Cities in Elizabethan England

Liza Picard explores the bustling and rapidly-expanding Elizabethan city, shaped by trade, politics and religious upheaval.


London was the capital, where the monarch lived. It was where the principal courts of law functioned, with their permanent staff of lawyers and their crowds of hopeful litigants and hangers-on. The Italian bankers who dominated the financial affairs of the country had their counting houses there. When Parliament was summoned – a rare occurrence – it usually met there. Most bishops found it necessary to have a house in London as well as their diocesan palaces. The great men of the medical profession resided there. Manufacturers and merchants congregated there dealing in every luxury, from the New World and the old, as well as domestic commodities such as wheat, coal and cloth. They were served by the port of London, handling inland and coastal trade as well as continental trade. Their ships were built in London.

London’s population grew from about 50,000 or 60,000 in 1520, to an estimated 200,000 in 1600. In the same period, the total population of England and Wales rose from about 2,300,000 to 4,109,000. No other English centre of population approached it in size. Norwich had a population of just 12,000, by the end of the century, and it was probably the next biggest.

View of London in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of London in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of 16th-century London, from Braun and Hoggenberg’s opulent atlas of the world’s cities, c. 1600–23.

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Discussion of Venice and London in Florio's Italian language manual

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

In a rambling discussion of London, John Florio ranges from beer-drinking to religion, from the Royal Exchange to the magistrates, and from playhouses to the Queen’s court.

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City stinks

Cities were crowded, noisy and stinking. Anyone who could afford to rode a horse. Otherwise, you walked. Grandees wanting to emphasise their importance would be followed by a retinue of up to 50 men, all mounted – and all ready to pick a fight with anyone obstructing them. Horses excreted urine and dung, which clogged the streets despite the best efforts of the local scavengers. Pigs and dogs roamed free, adding their contribution to the muck on the streets. On market days, cattle and sheep dropped their dung as they were driven through the streets to the markets, and back to the butchers’ slaughterhouses, where the butchers cut up the carcasses and sold the saleable bits in their shops: the unsaleable remains were supposed to be disposed of properly but were often just thrown into the Thames. There were a few public lavatories, but so few that most people made use of a convenient corner.

The Bellman of London by Thomas Dekker, 1608

The Bellman of London by Thomas Dekker, 1608

Dogs roamed free in London, adding their muck to the streets. This dog is a companion for a watchman on his beat, on the title page of Dekker’s Belman of London, 1608.

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Meeting places

Taverns selling beer and ale were the popular meeting places, where one could catch up on the latest news and scandal, and get word of possible job opportunities. Inns were a step up the social hierarchy. They provided comfortable accommodation for travellers and their servants and horses. They were strictly controlled; for example, wine barrels had to be kept in full view of the customer, who was entitled to check that he really was being served the wine he had asked for. These regulations were published so regularly that one suspects widespread non-observance.

Satire on watchmen and playhouses in Dekker’s The Gull’s Horn-book

Satire on watchmen and playhouses in Dekker’s The Gull’s Horn-book

In this pamphlet, Thomas Dekker includes a witty section on ‘How a gallant should behave in a tavern’.

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Shops usually doubled as workshops, where the craftsman could be observed sewing or hammering. The general rule was, again, that the customer should be able to see what he was buying. Trades selling the same goods tended to congregate together, such as the apothecaries, whose remedies were so aromatic that they overpowered the normal street stink. The goldsmiths of London inhabited a row of beautifully decorated houses in Cheapside. There were few food shops. A housewife could rely on nearby markets for most of her food shopping, as well as on the itinerant street traders.

London Bridge had been a prime retail location for centuries, despite the jostling herds of animals using it on their way from the fields of Kent to the market at Smithfield.

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

Engraved view of London by C.J. Visscher showing the Globe

London Bridge crowded with shops, a detail from Claes Visscher’s panorama of London, 1616.

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The built environment

Most houses were timber framed, the spaces filled in with willow lathes or reeds, and clay. Fire was an ever-present risk, so thatch as a roofing material was forbidden in cities. It might be still used where the owner hoped to get away with it. He ought to have used tiles, which were not inflammable. One characteristic of Elizabethan buildings was the overhanging ‘jetty’, which jutted out from the main frame, several feet in each of perhaps four storeys, so that the upper storeys of houses on opposite sides of a street might almost touch, and there was very little fresh air at ground level. There were some big houses made of stone, usually survivals from earlier ages, but they were the exception. The north bank of the Thames between the City and Westminster was adorned by magnificent mansions, with gardens running down to the river, and where private landing stages gave quick access by boat to the law courts and commercial centre of the City, and upriver to the royal palace of Westminster.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries

Thirty years and more had passed since Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had dissolved the monasteries. Property holdings that the Church had accumulated over centuries, and sacred structures built by the faithful hundreds of years before, came on the market for the first time. Henry had disposed of some of this windfall as gifts and bribes to his favourites. One of his counsellors, Lord North, acquired the Carthusians’ monastery known as the Charterhouse out at Clerkenwell, which he made into a mansion where later he entertained Henry’s daughter when she became queen. But Henry sold most of the properties to finance his wars. His son Edward VI managed to dispose of most of the rest, so that by the time Elizabeth came to the throne there was little left of the vast loot grabbed by her father.

There were some survivors from Henry’s greed. In London, St Bartholomew’s Priory had been founded in 1123, just outside the walls of London. Two weeks before Henry died, he transferred it to the City of London to use as a hospital. But it came without its substantial medieval endowments, which should have sufficed to keep a hundred patients in comfort. Its new owners found only some dilapidated leaseholds, and accommodation for ‘two or three harlots then lying in childbed’.

The Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem (‘Bedlam’), outside the walls at Spitalfield, had specialised in the care of mental diseases since 1403. Henry transferred it to the governors of Bridewell, who at least preserved it until better times came.  

Broadside ballad on Tom of Bedlam

Broadside Ballad on Tom of Bedlam

This popular broadside ballad (c. 1670) tells the well-known tale of a poor naked beggar, ‘Mad Tom of Bedlam’.

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Two other monastic foundations survived his death. St Thomas’s, across the river in Southwark, had been founded in 1213. Edward VI refounded it as a hospital for ‘poor, sick, and weak people’. Christ’s Hospital, adjacent to St Bartholomew’s, had been a Franciscan (Greyfriars) monastery. Edward allowed the Lord Mayor to transform it from its derelict state – ‘only a number of rogues and whores harboured there all night' – into a school for foundlings and orphans.

(All four institutions still flourish today, although in different places or with different functions.)

Outside London, a new class of landowners had emerged by mid-century, ranging from local gentry who raised enough cash to buy up former monastic land to enlarge their family estates, to magnates who accumulated vast holdings rivalling those of the former monastic owners. Sometimes the new owner had no use for the monastic buildings, which were quarried by locals for their worked stone until they gradually fell down. Sometimes the monastic buildings were refurbished into dwelling houses as they stood.

Elizabethan gardening manual with images of mazes, arbours and pleached bowers

Elizabethan gardening manual with images of mazes, arbours and pleached bowers

Thomas Hill’s The Gardeners Labyrinth (1577) suggests elegant garden designs for the estates of the gentry and middle classes.

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Land in London was still hot property. The vast, solidly-built medieval churches and monasteries could be put to other uses. Cramped little houses were contrived out of the chapels of Christchurch.

The upheaval caused by the Dissolution was still making waves, and dust, and noise, up to the end of the century.

© Liza Picard

  • Liza Picard
  • Liza Picard researches and writes about the history of London. She spent many years working in the office of the Solicitor of the Inland Revenue and lived in Gray’s Inn and Hackney, before retiring to live in Oxford.

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