England’s capital first achieved real greatness during the Renaissance. This is where all the political, intellectual and policy threads came together. Financially, the city benefited from both the fall of Antwerp in 1585 and the economic decline of Genoa and Venice.1 In the early Tudor period, the increased migration to London had already begun. Between 1550 and 1600, the English population grew from 3 million to over 4 million. Within fifty years, the population of London had risen to 200,000.2 Although the actual number can only be estimated, as many people lived as subtenants in cellars or attics, where it was not uncommon for several people to share a room. The increasing overpopulation even preoccupied the Queen, who tried to remedy the situation with not very effective regulations.3 But it was not only impoverished peasants, beggars and vagabonds who were drawn to London. The true gentleman and his sometimes numerous entourage found it barbaric to have to live in the countryside. However, even then the metropolis had a rather rural character, which it retained until the 18th century.4 Besides the Thames, the city was criss-crossed by numerous streams and canals, many houses had gardens and, of course, people kept livestock.5

London was not particularly big. The actual centre was the area inside the city wall. About 2.6 square kilometres on the north bank of the Thames, now known as the City of London. If Westminster and the waterfront area of Southwark were also included, this resulted in an area of 15.53 square kilometres.6 Until the Reformation, the cityscape was dominated by religious buildings. This changed in the mid-16th century, when many of these buildings fell victim to Reformation zeal. Buildings were demolished, fell into disrepair, were rebuilt or newly constructed. The London that Marlowe entered sometime in 1587 was a city of ruins and building sites.7 Mostly half-timbered dwellings were built, but they were not whitewashed, as was generally assumed. The Elizabethans preferred subtle earthy colours on their houses. Nevertheless, there were still 110 parish churches in the City alone. The parish formed a kind of administrative unit, comparable to the districts. The typical parish comprised about fifty households. Everyone knew their neighbours and what was going on at home.8 Yet London was considered by foreign visitors to be a city where privacy was particularly important.9

One could enter England’s metropolis through one of the seven city gates or via London Bridge. It was the only bridge over the Thames, which could otherwise only be crossed by ferry. On both sides were beautiful houses, up to four storeys high, mainly inhabited by wealthy citizens and merchants who had their shop on the ground floor. Notorious was the Great Stone Gateway, the southernmost gateway of London Bridge, on which the heads of executed traitors were impaled. In 1305 this ritual had begun by displaying the head of William Wallace on the drawbridge tower, which was later demolished, and did not stop until 1746.10 But the metropolis had other sights. A typical city tour began at the Tower and took us west to Cheapside, home to London’s finest craftsmen, via the Royal Exchange, to St Paul’s Cathedral, out of the city to the Strand, where the aristocrats had their magnificent townhouses, before heading to Whitehall and Westminster. Whitehall was not a palace in the conventional sense, but an arrangement of buildings more like a village. Cardinal Wolsey had given it to Henry VIII in 1530. Westminster was the site of the famous cathedral as well as the place of activity of the legal scholars, although law was taught in the four Inns of Court (Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Inner Temple Inn and Middle Temple Inn). The actual centre of the city was St Paul’s. The cathedral was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and subsequently redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren to its present form. In the 16th century, St Paul’s was still a Norman cathedral without a spire, burnt down after lightning struck. In the nave of the cathedral, one met merchants concluding contracts, servants seeking employment and prostitutes looking for clients, harmless tourists and sophisticated pickpockets. The booksellers' stalls were set up on the outside walls. St Paul’s was the miniature image of the vibrant city that London was then. The area around St Pancras Old Church, on the other hand, was scary to Londoners and they did not like to stay there after dark. The cemetery there was the final destination for suicides and victims of duels.11

There was literally a constant coming and going, because the life expectancy at that time was thirty years. The London population was young, active and loud. More than 50 per cent of the English population was under twenty-five.12 Craftsmen hammered, traders shouted at the countless markets that took place every day, carts rumbled through the streets, people chatted, cattle bellowed, grunted, or cackled – and all this was amplified by the house fronts, which formed a kind of sound funnel. In addition, the young men of London engaged in an unusual sport: bell ringing. People liked to bet on who could make the most beautiful, loudest or longest bell sound in one of the numerous churches. Even the Reformation did not change this. Elizabeth I even inferred good public health from this enthusiasm for bell ringing. Surprising, considering that a cloud of smoke hung over the city, even turning the inside of the houses black. The Lothbury foundry brought the smell of burnt bricks from the north, which met the tallowy stench from Paternoster Row before mingling with the scent of the cattle market at the eastern end of Cheapside and the smell of decay from St Paul’s churchyard.13 Existence in London, then, included an overabundance of cacophony and olfactory cruelty that may have reminded Marlowe of his childhood in Canterbury, but was not conducive to the health of the city’s inhabitants. During Marlowe’s lifetime, the English capital experienced three major plague epidemics. In addition, swampy areas and cesspools provided ideal living conditions for mosquitoes, which led to repeated occurrences of sweating sickness, a type of malaria.

The southern bank of the Thames was marshland. Only Southwark was still a reminder of the city, although it was not part of its jurisdiction. So the ideal place for theatres, animal arenas and brothels. Still further south was the village of Lambeth, where the London palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury stood. The north seemed more inviting. In Moor Fields the laundresses laid out the linen to dry, in Finsbury Field there were several windmills and the area encouraged walking and relaxing. London had only three hospitals, St Bartholomew’s, St Thomas' and St Mary of Bedlam, which, however, specialised in treating the mentally ill. In return, there were numerous prisons that could not complain about a lack of prisoners. The dissolution of the monasteries had condemned many people to a vagabond existence. Coupled with the usual crime rate, this did not make London any safer. On the Strand, where the rich and powerful used to gather, stood the Savoy, a dilapidated building that Henry VII had turned into a poorhouse. For unknown reasons, this order was never properly carried out. Instead, thieves and beggars moved in – little to the delight of their illustrious neighbours. Not only was there – similar to the craft guilds – a separate thieves' guild, but there was even a school for pickpockets near Billingsgate.14 The situation was considered in need of improvement even by those who, according to prevailing opinion, also belonged to these marginalised groups. Thomas Lodge’s and Robert Greene’s A Looking Glass for London and England, written around 1590, and Greene’s Connycatching Tracts of 1591/92 contain both criticism of the times and occasional appeals to the authorities to finally put a stop to the abundance of crime. By the end of the 16th century, life in the city had already lost much of its charm.15

Ackroyd, Peter. 2002. London: Die Biographie. München: Knaus.
Meissner, Paul. 1952. England Im Zeitalter von Humanismus, Renaissance Und Reformation. Heidelberg: Kerle.
Picard, Liza. 2003. Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

  1. Meissner (1952)↩︎
  2. Picard (2003)↩︎
  3. Ackroyd (2002)↩︎
  4. Meissner (1952)↩︎
  5. Ackroyd (2002)↩︎
  6. Picard (2003)↩︎
  7. Ackroyd (2002)↩︎
  8. Picard (2003)↩︎
  9. Ackroyd (2002)↩︎
  10. Picard (2003)↩︎
  11. Ackroyd (2002)↩︎
  12. Picard (2003)↩︎
  13. Ackroyd (2002)↩︎
  14. Picard (2003)↩︎
  15. Meissner (1952)↩︎

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