Category Archives: Bankside

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A Game At Chess

The following is an extract from a letter written by the Spanish Ambassador, in which he outlines the performance of a play at the Globe written by Thomas Middleton. A Game at Chess is a notoriously anti-Catholic play. It was licensed for performance on 12th June 1624, but was not performed by the King’s Men at the Globe until 6th August, by which time James I was out of London. It ran for nine days before being closed by the authorities. In addition to the rabid anti-Catholic slant the ambassador so objects to, and it is important to remember the play was performed at the height of English anxiety about the Spanish Match, his account reveals some fascinating details about production and performance styles on the London stage at this time

The actors whom they call here ‘the King’s Men’ have recently acted, and are still acting, in London a play that so many people come to see, that there were more than 3,000 on the day that the audience was the smallest. There was such merriment, hubbub and applause that even if I had been many leagues away it would not have been possible for me not have taken notice of it…

The subject  of the play is a game of chess, with white squares and black squares, their kings and other pieces, acted by the players, and the king of the blacks has easily been taken for our lord the King, because of his youth, dress and other details. The first act, or rather game was played by their ministers, impersonated by the white pieces, and the Jesuits, by the black ones. Here there were remarkable acts of sacrilege and, among other abominations, a minister summoned St Ignatius from hell, and when he found himself again in the world, the first thing he did was to rape one of his female penitents; in all this, these accursed and abominable men revealed the depths of their heresy by their lewd and obscene actions.

The second act was directed against the Archbishop of Spalatro, at that time a white piece, but afterwards won over to the black side by the Count of Gondomar, who, brought onto the stage in his litter almost to the life, and seated in his chair with a hole in it (they said), confessed all the treacherous actions with which he had deceived and soothed the king of the whites, and, when he discussed the matter of confession with the Jesuits, the actor disguised as the Count took out a book in which were rated all the prices for which henceforwards sins were to be forgiven…

The last act ended with a long, obstinate struggle between all the whites and the blacks, and in it he who acted the Prince of Wales heartily beat and kicked the ‘Count of Gondomar’ into Hell, which consisted of a great hole and hideous figures; and the white king [drove] the black king and even his queen [into Hell] almost as offensively.

It cannot be pleaded that those who repeat and hear these insults are merely rogues because during these last four days more than 12,000 persons have all heard the play of A Game at Chess, for so they call it, including all the nobility still in London. All these people come out of the theatre so inflamed against Spain that, as a few Catholics have told me who went secretly to the play, my person would not be safe in the streets; others have advised me to keep to my house with a good guard, and this is being done.

Don Carlos Coloma to the Count-Duke of Olivares, 10 August 1624.

Cited in Houston, S J., James I, Second Edition (Longman, 1995), 128-9

Bankside Education Elizabeth Gunpowder Plot London Review Shakespeare Theatre

Staging the World: Review


The British Museum is soon to stage a major exhibition on the world of Shakespeare in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The exhibition provides an insight ‘into the emerging role of London as a world city, seen through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays.’ It is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and runs from 19 July – 25 November 2012.

The British Museum Press has released several publications to compliment the exhibition, and kindly sent me review copies. A further book on Shakespeare and Food is forthcoming shortly. The titles I’m reviewing here are Shakespeare: Staging The World, Shakespeare’s Britain, and Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals,

First up is the rather splendid ShakespeareStaging The World by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. This is a big beautiful book, which considers the early modern period through the eyes of Shakespeare; its premise being that the things he, his players, and his audience saw, ‘mattered at least as much as what they read in shaping their vision of the world.’ This is cleverly illustrated by the juxtaposition of a stunning collection of early modern objects with Shakespeare’s characters and plays.

To look at a woodcut of a Jewish household in Venice and a sixteenth-century Caribbean wood carving of a spirit imprisoned in a tree and a pack of playing cards in which Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth appear side-by-side is to be given a new historical and intellectual perspective on the characters of Shylock, Ariel and Cleopatra.

The book not only serves as a catalogue of the objects on display at the exhibition, it features a rich and detailed commentary by the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, and the exhibition’s curator, Dora Thornton, which in and of itself enriches both existing scholarship, and our knowledge of daily life in early modern England. The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which explores a specific theme and the objects which serve to bring it to life. For example, Chapter One gives an overview of London in 1612; a World City. It provides a narrative of aspects of London life at this time, and considers the theatres as bustling commercial enterprises. One of the most compelling objects featured in this chapter is a surviving turned oak baluster excavated from the site of the Rose theatre. It may have been part of the safety rail around the upper galleries:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


Subsequent chapters explore Country, County and Custom, Kingship and the English Nation, The Legacy of Rome, Venice Viewed from London, The Noble Moor, The Scottish Play, and the Matter of Britain. Each is illustrated throughout with truly mouth-watering photographs, illustrations, maps, and woodcuts. One of my favourite objects is this Horn-book from the late 1600s, comprising a sheet of printed paper protected by a layer of horn, similar to the one from which Shakespeare himself would have learned his alphabet and Lord’s Prayer while at school:


© The Trustees of The British Museum


One of the many facts I discovered while reading Staging The World, is that in 1571, a statute was enacted enforcing the wearing of woolly caps by everyone over the age of six on Sundays and holidays. This knitted man’s cap was found in Moorfields, London and dates to the mid-sixteenth century:


 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Perhaps my favourite object is this lantern, traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes. It was given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot. It’s made from sheet iron and would originally have had a horn window so it could be completely closed to hide the lighted candle within:
 © The Trustees of The British Museum

Shakespeare: Staging The World is more than just a museum catalogue, it’s a stunning collection of early modern objects brought vividly to life by Jonathan Bates and Dora Thornton. I’d endorse it for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or early modern England. For the Shakespeare scholar it’s a valuable addition to the bookshelf, for the historian it’s a smorgasbord of early modern artifacts. For the general reader it’s a beautifully illustrated and informative guide to the world of Shakespeare. Highly recommended. Shakespeare: Staging The World, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£25).
A smaller, shorter version of Staging The World can be found in Shakespeare’s Britain, also by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton. It contains a condensed overview of some of the objects found in Staging The World and has a specific focus on Shakespeare and Britain; a theme which preoccupied the playwright in his later years, and one which was ushered in by James I who longed for a unified kingdom. Perfect for someone who wants to get a flavour of the period, it neatly encapsulates Shakespeare’s Britain with lavish illustrations. I particularly love the cover image, which comes from a watercolour entitled ‘Going to Bankside’ painted by Michael Van Meer in 1619, and depicts some rather fancy-looking people enjoying a trip across the Thames to Bankside, perhaps to see one of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s Britain, Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99)
The final book, Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals, is a fascinating catalogue of the coins on display at the exhibition. As anyone who’s been forced to admire my Elizabethan sixpence will testify, I do love sixteenth and seventeenth century coins. Not because I have any interest in numismatics, but because they give us pause to wonder just who’s pocket they’ve been in, and as such, they connect us with history in a real and immediate way.
© The Trustees of The British Museum
The above ducat dates from the office of Marino Grimani, Doge of Venice from 1595-1605. Ducats were, in origin, ‘the defining gold coin of Venice, but the term also meant any coin of the same standard and it was widely used and familiar.’
Another coin, perhaps my favourite, is a milled sixpence dated 1562, depicting the profile of Elizabeth I. It’s in much better condition than my own. Milled sixpences were machine-made coins circulated in the early 1560s at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. They were treasured at the time, and often used as reckoning-counters.
    © The Trustees of The British Museum

As well as using sixpences as counters, specially-made counters were available for accountants, and a bag or cylinder of counters served as an early modern calculator. The Clown, in The Winter’s Tale, talks of his need for counters before he goes shopping:

I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see, what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pounds of sugar, five pounds of currants, rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice?

Below is a set of silver counters depicting the Stuart royal family, dating to the 1600s. The accompanying silver box holds all twenty-nine counters.


 © The Trustees of The British Museum
Angels and Ducats fulfils a valuable role. It enables us to see for the first time exactly what the coins Shakespeare refers to in his plays actually look like. In this way this book enriches our understanding of both Shakespeare’s work and his life. Angels and Ducats is essential reading for anyone interested in the themes of money and finance on the London stage, but beyond that it is a wonderful introduction to the variety of coins in circulation in early modern England. Angels and Ducats: Shakespeare’s Money and Medals (The British Museum Press: London, 2012) (£9.99).
All three offerings from The British Museum Press are beautifully written and stunningly illustrated. If I had to recommend one, it would be Shakespeare: Staging The World, since it covers all the objects included in the exhibition. However Shakespeare’s Britain is a neat precis of some of the objects on display and Angels and Ducats is unique in its study of specific coins in England during this period. If you’re intending to visit the exhibition then any or all of the books are a great way to familiarise yourself with the history of the objects on display. If you can’t make the exhibition then each of the books serves as charming compensation. But in their own right, all three deserve a place on any bookshelf.
The books can be bought via The British Museum Bookshop online. Tickets for the exhibition Shakespeare: Staging The World can be bought here.
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Bankside Prostitution Sex Vice

Vill you not stay in my bosom tonight, love?

This week I’ve been reading several of the rather numerous Shakespeare biographies cluttering up my bookshelves, and I was intrigued to stumble upon a reference to what was almost certainly the most famous brothel in seventeenth century England. Information about it is relatively sparse, but I’ve managed to glean a few details from here and there, enough, I hope, to at least get a sense of the place.

Regular readers of Shakespeare’s England will be aware that I’ve blogged several times on the notorious Bankside stews. Nestling between the theatres, taverns, and bear-pits, brothels were a commonplace of Southwark. The south bank of the Thames was infamous for its freedom from the restraints of the City Fathers; one reason theatres sprang up along the shores of the river, outside the jurisdiction of the authorities. The area was owned by various religious authorities, but was nevertheless notorious for hedonism and licentiousness (1). In the sixteenth century, an edict ordered wherryman to moor their boats by the northern stairs at night, in an effort to prevent ne’er do wells being rowed over to Bankside to the brothels (2). The famous Castle upon the Hope Inn, now the site of the equally famous Anchor pub, was a notorious Bankside brothel (2), as was the Cardinal’s Hat (presumably located somewhere close to the extant Cardinal Cap Alley). However, as I discovered, the most famous brothel of all was known as Holland’s Leaguer.

Holland’s Leaguer had originally been part of the estate known as the Liberty of Old Paris Gardens. It was described in 1632 as a ‘Fort citadel or Mansion Howse’, and its proximity to the Swan, Globe, and Hope theatres meant it could cater to those attending plays, as well as those who hired a wherry to transport them across the river to the waiting women.

Originally thought to have been run by a prostitute called Long Meg (of whom more in a subsequent post), Holland’s Leaguer was a brothel like no other. Opened in 1603, it was the congregating place for all the Dutch prostitutes in London (3). It sat alongside the river, a grand mansion fortified by a moat, drawbridge and portcullis (4).

Holland’s Leaguer was a female community set apart from the rest of society, owned and managed by a woman (5), Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Holland. Bess was married to a man who might possibly have have been the same member of the notorious Holland family who ran the Elizabethan underworld, and she was the most famous prostitute of her day (6). She ran a luxury brothel, and unlike the less salubrious Bankside stews, Holland’s Leaguer was a high-class affair. It had a business-like atmosphere, ‘good food, luxurious surroundings, modern plumbing, medical inspections, clean linens, and high class prostitutes’ (7). Rumours abounded that even James I, and his favourite George Villiers were clients.

A pamphlet in 1632 describes the initial establishment of Holland’s Leager:

an old ruined Castell newly repaired, so commodiously placed both for her [Bess’s] home-bred customers and Forreine visitants…that her heart could not wish a place of better convenience. The Sea on one side did beare against the walles, and both tall Shippes, Flyeboates, and Pinnaces, might there Anchor in a safe Harbour; on the other side, it had some sleight intrenchments, which albe they were but weake and assayleable, yet the Sea upon all assaults, did grant her both Munition, victual, and avoydance… Of this house by contract, she got possession, and her purse being well filled, and wide open, emptied it selfe to give it adornment, there wanted nothing for State, nothing for Magnificence, nothing for Delight, nothing for Beauty, nothing for Necessity, howsoever the bones that lodg’d in it were rotten and unwholsome, yet the Monument it selfe was wondrous Gaudie, and hansome; there was nothing now for her to search for, but living furniture, and that she divided into three stations. The first, a stout Ruffian to guard her, the second, lustie strong Queans, to supply offices, and the third, petulant painted, and halfe guilt Mimicks, to give entertainment. The first of these shee saved from the Gallowes, the second she hired from the Stews, and the last, she had bought up by whole sale from the Countrey (8).

A visit to Holland’s Leaguer and dinner with the top prostitute or quean, Bess Broughton, cost around £20 a head (c.£1700), and this presumably did not include any after dinner activities (9).The playwright Thomas Middleton describes a typical high-class prostitute in 1604:

He [a pimp] kept the most delicate drab of three hundred [pounds] a year, some unthrifty gentleman’s daughter… She could run upon the lute very well, which in others would have appeared virtuous but in her lascivious… She had likewise the gift of singing very deliciously, able to charm the hearer, which so bewitched our young master’s money that he might have kept seven noise of musicians for less charges… She had a humour to lisp often, like a fluttering wanton, and talk childish like a parson’s daughter… He would swear she spake nothing but sweetmeats, and her breath then sent forth such a delicious odour that it perfumed his white satin doublet better than sixteen milliners (10).

So notorious did Holland’s brothel become, that in January 1632 it was besieged by soldiers on the orders of Charles I who had ordered it to be closed down. However, when a troop of soldiers arrived, the story goes that Bess lured them onto the drawbridge and let it down, depositing them into the moat. The prostitutes inside then emptied the contents of their chamberpots on to the soldiers who naturally beat a hasty retreat (11).

Bess evaded the city authorities and despite two summons to the Court of High Commission, she managed to escape the city and set up shop elsewhere (12). Holland’s Leaguer eventually closed down in the 1680s.

You may also enjoy Winchester Geese or Bankside Whores and The Wandering Whore


1) Peter Ackroyd, London The Biography, (Chatto and Windus, 2000), 690
2) Ibid
3) Anne K Kaler, The Picara, from Hera to Fantasy Heroine (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981), 33
4) Melissa Ditmore (ed) The Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volume 1 (Greenwood Press, 2006), 211
5) Ibid
6) Kaler, 35
7) Ibid, 33
8) Nicholas Goodman, Hollands leaguer: or, An historical discourse of the life and actions of Dona Britanica Hollandia the arch-mistris of the wicked women of Eutopia VVherein is detected the notorious sinne of panderisme, and the execrable life of the luxurious impudent. (London, 1632)
9) Jessica A. Browner, Wrong Side of the River: London’s disreputable South Bank in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, ‘Essays in History’, 36 (1994), 49 
10) Thomas Middleton, Father Hubberd’s Tale (1604), cited in Charles Nicholl, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (Penguin, 2008)
11) Ditmore, 211
12) Browner, 52

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