Cheapside, one of the most important streets in early modern London, ran east-west between the Great Conduit at the foot of Old Jewry to the Little Conduit by St. Paul’s churchyard. The terminus of all the northbound streets from the river, the broad expanse of Cheapside separated the northern wards from the southern wards. It was lined with buildings three, four, and even five stories tall (Weinreb 148), whose shopfronts were open to the light and set out with attractive displays of luxury commodities. Cheapside was the centre of London’s wealth, with many mercers’ and goldsmiths’ shops located there. It was also the most sacred stretch of the processional route, being traced both by the linear east-west route of a royal entry and by the circular route of the annual mayoral procession.
Both the street and Cheap Ward through which it ran were named for the market located there. Cheapside or West Cheap was the site of a great medieval food market. West Cheap and East Cheap were the two principal market areas of London, both created during King Alfred’s program of urban renewal in the ninth century (Sheppard 71). Over time, Cheapside became the more prestigious market location. The name originated from the word "chepe," which has also been spelled "cepe" and "cheop," and means a market, or bargaining place (OED, "cheap, n.").
The importance of Cheapside Street increased greatly after 1087. It was in this year that Mauritius, then the bishop of London, began rebuilding St. Paul’s cathedral (Stow 1:324). The new church’s footprint was much larger than that of the previous structure, and it blocked traffic running from Aldgate to Ludgate. To alleviate the congestion and danger caused by frequently turning horses and wagons, Newgate was built, allowing traffic to flow through the city on Cheapside. Thus the street grew very busy and became a good location for tradespeople to sell their wares (Stow 1:35–36). The names of the streets leading out of Cheapside are a good indication of some of the goods sold there: bread, wood, honey, milk, and poultry (Bebbington 82). More evidence of the high traffic in Cheapside is found in a royal proclamation by Edward I, designed to ease congestion:
All manner of victuals that are sold by persons in Chepe upon Cornhulle and elsewhere in the City, such as bread, cheese, poultry, fruit, hides and skins, onions and garlic, and all other small victuals, for sale as well by denizens as by strangers, shall stand midway between the kennels [gutters] of the streets, so as to be a nuisance to no one under pain of forfeiture of the article.
(qtd. in Bebbington 82)
By Stow’s time, Cheapside had many important landmarks as well. On the east end of the street was the Great Conduit, where people could get fresh water, conveyed by underground pipes from Paddington. At the west end were a little conduit near Paul’s gate, St. Paul’s itself, and the Standard in Cheapside. Executions of criminals were once performed at the Standard (Stow 1:265). The Saddlers’ Hall, and three churches, St. Mary-le-Bow, St Peter West Cheap, and St. Michael at Corn, were also located in Cheapside. In the street itself jousts and various other entertainments were often held (Bebbington 82).
Also on Cheapside was a Great Cross, three stories tall, erected by decree of Edward I after the death of his wife Eleanor (Weinreb 148). She died in the countryside, near Lincoln, and at every place her body rested on the way to Westminster, Edward ordered a great stone cross to be built with her image upon it. The cross at Cheapside fell into ruin over many years and was recommissioned and repaired several times, often with funds from local mercers. It was newly gilt for the coronation procession of each new monarch, and for the entry processions of visiting monarchs until 1581, when it was defaced by vandals (Stow 1:266–67).
The most sacred segment of the coronation processional route was along Cheapside. It was here that the most expensive and elaborate pageants took place, as can be seen in Thomas Dekker’s The Magnificent Entertainment (1604) and Richard Mulcaster’s The Quenes Maiesties Passage. The most extravagant portions of the Lord Mayor’s pageant also took place here, such as those in Thomas Middleton’s The Triumphs of Truth.
The part of Cheapside known as Goldsmiths’ Row ran between Bread Street and Friday Street (Weinreb 148). Goldsmiths’ Row and the shops and homes of other wealthy merchants made the street an elite and attractive one. Stow claims that there were ten houses and fourteen shops in Goldsmith’s Row, and that they were easily the most beautiful in London (Stow 1:296, 1:345–46). The Mercers’ Hall was also located on the North side of Cheapside Street. The result was a high concentration of wealth and power in Cheapside.
Eventually, goldsmiths began to leave Goldsmiths’ Row, and other businesses moved in. James I wanted to keep all the goldsmiths in one place because it made for a more beautiful street, with fine houses kept by rich men, and because it was easier for him to monitor trade in gold. The king passed laws requiring non-goldsmiths to leave and goldsmiths elsewhere in the city to relocate to Cheapside. By 1628 the Privy Council was imprisoning non-goldsmiths who refused to vacate.
Cheapside Street was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, as was the rest of Cheap Ward. St. Mary-le-Bow and the Mercers’ and Saddlers’ Halls were rebuilt (Weinreb 148).
Cheapside is once again "becoming one of the City of London’s most prestigious shopping destinations," according to the Cheapside Initiative project (About the Initiative).
See also: Chalfant 53.
- Bebbington, Gillian. London Street Names. London: B.T. Batsford, 1972. Print.
- Chalfant, Fran C. Ben Jonson’s London: A Jacobean Placename Dictionary. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1978. Print.
Politics Made Visible: Order, Residence, and Uniformity in Cheapside, 1600–45.Londinopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London. Ed. Paul Griffiths and Mark S.R. Jenner. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. 176–96. Print.
Cheapside: Commerce and Commemoration.The Huntington Library Quarterly 71.1 (2008): 77–98. Print.
’The City Cannot Hold You’: Social Conversion in the Goldsmith’s Shop.Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (2002): 2:1–25. Web.
- Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Web. Subscr. OED.
Elizabethan London - Goldsmiths’ Row in Cheapside, 1558–1645.Guildhall Miscellany 2 (1963): 181–206. Print.
- Sheppard, Francis. London: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
- Stow, John. A Survey of London. Reprinted from the Text of 1603. Ed. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1908. Print. [Also available as a reprint from Elibron Classics (2001). Articles written before 2011 cite from the print edition by volume and page number.]
- Weinreb, Ben, and Christopher Hibbert, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. New York: St. Martin’s, 1983. Print. [You may also wish to consult the 3rd edition of The London Encyclopedia (2008). Print.]
This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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