Thursday, 2 February 2012

Shakespeare's London: The Liberty of the Clink and Paris Garden

In the time of Shakespeare, pleasure-seeking Londoners headed south across the river to Southwark in the county of Surrey, an entertainment area that offered animal bating, stews (brothels) and plays. Shakespeare's own company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, relocated there in 1599, rebuilding its theatre in the area known as the Liberty of the Clink. By 1600, Shakespeare, too, had taken up residence in the borough.

Connecting London to Southwark was the one bridge, called, appropriately, London Bridge. It was nearly 350 yards long, with shops and stalls and houses of great splendour, and had a passage about twelve feet wide for the traffic of animals, carts and people to move along. At the London end was a water wheel which pumped river water through lead pipes to houses in the City. Over the gates at either end of the bridge the severed heads of traitors disloyal to the crown were displayed, a grisly warning to any like-minded sympathisers.

About half the bridge's breadth was composed of massive piers, which caused the tide to bank up, and for the water to rush in a torrential flow through the arches. Navigating a small boat through the arches, known as 'shooting the bridge', was a very risky manoeuvre, and therefore a challenging attraction for gallants eager to impress.

A contemporary commentator, Fynes Moryson, rated the bridge 'worthily to be numbered among the miracles of the world'. But for the watermen of the Thames, whose livelihood was to ferry people across the river, it was, in the words of Thomas Overbury, 'the most terrible eyesore'. The watermen made up about one third of the population of the liberty of the Clink, and ferrying Londoners to their chosen entertainment was a major part of their income.

The liberty got its name from the Clink prison, one of five in the borough, the others being the Compter (or Counter, in which debtors were jailed), the King's Bench, the Marshalsea, and the White Lion, an inn which had been converted to use as a prison. High levels of crime kept Southwark's sixteen constables fully occupied, though one hopes they proved more effective than Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Having crossed the bridge, the entertainments lay westwards, on the other side of Long Southwark, now called Borough High Street.

Aernout van Buchel's copy of a
drawing of the Swan playhouse
by his friend Johannes de Witt
There were three open-air-amphitheatre playhouses to choose from - the Rose, the Swan and the Globe. The Rose, owned by theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe in partnership with one John Cholmley, was the first to be built (1587), and also the smallest. The next built was the Swan (1595), and was clearly intended by its owner Francis Langley as direct competition with the Rose. A contemporary copy of a drawing of the theatre has survived. The Globe was the last to be erected (1599). Later, in 1614, the first combined playhouse and animal bating ring, named the Hope, was opened by Philip Henslowe, by then joint Keeper of the King's Bears with Edward Alleyn, the famous actor.

One further attraction was the notorious Paris Garden, it's name possibly a corruption of Parish Garden. Formerly a manor house and enclosed by a moat, its trees, bushes and fish ponds belied its trade as an exclusive brothel, where good food, drink and whores hand-picked by its lease holder, Dame Britannica Holland, were available at very high prices. Paris Garden had a further attraction as an animal bating arena.

Around c. 1602-1604 Shakespeare moved back across the river to his most documented lodging in Silver Street in Cripplegate Ward, near the parish church of St. Olave.

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