Category Archives: London


St Paul’s Cross

The outdoor pulpit known as St Paul’s Cross, painted by John Gipkyn (fl 1594–1629) in 1616. 

Today I discovered this lovely painting of St Paul’s Cross, a site of much historical importance.

Public sermons and announcements were delivered to Londoners from St Paul’s Cross, the first in 1236, when a member of the king’s counsel announced Henry III’s wish to govern London well and punish those who interfered with its citizens. In 1422, Richard Walker, a chaplain of Worcester, appeared at the Cross to to plead guilty to charges of sorcery. Sermons which helped establish the English Reformation were delivered from here, and several riots began on this spot. Londoners were told of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in a sermon delivered at St Paul’s Cross on November 10th by William Barlow. In 1643 the Cross was destroyed by the Puritans during the first English Civil War, and it was rebuilt, minus the pulpit, in 1910.

St Paul’s Cross today
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Entertainment London Shakespeare Theatre

‘I’ll go to the Bull or Fortune, and there see a play for two pence’

Shoreditch from The Agas Map of London (1591)

The First Public London Theatres

The first purpose-built public playhouse in London was the Theatre, constructed under the watchful eye of James Burbage in 1576. Burbage, an actor by trade, was tired of touring and playing in makeshift venues and recognised the need for members of his profession to have a permanent theatre as close to London as possible. Locating a theatre outside the city limits ensured no interference from the city fathers, who made vigorous efforts to ban plays, believing them to corrupt youth, promote idleness, and spread disease. Burbage signed a twenty-one year lease on a site in Shoreditch, and his brother Robert, a carpenter, began construction on the Theatre. This new playhouse, a wooden, unroofed amphitheatre modelled on the popular bear-baiting arenas in London, was described as a ‘gorgeous Playing-place erected in the fieldes’.

By the early 1590s, the Theatre was a flourishing venue, and in 1594 it saw the staging of several early Shakespeare plays, including Romeo and Juliet. In 1597 however, the lease expired, and following a legal dispute with the landlord, Burbage and his players relocated to the Bank Side in Southwark and erected the Globe in 1598.The Globe wasn’t the first theatre in Southwark. The Rose, under the directorship of Philip Henslowe, had opened in 1587, and the Swan under Francis Langley had been showing plays from 1596. Like Burbage’s Theatre, these were all public playhouses, unlike the private theatres in the City and Inns of Court which charged high admission prices to a wealthy and select audience.

Wenceslas Hollar’s detail of The Globe (1647)

The Globe was described at the time of its construction as ‘a house newly built with a garden attached… in the occupation of William Shakespeare and others.’ Public playhouses were polygonal or round buildings, built on a timber frame, with a thatched or tile roof over the galleries. The yard, or standing area, was open to the sky, and reached via a series of entrances. The seated galleries, protected by the roof, were accessed via a series of staircases. Plays were performed daily at two in the afternoon, plague permitting, and were announced by a trumpet fanfare from the theatre’s roof, which also sported a flag which flew at high mast when a performance was underway. Several different plays a week were performed, never the same two in the same week, and printed handbills provided details of performances to passers-by. Thomas Platter, a German visitor to London in 1599, wrote an account of seeing a play at the Curtain:

Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door, and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried around the audience, so that what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.

Johannes De Witt’s sketch of the Swan Theatre (1596)

The stage in most public playhouses extended out into the yard, which meant the audience surrounded the actors on three sides. The Lords’ Rooms, which flanked the stage, were the best seats in the house. Behind the stage was the tiring house where the actors changed costumes, and above the stage an open balcony which extended the performance space. Over both the stage and balcony was a canopied roof supported by pillars, protecting the players from the elements. Known as ‘the heavens’ this was often brightly decorated. The stage also had a trap door and mechanical devices for lowering props and players up and down.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose, includes in his list of stage props: a tree of golden apples, the city of Rome, Hell’s mouth, a rainbow, lion and bear skins, coffins, tombs, and ‘a robe for to go invisible’. Costumes were prized possessions. A black velvet cloak belonging to Henslowe’s theatre, with embroidered sleeves of silver and gold, was listed with a value of £20.10s 6d, about a third of the cost of a house in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Due to this vast expense, the aristocracy often donated costumes to the theatres.

Sound effects were simple but effective and included cannons, bells, and trumpets. A sheet of wobbling metal simulated thunder, and plays often called for mist, lightning, flaming torches, and in one case, fireworks. Because blood made such a frequent appearance on the stage, animal entrails were used for gore, and a sponge soaked in sheep’s blood, tucked under an actor’s armpit and squeezed at the opportune moment, reproduced the realistic effect of a stabbing.

Entry to the Globe’s yard, standing room only, cost a penny. For a more comfortable experience a visitor could pay an extra penny to sit in the galleries, and a further penny rented a cushion for the duration. Available refreshments included apples, oranges, pies, ale, wine, and even a pipe full of tobacco (three pence a pipe). Theatres on Bankside could accommodate up to 3,000 people per play, and audiences were comprised of every sector of society. Only Puritans abstained for fear of corruption. Bankside wasn’t the only area of London where public theatres flourished. There were playhouses in Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Lincolns Inn, and the City. There were several companies of players attached to the theatres; the Admiral’s Men played at the Rose, Paul’s Children at Pauls, Queen Anne’s players at the Red Bull, Lady Elizabeth’s at the Swan, and the King’s Revels Children at Whitefriars.

Map of London showing the theatres (1920)


In 1609, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, acquired a second theatre at Blackfriars. Little is known of this, the first indoor public playhouse. There is some speculation it was converted from the paved hall of an old priory. Its stage was much small than that of the Globe, and flash young things were permitted to sit on it during performances at a cost of 2 shillings. Admission to Blackfriars was more expensive than the Globe. Six pence paid for a seat in the galleries, and half a crown bought a private box. Lit by candles, and protected from the elements, Blackfriars became a lucrative investment for the King’s Men since they could stage plays all year round. In addition to the public and private theatres in London, plays were also performed at Court and at the Inns of Court. In 1612-13 the King’s Men performed five plays for James I in the Great Hall at Hampton Court.

Estimates suggest that between 1574 and 1642, the playhouses in London had regular audiences well in excess of 150,000 people, demonstrating Burbage’s simple decision to build a theatre in a field led to the birth of one of the most enduring forms of popular entertainment in Europe.

Bankside, prior to the construction of the Globe, from The Agas Map of London (1591)


Further reading: Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, CUP (1980); The Shakespeare Company 1594-1642, CUP (2004).
This post was originally published in The London Historians newsletter.


© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Death London Medicine

Lord have mercy on us!

Reading through some plague statistics recently I was shocked to discover just how many lives were claimed by this disease in the 17th Century. I had known that during plague outbreaks hundreds of people died, but I hadn’t realised just how enormous those numbers were. What follows is a brief overview of the disease, followed by the numbers of deaths which occurred during several big plague outbreaks, recorded during a particularly virulent outbreak in 1665.

Bubonic Plague is a disease transmitted by rats. Or rather the fleas on rats. When a plague-carrying flea bites a host, human or rodent, the bacillus enters the bloodstream. This infection then spreads through the lymph nodes, leading to swellings, or buboes, in the neck, armpit, and groin. Of those infected, about two-thirds die. Symptoms of plague included vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, nausea, bleeding from the ears, fever and abdominal pain. More general pain resulted from the slow decay of the skin of an infected person which produced black spots all over the body.

In the 17th Century, an outbreak of plague was impossible to treat. Those infected were isolated in their houses for at least twenty days and were compelled to pin a paper to their front door bearing the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. The parish often paid members of the community to visit plague victims to bring them food, and, in the case of death, call for a cart to bear the body away. All bedding and linen used by an infected person was burned. Those who had visited an infected house carried a long white stick to warn others to avoid contact with them.

Some plague numbers: In 1591-2, 11,503 people died of plague. In 1625, it claimed 35,428 lives, and five years later in 1630, another 1,317. Between 1636-8, 16,213 people succumbed to the disease, and between 1646 and 1648, another 8,324. In 1665, more than 64,296 people died between January and October.

During the outbreak of 1665, the above numbers were published, along with some approved remedies for curing the plague, entitled Certain approved Medicines for the plague, both to prevent that Contagion, and to expel it after it be taken; as have been approved in the year 1625 and also in this present visitation 1665.

To correct the Aire

Thyme, Mint, Rosemary, Bay leaves, Blame, Pitch, Tarre Rosen, Turpentine, Frankincense, Myrrh, Amber. One or more of these, as they are at hand, or may be readily procured, to be cast on the coales to perfume the house.


Such as are to walk abroad, or talk with any may do well to carry Rue, Wormwood, Angelica, Gentian, Myrrh, Valerian or Setwall-root in their hands to smell, and of those they may hold or chew a little in their mouths as they go.

Inward Medicines for the Prevention of the Plague

Take a Spoon full of quick wine vinegar, wherein Wormwood chopped hath been infused. Take good Figs, thirty, Walnut kernels twenty, green Rue picked a good handful, Salt one spoonful, stamp them and incorporate them together. Take of this mixture every morning the quantity of a Prune; Children and weak bodies, as much as a Hasel nut.

For the Cure of the Plague

If any person be infected, let him sweat with Marigold drink, mingling therewith two drams of London treacle (a medicinal salve, or compound, composed of many ingredients).

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Books Conversation Italy London Monarchy Shakespeare

To talke in the darke

Today’s post is on the life of John Florio (1553-1625), Italian language teacher and contemporary of Shakespeare.

John’s father, Michael, was a former Franciscan monk, who escaped the Inquisition and fled to England during the reign of Edward VI. In 1550, Michael began preaching at a newly-formed Italian Protestant church in London, but after falling out of favour with other members of the church, he turned to teaching Italian in order to support his family. Two of his more famous students included Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke, and Lady Jane Grey.

In 1554, the Catholic Mary Tudor ascended the throne, and Michael, like many foreign exiles, was forced to leave England. He and his family settled in Soglio, Switzerland, near the Italian border. At the age of ten, John was sent to study under the Italian refugee Vergerio, a former bishop, but when his father died, he returned to Soglio, and by 1576 John Florio was back in England.

In London, John turned his hand to teaching Italian, and in 1578 he published his first handbook, Florio his Firste Fruites, which he dedicated to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. First Fruites is comprised of forty-four chapters of typical conversations and interactions, and a guide to Italian grammar.


Page from Florio’s First Fruites (1578). Right click to open a large image in a new tab.
Around the time he published his First Fruites, Florio moved to Oxford, where he taught Italian at the university and became friends with the poet Samuel Daniel. He married Daniel’s sister in 1580 and they baptized their first child, Joane, in Oxford in 1585. Their second child, Edward, was born in 1588, and another, Elizabeth, in 1589. During his time in Oxford, Florio published A shorte and briefe narration of the two navigations and discoveries to the northweast partes called Newe Fraunce (1580), an English  translation of Ramusio’s Italian version of the work by Jacques Cartier. 

In 1583 Florio and his family returned to London, and for two years he was employed by the French embassy as a tutor to the daughter of the French ambassador. During this time it is believed he also worked as a spy for Francis Walsingham, a common activity, and one undertaken by many literary men, including Christopher Marlowe. Florio was also occupied translating newsletters from Italy, which he published in one pamphlet, A letter lately written from Rome, by an Italian gentleman to a freende of his in Lyons in Fraunce (1585).

In 1591 Florio published a second language book entitled Florios Second Frutes, which contained 6000 Italian proverbs in the appended Gardine of Recreation; the largest list of proverbs to be published in the 16th century.

Second Frutes (1591)

  Proverbs from Second Frutes 

Second Frutes was aimed at the upper classes, and contains a wealth of fascinating conversations surrounding daily life, such as visiting the theatre, playing tennis, and attending dinner parties. Interest in languages and all things Italian was at its height in England at this time, and as his biographer notes, ‘Florio offered the Elizabethans a vehicle for discovering Italy, its language, and its Renaissance culture without necessarily travelling to the continent.’ 

In 1598, Florio published the first edition of a Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copius, and Exact Dictionarie in English and Italian. According to the titles he lists at the beginning of the book, he consulted seventy-two works by 16th century writers, to provide over 44,000 entries in English and Italian. But his most famous work was published in 1603; a translation of Montaigne’s Essais, entitled The Essayes, or, Morall, Politike and Militarie Discourses. By this point he had severable well-connected patrons including Lady Elizabeth Grey, Lady Penelope Rich and Lady Mary Neville. This translation of Montaigne was a source of inspiration for Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, John Webster and William Shakespeare.  

Florio’s star was in the ascendant, and in 1604 he was appointed groom of the privy chamber, and reader in Italian, and as private secretary to Queen Anne. He tutored the royal family in Italian and French, and revised his dictionary, which he republished in 1611 as Queen Anna’s New World of Words. This new edition included almost 70,000 entries, and covers such subjects as history, astrology, philosophy and medicine. This edition also included an engraved portrait of Florio, which can be seen above.

In 1617, Florio remarried a woman named Rose Spicer, and when the queen died in 1619, he lost his place at court. Later that year he and his wife were living in poverty in Fulham. Here he worked on a third edition of his dictionary. In October 1625, Florio died of plague, and his wife followed him to the grave a year later. Their daughter Aurelia went on to marry the surgeon James Molins and they had at least nine children.

Florio and Shakespeare were contemporaries and almost certainly knew each other. Shakespeare demonstrates familiarity with Florio’s work in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and in The Tempest, in which he includes a passage from Florio’s translation of Montaigne (2.1). At least twelve plays feature Italy or Italian names. Some theorists have speculated that Shakespeare himself was an Italian, and others that Shakespeare was indeed Florio; the theory going that John’s father Michael was born in Messina to Giovanni Florio and Guglielma Crollalanza (Shakes-pear in English). That he fled to England and assumed the identity of a dead English cousin, his son John then inheriting the real surname Shakespeare.

The Tempest, First Folio (A4r)

Like all authorship theories, there is little evidence to support such claims, and Shakespeare and Florio probably knew each other through the intimate and tight-knit world of the court and London publishers.

John Florio was the leading language teacher of the early 17th Century. His knowledge of Italian Renaissance literature and his elegant writing contributed, according to his biographer, ‘to the regeneration of English humanism in the latter part of the sixteenth century and to its consolidation at the beginning of the seventeenth.’

From a modern perspective, Florio’s work, particularly the two Frutes, provides charming and revealing evidence of every day life and interaction in 17th Century London, which makes a rich contribution to our understanding of the world of Shakespeare.

You can read some of Florio’s entertaining conversations here

Source: Desmond O Connor, DNB

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