Historical city travel guide: London, late 16th century
London sits in the fertile south-east of England at an ancient crossing point of the River Thames. For most of its history, ships have been able to navigate up to the city, giving it its status as gateway to the world and fuelling its prosperity.
London is currently the largest city in the country by a huge margin, with a population heading towards 200,000 (probably ten times the population of its nearest rivals – Norwich, Bristol and York), and this dominance has been the case pretty much from the time the kingdom of England itself came into being in the 11th century.
When to visit
The climate is temperate and liveable throughout the year, even in the Little Ice Age. However, in the summer anyone who can afford it leaves London, to avoid the heat, the smells (bad at the best of times) and the plague, which is worse when the weather is good, and in the early 1590s there has been a lot of good weather! In summer the Queen goes on ‘progress’, a tour of one of the regions of the country. The law courts stop sitting, the great lords retreat to their estates and the playing companies go on tour, so there is much less to do.
The best time to visit is probably autumn or spring – the court and players are back and plague retreats. The smells never really go away, so bring or buy a pomander. Mid-winter is not without its appeal – if the Thames freezes, there are fairs on the river and the chance to skate (back in 1564 boys staged a football match on the frozen river), and if you have entry to the court, the Christmas festivities are amazing.
Foreign visitors and people from the east and south coast will likely arrive by ship and disembark downriver at Greenwich or come up to the port itself. Most visitors will arrive on foot or horseback via a road system stretching in every direction, many routes still following the path of the ancient Roman roads.
Once in the city it’s easiest to walk most of the time, weather permitting, though you may wish to ride a horse (your own or a hired one), or use a carriage (though they are not very comfortable) if you intend to cross the whole city from the eastern suburbs to Westminster. A good rule when walking around, is to keep your eyes up – while it is illegal to throw refuse into the streets, it happens all the time and you won’t want the contents of a chamber-pot emptied onto your new hat from the overhanging windows!
Another time-saver is to hire one of the watermen to row you up or down the river or to cross to the attractions of Southwark on the south bank, with its playhouses, bear-pits and brothels, out of reach of the disapproving city authorities. It should be no more than a penny to cross the river, but you should be prepared to pay between twopence and sixpence for a river trip west or east.
London Bridge is the only bridge over the Thames and while it has shopping opportunities along it and you can have fun trying to identify dead traitors from the heads stuck on poles at the south entrance, it isn’t always convenient, especially if you are staying in Westminster. Plus you might be sharing passage with herds and flocks of sheep, cattle and poultry from Kent and Surrey being brought into town for sale or slaughter. It is however one of the great sights of the city, with its twenty huge arches towering above the river.
Thames the most famous riuer of this Iland, beginneth a little aboue a village called Winchcombe in Oxfordshire, and still increasing passeth first by the university of Oxford, and so with a maruelous quiet course to London, and thence breaketh into the French Ocean by maine tides, which twice in 24. howers space doth eb and slow, more then 60. miles in length, to the great commoditie of Trauellers, by which all kind of Marchandise bee easily conueyed to London, the principall store house, and Staple of all commodities within this Realme, so that omitting to speake of great ships, and other vessels of burden, there pertayneth to the Citties of London, Westminster, and Burrough of Southwarke, aboue the number as is supposed of 2000. Wherryes and other small boates, whereby 3000. poore men at the least bee set on worke and maintained.
John Stow, Survey of London, 1603 edition
Where to stay
There are inns specialising in accommodation and dining everywhere in London, alongside more basic drinking dens. Many visitors like to stay on the edge of the city in places like the Tabard, handy for visitors from Kent or Surrey (see below), with open fields behind them. The staff there will be happy to give you useful information – including whether the playhouses are open, if the Queen is at Whitehall, Greenwich, Richmond or Windsor, and if Parliament is sitting.
If you are staying more than three days, the innkeeper will also register you with the city authorities, as is required – remember to do this yourself if you make other arrangements. Regulation of inns is pretty strict and any complaint will be taken seriously, so you should be reasonably relaxed. Foreign visitors often comment on how clean English inns are. Though if you stay in one of the dodgier areas like Southwark, maybe consider keeping any valuables elsewhere.
If you are visiting as an agent of your lord, you will be put up in his London house, perhaps on the Strand by the river. If you are dropping your eldest son off for a term at the Inns of Court to learn to be a gentleman, they will put you up. For those without such connections, you can also get room and board in a private house easily enough (I hear the player Mr Shakespeare boards regularly with a gold-thread maker in Silver St).
From thence towards London bridge on the same side, be many fayre Innes, for receipt of trauellers, by these signes, the Spurre, Christopher, Bull, Queenes head, Tabarde, George, Hart, Kinges Head, &c. Amongst the which, the most auncient is the Tabard… For the Inne of the Tabard, Geffrey Chaucer Esquire, the most famous Poet of England, in commendation thereof writeth thus.
‘It befell in that season, on a day,
In Southwarke at the Tabert, as I lay,
Readie to wenden on my Pilgrimage,
To Canterburie with full deuout courage.
John Stow, Survey of London, first published 1598 (1603 edition)
Things to do
Obvious places to visit are the public areas of the Queen’s palace at Whitehall – a confusing mass of buildings, extravagantly decorated but with no great vista. You might be able to check out the royal tiltyard, where the lavish Accession Day jousts are celebrated on 17 November in the Queen’s presence. If you are here at this time you should join the crowds of onlookers. Next door is the royal tennis court.
If you get inside the palace, a highlight is the great wall map showing Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. It used to be a state secret, but now is up for visitors to see. If you are in town to petition Her Majesty for the grant of an office or redress of a wrong, try to find a place very early on Sunday or a holy day, when she processes in public to the chapel royal and petitions are collected – it will be packed out. At Westminster Abbey a guide will take you round the great monuments – visitors sometimes write the epitaphs in notebooks as mementos of their visit.
A walk from Westminster along the Strand takes you to the City of London proper, passing a succession of great houses abutting the river, including Cecil House and Essex House. To the north side of the Strand are the open fields of Long Acre and Covent Garden.
You might want to hire one of the watermen and visit Richmond or Greenwich, if the court is in residence there during your visit, or else go to view the Tower of London. The White Tower is believed to have been built by Julius Caesar. You can tour parts of the Tower and a guide will talk you through the cannons, Henry VIII’s armour and show you the royal apartments, the mint, and the Queen’s menagerie, with several lions, a tiger, a porcupine and (if it’s still alive) the last wolf in England. Warning: you have to pay for each of these so the cost can be up to about 3 shillings per person.
There is plenty of entertainment in London, mostly in the afternoons. Lack of police, street lighting and transport cuts down on actual night-life outside the royal court. Public theatres are active from October to March, with a new show every few days. Plays start at 2pm and are very affordable, the cheapest tickets, standing in the pit, cost a penny. You might be lucky enough to see Edward Alleyn as Tamberlane or Richard Burbage as Henry V!
Food and drink can be bought throughout the performances, though beware – there are no bathrooms or intervals and pickpockets mingle in the crowds. For a more niche audience, there are the boys’ companies where young boys play adult parts. Some viewers find the levels of distance and irony involved engaging and edgy, others think they are lightweight and a bit creepy. Incidentally, if you have your young son with you, keep an eye on him – the boys’ companies and choirs of the chapel royal and St Paul’s have been known to basically kidnap talented youngsters.
There are often fireworks and street parties on the queen’s accession day anniversary on 17 November. The procession for the new Mayor of London on 29 October has pageants along the way and an elaborate water procession of ornate barges when he goes to take his oath at the Exchequer. Unlike in the country, Mayday is a bit boring, as Londoners are no longer allowed to set up the great maypole at Cornhill.
Elsewhere there are comedy shows, fencing demonstrations, cockfighting, bear and bull-baiting and a host or other activities. As well as the Globe and Rose theatres, Southwark offers five bear-pits – if you are lucky you might see the famous bear Sackerson, name checked in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
On a Sunday, join the crowds at the cross outside St Paul’s Cathedral to hear one of the great preachers, who will often incidentally give you the view from the court on the politics of the day.
Finally, there is that grisly old favourite, a public execution. There hasn’t been a celebrity execution at the Tower since the Duke of Norfolk in 1572, so it is usually just criminals at Tyburn to see.
On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar… daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best enjoy most spectators.
Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to London, in 1599 attends an early performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the new Globe Theatre.
If you want to shop, you might work your way along the goldsmiths’ premises on fashionable Cheapside, or visit one of the clockmakers – the latest gadgets are little clocks called watches that you can actually carry around. They only keep time to the half-hour, but they will impress your friends!
If you want furs, go to a merchant who is a member of the Muscovy Company. Members of the Levant Company will have wonderful Turkish carpets. A new company has received a charter from the Queen this year (1600) to trade in the East Indies – I’m not sure they will make much headway against the Spanish.
The publishing centre in St Paul’s churchyard is where the printers and booksellers are based. Here you can buy copies of royal proclamations, sermons, poems, plays, school text books and all the classics. While some nicely bound copies will be available, you may prefer to buy them more cheaply unbound, as most people do, so you can get your whole library bound in matching covers to ornament your study. The second part of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen has been available since 1596 and there are several plays by Master Shakespeare for about sixpence each (Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Now he’s quite famous, they even put his name on the title page!
Food and drink
Food and drink of the familiar seasonal sort is readily available. Breakfast will likely be bread and butter, with perhaps some fresh fruit, if available. You will have lunch, your main meal, at 11.00–12.00 and supper, your evening meal, at 17.00–18.00. In a decent establishment you will have a choice of roast meats, pies, salad, tarts, fruit and cheese. You will be likely to eat in your inn or with the family you board with, but there is also plenty of street-food to hand – fruit and nuts, and a range of shellfish bought from the ‘oyster-wenches’ who work the streets – fresh, pre-packed food, though the shells are a nuisance underfoot, especially in bad weather, hidden in the mud. For the sweet-toothed there is marchpane (marzipan), sugar-candy and gingerbread to nibble on – a pennyworth will keep the kids quiet for a good while.
To drink there is bottle beer and ale (never trust the water), strong for the men and weak ‘small beer’ for ladies, children and the clergy. There is plenty of wine available, white wine from France and the Rhineland, red wine from France, Spain, Italy and Greece, and fortified sweet wines, including Malmsey from Crete and Muscatel from France.
A London habit is to end a day of festivities with a glass of hippocras, wine mixed with cinnamon, ginger and sugar. Inns have their wine barrels out in public, by official regulation, so customers can see they get what they order. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a feast at court, the Inns of Court, or a city company, the thing to do is pace yourself – courses are endless in number, with multiple options on offer for each of the courses. You might encounter a fancy new thing bought from Italy, a metal tool with two prongs they call a ‘fork’. I doubt it will catch on – there’s nothing wrong with fingers.
In number of dishes and change of meat the nobility of England (whose cooks are for the most part musical-headed Frenchmen and strangers) do most exceed, sith there is no day in manner that passeth over their heads wherein they have not only beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, cony, capon, pig, or so many of these as the season yieldeth, but also some portion of the red or fallow deer, beside great variety of fish and wild fowl and thereto sundry other delicates wherein the sweet hand of the Portugal is not wanting: so for a man to dine with one of them, and to taste every dish that standeth before him…is rather to yield unto a conspiracy with a great deal of meat for the speedy suppression of natural health.
From William Harrison, A description of England, 1577
Visitors shouldn’t have too many problems, London is an international city, so once you have established your temporary residency, London behaviour is on par with English and European norms overall. There is the usual level of petty violence inevitable when everyone carries at least a dagger and law enforcement is left to amateurs from the local communities serving short terms as constables and beadles. The authorities have tried to crack down on violent brawling by regulating sword length – check your rapier before you arrive, it will be broken at the city gate if it is more than a yard (0.91 metres) long.
Foreign visitors are sometimes taken aback by the boisterousness and drunkenness of London, and rather shocked by the fairly free and easy behaviour of English women, especially in dress. In Europe, Spanish fashions tend to dominate, with women covered from the chin down, so when a foreign visitor sees an unmarried English lady, even the Queen herself, with her neck and a bit of cleavage visible, they can get rather flustered.
One thing you won’t be used to, visiting from the country, is timekeeping: there are clocks and chiming bells everywhere in the city, regulating curfews, church services, theatre performances and the rest.
You will all be good Protestants, of course, attending your local parish church in London as you would at home – everyone will know if you don’t and news will get to the authorities in this self-policing society. England is still at war with Spain and the Pope so the authorities are on the alert for Jesuit missionaries and Spanish agents! Don’t go near the lodgings of the ambassador of a Catholic prince on Sunday – it will be assumed you are going to hear mass. If you want a change, maybe attend a service at one of the Stranger Churches, where migrants worship, for example the Dutch at the old Austin Friars on Broad Street. If there is an event of national importance to justify a special service led by the Queen, try to get entry to St Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral itself has never recovered from being struck by lightning in 1561. It needs a lot of work but will probably have to burn down before that happens!
We hope you enjoyed your trip to 16th-century London!
In the mood for more time travelling? You can read these other blogs in our historical city travel guide series:
- Nineveh, 7th century BC
- Rome, 1st century AD
- Edo (Tokyo), early 19th century
- Athens, 5th century BC
- Thebes, 13th century BC
- Aksum, 6th century AD
You can also discover more about London through its landmarks here.