London's Letter Books April 1529 (London Metropolitan Archives COL/AD/01/014)
The Courts of Alderman and Common Council met in London, sometimes every week, to discuss those matters that affected all Londoners, including freemen (who had rights to trade in the city), women, servants, apprentices, and foreigners (aliens) who made up London’s large population. Like all municipal councils their concerns were not the high religious or political matters of the day, although the business they conducted in the councils was certainly carried out with an astute knowledge of what was happening throughout the realm, but rather with the preoccupations that living in a sprawling urban environment brought.
The records of their meetings are preserved in what are known as the Letter Books of the City of London. Beginning in 1275 it’s the April entries from 1529 – on the eve of England’s Reformation – that bring to life a city filled with everyday concerns: selling foodstuffs; immoral women (and men); luxury goods bought by the King; and, all-important records of financial matters.
In these entries we can catch a glimpse of what life was like for Londoners in the first half of the sixteenth century, of the issues that affected them daily, and of the rigorous and painstaking way city life was recorded, administered and made to function as smoothly as possible.
What, then, happened in London in April 1529?
Londoner’s were eating a diet of beef, veal and mutton, as we can tell from the Ordinance of the Lord Legate and King’s Counsel which was proclaimed on the 26th laying down the prices for selling these various meats. However, concerns with the legitimacy of this abounded as the Lord Mayor noted he would check and approve the weights used to measure this meat before it could be sold.
Richard Wyer, living in the evocatively named Bread Street ward, had more pressing matters on his mind – he had just been convicted for procuring single women for overseas merchants and was about to be taken to the pillory and then banished from the city.
April seems to have been a heady time for this, as there followed ‘A proclamation for Bawdee’ naming one Rose, Besse Bankes, Elizabeth Hubberd, and Margarett Egyll for the crime of bawdry. Like Richard Wyer (and one suspects these are the single women he was earlier convicted of procuring) these four women were banished from the city after having been walked through the streets with the mark of common bawds. No further record of their lives, or Richard’s, is to be found in these records.
Far removed from this, the King had happily just spent £326 pounds buying cloth of gold and silver (£326, 13s and 4d). For his labour in this, the King’s servant, a man known as Naylyngherst, was to receive a ‘Reward for his labour’.
And finally, from an entry from the 20th April, we know that the residents around St Katherine Christchurch were to be entertained with a play with the Church receiving a special license to put on a stage play for its parishioners.
For Londoners it was these everyday activities – buying food, watching the public spectacle of crimes being punished, and attending plays – that made up the business of their lives. For the Council, it was the organisation, administration and careful scrutiny of these activities that made the city of London function.
Dr Merridee L. Bailey is a Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Adelaide. Her work focuses on merchant thought and conduct across the late medieval and early modern period, in particular how morality and emotions can be seen within mercantile activities. She was previously a PhD student and lecturer in the School of History at the ANU.