The Elizabethan Underworld


16th Century woodcut of a beggar being whipped through the streets of Elizabethan England

Sometime after 1584 William Shakespeare packed his belongings and took the highway to London. And as a boy from the provinces he would have needed all his wits about him when he got there, for the metropolis had a thriving underworld of criminals intent on divesting the greenhorn newcomer of his purse, his horse, and even the very clothes on his back.

According to one contemporary account, there were no fewer than 23 categories of thieves and swindlers listed by the authorities. Aside from the regulation pickpockets and cutpurses, there were the confidence tricksters, known as ‘coney-catchers*’; the horse thieves, called ‘priggers of pransers’; the ‘anglers’, adept at removing clothing from washing lines with long poles; and the 'setters', thieves' accomplices in the fleecing of innocent travellers.


* The Conny-catchers, apparalled like honest ciull gentlemen, or good fellows, with a smooth face, as if butter would not melt in their mouthes, after dinner when the clients are come from Westminster hal and are at leisure to walke vp and downe Paules, Fleet-street, Holborne, the sttrond, and such common hanted places, where these cosning companions attend onely to spie out a praie: who as soone as they see a plaine cuntry felow well and cleanly apparelled, either in a coat of home spun russet, or of freeze, as the time requires, and a side pouch at his side, there is a connie, saith one. At that word out flies the Setter, and ouertaking the man, begins to salute him thus: Sir, God saue you, you are welcom to London, how doth all our good friends in the countrie, I hope they be all in health? The countrie man seeing a man so curteous he knoweth not, halfe in a browne studie at this strange salutation, perhaps makes him this aunswere....[Robert Greene: A Notable Discovery of Coosnage, 1591]

The greenhorn would also need to be wary of the professional beggars, some of whom posed as discharged sailors (whipjacks) or claimed to be deaf and dumb (drummers), or that they had lost all their worldly possessions in a fire (demanders for glimmer). And he should be alert, too, for honey traps in the shape of women known as ‘kinchin morts’, who enticed the victim down a dark alley where her accomplice lay in waiting.

The law divided crime into three levels of rising severity - misdemeanours, such as libel and perjury; felony, including rape, murder, witchcraft and theft; and treason, divided into high-treason and petty-treason, and including counterfeiting the coin of the realm. Punishments could range from fines to floggings for a misdemeanour, death by hanging for a felony, and death by beheading, and possible drawing and quartering, for treason.

Yet despite everything it seems in practice that the streets of Elizabethan London would have been relatively safe for the newly arrived man from Stratford. And indeed the contrary may have been the case, for on one occasion, in 1596, one William Waite petitioned for sureties of the peace 'for fear of death' against Shakespeare himself! But that's another story...

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