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.
1) Peter Ackroyd, London The Biography, (Chatto and Windus, 2000), 690
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
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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