Thursday, 11 October 2012

Inns and Watering Holes of Tudor London

Tudor London was awash with inns and eating houses. Some were galleried and doubled up as playhouses - like the famous Cross Keys Inn, used by many theatrical companies before the dedicated theatres began to spring up - and others were shadowy establishments where drinking and gambling habitually went on and prostitutes openly plied their trade, much to the disgust of local residents and the city fathers.

The Swan, one of many bustling theatres on Bankside in the Tudor era

The south bank of the Thames, particularly in the Southwark region of Bankside, was the most popular with visitors to the city in the later Tudor era. That was where old London Bridge stood, its narrow gate opening to allow a steady stream of vendors, city workers and tourists back and forth across the bridge during daylight hours. The only other mode of transportation across the broad dirty river - the Thames was much wider in Tudor times than today - was in a boat. Bankside in the late Tudor and early Jacobean eras was among the busiest areas on the river, especially on feast or holy days when there might be a play or bear-baiting to see, beyond the reach of the conservative laws of the city fathers.

So where might you go for a drink or a bite to eat in busy, disreputable Southwark with its many inns and brothels? The choice was almost limitless, depending on the depth of your pocket, with the names of the establishments both traditional and fanciful to suit every taste.

Here are a few names of Southwark inns in the mid-late Tudor era, some of which I reference in my forthcoming novel His Dark Lady:

The Dolphin
The Swan with Two Necks
The Green Dragon
The Saracen's Head
The Salutation
The Blue Maid
The White Cock on the Hoop
The Axe
The Goat
The Tabard

"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay": Chaucer's General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

This last one, The Tabard, was a very old and famous inn even in Shakespeare's day. Referenced by Chaucer, it stood at the end of Long Southwark, just before St Margaret's Hill, and welcomed visitors travelling towards the capital from the south - or vice versa, in the case of Chaucer's pilgrims. Its name was later changed to the Talbot, before the rickety old building was finally demolished in 1876. By then it must have seen many thousands of customers spending the night under its well-known roof - charged at perhaps six shillings a night - drinking ale at its counters or consuming a bowl of hot beef and carrots on their way in and out of London.

If you could not afford a sit-down meal, or had to eat on the hoof - literally! - London's tireless hawkers were always working the streets with a generous array of stewed or fresh fruit, chestnuts and hazelnuts roasting on braziers, various types of cooked fish and shellfish, and of course the kind of hot greasy takeaway food you might expect to find there today, though without a global franchise behind it.

For the better class of merchant or city-worker, there were more elegant taverns to be found in the commercial areas north of the river. Some perennially popular areas with the well-heeled visitor, such as Covent Garden, had busier and more impressive premises which sometimes got into trouble with residential neighbours for spilling out noisy customers late at night. There a wealthy man could hire a large private room for a party, or demand a more intimate space for a discreet dinner with his latest mistress.

London then, even in Tudor times, was a city of great variety, especially in terms of its eating places and watering holes. Whether you were a poor man looking for a quick bite to eat in your daily search for work, or an important merchant wishing to impress your clients or entertain a courtesan behind your wife's back, London had the perfect spot for you. Which perhaps indicates how little times have changed.

You can read more about the changing times of this amazing city in London: The Illustrated History by Cathy Ross and John Clark (Penguin Books).


  1. Great post and I love reading anything about the history of the River Thames - what about The Bear which was first mentioned in 1319:
    "The Bear, which we soon understood
    Was the first house in Southwark built after the flood."

  2. Yes, indeed. The Bear was right by the river in Southwark. From the map I have, it looks like the first pub you got to on dry land after crossing London Bridge. I didn't mention it because the name just wasn't spankingly fun enough. Presumably named for some bear baiting that went on, assuming bear baiting actually went in the fourteenth century in Southwark. I imagine it did, since even the Romans had bear baiting. And we're as good as the Romans any day, aren't we?

  3. Love those inn names. Meet you for a drink at the White Cock On The Hoop, anyone?

    In Elizabethan York a lot of drinking and dicing went on in the ale houses which seem to have been just rooms in people's houses (possibly the only room). I'm guessing it was much the same in London.

  4. I'm with you for a drink, Pamela. Gotta love that White Cock!

    Some watering-holes were rooms in people's houses, yes, but places like the Tabard were definitely all-out inns. And with so many on one street - maybe forty? - t must have been easy to organize a pub crawl in Southwark!

  5. Talking of 'Cock on the Hoop', looking for the derivation of that name I found this fascinating article on the possible derivation of the phrase 'cock-a-hoop', meaning 'in high spirits'.


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