A Day in Shakespeare’s London

If you can’t settle to sleep as usual and find yourself up before the break of day, you may care to venture outside the city where the dust on the roads is already been stirred up by country higglers, burdened with baskets of eggs, herbs, flowers, butter and beans. As they pass by, the unlicensed beggars from the hedgerows are gathering their tatters and trying to bear themselves like honest men as they think how to slip through the city gates, past weary watchmen, to ply their trade on the streets of the capital.

From time to time these figures, variously striding, shuffling or stumbling in the gloom, yield the road to lumbering country carts, packed with root vegetables, crates of live chickens, bundles of firing or stacks of freshly baked Stratford loaves, still warm enough to make the nostrils twitch. In the tumbledown riverside taverns of Radcliffe and Wapping drunken sailors are still snoring, the potboys are emptying their slops back in the barrels to sell again to the day’s first customers and the local drabs are quietly taking their leave down the back alleys with whatever they have been paid or taken.

Shakespeare's time London

Shakespeare’s time London

On the streets of London itself blue-smocked apprentices are taking down the shutters of their masters’ workshops. The Statute of Artificers decrees that between mid-Marchand mid-September everyone must be at work by 5 o’clock in the morning and continue until 7 o’clock in the evening, though two-and-a-half hours may be taken between those times for meals and breaks. Between mid-September and mid-March works is to begin at first light and continue until dusk.

In strict Puritan households, which are numerous in some city parishes, families gather for prayer and a reading from the Scriptures before setting about the business of the day, conscious of doing the Lord’s work and knowing that this day, as every day, may be the day of their death and a reckoning of their mortal deeds.

Ragfair, Rosemary Lane by Thomas Rowlandson, late eighteenth century

Ragfair, Rosemary Lane by Thomas Rowlandson, late eighteenth century

As the city’s inns there is clatter and chatter in the courtyards, as ostler harness horses ready for their departing owners and maids hover hopefully for a tip. Schoolboys hurry – or dawdle – on their way to the classroom, the more conscientious murmuring the conjugation of a half-remembered Latin irregular verb, the rowdy sidling up to their fellows to snatch a woolen cap and throw it into a heap of horsedroppings.All around them stallholders pile their produce to best advantage, covering stale items with fresh and crying their wares to passerby – ‘Cherry ripe, apples fine!’ ‘What do ye lack? – Pins, points, garters or ribbons of silks?’

Between 7 and 8 o’clock working people snatch a hasty breakfast. As this is London, the greatest city in the kingdom, the bread will be white, the beer will be good and there will be butter as well as cheese or a herring. Some of the country market people will already be heading for home. The lucky ones will have sold up all they have brought, the shrewd ones will know that it is a better use of time to get rid of unsold produce to a stallholder and get back to work than hang about the rest of the day trying to unload it.

Street seller of bird's nests

Street seller of bird’s nests

By mid-morning the Royal Exchange, the focal point of the city’s commercial life, is buzzing with richly gowned men of business doing deals in a dozen tongues, while the dazzling Court at Whitehall is all rumours and whispers in the language of flattery and deceit as ministers and maids of honour ready themselves to enter the royal presence. Merchants in their counting-houses make piles of shillings, florins and ducats. Others crowd the riverside wharves to eye the cargoes unloading from ships that have just arrived in port, or seek out their masters to treat them in a tavern.

In their comfortable, if crowded, houses, the merchants’ wives supervise the daily cleaning routine, dispatch servants to the street markets for meat or fish, check that yesterday’s washing has been properly aired and dried and plan more satisfying  tasks, such as distilling, pickling and preserving. No sooner are those matters set in place than they must organize the preparations for the main meal of the day – trenchers to be scoured, spoons and knives laid out, the meal itself to be cooked and sauced and all to be ready half an hour before noon.

Sir Thomas More and his family by Rowland Lockey

Sir Thomas More and his family by Rowland Lockey (after Hans Holbein)

Elsewhere, in the homes of the truly wealthy, the pace is more leisurely. The organization of meals and household chores is delegated to male servants, who chivvy the female ones. The mistress of the house, even if not particularly devout, has time to read  a devotional book, to which she can refer knowingly to her pew-neighbours in church on Sunday. Alternatively she may venture forth to Cheapside to purchase gloves or a ruff or napery or a gift for a christening. Her daughters, meanwhile, take private lessons in French and music and unpick the faults in yesterday’s embroidery.

Between 11 and 2 o’clock the streets are at their busiest, with people hurrying to and from their homes to eat the main meal of the day, while those too far from home crowd the taverns and ordinaries. Anticipation of a good meal and fear of being late make people inattentive to all but their immediate purpose. It is a time of day much favoured by pickpockets.

Apprenticeship in Early Modern London

Apprenticeship in Early Modern London

By 2 o’clock everyone should be back at work is so. In the eating-houses the potboys and serving wenches gather up the broken bread and scrape up the leftovers so that they can be added into a great cauldron of pottage permanently simmering in the back kitchen. Over on the south side of the city the gallants of the court, the gentlemen students of the Inns of Court and visitors to the city in search of its most famous entertainments, mix with honest citizens who have deemed it prudent to treat their wives to an afternoon out – and all foregather, according to the day, to enjoy the pleasures of the playhouse, or the thrill of seeing a bear or a bull tormented by snarling mastiffs. Ferrying the playgoers across the river has kept scores of watermen at their busiest for the last two hours and now many snooze at their oars, recovering their strength.

Smoking tobacco

Smoking tobacco

With the midday meal cleared away but the house still empty of schoolboys and husbands, the housewife takes advantage of an interval of calm to potter in her garden, repair clothing or even gossip with a neighbours. In her stillroom she may make soap, scented with roses or lavender, or concoct a batch of mouthwash – two parts honey, two parts vinegar and one part white wine.

At 5 o’clock the school day ends and the streets are once again boisterous with shrill voices and mischief at the expense of crippled beggars or tired stallholders packing away their unsold wares. By the time that darkness falls the evening meal is being consumed. Strict regulations forbid skilled craftsmen, such as tailors, to work by artificial light in case they fall short of the highest standards and thus imperil the reputation of their craft. In theory householders should hang a light out in front of their houses; many fail to do so.

Drinking in 16th century

Drinking in 16th century

Most families say their prayers together, check the doors and windows, damp down the fire and turn in. In the streets around, in the alehouses, taverns and inns, the noise of eating, drinking, dancing, singing, swearing and occasionally brawling, will continue for hours by the smoky light of smelly tallow candles. In the homes of the wealthy, expensive wax candles burn with the light bright enough to enable the master to sit up late to read or write letters without distraction. Outside, on the mud-spattered streets of the splendid, squalid city the voice of the watchman calls into the darkness:

“Give ear to the clock,

Beware your lock,

Your fire and your light,

And God give you goodnight,

ten o’clock!”

From “Shakespeare’s London on Five Groats a Day” by Richard Tames