Priests and prostitutes having fun in Southwark

downloadLast week, I got my hands on an 1814 guide to London. There’s one page that made me chuckle, describing the way in which men of the cloth and ladies of the night had fun together – for money.

On the south bank of the river Thames, in the borough of Southwark, there were plenty of brothels. Londoners would stroll across the bridge linking their city to this playground and pay for sex. The brothels they frequented were referred to as “stews”.

Stewholders – brothel keepers – rented their premises from powerful landowners. These included the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Walworth (died 1385). These enterprising women were often from across the English Channel in modern Belgium and the Netherlands. They were referred to as the “bawds of Flanders” or “Froes”.

The authorities took a surprisingly lenient view of their activity provided certain rules were obeyed. Stews were not to open on a Sunday, married women could not work in them and female criminals who had been branded for their crime were forbidden to take up this work.

My book, dating from 1814, takes a typically anti-Catholic line. The Middle Ages is depicted as a time of dark superstition and cruelty. When it comes to the stews, the author thinks that brothels were so prevalent because so many Catholic priests before the Protestant Reformation had taken vows of celibacy. It was a vow few of them could keep.

Perhaps in days when thousands were tied up by vows of celibacy, these haunts might have been necessary, for neither cowl nor cope had virtue sufficient to annihilate the strongest of human passions.

The signs for these stews didn’t hang off the building but were painted on the walls. The author thinks it’s hilarious that one brothel was called The Cardinal’s Hat. The involvement of the clergy weren’t just as potential clients. The bishop of Winchester – who ran much of Southwark – didn’t bat an eyelid as he taxed the prostitutes. It was good money. He wasn’t going to forego his cut.

In fact, his taxation became a subject of ribald gossip among Londoners. As they arrived over London bridge, the prostitutes would squawk and cackle at them – looking for business. They became known as the “Winchester Geese”. Let’s hope the bishop saw the funny side.

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When three thousand people died on London Bridge

IMG_6737London Bridge is falling down…  So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.

Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!

Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.

The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.

Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were. Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.

On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market. Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.

You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings. Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.

Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river. Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.

 

People who lived on London Bridge

To look at London Bridge now you see….well…..a bridge with traffic on it. But go back three centuries or more and the bridge was full of houses and some illustrious tenants. During the reign of Henry VIII, the court painter Holbein lived there. Two hundred years later, another artist – Hogarth – was a resident. They saw London Bridge in its Tudor and Georgian manifestations. It would have been remarkably similar during both periods.

Nonesuch Palace
Nonesuch Palace

The only highway for hundreds of years across the Thames was made up of about nineteen irregular arches with the original stones being laid in around 1176. Incredibly, this structure would last with many modifications until 1831 By that time, the medieval bridge and its Tudor houses had gone into a severe decline. The narrowness of the arches created fierce rapids and were not navigable by larger vessels.

From the Middle Ages, there was a stone chapel to St Thomas a Becket at the centre of the bridge. At either end were towers and the one facing Southwark was decorated with the severed heads of traitors. One of those heads under Henry VIII belonged to John Houghton, the last prior of the London Charterhouse who wouldn’t take the oath recognising King Henry as head of the Church of England. For that, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn gallows. An old story had it that the keeper of the tower who supervised these grisly human remains was an old cripple who would play his lute at night accompanied by his pet owl.

The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge
The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge

In the sixteenth century, a large wooden building called Nonesuch House (as there was none such like it) appeared on the bridge. It was basically a wooden kit made in the Netherlands and then assembled in situ using just pegs to keep the whole thing together. It was surmounted by onion domes and sundials.

By the eighteenth century, the bridge was something of a death trap. The houses were on the verge of collapse and hung over the street blocking out the daylight. Timber beams slung across the top storeys stopped them collapsing on top of carts and coaches below. There were no footways and the whole thing was clogged up permanently – proving impossible to cross.

The only shops were needle makers and booksellers. One of the latter was Crispin Tucker, who both sold and wrote books and was visited by Alexander Pope and Dean Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels). Nonesuch and the St Thomas chapel were in a bad state and used as warehouses.

God Deliver Us from the Wild Northmen!

This was a prayer added to the church litany during the so-called “Dark Ages” as Viking marauders raided monasteries and farmsteads along the coasts of England in the 800s and 900s CE.  In 834, Londoners witnessed Danish longboats heading up the Thames. These were pirates, looking for booty. But by 1003 CE, the Vikings were no longer just plundering, the Scandanavian hard men now fancied their chances at ruling the place.

King Swein of the Danes marched through southern England and headed for London. Unable to breach the old Roman walls, he camped his forces in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. The only way to cross the river and access the city was via London Bridge, the city’s one bridge up until the eighteenth century. The bridge Swein encountered had been built in 994 and was made up of wooden planks, roughly hewn.

King Olaf
King Olaf – pulled down London Bridge

The Saxons, who had been ruling England more or less since the Romans had departed, now mustered an army under Ethelred the Unready and his ally, King Olaf of Norway. For some reason, the Norwegians had fallen out with the Danes! They rushed Southwark but were repulsed with some loss of life. They then decided to oust the Danes from the bridge where they were encroaching.

Olaf took his boats and – according to a later Icelandic chronicle – protected them with wicker shields from stones being rained down by Danes on the bridge. Unfortunately, the stones were hurled with enough force from above to kill many men and damage the boats. But, Olaf’s forces slowly managed to get through the attach ropes to the piles of the bridge. They’d calculated correctly on the tides and the boats were able to pull the bridge’s foundations away with the whole structure crashing into the water.

As the Icelandic chronicler put it in praise of Olaf:

And thou hast overthrown their bridges, O thou Storm of the sons of Odin! Skilful and foremost in battle!

Olaf went on to be canonised as a saint for his role in Christianising Norway (though some historians dispute his importance in this regard). There is still a Saint Olaf’s church in the City of London that dates back to those far off times.