Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Taverns and Inns 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 capital in the later Tudor era, largely because it was outside the city bounds and therefore not subject to the restrictive laws of the city fathers. 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 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.

'Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern': John Faed, 1851
Back in the city, the Mermaid Tavern, found on Cheapside with entrances on both Bread Street and Friday Street, is celebrated as a place where leading literary figures, particularly playwrights, were known to gather on the first Friday of every month, for a jar of ale and a 'solemne joviall disputation' as Richard Braithwaite put it in his 1617 book, The Law of Drinking. (See partial title page below.)

But 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.

Title page illustration of The Law of Drinking by Richard Braithwaite (1617): many believe from the hanging sign that this is a depiction of London's infamous Mermaid Tavern. (Note the long-stemmed pipes!)
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 history of this amazing city in London: The Illustrated History by Cathy Ross and John Clark (Penguin Books).

This post was originally published on 11/10/12. 

HIS DARK LADY, the story of Shakespeare's mistress set against the backdrop of theatrical Tudor London, is out in paperback this week. 

HIS DARK LADY: out in paperback THIS WEEK.

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Many thanks for visiting my website and commenting! Victoria.