One of the more intriguing questions in trying to reconstruct Elizabethan Southwark and follow the clues to Shakespeare’s life and story too, with so little evidence, is where he lived. Today virtually nothing of that wooden, largely rural, Elizabethan world remains, swallowed by concrete and the spawning Metropolis. There is of course St Saviour’s church, which only became Southwark Cathedral in 1905. Although described by Henry VIII himself as a ‘verie great churche’, perhaps third after the abbey and St Paul’s, where Becket had preached the night before his murder and on the Canterbury Road too, it was far more dilapidated in Shakespeare’s day, especially after the Dissolution. Then, beyond what was the Liberty of The Clink, where Winchester House stood,walking into the neighbouring Liberty of Bankside, there is the little ‘wherryman’s seat’, a slice of stone in the wall, where a waterman sat, in a district of watermen, overseeing fares up and down the river. It is just off that line of modern restaurants that includes The Real Greek, up from the Anchor pub. Once the stewes stood here, the famous brothel houses, and since a colorful surveyor’s map in the Metropolitan Archive describes it as allowing space for ‘two cartes de front’, ie side by side, that topography has changed little. Walk down that street and the circular shape of the buildings testifies to the site of the old bear-baiting pit, even today, that I think also became the site of Henslowe’s Hope theatre in 1614. Walk on and you get to what was once earthen Maid Lane, modern Park Street, where you can see the outline of and information signs for the famous Globe theatre. Down from that, away from Southwark Cathedral and on the other side of the street, but inside a modern building, are the foundations of Phillip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre. On from there you will pass into what was once the liberty of Paris Gardens. There Sam Wannamaker’s great reconstruction of The Globe stands, near to or on what was once The Swan theatre, hence the name of the Swan Restaurant.
Start again from St Saviour’s though and you begin to get another flavour of the times. Hard by the wall there is still a Green Dragon Court, which testifies to the existence of the ubiquitous Green Dragon Inn there and the records of St Saviours are full of babies born in the Green Dragon. Through there, running onto Borough High Street, was once Frying Pan Alley and there stood The Frying Pan. It was a builder’s merchant and Henslowe’s accounts are full of purchases from the Frying Pan of ‘tymber and nailes’ for his theatres, and also his houses and tenements. Both sides of the Church then had chained gates, as there were all over London, that could be raised in time of threat or revolt, to block off the streets. Where Henslowe himself lived was on Clink Street, effectively running out of the West door of the church, at The Bell on Clink street, I think on the river side of the Street and effectivly number 4, according to the Token books. It did not put him opposite or hard by the prison, the Clink, the bishop’s prison by Winchester House, as some have it. You would not expect someone of Henslowe’s status, not only an impressario but later Warden of the Church, Master of the Game and Keeper of the Royal Barge House, to live right opposite a prison, though his accounts also record him lending money to writers to bail them out of Clink. But walk back through Green Dragon Court and you get to the noisy modern Borough High Street, overcrowded by the railway bridge, leading up to and over modern London bridge and to London Bridge Station. That was once earthen Long Southwarke, the main southern entry point to the walled City over the river. It’s western side has shifted fifty yards, since old London Bridge was fifty yards to the east. But along it were wooden two-storied Elizabethan taverns and tenements, in an area that had 300 taverns and where the records show the Bishop of Winchester granted licences for the tavern owners to fetch water from the Thames in their carts.
Down Borough High Street though, on the left walking away from the river and along a little alley, a sign on the side of a printer’s shop testifies to the presence of Chaucer’s immortal Tabard Inn. The White Hart Inn was just up the way, beyond the still standing George, on the same side of the street. There Jack Cade stayed with his men during his rebellion under Henry VI, as Shakespeare recorded in his play, touching colour that was very local to him too. There too Sir John Fastalf’s servant Payne went to see Cade, as is recorded in a letter in the Paston letters. I think Shakespeare new of that history and translated real characters like Payne and John Fastalf into Falstaff. Almost right opposite Cade met and was double crossed by the Bishop of Winchester, William Waynflete, inside the old St Margaret’s Church, so central to our and Edmund’s story. He fled to Rochester, then Susex, was captured, decapitated and paraded through the city with his head in his lap. From St Margaret’s of course, dissolved at the Reformation and turned into a Compter, there are records of ‘pleyers’ performing in the 15th Century, the old Mystery and Miracle plays. St Margaret’s Cross stood on the site of the modern War Memorial, which was also the starting point for St Margaret’s then Southwark Fair. The Norman Church stood there, in the middle of the King’s Highway, right up to Hogarth’s day, and afterwards it became the site of the Town hall and is now a Slug and Lettuce bar. Walk down the road and you get to the remaining wall of the notorious Marshalsea Prison, where Ben Jonson and Gabriel Spenser went in 1597, and so would Dickens’ father. St George the Martyr church beyond was the place Henry V stopped in 1415 on his return from Agincourt to be heralded by minstrels. St George’s though was the effective lytch gate into the southern city and ‘london’ then, surrounded by open countryside and St George’s Fields and Winchester Park. Where Elizabethans hunted, picnicked and went falconing. The maps all show wooden ribbon developments along Long Southwarke and the river, though immigration and building was taking off in Shakespeare’s time. Beyond the road ran to Newington, and the archery fields of Newington butts, where there was another wooden theatre Shakespeare may well have performed at as a young man. Though only a mile away, in what is the modern Elephant and Castle, it proved too far out for the wealthy city folk and partly led to Henslowe’s building of the Rose on Maid Lane.
So back on Maid Lane, near that marker for the Globe, look around and ask where The Vine tavern stood, where Edmund is recorded in 1607 and very probably died too, since he was buried on this side of the river. It was in a grouping of ‘Hunt’s Rents’, passed down from that Warden of St Margaret’s under Henry VI, John Le Hunte, to his ancestor Edward Hunt Esquire. It may have been hard by The Globe, or further back towards Clink Street in what is modern Vineopolis, but it had first belonged to the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption at St Margaret’s. There will be another blog on the lease. There were of course other taverns along Maid Lane you can pick out from the scruffy Token Books, like the Three Tonnes and the Elephant, mentioned by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, appealing to a very local crowd. Following those Token Books, as street names themselves began to sure up, is a fascinating business, through the three neighbouring riverside liberties of the Clink, Bankside and Paris Gardens. Another Liberty was The Mint, and there are also seperate Token Books for The High Street, namely Long Southwark. But so you pick up names like Pepper Stairs, The Boar’s Head Tavern, Molestrand, Pigeon Stairs, Upper Ground, in Paris Gardens, and so on. A poor and tightly packed area of watermen and the ‘stink trades’, butchery and tanning, brothels, many taverns, bear and bull-baiting arenas, and of course theatres, Southwark was a very hard district, and of course London’s entertainment centre par excellence. It had its grace though, in the surrounding parks, and it is interesting that bouts of plague affected the low, bunched waterside houses much more than the wide High Street.
So, as you get a feel for the place as it was then, the question remains where did Shakespeare himself live and work? We know from unpaid tax rolls of 1595 and 1596 that he had lived in St Helen’s for a time, which was a Parish just beyond modern Holborn, by the Bishop’s Gate through the wall and north of the river in the City proper. That road ran straight up through the wall, passed the Bedlam Hospital to Shoreditch, where The Theatre, built by James Burbage, and The Curtain theatre stood. St Helen’s seems to have been an area much favoured by musicians. From the Court case involving Mary Mountjoy and Stephen Bellot we know that for a time, probably around 1604, though the case was later, Shakespeare lodged on affluent Silver Street, which was a street of Silver workers originally, and also was the site of the hall of the Barber Surgeons. It was by the Cripplegate through the wall, which would allow easy visits by Edmund and his unknown lady, who lived in the Morefields. But early ‘biographers’ of Shakespeare suggest that he lived in Southwark for as many as ten years. He would certainly have commuted there too, on foot, by wherry or on horseback. The famous Shakespeare antiquarian Edmund Malone claimed possession of a now lost document also placing Shakespeare on Clink Street. Meanwhile though another document relating to the Bishop of Winchester, and suggesting Shakespeare had Winchester’s protection, put him, by 1598, I think, in a ‘domus et aliorum’, a house with others. Was that a house attached to the Globe construction on Maid Lane, with other players and the Burbages, though it would have been a very noisy place to work? It is of course possible that it was the Vine itsel, if that was known to the players. Then of course it is perfectly possible that Shakespeare lodged and wrote in different places when in London and Southwark. Interestingly Peter Ackroyd points out that the church spire mentioned most in the plays was St Olave’s, and though there were several St Olave’s inside the city, long gone St Olave’s Church was east of Old London Bridge, on the water. At one point half its graveyard was washed away by the tide. Perhaps Shakespeare even had a room to light a working candle on Long Southwark itself, where he could watch the welter of humanity streaming into the city.
David Clement-Davies January 12th 2015
For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work. If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below. Many thanks.
The picture shows a Wikipedia image of the 1616 Vischer engraving of old London Bridge and St Saviour’s Church.