While watching the Tudors, one thing I noticed was that most male first names were either Thomas, Charles or Edward. Is that historically accurate and if so, is there a reason behind this lack of name variety? (Like a religious reason for instance)
I'm not familiar with the television series you're referring to, but it is generally good advice not to take too much from watching TV.
There was plenty of variance in names across the country; plenty of people were called George, William, Robert, Norman, Christopher, Andrew, Luke, John, James, Oliver, Henry etc.
However, there was a certain tendency to keep only a small variance within one family; sons named after fathers and grandfathers. So if you're Thomas, your first son would also be Thomas, and your second might be Richard. Their sons would be Thomas and Richard (from Thomas), and perhaps Richard and Thomas (from Richard). If the show is about one or two families, this would be reasonable.
England at the time had a fairly widespread system of parish registers, which recorded the christenings, marriages and burials of many people, although it was a bit patchy at first. You can search a good selection of the records at the website www.famlysearch.org.
I've just done that and seen that the frequency of first names from births from 1485 to 1603 as listed below. The simple answer to your question is no, Charles and Edward in particular were fairly uncommon although Thomas was popular. Other popular names included John and William. Feel free to try out more names and edit this answer to add them in!
All males - 1,070,420 - https://familysearch.org/search/records/index#count=20&query=%2Bbirth_year%3A1485-1603%7E&birth_place1=8%2CEngland&gender=M
Thomas: 128,129 - https://familysearch.org/search/records/index#count=20&query=%2Bgivenname%3AThomas%20%2Bbirth_year%3A1485-1603%7E&birth_place1=8%2CEngland
Note Charles was only really introduced to England after the Stuart kings started to rule in the 1600s.
George - 24,455
Richard - 54,803
William - 65,587
Robert - 37,590
Norman - 5
Christopher - 5,607
Andrew - 2,143
Luke - 563
John - 178,778
James - 18,206
Oliver - 814
Henry - 20,161
EnglandRenaissance Period: c 1400 - 1600 A.D.
In England, some consider the Renaissance to have covered the reigns of Henry VII (1485 - 1509), Henry VIII (1509 - 1547), Edward VI (1547 - 1553), Mary I (1553 - 1558), Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603), James I (1603 - 1625), and Charles I (1625 - 1649). The Renaissance came to an end with the execution of Charles I. (2)
Dates in this period can vary because 10 days were dropped from the calendar after 1582 to make the church holidays occur in the proper seasons. Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, and the Roman Catholic German states adopted the "New Style" dates in 1583. England used the "Old Style" Julian Calendar until 1752. In England, the new year began on Lady Day on March 25. (2)
To get a quick sense of what the most common English names were in Tudor England, I went through the index of New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485 - 1603 and counted names. This method only gives a rough sense of what is popular because the count will favor names used by kings. The names are mostly English names but there were some Scottish and Anglo-Irish nobles mentioned. I may have inadvertenly counted a few Continental names as well. I may also have double counted some names because of "see also" references. But the count gives a rough idea of what names were common in England during the period.
Of the women's names, Elizabeth was the most popular with 12 examples. Anne had 8 examples, Mary 7, and Catherine/Katherine had 6. Margaret and Jane were tied with 5 examples each. Frances and Penelope each had 2 examples in the index. Each of the following had one mention each in the index: Alice, Amy, Charity, Eleanor, Ellen, Florence, Gertrude, Joan, Lettice (Leticia?), Mabel, Sabine, Susan, and Thomasine. (1)
Origins of the Tudors
The history of the Tudors can be traced back to the thirteenth century, but their rise to prominence began in the fifteenth. Owen Tudor, a Welsh landowner, fought in the armies of King Henry V of England. When Henry died, Owen married the widow, Catherine of Valois, and then fought in the service of her son, Henry VI. At this time, England became divided by a struggle for the English throne between two dynasties, Lancastrian and York, called The Wars of the Roses. Owen was one of Henry VI’s Lancastrians after the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, a Yorkist victory, Owen was executed.
2. Ann Hathaway’s Cottage
This picturesque cottage in the leafy village of Shottery, Warwickshire is where William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, lived as child. It is a twelve roomed farmhouse set in extensive gardens.
The cottage was known as Newlands Farm in Shakespeare’s day and had more than 90 acres of land attached to it. Its exposed timber frame and thatched roof is typical of the Tudor style of architecture for a village cottage.
The Tudors remain among the most instantly recognisable of England’s monarchs. There is no mistaking Henry VIII in the great Holbein portrait of which so many copies survive. The pose, careful and artful though it is, certainly does not belie the reality of a powerful man, physically and mentally confident beyond the threshold of arrogance. You can see the athletic strut that we know so well today in the champion sprinter who feels he is at his peak.
And is there anyone out there who wouldn’t recognise Elizabeth’s equally carefully cultivated image? She prided herself on beauty rather than physique, and in particular upon that resemblance to her father which struck all those who knew her in her youth and maturity. So what if the image had to be maintained in old age through an increasingly unreal mixture of make-up and flattery?
Henry and Elizabeth, at least, had ‘iconic status’ in every sense of the words. The age of print and Renaissance portraiture gave them huge advantages over the kings of earlier centuries, but they were the first English monarchs to take such pains over their public image, and it is a tribute to the success of the Tudor image-makers — painters and miniaturists, musicians and poets — that even in today’s image-soaked consumer culture, the Tudor brand still commands such widespread and lasting recognition in the market.
Not all the Tudors are as well-known as Henry and Elizabeth. Mary I’s image was fixed for her more by the posthumous impact of the burnings of Protestants in her short reign. She is remembered more for her victims than for herself. It was the graphic images of men and women at the stake in Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ (or Acts and Monuments, to give it its proper title) which made their mark on the English imagination. And although Foxe himself tended to put the blame on her bishops rather than on Mary herself (few Tudor writers cared to print direct criticism even of dead monarchs, preferring instead to blame ‘evil counsellors’ for the crimes and vices of kings), it is Mary who has shouldered the responsibility in popular tradition, under the label of ‘Bloody Mary’. It is in fact clear that she stood squarely behind the religious violence for which her reign is famous.
Yet ‘Bloody Mary’ is hardly fair. Except perhaps in the individual case of Thomas Cranmer, there was nothing vindictive or temperamentally cruel about her. (Cranmer had divorced her mother, proclaimed her a bastard, and abolished the Roman Catholic Mass to which she was so devoted: so she denied him the pardon which was customarily granted in England in the case of ‘first time offender’s to heretics who agreed to renounce their heresy). Mary’s policy was simply, if implacably, to implement the traditional penalty for obstinate religious dissent: burning at the stake. It is hard for the modern mind, schooled in the concepts of human rights, to appreciate that in the sixteenth century you did not have to be a twisted psychopath to believe that fines, imprisonment, corporal punishment, and even the death penalty were justified in the interest of establishing and maintaining the religious unity of society.
None of this is to minimise the terrible human cost of Mary’s policy. The figure of some 300 Protestants burned in the four years from the reinstatement of the death penalty early in 1555 to Mary’s death late in 1558 makes this one of the most ferocious persecutions in all sixteenth-century Europe. Even so, Mary’s sister Elizabeth presided over atrocities still more ferocious. After a damp squib of a Catholic rebellion launched against her in autumn 1569, Elizabeth sanctioned vicious reprisals in the far north of England. Only a handful of men had been killed in the rebellion, yet estimates of the numbers executed in Durham and North Yorkshire in three weeks of January 1570 range from a minimum of 450 to as many as 900 (the true figure probably lies between 600 and 700). Not to mention the thousands of men, women, and children butchered by her officers and troops in Ireland.
Edward VI and Henry VII are the least recognisable of the five Tudor monarchs. Edward’s short reign, terminated by his premature death a few months before his sixteenth birthday, scarcely left time for the bequeathing of a striking public image or the stamping of a distinctive personality on posterity, even if the reign itself served as the cradle for English Protestantism.
Henry VII remains a shadowy figure, a ghost in the Tudor background as in Holbein’s sketch for a dynastic portrait at Whitehall Palace, where his better known son, Henry VIII, dominates the foreground. Francis Bacon’s famous Life of Henry VII has deepened the impression of greyness which hangs about him — unfairly, as it happens. Bacon’s grey portrait was designed not so much to tell us about Henry VII as to criticise the extravagant lifestyle of the first Stuart King of England, James I.
Henry VII himself lived well and spent freely, though little remains to show this beyond the account books which he audited so closely. His fantasy palaces at Greenwich and Richmond, which set the scene for so many crucial events of Tudor history (from the birth of Henry VIII in 1491 to the death of Elizabeth in 1603), have long since crumbled away, surviving only in sketches. Much of his legacy was too Catholic to survive the English Reformation implemented by his descendants. The gilded statues of himself which he left to several English shrines were melted down by his son, and the brilliant stained glass in his chapel at the back of Westminster Abbey was smashed by iconoclasts.
In one important respect, however, the Tudor image does belie the Tudor reality. The Tudors liked good things, and many of those things can still be inspected and admired in England’s museums, art galleries, and stately homes. But what we get is not entirely what we see. The image is splendour and finery. The reality, all too often, was suspicion and fear. The dynasty began and ended in uncertainty and insecurity. Henry VII was a usurper, a small-time adventurer who got lucky. After clutching the crown in 1485 he spent the rest of his reign clinging to it anxiously, worried that some other adventurer would get lucky as he had done. Elizabeth, for all her virtues, left the vital question of the succession unresolved throughout nearly 45 years on the throne, to the despair of her counsellors. Even on her deathbed she refused to discuss the issue.
In between, Henry VIII turned the Church of England upside-down in his own anxiety to secure a male heir, and spent the rest of his reign in fear of foreign invasion or disloyalty at home. Edward VI and Mary batted religion to and fro like a shuttlecock, fearing Catholic conspiracies or Protestant plots. And Elizabeth lived much of her reign in fear of her Catholic cousin and rival, Mary Queen of Scots, and the rest of it dealing with Spanish threats and Irish insurgency. It was not for nothing that Shakespeare wrote, ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’.
2nd & 4th article images © Tempus
Richard Rex is Director of Studies in History at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His book, The Tudors, is published by Tempus.
Tudor Coins and Currency
In total there were sixteen types of coins in circulation, many of which dropped out of use centuries ago. For example Tudor currency of the time included a Groat (4d), a Half Crown (30d/2s 6d), an Angel (120d/10s) and a Fine Sovereign (360d/30s/£1 10s).
It is doubtful if many of the population ever got to see a fine sovereign in their life time. The smallest coin of Tudor currency was the Farthing (¼ penny), there was also a Threefarthing (¾ penny) as well as a Half Groat (2d) and a Crown (60d/5s).
Theatres in Tudor England
The growth of theatres in Tudor England, and especially in the reign of Elizabeth, is very much associated with this era. Along with sports and pastimes, theatres provided the workers with some form of break from work. Plays, as we would recognise them, first started in the Middle Ages when priests would use their services to put on a play to show a story from the Bible. Most people could not read or write then, so the only knowledge they could get from the Bible came from these plays as before the Reformation, all church services were in Latin which few could understand.
This later developed into small groups of actors touring around the country putting on ‘teaching’ plays which all had a morality as their basis. Plays called “Jealousy”, “Greed” and “Faith” were common. Plays about Robin Hood were also popular.
However, the government was not happy with the popularity of plays on Robin Hood as they did not approve of the message they spread. In 1572, in the reign of Elizabeth, strolling actors were banned. Another fear about strolling actors was that they might spread the plague throughout the land. Elizabeth gave permission for four noblemen to start their own theatre companies and employ actors.
Bishop Latimer in 1549.
Others also preached at the negative aspects of plays:
|“The blast of the trumpet will call a thousand people to see a filthy play. An hour’s tolling of a bell would only bring a hundred people to a sermon.” John Stockwood preaching in 1578|
By the time of the Tudors, people wanted to see plays for entertainments sake as opposed to being given a message about correct behaviour. These plays were originally performed in the yards of large inns and the first real theatre as would be recognised by us was built in Elizabeth’s time in 1577 by the Earl of Leicester. This theatre was a great success and more were quickly built. By 1595, 15,000 people a week attended plays in London. The writing of plays became a serious business and many young men desired to be an actor.
The new theatres of Elizabeth’s time, were built around the design of a bear-garden which allowed everybody a view of what was going on. The most expensive seats – for the rich only – were actually on the stage itself. The nest most expensive seats were in covered galleries which ran around the theatre. This allowed people to watch the play but kept them out of the worst of the weather as most theatres had no roof. The cheapest places were in the so-called pit. People would pay about a penny to see the play and they stood for the duration of the play. Rowdy behaviour amongst the audience was common in the ‘pits’.
Plays were put on during the day as there was no satisfactory way to light a stage during the night. As London was mostly made of wood, any use of flames for lighting was forbidden. The stage also had no scenery – the disruption to the play would have been intolerable with scenery being moved onto and off the stage. Instead, one of the actors not in the scene being acted out would tell the audience what the scene looked like. For those who could read, a notice could also be carried across the stage explaining what the stage was meant to look like. Theatres also used to put curtains across certain parts of the stage to represent something such as a bedroom, cave or an inner backroom. Likewise, a balcony built into the stage might represent a balcony or a mountain top, the battlements of a castle or even Heaven.
The actors of the time – women were forbidden to act – usually wore their own everyday clothes for a play as costumes were expensive. Young boys played the part of women and they did need costumes but as much as was possible was done to keep costs down. Sometimes a simple crown was enough to inform an audience that somebody was a king.
The Tudors did enjoy violent plays – rather like their pastimes. At the end of a play, the stage was frequently littered with ‘dead’ characters and murder weapons.
The greatest and most famous playwright in the reign of Elizabeth was William Shakespeare.
|“Without question, the greatest playwright that ever lived…..was William Shakespeare. Almost 400 years after his death his plays are just as vital as when he lived.” Marion Geisinger|
Shakespeare’s first play, “Henry VI, was performed in 1592. Over the next 11 years, he wrote “Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “King Lear”, “Macbeth, The “Merchant of Venice” etc. His play “Richard III” was popular as it showed Richard III as a corrupt man – it also received approval from the Tudors – after all, it was Henry VII who had defeated Richard III in battle!
Medieval monasteries in England
Open a new browser window with a map of a medieval monastery.
Early monasteries originated in Egypt as places where wandering hermits gathered. These early "monks" lived alone, but met in a common chapel. By the fifth century, the monastic movement had spread to Ireland, where St. Patrick, the son of a Roman official, set out to convert the Irish to Christianity.
The Irish monks spread Christianity into Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. St. Ninian established a monastery at Whithorn in Scotland about 400 AD, and he was followed by St. Columba (Iona), and St. Aidan, who founded a monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria.
These Celtic monasteries were often built on isolated islands, as the lifestyle of the Celtic monks was one of solitary contemplation. There are no good remains of these early monasteries in Britain today.
The Benedictine Rule
The big change in this early monastic existence came with the establishment of the "Benedictine Rule" in about AD 529. The vision of St Benedict was a community of people living and working in prayer and isolation from the outside world. The Benedictine Rule was brought to the British Isles with St Augustine when he landed in Kent in AD 597.
The Different Orders
Over the next thousand years, a wide variety of orders of monks and nuns established communities throughout the British Isles.
These orders differed mainly in the details of their religious observation and how strictly they applied those rules. The major orders that established monastic settlements in Britain were the Benedictines, Cistercians, Cluniacs, Augustinians, Premonstratians, and the Carthusians.
The first buildings of a monastic settlement were built of wood, then gradually rebuilt in stone. The first priority for rebuilding in stone was the chancel of the church. This way of proceeding meant that the rest of the monastery was at risk of fire, which accounts for the fact that many of the monastic remains you can visit today are in the later Gothic style of architecture.
Although the details of daily life differed from one order to the next (as mentioned above), monastic life was generally one of hard physical work, scholarship and prayer. Some orders encouraged the presence of "lay brothers", monks who did most of the physical labour in the fields and workshops of the monastery so that the full-fledged monks could concentrate on prayer and learning.
A Monk's Life
For an enjoyable look at the life of a medieval monk, read any of the excellent "Brother Cadfael" mysteries, by Ellis Peters.
The Daily Grind
The day of a monk or nun, in theory at least, was regulated by regular prayer services in the abbey church. These services took place every three hours, day and night. When the services were over, monks would be occupied with all the tasks associated with maintaining a self-sustaining community
Abbeys grew their own food, did all their own building, and in some cases, grew quite prosperous doing so. Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx, both in Yorkshire, grew to be enormously wealthy, largely on the basis of raising sheep and selling the wool.
Throughout the Dark Ages and the Medieval period, the monasteries were practically the only repository of scholarship and learning. The monks were by far the best-educated members of society - often they were the only educated members of society. Monasteries acted as libraries for ancient manuscripts, and many monks were occupied with laboriously copying sacred texts (generally in a room called the scriptorium).
In the areas where Celtic influence was strongest, for example in Northumbria, the monks created "illuminated" manuscripts beautifully illustrated Bibles and prayer books with painstakingly created images on most pages.
These illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospel (now in the British Museum), are among the most precious remnants of early Christian Britain.
The Abbey Hierarchy
The abbey (the term for a monastery or nunnery) was under the authority of an abbot or abbess. The abbot could be a landless noble, who used the church as a means of social advancement. Under the abbot was the prior/prioress, who ran the monastery in the absence of the abbot, who might have to travel on church business. There could also be a sub-prior. Other officers included the cellerar (in charge of food storage and preparation), and specialists in the care of the sick, building, farming, masonry, and education.
One of the main sources of revenue for monasteries throughout the medieval period were pilgrims. Pilgrims could be induced to come to a monastic house by a number of means, the most common being a religious relic owned by the abbey. Such a relic might be a saint's bone, the blood of Christ, a fragment of the cross, or other similar religious artefacts. The tomb of a particularly saintly person could also become a target for pilgrimages.
Pilgrims could generally be induced to buy an insignia which proved they had visited a particular shrine. Some popular pilgrimage centres built hotels to lodge pilgrims. The George Inn in Glastonbury is one such hotel, built to take the large number of pilgrims flocking to Glastonbury Abbey.
The decline of the monasteries
Monasteries were most numerous in Britain during the early 14th century, when there were as many as 500 different houses. The Black Death of 1348 dealt the monasteries a major blow, decimating the number of monks and nuns, and most never fully recovered.
When Henry VIII engineered his break with Rome in the 1530s, the rich monastic houses were one of his first targets. A few of the abbey churches near large centres of population survived as cathedrals or parish churches (for example Canterbury Cathedral, Durham Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey), but those that were isolated, including almost all the Cistercian monasteries, were demolished. Throughout the Tudor and later periods these shells of buildings were used by local people as a source of building material.
What to See:
There are numerous good abbey remains in Britain today Some of the best are:
The Tudor Church
It has been estimated that in Queen Mary's reign 2/3 of the English people were Catholic, but it didn't matter because the leadership and the middle classes were not.At the beginning of the 16th century most priests were illiterate, knew little Latin and not much scripture.
Under Elizabeth standards improved and the clergy had to pass examinations. The church began to actively recruit educated men in the universities.
Elizabeth's reign also saw quite a bit of image vandalism in churches, which steadily increased as the more radical Puritan sects grew in influence. Paintings were whitewashed, chalices, roods, and stone altars were removed. However, screens without roods stayed, as did painted glass, tombs, fonts, and lecterns. Durham Cathedral in particular suffered from the defacement and removal of treasures.
. and greed
Sometimes there was more at work than religious zeal. In Chester, the canons removed glass from the cathedral to install in their own churches. The vicar of Islington melted down funerary brasses from the church and made coins from them.
Pride goeth before. the sermon
Males and females were separated in the church, and seating was by social rank. This occasionally led to brawls in the church over who outranked who. Churches became the stage for family pride often altars were pulled down and replaced by elaborate family tombs.
This was part of the great surge in social mobility, and hand in hand with it, a great class consciousness. Pretensions to nobility were insisted upon fanatically. Phillip Stubbs called it, "Every man crying with open mouth 'I am gentleman'".
These class concerns extended far beyond church they found an outlet, for example, in heraldry which bedecked the new tombs. Before Tudor times coats of arms were generally simple affairs. Now they became crowded, full of reference to real or imagined family backgrounds.
Monastic buildings were adapted to become houses, hospitals, government stores, factories, tenements, and guild halls. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries there were far fewer people in religious orders and the influence of the church declined drastically. It was said that, "The church no longer ran the country, the country ran the church".
Throughout the Middle Ages London’s import and export trade was with the near Continent. During the Tudor period the transformation began in which the city and its environs were to become the country’s leader in shipbuilding and the world’s premier financial centre. Trade difficulties with Continental neighbours led to voyages of discovery. In the following centuries these beginnings would lead to London becoming the capital of the world’s largest empire.
The riverside of the City of London had for centuries, by the Tudor period, been busy with ships and smaller vessels coming and going. Quays and warehouses lined the north bank of the river from the Tower up to London Bridge and above the bridge as far as Queenhithe. No doubt the sails and masts of vessels on the river could be seen from many points in the town. The movement of goods up and down the narrow streets that descended to the river was handled by members of fellowships of porters. From the early 14 th century the City had made rules regarding the unloading and measuring of corn at Queenhithe. Salt, coal and other goods such as fruit and shellfish, cloth, skins, and products in barrels were gradually regulated and their handling monopolised by different types of porter, who were freemen of the City.
The main Customs office for the entire port, where the officials based themselves, continued as before at Custom House Quay, upstream of the Tower. Official inspectors from there boarded each ship as it arrived to obtain a certificate of the vessel’s cargo and to calculate the duty.
London’s maritime trade with the Continental countries had risen steadily during the 12th and 13th centuries but had been hard hit during the period of the Hundred Years War that ended in the mid-1400s. From the latter part of that century commerce, such as the importing of French wine and the main exports of wool and cloth, began rapidly to rise again and growth continued during Tudor times. By 1500 about forty five percent of England’s wool and seventy percent of cloth exports were passing through the Port of London, much of it to Antwerp and Calais. There were many cloth-finishing workers around the Antwerp area, with a ready market for un-dyed, unfinished English broadcloths.
Throughout the medieval period foreign merchants, often with superior ships and monopolies in certain goods and markets, dominated trade in and out of London. One such group was the Hanseatic League, or Hanse. They were a confederation of merchants from towns across northern Europe, from the Low Countries to Russia, and centred on Lübeck, who monopolised trade in the Baltic area. In 1493 Henry VI banned Flemish merchants from trading in London, a move that favoured the Hanse, who obtained the right to import Flemish cloth. This caused a riot by London merchants who had previously traded with the Flemings and the Hanse’s London base at the Steelyard in Upper Thames Street was attacked and temporarily destroyed.
A shipbuilding and repair industry, as well as associated trades such as rope and sail-making, had existed in London since Saxon times. As the city became more congested those enterprises moved further downstream. By the 14 th century they were located in riverside hamlets at Ratcliffe, Shadwell, Limehouse, Poplar, Blackwall and Rotherhithe where ships could be pulled up on mud berths. Work on naval vessels was supervised by the Clerk of the King’s Ships who was based close by at the Tower of London. A Company of Shipwrights trade guild was established by the 15 th century with their own meeting hall at Ratcliff.
When Henry VIII was at war with France he found it inconvenient that his navy was based at Portsmouth, far from the Royal Armoury at the Tower of London. He decided that the ideal locations were close to his palace at Greenwich, at the Kent fishing villages of Deptford, Woolwich and Erith, which were also easier to defend than Portsmouth. These yards came to employ men with shipbuilding and repairing skills and there was a need for local suppliers and administrators with suitable knowledge. Initially the facilities on the Thames were rather small but Henry invested heavily in the navy and they grew ever larger and better-organised. During his reign the King’s Yard at Deptford expanded to thirty acres, including two wet-docks, three slips large enough for warships, forges, rope-making and other facilities. All these factors created an enlarged industry that was not only useful for naval shipping but for the wider Port of London. The area to the east of London therefore grew to become the ship-building capital of England at the end of the 16 th century.
New methods of ship construction had been introduced at the end of the previous century, changing from the old ‘clinker’ to the newer ‘carvel’ type. Larger ships required additional sails, with more than one mast to support them. These new ships were more robust, with greater manoeuvrability, of larger capacity, faster, and cheaper to build. By 1545 all ships built on the Thames were in the new style.
Increased shipping on the Thames, and accusations that some dishonest pilots were being paid by rival merchants to run ships aground, created a need for new rules and standards to prevent accidents. A group of masters and mariners petitioned Henry VIII that regulation of pilots was required. From its foundation by royal charter in March 1514 responsibility for safety on the river was given to ‘The Master, Wardens and Assistants of the Guild or Fraternitie of the most glorious and blessed Trinitie and Saint Clement in the parish Church of Deptford Stronde in the County of Kent’. Trinity House, as they became known, were given the responsibility to provide pilotage – the safe guiding of ships by experienced pilots – along the Thames, particularly through its shifting sandbanks in the Estuary. Their work was funded by a levy on vessels entering the port, collected by Customs House in London. The only ship-owners not obliged to use their services were the Hanseatic League.
Queen Elizabeth extended the responsibilities of Trinity House. By the middle of the century they were involved in a number of river-related activities such as the provision of buoys and beacons to mark safe channels, the supply of ballast and (from 1566) the authorisation of Thames watermen. Trinity House continues to be responsible for lighthouses, buoys and navigation in modern times.
English import and export trade had for centuries been largely with the western ports of France, northern Spain, Flanders and the Baltic area. Yet until the late-medieval period the world’s most significant long-distance trade routes were around the Mediterranean and eastwards from there, with ports such as Venice and Genoa being the most important. The advances in shipbuilding in the 15 th century made it possible for longer sea journeys and voyages of exploration. In the following century Atlantic ports in Spain, Portugal and England grew in importance, including London, Bristol and Plymouth.
Henry VIII’s disagreements with the Catholic Church diminished trade with France, Spain and Italy and English merchants sought new trading routes. A group of London traders known as the Merchant Adventurers had emerged in the 15 th century, dominating the booming business in English cloth to Antwerp, and Letters Patent were drawn up in 1505 to bring them together as a single joint-stock company. England’s trade with the Baltic area was blocked by the Hanse’s monopolies and Edward VI was petitioned to support the English merchants. In February 1552 he revoked the League’s rights in England and the Steelyard was seized. Two years later the Hanse’s rights were restored once more by Queen Mary. Much trade also passed though Calais, England’s last remaining territory on the Continent but that was lost to the French in 1558 during the reign of Queen Mary. When the Hanse attempted to block English grain exports to the Low Countries English merchants petitioned Queen Elizabeth. In 1598 the Hanseatic League were given two weeks to vacate the Steelyard that they had occupied for several centuries and it was closed, becoming a naval storehouse.
Trade with China and the East Indies via the southern coast of Africa was under the control of Dutch and Portuguese ships. In 1548 Sebastian Cabot persuaded members of the Merchant Adventurers Company to raise finance in order to look for a new north east passage to the Far East. London’s merchants and courtiers subscribed six thousand pounds for the venture. In May 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor sailed from Ratcliff but their three ships were separated in a storm. That winter the one carrying Willoughby became trapped in Arctic ice and he and his crew perished in the cold. Chancellor and his crew reached the harbour of Nikolo-Korelsky from where he was invited to Moscow by the Tsar, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). Chancellor and the Tsar struck up a trade agreement that took English wool and other goods to Russia in return for Russian furs. In 1555 Chancellor returned to London and the Company of Merchant Adventurers was renamed the Muscovy Company. Queen Elizabeth became one of its shareholders and it was given a monopoly on English trade with Russia. It was the first English long-distance joint-stock company and its influence on the future of London as a trade centre was enormous.
International shipping and trading was a lucrative but risky business and merchants needed to share that uncertainty rather than the danger of losing everything. Syndicates began to be formed in order to share the risk and these were formalised as joint-stock companies. As a reward for their investment in the voyages of discovery and in forming new trading posts and colonies each company was given a monopoly on dealings with their particular area of the world. This led to the formation of a number of other English joint-stock companies, including: the Eastern Company (1579) around the eastern Baltic sea Morocco Company (1585) in northern Africa the Guinea Company (1588) in western Africa and the Levant Company (1592) in the eastern Mediterranean. The first voyage by the East India Company was made in 1601.
The Anglo-Spanish wars during Elizabeth’s reign caused disruption to England’s overseas trade. Many of London’s merchant ships and crews either joined hostilities or sailed as privateers – licensed pirates – during that time. When Francis Drake sailed to Cadiz in 1587 his fleet included seven London ships. Around thirty London ships sailed in the fleet that set out to meet the Spanish Armada in 1588. Many of the crewmen of those vessels would have been Thames watermen who had been press-ganged into service.
The merchants who formed the joint-stock companies needed convenient places to meet and undertake this complex business together so the first steps were made that were to turn London into a major financial centre. Until the late 16 th century one of Europe’s main money markets was in Antwerp and it was there that the London merchant Thomas Gresham acted as Crown Agent to raise finance for the English monarchs. Having first-hand experience of the bourse in Antwerp he decided to open such an institution in London, where merchants could meet to transact business. The first building was opened in the City in 1567 at the junction of Cornhill and Threadneedle Street. In 1571 Queen Elizabeth visited and thereafter it was known as the Royal Exchange. Antwerp’s golden period as the cultural and financial centre of northern Europe ended in 1585 when a large part of the Protestant population fled following a siege by the Catholic Spanish. Some bankers emigrated to London and thus enhanced the City as a major European finance centre.
Ships were arriving in London from as far as Barbary (the Atlantic coast of Morocco), Danzig (Gdansk), Venice and Russia. The annual tonnage of shipping entering the port rose fifty percent in the second half of the 16 th century. At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 a new set of regulations were introduced, instigated by the Lord Treasurer, the Earl of Winchester. Following a commission on royal revenues, customs duties in the port were reorganised, adding three hundred types of merchandise on which duty was payable.
In order to manage collecting duties new rules restricted all goods being imported by ship into London, other than beer, coal from Newcastle and corn, to a limited number of wharves on the north bank of the river, mostly between London Bridge and the Tower. These became known as the ‘Legal Quays’. Cargoes from then on could only be loaded and unloaded under the watch of Customs officials at those locations. Those wharves at the ancient Queenhithe – in use since Saxon times – as well as Gravesend, Barking, Blackwall and many other places ceased to be used for imports. The Legal Quays were to maintain their monopoly on the landing of imports into the Port of London for the following two hundred and fifty years.
The wharves were thus concentrated in the City of London but in other respects the Port of London gradually spread eastwards. As we have seen, the Thames east of London became a major centre of shipbuilding. Many captains and crew members and their families lived in the hamlets close to the river at Wapping and Ratcliff, some of whom were buried in their parish church of St. Dunstan at Stepney. Distinguished Elizabethan mariners included: William Borough (part of the crew of Sir John Willoughby’s first Arctic expedition in 1553 and second in command to Francis Drake in the expedition to Cadiz in 1587), Sir Henry Palmer (a leading English commander against the Spanish Armada), Christopher Newport (Admiral of Virginia), and William Coxe (master of the Golden Hind on Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition to Newfoundland, who died in combat against the Spanish Armada), all of Limehouse and John Vassall of Ratcliff (one of the founders of Virginia).
During the Middle Ages London was a small port on an island at the periphery of Europe. From the end of the Tudor period that began to change and by the 18 th century it had become the country’s leading financial centre, the capital of a growing empire and a major port at the centre of the world.