VI. The Women of London

Ancient London

By: George Byron Gordon

Originally Published in 1922

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“As for the Women of the City, they are Sabines.” In these words of praise Fitzstephen wrote with feeling of the London women for there is both feeling and finality in that summing up—Sabinae sunt.

Near the centre of London in conspicuous positions are to be seen five memorials to women, not all of whom are modern for they cover a period of eighteen centuries and a half. One is the memorial of Queen Boadicea facing the Clock Tower and the houses of Parliament on the Embankment. Another is Charing Cross erected in 1289 to the memory of Queen Eleanor. It was held in so much affection and esteem by the Londoners that after it had stood for 358 years a fanatical government, during a brief interval of power destroyed it as an idol. It is now represented by the cross in front of Charing Cross Station and its original position is marked by the Equestrian Statue of Charles I. It has given its name to the locality that is the official centre of London and the legends of six centuries cluster, round it. The third monument in this remarkable group is the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace; the fourth is the monument to Florence Nightingale on the Crimean War Memorial in Waterloo Place, and the fifth is the monument to Edith Cavell close to Trafalgar Square.

State of Charles I on horseback
The Statue of Charles I that stands on the site formerly occupied by Charring Cross.

The presence of these monuments, standing where they do, invite a moment’s reflexion with a gentle reproof for the unfounded legend that the odds have been against women in England’s Capital. The significance of these monuments is plain. They imply no lack of consideration and distinction, for the women of London have always occupied a position of equality, dignity and independence.

Except on the battlefield they played life’s great game the same as men. The rules were the same, the risks were the same, the rewards the same, the penalties the same. Like men, they rose to power and affluence and with men they stood in the dock and the pillory or went to the scaffold, the stake1 and the block. In the matter of monuments they have rather the best of it. Their inequalities were the natural inequalities of sex and not the artificial or conventional inequalities of custom or of law.

Like women everywhere the women of London took their share of the burden in time of trouble, and there are abundant records to show that they bore their part always with strength, nobility and devotion. It is equally clear that the women of London enjoyed themselves. From the earliest times down through the Middle Ages they never failed to get their share of life’s pleasures, of which there was ample provision both in the form of work and in the form of play. Those who lived in the Great Houses, the Castles and Palaces, were brought up in the knowledge of household management; they learned the mysteries of spinning and weaving with all the gentle arts and crafts that pertain thereto. In embroidery and the working of tapestries their skill was proven. They made things for themselves and exercised great care in their dress. They gave banquets in their halls and they sat with their husbands at the great feasts in the Halls of the City Companies. They sang and played on their instruments and listened to professional singers and players and watched professional dancers. They knew a great many games including chess and cards; they went riding and joined in the hawking and in the hunt. Their gardens were a special delight—their private pleasure grounds where there was no intrusion; they read romances; they danced in the garden; they wove wreaths and garlands; they entertained their knights ; they gossiped ; they also went to Mass.

Stacks of barrels of wine lining a cellar vault
The Wine Vaults at London Dock. There are said to be 18 miels of these gangways, stored with barrels of Sherry wine and Madeira wine.

Women engaged in trade. In the numerous class of shopkeepers and craftsmen they were found in many occupations though they belonged to no guilds or combinations of any kind. Whether married or single, a woman could carry on business in her own name and in entire independence of husband or male relative who was not responsible for her debts and who had no claim on her earnings. If she got into debt she took the penalty and her husband was not troubled. Some of them were honest, some cheated their customers by ingenious tricks and some were put in the stocks for such knavery and for selling bad beer or rotten fish. There was one unfortunate fishwife who had to stand in the stocks all day with her stinking fish under her nose. Sometimes they got drunk and sometimes they raised a rumpus. Some of them were scolds or shrews for whom the cruel branks had to be invented. But most of them were clean living, cheerful, quiet and industrious women, not afraid of toil—or of men, earning their own living by their labour and their wits and respected according to their merits. Of course numerous women were engaged in domestic service and there were matrons who managed the details of work in the great houses, and others who looked after the sick. There were Sisters of Mercy. There were also adventuresses, flappers and vamps.

A small old church covered in vines
Old Chingford Church, London. It stands in the extreme East near the Border of Epping Forest.

Here are some of the recorded admonitions, quoted by Besant, of a middle class mother to her daughter concerning a becoming conduct—She must attend church and pay the dues. She must pray without whispering or laughing. She must not toss her head in the street but bear herself modestly. She must not get drunk. Of good ale she must drink reasonably. She must not go to wrestling matches or cockfights. If a strange man should greet her in the street she must greet him in turn but by no means continue the conversation. She must not envy her neighbour in better circumstances but treat all alike with kindness. If any man should make her an offer of marriage she must treat him with special courtesy and consideration no matter what his condition but she must not sit with him under circumstances that might cause scandal. When she marries she must love her husband and answer him meekly. In the running of her house she must set every one to work early, including herself if necessary, and she must be a good mother to her children.

In that great and marvellous age that goes by the name of Elizabethan there lived a Puritan writer by the name of Phillip Stubbes who took great delight in damning people’s souls, especially those of his own countrymen and countrywomen. His genial writings make delightful reading and they contain much information. After consigning the men to the place where they obviously belonged he gives a charming account of the women which I reproduce in part.


The women . . . colour their faces with certain oyles, liquors, unguentes and waters made to that end, whereby they think their beautie is greatly decored but who seethe not that their soules are thereby deformed, . . . they brought deeper into the displeasure and indignation of the Almighty, at whose voice the earth Booth tremble. . . . For in this dooing, they plainly convince the Lord of untrueth in his word, who saith he made man glorious.. . If he be thus faire, what need they make them fayrer? Therfore this their coulouring of their faces importeth . . . that they think themselves not faire enough, and then must God needs be untrue in his woord.

And also they deny the Lord to be either merciful or almightie, or bothe, and so consequently no God at all; for if he could not have made them faire, then is hee not almightie; and if hee could and would not, then is hee not a merciful God. . . .

Then followeth the trimming and tricking of their heds in laying out their hair to the shewe, which of force must be curled, frisled and crisped, laid out . . . on wreathes and borders from one eare to an other. . . .

If curling, and laying out of their own naturall heyre weare all . . . it were the Jesse matter; but they are not simply contente with their owne haire, but buy other heyre, dying it of what color they list themselves: . . . and . . . if any have heyre which is not faire inough, than will they dye it into diverse colors, almost chaunginge the substance into accidentes by their dyvelish, and more than thrise cursed devyses. . . .

Than, on toppes of these stately turrets . . . stand their other capitall ornaments, as French hood, hat, cap, kercher, and suche like; wherof some be of velvet, some of taffatie, some (but few) of woll, some of this fashion, some of that, and some of this color, some of that, according to the variable fantasies of their serpentine minds. And to such excesse is it growen as every artificers wyfe (almost) will not stick to goe in her hat of velvet everye day, every marchants wyfe and meane gentlewoman in her French hood, and everye poore cottagers daughter in her taffatie hat, or els of wool at least, well lined with silk, velvet or taffatie. But how they come by this (so they have it) they care not; who payeth for it they regard not, nor yet what hurt booth to themselves and others it dooth bring, they feare not. . . .

They have also other ornaments besydes these to furnish foorth their ingenious heads, which they cal . . . cawles, made netwyse, to th’ ende, as I thinke, that the clothe of gold, cloth of silver, or els tinsell . . . wherwith their heads are covered and attyred with all underneath their cawles may appeare, and shewe it selfe in the bravest manner. Soe that a man that seethe them (there heads glister and shine in suche sorte) weld thinke them to have golden heads. . . .

The women . . . use great ruffes, and neckerchers of holland, lawne, camerick, and such cloth, as the greatest thred shall not be so bigge as the least haire that is: then, least they should fall down, they are smeared and starched in the devils liquore, I meane starch; after that dryed with great diligence, streaked, patted, and rubbed very nicely, and so applyed to their goodly necks, and, withall, under-propped with supportasses . . the statelie arches of pride: beyond all this they have a further fetch, nothing inferiour to the rest; as, namely, three or foure degrees of minor ruffes, placed gradatim, step by step, one beneath another, and all under the maister devil ruffe. . . Then, last of all, they are either clogged with golde, silver, or silk lace of stately price, wrought all over with needle work, speckled and sparkled heer and there with the sonne, the moone, the starres, and many other antiquities straunge to beholde. Some are wrought with open woorke down to the midst of the ruffe and further, some with purled lace so cloyd, and other gewgawes so pestred, as the ruffe is the least parte of it self. Sometimes they are pinned up to their eares, sometimes they are suffered to hang over their shoulders, like windmil sayles fluttering in the winde; and thus every one pleaseth herself with her foolish devices. . .

The women also have dublets and jerkins, as men have, buttoned up the brest, and made with wings, welts, and pinions on the shoulder points, as man’s apparel is for all the world; and though this be a kinde of attire appropriate onely to man, yet they blush not to wear it, and if they could as well chaunge their sex, and put on the kinde of man, as they can weare appareal assigned only to man, I think they would as verely become men indeed, as now they degenerat from godly, sober women in wearing this wanton lewd kinde of attire, proper onely to man.. . .

There gownes be no lesse famous also; for some are of silk, some of velvet, some of grogram, some of taffetie, some of scarlet, and some of fine cloth, of ten, twentie, or fortie shillings a yard. But if the whole gowne be not silke or velvet, then the same shall be layed with lace, two or three fingers broade, all over the gowne, or els the most parte.

Or, if not so (as lace is not fine enough sometimes), then it must be garded with great gardes of velvet, four or five fingers broad at the least, and edged with costly lace; and as these gownes be of divers and sundrie colors, so are they of divers fashions, changing with the moon, for some be of the new fashion, some of the olde, some of this fashion, and some of that, some with sleeves hanging down to their skirts, trayling on the ground, and cast over their shoulders, like cow-tayles.

Some have sleeves much shorter, cut up the arme, and pointed with silk-ribons very gallantly, tyed with true-looves knottes (for so they call them).

Some have capes reaching downe to the middest of their backs, faced with velvet, or els with some fine wrought silk taffatie at the least, and fringed about very bravely; and (to shut up all in a word) some are pleated and ryveled down the back wonderfully, with more knacks than I can declare. Then have they petticots of the best cloth that can be bought, and of the fairest dye that can be made. And sometimes they are not of cloth neither, for that is thought to base, but of scarlet, grogram, taffatie, silk, and such like, fringed about the skirts with fringe of chaungable coloure. But which is more vayn, of whatsoever their petti-cots be, yet must they have kyrtles (for so they call them) eyther of silk, velvet, grogram, taffatie, saten, or scarlet, bordered with gards, lace, fringe, and I cannot tell what besydes. So that when they have all these goodly robes uppon them, women seeme to be the smallest part of themselves, not naturall women, but artificiall women; not women of flesh and blod, but rather puppits or mawmets of rags and clowtes compact together. So farre bath this canker of pride eaten into the body of the common welth, that every poore yeoman his daughter, every husband man his daughter, and every cottager his daughter, will not spare to flaunt it out in such gownes, petticots, and kirtles as these. And not withstanding that their parents owe a brase of hundred pounds more than they are worth, yet will they have it, . . . eyther by hooke or crooke, by right or wrong, as they say, wherby it commeth to passe that one can scarsly know who is a noble woman, who is an honorable or worshippfull woman from them of the meaner sorte.

Their parents and freinds are muche to be blamed for suffering them to go in suche wanton attyre. They should not allowe them such large pittance, nor suffer them to measure their apparell after their own licentious yardes of selfe will, and wicked desires.. . .

Their netherstockes, in like manor, are either of silke gearnsey, worsted, crewel!, or, at least, of as Fyne yarn, thread, or cloth, as is possible to be had, cunningly knit and curiously indented in every point: whereto they have korked shooes, pinsnets, pantoffles, and slippers, some of black velvet, some of white, some of green, and some of yellowe; some of Spanish leather, and some of English lether, stitched with silk, and imbrodered with gold and silver all over the foote, with other gewgawes innumerable. All which if I should endevoure my selfe to expresse, I might with more facilitye number the sands of the sea, the starres of the sky, or the grasse uppon the earth, so infinit and innumerable be their abuses. For weare I never so experte an arithmetician, or mathematician, I weare never capable of the halfe of them, the devill brocheth soe many new fashions every day. . . .

After all this, when they have attired them selves in the midst of their pride, it is a world to consider their coynesse in gestures, their minsednes in woords and speaches, their gingerlynes in trippinge on toes like yong goats, their demure nicitie and babishnes, and withall their hawtie stomackes and more than Cyclopicall countenances. Their fingers are decked with gold, silver and precious stones, their wristes with bracelets and armlets of gold, and other preciouse jewels: their hands are covered with their sweet washed gloves, imbrodered with gold, silver, and what not; and to such abhomination is it grown, as they must have their looking glasses caryed with them whersoever they go. And good reason, for els how cold they see the devil in them? for no doubt they are the devils spectacles to allure us to pride, and consequently to distraction for ever. And above al things they must have their silk scarffes cast about their faces, and fluttering in the winde, with great tassels at every end, either of gold, or silver, or silk. But I know wherfor they wil say they weare these scarfes; namely, to keep them from sun-burning; but I would aske these nicelings one question, wheren if they can resolve mee, then I will say as they say, that scarffes are necessary, and not flags of pride. Can that thing which is moste glorious and fair of it self make any thing foule or ilfavored? The sun is a most glorious and fair creature, and therfor cannot make them fowler than they are of their own nature. . . . They busie themselves in preserving the beautie of their bodyes, which lasteth but for a time . . . but for the beautie of the soule they care nothing at all. When they use to ride abrod they have invisories, or visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, hee would think he met a monster or a devil, for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them. Thus they prcphane the name of God, and live in all kinde of voluptuousnes and pleasure, wursse than ever did the heathen. . . .

Philip Stubbs in Anatomie of Abuses
The cemetery outside a church
The Chapel Royal of the Savoy in the Strand. The Palace of the Savoy was built in 1295 by Peter, Earl of Savoy and Richmond, uncle of Eleanor, wife of Henry III. It passed to the Duchy of Lancaster to which it still pertains. The King being Duke of Lancaster it is crown property and hence the Chapel is designated the Chapel Royal of the Savoy. For some reason it is called also St. Mary le Savoy, though it was apparently dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The entire palace, at that time the dwelling of John of Gaunt, was burnt down by Wat Tyler and his followers in 1381. Rebuilt, it passed through many vicissitudes including a long experience as a hospital and nothing remains now but the Chapel that was restored in 1505. In 1864 it was damaged by fire and restored by Queen Victoria at her own expense.

For a long time up to the year 1754 the chapel was a place for clandestine marriages. As late as January, 1754, the following advertisement appeared in the public advertiser.

“By authority.-Marriages performed with the utmost privacy, decency and regularity, at the Ancient Royal Chapel of St. John the Baptist in the Savoy, there regular and authetic registers have been kept from the time of the Reformation (being two hundred and fifty years and upwards) to this day. The expense not more than one guinea, the five shilling stamp included. There are five private ways by land to this Chapel, and two by water.”
Image Number: 22677

To what extent the women of London took part in public affairs, I do not know, but that they could take part and assert themselves in organized force upon occasion is proved by the following incident. In 1427 the Duke of Gloucester, uncle of the young King Henry, was Regent and the story concerns the extraordinary fortunes of his first wife Jacqueline of Brabant. She was connected with the House of Burgundy and in childhood she was married to the child prince John, son of Charles VI of France, and was left a widow at 16 when she was married to her imbecile cousin the Duke of Brabant with whom she refused to live, and leaving him came to England. The Duke of Gloucester fell in love with her and induced the Pope to grant a bull declaring her marriage null and void. He then married her and proposed to Brabant that he surrender the lady’s estates. This request was flatly refused and Gloucester—Duke Humphrey he was called—collected 5000 men and crossed the channel to compel the reluctant Brabant to make restitution. It seems that he could not find his enemy and here the mystery begins, for his conduct from that time forward needs explanation which has never been forthcoming. Leaving his wife at Mons, he suddenly returned to England. Jacqueline was taken prisoner and conducted to Holland ; she escaped in the disguise of a soldier and wandered about until, in distress, her sufferings induced her to surrender herself to Burgundy who exacted an agreement by which she denounced her marriage with Gloucester as illegal and named Burgundy her heir, Brabant having died about this time. The rest of poor Jacqueline’s story is pathetic enough but it does not concern the public appearance of the women of London in an organized body. That happened about the time when the deserted wife was a refugee from her relatives on the Continent. The London women were fully informed of what was happening—just how I cannot say for there were no newspapers and anyway most of them could not read. Being informed, it is natural that they should sympathize with the sorrows of a lady who through no fault. of her own was deprived of her rights, deserted by her husband and persecuted by her family—a wanderer in disguise. Their sympathy found public expression. They got together. Their speakers made themselves heard at Paul’s Cross whore they denounced the conduct of the Regent and demanded redress, Next, when the oratory had worked sufficiently, they marched to Westminster very quietly and sedately, taking care not to break anything and laid a petition before the Commons setting for their complaint against the Regent on behalf of his Duchess. Afterwards the men of London themselves made representations to Parliament urging some measures of relief for the unfortunate lady. But it was the women of London who first took up her cause. What might have came of it no one knows for when the news carne to London that Jacqueline had declared her marriage to have been unlawful she lost the sympathy of London. The Duke’s conduct throughout remains a mystery but his own end and the outcome of his second venture in marriage are clear enough. They belong in the story of Tyburn.

During the Civil War (1642-49) the London women were apparently on the side of the King. The War seemed to drag on interminably and London was suffering great hardship owing to the stoppage of all trade. The women got up a petition calling upon Parliament to make peace. That petition was expressed in terms remarkable for their force and eloquence, but the proceedings of the women were even more forceful. Assembling to the number of some five thousand with white ribbons in their hats so that all might know their sentiments, they went to Westminster and presented their petition. Parliament read it and sent a mild answer accompanied by a request that the petitioners go home. The women did not go home. They said they wanted “the traitors who were making war.” They shouted, “Give us the dog Pym.” Then Parliament sent for the soldiers who were received by the women with bricks and stones. Then the troops fired and the women dispersed.

St. Helen's church from the street
St. Helen’s Church, Bishopgate. The plan is that of two parallel naves, without aisles. The two were formerly divided by a screen. One was used by the Parish, and the other by a Convent of Nuns. Founded in the early 13th Century, it is one of the few churches that escaped the Great Fire. It contains the tombs of many City worthies and a beautiful memorial tablet to the men of the Parish killed in the War.

There remains to be mentioned—with all consideration, that inevitable class that, according to Besant, used to be described in old London as the Single Women. Inevitable they were because there were always many single men. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries we find these women ordered to wear an approved plain habit, not to make themselves too attractive, as though any woman would obey such an order! Then they were ordered to keep within Bankside and Cock Lane in Smithfield. Sometimes a Lord Mayor and Aldermen would try to banish the Single Women from the City altogether but they never succeeded. They dressed in finery and made themselves beautiful; they were at the Court, the Great House, the tavern, the street. They were dancers, singers—anything they pleased. Some of them were doubtless very bad. That there were among them women who for their generous natures and warm sympathies were remembered with affection by many when hardship and sorrow had done for them—the Jane Shores and Nell Gwynnes—London still bears witness. There was from time out of mind and perhaps there still is near Bankside a plot of ground, an acre called the Churchyard of the Single Women. There were no tombstones and nothing to indicate the graves, but it was kept green. Perhaps, ten thousand years from now, when great London is as desolate as the plain of windy Troy whence legend says it sprang—perhaps when the world has become as virtuous as it sometimes thinks it would like to be, some delving seeker after truth may uncover on the site of London a monument with the inscription To The Memory of The Single Women. It would be interesting to see how he would interpret the legend.

Good old Fitzstephen, when he wrote of the women of London did not arrange them in classes. Without distinction he recognized in them a type of womanhood. With that thought and that example in my mind I would like to write across the pages of this chapter the words of the old traveller—SABINAE SUNT.


1 The last burning of a woman convicted of crime in London took place in 1789. It was customary to strangle the victim before the fire was applied. In 1790 the law was repealed.↪

Cite This Article

Gordon, George Byron. "VI. The Women of London." The Museum Journal XIII, no. 4 (December, 1922): 283-294. Accessed May 20, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/7093/


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