John Stow, from A Survey of London

Elizabethan London was a city expanding at an extraordinary, apparently ungovernable pace. In the second half of the sixteenth century the city's population almost doubled, and the rate of growth was ever increasing. Since throughout this period the death rate in London exceeded the birth rate, the city's growth was due entirely to immigration from the countryside. A royal proclamation of 1602, "Prohibiting Further Building or Subdividing of Houses in London," was one of many official attempts to stem the city's growth, none of which had any appreciable effect.

The civic and royal authorities were highly conscious of several dangers entailed by the urban population boom. They were worried by the prospect of social unrest, especially in the hungry 1590s, and by the threat of plague, which on several occasions in the Elizabethan age carried off more than 10,000 of London's inhabitants. They worried about a collapse in the rural economy, as agricultural laborers crowded into London in search of better wages and prospects. And some worried too that London, a city ceaselessly reinventing itself to meet the demands of its growing population, was losing touch with its own magnificent past. Fine old houses were being demolished to make way for the showy mansions of the rising middle class; medieval graves and memorials were dug up on a regular basis to make room for London's latest dead.

The face of London has of course changed many times since then; the gaudy Tudor mansions are themselves a distant memory. What we know today of both medieval and Elizabethan London owes much to the tireless efforts of John Stow (1525–1603), the city's self-appointed surveyor and chronicler. A tailor by profession, Stow devoted every spare hour and penny to researching the history of his nation in general, and its capital in particular. The fruits of his labors are found in his many chronicle histories of England and in the enduring Survey of London (1598; expanded edition 1603). The Survey traverses London and its suburbs methodically, street by street, describing churches and alehouses alike. His description is enlivened by many personal memories, both his own and those of men who were old when he was young.

The first excerpt from the Survey describes the repeated desecration of an image of the Virgin Mary and her child on an old cross standing in the middle of one of London's chief highways. These shocking acts of vandalism, to which the city authorities seem to have found it difficult to respond effectively, were presumably the work of extreme Protestants lashing out at what they perceived as a Catholic idol. Yet Stow hints that the vandalism may also have had a more practical motive. London's streets were getting busier all the time, and the cross in Westcheap was blocking traffic.

The second excerpt reveals the citizens of London again taking the law into their own hands, to tear down the hedges erected by enclosing landlords just outside the city. This incident took place early in the Tudor century, around the time Thomas More was writing his Utopia — a work that also criticizes enclosures and the greed of private land-owners.

 

This cross in West Cheap . . . being by length of time decayed, John Hatherly, mayor of London, procured in the year 1441 license of King Henry VI to re-edify the same in more beautiful manner for the honor of the city. . . . It was new gilt over in the year 1522, against >> note 1 the coming of Charles V, emperor; in the year 15[3]3, against the coronation of Queen Anne; new burnished against the coronation of Edward V; and again new gilt 1554, against the coming in of King Philip; since the which time the said cross having been presented by divers juries (or inquests of the wardmote >> note 2) to stand in the highway to the let >> note 3 of carriages (as they alleged), but could not have it removed.

It followed that in the year 1581, the 21st of June, in the night, the lowest images about the said cross (being of Christ's resurrection, of the Virgin Mary, King Edward the Confessor, and suchlike) were broken and defaced. Proclamation was made that whoso would bewray the doers should have forty crowns, but nothing came to light. The image of the Blessed Virgin, at that time robbed of her Son, and her arms broken, by which she stayed him on her knees; her whole body also was haled >> note 4 with ropes, and left likely to fall, but in the year 1595 was again fastened and repaired. And in the year next following a new misshapen son, as born out of time, all naked, was laid in her arms, the other images remaining broke as afore. But on the east side of the same cross, the steps taken thence, under the image of Christ's resurrection defaced, was then set up a curiously wrought tabernacle of gray marble, and in the same an image alabaster of Diana, and water conveyed from the Thames prilling >> note 5 from her naked breast for a time, but now decayed.

In the year 1599, the timber of the cross at the top being rotted within the lead, the arms thereof bending, were feared to have fallen, to the harming of some people, and therefore the whole body of the cross was scaffolded about, and the top thereof taken down, meaning in place thereof to have set up a [pyramid]. But some of her majesty's honorable councillors directed their letters to Sir Nicholas Mosley, then mayor, by her highness' express commandment concerning the cross, forthwith to be repaired, and placed again as it formerly stood, etc. Notwithstanding, the said cross stood headless more than a year after: whereupon the said councillors, in greater number, meaning not any longer to permit the continuance of such a contempt, wrote to William Rider, then mayor, requiring him, by virtue of her highness' said former direction and commandment, that without any further delay to accomplish the same her majesty's most princely care therein, respecting especially the antiquity and continuance of that monument, an ancient ensign of Christianity, etc. Dated the 24th of December, 1600. After that a cross of timber was framed, set up, covered with lead, and gilded, the body of the cross downward cleansed of dust, the scaffold carried thence. About twelve nights following, the image of Our Lady was again defaced, by plucking off her crown, and almost her head, taking from her her naked child, and stabbing her in the breast, etc. Thus much for the cross in West Cheap. . . .

And now concerning the enclosures >> note 6 of common grounds about this city, whereof I mind not much to argue, Edward Hall setteth down a note of his time, to wit, in the 5th, or rather the 6th of Henry VIII. Before this time, saith he, the inhabitants of the towns about London, as Iseldon, Hoxton, Shoreditch, and others, had so enclosed the common fields with hedges and ditches, that neither the young men of the city might shoot, nor the ancient persons walk for their pleasures in those fields, but that either their bows and arrows were taken away or broken, or the honest persons arrested or indicted; saying 'that no Londoner ought to go out of the city, but in the highways.' This saying so grieved the Londoners, that suddenly this year a great number of the city assembled themselves in a morning, and a turner >> note 7 in a fool's coat, came crying through the city, 'Shovels and spades! Shovels and spades!' So many of the people followed that it was a wonder to behold. And within a short space, all the hedges about the city were cast down, and the ditches filled up, and everything made plain, such was the diligence of these workmen.

The king's council hearing of this assembly, came to the Greyfriars and sent for the mayor and council of the city to know the cause, which declared to them the injury and annoying done to the citizens and their liberties, which though they would not seek disorderly to redress, yet the commonalty and young persons could not be stayed thus to remedy the same. When the king's council had heard their answer, they dissimuled >> note 8 the matter, and commanded the mayor to see that no other thing were attempted, but that they should forthwith call home the younger sort; who having speedily achieved their desire, returned home, before the king's council and the mayor [parted] without further harm; after which time (saith Hall) these fields were never hedged.

But now we see the thing in worse case than ever, by means of enclosure for gardens, wherein are built many fair summer houses; >> note 9 and, as in other places of the suburbs, some of them like Midsummer pageants, with towers, turrets, and chimney tops, not so much for use or profit as for show and pleasure, betraying the vanity of men's minds, much unlike the disposition of the ancient citizens, who delighted in the building of hospitals and alms-houses for the poor, and therein both employed their wits, and spent their wealths, in preferment of the common commodity >> note 10 of this our city.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home