Gossip at Paul’s Walking
This is the indictment of the good Lord Hastings,
Which in a set hand fairly is engrossed
That it may be this day read over in Paul’s.
And mark how well the sequel hangs together[.]
Richard III is a play about rumour and gossip. The events depicted in the play took place over a hundred years before Shakespeare wrote about them. Even in 1483, such a proclamation could reasonably have been expected to be made at St. Paul’s. However, this mention would have rung with contemporary significance in the ears of Shakespeare’s audience members, for, in Elizabethan and early Stuart London, the great temple of rumour and gossip was St. Paul’s.
Though it was still a functioning church, St. Paul’s was also a centre of trade and socializing for early modern Londoners. Francis Osborne gives the following account of a phenomenon known as
It was the fashion of those times, and did so continue till these [. . .] for the principal gentry, lords, courtiers, and men of all professions not merely mechanic, to meet in Paul’s Church by eleven and walk in the middle aisle till twelve, and after dinner from three to six, during which times some discoursed on business, others of news. Now in regard of the universal commerce there happened little that did not first or last arrive here. [. . .] And those news-mongers, as they called them, did not only take the boldness to weigh the public but most intrinsic actions of the state, which some courtier or other did betray to this society.
(qtd. in Thomson 1)
This is the atmosphere in which John Chamberlain found the material for his famous Letters. Chamberlain lived in the vicinity of Paul’s and spent a great deal of his time at
Paul’s-walkingtaking in the hot gossip of the day, which was, thankfully, preserved for us in his letters.
The din and clamor of Paul’s secular uses was a serious annoyance to those who still wanted to use the church as a church.Pilkington gives a testimony of the state of Paul’s in 1561, with a perspective less tolerant than Osborne’s:
the south alley for usury and poperey, the north for sorcery, and the horse fair in the midst for all kinds of bargains, meetings, brawlings, murders, conspiracies, and the font for ordinary payments of money, are so well known to all men as the beggar knows his dish.
(qtd. in Douglas-Irvine 417)
We must take such an account with a grain of salt, but there is an essential truth conveyed in it; the combination of sacred and secular at St. Paul’s was a marriage made in hell. In the time of John Donne’s deanship, visitors met to exchange gossip at Paul’s, and even brought their children to play there. Combined with the noise of tradespeople, this social activity made mass in the adjacent choir almost impossible (Bald 403).
For better or for worse, Paul’s was the centre for the dissemination of news, true or false, in early modern London. In all likelihood, its vast throngs of tradespeople and gossipers grossly outnumbered its parishioners on any given day. Shakespeare’s Richard III, a master of spinning lies, knew that the place to transform rumour into
truthwas Paul’s. An inveterate gossip like Chamberlain was in heaven there, but a simple churchgoer was in hell.
- Bald, R.C. John Donne: A Life. New York: Oxford, 1970.
Douglas-Irvine, Miss H.
Cathedral of St. Paul.The Victoria History of London. Ed. William F. Page. Vol. 1. London: Constable, 1909. 409–32.
- Shakespeare, William[play not in MoEML Bibliography]. Richard the Third (Modern). Ed. Adrian Kiernander. Internet Shakespeare Editions. 6 March 2012. Open.
- Thomson, Elizabeth, ed. The Chamberlain Letters. New York: Putnam, 1965.
Last modification: 2016-06-04 15:39:30 -0700 (Sat, 04 Jun 2016) (jtakeda)