Most scientists now agree that it was sailors returning from America after Christopher Columbus’s voyage there in 1492 who first brought syphilis to Europe. The earliest reliable evidence of the disease on this side of the Atlantic dates from 1495 and one of the first cities hit was Naples, where Cesare Borgia caught the disease two years later.
Syphilis got its first toehold in Naples in 1494, when Charles VIII of France sent an invading army there to take the city from Alphonso II, its King. Both Charles and Alphonso’s armies included Spanish mercenaries who’d accompanied Columbus to the new world. Men from both forces made extensive use of Naples’ many brothels while they were in town, Alphonso’s using the local whores to amuse themselves while they waited for the fighting to begin and Charles’s to celebrate their February 1495 victory. We don’t know which army provided the particular soldier who first infected a Naples prostitute, but by the time the French army returned to Paris, a great number of them were carrying the disease – and that’s how its spread across Europe began. (69, 70)
Syphilis bacteria were still bouncing merrily round Naples when young Cesare arrived, sent by his father Pope Alexander VI to crown the city’s new king. His chosen recreation among the city’s whores produced a predicable result. “First a chancre appeared on his penis,” Sarah Dunant explained in a recent article for The Guardian. “Then crippling pains throughout his body and a rash of itching, weeping pustules covering his face and torso. Over the next few years, Gaspar Torella [Borgia’s personal physician] charted the unstoppable rise of a disease that had grown men screaming in agony as their flesh was eaten away, in some cases down to the bone.” (71)
This was a world without condoms, penicillin or even the most basic standards of hygiene. But people did travel and this combination of circumstances ensured that syphilis flooded across Europe with Biblical ferocity. Like any new disease, its effects were particularly intense in the first few decades of its spread, as people’s immune systems struggled to develop some resistance to a threat they’d never seen before. (72)
By the end of 1495, the epidemic had spread throughout France, Switzerland and Germany, reaching Britain two years later. In 1498, British travellers took it to Calcutta and by 1500 it was all over the Scandinavian countries, Hungary, Greece, Poland and Russia. Countries less visited by the Europeans, such as Africa, China and Japan, escaped infection only till 1520 or so. The death toll in Europe itself was counted in the millions – some say five million, some say ten – and there are estimates that as many as one in five people there were infected at the epidemic’s peak. “I know of nothing of which I am so afraid,” the artist Albrecht Durer wrote from Venice in 1506. “Nearly every man has it and it eats up so many that they die.” (73)
The one thing people knew about syphilis in these early years was that it spread through sexual intercourse and that made it obvious that brothels were the single most important source of infection. Even a clean brothel would have been a serious threat to public health, but that threat was doubled by the primitive laundry arrangements prevailing in whorehouses at the time. One inspector checking a 15th Century Paris brothel found sanitary towels there heavily stained with both blood and a green discharge suggesting gonhorroea. These were washed in what he called “a filthy tub” of sulphur or mercury solution, before being laid out on stoves to dry and then re-used. The procedure in Southwark was probably very similar and the changes introduced after syphilis arrived were not dramatic enough to make much difference.
Edinburgh was one of the first British cities to react to the epidemic, closing down its own brothels in 1497, but London dragged its feet till 1505. That was the year when, according to Fabyan’s Chronicle: “The stews or common bordello beyond the water, for what happ or consideration I know not, was for a season inhibited and closed up. But it was not long ere they were set open again, albeit that where before were occupied 18 houses, from henceforth should be occupied but 12”. The girls evicted from these licensed brothels either found work in the even filthier illegal premises elsewhere in Southwark, or else fled across the river to set up shop there. Cock Lorell’s Boat, a ballad written in 1510, records their exodus:
“There came a wind from Winchester,
That blew these women over the river,
Some at St Katherine strike aground,
And many in Holborn were found,
Some at St Giles, I trow,
Some in Ave Maria Alley and at Westminster,
And some in Shoreditch drew there.”
The “wind from Winchester” of course was the syphilis infection responsible for closing the Liberty’s brothels. Most of the districts mentioned, including St Katherine’s Parish, Ave Maria Avenue and Shoreditch, were then just outside London’s City wall and so had spawned red light districts of their own where the Southwark girls knew they’d find work. Westminster’s demand was provided by its proximity to the King’s palace and Holborn’s by the Inns of Court, where many of London’s barristers both lived and worked.
All these places were near enough to Bankside for the girls to easily return there if Southwark’s licensed brothels reopened and that’s exactly what happened after just a few months. Some other Europeam countries kept their own licensed brothels closed for years when syphilis first arrived, so why did London decide to take such a different route?
One answer may lie in the same exodus Cock Lorell’s Boat describes. Ever since Roman times the Thames had served as London’s moat, protecting it from all the chaos that went on across the river in Southwark. Closing the Bankside brothels had amounted to an invitation for every whore in Southwark to cross that moat and now they thronged the areas all round London’s walls like a besieging army. Where once the thieving and violence spawned by prostitution had been safely at arm’s length, now it was at the City’s very gates.
Richard Foxe, who was Bishop of Winchester in 1505, must have been quick to remind King Henry VII of all this. The loss of licensing fees and fines from the closure of the Bankside brothels would have put a big dent in Foxe’s income and yet done little to reduce the cost of policing his unruly domain. As England’s Lord Privy Seal – one of the nation’s five great Officers of State – Foxe would have had ample opportunity to lobby the King and bring his considerable influence to bear. And Henry had his own financial considerations to weigh too. In normal times, a good chunk of the money Bankside generated ultimately found its way into the King’s coffers and his displeasure at losing this cash evidently outweighed any concerns about disease control. (74)
By October 1505, ten of the Bankside’s licensed brothels were trading legally once again and producing fresh offences for the Bishop’s Liberty courts to tackle. By August the following year, two more of the legal brothels were up and running. The only Bankside whorehouses still refused a licence to re-open were The Gun, The Swan, The Bull’s Head, The Rose, The Bell and The Cardinal’s Hat. It’s not clear whether these were singled out because they were thought to be the worst carriers of disease, or merely because they’d proved less able than their rivals to bribe their way back into favour. Most of them probably re-opened without a licence anyway, posing as an innocent inn or tavern but continuing their old trade in the shadows.
With the stews back in business and their licensing fees restored, the Bishop’s forces concentrated on arranging Draconian punishments for any girl who continued whoring when she knew she was infected. Offenders were arrested by the bailiff and his constables, fined a whopping £5 and forcibly expelled from Bankside. In France, the treatment such women received was even harsher. Some Frenchwomen were simply executed for continuing to work as prostitutes in defiance of the anti-syphilis laws and others were soldered into an iron collar or whipped through the streets. (75)
In the days of the Crusades, it had been the death of so many male breadwinners in rural areas which drove women into prostitution, but now a second pressure was added too. The prototype “factories” which started to appear around 1500 had a devastating effect on the cottage industries many country women had relied on to survive. “Hundreds of thousands of the poorer women were thrown on to their own resources in an environment that had, as yet, no capacity to employ them,” Burford writes. “By the time Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, for countless thousands of women, the only remaining alternative was to peddle their bodies.”
One of the new King’s first moves to control prostitution came in 1513, when he commanded that any woman found soliciting among his soldiers must be branded on the face with a hot iron. Most likely, it was fear of syphilis that lay behind this proclamation, as Henry wanted his men fit enough to fight, not laid up in bed nursing their sores. Six years later, he followed up this measure by ordering Cardinal Wolsey to purge Southwark of its “vagabonds and loose women”. Wolsey duly dispatched City officials across the river, where the 54 people they arrested in Bankside brothels included John Williams (one of the King’s own footmen), Will Borage (a Yeoman of the King’s guard) and David Glynne (a royal servant). This total’s particularly impressive when you realise that Bankside’s one small patch yielded as many arrests as all the rest of Southwark put together.
As with the Black Death of 200 years earlier, the fear of syphilis did little to dampen demand for the Bankside whorehouses. In 1519, John Skelton’s morality play Magnificence was still able to refer to people who “runneth to the stews” in depicting a London he knew his audience would recognise. Latin grammars dating from about 1520 show that middle-class schoolboys as young as seven were routinely taught to translate phrases such as “He lay with a harlot all night”, “Thou art a strong harlot” and “She is bawd to a whore”. It was taken for granted that, as soon as they reached puberty, these lads would be frequenting the Bankside brothels like every other young man.
Ten years on from Wolsey’s purge, Southwark was just as lawless as ever. In 1529, Bishop Foxe complained that the Borough gave him more trouble with criminals than anywhere else in is domain. The sneaky residents there, he said, were still “dicing and carding till past midnight and there picketh another’s purse and doth resort them in and out at a back door”. Later that year, the religious reformer Simon Fish smuggled his anti-clerical pamphlet A Supplication for the Beggers into England, attacking the church for its hypocrisy on sexual ethics. “Who is she that will set her hand to work to get threepence a day and may have at least twenty pence a day to sleep with a friar, a monk or a priest?” he asked. The Catholic Church responded by declaring his pamphlet heretical.
The Reformation which would transform England into a Protestant country and move so much Church property over to the Crown was now very close. Henry VIII passed the first of his statutes breaking with Rome in 1532, continuing the process of separation with roughly one new statute every year for the remainder of that decade. In 1535, laws were passed to ensure that taxes previously paid to Rome went to the English Crown instead and Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister, set about assessing the taxable value of all Church property. The first statute transferring this property’s ownership to the Crown passed in 1536 and by 1540 that process was complete. Often, the King sold on his new property to private landlords, who he was confident would make more productive use of it than the Church had ever managed to do.
While all the Reformation’s changes were going through, Henry VIII also found time to renew his assault on the Bankside brothels. In 1535, he ordered that the Southwark stews be “as far as is possible publicly and entirely suppressed” because they harboured “unclean persons unfit to associate with honest men”. His admission there that it was never going to be possible to completely sweep prostitution away is a telling one, I think. Like the illegal drug trade today, the Bankside stewhouses offered people at the very bottom of society the promise of cash they could never dream of getting from any other source. As Fish’s pamphlet points out, that made the risks involved worth bearing no matter what obstacles the law put in your way.
For proof of this, we need look no further than Robert Allen, a Bankside stewholder hanged at Tyburn in 1537. Allen had begun his working life as an ostler, caring for horses at a London tavern, but was sacked from that job after being charged with theft and what we’d today call grievous bodily harm. After a year in Southwark’s Marshalsea Prison for failing to pay his debts, he managed to find some work at one of the Bankside’s dodgier whorehouses and that’s when his luck changed. Allen proved so valuable to his new employer that he was soon managing the establishment and made such a success of it that he was eventually able to buy property of his own. This brought him a handsome rental income of £40 a year and would have allowed him a prosperous old age if he hadn’t allowed his vicious streak to surface once again. One of the other Bankside stewholders was a notorious drunk called Mrs Harrison, who Allen assaulted in 1537 and that’s the crime that took him to the gallows.
The church’s own venal behaviour had undermined its threats that sin led to eternal Hellfire, while honest employment offered men like Allen nothing but the prospect of endless, miserable drudgery and an empty belly. Who could blame him for choosing the stews’ roller-coaster rewards instead?
Henry VIII took another whack at Bankside in 1546, this time giving his proclamation the full panoply of a royal trumpeter and a herald-at-arms. “Miserable and dissolute persons have been suffered to dwell in open places called the Stews and there, without punishment or correction, exercise their abominable and detestable sin,” the herald announced. “There have of late increased such enormities as to invite vengeance of Almighty God and also to cause such great annoyance to the common wealth by enticing the youth to fleshly lusts. The brothel-keepers and their women must therefore, before the Easter coming, depart to their natural countries with their bags and baggage.”
The phrase “natural countries” here means that Henry was ejecting not only the Bankside’s foreign bawds and whores, but also any British ones from outside London, who were expected to return to whichever town they’d come from. The proclamation was made on April 13 and Easter Sunday that year fell on April 24, so they had just 11 days to pack up all their belongings and find a new home. In order to further hinder anyone who tried to continue operating a brothel on Bankside, Henry also banned bear-baiting on that side of the river, so depriving the stews’ customers of one of their favourite interim diversions.
Most of those who moved out after the King’s proclamation probably expected to resume business as usual there once the fuss had died down a bit – just as they’d done in 1505. But the difference this time was that many of the former church properties the stewhouses occupied now belonged either to the Crown or to private landlords who were keen to develop Bankside for themselves. The new Protestant orthodoxy that ruled the English Church took a less laisez-faire attitude to prostitution than the Catholics had traditionally done, which also played its part in making it impossible for the Bankside stewhouses to re-establish themselves.
Henry VIII died in 1547, so he was cheated of the chance to see his proclamation’s effects work through in practice. How much of this he’d planned and how much was merely an unforeseen side effect of his other policies, I don’t know, but there’s no doubt that the combined effect of his 1546 evictions and the Crown property seizures going through at the same time succeeded in changing Bankside where every other sanction had failed. “The closure of the Stews in 1546 seems to have rid Southwark of most, if not all, of its professional prostitutes,” Carlin writes. “The parish register of St Saviour’s records no burial of a ‘single’ or ‘common’ woman after February 1547.”
By “professional prostitutes” here, I think she means those who worked full-time in Bankside’s licensed brothels. There would have been many other women selling their bodies illegally in Southwark too: some dipping briefly into prostitution when their funds were low, others staffing the unlicensed back-alley brothels. It makes sense to think that the licensed whores – who had no reason to conceal their trade – would be the only group the parish labelled as “single women” or “common women” at burial, so of course those designations would disappear when the licensed brothels were closed. If the parish had extended that description to every poor woman in Southwark who’d once opened her legs to put food on the table, they’d have had to apply it so widely it would have become meaningless.
No-one doubts that the illegal brothels in Southwark remained as busy as ever after the licensed whorehouses closed and now the red light districts across the river were thriving too. This fact did not escape Edward VI's court preacher, Hugh Latimer, who preached a 1549 sermon on the subject to a congregation which included the new King. “My Lords, you have put down the Stews, but I pray you, how is that matter amended?” Latimer asked. “What availeth that you have merely changed the place and not taken the whoredom away? There is now in London more than ever there was on the Bank.”
There were more changes for Southwark in 1550, when the King sold London’s Lord Mayor and Sheriffs the power to “farm” the Crown’s recently-acquired Southwark lands in return for a hefty cash sum. This gave London the right to collect taxes in Southwark and granted the City some formal power over its outlaw borough at last. London’s authority still didn’t extend to the twin Liberties of the Clink and Paris Gardens, however and these did not succumb to London rule for another six years. That final blow fell in 1556, when all of Southwark was absorbed into London as the city’s 26th ward - known as Bridge Ward Without. Paris Gardens still formed the centre of London’s low-life gambling industry and Edward VI had allowed bull-baiting and bear-baiting to creep back in on Bankside, but the Liberty and its licensed stews were no more.