London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750 by Robert O Bucholz and Joseph P Ward
|London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750 by Robert O Bucholz and Joseph P Ward
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: A detailed account of how London became the greatest city in Europe and one of the most vibrant economic and cultural centres in the world.
|Date: July 2012
|Publisher: Cambridge University Press
It seems hard to visualise a time when London was just a city of no major importance, except as England’s capital. The main thrust of this book is only about halfway through the Tudor area did it really rise to global prominence and come to dominate the economic, political, social and cultural life of the nation as it never had before – and arguably since. By 1750 it had also surpassed Amsterdam as Europe’s financial and banking hub, and become 'a cornucopia of culture' through its vibrant concert and theatre life, to say nothing of a thriving and relatively free press. Before long it would also become the home of the British Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts. Lest this testimonial seems too gilded, we are reminded at the same time that the city was one of palaces and slums, concert halls and gin joints, churches and brothels, possibility and fear. Good and evil were always side by side.
The eight chapters look in detail at how the sleepy port and court town of a second-rate power on the fringes of Europe rose from relative obscurity to become the greatest city in Europe, and how several thousand people a year came there, made it the city it was, and became Londoners themselves. In a sense the gradual development of the city was a world of its own, far removed from the rest of England where people generally lived in rural villages with a population of 500 or less. Only about 10% lived in cities in 1550, a figure which had more than doubled two hundred years later, a figure largely accounted for by the increase in the capital.
There is a different theme to each chapter. First we have a description of the city in 1550, and how it had developed since Roman times on both sides of the Thames. It is interesting to visualise the main sights that a visitor from another part of the country might have seen at this time, from Westminster Hall and Abbey and St James's Palace, to the Tower and Covent Garden, London’s first major housing development. In the Middle Ages Charing was a separate village, the name meaning 'to turn' in Old English, probably as it was there that the river turned. The growth in population from around 120,000 to 675,000 during the two centuries is examined, and perhaps all the more remarkable in view of six major outbreaks of plague during the time.
For me the book really came alive with its description of royal and civic London. The point is made that the royal court was in a sense the centre of the world, with the King's household the seat of England’s government, as well as its social and cultural headquarters. Providing jobs for about 2,000 people, it was also probably the largest single employer in one place in the British Isles. There is a picturesque description of the King and Queen dining in state, a popular spectacle during the reign of Charles II at which so many gathered that on occasions the royal diners had to be railed off. (And we thought that today’s monarch and her family often had to put up with an excruciating lack of privacy from the tabloid press).
There is likewise an engrossing look at the fine arts, from painting and architecture to theatre and music. Once again the authors have found plenty of fascinating snippets, not least the observation that the later Tudor court produced no painter of the quality of Holbein the Younger, as Queen Elizabeth set portraiture back in England half a century by having her Privy Council regulate her image to ensure that she always appeared as she was early in her reign – an early example of spin. The celebration of contemporary London in such diverse works as Handel’s 'Music for the Royal Fireworks' and John Gay's 'Beggar's Opera which 'made Gay rich and John Rich (his producer) gay' is described in detail.
Nevertheless these were not always peaceful times. London was often the centre of rebellion, with the Riot Act passed in 1715 declaring that any twelve people unlawfully assembled constituted a riot. The twin disasters of the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire a year later have a chapter to themselves, the city's recovery delayed by war with Holland another year after that. However Londoners coped, rebuilding the city far bigger and more opulent than it had been before. Criminal London has several pages to itself, particularly the criminal underworld and the exploits of self-styled thief-taker Jonathan Wild, eventually brought to justice and hanged himself.
This is a superbly researched book from which I learnt much. It is however rather dry on the whole, being history for the serious rather than the casual reader. As a minor point, I also felt that the forty pages of black and white plates would have been better placed roughly in the middle of the book rather than at the front, a practice which seems rather old-fashioned these days. Nevertheless there is a great deal of value and solid fact in these pages.
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