Sex, (almost) in the city: Southwark – a constituency of contrasts

Continuing our collaborative local history blog series, this month we are exploring the constituency of Southwark. In the first of two blogs, today Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, discusses the diverse nature of the constituency’s medieval residents.

In the present day, Borough Market, served by Borough Station on the London Underground’s Northern Line, is a much loved destination for the food shopping of the inhabitants of and visitors to the capital. Few, however, may give much thought to which of the many London boroughs of the twenty-first century has given the market its name.

Indeed, for many centuries, the borough of Southwark, far from being loved by London’s ruling elites, represented a commercial and jurisdictional thorn in the side of the civic authorities. The settlement owed its very existence to the foot of London Bridge, the easternmost crossing over the river Thames, and in the pre-modern period the only one east of Kingston upon Thames. Even in the Anglo-Saxon period, Southwark had played its part in the defence of the access route into London, and by the later middle ages, the bridge, heavily built up with houses and shops, was defended by a fortified gateway.

The borough’s population was notably diverse. At the upper end of the social scale, a number of ecclesiastical lords, foremost among them the bishops of Winchester, maintained residences there. On the other hand, Southwark’s independence of the stringent regulatory framework of the city of London meant that it attracted numerous craftsmen and merchants who wished to ply their trades unencumbered by the oversight of the city’s companies. It was thus that by the later middle ages Southwark contained a large immigrant community, alongside numerous native practitioners of crafts and trades deemed insalubrious by the citizens, such as butchers, and tanners. Finally, as the gateway to London, Southwark contained numerous inns and hostelries in which visitors to the capital might stay, either before heading across the Bridge to transact their business in the capital, or before setting out on a journey further afield, as was indeed the case with the fictional pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whom the poet had assemble in Southwark’s Tabard, before setting out on their pilgrimage into Kent.

The Tabard Inn, Southwark, prior to its demolition in 1873. Image taken from Southwark: High Street, Old and New London, Volume 6 (1878)

Such factors, and perhaps above all the transient nature of a large proportion of the borough’s population, made Southwark repeatedly the scene of sudden and gratuitous outbursts of popular violence. Southwark’s immigrants were more than once the target of riots, and in 1381 and 1450 rebel armies seeking to gain access to London Bridge looted shops and broke open the borough’s prisons.

Moreover, the regulation of Southwark life was hampered by the rival jurisdictions and liberties enjoyed there by a number of powerful lords. In the King’s ‘Gildable manor’ the enforcement of law and order fell within the purview of the sheriff of Surrey, until in 1406 Henry IV granted sweeping powers to the mayor and aldermen of London. Royal sheriff and city authorities alike were, however, powerless to override the competing privileges of the archbishops of Canterbury, priors of Bermondsey, and – above all – bishops of Winchester. The latter’s liberty of the Clink acquired particular notoriety, as it was home to the brothel district of the Stews. This was frequently the subject of indignant petitions in Parliament. Thus, in 1433 the Commons heard how

some people who have dwelled in the Stews in Southwark have suddenly become rich and purchased lands of great yearly value, … and many murderers and thieves have gone unpunished, and the said suspect people frequent common hostelries and taverns in the high street of Southwark where they receive the same common women and other evildoers as they did at the Stews…’

The problem with prostitution spilling from the Stews into other parts of Southwark, where it was technically illegal nevertheless remained, and in June 1460 a royal commission headed by the bishop of Winchester’s bailiff was appointed to remove prostitutes from all other areas of Southwark. Its success was limited, and prostitution was still a major cause of crime and disorder well into the sixteenth century.

But the Londoners’ concerns did not end with public morality. Rather, the existence of a community of traders and craftsmen only incompletely overseen by the city’s companies posed a direct commercial challenge to London’s merchants and artisans. In spite of the powers of search accorded to the Londoners in Southwark in the 15th century, the men dwelling around the bridge foot regularly found ways of circumventing their powerful neighbours’ controls. At least one Southwark baker was found using the trade-mark of a prominent London baker on his bread, instead of his own, and in other instances Londoners themselves colluded in fraudulent practises. In 1456 a citizen was caught selling a girdle which he had bought across the river in Southwark; while an enterprising London saddler put his apprentice to work in Southwark making the saddle-bows which would then be turned into saddles in his own workshop in the city.

London Bridge seen from Southwark. Taken from Claes Van Visscher, Panorama of London, 1616

In the light of the diverse composition of Southwark’s population, it is interesting to find the medieval borough’s parliamentary representation remarkably consistent. There is some suggestion that there was a degree of communal spirit in the preference of the borough electorate of the period for men who lived locally, even if these often had outside interests. Two groups in particular are discernible among the borough’s MPs in the late 14th and 15th centuries: London merchants and royal and lordly servants. The former were not citizens of the first rank – the aldermen of London did not demean themselves to sit as burgesses for Southwark. Nor, however, were they complete nobodies. John Mucking, a wealthy vintner who represented Southwark eight times between 1381 and 1416, was in 1388 chosen master of the London Vintners’ Company; John Deken, MP for Southwark in 1407, 1417, 1420 and 1421, had by the time of his second election served as one of the wardens of the Grocers’ company; Henry Purchase, MP for Southwark in 1427, who would hold the same office later in life; and John Welles, one of the borough’s MP in Apr. 1414,  1419 and 1431, was elected master of the same company a few months after the end of his final Parliament.

Among the latter group were men like William Bridges, the first receiver general of Henry VI’s foundation of King’s College, Cambridge, who represented Southwark in 1437 and 1453; the royal serjeant at arms William Phillip, who was elected in 1453, and the Chancery clerks William Godyng and John Pemberton, respectively returned for the borough in 1426 and 1450.

None of this meant that all the inhabitants of Southwark were uniformly satisfied with their representatives. One local malcontent was the carpenter John Stanley, who was so outraged by the decisions of the fractious Parliament of 1406 that even while that protracted assembly was still in session he was heard to rail publicly against the borough’s two MPs, Thomas Spencer and John Baker, calling them ‘the falsest men in the entire county of Surrey’, and claiming that they had lied about their social standing, and even their own names, claims which, it seems, were themselves little but fake news.

H.W.K.

Further reading:

‘The Borough of Southwark’, in The Victoria History of the county of Surrey IV, ed. H.E. Maiden (London, 1912), pp. 125-162

Martha Carlin, Medieval Southwark (London, 1996)

For find more local history blogs here.

Stay up to date with the Commons 1461-1504 research project through the ‘Commons in the Wars of the Roses‘ section of our blog.

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