In brief – Early-Stuart London

The procession of Marie de Medici, widow of the late King Henry IV of France, passes the Eleanor Cross and the Standard in Cheapside, 1638. By that stage in Marie’s life the once powerful Queen of France was living in exile and came to England seeking refuge, which she was granted by King Charles I and her daughter Queen Henrietta Maria. The illustration is from the book ‘Histoire de l’Entrée de la Reyne Mère du Roy tres-chrestien dans la Grande-Bretagne’ by Jean Puget de la Serre, which recounts Marie’s travels.

The great majority of boys gained vocational education beyond primary school through apprenticeships, during which they learnt whatever they required to carry out their trade. A select few gained higher education at grammar schools, which were increasingly established from the 16th century. New colleges were being founded at Oxford and Cambridge with around 1,200 men admitted to university each year by 1630, many of whom finished their education with a year of legal studies at the Inns of Court in London.

London may have lacked the sophistication of Paris and some northern Italian towns, or the inventiveness of the Dutch, but its economy – as well as much of England’s – was relatively strong during the early 17th century. London was the country’s major place of manufacturing, enjoying a monopoly or near exclusiveness in many trades, especially of more specialist or luxurious products.

On the whole though, by contrast, medical science remained little more than quack theory and superstition during the early 17th century. The principle cause of death by illness was tuberculosis (or ‘consumption’) of which over 40,000 people died each year in London, the cause of which was not then known. According to the Bills of Mortality, which recorded deaths, as few as 16,000 people died of old age per year.

The performance of plays continued to be popular with all classes of people in London and several new theatres were opened in the first decades of the 17th century. Shakespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men, bought a fully-enclosed playhouse at Blackfriars, which they found more suitable for all-year round performances than the Globe at Southwark. The playwright Ben Jonson reached the peak of his career in the early part of the century. The greatest actor of his generation was Edward Alleyn who became a wealthy impresario.

By the end of the 17th century almost everyone craved the latest fashions to the extent of their budget, and even servants and traders could be seen wearing expensively-made clothes. The lower classes followed the fashions of the wealthy and as the wealthy saw their servants and suppliers wearing the same styles they looked for something new. Thus, fashion moved on at a rapid pace, fuelled by skills in silk-weaving and embroidery that the newly-arrived Huguenots brought with them from France.

Crime continued to rise in London throughout the centuries. In 1612 the wealthy mercer Sir Baptist Hicks built the first magistrates court for Middlesex at St. John Street, Clerkenwell. In 1617 a new form of punishment was introduced that was to save thousands from execution in the following centuries when King James approved a law whereby prisoners were to be “reprieved for Virginia”. Transportation to the new English colonies in North America or the Caribbean would henceforth apply to all felons except those convicted of murder, witchcraft, rape or burglary.

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