The first purpose-built hospital in the London area was founded by Henry VIII on the site of the former Savoy Palace. The care of the sick by monasteries ended with their dissolution but St.Bartholomew’s and St.Thomas’s re-opened under the management of the City of London, and Bethlehem Hospital for the insane by Bridewell Prison.
London continued to be regularly afflicted by plagues throughout the 16th century. From 1485 until 1551 Britain suffered from an epidemic known as the ‘sweating sickness’ in which thousands of Londoners died. Between 1558 and 1582 plaques arrived in London every four years on average. A contemporary historian reported twenty thousand dying in London in 1562. Following the death of Elizabeth in 1603 the coronation of James I was delayed due to a plague.
Almost all food was purchased daily from markets that snaked through many of London’s streets. Most of them had been established during the previous centuries but grew during the Tudor period. St.Bartholomew’s fair at Smithfield had evolved from one selling cloth into the largest general entertainment fair.
After the Duke of Somerset came to power as the protector of Edward VI he set about creating for himself a riverside palace beside the Strand. Somerset Palace was possibly the first in England in the Italian Renaissance style, with gardens stretching down to the river. The Duke’s rise and fall was so swift it is unlikely that the building was completed by the time of his execution in 1552.
The Duke was only one of a number of famous people who were executed within the Tower or on Tower Hill during the Tudor period. Others included Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Sir Thomas More, the Bishop of Rochester, Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, Lady Jane Grey, Edward Campion, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex. Famous prisoners of the period included Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, who was imprisoned for a time by her half-sister Queen Mary.
The early death of Edward VI in 1553 resulted in a power-struggle, with Mary, Edward’s older sister, seizing the throne and the execution at the Tower of her Protestant rival Lady Jane Grey. Mary only lived another five years but during that time the country lurched back to Catholicism. The Pope’s English representative, Reginald Pole, insisted that any religious leader who was not loyal to the pontiff should be tried and executed. The directive was implemented by the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, and a number were burnt at the stake outside the city wall at Smithfield.
We can gain some insight into the everyday Tudor life through two contemporary accounts written by men living in London during that period. The earliest of these is from John Machyn who kept a diary between 1550 and 1563, the turbulent period of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Queen Mary and the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. He talks of the changes of monarchs, insurrections, state visits, festivities, executions, punishments and – his specialist subject – funerals. One of the best descriptions of Tudor London was left by the contemporary historian John Stow. He published A Survey of London in 1598 when he was over seventy years old in which he describes the many topographical changes that had taken place during his life.