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The History of Southwark….

When it comes to medieval history, London and its environs always figure prominently. Well, it’s inevitable, since the king and Parliament were usually there. Not always, I grant you.

Anyway, I have come upon a very interesting and informative site about Southwark. A little ramble around it will certainly unearth something of interest to you.

For instance, the wall in the photograph above is all that remains of the notorious Marshalsea Prison. It is to the side of the John Harvard Library.

The origins of Marshalsea courts and prisons….

La cité de Dieu

While trawling around looking for information about Marshalsea courts in the time of Richard II, I came upon this WordPress blog (by Mercedes Rochelle) that covers the subject.  I quote the article in full:-

“Today when we hear about the Marshalsea we think of the infamous 19th century Southwark prison with all its associated tortures. But come back with me to the 14th century and you’ll see that the word has a totally different meaning—at first, anyway. Originally, the marshalsea (not capitalized—also known as the avenary) was the largest department of the household, in charge of taking care of the horses: feeding, grooming, and stabling. At the same time, the Marshal was a great officer of the royal and noble household, who functioned as the enforcer—the policeman, if you will—and the jailer. Where the Marshalsea (capitalized) came into play was in relation to the court of the verge (or the court of the steward and Marshal of the household). The steward presided over the court of the verge and the Marshal enforced its will.

“The Marshalsea court can be traced back to the second half of Edward I’s reign; it was the legal arm of the household. In practice it tried cases involving servants of the crown, whether sinning or sinned against: theft, debts, contracts, acts against the royal dignity, and trespassing—anything short of murder. This involved activity that took place within the verge, which was a twelve mile radius from the king’s presence. If anyone refused to cooperate with the king’s servants—such as Purveyors—they could be tried at the Marshalsea court. Interfering with Purveyors was one of the bigger offenses. Their job was to gather supplies for the itinerant court, such as food, wood for heating, oats and hay for the horses, etc. and these purchases were almost always a bone of contention. They rarely paid in cash; instead, they often gave the long-suffering supplier a note to be cashed at the exchequer—when the funds were available, that is. The supplier could wait months to get paid, if he got paid at all. But if that long-suffering merchant refused to contribute, the penalty could be severe. At the same time, the steward investigated complaints of extortionate behavior by the king’s servitors, though one can only wonder how often they decided in favor of the offended party.

“Cases tried in the Marshalsea court were exempted from the common law courts; it became a separate tribunal, free from the technicalities and costs of traditional courts. Because of the itinerant nature of the king’s household, cases had to be tried quickly. Pleas of trespass and debt concerning outsiders often reverted back to the common law courts if the king moved on, taking the verge with him. Within the verge local officials were forbidden to trespass on the duties of the king’s officers; at the same time, they were found guilty of “contempt of the king” if they permitted the escape of suspected felons. There were plenty of conflicts between the local municipalities who wanted to try their own cases and who temporarily fell within the verge, and the government which didn’t always mind the boundaries.

“Needless to say, the Londoners were often within the influence of the Marshalsea since the king was frequently in or near the city. Criminals were known to have crossed the Thames to Southwark to avoid punishment, since they could not be brought before the city authorities when the Marshalsea was present. The government tried to extend the Marshalsea’s jurisdiction into the city of London, but this was violently resisted and eventually dropped. Nonetheless, many formal protests were raised in successive Parliaments well into Henry IV’s reign. In 1373 Edward III ordered a building 40 feet long and 30 feet wide to be constructed “in the high street” for his own convenience, to hold pleas, keep prisoners, and hold other king’s courts.  It was one of the first of London’s symbols of oppression to suffer the wrath of the Peasant’s Revolt, though it was rebuilt the following year. The king’s sergeant-at-arms and keeper of the Marshalsea, Richard Imworth, was brutally murdered by the rebels two days after they destroyed the prison.

“As time went on, reportedly by 1430, the Marshalsea became known as a debtor’s prison, and was notorious by the 18th century, when it was rebuilt about 130 yards south of its original site. You can learn all about it from Charles Dickens whose father was imprisoned there in 1824.”

Thank you Mercedes!

Another posthumously mobile Bishop?

We do know that Edmund Bonner , born in Worcestershire in about 1500, died in the Marshalsea Prison, today in 1569 and was buried secretly in St. George’s, Southwark. Rather like the head of Cardinal Morton, however, we cannot be certain that he remains there. As Bishop of London under Mary I, he (along with Cardinal Pole and Bishop Gardiner) had been significantly responsible for applying her policy of de heretico comburendo. London, the south-east and East Anglia had seen most of the persecution .

Not surprisingly, he was unpopular with her successor, being deprived and imprisoned later. Our old friend Strype, in his Ecclesiastica Memoria, actually suggests that Bonner’s father was actually Rev. George Savage of Cheshire. Illegitimacy, if known, could have made Edmund ineligble for ordination. Having lived occasionally in CopfordEssex, it is rumoured that he was reburied here, particularly as a suitable , named, coffin was found there in 1809. He seems to have added his name to the lexicon of a county further north, with a new name for a ladybird.


The King’s Barge House on the Thames in Southwark….

City of London Barge House, Lambeth


I could not find an illustration of the actual original royal barge house (except that drawn in the map below) but above is an illustration of a grand barge house used by the City of London in Lambeth. The King’s Barge House may have been very similar.

The King’s Barge House was halfway between the Tower and Westminster, where the barges were moored. It was on Upper Ground, alongside Barge House Stairs, on the site of the present jetty near the OXO Tower. Here the Royal Barge Master saw to maintenance and preparation for state occasions. The barge house may have been there in the time of Henry VI and earlier, until the middle of the 17th century, when it fell into disuse and eventually crumbled away. A survey in June 1652 described it as ‘a building of timber, covered with tile, 65 feet in length, and 26 feet in breadth; but much out of repair, and valued at £8 per annum’. It was situated at the western edge of Paris Garden, near the remains of Old Barge House Stairs.

The quayside at Old Barge House Stairs - next to the OXO Tower

Quayside at Old Barge House Stairs – next to the OXO Tower

Barge House Stairs - 1

Remains of Barge House Stairs

It appears that Paris Garden was almost entirely encircled by the Pudding Mill Stream, but by the start of the 17th century there was confusion about the exact boundary between it and Prince’s Meadows near the river. The problem might have arisen because the Barge House was near or over the sluice from Pudding Mill Stream into the river.

prince's meadows 1636 - showing barge house - 1

Halfpenny - near king's barge house - 1

A post medieval copper alloy trade token or halfpenny from the Upper Ground near the King’s Old Barge House, Southwark dating AD1656-1674.


400 buildings were lost in the Great Fire of London….

Nonsuch House, London Bridge

(following this post about mediaeval London and this one that refers to the fire)

Nonsuch House was a “wildly eccentric, gaudily painted, meticulously carved Renaissance palace…the jewel in the crown of London Bridge. Made entirely from wood it was prefabricated in Holland and erected in 1577-79, replacing the medieval drawbridge gate. At four storeys it was the biggest building on the bridge, straddling the whole street and lurching over the Thames, affording its illustrious occupants spectacular views of the metropolis. Its tulip-bulb cupolas were admired from miles around and there was truly nonsuch like this architectural mongrel anywhere else in London.

“The fire only consumed a modern block of houses at the northern end of London Bridge, separated from the rest by a gap, and so Nonsuch House, built on the 7th and 8th arches from the Southwark end, happily survived – only to be dismantled with the rest of the houses a hundred years later.”

Thus the article below describes the amazing confection that was Nonsuch House.  It did well not to be destroyed between 2-5 September 1666, when the Great Fire of London robbed posterity of some four hundred wonderful buildings. It lasted another century, but many fine, historic buildings came to grief, and the article describes and illustrates a number of them.

This is also well worth a read!

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

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