England started the 12th Century with a new King, when Henry I seized the throne from his older brother William Rufus in 1100. Both men were sons of William the Conqueror, whose 1086 Domesday Book survey of the kingdom mentions St Saviour’s dock as a working harbour and credits the area with at least 40 households and a large church on the site of what’s now Southwark Cathedral. The Icelandic saga Heimskringla refers to a place across the river from London called Suthvirki, which it says was “a very considerable trading place” in the 11th century.
Most of Southwark – or Suthvirki - was then owned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William the Conqueror’s brother. Shortly before Henry took the throne, Odo passed his Southwark estates to the Abbot at Bermondsey Priory. That change came in 1090 and was signed into law by Henry when he granted the priory jurisdiction over “the hide of Southwark”. This meant neither the City of London nor the county of Surrey had any authority over Southwark and created what was later known as a “Liberty” – an area ruled only by its hlaford, an Old English word which translates roughly as “lord of the manor”.
“All justice came from the King,” the Sothwark historian Patricia Dark told me. “The person who was ultimately responsible for courts and taxes and fines and fees – and who ultimately got them – was the King. But the King can do whatever he wants and one way to either reward a faithful follower, or to make somebody into a faithful follower was to give them the rights of justice for a certain geographical area. It could be a county, it could be the area immediately round your manor, it could be a whole bunch of different manors.” In creating a Liberty, the King would retain the right to try major civil cases and very serious criminal offences such as murder in his own courts, but delegate everything else. “Quite a lot of the fines and fees would go into the coffers of whoever held the rights,” Dark explained. “So if you were the King, you had a vested interest in saying, ‘If it’s a really, really big civil case, then I want that money to go into my purse, not yours.”
Another exception to the Liberty’s power would be the right to try clergymen. Even the King didn’t have this power, which the Church insisted on retaining for itself, so he was in no position to delegate it to the Liberty either. “Technically, if you were a priest, you could not be tried under the King’s justice,” Dark told me. “You were not a subject of the King so much as you were a subject of the Church.” It followed that members of he clergy who committed a crime must be tried in the Church’s own ecclesiastical courts. This underlines the point that even an Abbot or a Bishop relied on secular authority in running his Liberty, not on religious power. In this respect, they were just one more earthly lord of the manor like any other. (28)
For the Abbot, Odo’s gift brought the opportunity to collect rent from Southwark’s residents and fines from those who broke his rules. But it also carried the troublesome duty of policing this turbulent part of London. The King’s courts would step in where an exceptionally serious charge such as murder was involved, but otherwise whatever happened in Southwark was the Abbot’s problem - and perhaps that’s why he decided not to hang on to the area for long. In 1107, he leased the Liberty’s 70 acres of Bankside real estate between Southwark Bridge and what’s now Tate Modern to the Bishop of Winchester, William Gifford, at an annual rent of £8.
This area included all of Southwark’s biggest brothels plus its most violent, crime-ridden pubs – and the Abbot made it clear that taking over responsibility for keeping order there was part of the deal. Unlike the priory at that time, which had started rebuilding only in 1082, Gifford’s Bishopric had the staff and organisation needed to set up a proper administration at Southwark with all the courts, bureaucrats and enforcers that required. “It was the responsibility of the hlaford to administer correction to the ‘light-tayled huswives of the bank’ for the sins of fornication and whoredom, as well as overseeing the ‘light’ houses themselves,” Burford writes. “And Bishop Gifford had now become the hlaford.” (29)
It’s important to understand that bishops in medieval England were not just churchmen, but politicians and statesmen too. Winchester was one of the oldest, richest and most important dioceses in the country at this time, which ensured its Bishop a great deal of influence. “In the very early part of the medieval period, Winchester was actually the most important city in England for the simple reason that’s where the Royal Treasury was,” Dark told me. “When William Rufus died in the New Forest, the first thing Henry I – as he became – did was to was to ride hell for leather to Winchester and claim the Treasury, which contained the crown.” (30)
Winchester is only 60 miles from London, but even that might be two days’ journey in the 12th Century. By taking on the Southwark estates, Gifford was planting his Bishopric’s flag in the nation’s capital and ensuring it a useful source of income there too. Not only that, but the Liberty’s Thames-side frontage gave anyone living there an easy commute by river from the steps at Stoney Street to the King’s Westminster court. Gifford was succeeded as Bishop of Winchester in 1129 by Henry de Blois, who immediately decreed that heavy new penalties must be imposed on any girl found working in the Bankside brothels while infected with “the filthy disease”. He certainly had some kind of venereal disease in mind, but we don’t know which one. (31).
At some point in the 1140s, de Blois tightened his grip on Southwark by purchasing the leased land outright and beginning work on a new bishop’s palace there which he called Winchester House. Because he bought the Liberty’s land in his official capacity, it would pass down to be managed by each new Bishop of Winchester in turn. Just like a modern corporation, the Bishopric itself was effectively immortal and that ensured the arrangement could remain stable for centuries to come. De Blois had helped his brother Stephen take the English throne in 1135 and remained a major player even after Henry II became monarch in 1154. “Winchester House would have been his pile in London and it allowed him to keep a finger on the political pulse,” Dark told me. “He was somebody powerful enough that even Henry II couldn’t oppose him.”
As the Liberty’s ruling authority, de Blois was entitled to collect rents and licence fees from all the individual brothel owners along the Bankside, as well as fines from anyone found guilty in the courts he maintained to police these establishments. His new palace was sited neatly between the church that became Southwark Cathedral and the notorious Clink prison where offenders were consigned. Tucked cosily between these symbols of his Godly authority on one side and his secular responsibilities on the other, de Blois surveyed his domain. (32)
The official name for this area was The Liberty of Winchester, but its sarcastic residents dubbed it The Liberty of the Clink instead. The whores who filled its streets were quickly nicknamed “Winchester Geese” to reflect the Bishop’s role as their new lord and master. The Bankside brothels themselves came to be called “stews” either after the carp ponds on the Bishop’s estate (which were known as “stew ponds” for their role in supplying food) or as a corruption of “estuwes”, the Norman French word for “stove”. It’s thought that the stoves lent this name first to the bath-house sweating tubs they heated, then to the bath-houses themselves and finally to the brothels which bath-houses were always assumed to contain. It followed that the brothel-keeper was known as a “stewholder”, even when – as was the case in Southwark – his establishment offered no bathing facilities at all. (33)
In 1161, Henry II decided he needed to beef up the rules imposed by custom on Bankside for over a century and signed into law his Ordinances Touching the Government of the Stewholders in Southwark Under the Direction of the Bishop of Winchester. Soldiers returning from the Crusades were bringing all kinds of new STDs and other infections back with them to England and Henry knew from his own whorehouses in France just how much disease and disorder such establishments could spread if not properly policed. It was time to crack the whip.
Southwark’s customary rules, the proclamation explains, “of late were broken to the great displeasure of God and great hurt unto the lord and utter undoing to all his poor tenants there dwelling and also to the great multiplication of horrible sin with the single women, who ought to have their own going and coming at their own liberty, as it appears by the old customs”. Henry’s new ordinance set out 39 rules for running the brothels on Bankside, formalising the understanding of established custom and practice there into cold print. The regime these rules imposed – its rights as well as its penalties – gave Southwark’s brothels what amounted to royal recognition, giving them a special status and protection they would enjoy for the next four centuries.
You’ll find a full list of the rules elsewhere on this page, so I’m just going to canter through them here. I’ve put them into modern English and occasionally collapsed two linked rules into one. They fall into seven broad categories:
Protecting the Girls.
* No stewholder to prevent his whores entering or leaving the premises at will. Each whore to pay 14 pence per week for her chamber in the brothel where she works (and, most likely, lives full-time).
* Constables to search every brothel once a quarter to check no woman is imprisoned there. Any such woman found to be escorted safely out of the Liberty (and so beyond her stewholder’s reach).
* No stewholder to lend one his whores a total of more than six shillings and eightpence. Larger sums to be considered void by the Bishop’s court. This measure was designed to prevent girls being effectively enslaved by running up large debts.
* No whore to be prevented from boarding wherever she wishes.
Protecting the Church.
* No stewholder to open for business on a religious holiday, except between the hours of noon and 2:00pm. Evidently there was a lunchtime trade to be catered for.
* All whores to be expelled from the Liberty on holy days from 8:00am till 11:00am and from 1:00pm till 5:00pm.
* No stewholder to knowingly accept a nun or another man’s wife for whoring without the Bishop’s permission. Burford thinks growing poverty among nuns may have been tempting them to swap the convent for the brothel at this time.
Protecting the Customers.
* No stewholder to imprison any customer on the premises for not paying his bill. Disputes must be taken to the Bishop’s court instead.
* All stewholders to return any customer’s harness (bandolier, sword, buckler etc) left with them for safekeeping.
Protecting Other Businesses.
* No stewholder to employ support staff beyond his wife, plus one washerwoman and one male ostler. Seems designed to prevent brothels expanding into a full tavern – or perhaps simply to prevent any single brothel growing too large.
* No whore to engage in spinning or carding during her breaks. These trades were governed by powerful guilds, which didn’t want the competition.
* No stewholder to sell food or drink from the same premises where his whores work. Again, this seems designed to protect the surrounding taverns.
* All whores to identify themselves by wearing some agreed garment indicating their trade. No whore to wear an apron, as this was then the mark of a respectable woman. There are shades of the Roman stola here. (3)
* No whore to entice any passing man into the brothel by pulling at his coat or any other item of clothing. No stewholder’s wife to entice any man into the house against his will.
* No whore to throw stones at passers-by or make faces at them if they refuse to come in. No whore to “chide with any man or make a fray”.
* No whore to be found in the Liberty between sunset and dawn on any day when the King’s Parliament or Council is sitting at Westminster. This was to ensure legislators didn’t skive off to the brothels when they should have been working. (34)
* No stewholder to employ an ostler on a contract of more than six months. Big, tough men were always in demand as bouncers in Southwark’s brothels, but the King wanted to ensure they were available to the army instead.
* All stewholders to allow each whore’s final customer of the day to stay overnight. No stewholder to operate a boat “against the custom of the manor”. Both these measures were designed to minimise night-time river traffic, when brothel customers returning to the north bank might otherwise have helped to conceal thieves or political plotters making the same journey.
* No stewholder to allow any whore to work on his premises if he knows she is either pregnant or has “the burning sickness” (probably gonorrhoea).
* No man to cause an assault in the Liberty by breaching these rules. No brothel-keeper to allow cursing or blasphemy on his premises, as this often led to trouble.
* No stewholder to allow coin-clipping on his premises. This was the practice of shaving a little precious metal from a coin’s circumference and it amounted to theft.
* Any constable failing to report a breach of these rules to the court to be imprisoned till he’s paid whatever fine the Bishop imposes.
* No constable or bailiff to accept bail personally for a prisoner’s release. Instead, the bail must be collected by the Bishop’s court.
* No bailiff to allow an offender bail without the court’s authorisation.
* No bailiff or constable to be paid more than fourpence for an arrest unless it is exceptionally serious case involving a large sum.
General Administration/ Miscellaneous.
* All stewholders to eject their whores from the premises between the date these rules were written and the next Whitsuntide. This would give the Liberty’s authorities time to get organised for the new regime and start from Whitsuntide with a clean slate.
* No-one to bring any claim involving more than 40 shillings (£2) to the Bishop’s court. The King would want to reserve bigger, more lucrative cases for himself.
* All stewholders to register new whores arriving on their premises with the Bishop’s officials.
* Constables to search every brothel once a week for miscellaneous infringements.
* No whore to take a lover of her own “against the use and custom of the manor”. Burford says: “The reason must have been economic. Time spent on free fornication meant less revenue for the whoremaster, the bailiff and the Bishop.”
* Any whore operating independently in the Liberty must obey the same rules set out here for stewholders.
* Measures were also taken to curb foreign stewholders and whores operating in London, but the details of these are unclear.
Many of these rules seem surprisingly enlightened – particularly those designed to protect the girls themselves from sexual slavery. By paying the Bishop’s court its licence fee, the stewholder and his girls were placing their business on a legal footing. Keeping that legal status meant obeying the Bishop’s rules – or at least not flouting them too openly – but it also gave the girls a chance to take complaints against the stewholders or their johns to a court that recognised the whores themselves had some rights. “In my work, the Goose regards the Bishop as her protector,” Constable reminded me. In The Southwark Mysteries, he puts it like this:
“I was born a Goose of Southwark,
By the Grace of Mary Overie,
Whose Bishop gives me licence,
To sin within the Liberty.”
It’s worth remembering, though, that writing down a rule is a lot easier than enforcing it and that the Bishop’s constables and bailiffs would often have been willing to turn a blind eye if the bribe a stewholder offered them was big enough to outweigh the risk. In some cases – such as rule six’s stricture against big loans– the girl herself may well have been complicit in breaking the very rules laid down to protect her. Where else was she supposed to go for desperately-needed money except to the stewholder? And if the Liberty’s court disregarded her debt, then so what? The stewholder could always threaten to beat it out of her instead, or simply throw her out on the street to starve. The number of women driven to work as whores was always greater than the number of chambers available to them in Southwark’s licensed brothels, so a replacement would not be hard to find. All too often, the fines levied against a brothel would ultimately have come from the girls working there anyway. All the power was on the stewholder’s side in this relationship, giving him plenty of ways to extort extra money from his whores by whatever violent or bullying means he chose. They were left with no choice but to work harder than ever to replace their lost income and where was the incentive to report an infringement when that was the most likely result?
Some offences imposed a penalty of fines on both the whore and the stewholder involved, but added a second physical punishment for the girl. Where an unregistered whore was discovered on the premises, for example, the stewholder could be fined as much as 40 shillings (£2). But the girl herself was assumed to be complicit too and subject not only to a fine of up to 20 shillings, but also to a session in the cucking stool and expulsion from the Liberty. The cucking stool was a refinement on the ducking stool we’ve all seen in depictions of witch trials. But instead of dunking the offender in a village pond, the cucking stool dipped her in raw sewage, and the prescribed penalty in this case was three full immersions. Even if she survived that – which couldn’t be taken for granted - the girl would be thrown out of the only part of London which offered her trade any measure of legal protection.
Breaking Rule 19’s ban on taking a lover of her own could earn the girl a session in the cucking stool too – one immersion in this case – plus three weeks in prison, a fine of six shillings and eightpence and expulsion from Southwark. Naturally, there’s no penalty involved for the man she chooses, even though he may well have been her pimp or the stewholder himself. Causing a disturbance outside the brothel could land the girl in prison too, that penalty being set at three days inside plus, once again, a fine of six and eightpence.
The 1161 rules set their biggest fine of all at 200 shillings (£10), which was used to ensure all the biggest, most lucrative cases went direct to the King’s court instead of the Bishop’s. To get an idea of what a vast sum £10 was at that time, remember that it would have been enough for a Southwark whore to rent her working premises for over three years (at the going rate of 14 pence per week). In the 12th Century, even the wealthiest baron in England had an annual income of under £700 and you could run the average castle for only £16 a year. (35)
The next tier down was a batch of £5 fines aimed at fighting corruption. These would be imposed on stewholders who impeded a constable’s search of their premises and officials who allowed bail without the court’s permission. “Keeping clandestine whores was another way to fiddle extra money and no doubt the constable could always be squared,” Burford writes. “That offences were concealed by venal officials is clear from the regulation which made such activities punishable by a spell in prison for the official concerned.” The measure he has in mind there is Rule 24’s authority for the Bishop’s court to imprison any official who knowingly concealed an offence and to keep him there till whatever fine the court imposed had been fully paid. The bigger the fine, the longer the jail sentence would be and that gave the court what amounted to an open-ended power. This Draconian measure suggests that corruption was both so widespread and so lucrative that only the severest penalties stood a chance of denting it. (36)
Other £5 fines were added to the rules later, levied for allowing a whore to work on your premises when you knew she had a venereal disease, or for employing an old soldier recently returned from overseas (and hence suspected of carrying an STD himself). This tells us how great the fear of such disease was and how little the doctors of the time were able to do to combat it.
It’s also instructive to look at which offences carried the lowest fines, these presumably being the crimes which the authorities thought they should make some token effort to suppress, but which no-one much cared about one way or the other. The fine for accepting a nun or another man’s wife as one of your whores, for example, was set at just one shilling (12 pence), which meant the stewholder had to collect only a single week’s rent from the new girl to get himself back in profit. A stewholder who stopped one of his whores leaving the premises when she wanted to do so faced a fine of just three and fourpence, as did any whorehouse customer who caused a fray. Contrast that with the treatment dished out to the girls themselves for causing a fray: three days in prison, plus a fine of six and eightpence.
We can see from surviving records of the Bishop’s courts – known in the jargon as courts leet – that some minor offences were simply impossible to enforce. One example would be the rules governing a whore’s behaviour as she waited for business in the brothel’s entrance, which allowed her to do nothing more than sit there quietly and look enticing. “She was not allowed to solicit custom by cries or gestures or to grab the potential customer by his gown,” Burford writes. “That this rule was a non-starter is evidenced by the great number of cases that came up before the courts leet for centuries afterwards.” The fine in this case was 20 shillings which, when collected so regularly, must have given the courts a very useful source of steady income.
The first stone version of London Bridge – not Tower Bridge but London Bridge – opened in 1209, leading directly from what’s now Monument into Borough High Street and making it easier than ever for Londoners to reach the Bankside brothels. Southwark was unable to cater for Londoner’s appetites on its own, however and a second zone of legalised prostitution was opened just outside the city walls at Farringdon in about 1240. That street, halfway between Smithfield and the Old Bailey, was quickly dubbed Cock Lane, a name it still carries on the London map today. Near Cock Lane – and also just outside the city walls - Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane had brothels of their own. (37, 38)
We have deeds from this era showing that many of the properties known to operate as whorehouses in all three of these streets were owned by the Parish of St Mary Overie – a piece of Southwark real estate which included both the Bishop of Winchester’s palace and the whole Liberty of the Clink. Burford thinks the London city authorities must have deliberately engineered things this way to give the Liberty jurisdiction over the new red light districts and so ensure the 1161 rules were applied there too. The idea was evidently to confine prostitution to certain designated areas outside the city walls so that London itself could be kept free of the trade. In 1285, King Edward I issued an order that all whores must either move outside London’s walls or face 40 days in jail. Brothels within the designated areas – the biggest of which was Southwark itself, of course – were happily tolerated providing that order there was more or less maintained. By 1287, even the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral owned property in Cock Lane which they knew perfectly well was let out as a brothel.
At this point, Europe was still entirely Catholic and that allowed the 13th Century Church a certain pragmatism where human frailty was concerned. Prostitution was seen as a necessary evil, which gave society a vital safety valve and protected other women from rape. The theologian Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274, compared a town’s red light district to the cesspool in a palace. “Take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place,” he wrote. That comparison wasn’t exactly flattering to the girls working in Southwark’s stews, but at least it acknowledged they were playing a useful role in society. “There were even religious people who advocated for prostitutes’ rights as labourers,” Melissa Ditmore adds in her 2005 Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work. “Thomas of Chobham, for example, dedicated four chapters of his early 13th century manual to prostitutes and argued, among other things, that they deserved to be paid for their labour just like any other worker.” (39)
That atmosphere of easy tolerance and the sensibly pragmatic laws it produced was soon to face a severe test. Disease was coming to London and it would hit Southwark particularly hard.