Thursday 27 September 2012

Vice in Tudor London

Henry VIII

Historical fiction usually concentrates on virtuous, upper-class women and the less fortunate, poorer women are often over-looked. Many ordinary women worked as prostitutes on the Bankside in Southwark and it is those women I will be discussing today.

In Tudor Britain there were no poor laws, no welfare, you either survived or you didn’t and every woman, even the most unskilled, was equipped to earn a living from vice should she need to. But that doesn't mean it was an easy option.

In the sixteenth century men tended to marry later, often not taking a wife until they had gained a foothold in society. They did not enjoy the sexual freedoms we have  today and prostitutes were to some, a necessary evil. Sometimes the girls who earned their living in this way were raised to the business from childhood and their bawds were often their own mothers. Sometimes innocent girls were left with no choice but to turn to vice. There were few doors open to a girl who was ‘soiled’ before marriage.

It was a hard, dangerous and undesirable lifestyle but it was also a lucrative business for some, often providing the easiest and the most profitable path. Early in the Tudor period the Reverend Symon Fysshe wrote:
“Who is she that will set her hands to worke to get three pence daye, and  may have at least twenty pence a daye to slepe an houre with a frère (friar) or a moncke (monk) or preste (priest)?”

When you consider, even today, the difficulties of housing and feeding a family, he may have had a point. 

What might a prostitute, living just across the water, have made of the high-jinx going on at Henry's court? I began to think that it might be interesting to flip the coin and present a prostitute as the protagonist in my next novel. Digging into the lives of less affluent woman opened up a whole new area of interest for me and I spent the next year or two researching the dark side of Tudor London, up to my ears in vice and crime. And some of the things I've learned are eye-opening and disturbing.


In my novel, Joanie Toogood is a tough, hard-working, resolute young woman who is bred into the life of vice and, at the death of her mother, is left with two younger sisters to provide for. She works to keep a roof over their heads and bread on the table and, when the time comes, her sisters work hard too. 


The Winchester Palace

The area of Southwark on the south bank of the Thames was renowned since Roman times for the nature of the entertainments it provided.  In 1161 Henry II officially handed over the land to the Church and licensed a cluster of Brothels which became known as the ‘Bankside stewes’, servicing the needs of Londoners and passing travellers.

Since the brothels paid their rents to the Bishop of Winchester and his sumptuous palace was situated bang in the middle of the Southwark stewes, the prostitutes who worked the surrounding area provided a source of both recreation and profit for the church. It is for this reason that the girls became known as The Winchester Geese. Needless to say, the phrase ‘bitten by a Winchester Goose’ referred to a dose of syphilis, a condition that was both widespread and incurable.
Stephen Gardiner, The Bishop of Winchester
It has been suggested that Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, pandered to Henry VIII by keeping him supplied with the cream of the Geese. However, I could find nothing in the primary source evidence to support this claim and it may have been propaganda against his conservative views on church reform.

The Tudor monarchs made several attempts to close down the brothels. During an outbreak of syphilis in 1505 Henry VII succeeded to do so for a short period of time but they quickly re-opened, albeit under a different guise and subject to fresh legislation.  

Fabyan, writing at this time, said, ‘This year the stewes or common bordello beyond the water for what help or consideration for certain I know not, was for a season inhibited and closed up but it was not long ere they were set open again.”

If this was an attempt to quench the spread of the disease it was unsuccessful. The girls simply crossed the river looking for work, some into St Katherine’s parish, some settling in St Giles, and others close to the King’s palace at Westminster. Even after the brothels were reopened, any woman found to be suffering from syphilis was fined 100 shillings and expelled from the Bankside, presumably to work independently. This dispersal of the girls brought them into contact with new customers and aided the spread of the contagion. The infection may have been better contained by leaving Southwark well alone.

The court records of the period contain many references to the Southwark Stewes and the names of the Inns were varied. One was called The Castle, another The Antylopp (antelope). Then there was The Unycorn, The Cardinal’s Hat and The Cock, the last of which features in my novel as the haunt of Joanie and her sisters.

The street names of medieval and early modern Britain reflect the trades that took place within them, so names like Tanner Street and Fish Street, Market Street, speak for themselves.  The small lanes that intersected Southwark were named Maiden Alley, Love Lane and Addle Street and it does not strain the imagination too far to see how they came by them. 

Red light districts in other areas of England are quite easily located in this way on medieval maps. My favourite example, if you will pardon my French, is ‘Gropecunt Lane’ now adapted to the more genteel, Grapenut Lane.  What went on there is really rather self-explanatory and I am far too ladylike to discuss some of the street names to be found in medieval Paris.

Why Henry VII allowed the bawdy houses to open up again so quickly when on the continent such places remained closed for years remains a mystery. But after his death, his son Henry VIII, continued the crusade against them, ordering Wolsey to ‘purge London and Southwark of its vagabonds and loose women.’

This proved to be as ineffectual as the previous attempts.

During the time in which the events of my novel take place (1540 -47) the vice continued to thrive. The brothels served nobles and commoners alike and the women, earning a living as they did, lived in constant danger of attack and even murder. Higher class prostitutes were shipped across the river to be smuggled into court but the lower class worked the bankside and the men came to them.

London and Southwark (foreground)
The risks of prostitution in the sixteenth century were the same as today and the pastime of ‘whore-bashing’ was, even then, a popular pastime among some sections of society. In March 1543 an incident is recorded when a party of youths were apprehended on a boat shooting with their stone bows (a kind of bow that shot small rocks) at the girls working on the south bank.

It can be surmised from this that, although their services were in demand, the prostitutes themselves were not highly regarded by all. This story becomes even more interesting when you realise that this wasn’t the work of drunken apprentices but that the ringleader was in fact a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the young Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey and cousin to two of Henry’s queens.

Throughout history Southwark has been renowned as an area of double dealing and vice. Outside the jurisdiction of London, the bearbaiting pits, theatres, inns and cockfighting attracted more and more unsavoury characters until the area became little more than a den of iniquity. Rubbing shoulders as they did with the criminal element from every walk of society, the prostitutes themselves were the least of the King’s problems. Thieves, vagabonds, dispossessed priests, spies, travellers and rent boys carried out nefarious dealings with the members of the king’s court who slipped across the river after dark.

It was not until late in Henry VIII’s reign in 1546 that he finally succeeded in closing the brothels down, outlawing bear baiting and seizing the church lands for himself. At the King’s command The Winchester Geese were hounded from their sanctuary at Southwark and the brothels prohibited from reopening and  Henry made a big show of doing so. Fabyan reports that,

‘This year at Easter the Stewes was put down by the King’s proclamation made there with a trumpet and an harolde-atte-armes.”

Unfortunately for Henry, he would not live long enough to ensure the continued success of his campaign and shortly after his death in 1547 the brothels were again flourishing but this time, they did not restrict themselves to the south bank.

In the early days of the following reign the young king, Edward VI addressed his court on the subject:
“My lords, you have put down the Stewes, but I pray you, how is the matter amended? What availeth that you have but changed the place and not taken the whoredom away? …There is nowe in London more than ever was on the Bancke.”

The Winchester Goose opens in 1540 just before Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. It follows the fortunes of four people, Joanie Toogood, a prostitute from Southwark, Francis Wareham, the runaway son of a country squire who becomes a spy for Thomas Cromwell, and Isabella and Evelyn Bourne, ladies in waiting in the households of the Queens, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard.
From diverse backgrounds, these four people find themselves embroiled in a web of intrigue, treachery and violence.

The Winchester Goose is not an excuse to write about sex. It is not meant to titillate but is a frank account of the life of a prostitute, reflecting her own opinions (not mine) of the goings-on in high places. Southwark provides a dark and dangerous backdrop to the events that Joanie witnesses: the coronations, the intrigues and the executions.

Judith Arnopp's other books include:
The Beaufort Bride
The Beaufort Woman
A Song of Sixpence
Intractable Heart
The Kiss of the Concubine
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers

Illustrations from wikimedia-commons.


  1. What a fascinating article, Judith.

  2. I agree with Elizabeth--very fascinating! Thanks for posting this.

  3. Good information. Sounds like it should be an interesting novel, too!

  4. I did not expect to enjoy this as much as I did. It certainly prompted me to download the novel.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I'm writing a book about the geese at the moment, fascinating read.