, dregs of beer and cast-off bits of fish, and other unspeakable kinds of filth”. London’s environment was undoubtedly a smelly one, both indoors and out.
The city contained more than 100 parish churches, the great cathedral of St Paul’s and more than 30 monastic houses of varying sizes. The monastic orders owned many houses across the city. After they were dissolved in the 1530s, not only were the sites of the monasteries sold but so too were their properties. This meant that the mid-16th century saw a considerable transfer of ownership of property.
Feeding London’s citizens
Londoners enjoyed a varied diet. Mutton and beef was “generally considered to be better here than anywhere else in the world… due to the excellence of their pasture”. Plenty of fish was consumed, and the local people were “particularly fond of young swans, rabbits, deer and seabirds”. The Venetian visitor in 1497 commented that Londoners “eat very frequently, at times more than is suitable.” He suggested that they enjoyed banquets and a variety of meat and food: “they excel everyone in preparing them with excessive abundance”.
Markets were held along the streets. The principal one was held in Cheapside and the names of the adjacent streets indicated the specialities of their produce, such as Honey Lane, Bread Street, Milk Street and Wood Street; Friday Street was named for a fish market held there on Fridays. Cheapside continued eastwards as a street known as Poultry, where the poultry dealers were still trading until the early 16th century. At the other end of Cheapside, a corn market was held in a churchyard, and beyond that, Newgate Street was used by butchers for slaughterhouses and stalls.
The markets were closely regulated so that sharp practices would not prevent the establishment of a fair price based on supply, quality and demand. The prices of the staple foodstuffs were controlled and standardised; London’s mayor fixed the weight of a loaf annually, when the quality of grain was known after the harvest. To guard against shortages, the city’s corporation maintained a granary at Leadenhall and when prices rose, grain was imported. In 1519 it built additional garners within the Bridge House in Southwark, and erected 10 bread-making ovens there.
To supply the Londoners’ demands, goods, fuel and produce were brought by road or 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. This worsened during the 16th century, as London’s population grew and 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. When the Secretary to the Duke of Württemberg [a historical German territory] visited in London in 1592, he found that the crowds were such that “one can scarcely pass along the streets, on account of the throng”.
Thames Street, which served the riverside quays, was often said to be “so blocked that sometimes passers-by are brought to a standstill for a long time”. Other streets were so badly obstructed by parked carts that in 1586 a set of rules controlling parking were issued, specifying the places where carters could wait for business and the numbers of carts allowed. The amount of vessels on the river had also increased, as had the volume of the cargo landed. Visitors were impressed by the sheer amount of shipping in the Thames. One found it “a magnificent sight to see the number of ships and boats which lie at anchor”.
As well as the seagoing vessels and river barges, the Thames was full of small passenger boats, known as wherries; by the end of the 16th century there were said to be around 3,000 of them. Able to carry two passengers and often charmingly upholstered, these light rowing boats were a comfortable way to travel. Wherry journeys did face a few drawbacks: they were uncomfortable if the river was too choppy, and trips involving the hazardous operation of passing beneath London Bridge could sometimes lead to capsizes and even fatalities.
The wherries were used by theatregoers attending performances in the new playhouses on Bankside. Others theatres sprang up in Shoreditch. The late 16th 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. Playhouses were viewed with suspicion, as places that attracted “light and lewd disposed persons, as harlots, cutpurses, cozeners and pilferers, who under colour of hearing plays, devised ungodly conspiracies”. The magistrates occasionally tried to suppress them on moral grounds, but also because people crowding together during outbreaks of plague were likely to help spread the disease.
The growing numbers of Londoners also had a range of other recreations to choose from. Although nostalgic observers claimed that sporting activities such as archery were in decline and disapproving moralisers complained that sedentary ways to pass the time had become popular, plenty of attractive entertainments were available.
In this period the Lord Mayor’s Show developed into a truly impressive day-long pageant and spectacle, with hundreds taking part and thousands lining the route. Bowling alleys, gaming-houses and alehouses were all popular, despite magistrates trying to control their custom. Alehouses were lively meeting places for music and conviviality, with ballads pasted on the walls to encourage communal singing. A Swiss visitor to Tudor London wrote that “scattered about the city” were inns, taverns and beer gardens “where much amusement may be had with eating, drinking, fiddling, and the rest”. He thought it worth commenting that “the women as well as the men, in fact more often than they, will frequent the taverns or ale-houses for enjoyment”. The mixing of women and men in Tudor London surprised some travellers. They mentioned the practice of kissing as a greeting, with guests expected to kiss the hostess and her whole household both when they arrived and when they left. Erasmus wrote that “whenever a meeting takes place there is kissing in abundance; in fact whatever way you turn, you are never without it.” He thought that it was a fashion which “cannot be commended enough”.
Tudor London, with its overlapping communities, was a complex, lively and rewarding city in which to live. By the time that the Tudors dynasty came to an end with Elizabeth I’s death 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.
London had also gained a far wider international reach as its merchants traded with an expanding range of ports across much of the world. A greater volume and ever-widening variety of fine goods were imported; many of them found their way into 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. 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 “rumour of the greatness, prosperity, singularities and splendours of London fly and run to the ends of the whole world”.
Stephen Porter is the author of Everyday Life in Tudor London: Life in the City of Thomas Cromwell, William Shakespeare & Anne Boleyn (Amberley, 2016)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016