Nostalgia: St Paul’s – a hotbed for crime

Old St Paul's Church, London, before the fire of 1561 destroyed the spire.
Old St Paul's Church, London, before the fire of 1561 destroyed the spire.

St Mary’s church at Scarborough was not always a place of peace and prayer during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but St Paul’s in London shocked visitors by the way it was then permanently misused.

According to a bishop from the provinces, “the south alley [aisle] was used by money-lenders, the north for selling religious pardons and favours, and in the middle there was a horse-fair for all kinds of bargains, meetings, brawlings, murders, conspiracies, and the font for the payment of money”.

At least the last part of this complaint was perfectly accurate. In July 1555 Sir Richard Cholmley agreed to pay £5,000 for 22,000 acres of land and all the properties on them in Whitby, Whitby Laithes, Larpool, Stainsacre, Hawsker and Fyling, which included the former abbot’s deerpark and hunting lodge at Fyling Hall. The money was to be handed over in five instalments during the next two years “at the baptismal stone of St Paul’s in London”.

Before it was burned down in 1666, old St Paul’s was a recognised meeting-place for lawyers, merchants and servants looking for employment. At one of the church doors, vacancies were advertised on a notice board and outside another, prostitutes offered themselves to passers-by. St Paul’s huge 12-acre yard was ground for a rich variety of hawkers selling wares from butchers’ meat to books and stationery. There was even a shop there offering the new fashionable weed or drug called tobacco.

Long before Charles Dickens invented Fagin, in Shakespeare’s time London had a criminal gangmaster by the name of Lawrence Pickering. Every week Pickering held a “board-meeting” for the exchange of intelligence and news about street crime. The members operated in all the many places where potential victims known as “gulls” (hence gullible), were to be found most frequently. In addition to St Paul’s, other favourite hunting grounds were the theatres amongst the “groundlings”, bull-rings, eating-houses, taverns, brothels, inns, bowling-alleys and gambling dens.

Each cut-purse usually had a partner, called a copesmate, whose job it was to distract the gull’s attention by some means while his “bung” (purse) was being “nipped” (cut). “Foisting” was another word for pickpocketing, though coins were usually carried in leather purses, not sewn-in pockets. The cutpurse either slit the purse open or cut the strings which attached it to a waist or shoulder belt.

After Pickering came Wooton, a London merchant who decided that robbery was more lucrative than legitimate trade. He ran a school for thieves which taught small boys how to take purses without ringing the hawks’ bells to which they were often attached.

A gull was also called a “coney”, or rabbit, who was vulnerable to tricks, deceits and empty promises of mountebanks and quacks. A coney might be lured into the “stews”, the brothels which were concentrated at Southwark. In Shakespeare’s day, the outside walls of the stews were painted white to identify them.

Surprisingly, Henry VIII had closed down London’s stews, only for his elder daughter, the Catholic Queen Mary, even more surprisingly, to re-open them. Though during Elizabeth’s reign selling sex was still a criminal offence, prostitution was so common in the capital that magistrates usually tolerated it. Only rarely were whores paraded through the streets, their heads shaved and a paper label stuck to their foreheads describing their offences.

Gulls and coneys were also the victims of sharp-practices and cheating with loaded dice and marked playing cards in gambling houses. Those foolishly and expensively addicted to gambling were known in the trade as “barnacles”.

Astrologers, alchemists and necromancers fed on “gulls”. Even some of the most intelligent and well-educated of Elizabeth’s subjects were gulled into paying money to confidence tricksters such as those who claimed to be able to convert base into precious metal. For example, Sir Hugh Cholmley was astonished and dismayed that his own father, “one of the ablest and wisest gentlemen of the county”, even at the age of 47, could still waste hundreds of pounds on such a “fopery and delusion” as the “phylossopher stone”.

The most famous astrologer of the time was Dr Dee, on whom the Queen relied to read her horoscope and foretell her future. After many wrong predictions and many failures to turn pewter into gold, the doctor died in poverty in 1608, having sold his magical books to buy food.

Necromancers were magicians who claimed special predictive powers by communicating with the dead or parts of them. They employed full-time grave diggers. One such “medium” was Edward Kelley, who in England had his ears cropped, was imprisoned in Prague for failing to make gold for the emperor, and killed himself trying to escape through a tower window.

Cutting off ears was just one of the many appalling physical punishments meted out to miscreants. Beggars were branded and whipped out of the locality; hands were cut off; scolds might be pilloried, whipped or even drowned; poisoners were boiled alive; and, since there were no prisons as we know them, petty offenders were put in the public stocks or pillory and pelted with every kind of insult and missile.

Since stealing goods worth more than a shilling carried the death penalty, judges knowingly undervalued the stolen property to save the defendant from the gallows. Nevertheless, hanging was still an everyday spectacle in Shakespeare’s London. Tyburn was the main place for execution, yet there were others such as outside the west door of St Paul’s.

Offences against the Crown were the most unforgiveable and severely sanctioned. In 1580, when it seemed that Queen Elizabeth, who was nearly 50, might marry a French duke, a rash Puritan, called John Stubbs, wrote a book condemning such “an immoral union”. She ordered that his right hand should be removed. He had to become left-handed and she remained single.

During the Queen’s long reign, a long list of aristocratic and royal “traitors” were beheaded and those “commons” who had plotted against her were hanged, drawn and quartered, usually after torture. Only in Halifax was a condemned commoner allowed the privilege of the axe, the town’s unique guillotine.