London homes in Shakespeare’s time



Thanks to decades of peace, English houses are no longer made for defence but for comfort. The newly rich may still build turrets, battlements and gatehouses but these are only for show or to make a new place look venerable, implying an ancient lineage for themselves. Many a country house still has a moat, though the fact that it seldom runs right around it should tell you that it is not to keep attackers at bay – or for you to water your horse in – but to keep fish for the kitchen.

Travelling towards London the visitor will note many of the better dwellings called ‘Abbey’ or ‘Priory’, being a former monastery made over into the residence of a gentleman. In London itself a few great houses are built of stone, if ancient or made of the fabric of some religious house now dissolved. But these are exceptional, there being no building stone within 40 miles of the city. Londoners favour houses built of frames of timber, filled in either with laths and daub of earth, dung and straw or with brick, locally baked, according to the wealth of the householder. The usual height runs to three storeys, though some are of four or even five, with upper floors thrusting further forward than the lower by 2 or 3 ft. This feature, a jetty, wins the householder more space in upper rooms, though at the expense of darkening the street outside.

Tudor's home 5

Oak, the most widely used building timber, is honoured particularly by the English as a symbol of their nation, being the strongest wood. During the reign of the present Queen the main changes in the homes of Londoners have been the building of staircases, instead of ladders, to reach upper rooms, the making of brick fireplaces and chimneys and the creation of indoor privies.

In London the home of almost every citizen has casements of glass, some showing their coat of arms in colours. Only the poorest dwellings, and low alehouses, still have windows of lattice, covered with oiled cloth or parchment. In the better houses rainwater from the roof collects in lead-lined tanks, being both softer for washing and less suspect in crowded London than water drawn from a well.

Tudor's home 1

The chambers of the wealthiest citizens’ houses have wooden panelling, called wainscot, and are often painted in red, white and green, the colours of Her Majesty. A few follow the Spanish fashion for moulded leather panelling, coloured gold and black, particularly useful where food may be cooked or served because, unlike textiles, it does not retain smells. The richest have tapestries. In most homes, however, the walls of the rooms seen by outsiders are decorated either with paintings actually on the plaster of the walls or with hanging cloths showing scenes from the Bible or the history and myths of the Greeks and Romans. The much favoured parable of the Prodigal Son features scenes of open hospitality, recalling to Londoners the wealth of the city; its depictions of poverty serve as a sobering reminder of the calloused beggar at the end of every street. Londoners also like the tale of Susannah and the Elders – nudity shown without fear of censure, the story being from the Old Testament.

Sutton House,Hackney

Floors are usually covered with mats of woven or plaited rushes. You will find these springy to walk on and, when new, give off a pleasant, fresh smell. You will know you are in the very wealthy home when you see Turkey carpets being used to cover tables, beds and chests. Chests have multiple uses – to store linen, bedding, books, clothes etc.  and to serve as extra seating or, in bedrooms, as stands for a looking-glass or a basin and ewer.

Be grateful if you have someone to make up your bed for you because it is a real chore. The English loathe draughts and believe good sleep essential for healthy living. As a result their best beds are like a miniature fortresses against the cold, with a rope frame, on top of which is a canvas sheet, a straw pallet, a feather mattress, good linen sheets, warm woollen blankets and finally a counterpane. A tester above and curtains around the bed complete the nocturnal defences. Some Londoners think it more vital to wear a night kerchief to keep their throat warm.

Tudor's home 6

Household guests will find themselves provided with towels, soap – usually home-made and all the better for it – and, to clean their teeth, a tooth soap and a strip of rough linen cloth. The notion of upholstered furniture is scarcely known outside the court, apart from plentiful cushions. Children and servants sit on benches and stools but in many homes the master now sits in a chair with arms.

In a well-run house a good wife will change the linen tablecloths and napkins twice a week. In the best houses a cupboard stands in the dinning-room to show off the family’s collection of silver. Bowls, platters and tankards may bear an engraved coat of arms, evidence of gentle status newly acquired. The owner doubtless experiences a quiet glow of pride every time he glances at it. His wife knows that engraved plate simply gathers grime more quickly and needs polishing more often.

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

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