LONDON TOWN IN SHAKESPEARE’S DAY

Old London as it looked from Highgate Hill–The travelers put up
at “Ye Swanne” near New Gate–The start for White Hall to see Sir
Francis Walsingham and the Queen–Their wonderment at the strange
house signs–The saucy apprentices arouse their anger–Old Paule’s
Cathedral and some celebrated mansions–The Royal Palace and a state
procession–They go to the Globe, Will Shakespeare’s theatre–The boys
see their first play in company with Doctor Hollister–Old London
Bridge, its curious houses and its grizzly ornaments.

When our travelers reached the top of Highgate Hill, from which an
extensive view could be had in every direction, they halted to survey
the scene. London lay below, stretched along the banks of the Thames,
and still several miles distant. In Queen Elizabeth’s reign it was
a small place compared with what it is today. Its greatest distance
across was then less than two miles, whereas, now it is nearly thirty.
Nevertheless, London was by far the greatest city in England and
amongst the largest in the world.

Jack and his companions looked down upon a closely packed collection of
buildings within a wall whose moat, no longer needed for defence, had
become half choked with refuse and rank vegetation. The streets were so
narrow that, with the exception of Cheapside, which traversed the city
from end to end, they were not discernible at that distance. The mass
of red-tiled roofs was broken here and there by a market place or a
churchyard and agreeably relieved by the gardens which lay at the backs
of most of the houses. One hundred and more spires of parish churches
shot up in relief against the background of the silvery river, for in
those days the Thames was a clear and pure stream upon which swans
disported even below London Bridge.

Scattering suburbs extended from the walls of the city in several
directions. In Elizabeth’s time, the noblemen and wealthier citizens
had deserted their old-time palaces and mansions in the filthy and
crowded metropolis for healthier residences among the adjacent
fields. Perhaps, Baynard Castle, mentioned in the opening scene of
Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, was the only one of the old homes of
the nobility occupied by its owner at that time. Most of the others
had been given over to tenements in which the poorer people crowded.
A large part of the London that the boys gazed upon in wonder and
admiration was destroyed by the Great Fire in the year 1666.

It must be remembered that, despite the comparison we have made of
the London of Shakespeare’s time and the city of today, the former
was relatively of greater importance than the latter and exercised a
greater influence on the affairs of the nation. It was the residence of
the monarch and of all the important members of the government. Every
person of note in the kingdom had a town house. By far the greater part
of the business of the country was transacted at the capital. It set
the fashion and furnished the news for the whole island. London was, in
short, the heart and brains of England at this period.

It was late in the evening when the travelers, tired and hungry,
passed through New Gate which, like Lud Gate and some others of the
many entrances to the city, was used as a prison. A little later and
they must have remained at one of the inns outside the walls for the
night, or have left their horses and entered by the postern, for
the portcullis was closed at sundown. They put up at “Ye Swanne” on
Cheapside and hardly one hundred yards from the gate. It was a hostelry
much frequented by north-country gentlemen. Master Marner, the host,
gave them the best accommodations his house afforded for the sake of
Lord Willoughby, who had often been his guest and, in fact, always
lodged with him when in London. That nobleman, long accustomed to the
freedom and frank comradeship of the camp, found himself much more
at ease in one of Master Marner’s cosy rooms than in a chamber at
Whitehall.

Neither of the lads had ever been in London, and after they had supped
in the common room–which corresponded to the _café_ of a modern
hotel–they were eager to go out and see the great sights of which they
had heard so much. But to this Doctor Hollister, the tutor, would not
consent, for in those days the capital was infested by footpads and
brawlers after nightfall and the patrols of the watch afforded scant
protection to wayfarers in the unlighted streets. The explanation
of all this only whetted the desire of the lads to go abroad on the
chance of witnessing some duel or fracas but Peregrine, at least,
was under the authority of the Doctor and Jack by accepting his
friend’s hospitality had placed himself in a similar position. So they
restrained their impatience and went early to bed as all honest folk
did at that period.

The following morning Doctor Hollister, accompanied by his young
charges, set out for Whitehall carrying a letter from Lady Willoughby
to Sir Francis Walsingham. The royal palace was at the extreme western
end of London, whilst the Swan Inn stood hard by New Gate, at the
eastern extremity, so that in order to reach their destination the
travelers had to traverse the full extent of the city. A citizen of
London at that time, having such a distance to cover, would most likely
have taken a wherry at one of the many water stairs, where numbers of
such boats were in waiting at all hours of the day and night. Jack
and Peregrine, eager as they were to see the sights of the metropolis,
would not hear of anything but walking and so the party set out at an
early hour, taking their way along Cheapside, or the Cheap as it was
then called.

Everything they saw was novel to the boys, neither of whom had ever
been in a town larger than Lynn. The gable roofs and projecting upper
stories of the houses were much like what they were accustomed to at
home, but they had seldom seen one of three stories and here were many
rising to four and five. In the narrow side streets which they passed,
the dwellings approached so closely that persons sitting at their upper
windows might easily converse with their neighbors across the way, or
even shake hands with them by leaning out.

Before almost every house hung a painted board suspended from an iron
bracket, similar to the sign of the “D’Eresby Arms” displayed by the
village tavern at Willoughby. For a moment the boys thought that they
must be in a town full of inns and Doctor Hollister was mightily amused
by the puzzled expression with which they looked from one to another
of the crude and curious pictures. The explanation was simple enough
when the tutor made it. In the reign of Elizabeth the simple device of
numbers to distinguish the different houses of a street had not yet
been thought of and so one saw all manner of things pictured and hung
over the entrances. There were angels, dragons, castles, mountains,
Turks, bears, foxes, birds, books, suns, mitres, ships, and in fact
every conceivable kind of object. So, a man wishing to indicate his
place of abode might say: “I lodge with the widow Toy, at the sign of
the _Bell_ in Paule’s Churchyard” and, since there was at the time
a veritable widow Toy, living in a house on the east side of the
churchyard and distinguished by the sign of a Bell, who doubtless took
in lodgers when favorable opportunity offered, it is not impossible
that one or another of the acquaintances made by our party during their
stay in London uttered precisely such a remark to them.

As our friends passed along the street, apprentices standing in front
of their master’s shops invited their patronage or made saucy comments
upon their appearance for, although they were dressed in their best
clothes, it was easy to see that a country tailor had fashioned their
garments.

“Ho Richard! Dick Hopple!” cried one of these prentices to an
acquaintance across the street. “Cast thy gaze upon his worship and the
little worshipfuls going to Paule’s to buy a sixtieth.” This was an
allusion to the lottery under royal patronage which was conducted in
a booth set up in the churchyard of the cathedral. It attracted many
countrymen to the capital, who could generally afford to purchase no
more than a fractional share, perhaps one-tenth, of a ticket.

“Peace boy!” said Doctor Hollister, sternly.

“Honorificabilitudinitatibus!” glibly replied the lad with a mock
obeisance. This extraordinary word, which Shakespeare had put into the
mouth of one of his characters, caught the fancy of the London populace
as a similar verbal monstrosity–Cryptoconcodycyphernostamata–did
about twenty-five years ago.

Doctor Hollister had the greatest difficulty in restraining the boys
from replying to these gibes with their fists and Jack, in particular,
begged earnestly to be permitted to “lay just one of them by the
heels.” But the Doctor had been a chorister of Paule’s in his boyhood
and he knew the formidable character of the London apprentices and how,
at the cry of “Clubs! Clubs!” they would swarm with their staves to the
aid of one of their number.

Presently they came to the great cathedral, and were surprised to
find that the holy edifice was used as a public thoroughfare, even
animals being driven across its nave, whilst hawkers displayed their
wares around the columns and gallants and gossips lounged about on the
seats–all this, too, during the celebration of divine service. The
lads who had been brought up in reverence of their country church were
shocked at the sights around them and little disposed to linger in the
building.

Leaving the churchyard of the cathedral, Doctor Hollister led the way
down Dowgate Hill to the water front, wishing to afford the boys
sight of two unusually interesting buildings. One of these was Baynard
Castle, of which mention has already been made, but the other had the
greater attraction for Jack on account of being the residence of his
hero, Sir Francis Drake. It had formerly been known as Eber House, when
it was the palace of Warwick, the “Kingmaker,” whom you will remember
as the titular character of “The Last of the Barons.” Later the place
was occupied by that “false, fleeting, perjured Clarence” whose dream
is one of the most impressive passages in Shakespeare’s tragedy,
Richard the Third.

Passing Westminster and the little village of Charing Cross, our
travelers came upon the Palace of Whitehall fronting upon the Thames
and with Saint James’s Park at its back. In Elizabeth’s time this royal
residence was the scene of such splendid entertainments as marked its
occupancy by her father, Henry the Eighth. At this period it stood
outside of London on the outskirts of what was the distinct city of
Westminster.

Sir Francis Walsingham received Doctor Hollister kindly and promised to
facilitate the journey of the party to France. The Queen was about to
go to the royal chapel in state and the minister secured a favorable
position from which the country visitors had a good view of Elizabeth
and her attendants. In the meanwhile a secretary was instructed to
write the passports and letters to be delivered to the Doctor before
his departure.

The royal procession appeared to the sound of trumpets blown by six
heralds who walked in advance. First, after them, came gentlemen of the
court and noblemen, richly dressed and bareheaded; next the Chancellor,
bearing the state seal in a red silk purse, on one side of him an
official carrying the royal scepter, on the other one bearing the
sword of state in a red velvet scabbard, studded with golden _fleur de
lis_. Then followed the Queen with majestic mien, her oval face fair
but wrinkled; her black eyes small but pleasing. Her nose was somewhat
aquiline and her lips thin and straight. She wore false hair of bright
red topped by a small crown.

As she moved slowly along between lines of courtiers and representatives
of foreign nations, she spoke graciously to one and another and, when
occasion needed, with fluency in French or Italian. When one spoke to
her, he did so kneeling, and whenever she turned toward a group, all
fell upon their knees. It was these ceremonies that made the Court such
an irksome place to bluff soldiers such as Lord Willoughby.

The Queen was guarded on each side by the gentlemen pensioners, fifty
in number, with gilt battle axes. Following her came the ladies of the
Court, for the most part dressed in handsome gowns of white taffeta or
some other rich stuff.

In the antechamber a number of petitions were presented to Her Majesty,
who received them graciously amid acclamations of “Long live our
Queen!” to which she replied, smiling, “I thank you, my good people!”

Upon the return of the royal party from the chapel, Sir Francis
Walsingham ordered a meal, of which the principal features were roast
beef and ale, to be set before Doctor Hollister and his charges. They
were hungry and did ample justice to the minister’s hospitality. Sir
Francis then handed the Doctor his papers and wished the travelers
godspeed and a safe return.

It was high noon and the sight-seers still had a good half of the
day before them. The boys had never been to a theatre–indeed, there
were none outside of London–and the Doctor determined to take them
to the Globe which, under the management of William Shakespeare, was
fast becoming famous. The playhouse stood on the Surrey side of the
river a short distance above the bridge. The party took boat at the
palace stairs and were quickly rowed down and across the stream. They
landed near a circular tower-like building, topped by a flag-staff
and ensign, which the Doctor informed them was their destination. At
that period plays were performed only in the daytime and the party was
just in time for a performance. The enclosure–for it could hardly be
called a building–was open to the sky. Around the sides were tiers
of seats which accommodated the better class of spectators whilst the
“groundlings” stood in the central space before the booth-like erection
which contained the stage. There was no scenery, though the costumes
were rich and various, and the back and sides of the stage were
occupied by young gallants seated upon stools, for which privilege they
paid sixpence extra. The audience commented freely and loudly upon the
play and the acting and not infrequently the actors replied. Boys took
the female parts and bouquets had not come into use to express favor,
but an unpopular actor was sometimes subjected to a shower of ancient
eggs and rotten vegetables from the pit.

No doubt the play, crude as we should consider it, was a source of
wonder and delight to Jack and Peregrine who had never seen acting more
pretentious than the antics of the village mummers at the New Year
festival.

On the return home the party walked over London Bridge. At the entrance
tower they were startled to see the heads of some eight or ten
criminals stuck on the ends of spears. Two of these were quite fresh
and had a peculiarly ghastly appearance with their eyes staring open
and hair blowing in the breeze. But their attention was soon distracted
from this gruesome sight to the bridge itself which was one of the most
extraordinary structures in the country. It was entirely built over
by houses two and three stories in height. Through the centre ran an
arcade like a tunnel lined with shops. This strange viaduct, therefore,
was at once a bridge and a street as well as a roadway for heavy
wagons. In the stories above the shops, lived the owners of the latter.
They were also occupied by offices and in a few instances as private
lodgings.

Tired as the boys were when they reached their beds that night, they
lay talking for hours of the wonderful sights they had seen. At length
their remarks came in snatches and with mumbled speech as sleep
overtook them against their will.

“Jack,” said Peregrine, drowsily, “if you were Lord Mayor of London,
what would you do?”

“Give myself leave to fight a prentice,” muttered our hero, with closed
eyes.