Life in Elizabethan England Next

The City of London

From Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess, 1978:

...The city meant roughly what we mean by the City of London--a crammed commercial huddle that smells the river. The Thames was everybody's thoroughfare. The Londoners of Chaucer's time had had difficulty bridging it; the Elizabethans had achieved only London Bridge. You crossed normally by boat-taxi, the boatmen calling 'Eastward-ho' and 'Westward-ho'. There was commerce on the river, but also gilded barges, sometimes with royalty in them. Chained to the banks there were sometimes criminals, who had to abide the washing of three tides. The river had to look on other emblems of the brutality of the age--the severed heads on Temple Bar and on London Bridge itself.


The streets were narrow, cobbled, slippery with the slime of refuse. Houses were crammed together, and there were a lot of furtive alleys. Chamber pots, or jordans, were emptied out of windows. There was no drainage. Fleet Ditch stank to make a man throw up his gorge. But the City had its natural cleansers--the kites, graceful birds that made their nests of rags and refuse in the forks of trees. They scavenged, eating anything with relish. ... And countering the bad, man-made odors, the smells of the countryside floated in. There were rosy milkmaids in the early morning streets, and sellers of newly gathered cresses.

It was a city of loud noises--hooves and raw coach wheels on the cobbles, the yells of traders, the brawling of apprentices, scuffles to keep the wall and not be thrown into the oozy kennel. Even normal conversation must have been loud since everybody was, by our standards, tipsy. Nobody drank water, and tea had not yet come in. Ale was the standard tipple, and it was strong. Ale for breakfast was a good means of starting the day in euphoria or truculence. Ale for dinner refocillated the wasted tissues of the morning. Ale for supper ensured a heavy snoring repose. The better sort drank wine, which promoted good fellowship and led to sword fights. It was not what we would call a sober city.

From the report of a Venetian envoy, about 1500:

It abounds with every article of luxury, as well as with the necessities of life. But the most remarkable thing in London is the wonderful quantity of wrought silver. I do not allude to that in private houses, but to the shops of London. In one single street, named the Strand, leading to St Paul's, there are fifty-two goldsmith's shops, so rich and full of silver vessels, great and small, that in all the shops in Milan, Rome, Venice, and Florence put together, I do not think there would be found so many of the magnificence that are to be seen in London. And these vessels are all either salt cellars or drinking cups or basins to hold water for the hands, for they eat off that fine tin [pewter] which is a little inferior to silver.

These great riches of London are not occasioned by its inhabitants being noblemen or gentlemen; being all, on the contrary, persons of low degree, and artificers who have congregated there from all parts of the island, and from Flanders and from every other place.

::  A London and Westminster Directory
::  A Map of Tudor London
::  Shopping in London

Previous Top Home Notes Next

26 March 2008 mps