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John Stowe: Grumpy Old Man with a Parchment Polaroid

In 1598 a very old man decided to write a history of his changing city, a snapshot of a city that was going through enormous transformation, and he wanted to capture the city he knew as a younger man for posterity.  The man was called John Stowe, and the city was London, and the Survey that he wrote provides historians with much of what they know about life in the late 15th century.

John Stowe himself was born about 1525 in Cornhill in the City of London and was a tailor by trade, though he began writing about history in 1561.

He saw the task of capturing a changing England almost as a mission:  “I, seeing the confuse order of our late English Chronicles and the ignorant handling of ancient affairs, leaving mine own peculiar gains, consecrated myself to the search of our famous antiquities.”

At the beginning of the 16th century London was a small city of about 50,000 people. Throughout that century it would transition into a modern and diverse city. It had quadrupled in size by the end of the century. The city was much more cosmopolitan than we imagine, with a population of black people large enough to be considered “too many” by some. In one parish alone, “St. Botolph’s outside Aldgate,” there are French and Dutch immigrants, a Persian, several Indian, and one “East Indian” (Bengal).  And in this small parish, by the latter part of the 16th century, there are 25 black people, mostly servants, but not all.

John Stowe was born before there was any Church of England, when the English church followed the Pope’s rulings. King Henry was still the Defender of the Faith.

He saw a huge amount of change in his long life.

When he was born his city was a medieval backwater town that was still reeling from the dynastic Wars of the Roses in the 15th century. By the end of the century it developed into a major city, with a navy that defeated the mighty Spanish Armada.

He chronicles his city in such detail that we can picture it completely.  The entirety of the 1603 edition is freely available online, and in reading it we get a complete word painting of London. He starts with an overview of the city, then moves on to the geography including the rivers. At one point he laments that one creek – Walbrook – is now covered over by streets and its path runs underground. It makes him sad that no one is really aware of it any longer.

He adds in his own personal commentary everywhere, which is a delight to read. In the same chapter on the creeks and rivers of London, he has a section called:  Fleete dike promised to be clensed; the money collected, and the Citizens deceiued. This covers an event in 1589, which clearly still bugs him. He reports the Council allotting a thousand marks, collected from the citizens. The idea was to draw upon the springs from the Hampstead Heath, and redirect them to the City. It was designed to bring fresh water to “all places of want.”  But the money was spent in other areas, and apparently the experiment failed. He laments that now things are worse than ever before.

Before discussing each of the wards, Stowe gives background information on customs and pastimes of Londoners.

We learn that the chief activities are plays, ball play, cock fighting, shooting, leaping, dancing, wrestling, fighting of boars, baiting bears and bulls, and “exercises of warlike feats on horseback with disarmed lances.”  After dinner all youths go into the fields to play ball, even scholars of each school.  The old and wealthy men of the city come out to watch the young men playing.

Every Friday in Lent a fresh company of young men comes into the field on horseback and the best horseman conducts the rest. Then the citizen’s sons, and other young men march. They hold disarmed lances. and practice feats of war.  He tells us what the activity looks like, the rules of the game, and how you win.  It’s easy to read this and imagine Finsbury Fields bright and bustling with these games.

Stowe travels through each ward and the suburbs, including Southwark and Westminster. He discusses the notable homes in each. Like a gossip, he talks about who lives where, the history of who owned the homes. He also describes what the streets are like.  He talks about the gallery of Whitehall, the tennis courts, and parks.  Each ward is thoroughly dissected, its history, customs and activities discussed.

But there is often the air of, “I’m an old man and my city is changing, and I don’t like it.” In the early section on rivers and brooks, he laments how in the past there were so many fresh brooks and waters in the suburbs, and now they’re decayed.

If you live in London, or you love London, you should really read this book. It gives you a wonderful picture of the vibrancy of the city almost five hundred years ago. You can read it here: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/survey-of-london-stow/1603