Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Walk through Leicester Square or Covent Garden today and you can see the usual street performers attracting gawping crowds. If you find these acts annoying, I’m afraid they’ve been a part of London life for hundreds of years. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys were Londoners who kept diaries of their daily lives and both described the entertainers they saw in the 17th century.

So…what kind of people were performing back then?

  • A man called The Turk. A rope was fixed to the top of a church steeple and the other end to the ground at a 90 degree angle. The Turk then climbed by his toes. When he reached the top, this fearless chap slid down head first with his arms and legs spread out.
  • The Hairy Woman. Her eyebrows covered her entire forehead. A lock of hair grew out of each ear. And she had a thick beard and moustache.
  • The Dutch Boy. Exhibiting himself at Charing Cross, this strange child had the words Deus Meus inscribed in tiny letters on the iris of one eye and Elohim on the other iris. Doctors examined him but disagreed whether the words were on his eyes from birth or placed there afterwards. It also seems he wasn’t blind.
  • Richardson the fire eater. This incredible individual chewed and swallowed hot coals, ate melted glass and put a hot coal on his tongue on top of which he cooked an oyster. He then had a drink….of pitch, wax and sulphur – flaming!

Add to that collection the usual array of contortionists, dancing bears and bull baiting. Something for everybody!

 

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Richard Rose – London chef – boiled to death

Never let it be said that the Tudors lacked a sense of humour – especially when it came to one of their favourite pastimes: execution.

Anne Boleyn - paid a cook to poison a bishop?
Anne Boleyn – paid a cook to poison a bishop?

Smithfield, where I worked for a few years in the 1990s, was for centuries a meat market. It was also a place where people were put to death – most famously Braveheart or William Wallace to be more precise. But by the late Middle Ages, most executions had moved on to Tyburn.

However, Smithfield would still play host to the burning of heretics, especially under “Bloody” Queen Mary who sent about 277 people up in smoke for being Protestants. She was an ardent Catholic.

During the reign of Mary’s father, the great religious upheavals of the Reformation got underway. The tide switched between Catholic and Protestant as Henry VIII declared himself head of the church in England, deposed the Pope’s authority but couldn’t quite decide how far to go down the Protestant path. It was tough reading his majesty’s mind but worse if you deliberately decided to disagree on religious matters.

Bishop John Fisher decided to disagree very publicly about the king usurping the pope’s authority. So it was rather suspicious when Fisher’s cook was revealed as something of a poisoner.  The terrible truth came to light at a dinner thrown by Fisher, who was Bishop of Rochester, at his palace.

His cook, Richard Rose, concocted a pottage that was intended to be Fisher’s last supper. Unfortunately, the bishop didn’t eat the meal but two of his guests wolfed it down and died in agony. As did the grateful poor of Lambeth to whom the bishop handed out his leftovers as a fatal act of charity. Rose was apprehended, dragged to Smithfield and then cooked in front of a baying crowd.

Given the religious ferment of the time, some wagging tongues accused the second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, of having a hand in the poisoned gruel. Had the Protestant queen paid Rose to poison the Catholic bishop? There’s no evidence to support this. And the decision to boil Rose suggests that the king had zero tolerance for low-born types trying to murder his prelates, no matter what their theological views.

POSTSCRIPT: Ten years later, a servant girl called Margaret Davis was also boiled to death for trying to poison her mistress and some other people.