Category Archives: Sex

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

© 2009-2014 All Rights Reserved

London Prostitution Sex Underworld Vice Women

The Wandering Whore

Today’s snippets come from a very popular early modern text on prostitution, but in order to give it some context, here is a little overview of the history of brothels in London from John Stowe, whose survey of London in 1598 describes the history of Bankside stews:

Next on this bank was sometime the Bordello, or Stewes, a place so called of certain stew-houses privileged there, for the repair of incontinent men to the like women.

Under Henry II parliament ordained certain rules for the maintenance of these brothels:

That no stew-holder or his wife should let or stay any single woman, to go and come freely at all times
No stew-holder to keep any woman to board, but she to board abroad at her pleasure.
To take no more for the woman’s chamber in the week than fourteen pence.
Not to keep open his doors upon the holidays.
No single woman to be kept against her will that would leave.
No stew-holder to receive any woman of religion, or any man’s wife.
No single woman to take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow.
The constables, bailiff, and others, every week to search each stew-house.

These brothels were subsequently closed down by the authorities under Henry VIII, but were once again legalised under Edward VI. By the reign of James I, Bankside in Southwark was an area known area for its vice and crime. The theatres had been established here since it was outside the jurisdiction of the City Fathers, and brothels and stew-houses flourished alongside the bear-pits and numerous taverns. Whorehouses were also prominent in other areas of London, most notably Westminster, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Whitefriars.

A popular text which was translated from the Italian in the 1570s, and had been in heavy circulation ever since was Arentino’s The Wandering Whore. Pornographic and entertaining, it takes the form of a dialogue between a pimp and a whore, and sheds light on the practise of prostitution in early modern London:

Betty Lawrence… will serve the Cure [for the ‘standing ague’]; suffering you to whip the skin off her buttocks, onely paying her Crowns apiece for her patience and punishment.

A list of ‘Common Whores’ includes the names:

Green Moll, alias Joan Godfrey, Toothless Betty, Shards wife in Dunning Alley, Long-haired Mrs Spencer in Spittle-fields, Taylor the Prigg, Dutch Whore, Wilkins a weaver’s Wife at Smack Ally End.

Male names feature too, including: Little Taffy, Dick Steckwel, Ned Brooks, Green by Newgate, Frank Ashburn, and the alluringly-named ‘Ralph Asbington, alias Shitten-arse.

The young Gallant in the text discusses this list of names, claiming ‘I’ll visit their Quarters one after another, though I’m clappt three times over with the Pox.’ He enquires about a prostitute in Moorgate, ‘a teasing Girl with Silver-lace upon her Petticoat a Quarters bredth, with Lemmon-colour’d Ribbons a-la-mode-france, with Pendants in her eares, neck-lace of counterfeit pearl, and dres’t with a Caul in her hair.’

There is a description of a prostitute who ‘stood upon her head with naked breech & belly whilst four Cully-rumpers chuckt fifteen Half-crowns into her Commodity.’

Prostitutes are advised to be clean. They need to ‘paint, powder, and perfume their clothes and carkasses’ and have ‘fine clean Holland-smocks’. Descriptions of typical acts between prostitute and client include kissing with their mouths open, putting their tongues into his mouth, and putting their ‘left hand in his Cod-piece, the right hand in his Pocket.’

But perhaps the most moving aspect of Aretino’s tract is the description of the fate of many children born as a result of prostitution:

what children are got in Bastardy amongst us, are educated, if you are but minded to go to a certain stately building, where there is a grate, and one continually there placed to receive it [the baby], the Priests have a place peculiar to themselves, for what Brats they get are carried, where on the outside of the wall hangs a rope with a basket at the end on’t, where they are drawn up in a basket if you ring the bell which hangs close by.

For more on seventeenth century brothels see here or search the tag Prostitution.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Art Florence Renaissance Sex Vice

Sta cheto, soddomitaccio!

The medieval term ‘sodomy’ covered a multitude of activities including incest, sex with nuns, and bestiality.  In fact any sexual activity which deviated from that approved by the Bible. Sodomy came to be a byword for homosexual behaviour in the Renaissance. In 1527, a Florentine noble was fined for the explicit crimes of per buggerone. By 1600, Francis Bacon was promoting masculine love as a specific erotic category (his mother wrote to him complaining of his ‘foul sins’ with various male servants), and specifically homosexual activity was one of many subversive pursuits which flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries.

As this ‘unmentionable vice’ grew, so too did the authorities attempts to persecute its practitioners. A sixteenth century source claims

The mighty impose penalties on those who [commit sodomy] for no other reason than this: since it is their own profession, they don’t want common people to use it.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), an Italian sculptor and goldsmith, was convicted of sodomy in 1557; by which point the phrase had become almost synonymous with ‘seducing young boys’. While Cellini may privately have had no regrets, he was furious at his public outing. His sentence included a heavy fine and four years imprisonment, which was reduced to four years house arrest after the intervention of the Medicis. The following is his own account of his outing by rival artist Bandinello:

Bardinello ‘turned to me with that most hideous face of his, screaming aloud: ‘Oh, hold your tongue, sta cheto, soddomitaccio! [you filthy sodomite]’ At these words the Duke frowned, and the others pursed their lips up and looked with knitted grows toward him. The horrible affront half maddened me with fury; but in a moment I recovered presence of mind enough to turn it off with a jest; ‘You madman! you exceed the bounds of decency. Yet would to God that I understood so noble an art as you allude to; they say that Jove used it with Ganymede in paradise, and here upon this earth it is practised by some of the greatest emperors and kings.  I, however, am but a poor humble creature, who neither have the power nor the intelligence to perplex my wits with anything so admirable.’ When I had finished this speech, the Duke and his attendants could control themselves no longer, but broke into such shouts of laughter that one never heard the like. You must know, gentle readers, that though I put on this appearance of pleasantry, my heart was bursting in my body to think that a fellow, the foulest villain who ever breathed, should have dared in the presence of so great a prince to cast an insult of that atrocious nature in my teeth; but you must also know that he insulted the Duke, and not me; for had I not stood in that august presence, I should have felled him dead to earth. When the dirty stupid scoundrel observed that those gentlemen kept on laughing, he tried to change the subject, and divert them from deriding him; so he began as follows: ‘This fellow Benvenuto goes about boasting that I have promised him a piece of marble.’ I took him up at once. ‘What! did you not send to tell me by your journeyman, Francesco, that if I wished to work in marble you would give me a block? I accepted it, and mean to have it.’  He retorted: ‘Be very well assured that you will never get it.’ Still smarting as I was under the calumnious insults he had flung at me, I lost my self-control, forgot I was in the presence of the Duke, and called out in a storm of fury: ‘I swear to you that if you do not send the marble to my house, you had better look out for another world, for if you stay upon this earth I will most certainly rip the wind out of your carcass.’

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Love Poetry Prostitution Sex Vice

A Ramble in St James’ Park

Continuing with the poetry theme, today’s fragment is from John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester (1647-80) a notorious courtier and poet. His life is deserving of a post of its own, and I will work on a few snippets from his biography for a later post. However, what follows is his scandalous poem A Ramble in St James’s Park, which as a result of its pornographic nature, was still in 1964 regarded as unprintable in England. The poem is fascinating as a counterpart to Gascgoine’s Disdainful Dame, but it also challenges our perceptions of history as remote and disconnected from the modern world.

WARNING: It goes without saying that the poem contains some very strong language and sexual imagery and is not suitable for under 18s.

A Ramble in St. James’s Park

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt.

There, by a most incestuous birth,
Strange woods spring from the teeming earth;
For they relate how heretofore,
When ancient Pict began to whore,
Deluded of his assignation
(Jilting, it seems, was then in fashion),
Poor pensive lover, in this place
Would frig upon his mother’s face;
Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise
Whose lewd tops fucked the very skies.
Each imitative branch does twine

In some loved fold of Aretine,
And nightly now beneath their shade
Are buggeries, rapes, and incests made.
Unto this all-sin-sheltering grove
Whores of the bulk and the alcove,
Great ladies, chambermaids, and drudges,
The ragpicker, and heiress trudges.
Carmen, divines, great lords, and tailors,
Prentices, poets, pimps, and jailers,
Footmen, fine fops do here arrive,

And here promiscuously they swive.
Along these hallowed walks it was
That I beheld Corinna pass.
Whoever had been by to see
The proud disdain she cast on me
Through charming eyes, he would have swore
She dropped from heaven that very hour,
Forsaking the divine abode
In scorn of some despairing god.

But mark what creatures women are:
How infinitely vile, when fair!
Three knights o’ the’ elbow and the slur
With wriggling tails made up to her.
The first was of your Whitehall baldes,
Near kin t’ th’ Mother of the Maids;
Graced by whose favor he was able

To bring a friend t’ th’ Waiters’ table,
Where he had heard Sir Edward Sutton
Say how the King loved Banstead mutton;
Since when he’d ne’er be brought to eat
By ‘s good will any other meat.
In this, as well as allthe rest,
He ventures to do like the best,

But wanting common sense, th’ ingredient
In choosing well not least expedient,
Converts abortive imitation
To universal affectation.
Thus he not only eats and talks
But feels and smells, sits down and walks,
Nay looks, and lives, and loves by rote,
In an old tawdry birthday coat.
The second was a Grays Inn wit,
A great inhabiter of the pit,
Where critic-like he sits and squints,
Steals pocket handkerchiefs, and hints

From ‘s neighbor, and the comedy,
To court, and pay, his landlady.
The third, a lady’s eldest son
Within few years of twenty-one
Who hopes from his propitious fate,
Against he comes to his estate,
By these two worthies to be made
A most accomplished tearing blade.

One, in a strain ‘twixt tune and nonsense,
Cries, “Madam, I have loved you long since.
Permit me your fair hand to kiss”;
When at her mouth her cunt cries, “Yes!”
In short, without much more ado,
Joyful and pleased, away she flew,
And with these three confounded asses
From park to hackney coach she passes.

So a proud bitch does lead about
Of humble curs the amorous rout,
Who most obsequiously do hunt
The savory scent of salt-swoln cunt.
Some power more patient now relate
The sense of this surprising fate.
Gods! that a thing admired by me
Should fall to so much infamy.
Had she picked out, to rub her arse on,
Some stiff-pricked clown or well-hung parson,
Each job of whose spermatic sluice

Had filled her cunt with wholesome juice,
I the proceeding should have praised
In hope sh’ had quenched a fire I raised.
Such natural freedoms are but just:
There’s something generous in mere lust.
But to turn a damned abandoned jade
When neither head nor tail persuade;
To be a whore in understanding,
A passive pot for fools to spend in!

The devil played booty, sure, with thee
To bring a blot on infamy.
But why am I, of all mankind,
To so severe a fate designed?
Ungrateful! Why this treachery
To humble fond, believing me,
Who gave you privilege above

The nice allowances of love?
Did ever I refuse to bear
The meanest part your lust could spare?
When your lewd cunt came spewing home
Drenched with the seed of half the town,
My dram of sperm was supped up after
For the digestive surfeit water.
Full gorged at another time

With a vast meal of slime
Which your devouring cunt had drawn
From porters’ backs and footmen’s brawn,
I was content to serve you up
My ballock-full for your grace cup,
Nor ever thought it an abuse
While you had pleasure for excuse –
You that could make my heart away
For noise and color, and betray

The secrets of my tender hours
To such knight-errant paramours,
When, leaning on your faithless breast,
Wrapped in security and rest,
Soft kindness all my powers did move,
And reason lay dissolved in love!
May stinking vapors choke your womb
Such as the men you dote upon
May your depraved appetite,

That could in whiffling fools delight,
Beget such frenzies in your mind
You may go mad for the north wind,
And fixing all your hopes upon’t
To have him bluster in your cunt,
Turn up your longing arse t’ th’ air
And perish in a wild despair!
But cowards shall forget to rant,

Schoolboys to frig, old whores to paint;
The Jesuits’ fraternity
Shall leave the use of buggery;
Crab-louse, inspired with grace divine,
From earthly cod to heaven shall climb;
Physicians shall believe in Jesus,
And disobedience cease to please us,
Ere I desist with all my power
To plague this woman and undo her.

But my revenge will best be timed
When she is married that is limed.
In that most lamentable state
I’ll make her feel my scorn and hate:
Pelt her with scandals, truth or lies,
And her poor cur with jealousies,
Till I have torn him from her breech,

While she whines like a dog-drawn bitch;
Loathed and despised, kicked out o’ th’ Town
Into some dirty hole alone,
To chew the cud of misery
And know she owes it all to me.
And may no woman better thrive
That dares prophane the cunt I swive!

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