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Sex, brothels and prostitution…

If you had ‘goose bumps’ in the 16th century it did not mean you had little bumps appearing on your arms because you were cold. Having ‘goose bumps’ was Elizabethan slang for having venereal disease. There were thousands of prostitutes or doxies as they were known, in Norwich, Exeter, York, London and elsewhere. In fact there were far more prostitutes in Elizabethan London than there are now in modern-day Birmingham or any other large British town in 2016. The most notorious stews, trugginghouses or brothels were in Southwark on the south side of the river Thames.

The prostitutes of Southwark were known as ‘Winchester geese’ because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester within the precincts of the Clink prison. In other words they worked outside the city limits. Henry VIII did his utmost to close them down in 1546 in an attempt to stop the spread of syphilis but his son Edward VI opened a small amount again after his father’s death.


The whorehouses had names such as: The cardinal’s hat, the crane and the swan. Southwark was not the only area used for prostitution. Ave Maria Alley near Saint Paul’s Cathedral was a popular area as was Petticoat lane and Shoreditch. Some women worked alone calling on their regular clients in their own homes. Others picked up clients in taverns and others hung around churches and cathedrals to trade their wares.

Playhouses and theatres were a popular entertainment in Southwark, the most famous being the Globe and the Rose theatres where Christopher Marlow and William Shakespeare put on their plays. The closeness of the stews to the theatres is probably one of the reasons why acting has often been considered as not being a respectable profession throughout much of English history. Shakespeare’s plays are full of sexual innuendos which are not easily understood today because the English language has changed so much over the years.

The more the Henry VIII tried to shut down the stews the more seemed to appear. The lack of help for the poor which rose dramatically after the reformation could not have helped. As the Catholic monasteries and Abbeys were closed and their valuables and land sold to the elite for profit, the poor and destitute often had nowhere to turn but to prostitution. The monks and nuns who had devoted their lives to giving alms to the poor, feeding the hungry and nursing the sick were also made homeless.

A Catholic hospital.

The punishment for being a ‘bawd’ or pimp was the tumbrel. This was a form of public humiliation where the guilty party would be paraded around their home town or village in an open cart. This was also the punishment for fornicators, prostitutes, adulterers and people caught committing incest. You could also be locked up in Bridewell hospital for prostitution and vagrancy. Having an illegitimate child could be punished by whipping naked through the streets for both sexes.

There was no equality for women in 16th century law and it was unclear if a woman could even be held responsible for her own actions. This could be useful to a married woman who was caught committing a crime because she could simply say she was obeying her husband and be cleared. In such cases only the man would be punished.

A tumbrel

In a time when leeks, onions and artichokes were considered to be aphrodisiacs and a carrot could make a woman lustful contraception was not spoken of. It was a sin and so information is scarce. The most commonly used contraception was probably withdrawal at the moment of ejaculation or using a barrier method such as inserting a cloth soaked in vinegar, using beeswax as a plug or even using a lumps of wood. There was gossip that Elizabeth I used a sheep’s gut as an early form of condom.

Breastfeeding is a natural form of birth control and this is the reason why noble women employed wet nurses to feed their infants instead of doing it themselves. Women of high rank needed to be pregnant often because of the high infant mortality rate and the need for heirs. Childbirth  was dangerous even for the privileged and pampered wives of King Henry VIII  two of whom died in childbed. (Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr who survived her infamous husband only to die bearing a daughter during her brief marriage to Thomas Seymour who was left a widower.)

Many dangerous abortions were performed, sometimes using herbs and plants which were thought to kill an unborn baby. Whether they worked or not is unknown but sadly many babies bodies have been found in the Crossbones graveyard: See slide show below:

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The Tudors buried ‘single women’, a euphemism for prostitutes, in a grave site which is now known as ‘Cross Bones’ It was not just prostitutes but also the poor who were buried in this unconsecrated land.

Cross Bones is very close to London Bridge and was until recently closed to the public for many years. There are roughly 15,000 people buried there and now there is a memorial garden. The gates have been decorated with ribbons, flowers and other tokens by passers-by and local people for many years who remember and honour London’s forgotten dead.




I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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