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Cuckold’s Haven

The marry’d mans miſerie, who muſt abide
The penaltie of being Hornify’d:
Hee unto his Neighbours doeth make his caſe knowne,
And tells them all plainly, The caſe is their owne.1
(Cuckolds Haven)


Located in Rotherhithe, Surrey, south of the Thames, Cuckold’s Haven or Cuckold’s Point was notorious in early modern London. Several locations on the Surrey Peninsula have been associated with Cuckold’s Haven: the alternative name, Cuckold’s Point, fits with the location on Robert Adamsʼs map of 1588, which pinpoints Cuckold’s Haven on the upper, western point of the peninsula, while later maps show the location further east and south along the Thames (Thamesis Descriptio). The area was associated with illicit sexuality, especially adultery, and was symbolized by a pole surmounted by a pair of animal horns (Chalfant 62; De Marly 313; Bruster 195). Although the Agas map of 1561 does not extend far enough eastward to include Rotherhithe or the Surrey Peninsula, Cuckold’s Haven is clearly marked on Robert Adamsʼs map as part of the preparations against the Spanish Armada. Adams does not note a specific location with a symbol, but the map implies that the infamous horned pole marking the site would have stood on the northeast corner of the peninsula across from Limehouse (Harper). The riverside marker was referred to as a pole, a mast, and even a tree that is all fruit and no leaves (Chapman, Jonson, and Marston 149).
John Strype’s description of Cuckold’s Haven in his 18th century edition of Stow’s Survey of London accords with Adams’s map: LIMEHOUSE, a very populous Place, with fair Buildings next the River Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (DFD)[…] On the other Side, (viz. that of Surrey) is Rotherhithe. Near to this Place is Cuckolds Point; where there is a large pair of Horns fixed upon a Pole (Strype 43). Strype updated Stow’s work in 1720, charting London’s massive changes in the period between the surveys. Both authors had an intimate knowledge of the city, its history, and its lore. Stow’s comprehensive account of London, however, makes no mention of Cuckold’s Haven, possibly because the Surrey Peninsula fell outside the limits of the city (Stow). Still, Stow would surely have known of the site and its reputation through the many plays, ballads, and other printed sources that made use of the location and its associations with cuckoldry (Bruster 195-196; St. Pierre 39-41). These many references also make Strype’s claim not to know the meaning of the horned pole (I know not the Fancy for it) somewhat suspect (Strype 43).
Maps from the 18th and 19th centuries locate Cuckold’s Point further down on the eastern shoreline of the peninsula across from what later became the West India Docks, rather than directly at the northeast corner as suggested by Adams’s 1588 map (Thamesis Descriptio). A set of docks on the river’s south bank where the original marker stood eventually adopted the name after the pole had disappeared from the landscape. The Nelson Dock, London’s only dry dock, is the last remaining of those docks (A Thames Tour of Rotherhithe).

Name and Etymology

In early modern usage, the word cuckold meant primarily the husband of an unfaithful wife (LEME). The word is rooted in Middle English and Old French where it was linked to the cuckoo’s habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds (OED cuckold, n.1). A man who was a knowing cuckold—and even happy with his state—was termed a wittol. For reasons that remain obscure, the cuckolded husband was often depicted wearing animal horns upon his head (Dent 272-274; Partridge 112-113, 139, 287). Being sent to Cuckold’s Haven was a common phrase describing the fate of husbands whose wives had cheated on them (Dent 273). Searching the word cuckold in Early English Books Online yields various spellings and phrases such as cuckold-constable, cuckolated, and cuckoldage.


One of the earliest descriptions of the horned pole is in the diary of merchant-tailer Henry Machyn. He notes that on 25 May 1562 there was set up at Cuckold’s Haven a great Maypole by butchers and fishermen, full of horns. And they made great cheer, for there weas two firkins of fresh sturgeons and great conger and great turbots and great plenty of wine, that it came to eight pounds (Machyn 283). Although the precise origin of the pole is unknown, stories from the early modern period suggest it was in place as far back as King John’s reign. Two origin stories survive. In the first, a miller from Charlton comes home to find his wife in amorous embrace with an unknown man. The miller is enraged, but then recognizes the man as King John and begs his forgiveness. In compensation, the king grants the miller all the land visible from his doorway. The limit of this grant was marked by a pole at the river’s edge. However, as a condition of the grant, the king demands that on St. Luke’s Day, October 18, the miller don a set of horns and walk through the streets to the pole or otherwise lose the rights to the land (Bruster 196; Chalfant 62; De Marly 313).
The second origin tale for the horned pole on the river’s edge associates cuckoldry and economics. A group of London butchers are said to have agreed to keep the monument supplied with horns in exchange for the use of the surrounding fields in perpetuity. The horns were apparently often stolen and needed replacing on a regular basis. Loss of these lands would have been costly to the butchers, which may have fuelled the notoriety of the pole (Bruster 196). Nothing is known about who owned the fields in question—or why the owner would have concerned with maintaining the pole.
The story of Charlton miller is connected to a market fair held in nearby Bermondsey. Known as the Horn Faire, it traditionally opened with a pageant that featured citizens dressed as King John and the miller and his wife, and was followed by a procession of masked men wearing horns upon their heads. In his painting A View of London from Greenwich, the 18th century artist Jan Griffier portrays this procession and a view of the green with its playhouse in the foreground (De Marly 316). Contrary to the story, the fair was actually established in the parish of Charlton by decree of King Henry III more than fifty years after King John’s death (De Marly 314). The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent claims that the fair was an uncivilized event, infamous for rudeness and indecency. Apparently many efforts were made over the years to limit the antics of the participants (Hasted).
Cuckold’s Haven was also a site of public executions where pirates were hung from a gibbet that stood alongside the pole. John Taylor refers to the execution of pirates in his lament for the loss of the pole marking Cuckold’s Haven:
Downe by St. Katherines, where the Prieſt fell in
By Wapping, where as hang’d drownd Pirats dye;
(Or elſe ſuch Rats, I thinke as would eate Pye)
And paſſing further, I at firſt obſerv’d
That Cuckold-Haven was but badly ſerv’d.
For there old Tyme, had ſuch confuſion wrought,
That of that Ancient place reminaed nought.
No monumentall memorable Horne,
Or Tree or Poſte, which hath thoſe Trophees born,
Was left, whereby Poſterity may know
Where theire forefathers Crests did growe.
(Taylor sig. A3r)
The absence of the pole must have been only temporary.

Significance and Literary References

The pole at Cuckold’s Haven was so well known that several literary works make use of the location as a sort of geographical punchline, while popular ballads often warned of the consequences of cuckoldry via references to the pole (Bruster 196). For example, William Fennor’s poem Cornu-copiae, Paſquil’s Night Cap: or Antidote for the Head-ache, is a treatise about marital woes that ties the legend of the London butchers to the idea of the pole at Cuckold’s Haven as monument to the shrine of Lady Fortune, who is said to have given men marriage as a blessing on the one hand and cuckoldry as its companion on the other (Fennor 43).
In the public theatre, where cuckoldry was a common plot device, references to Cuckold’s Haven and the horned pole are ubiquitous (Blaisdell 15, 36; Bruster 197; St. Pierre 561-563). In Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston’s Eastward Ho!, Cuckold’s Haven is the setting for Act IV, in which a butcher’s apprentice named Slitgut climbs the pole to replace the horns. From atop the pole, the apprentice observes and comments on the fates of several other characters whose boats have capsized on the Thames during a storm. Security, a usurer and the play’s cuckold, pursues his wife and her lover on the river. When his boat capsizes, he is washed ashore at the foot of the pole. Slitgut offers assistance, but Security, in humiliation, rejects him. Eastward Ho! was one of several plays that exploited the social symbolism of Cuckold’s Haven, but the only one to set part of the action there (Chalfant 62). Thomas Dekker and John Webster also refer to Cuckold’s Haven in their plays Northward Ho and Westward Ho, but the action takes place in other areas around London.
References to Cuckold’s Haven also appear in more prosaic texts like travel narratives and diaries. The German lawyer Paul Hentzner made this entry in his travel diary of a visit to Radcliffe in 1598: on the opposite shore is a fixed a long pole with ram’s-horns upon it, the intention of which was vulgarly said to be a reflection upon willful and contented cuckolds (Hentzner 45-46). The diarist Samuel Pepys mentions Cuckold’s Haven in his entry for 20 February 1662:
Up and by water with Commissioner Pett to Deptford Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (DFD)[…] Thence thinking to have gone down bo Woolwich in the Charles pleasure boat, but she run aground, it being almost low water, and so by oars to the town, and there dined, Gap in transcription. Reason: Editorial omission for reasons of length or relevance. Use only in quotations in born-digital documents. (DFD)[…] took boat and to the pleasure boat, which was come down to fetch us back, and I could have been sick if I waould in going, the wind being very fresh, but very pleasant it was, and the first time I have sailed in any one of them. It carried us to Cuckold’s Point, and so by oars to the Temple, it raining hard, where missed speaking with my cousin Roger, and so walked home and to my office; there spent the night till bed time, and so home to supper and to bed. (Pepys 43)
The Horn Fair itself flourished until the latter part of the 19th century, where it was officially discontinued. Moral attitudes had changed and urban growth was eating up green space. The last fair was held in 1876 (De Marly 313-314). In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in Cuckold’s Haven, and the fair has been revived at Horn Fair Park in Charlton, further east on the river’s south bank (Ackroyd 267). No street names or memorials mark the original site.


  1. From the title of the 1638 ballad, Cuckolds Haven. (DFD)


Cite this page

MLA citation

Ferbrache-Darr, Dana. Cuckold’s Haven. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 30 Jun. 2021, mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/6.6/CUCK1.htm.

Chicago citation

Ferbrache-Darr, Dana. Cuckold’s Haven. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed June 30, 2021. mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/6.6/CUCK1.htm.

APA citation

Ferbrache-Darr, D. 2021. Cuckold’s Haven. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 6.6). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/editions/6.6/CUCK1.htm.

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Ferbrache-Darr, Dana
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Cuckold’s Haven
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 6.6
PY  - 2021
DA  - 2021/06/30
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/6.6/CUCK1.htm
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/6.6/xml/standalone/CUCK1.xml
ER  - 

TEI citation

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