Category Archives: Vice

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

Booze Vice

The loathsome and odious sin of drunkenesse

These entertaining fragments from the mid 17th Century warn of the terrible dangers of drinking. Drunkenness and swearing had become such a problem that by 1644 the government was forced to issue a statute setting out fines for uncouth behaviour:

Whereas the loathsome and odious sin of drunkennesse is of late grown into common use within this realm, being the root and foundation of many other enormous sins, as bloodshed, stabbing, murder, swearing, fornication, adultery, and such like; to the great dishonour of God, and of our nation. Be it therefore enacted by the Kings most Excellent Majestie, that all and every person or persons, which shall be drunk, and of the same offence of drunkennesse shall be lawfully convicted lose five shillings (£21) of lawfull Money of England, to be paid within one week next after his, her, or their conviction thereof, to the hands of the church-wardens of that parish. And if the said person or persons so convicted, shall refuse, or neglect to pay the said forfeiture, as aforesaid, then the same shall be from time to time, levyed of the goods of every such person or persons so refusing or neglecting to pay the same. And if the offender or offenders be not able to pay the said sum of five shillings, then the offender or offenders shall be committed to the stocks for every offence, there to remain by the space of six houres. And it is further enacted that if any person or persons, being once lawfully convicted of the said offence of drunkennesse, shall after that be again lawfully convicted of the like offence of drunkennesse; then every person and persons so secondly convicted of the said offence of drunkennesse, shall be bounden with two sureties to our Kings Majestie, the obligation of ten pounds (£850!), with condition to be from thence forth of good behaviour.

A similar statute was issued for swearing, although the fines were not quite so severe:

Swearing and cursing is forbidden by the Word of God; Be it therefore enacted by the Authority of this present Parliament, That no person or persons, shall from henceforth prophanely swear or curse. And if any person or persons, shall at any time or times hereafter offend herein, either in the hearing of any Justice of Peace of the County, or of any Major, Justice of Peace, Bailiff, or head Officer of any Citie or Town Corporate, then every such offender shall for every time so offending, forfeit, and pay to the use of the poor of that Parish, where the same offence is or shall be committed, the sum of twelve pence (about £4).

Anyone over the age of 12 years who failed to pay the fine was placed in the stocks for three hours, but those under 12, were ‘whipped by the Constable or by the Parents, or Master in his presence’. Not only were there stiff fines for being drunk and/or disorderly, warnings about the dangers of drink were printed everywhere. The following snippets come from a thunderous text which exposes the character and nature of a drunkard:

Those being robbed of their strength and senses by drinke, are frequently subject to all fearefull accidents, and miserable mishaps. Some being drunke fall into the fire, and are burned. A Gentleman of worth, rising to make water, could finde no fitter place to do it in than the chimney; where, being a few live embers, he fell downe, and not being able to rise againe, had his belly puckerd together like a sachell before the Chamberlaine could come to helpe him. Whereupon, being in great torture, he dranke twenty two double jugs of beer, and so died, roaring and crying that he was damned. Some fall down dead as a dore naile. Some againe fall into the water, and are drowned, as is commonly seene. Some fall and batter their faces, bruise their bodies, breake their armes, their legs, and many breake their necks in the very act of drunkennesse. Others are wounded, beaten, and many times murdered, as often times they stab and murder others.

The drunkard commonly hath a swollen and inflamed face beset with goodly jowles; swimming, running, glaring, goggle eyes, bleared and red; a mouth nasty with offensive fumes, alwayes foaming, or drivelling; a feverish body; a sicke and giddy braine; a mind dispersed; a boyling stomacke; rotten teeth; stinking breath; a drumming eare; a palsied hand; gouty, staggering legs, that would go, but cannot; a drawling, stammering, tongue, clamped to the roofe and gumms; (not to speake of his odious gestures, lothsome nastinesse, or beastly behaviour, his belching, hickups, vomitings, ridiculous postures, and how easily he is knocked down).

And finally, this sobering thought:

Wine so inflames the drunkard with lust, that were his power equall to his desire, were his dreames and wishes all true, hee would not leave a virgin in the world.

See also Hops and Hogsheads, A Warning Piece to all Drunkards & Sack hath the power to make me mad. Or check out the label Booze.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Crime Curiosities Death Murder Vice Witchcraft

In his Wolvish shape he would run among them

This curious account of a Werewolf comes from Germany in the 1590s. With a ravenous appetite for lust and murder, Stubbe Peeter eventually meets his own rather gory end.

In the townes of Cperadt and Bedbur neer unto Collin in high Germany, there was continually brought up and nourished one Stubbe Peeter, who from his youth was greatly inclined to evill, and the practising of wicked Artes even from twelve years of age till twentye, and so forwardes till his dying daye, insomuch that surfeiting in the Damnable desire of magick, necromancye, and sorcery, acquainting him selfe with many infernall spirites and fiends. The Devill who saw him a fit instrument to perform mischeefe as a wicked fiend pleased with the desire of wrong and destruction, gave unto him a girdle, which being put about him, he was straight transformed into the likeness of a greedy devouring Wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like unto brandes of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharpe and cruell teeth, A huge body, and mightye pawes: And no sooner should he put off the same girdle, but presently he should appeare in his former shape, according to the proportion of a man, as if he had never beene changed.

Stubbe Peeter hearwith was exceedingly well pleased, and the shape fitted his fancye and agreed best with his nature. If any person displeased him, he would incontinent thirst for revenge, and no sooner should they or any of theirs walke abroad in the fields or about the Cittie, but in the shape of a Woolfe he would presentlye encounter them, and never rest till he had pluckt out their throates and teare their joyntes a sunder: And after he had gotten a taste hereof, he tooke such pleasure and delight in shedding of blood, that he would night and day walke the Fields, and work extreme cruelties. And sundry times he would go through the Streetes of Collin, Bedbur, and Cperadt, in comely habit, and very civilly as one well knowen to all the inhabitants therabout, & oftentimes was he saluted of those whose friendes and children he had buchered, though nothing suspected for the same.

It came to passe that as he walked abroad in the fieldes, if he chanced to spye a companye of maydens playing together, or else a milking of their Kine, in his Woolvishe shape he would incontinent runne among them, and while the rest escaped by flight, he would be sure to laye holde of one, and after his filthy lust fulfilled, he would murder her presentlye, beside, if he had liked or knowne any of them, her he would pursue, whether she were before or behinde, and take her from the rest, for such was his swiftnes of foot while he continued a woolf: that he would outrunne the swiftest greyhound in that Countrye: and so muche he had practised this wickednes, that the whole Province was feared by the cruelty of this bloody and devouring Woolfe. Thus continuing his divelishe and damnable deedes within the compass of fewe yeares, he had murdered thirteene young Children, and two goodly young women bigge with Child, tearing the Children out of their wombes, in most bloody and savage sorte, and after eate their hartes panting hotte and rawe, which he accounted dainty morsells & best agreeing to his Appetite.

He had at that time living a faire young Damsell, his Daughter, after whom he also lusted most unnaturallye, and cruellye committed most wicked inceste with her. This daughter he begot when he was not altogether so wickedlye given, who was called by the name of Stubbe Bell, whose beautye and good grace was such as deserved commendations of all those that knewe her: And such was his inordinate lust and filthye desire toward her, that he begat a Childe by her, dayly using her as his Concubine, but as an insaciate and filthy beast, given over to work evil. With greedines he also lay with his owne Sister, frequenting her company long time even according as the wickednes of his hart lead him. Moreover being on a time sent for to a Gossip of his there to make merry and good cheere, ere he thence departed he so won the woman by his faire and flattering speech, and so much prevailed, yet ere he departed the house: he lay by her, and ever after had her companye at his command. This woman was Katherine Trompin, a woman of tall and comely stature of exceeding good favour and one that was well esteemed among her neighbours. But his lewde and inordinate lust being not satisfied with the company of many Concubines, nor his wicked fancye contented with the beauty of any woman, at length the devill sent unto him a wicked spirit in the similitude and likenes of a woman, so faire of face and comelye of personage, that she resembled rather some heavenly creature, so farre her beauty exceeded the chiefest sorte of women, and with her as with his harts delight, he kept company the space of seven yeeres, though in the end she proved and was found indeed no other then a she Devil

Long time he continued this wilde and villanous life, sometime in the likenes of a Woolfe, sometime in the habit of a man, sometime in the Townes and Citties, and sometimes in the Woods and thickettes to them adjoyning. Thus this damnable Stubbe Peeter lived the tearme of five and twenty yeeres, unsuspected to be Author of so many cruell and unnaturall murders, in which time he destroyed and spoyled an unknowen number of Men, Women, and Children, sheepe, Lambes, and Goates: and other Catttell. The inhabitantes of Collin, Bedbur and Cperadt, seeing themselves so greevously endangered, plagued, and molested by this greedy & cruel Woolfe, none durst travell to or from those places without good provision of defence. Oftentimes the inhabitants found the Armes & legges of dead Men, Women, and Children, scattered up and down the fields to their great greefe and vexation of heart, knowing the same to be done by that strange and cruell Woolfe. They daylye continued and sought to intrap him. In the end it pleased God that they should espye him in his woolvishe likeness, and moste circumspectlye set their Dogges upon him. He, seeing no way to escape the imminent danger, presently slipt his girdle from about him, whereby the shape of a Woolfe cleane avoided, he appeared presently in his true shape & likeness, having in his hand a staffe as one walking toward the Cittie. But the hunters came unto him, and brought him to his owne house, and finding him to be the man indeede, and no delusion or phantasticall motion, they had him before the Magistrates to be examined.

Thus being apprehended, he was shortly after put to the racke in the Towne of Bedbur, but fearing the torture, he volluntarilye confessed his whole life, and made knowen the villanies which he had committed for the space of 25 yeares, also he confessed how by Sorcery he procured of the Devill a Girdle, which beeing put on, he forthwith became a Woolfe. After he had some space beene imprisoned, the majestrates found out through due examination of the matter, that his daughter Stubbe Bell and his Gossip Katherine Trompin, were both accessory to divers murders committed, who for the same were arraigned, and with Stubbe Peeter condemned, and their severall Judgementes pronounced the 28 of October 1589· in this manner, that is to saye: Stubbe Peeter as principall mallefactor, was judged first to have his body laide on a wheele, and with red hotte burning pincers in ten several places to have the flesh pulled off from the bones, after that, his legges and Armes to be broken with a woodden Hatchet, afterward to have his head strook from his body, then to have his carkasse burned to Ashes.

Also his Daughter and his Gossip were judged to be burned quicke to Ashes, the same time and day with the carkasse of the aforesaid Stubbe Peeter, and on the 31 of the same moneth, they suffered death accordingly in the town of Bedbur in the presence of many peeres & princes of Germany.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Custom Entertainment Games London Underworld Vice

We play with dice

Evidence of gambling in London goes all the way back to the Romans, with dice carved from bone and jet having been excavated by archaeologists. Medieval London also had its fair share of gaming activity; Hazard was played in taverns and brothels, along with another dice game known as Tables. Playing cards were introduced into London in the 15th century; John Stowe remarks on their popularity during feast days. Playing cards were also kept in most taverns, often with the name of the tavern printed on them. In fact playing cards became such big business that over four and a half million packs were sold in the mid-17th century. Here is a contemporary description of some popular tavern games:

We play with Dice either they that throw the most take up all; or we throw them through a casting-Box upon a board marked with figures, and this is the Dice-players game at casting Lots.  Men play by luck and skill at Tables and at Cards.  We play at Chesse on a Chesse-board where only art beareth the sway.  The most ingenious Game is the game at Chefs, wherein as it were two Armies fight together in Battell’ (Early Modern Risk!).

Lincoln’s Inn was had a particular reputation for gambling in London; and even children played each other for oranges and coins. One game known as Wheel of Fortune was especially popular. However, gambling was frowned on by many and seen as a vice fit for the devil. This comment is fairly typical:

O how happy were it for your posterity, if all Dicing-houses, and allies of gaming were suppressed in, and about this Citty… The delights of these Tabling-houses are so pleasant and tempting, that a man when he hath lost all his money, will be most willing, even in the place of his undoing, to stand money-lesse, and be and Idle looker on of other mens unthriftinesse.

By the early 18th Century there were over forty gaming houses in London; gambling had evolved from a tavern sport to a recognised industry. These early casinos had a fancy lamp outside the entrance which made them immediately recognisable to passers-by. Gaming was eventually outlawed in London, but this merely drove it underground, and despite regular raids by the authorities, the gaming houses prospered. At Almanacks, a famous casino in Pall Mall, the players turned their coats inside out for luck and wore leather wristbands to protect their lacy cuffs.Outside the door of White’s gaming house, when one player dropped dead, members of the club ‘immediately made bets whether he was dead or only in a fit.’

Sources: Peter Ackroyd, London The Biography; John Stowe, Survey of London (1598)

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

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