Dr Andrew Bretz teaches Renaissance and Early Modern drama and poetry at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada and is the Acting Project Coordinator for the Canadian Shakespeare Association. He received his PhD from the University of Guelph in 2012, where his dissertation work was on the representation of the rapist on the early modern stage. He has published or presented on Elizabethan brothels, sexual identity in the early modern period, sexual violence and pedagogy, early modern prison writing, masculinity in film, Shakespeare on the radio, and digital approaches to teaching medieval and early modern literature. You can follow Andrew on twitter @Andrew__Bretz and take a look at his YouTube channel or his blog on teaching the early modern period, The Scholemaster.
Over the course of the 1400s and 1500s, the English attitude towards prostitution and the ways by which prostitution was regulated and policed changed radically. The increasingly reactionary attitude towards sex work in this period moved from a policy of regulation and containment to one of abolition and punishment. This policy reorientation culminated in the royal proclamation of April 13, 1546 that outlawed the sex trade entirely—a trade that had been, up to that point, at least nominally tolerated.
As Ruth Mazo Karras notes in Common Women, prior to 1500, England had at least three jurisdictions where brothels were officially sanctioned or otherwise institutionalized: Sandwich in Kent, Southampton in Hampshire, and Southwark in London (35). Toleration of prostitution in other municipalities (e.g. Hull) may have existed, but no other officially sanctioned stews have been found. The antiquity of the Southwark brothels goes back to Roman times, but the official sanction of those brothels has been traced to a late fifteenth century manuscript that claimed to go back to a Code of Customs or Customary enacted by the Commons in Parliament in 1162, under Henry II. Neither the House of Commons nor Parliament existed in 1162, so the authenticity of this, the earliest known manuscript of the Code of Customs (Post 418-28), is questionable. Karras recognises the possibility that this is a corruption of an older document, or an attempt to legitimate long standing tradition by appealing to the authority of Parliament (37). Though regulated, these stews were a source of contention throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the citizens of Southwark complained to Parliament against the stews in 1390, 1417, 1433 and 1436. The regulations developed in this period served to distinguish between sex trade workers and other women, brothels and other households.
The brothel holder in the Customary is called a “gret householder” (A2-3, 5-6); yet the rules delineate visual distinctions between the brothel and other legitimate households. Under these rules, prostitutes were not allowed to live or board in the brothels (B1, A2, B10), nor were they allowed to occupy the brothels, or even the liberty, after nightfall (B11, A3, B15, B16). Prostitutes were allowed to wear almost whatever they wanted under the code of custom, so long as they did not wear an apron (B28). As Karras notes, this provision seems unusual, and was possibly intended to prevent prostitutes from “signifying their employment in the stews by wearing a mockery of the bishops robes” (157). Though this is certainly a possibility, an apron was a sign of occupation and labour, thus the regulation acted to distinguish the sex trade workers, many of whom were from the artisan and craftsman class, from other women of that group. It is also possible that, given literary evidence (Salgado 24-5) and evidence from the Southampton brothels, prostitutes in Southwark may have been made to wear a striped hood from at least 1352 (SCRO, SC5/3/1, fols. 13v, 16v, 36r, qtd. in Karras 37, Stow 436) that further distinguished them from “honest” women. The prostitute was not allowed to spin or card for the brothel holder under the regulations, further distancing the sex trade worker from the socio-economic group from which they came (B13). The brothel holder was prevented from selling food, drink or other goods within the house (B29). Though not stated in the Customary, the decree of 1546 that closed the Bankside stews states that the walls of the officially sanctioned brothels were whitewashed and those walls bore revealing signs, specifically distinguishing the brothel from an ordinary (or public house) or the household of an artisan. As John Stow states in his 1598 Survey of London:
These allowed stewhouses had signes on their frontes, towardes the Thames, not hanged out, but painted on the walles, as a Beares heade, the Crosse Keyes, the Gunne, the Castle, the Crane, the Cardinals Hatte, the Bell, the Swanne, &c. I haue heard auncient men of good credit report, that these single women were forbidden the rightes of the Church, so long as they continued that sinfull life, and were excluded from Christian buriall, if they were not reconciled before their death. (EEBO)
The signs by which the houses were known were rife with double entendres (Salgado 38; Kelly 356). The Boar’s Head, the Cross Keys and the Cardinal’s Hat were all well known brothels and acted as complex signifiers pointing both to the nominal ownership of the brothels by the Bishop of Winchester, whose arms were crossed keys, and the sex acts carried on inside the brothels, as the stylized mitre and the boar’s head alluded to an erect penis.
The licensed brothels in Southwark changed names, owners and sometimes even location throughout the late medieval period, but the licensed brothels at the end of the fifteenth century can be ascertained from, among other places, the Bishop of Winchester’s Pipe Roll of 1505-06. The majority of the brothels have some form of sexual double entendre implicit in their names. The brothels, and the variations on their spelling found in other legal records, are:
●le Castell-uppon-the-Hoope (The Castle)
●le Gonne (The Gun)
●le Antylopp (The Antilope, The Antelope)
●le Swanne (The Swan)
●le Bulhede (The Bull Head, The Bull)
●le Herte (The Hart)
●le Olyfaunt (The Oliphant, The Elephant)
●ad Leonem (At the Lion, The Lyon, The Lion and Ram)
●le Hertished (The Hartshead, The Hartyshorne)
●le Beere (The Bear, perhaps The Beer[house])
●le Rose (The Rose)
●le Barge (The Barge)
●le Belle (The Bell, The Bell Inn)
●le Vnycorne (The Unycorne, The Unicorn)
●le Boreshed (The Boar’s Head, The Boar)
●le Cross Keyes (The Crossed Keys)
●le fflower delyce (The Flower de Luce, The Fleur de Lys)
●le Cardinalshatte (The Cardynall Hatt, The Cardinal’s Hat, The Cardinal’s Cap) (Burford 108)
The visually identifiable Southwark stews and the sex trade workers who were employed there were the subject of periodic raids, riots and legal actions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and were the foci of criminal activity throughout the period. Despite localized attempts to restrict the sex trade, the brothel system survived and thrived into the beginning of the 1500s. At least as far back as 1417, however, the stews were ordered closed by the government, but they had reopened by 1428 (Kelly 362) and periodic intervention appears to have had little long term effect on the brothel system. There was “no mass closing and reopening” in the early 1500s (Kelly 369). Rather, as can be gathered from examination of the accounts of individual brothels’ assize rents and Customary fees, brothels closed and reopened on an individual basis, responding to favourable or adverse market conditions. Through the period, the brothel system as a whole remained strong while individual brothels may have had poor periods.
The early decades of the sixteenth century did see increasingly frequent government intervention in the Southwark sex trade. Burford notes in Bawds and Lodgings that in 1513, Henry VIII decreed that brothel-keepers and prostitutes were to be branded on the face for “whoredom with his soldiers” (120), though as Standish Henning points out, there is no evidence this was actually common practice (88). In 1519, a general sweep of London and its suburbs for “idle, vagrant and suspicious persons” resulted in the arrest of over one hundred such persons from the stews of Southwark alone, including: John Williams, footman to the king (Carlin 224); Will Borage, Yeoman of the King’s Guard; David Glynne, “Scholer and King’s Servant” (Burford 121). In 1522 or 1523, in “Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?” John Skelton notes that a brothel at the sign of the Cardinal’s Hat was closed and all the prostitutes driven out:
What newes? What news?
Small newes that true is
That be worth two kues.
But at the naked stewes
I understande how that
The Sygne of the Cardynall Hat,
That inne, is now shyt up,
With “Gup, hore, gup, now gup!” (34)
This slow movement against the sex trade, which Karras notes was a part of a pan-European movement to govern male sexuality, culminated in the 1546 decree closing down the stews altogether.
The proclamation of April 13, 1546 that eliminated the sex trade altogether represented a shift in the approach to the London stews on the part of the state. Though the stews had been temporarily closed by royal decree or public outcry prior to 1546, at no other time had such regulations stuck. The regulated economic system of the sex trade in the late medieval period and early sixteenth century, which showed at the very least an institutional vitality, was decried by mid-century humanist and protestant thinkers who saw it as an extension of sinful idleness. These thinkers, inheriting a humanist ethics of the body from Vives and More positioned the sex trade within a politico-medical discourse that necessitated its elimination for the good of the state.
Burford, E. J. ---. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London: Peter Owen, 1976.
Carlin, Martha. Medieval Southwark. London: Hambledon & London, 2006.
Henning, Standish. “Branding Harlots on the Brow.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 51.1. (Spring 2000): 86-9.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Kelly, Henry Angsar. “Bishop, Prioress and Bawd in the Stews of Southwark.” Speculum. 75.2 (April 2000): 342-388.
Post, J. B. “A Fifteenth-Century Customary of the Southwark Stews.” Journal of the Society of Archivists. 1977.
Salgado, Gamini. The Elizabethan Underworld. Sparkford, UK: Sutton, 2005.
Skelton, John. “Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?” The Poetical Works of John Skelton with Notes. Ed. Rev. Alexander Dyce. Vol. 2. New York: AMS Press, 1965.
Stow, John. A suruay of London Contayning the originall, antiquity, increase, moderne estate, and description of that citie, written in the yeare 1598. London, 1598. EEBO. University of Calgary Library, 18 November, 2006. <http://eebo.chadwyk.com>