Prostitution in Tudor England

Although there were of course other areas of the city which were also recognized habitations of prostitutes, Southwark, and the Bankside in particular, was the principal brothel district in London. The key was the fact that the district was for the most part outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor. Beyond the existence of its liberties, however, what made Southwark the most notorious of suburban red-light districts was the fact that, like the victualling houses, it could serve the needs not only of citizens but also travellers coming from the south of England, whilst the theaters and other amusements of Bankside served as a permanent magnet for women of easy virtue. Southwark, in south London, which had been under the rent control of the Bishopric of Winchester since the land on which the brothels stood was granted to the Church by King Henry II in 1161. Southwark was the red-light district, with plenty of brothels (called 'stews' because of their origins as houses with a heated room used for hot air or vapour baths) as well as diversions such as theatre.

By the Renaissance, regulation of prostitution existed throughout Europe. Wages, rents, hours, and health examinations were all controlled by the various governments.Fear of syphilis led to the closing of the stews and the removal of most prostitutes to brothels. Unfortunately, those women who were evicted from the brothels due to disease were left with no choice but to ply their trade in the streets. In some areas, prostitution was outlawed entirely, but strict regulation and some efforts at reforming prostitutes were the norm. None of these measures succeeded in reducing prostitution, and in 1490 the official register recorded 7000 prostitutes in Rome and over 11,000 in Venice. Since street prostitutes were not registered, these numbers represent a minimum.

There were many thousands of prostitutes in London, Norwich, Oxford, York, Exeter and so on. Early in the sixteenth century various attempts to close the brothels began. In 1504, due to the general fear of the spread of syphilis, Henry VII closed these facilities, but business resumed the following year. According to John Stow, the whitewashed premises facing the Thames with their identifying signs -The Gun; The Castle; The Crane; The Cardinal's Hat; The Bell; The Swan and possible others less famous- were shut for a season and on reopening numbers had diminished. By then the women had scattered across London. Henry VIII defied this ancient ordinance during one of his many fits of outrage towards the Church by attempting to close the stewes in 1535 on the grounds that they disseminated diseases. Thus, the lucrative arrangement between the whores of Southwark and the Papal office ceased, but the lands passed into the hands of the new Anglican Bishop of Winchester. It has long been rumored that Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester cemented his friendship with King Henry VIII by providing him with a supply of "Winchester geese" (an epithet which came to apply to prostitutes generally as a result of their episcopal association in Southwark) for the royal pleasure. Primary source evidence to support this, however, has not been forthcoming. On 13 Apr 1546, though, old Henry VIII, eventually got rid of the bankside stewes of Southwark with a royal proclamation forcing the closure of all houses of prostitution within his realm, bringing to an end the 'toleration of such dissolute and miserable persons as have been suffered to dwell in common open places called the stews without punishment or correction (for) their abominable and detestable sin'. The authorities occasionally raid such 'bawdy houses', some of which are moated and have high walls to repel attackers (including the crown). Although the suppression of public brothels gladdened the heart of John Stow, it does not seem to have resulted in any notable diminution of prostitution; indeed, many observers, among them John Taylor, believed that things had gotten worse rather than better as a result, not just on the South Bank, but in the metropolitan area in general:

The Stewes in England bore a beastly sway, Till the eight Henry banish'd them away: And since these common whores were quite put down, A damned crue of private whores are grown, So that the diuell will be doing still, Either with publique or with private ill.

The abolition of the licensed brothels in Southwark scattered many of the resident prostitutes about London, making supervision of them more difficult. Many bawds and prostitutes moved into houses that sold ale or beer as a cover, like the resourceful Mistress Overdone, or simply frequented taverns of bad character. As early as 1550, only four years after the hopeful proclamation, Robert Crowley wrote:

The bawds of the stues In taverns and tiplyng houses
be turned all out; many myght be founde,
But some think they inhabit If officers would make serch
al England through out. But as they are bounde.

The Elizabethan anatomizer of abuses Phillip Stubbes, too, explicitly associated brothels with alehouses or, as he called them, "the slaughter howses, the shambles, the blockhowses of the Devill, wherein he butchereth Christen mens soules, infinit waies, God knoweth...".

The problem had to be dealt with in a less vehement fashion and the core foundation for the extirpation of London vice already existed: the Bridewell had been granted its charter in 1553 'for to be a workhouse for the poor and idle persons of the city'. It was one of four institutions established to counter the inexorable rise of rootless country people thronging the streets.

Cases of abuse are not unknown. In 1550, for example, a London haberdasher called Middleton is taken to court for letting his wife, their daughter and a 10-year-old serving maid have sex with Nicholas Ballard, a gentleman.

In 1553, in Mary I's reign, Parson Chekyn of St Nicholas in Old Fish Street is paraded through the streets of London after being found guilty of offering the sexual services of his wife for money.

Queen Mary I's lack of full-hearted enthusiasm for secular charity meant that during the last year of her hapless reign it was merely a punishment block for prostitutes and vagrants. A treadmill was fetched in for the disgraced to grind corn by generating the power, and also a block on which prostitutes beat out hemp with heavy wooden mallets. Marian misgivings were partly the result of clerical concupiscence, while the place was equally misliked by well-placed men for so reducing their choice of whores. Occasionally a raid would be mounted to 'liberate' women to return to prostitution as a 'Bridewell baggage'.

In the England of the first Elizabeth those most affected could resist because of the non-conforming aspects of prostitution which was not dominated by a violent male criminal class. Some women trawled through premises like waterfront taverns, others loitered encouragingly in gardens and even great churches like St Paul's. Some women worked alone, on call to favoured repeat clients who paid a householder a fee to lodge the woman 'favourite'. A steward of the French Ambassador had this snug arrangement, as did Sir William Brooke.

Prostitution involves an elementary business transaction between vendor and client. Some prostitutes are very expensive. A Mirror for Magistrates of Cities, published in 1584, says that a young man might have to part with 40 shillings or more in a brothel for 'a bottle or two of wine, the embracement of a painted strumpet and the French welcome [syphilis]'. However, arrangements could vary, so that some habitués of brothels paid a fee to the bawd (procuress) and to the prostitute, while others handed over cash to the prostitute who then paid house fees. If this was inverted then the keeper of the brothel would take the fee and give the prostitute a dole. Tariffs for sex varied; one man paid Marie Donnolly £10 over several weeks, which was a considerable amount but easily surpassed by Thomasine Breame's client, a short man with a burly physique, who paid her that for an afternoon. Ten shillings was a more likely fee within a bawdy house with the luxury of a bed, perhaps a chair and a retainer to fetch drinks. Ambulant whores excluded from premises by cost might accept as little as 2d. Also the rate for city apprentices seems to have been set lower or negotiated as an exceptional offer, although not all apprentices were needy and from a low social class.

By the end of the sixteenth century prostitutes could be found in many more locations: outside the east city walls in Petticoat Lane; Hog Lane and St. Kathenrine's; in Smithfield; Shoreditch; Westminster; Clerkenwell (Turnbull Street) and in the liberties of Whitefriars; St. Martin Le Grand and Coldharbour, while others fetched up within the city jurisdictions like Billingsgate; Queenhithe and Ave Maria Alley near St. Paul's. Brothels are usually whitewashed and have a sign.

At least two of the brothel houses on the Bank mentioned by Stow survived into Shakespeare's time -- the Cardinal's Cap and the Bell, both seemingly favorite haunts of the celebrated actor Edward Alleyn. Pepys, too, speaks of visiting a Mrs. Palmers, herself a bawd, south of the river in 1663, "...thinking, because I had heard that she is a woman of that sort, that I might there have light upon some lady of pleasure (for which God forgive me)..."

Both Phillip Henslowe, a well-know theatre impresario, and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn, the actor, find owning a brothel profitable. Gilbert Periam acted as pimp for Sir Horatio Palavicino, a leading financier in London who for years was an adviser to the Lord Treasurer Burghley and useful co-ordinator of spies in Europe for Elizabeth's greatest spy-master, Sir Francis Walsingham. Palavicino was minded to secure a virgin and Periam waggishly reported to him that there was no available virgin in the entire city. Hence he was given 10s and a horse for a trip to Guildford in Surrey to continue the hunt there. Palavicino brings us near some of the great men of the court. A Holborn brothel keeper in the mid- 1570s, John Hollingbrig, gent., wore the livery of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, whose own brother, Lord Robert Dudley, had intervened years before when Helen Andrewes was indicted by the wardmote inquest of Cheap. The indictment of John Thrush in 1564 had a cluster of privy councillors led by the Earl of Pembroke writing on his behalf. Given the grandiose scale of some of the Thameside London mansions of the aristocracy it becomes almost inevitable that sometimes within the structure a brothel could be found. Mrs Higgens's brothel operated within Worcester House, and instead of being grateful when the City constables closed ir, the Earl countered with suits in King's Bench against the officers involved. So civic efforts against prostitution were hampered by the way in which certain brothel keepers could muster countervailing actions by courtiers.

Robert Greene's pamphlet writings, had a detailed trawl through the shadier spots of the London underworld, with much attention given to prostitutes, which details the full-frontal trickery of the whores and their bawds - a procuress - the 'apple-squire' being the mate equivalent. Greene's whores not only sell sex but they have acting skills which frequently allow them to part the gullible and their money. Greene's prostitutes are not naive fallen girls, but rapacious professionals full of tricks to cozen any male lustful enough or stupid enough to succumb to their performances.

Part of Greene's realism may have been directed against Puritan social reformers; a number of critics have identified a satirical turn to his work. Among social reformers what was viewed as a threatening poison in the system had to be compressed by moral rigour. Phillip Stubbes favoured branding and execution, forms of response so extreme that they failed utterly to seize the collective imagination.

The London Bridewell and Aldermen's courts in the Elizabethan period made occasional references to prostitutes who went in men's apparel, who apparently used their costume to advertise their trade, indeed to accentuate her available femininity. In 1575, Dorothy Clayton was a prostitute who 'contrary to all honesty and womanhood commonly goes about the city in men's attire'. She was ordered to stand in the pillory for two hours 'in men's attire' for public shame, and then committed to Bridewell. Evidence for the existence of male brothels is extremely meagre, although it has been suggested that a property in Hoxton owned by Lord Hunsdon was one. At one point in the play based on the infamous court scandal of the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury (d. 1613), and called 'The True Tragi-Comedie Formerly Acted at Court', two women, Mrs Turner and Lady Frances Howard (widely believed, when still Countess of Essex, to have contrived Overbury's murder), are disguised as prostitutes for a visit to Simon Forman. Such a 'disguise' tempts male observers and Mrs Turner claims that dressed so she will often be accosted for her 'commodity'. Lady Frances then refers to places where men and women meet socially: St Paul's, Madame Caesar's 'or the Captain's wife, in Aldersgate Street, that was the first who kept a male stews: whither the greatest she's in England came under pretence of eating Apricocks ungelt . . .'.  The a/pric/ot (or a/pricock) is an erotic fruit ascribed aphrodisiac traits, usually because of some modest visual correspondence between the item and genitals.. Not only does it allow the pun on the name, but by calling them to be visualized Frances Howard surely aligns them with the testes. The joke pivots on a complicated pun; gelt suggests geld, but true masculinity requires the testes to be in place - ungelt - whereas fruit like the apricot has to be pulled from the stem for swallowing. Aldergate was close to the brothels that had been established around Cock's Lane in the Smithfield- Newgate area. The reference to the Captain's wife seems even more particular since Captain Carewe's 'bawdy' was in Smithfield. There may, of course, have been more than one captain in the sex economy, but it seems quite possible that his wife ran an establishment devoted to the pleasure of ladies.


Jessica A. Browner: Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable South Bank in the sixteenth and seventeenth century - Essays in History, volume 36, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia. 1994

Alan Haynes: 'Sex in Elizabethan England' Sutton Publishing Ltd. 1997

David Cressy: 'Travesties & Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England' Oxford University Press 2000

P.M. Woods: 'Greene's Cony-Catching Courtesans: The Moral Ambiguity of Prostitution' Explorations in Renassaince Culture 1992

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