Elizabethan London: Royals and rogues

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An illustration of Elizabethan Bankside in 1572, before The Globe was built there. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

From taverns and playhouses to markets and slums, what was London really like in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I?

Words by Neil Jones

Elizabethan London

A French visitor to England in 1578 waxed lyrical that “rumour of the greatness, prosperity, singularities and splendours of London fly and run to the ends of the whole world”. Less enthusiastic observers grumbled about traffic congestion, the stench of the River Thames, and in the case of one voluble Venetian merchant, the “healthy but sickening” taste of beer, although he did praise London oysters.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) England’s capital was a melting pot that stirred diverse emotions. Nobles vied to be close to the royal court, and the ambitious made their way in government or through careers in the law courts. Merchants accrued fortunes in the burgeoning economic boom that busied the Port of London, while escapees from religious and political persecution on the continent sought out the City’s more amenable Protestant climate.

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Bartholomew’s Gatehouse in the City is a rare survivor of Tudor London. Credit: vincent abbey / Alamy

Amid this babble of foreign and domestic accents and the flashy comings-and-goings of the great and the good, beggars, cut-purses, prostitutes, spies and other doubtful characters also plied their trades along streets and darkened alleyways.

It is estimated that from the middle to the end of the 16th century, London’s population ballooned from around 120,000 to 200,000. Many people crammed into the walled City in the east bounded by the Tower of London, others crowded into Westminster to the west; Southwark to the south across London Bridge was notorious for its louche gaming dens and playhouses; open fields to the north were dotted with windmills.

The River Thames

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Old London Bridge as it was in Elizabethan times, lined with shops and buildings. Credit: Lebrecht Music

The economic lifeblood of Elizabethan London was the River Thames, contemporary chronicler John Stow remarking that “all kind of merchandise” passed along it, while another observer counted 100 large vessels at one viewing: more than in any other port he had seen.  

On special occasions you might glimpse the Queen on her splendidly ornamented barge travelling along the river between the royal palaces of Westminster, Whitehall and the Tower. The well-to-do with handsome riverside mansions also owned private (if less spectacular) barges, while ordinary folk hired wherries: small boats rowed by the 3,000 watermen who operated on the Thames.

The river also had its grisly sights, Stow recording that pirates hanged at low-water mark at Wapping would be left “till three tides had overflowed them”. Other felons, notably traitorous nobles, had their severed heads displayed on poles along London Bridge.

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A drawing of the Globe Theatre from c.1600. Credit: GRANGER – Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

London Bridge

The London Bridge in Elizabethan London was lined with buildings inhabited by “rich merchants and other wealthy citizens, mercers and haberdashers”, many of whom had their shops on the ground floors. Elsewhere, different areas of the city became known for different trades – apothecaries, for example, congregated together near Cheapside, the aromatic herbal smells of their wares an attractive lure if not the unusual ‘cures’ they pedalled: anyone for unicorn’s horn?

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The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I is on permanent display in the Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, the queen’s birthplace. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


Cheapside, meaning market place, bustled with one of the city’s numerous markets, which came under the control of the Lord Mayor and his counsellors. Getting food into the capital was a mighty task and the smells and noises of cattle or sheep being herded in from surrounding counties, or fish being unloaded from boats at the wharves, must have been overwhelming at times. Leftovers from butchers’ slaughterhouses could often end up in the Thames.

For veg, poultry and dairy you might head to Cornhill and Cheapside; to Leadenhall for meat; to Fish Street for fishmongers. You could also buy wares from street sellers lugging baskets of oysters, hot codlings (baked apples) and pies, all adding to the cacophonous sensory swirl.

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Oysters have been sold at Borough Market since Tudor times. Credit: wayne Tippetts / Alamy

Walking through narrow streets lined with timber-framed buildings whose upper jetties obscured the sky could be claustrophobic (much of ‘wooden London’ would be swept away by the Great Fire in 1666). 

St Paul’s Cathedral

But there were handsome buildings in Elizabethan London to admire too: upper-class residences built where monastic property had fallen foul of Henry VIII’s Dissolution, merchants’ houses, Inns of Court and livery halls with fine gardens, and (old) St Paul’s Cathedral. The spire of the latter was struck by “a spear-pointed flame of fire” during a summer thunderstorm in 1561, but the cathedral survived and was the venue in 1588 for Queen Elizabeth’s public thanksgiving for victory over the Spanish Armada.

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Staple Inn is a beautifully intact Tudor building on High Holborn. Credit: Robert Evans / Alamy

The Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange, built by the merchant banker Sir Thomas Gresham to rival the famous bourse of Antwerp as a place for merchants to do business, was another fine sight; above the merchants’ arcaded courtyard, it even had shops selling everything from mousetraps to armour. 

In Elizabethan London streets were muddy and you had to be alert for the odd chamber pot being emptied from overhead, or the innocuous jostle in a crowd that could turn out to have been a pickpocket. Understandably, those who could afford it raised themselves above the common press. Queen Elizabeth, when not gliding in pomp along the Thames, resorted to a litter or a coach decorated in brass-studded red leather, while nobles rode into town accompanied by a multitudinous entourage on horseback.

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The spectacular gatehouse of the Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn. Credit: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy


As more and more wheeled transport appeared, from Hackney (meaning ‘for hire’) coaches to merchandise-laden carts, congestion became a major, unresolved problem. The evening curfew bells signalling the closure of the city gates until morning afforded some relief, at least.

To get on in Elizabethan London you needed status and rank, and a key entry point was to get into one of the livery companies or guilds that protected the privileges of craftsmen and merchants, and provided career paths from apprentice to master. Or you could work your way up as a law student at one of the Inns of Court.

London, UK – April 25, 2016 – Lincoln’s Inn Vaulted Ceiling. Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn is one of four Inns of Court in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong and where they are called to the Bar.

You certainly didn’t want to be poor, with fewer safety nets for support since the monasteries had been abolished by Henry VIII. In 1569 the City tackled matters by ordering that “all idle persons and begging people” be bundled off to various institutions, and several Acts issued in Elizabeth’s reign exhorted local authorities to get a grip on managing the impoverished. Beggars nevertheless remained a common sight.

The plague in London

Meanwhile, periodic waves of bubonic plague panicked the crowded Elizabethan London, putting royalty and aristocrats to flight to the country, while those left behind placed their faith in the snake oils of quacks. In the plague year of 1563 alone nearly a quarter of London’s population died. 

Plague years notwithstanding, city life fizzed with potential entertainments. Taverns and inns were popular meeting places for gossip, ale, music and ‘tobacco drinking’ (smoking your pipe). There were bowling alleys, free concerts at the Royal Exchange on summer Sunday afternoons and swimming in the Thames (if you dared). Gruesome to modern sensibilities, Elizabethan Londoners loved cock-fighting and bull- and bear-baiting, notably in Southwark, home also to brothels and gaming.

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Today’s Globe Theatre is an authentic reconstruction of the original. Credit: Panoramic Images / Alamy

Tudor theatres

Throughout the Elizabethan era in London, City grandees and the Lord Mayor tried to have playhouses closed down on the basis that they attracted “light and lewd disposed persons” and encouraged the spread of disease, but the common people, courtiers and the Queen herself were on the side of the actors.

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As you like it production photos taen at the Globe Theatre on the 23rd August 2023,, Audience Reaction

Playhouses like The Theatre, The Curtain, The Swan, The Rose and The Globe sprang up outside of the City’s jurisdiction at Shoreditch and Bankside, and William Shakespeare among others wowed the crowds. For just a penny ­– or a few more to sit on a cushion ­– you could join the boisterous audiences and immerse yourself in drama and laughter to sustain you for another day in this colourful metropolis: catch an echo even now at the re-created Shakespeare’s Globe.

Read more in the July/August 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 7 June. 

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