The Roman emperor Augustus is reputed to have “found the City of Rome of brick and left it of marble. In a proclamation of 1615 James is quoted as saying: “We had found our city and suburbs of London of sticks and left them of brick, being a material far more durable, safe from fire and beautiful and magnificent”. It was far from the truth, as was later seen during the Great Fire several decades later. In reality wooden buildings were still being constructed off the main thoroughfares as well as in the marshy eastern suburbs where deep piles were needed. The narrow streets, largely unchanged since medieval times, were haphazard, ill-paved and ill-lit. Flood defences were inadequate, allowing flooding along the riverside. There was little effective refuse disposal. Dr. William Harvey of the Royal College of Physicians, who lived in London at that time, observed the “filth and offal scattered about and the sulphurous coal smoke whereby the air is at all times rendered heavy, but more so in the autumn”.
London was still little more than a large market town. Open fields could still be found within a short walk of London, Westminster or Southwark, such as at Islington, Finsbury Fields, Hoxton and Stepney, or St. George’s Fields to the south of Southwark.
The fastest way to travel around the London area or across the river was by water ferry. Samuel Pepys frequently describes in his diaries visits to Deptford, apparently taking less time to arrive than would be the case by road in modern times. Water travel around London was possible because of the large number of ferries and wherries, operated by an army of watermen. The lives of the watermen of Stuart times were celebrated in the writings of John Taylor and it was through his poetry and prose that he became their spokesman.
King James based himself at Whitehall and gave the palace at Greenwich to his wife. In 1616 she began the construction of a ‘House of Delights’ in the park, that became known as the ‘Queen’s House’. Designed by Inigo Jones it was the artist’s first important commission following his studies of Palladian classical architecture in Italy. The work on the house was still incomplete when Anne died in 1619, eventually restarted in 1629 by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and completed in 1635. Jones also designed the Queen’s Chapel at St. James’s Palace.
London continued to grow beyond its old city walls, initially with ribbon-developments along the major roads and then across the fields between the roads. The previously marshy area of Moorfields to the north of the City was laid out as a public park in 1606. In 1638 William Newton acquired land beside Lincoln’s Inn and received permission from King Charles to erect houses. This project continued to develop into what became Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The new street of Long Acre was laid out on land belonging to the Earl of Bedford.
When in the 1630s the Earl wished to develop the land known as Covent Garden behind his house he turned to Inigo Jones to create a planned estate of housing. By the standards of London at that time it was of a revolutionary style, with elegant, uniform façades. It was unusual in that, for the first time, middle class people lived side by side in terraced housing. It set a new standard that would be followed in London and other British cities during the following centuries. The church of St. Paul’s was included in the development, the first Anglican church to be built on a new site in England since the Reformation of the previous century.
Several places to the west of London gained their future names around that time. Robert Baker invested the money he had made manufacturing ‘picadil’ collars into a large hall to the north-west of the City and as the area developed it became known as Piccadilly. A large Jacobean house was built in Kensington for Sir William Cope, named Holland House when in the ownership of his daughter, later giving the area the name Holland Park. The Earl of Leicester built a small palace on fields north of Whitehall, the future Leicester Square.
The population of London and surrounding areas was rising rapidly. In the mid-16th century it was 80,000 but a hundred years later it had passed 300,000, the largest conurbation in Western Europe. By the early 17th century about a third of the population were living outside of the City, which, being highly regulated, had become more middle-class. It was however a dirty, smelly and unsanitary place where deaths exceeded births and any increase in numbers was due to arrivals from elsewhere. It was a town of extremes of wealth, with a large number of poor living alongside a small number of very prosperous people.