London 1616: a snapshot of London early in James 1's reign

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This talk was given by Dr Ann Saunders, a leading London historian. Publications include John Bacon RA and Regent's Park. Dr Saunders is Honorary Editor to the London Topographical Society.

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Dr Ann Saunders


I think that a better title, or at least a sub-title of this lecture, would be “The Questioning City”, because the early 17 th Century was indeed a time of intellectual ferment. People were asking questions. They were demanding answers. There have always been people who want to question and people who are happy to answer or at least to contradict, but I think that the tendency was becoming more and more widespread during that time.

If you’re going to have questions, you’re also going to hope for answers, and the second theme is that, in a way, the time is one of dialogue between king and capital. Sometimes one is asking the questions, sometimes the other, sometimes they are asking the question of themselves or throwing it into the blue, sometimes they ignore each other, sometimes there’s a really active response. But if you could bear those two related ideas in your minds, it’s a time for questions and with any luck for answers, and the dialogue we are going to explore is that between the king and his capital. I am not attempting to give you a history of James I’s reign. I am going to pick up a lot of different points.

We have to remember that James 1 was born in 1566. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, abdicated soon after his birth. Scotland decided that she had abandoned her throne and her people, and they simply decided that James was now the king. Indeed, as he always referred to himself throughout his life, a cradle king, crowned or appointed king at the age of one, Quite obviously he can’t possibly have realised what he was being let in for, crowned when still a child, and subjected to a very harsh upbringing. He said afterwards: “They guard me; they made me to speak Latin before I could speak Scots”. He really had the classics rubbed into him, and when he didn’t get the answers right, he got a severe beating. Today, we would be saying, this is a terrible case of child abuse. It wasn’t so considered then, and he grew up to be very clever, very interested in ideas and in facts, enormously well read, and able to speak a surprising number of languages – his Latin was fine, his Greek was pretty good, and he spoke French and Italian and Spanish.

But I think that he always had great difficulty in relating to other people, and that there was in him a sort of naivety, a firm consideration that people would think that he was right because he was the king and that was that. He was appointed by God. He had survived a harsh childhood. He had survived not being kidnapped by his nobility, and not being casually murdered by anybody. He had been brought up in pretty strict confinement in Stirling Castle. He was also, by the time he came to the English throne, a man of 37, a mature man, and one experienced not just as standing by as a Prince of Wales does, but in actually ruling on the throne. So when Elizabeth died, on the 24 th of March 1603, James realised that he could enter the Promised Land, the inheritance that he couldn’t be certain of. At last, on her deathbed, the last Tudor monarch had nominated him, and he set out with hopeful heart for his new country.

Even as he rode towards London, he must have been wondering what he was coming to. He was going towards a capital that was immensely rich, very, very independent, and very sure of itself. It had its own Lord Mayor.

The City of London then was basically the same shape as the City of London today, the square mile spreading along the river down to Westminster.

The City had its own Lord Mayor. Somebody called Hugh Alley very firmly laid down a set of regulations, a set of advices, to the Lord Mayor on how he should be managing the food markets of London. Because what you have to realise, we are before the days of motorised transport, and it’s going to be very, very difficult to feed a city that is already, approximately, as far as we know, about a quarter of a million people, 250,000. That’s a guess, but I hope that it’s a reasonably accurate one. So Hugh Alley writes in to the Lord Mayor, laying down to him how he should be regulating Cheapside Market and Queen Hive Market, and there’s got to be careful inspection of all the food to make absolutely certain that it’s fresh and wholesome, and the penalties are severe if you sell bad meat, bad fish, rotten fruit; you’re really going to be in serious trouble.

There were also the City companies. The City had its own historian, John Stowe, whose great survey of London was published at the very end of Elizabeth ’s reign, and ran through another edition just as James came to the throne. Stowe was a working tailor. He’d spent all his life stitching away to support his family, but his heart was in the history of London, in the antiquity of the City. You know, that survey of London of his is a book that has never been out of print. You can still get it in paperback. I’m sure that they’ve got copies of it down in the Guildhall Bookshop. Stowe wrote a long two volume prose poem to London. In the Church of St Andrew Undershaft, where his effigy lies, they used to do the ceremony every year, now it’s every three years. He’s given a new quill pen in a little ceremony by the Merchant Tailors Company and the Lord Mayor. And so he can go on thinking about his beloved City.

I don’t think that James ever really understood either the City of London and its independence and its own strength and its good opinion of itself, and I don’t think he ever understood Parliament, but, if we were going to discuss that, we’d be doing a different lecture.

Even as he rode towards London, people were telling James things about his new kingdom, and about how he ought to be ruling it. Those who were the most emphatic in their questionings were the puritanical clergy. They wanted the Church of England reformed. They were dissatisfied with the settlement that had been made at the beginning of Elizabeth ’s reign. They wanted no surpluses, no ceremony, a much plainer, more straightforward service, no formal prayers, and preferably a Presbyterian group to regulate behaviour in the parish.

James, wisely, kept his head, listening to what they were saying, and said nothing. But in the following January, following his Christmas at Hampton Court, he summoned a conference of the Church of England bishops and senior clergy and representatives of the rather firmly puritanical wing. He suggested that they should debate their differences, discuss them in front of him, and that he would regulate what was said. He made several speeches, none of which was shorter than a very solid hour. James was a very didactic person, he really loved teaching. In the end, he came down firmly on the side of the bishops, though he said enough kindly things to the Puritans to make them feel that he did see their point of view. But rather cleverly I think from a political point of view, in order to divert everybody’s mind, he suggested that what we really needed was a new addition, a new version, a new translation of the Bible.

Now, there had been a lot of translations of the Bible, of all or part of it – Wycliff, Tyndale, Cloverdale, Matthews, the Great Bible, which was a composite work, the Geneva Bible, which was of the extreme Puritanical leaning with a lot of side notes explaining things as they felt they should be explained if there was an ambiguous passage in the Bible, the Bishops Bible, and after those seven, there was going to be an authorised version. James said it had got to be done thoroughly, that it had got to be done looking back to the versions that had gone before, making the most of them, and that it had got to be done very quickly.

His instructions for this were given at the beginning of 1604. A team of 54 experts was appointed, clergymen usually, most of them, but all of them very proficient in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and some of them in the more usual Syrian languages. We only know the names of 51 of them, but they were divided into six teams, two in Westminster, two in Oxford, two in Cambridge. Each team was given a chunk of one of the Old Testament and usually one of the New as well; there’s more of the Old Testament, so there was more of that to dole out. They were told – they weren’t paid – they were told just to get on with it and support themselves as best as they could. Quite often, the Oxford or Cambridge Colleges supported them, quite often they were given some sort of a benefice in London to keep them going, but it wasn’t a paid job. It really had got to be a labour of love, and it was a tough one. They were told to work as fast as they possibly could.

So the six would set to work and argue out. They didn’t let somebody called John Brown be one of them. He was the best Hebraist of the lot, but he was a very quarrelsome man, so they left him out. The 51 that we know of sat themselves down to it, compared notes, worked out a satisfactory text, and then passed it round each of the other five teams. So that meant that the text of your authorised version of the bible, the King James Bible, has had a lot of hands working on it. I think it’s a pretty remarkable book, and something that has vastly influenced the development of the English language and the way in which we approach telling a story, giving an account of something, setting out a thought or a narrative.

It was published in 1611. A complete set of it in sheet form sold for ten shillings. A bound volume was twelve. Wouldn’t you like to have one, a first edition? It would be marvellous. The elaborate frontispiece with Moses and Aaron, the Apostles, the Evangelists, is obviously the representation of the Trinity and of Our Lord. It’s something worth studying

That was James’ first good idea. He managed to maintain the church settlement, and he provided everybody with an accessible, beautiful text of the bible. Then he had another very good idea. England had been at war with Spain ever since 1585. Once Mary Queen of Scots’ head had been chopped off, the King of Spain declared war on England and prepared the invasion of the Spanish Armada. It took him three years to get it prepared and, from his point of view, it was a total failure. The war between the two countries had dragged on and dragged on and dragged on. It had gone on for the next 15 years, with English ships attacking Spanish convoys, raiding the Spanish coast, and in the Spanish colonies as well as in Spain itself. Spain had reciprocated by making life extremely difficult for English merchants, particularly if they were Protestant. So there was a lot to negotiate. James, whose natural inclination was always for peace, said – I don’t mean in so many words, but in effect he said this is an extremely bad state of affairs, we need peace in Europe. What he was going to attempt to do, and indeed succeed, was to make peace between a Protestant and a Catholic country, the first time since the Reformation. But messages were sent, tentative suggestions put forward, and yes, the Spanish Embassy arrived in London.

They arrived at the beginning of August, on the 10 th of August, in 1604, and they were welcomed by James’ Queen, the Princess Anne or Anna of Denmark. She dressed herself up in disguise, floated down the Thames in a boat, and addressed them a beautiful, poetic speech of welcome. Well, you can’t do anything much more welcoming than send the Queen to greet those who are arriving, and indeed it was a very distinguished team, led by the Constable of Castile. Because it was such an important occasion, it was recorded on canvas with paint, as they sat in the Queen’s own palace, Somerset House, round a magnificent table with a wonderful five yards long Turkey table carpet. Robert Cecil, the son of Elizabeth’s wonderful advisor, Lord Burley was there. He had succeeded to what was his father’s political position. He advised James, and James listened to him and took his advice.

It was a tough job, laying on entertainment for six ambassadors. They brought their own servants with them, but James needed an awful lot of other people to serve them and among those appointed to do so were 12 of the King’s men. Now, the King’s men were the actors. Led by William Shakespeare, they waited on the Spanish ambassadors. They were well paid for it. Their week or so’s labour brought them in 21 pounds, 12 shillings, and as royal servants, each of them was provided with four and a half yards of scarlet cloth to make them a livery. Shakespeare must have felt he was going right up in the world, waiting on the Spanish Ambassador, the Constable of Castile, in a royal palace – this was something quite different from playing at The Globe.

The theatre is a very questioning place. You think of some of the plays on the London stage at the moment – Stuff Happens down at the National Theatre, Democracy, which has very recently come off, questioning the political situation in which we live today. And the theatre was the same then as now. The Essex Rebellion of 1601, just before the end of Elizabeth’s reign, was preceded by a commissioned performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II, which was considered a highly political play, since it shows a king being deposed and subsequently murdered and his replacement by somebody with a far less direct claim to the throne. The Globe Company got into trouble for that, but luckily the relationship with the royal court wasn’t ended by it.

Shakespeare was a leading man of the day, not the leading actor but the leading writer, at any rate in our estimation now, and he’s somebody who’s going to lead us on to our next subject for discussion, which is the production of plays specifically for the royal court. One of the first ones that Shakespeare did for James to appease his interest in witchcraft, which the King was absolutely fascinated by, I think in rather a sinister manner, was put on for a visit from Anne of Denmark’s brother, Chris tian IV King of Denmark. He came over twice to visit his sister and to have a look at England and compare the two countries, and some of it he found good and some of it he found less good, but for that occasion, 1605, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth.

The consumption of plays went up in a quite extraordinary manner. In Elizabeth’s reign, The Globe might be commissioned to put on perhaps three plays for her in a year at some of the special revel periods, but James and Anne were insatiable in their love for the theatre and were commissioning something like 13 performances a year. Now, a royal performance brought you in a comfortable 20 or 30 pound for doing it, which was a lot more than you would necessarily take in pennies at the gate in The Globe down at Southwark, and you might well get an extra ex gratia payment. On one occasion, it was as much as 50 pounds, so the association with the court was very lucrative indeed.

This was the beginning of mass entertainment. Yes, there had always been the mystery plays, yes, there were performances at court of short pieces, and one would have one’s own personal jester to keep you amused in the evening, but not this – a thousand people thronged into The Globe, for example, absolutely intent on what was going on on that stage, such an exposed, vulnerable, intimate position, speaking out into that very open auditorium. I have stood on that stage and tried speaking, and it’s a very exposed stage indeed. This is something new. This is a licence almost to ask questions, and I’m not surprised that every so often the Lord Chamberlain sat on them. The court, however, was indulging in a different sort of entertainment for itself.

Anne of Denmark in particular simply loved dressing up and acting, and within a year of her accession, she commissioned a masque from Ben Jonson. Now, what’s a masque? It’s something that is staged on one, or at the absolute most two, occasions. It’s comparatively short. If it’s running properly, which it didn’t always, it shouldn’t play for much more than an hour, and it’s going to be performed by amateurs. It’s going to be written specifically for the occasion and it’s going to contain as much rather elaborate, some would say highfaluting language, and as many difficult classical allusions as possible, so as to make the audience feel that it is being very, very clever to understand what is going on.

As collaborator, Ben Jonson, that extraordinary uneven, but almost always exciting, playwright, had Inigo Jones. Inigo Jones was a clothworker’s son from Smithfield, who had somehow or other contrived to travel abroad, and who had come back bringing the glories and the whole concept of the Italian Renaissance with him. His settings for the masques were what really wowed people, what really gripped them. They were extraordinary – fountains playing on stage, the gods descending in a cloud. I reckon he rigged a gantry across the stage and that they were lowered on – they must have been sitting on a platform and lowered with pulleys. Inigo had served his time learning how to work in wood with a joiner. Things never went wrong with something that Inigo was putting on, and his drawings of masque costumes were totally fanciful. They absolutely astonished people and enthralled them. The Queen herself, and her children, in particular the eldest son, Henry, dressed up and danced in them. You weren’t meant to speak too many lines, but the great thing was that you were going to make an appearance. There would be professional musicians playing, or the court musicians, and you would dance and exhibit your gracefulness.

These masques were put on once, or at the most, twice – nothing that you can call a run. In pure publicity terms, I have to say that a combination of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell in pure spin had nothing on the court masques. They were preaching a direct message, the value of James’ rule, the goodness of James’ rule, the divine inspiration of the King, who was the fount of everything good and benign and dignified. The only trouble with them was that they were seen by a limited number of people, those who could be somehow squashed into the first banqueting house. It was literally a case of preaching to the converted. Any one of the masques would have cost in the region of four thousand pounds. There was one of them, funded mercifully not by the court but by the Inns of Court, the lawyers, where it was said the bill had been 20 thousand pounds. I find that a bit hard to believe, but I suppose anything’s possible. It’s perfectly understandable that a lot of people felt that it was a silly waste of money and were very critical of the masque productions.

Inigo went on to develop from designing masques to architecture. His first building was the Queen’s House down in Greenwich, but the first one to meet the public’s eye in the centre of London was his rebuilding of the Whitehall Banqueting House, an amazing construction, very, very Italian. He studied Palladio, Scamozzi, Salio, everybody you can think of, obviously he’s read “Vitruvius” and “Translation Endlessly”. His Banqueting House looks very dignified from the outside, but when you go inside to that amazing hall, it really does hit you. You’ve got to imagine James, on a small throne, surrounded by the immediate court and any ambassador or whoever was the person to be impressed, and the players doing their best by him. The ceiling wasn’t put in until James was dead and his second son, Charles I, had succeeded to the throne. The only way to look at that ceiling is to lie flat on your back. This may be undignified, but you really just get an appalling crick in the neck if you try to look at it.

Now, let’s turn from James to the City. The City welcomed James really heartily. It put on a terrific pageant for him to make a kingly entry. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage it in 1603 because it was a time of serious plague.

Everybody is devoutly thankful to see James. Of course Elizabeth was the most wonderful, wonderful person ever and you couldn’t have a better ruler, but she was getting old. We were in a constant state of warfare with Spain. There was war in the Netherlands. There was war in Ireland. London was overcrowded with wounded soldiers begging in the streets. There was a very bad, unhappy feeling to it, immigrants flooding in from the Netherlands seeking work. They brought in the Poor Law saying that you’d got to apply to your own parish if you wanted any sort of relief. It was a time when people felt themselves to be desperately overstretched, and so they rejoiced when James came. Here was a married king, a king with a wife and three surviving children (their two little girls, Mary and Sophia, who are buried in Innocents’ Corner in Westminster Abbey), but three surviving children. They welcomed the king. The merchant tailors put on a magnificent banquet for him. It took 36 cooks and 52 labourers to do it. They served him with an extraordinary rarity, just newly imported from South America, potatoes, selling at 10 pence a pound (10 pence could be a man’s wages for the week). This is desperately important. They do all they can and they have a pageant ship made to delight him, which they hang from the roof of the Merchant Tailors Hall, and in it three sailors sing him a song written by Ben Jonson, who’s paid 20 pounds for his effort.

James is so thrilled with this, the boat is let down as he leaves the hall, and three sailors attired in watchet blue silk (watchet is a sort of pale blue), sing him the song, and it has to be repeated three times over because the King thinks it’s so lovely. He is accompanied by his son, Henry, who is England’s young hope, who is everything his father isn’t, who’s young and glamorous and good at sports and intensely religious and very Protestant and very warlike and everything that anybody wants him to be. I think it’s probably Henry’s first very public occasion. The boy obviously gets slightly squiffy, and it’s the point in the year when the next year’s master to the company is being elected, and Henry puts the garland on his own head and says that he will lead them all and then gives it to the man who’s been elected and they enrol him as a merchant tailor. So there’s a huge relationship between the royal family and the City company. And this relationship between crown and City goes further.

Sir Hugh Middleton had realised that London was very troubled with a water supply, and for four long years, from 1609 to 1613, he sets to work to negotiate the right to do so and to bring fresh water supply from the River Amwell in Hertfordshire into the City. In the middle, he runs out of money, although he’s an immensely rich man, and the King agrees to subsidise half the costs of the new river, provided he gets half the profits. This is quite a good deal, but it shows James working in company with the City. In 1613, the Lord Mayor came on his horse and they broke through the river and the water flowed into the basin. All the diggers, all the surveyors, all the City company were there and they expressed joy and amazement at clean water coming into London, so they didn’t have to drink the Thames, which did occasionally, more than occasionally, get a bit polluted.

And in the midst of the City was the most questioning body of all, Gresham College, the institution under whose auspices we meet today, provided for and set up by the will of Sir Thomas Gresham. Gresham was a merchant, a trader, a banker, Elizabeth’s financial advisor, the man who told her what she had really got to do was to purify and regulate the currency, and she did and it was one of the great achievements of her reign. He had built the Royal Exchange at his own expense on land provided by the City, and when he died in 1571, they read his will, and the City was rather aghast, because if they were going to get the Royal Exchange, they had got to set up a college, a college with 7 lecturers – Divinity, Physic, Law, Music, Astronomy, Geometry and Rhetoric – and they were to give free lectures to Londoners in the English language. This was absolutely revolutionary, because all the teaching in Oxford and in Cambridge had to be given in Latin, and had to be, on the whole, an exploration of something laid down in the writings of the ancients – Plato, Gaillon, and Hippocrates. There was no free opening questioning, and in the universities, there was no serious, scientific experiment or analysis. And here was this banker getting the idea that people needed proper instruction in the sciences that were being discovered. I don’t know where he got the idea from – it was amazing, it was revolutionary – but he knew he lived at a time when experiments were being made in mathematics, he knew that this great innovation, the teaching in English, free lectures, were what was needed. And indeed, he lived in a time of great innovators.

Somebody called Thomas Langley translated Polydore Virgil’s universal encyclopaedia, De Inventoribus Rerum, and there’s an account of a shepherd in Gloucestershire, a chap called Robert Williams keeping a sheep on the hills there, and spending out 14 pence to buy a copy of the translation of Francis Bacon’s book Novum Organum so that he would know all about everything.

Now, 14 pence is a week’s wages for a shepherd. It makes you think about the popular state of mind. They wanted knowledge. The equivalent today might be the Open University. Of course Gresham College has gone on, but the hunger for knowledge is worth thinking about. And indeed, there was a great deal going on. John Napier worked out what logarithms were – all right, today we all have our pocket calculators, but in my day at school, and I think possibly in quite a lot of your days at school, one had those log tables. He publishes his discovery in Latin. Henry Briggs, the first Gresham Professor of Mathematics, rushes up to Edinburgh to talk to Napier, and he’s told, yes, you can translate my book, and he does and it is a bestseller.

Somebody else who contributed, if not directly as a professor, was somebody called William Gilbert. He was a practising doctor in Colchester, and then he came up to London and he became Elizabeth's physician. He was very keen on making experiments, and observing each experiment, checking and redoing it, and redoing it, until he was absolutely sure of what it demonstrated. He published a book called De Magnete, concerning the magnet. Galileo Galilei took up the idea, and of course it was absolutely invaluable to those who were surveying and those who were navigating boats at sea.

That brings me to the last thing that I want to talk about. It is an extraordinary story about St Paul ’s Cathedral, and it’s true. St Paul’s had been struck by lightning in 1561 at the very beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and it had lost its spire. Now that spire was one of the glories of London, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, one of the things that you travelled from Europe in order to get a look at. It was amazing. Sussex scrivener, called Henry Farley, was working in London. He was the son of a clergyman, I think he was a deeply religious man, probably fairly Puritanical, and he could not bear to see St Paul ’s in that condition. He started to petition the King. The King didn’t listen. Farley wrote him two poems and a long prose work. The King still remained not interested in putting up the money to repair St Paul’s – well, I mean after all, poor man, he’d got a family, and he’d got to put on all these masques. You know, James was always chronically short of money, and when you judge the way that taxes were collected then, it wasn’t entirely his fault. He just hadn’t got Elizabeth’s wonderful knack of handling people. As I said at the beginning, he was not somebody who related to other people.

Farley became more and more obsessed with the poor spire, and he commissioned a painting, a diptych, a folding painting. The poems are quite extraordinarily topical. The outer panel of the diptych shows you the River Thames and a procession winding from Southwark, over London Bridge, up through the City and in at the gate to St Paul’s Cathedral. Down at the bottom are little boats coming up to the port of London bringing prosperity and goodies with them. You open the panel, and we’ve got St Paul ’s as it was, we’ve got a throng of people at St Paul’s Cross where that pillar still stands in the churchyard of St Paul’s with a figure of St Paul on the top of it, and they are listening to a sermon. Somewhere in the ground, a man is whipping a dog to make it be quiet – fat lot of use that would have been. The preacher is probably having a job to make himself heard as he hasn’t got a nice microphone. Sitting in a gallery at the back, we’ve got the Lord Mayor and the Alderman and the royal family – James, Anne and Charles. Henry is already dead. But the cathedral looks old and mucky.

Well, James went to a sermon, preached by Bishop King, and he wept at the end of it and said he would live on bread and cheese for the rest of his reign and give the cathedral the money to restore the spire. A certain amount of stone and timber was bought, but nothing happened. The stone was nicked by the King’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, and used to build the Watergate to Buckingham House, which still stands in the gardens beside the Thames, now embanked, so it’s well away from the river. But at least an attempt was made.


Ann Saunders

4 October 2004


This event was on Mon, 04 Oct 2004

Dr Ann Saunders FSA

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