The Before Shakespeare Guide to the Elizabethan East End


Summer 1567.  A feature piece for Elizabethan developers, house buyers, tourists, and those interested in keeping up with the latest cultural developments just outside of the City of London. 

In this feature, we tell you why it might just be worth buying that coaching inn with the extra land, or finally getting around to doing something with that Courte or yarde lying on the south syde of the Garden…[1]

We’ve all heard it said that things stop at Aldgate, but plenty of Londoners have found the journey east worth making. Mile End has a reputation as a space “outside” London very much for “outsiders,” but don’t let that put off the more well-heeled among you: this area has long been a property hotspot for noblemen investing in (and inheriting and marrying into) marshland, manors, and fields. You might have heard of the parishes of Stepney and Whitechapel, with their small surrounding hamlets such as Mile End, but don’t be fooled: the east beyond Elizabethan London isn’t only for country types. The area’s developing industries, desirable access routes, and burgeoning entertainment scene are attracting entrepreneurs, visitors, and travellers.

Location, Location, Location:

Yes, it’s outside the City and its jurisidictions, but there are reasons why people may wish to look east when making investments or taking a punt on innovative developments (see our entertainment feature below).


Joel Gascoyne’s map of Mile End Old Town (1703); British Library Crace Port. 16.32.

From around 1200, a postern gate was added north of the Tower, allowing two roads to run east. These roads take travellers towards Wapping and towards Ratcliff, and beyond. There’s also the major road to Colchester, and what might look like a stretch of waste is in fact early signs of the Cambridge Road, taking you up through the small town of Bethnal Green, towards Hackney and further northwards. The route from Limehouse out towards Blackwall, through Poplar High Street, allows you to travel north to Bow and Bromley (by-Bow) as well as south towards the Isle of Dogs. That might not sound so exciting on the surface, but royal residences like Pomfret (a favourite of Edward I) and Greenwich (an important location for our current queen) can be accessed by a southward ferry at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs. (James, when he eventually arrives next century, will find this route useful if he travels to Greenwich from Theobalts in Hertfordshire: one for the future…). The area’s proximity to the river provides useful transport links; on the other hand, royal sources suggest that the Thames east of London may in the future get a little lively, so be warned:

Where diverse disordered persons have of late in the nighttime been disorderly, disquieted her most excellent majesty from her sleep and natural rest by shooting of guns and calivers, and throwing of squibs [fireworks], by sounding of drums and fifes upon the River of Thames to Her Majesty’s great offence… (21 Feb. 1579; London Metropolitan Archives, JORS 21; 41v [modernised])

Who Wants to be a Mill-ionaire:

The medieval economy of Stepney and Whitechapel was all about mills, capitalising on the area’s proximity to water (the River Lea as well as the River Thames) and its marshy and reclaimed lands. The land itself, not much above sea water, is prone to flooding in certain places, so you may want to bear that in mind if you’re looking to spend on expensive decorative hangings; you may also be liable to paying out for reparations and maintenance. We’re confident that the area will see increasing activity from, for instance, the fitting out of merchant and royal ships from this point forward. We also have it on good authority from John Stowe that the area immediately to the south of Whitechapel and Mile End will be growing in size:

Not farre from thence, of very late [by 1598]. . . there have beene raised many small Tenements towards Radliffe: and Radliffe it selfe, hath been so increased in building Eastward (in where, I have knowne faire hedges, long rowes of Elme, and other trees) that the same have now taken hold of Limehurst, (or Lime hoste it selfe) commonly called Lime house, sometime distant a mile from Radliffe. (The Survey of London, 1598, Z6r)

So don’t mistake those long rows of elms as you see them now for safe, secure countryside; the area is in the process of being transformed into an important economic, social, and residential extension of London.

Noble Intentions:

The area is characterised, too, by former manors in the possession of noble figures and aristocrats, as well as powerful men of the realm. A number of the manors have been in the previous ownership of men like the Dean of Paul’s (formerly of the manor of Shadwell). The manors of Stepney and Hackney found their way through the King, in 1550, to Sir Thomas Wentworth; by 1581, we suspect they will for a short while be in the possession of Lord Burghley (through his son’s marriage to Elizabeth Wentworth). For our more common reader, though, take heart; these aristocratic lands also wend their ways, through various rents, inheritances, and sales to the occupancy of more humble folk (though you’ll still need some bees and honey!).

Army Dreamers

Stepney and Mile End have a patched reputation in the popular imagination. We have a sneak preview of Richard Grafton’s A Chronicle at large and mere history of the affayres of Englande (forthcoming in 1569) and his historical references to the area:

And then the king [Richard II during the peasants’ revolt, 1381] sent unto them [the revolting peasants] that they should all draw to a fayre plaine place called Myle ende, where as the people of the Citie did use to shote, and thether the king promised to come to them, and to graunt them whatsoever they desyred. (GG2r)

More recently, only 30 years ago, King Henry VIII assembled his troops in reaction to the “cankard and cruell serpent the bishop of Rome,” who encouraged princes to invade England. The country was prompted to perform various military and naval exercises, and the city’s Aldermen put on a fearsome display:

The .viij. day of May [1539], accordyng to the kinges pleasure, every Alderman in order of battaile with his warde came into the common field at Mile ende, and then all the Gonnes seuered themselues into one place, the Pykes in another, and the Bowmen in another, and likewise the Bilmen, and there rynged and snayled, which was a goodly sight to beholde: for all the fieldes from white Chapell to Myle ende, and from Bednall Greene to Ratclyffe, and to Stepney were all couered with harnesse, men, and weapons, and in especiall the battaile of Pykes seemed to be a great Forrest. [. . .] About .viij. of the clocke in the mornyng marched forward the lyght peces of ordinaunce, with stone and powder, after them folowed the Dromes, and Fyffes, and immediately after them a Guydon of the armes of the Citie. (Nnnnn3r) [Holinshed lifts this description in 1577]

Its military associations also have a darker side. According to historical reports, this is where Jack Cade brought his rebels in 1450, outside the city, and where they beheaded a Lord: “Enter Cade, Dicke Butcher, Smith the Weaver, and a Sawyer, with infinite numbers”; that’s how a stage direction in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI will paint the scene in later years ( [Folio s.d.]). In that respect, the area has a darker reputation as a space for disorder and inversion: “In 1299, a London carpenter was accused of holding a ‘parliament’ of carpenters there to oppose a City ordinance” (Victoria History of the County of Middlesex, Vol. 11 [London: Oxford UP, 1998]; 17).

So yes, some may see the area as a place for brandishing both state-sanctioned and state-threatening military might. Today, if you don’t wish to take your bow and arrow to practice archery around Mile End, you can recapture the drama of these moments by seeing one of the city’s musters in these eastern fields. The musters gather the city’s milita (about once every three years at this time), with soldiers and weapons contributed by livery companies, in martial exercise. Should you feel spirited by Grafton’s account of Mile End militarism, this is certainly a place for a visit (bring a pike or drum: every little help needed).

ent feature image2.jpg

As we write this, we expect the Red Lion will shortly be roaring! Having navigated an urgent legal proceeding with the carpenter William Sylvester, John Brayne, grocer, has managed to finish a spectators’ gallery for a playhouse-like structure just off the Whitechapel Road.


Detail from Gascoyne’s map (BL Crace Port. 16.32) indicating rough location of the Red Lion stage (for further detail and discussion, see Ingram 106-10).

Rumour has it that the stage itself may not be wholly satisfactory but is serviceable—and we can’t wait to see what use lies in store for its curious “turret” structure…[2] Brayne isn’t the first to bring this area to theatrical life; we have spoken with residents who remember performances under Henry VII, and we print below a leaked extract from the late King’s Treasurer’s Account book:

6 August 1501:
Also to the players at Mile End, 3 shillings, 4 pence

(We also spotted another entertainment expense from the following week: “Also to Weston for the King’s playing at cards, 8 shillings, 4 pence)


Well, we wonder what the Queen knows about her grandfather’s gambling habits… At least she’s inherited his interest in theatrical performance: a little royal encouragement never goes amiss when it comes to entertainment these days. So a potentially hair-raising/hair-razing Story of Sampson will be playing at the Red Lion in Whitechapel/Mile End from around the end of July (Brayne’s lawsuit over the galleries finished on the 19th, so it’s full steam ahead, though we can’t comment on the length of the performance run). Players or entrepreneurs take note: we think this playing place business may be one trend worth keeping an eye on…


Further reading:

Berry, Herbert. “The First Public Playhouses, Especially the Red Lion.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40.2 (1989): 133-48.

Victoria History of the County of Middlesex. Vol. XI: Early Stepney with Bethnal Green. Ed. C. R. J. Currie. London: Oxford UP, 1998.

Ingram, William. The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London. London: Cornell UP, 1992.


[1] “…that Courte or yarde…”: i.e. what becomes the Red Lion playhouse, taken from the contract cited in John Brayne’s against John Raynolds, National Archives KB 27/1229/m, 30 (1568): “…if the withinbounden John Raynoldes hys executors or Assygnes or any of them att hys or theyre proper Costes & chardges do fframe make or buylde & sett vpp for the within named John Braynes within the Courte or yarde lying on the south syde of the Garden belonginge to the messuage or farme howse called & knowen by the name of the sygne of the redd lyon aboute the wch Courte there are galleres nowe buyldinge scituate & beinge at myle end in the paryshe of Seynt mary matfellon otherwise called whyte Chappell withowte Algate of London sometyme called Starkes house one Skaffolde or stage for enterludes or playes….”

[2] Details of the stage from the court case against Reynolds: “And yf the sayde John Reynoldes hys executors or assignes do make frame or sett vp vppon the sayde skaffolde one convenient turret of Tymber & boordes wch shalle conteyne & be in heyghte from the grounde sett vppon plates thirtie foote of assyse wth a Convenyent flower of Tymber & boordes wch in the same Turret seaven foote vnder the toppe of the same Turret And that the same Turrett be in alle places sufficiently brased pynned & fastenet for the byndynge together of the same Turret And do also make frame & sett vp vppon the toppe of the same Turret some suffycyent compasse brases of good and welle seasoned tymber…”

[3] Modernised; original entries read: “Item to the players at myles Ende — iij s iiij d” and “Item to Weston for the kinges pleyng at Cardes — viijs iiijd” (National Archives E101/415/3 61v and 62r).

4 thoughts on “The Before Shakespeare Guide to the Elizabethan East End

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