A Bawdy Book about Bawds . . . !


 For Hale Review - stews of Bankside at time of coronation of Edward VI - 15th February 1547

The above picture shows the stews of Bankside on the occasions of Edward VI’s coronation.

THE BISHOP’S BROTHELS by E.J. Burford (Hale, ISBN 978-0-7198-1657-4) is concerned with the Bankside whorehouses—the Bishop’s Brothels—and a fascinating book it is. I had always known of the stews of Southwark, but not that the licensed brothels were originally fine houses with gardens. Eventually the houses were divided, or pulled down, and the land subdivided until it was a warren. Now, I can imagine those dark, filthy alleys, with men risking life and limb to lie with a whore who might have fifty or more customers in a day. Those unfortunate women worked until they died of exhaustion or disease . . . or were too old to appeal.

The descriptions of the area and its denizens are wonderful, and the plight of the women is drawn with great sensitivity. It was not easy to be female in those days, and far too many had no option but to sell themselves. Without that, they could not live, or provide for their families. But even though at times, women outnumbered men by 7 to 1, supply could never meet demand. 

Thinking of the infamous ‘stews’ (brothels) of the Bankside in Southwark—which, incidentally, were providing a very nice profit for the Bishop of Winchester, on whose land they proliferated—does not usually make one also think of which king happened to be on the throne at which time. But it is a fact that the sexual mores of each king had a direct impact on the stews. A licentious monarch usually meant leniency for the inhabitants of the brothels, whereas a pious king would be likely to impose restrictions. One notable exception to this rule was Henry VIII, who had an abundance of wives and mistresses, but who closed the Bankside whorehouses down when he eschewed the Catholic Church and commenced the Protestant Church of England. Why did he do it? Because the Pope would not give him a divorce from Katherine of Aragon and he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn instead. He was a hypocrite of the first order, methinks.

Of the other kings, William II (‘Rufus’) is described as licentious, so the Bankside whorehouses prospered, as they had not under his gloomy father, the Conqueror. Henry I was sexually profligate – Bankside did even better. Henry II—‘given to fleshly lust’—gave the brothels a new status that was to last for 400 years. Richard I (‘Lionheart’) whored around, John was guilty of ‘unbelievably immoral behaviour’. Henry III was ‘continent’, yet a source claims he died from syphilis. Edward I was ‘of puritan disposition’. Edward II built himself a ‘retreat’ at Bankside, which says all that needs to be said. Edward III liked to put it about, as the saying goes, and eventually died (it is suspected) of ‘an enlarged prostate infected with gonorrhoea’.

Richard II was faithful to his wife, and when she died he went to pieces, eventually being deposed by his first cousin, Henry IV, who died ‘in a syphilitic condition’. Henry V died young, it is believed of dysentery, but had led a high old life in his youth. Just ask Shakespeare. Henry VI was pious, and often imbecilic, and died when he became inconvenient to his successor, Edward IV. Edward was profligate. Full stop. He liked women and had as many of them as he could. He was also cruel in his treatment of them. The Bankside flourished greatly! Edward V, a mere boy, did not live long enough to be anything. Richard III was known to be a faithful husband. Henry VII was the same, and not very well disposed towards whores. Then came Henry VIII, whose effect on the brothels has already been mentioned, and who died of, among other things, syphilis. And so on through the rest of the Tudors and Stuarts.

So, it was the character (or not) of each king that most influenced the activities of the Bishop of Winchester’s ‘geese’. Before prostitution was made illegal, there were eighteen licensed whorehouses—and many more unlicensed—at the Bankside, all on the Bishop of Winchester’s land, all supplying him with a goodly income. A clash of principles? Apparently not, because the Church was notorious for its duplicity in this respect, with priests and bishops fornicating with the best of them. So, on the one hand the Church fulminated against the sin of whoring, while on the other it pocketed the proceeds.

Southwark lay across the river from London, and was outside its jurisdiction, which was why all the fun and games were to be had there. Men poured across London Bridge to enjoy some debauchery, and most probably ended up with the clap, or worse. Venereal disease reached epidemic proportions, and it was known that sexual intercourse was how it was spread. There were no condoms in England until the time of Charles II. Unwanted pregnancies abounded, and syphilis wrought havoc, misery and, ultimately, death. Yet still they patronised the stews in their thousands. It was only when the Great Plague decimated the population in 1665, and the Great Fire of London of 1666 destroyed so much that the Bankside ‘pleasure’ ground finally bit the dust, so to speak. Not that prostitutes and whoremasters disappeared, of course, they merely moved elsewhere and carried on as before. By 1700, the whole area had become a bleak place of warehouses and wharves.

I really enjoyed this work. There are one or two odd errors, such as Edward II dying at ‘Kerkelsey’ instead of Berkeley, and St Anthony’s Fire being confused with syphilis. Another is that Henry VII had Mary Boleyn as his lifelong mistress. Henry VII didn’t have any known mistress, and if he’d bedded Mary throughout his reign, she’d have been a bit long in the tooth by the time his son got around to her and her sister, Anne Boleyn. But these are minor matters, because it is the wealth of information about the Southwark stews themselves that is at the heart of everything.

Read it and enjoy its bawdiness, for a book about bawds cannot help but be bawdy. It is entertaining and informative from beginning to end, and a treasure well worthy of high praise. Thoroughly recommended, although verification from another source might not be a bad idea if you intend to use the data for anything other than just enjoyable reading.

Sandra Heath Wilson

Facebook - The Bishop's Brothels

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