Graduate student contribution

Pedagogical Partner contribution

The Thames

This document is currently in draft. When it has been reviewed and proofed, it will be published on the site.

View the draft document.

Please note that it is not of publishable quality yet.

The Thames

roseAgas Map
roseList documents mentioning The Thames


Perhaps more than any other geophysical feature, the Thames river has directly affected London’s growth and rise to prominence; historically, the city’s economic, political, and military importance was dependent on its riverine location. As a tidal river, connected to the North Sea, the Thames allowed for transportation to and from the outside world; and, as the longest river in England, bordering on nine counties, it linked London to the country’s interior. Indeed, without the Thames, London would not exist as one of Europe’s most influential cities. The Thames, however, is notable for its dichotomous nature: it is both a natural phenomenon and a cultural construct; it lives in geological time but has been the measure of human history; and the city was built around the river, but the river has been reshaped by the city and its inhabitants.
Looking at the Agas map, one can clearly see that the river was a line of demarcation, dividing the city into two halves; yet, the river also broke down social barriers, as the lowly waterman ruled the river and controlled the ability of all classes to cross from one side to another. During the early modern period, only one bridge (London Bridge) spanned the Thames, so traffic across the river was intense: city dwellers had to board ferries and private barges to get from one side to another. This urban traffic also had to compete with large ships bringing in trade from abroad. The many stairs, quays (keys), and wharfs attest to the heavy usage of the river but also show how humans modified the river’s physical structure to accommodate their own interests. The immense growth of London in this period of time encroached on the river’s natural course; yet, natural occurrences on the river, such as flooding and freezing, could also impact the city and its residents. As the main artery of life for London, the Thames river was an important agent of transformation, and its history is recorded in myth of old; the literature of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Jonson; and the historical surveys and diaries of John Stow, John Evelyn, and Samuel Pepys. Addressing both the natural aspects and the social, political, and cultural significance of the river, this article covers the following topics: Ecology; Religious Practices: Mythology and Christianity; Military History; Politics; Navigation (Ecological effects of Navigation); Landings; London Bridge; Watermen; Economy on the Water; Economy on the Shore; Crime and Punishment (Murder, Piracy, Heads on Spikes; Witchcraft and Ducking); Pageants; Frost Fairs; Art; Food; Gardens; and Ecological Effect. We begin with a discussion of the river’s ecology because the geo-chronology of the river predates and dictated the anthro-chronology of the city.


The early modern understanding of the Thames was different from common perceptions of nature at this time; most early moderns saw nature, and the Thames in particular, as something to be tamed and harnessed. However, the Thames did not require the same amount of effort in order to make it benefit humans. The river provided food—mainly fish—without requiring the work of the plow, and it provided a path for travel and trade without the work of building roads or moving goods by foot or by cart. This water-path created shipping opportunities for London that helped forge England into a formidable power.
For the most part, Londoners saw the Thames as either a boundary to cross or a means to an end. Much of the early modern writing concerning the Thames revolves around the trade and shipping on the river, the boundaries created by the river, and the people who used the river for transportation and entertainment. In Survey of London, John Stow introduces the Thames by giving a brief history of its interaction with humans and how humans used the river; for the rest of his Survey, Stow tends to focus on the Thames as a line of demarcation, occasionally talking about boats and shipping. In The London Adviser and Guide (1586), John Trusler writes, The river Thames, up and down, towards Richmond, the banks are every where covered with elegant villas (166). The Thames river is rarely described without mentioning the humans who incorporate it into their habitat. Yet despite being often overlooked or minimized in records of the period, the Thames was integral to life in London, as illustrated by Stow’s account of an alderman, who upon hearing that Queen Mary intended to move Parliament and the courts to Oxford, asked if she planned to divert the river as well. The answer was no, and the alderman replied, then by Gods grace we shall doe well enough at London, whatsoeuer become of the Tearme and Parliament (Stow 1598, sig. 2G4v). London would not exist without the Thames; however, the city would do quite fine without Parliament or the seat of government.
Stow does mention the water of the Thames, which was pumped into the city of London. This water was considered sweeter and softer water than that of other rivers, and Trusler expounds on the virtue of the Thames’ water, writing, The Thames water is reckoned softer than that of the new river. If a fire happens in the night, application for water from this Company, and that of London-bridge, must be made at the respective offices (24). In fact, Trusler reports when fire broke, Londoners preferred to use Thames water to dose the flames. Thames water is also mentioned in John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum (1640), which notes that Marsh or Water Hemlock was growing by our Thames sides in many places and the like Rivers sides in our owne Land (934). Parkinson praises the quality of Thames water, saying, it is observed by many, that the water of our River of Thames about London doth make better and stronger drinke (keeping equall proportion in all things) then that which is made of other Spring or River water else where (1133). Stow records the brewers’ preference for Thames water: But the Brewers for the more part remaine neare to the friendly water of Thames (1.81).
In addition to excellent water, the Thames[[THAM2]] yielded a harvest of fish that needed little tending, arguably the best fish in England[[ENGL2]]. Izaak Walton, in The Complete Angler (1683), writes of these fish that there is none bigger then in England[[ENGL2]], nor none better then in Thames[[THAM2]] (135). Trusler disagrees about the inherent attributes of Thames[[THAM2]] salmon but does concede that Thames[[THAM2]] salmon is the freshest, which means it can be crimped or cut before rigor mortis set in, creating a firmer flesh for eating: Thames[[THAM2]] salmon is always double the price of other salmon; not that it is better tasted, but being later out of the water, it can be crimped, which gives it a firmness (Trusler 32). Walton recorded several other fish found in the Thames[[THAM2]], including the greenish Eel Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] with which the River Thames[[THAM2]] abounds Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] called Gregs in addition to a little Trout called a Samlet or skeggar Trout found in the Thames[[THAM2]] near Windsor (191-2, 85). However, this bounty of fish was not enough to protect the river-- or the fish-- from the pollution brought by humans.
The early modern people typically understood the natural world as a resource to be used at will or as an enemy to be beaten back in the pursuit of human growth and flourishing. Michael Drayton’s[[DRAY3]] Poly-Olbion[[DRAY1]] (1612) contains an early ecological description of the natural conditions: agriculture was seen as a means of cleansing the earth, organizing the chaos of nature, and purging it of weed and filth (47). People relied on the land and rivers, but they also took advantage of them. Chronicles such as Richard Grafton’s[[GRAF1]] A chroniclae at large and meere history of the affayres of Englande[[ENGL2]] (1569) establish the British Isles’ war-ravaged history led to spoliation not only of towns, cities, and countries but also of the countryside and its resources, employing words like wasting and spoiling when Grafton[[GRAF1]] reports on widespread destruction caused by raids. This sort of activity occurred near bodies of water like the Thames[[THAM2]]. Grafton[[GRAF1]] describes a situation during the fifth year of King Edward’s[[EDWA1]] reign when the king’s cousin Clito Ethelwoldus rebelled against him and passed the ryuer Thames[[THAM2]], and spoyled the land vnto Bradenestoke (144). War often interfered with the natural world, as did daily life. Inhabitants along the Thames[[THAM2]] also contributed to the degradation of the landscape by disposing of significant quantities of waste directly into the river. In Eirenopolis (1622) Thomas Adams[[ADAM3]] notes the general lack of respect for the river, writing:
But doe wee not requite this Riuer of Prosperitie, with vngrateful impietie? And vse the Ocean of Gods bountie, as wee doe the Thames[[THAM2]]? It brings vs in all manner of prouision; Clothes to couer vs, Fuell to warme vs, Food to nourish vs, Wine to cheare vs, Gold to enrich vs: and we in recompense, foile it with our rubbish, filth, common sewers, & such excretions. It yeeldes vs all manner of good things, and we requite it with all plentie of bad things. It comes flowing in with our commodities, & we send it loaden backe with our iniuries. (158-159)
Here, Adams[[ADAM3]] is admittedly more preoccupied with people’s disrespect for Gods bountie and provision than he is with water purity or conservation, but his comparison implicitly critiques the treatment of the Thames[[THAM2]] at the same time. His attempt to draw people’s attention to their moral shortcomings highlights what amounts to a call for more ecological awareness and for actions that do not requite the river’s provisions with all plentie of bad things (Adams[[ADAM3]] 159).
The pollution and decay of the Thames[[THAM2]] was officially recognized and addressed in 1635 by the Articles of the charge of the Wardmote Enquest, which notes the Thames[[THAM2]] was in great decay and ruine, and will be in short time past all remedy, if high and substantiall prouision, and help be not had with all speed and diligence possible (1). The fifteenth and sixteenth articles attempt to identify and prohibit specific practices that were apparently leading to the river’s pollution:
Also, if any manner of person, cast or lay dung, ordure, rubbish, seacole dust, rushes, or any other thing noyant, in the Riuer of Thames[[THAM2]], Walbrooke, Fleete, or other ditches of this Citie, or in the open streets, wayes, or lanes within this Citie.
Also, if any person, after a great raine falleth, or at any other time sweepe any dung, ordure, rubbish, rushes, seacole dust, or any other thing noyant, downe into the channell of any street or lane, whereby the common course there is let, and the same things noyant driuen thereby downe into the said water of Thames[[THAM2]].
Here also, these efforts of cleaning the Thames[[THAM2]] were associated with cleaning the city in a moral sense; in addition criticizing litterers, the zealous Enquest targeted drunkards, gamblers, prostitutes, witches, hustlers, and other types of lawbreakers. The specificity of the prohibitions against dirtying the Thames[[THAM2]], however, suggests the Thames[[THAM2]] had indeed become a convenient waste dump for many.
This crackdown on the disposal of refuse in the Thames[[THAM2]] was apparently successful to a significant degree, at least temporarily. In Mad verse, sad verse, glad verse and bad verse (1644), John Taylor[[TAYL2]] paints a vivid picture of river pollution in England[[ENGL2]], but he also indicates that substantial restoration has taken place:
By my good King, (whom all true Subjects call so)
I was commanded with the Water-Baylie
To see the Rivers clensed, both nights and dayly.
Dead Hogges, Dogges, Cats, and well flayd Carryon Horses,
Their noysom Corpes soyld the Waters Courses:
Both swines and Stable dunge, Beasts guts and Garbage,
Street durt, with Gardners weeds and Rotten Herbage.
And from those Waters filthy putrifaction,
Our meat and drink were made, which bred Jnfection.
My selfe and partner, with cost paines and travell,
Saw all made clean, from Carryon, Mud, and Gravell:
And now and then was punisht a Delinquent,
By which good meanes away the filth and stink went.
According to Taylor[[TAYL2]], the enforcement of penalties for polluting the river led to a period of relative cleanliness for the Thames[[THAM2]], which was now devoid of infection-breeding carrion.
Although the Thames[[THAM2]] could not clean itself or prevent pollution, the river was able to act on the humans living on or traveling within its shores. In George Chapman[[CHAP2]], Ben Jonson[[JONS1]], and John Marston’s[[MARS7]] Eastward Ho![[CHAP1]] (1605), several characters find themselves on the Thames[[THAM2]], attempting to travel to America and make their fortunes. Instead, they are tossed into the Thames[[THAM2]] by a storm. The character Slitgut blames the river, personifying it: What a coil the Thames[[THAM2]] keeps! She bears some unjust burden Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] she kicks and curvets thus to cast it Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] Let me discover from this lofty prospect what pranks the rude Thames[[THAM2]] plays in her desperate lunacy (4.1.1-25). The Thames[[THAM2]] is personified and described as a vengeful woman. His shipmate Seagull adds, the last money we could make, the greedy Thames[[THAM2]] has devoured (4.1.217-21). The river acts on the unscrupulous characters by drowning their ship and taking their money.
The Thames[[THAM2]] also displayed its agency to those living near it by flooding or freezing several times in the medieval and early modern periods, each time causing great destruction and loss. Stow[[STOW6]] records two floods, one in the year 1236,
when the riuer of Thames[[THAM2]] ouerflowing the bankes, caused the Marches about Woolwich to be all on a Sea, wherein Boats and other vesselles were carried with the streame, so that besides cattell, the greatest number of men, women and children, inhabitants there, were drowned: and in the great Palace of Westminster[[WEST5]], men did row with wheryes in the middest of the Hall, being forced to ryde to theyr chambers[.] (Stow)
The other was in 1242, when the Thames[[THAM2]] overflowed at Lambhithe, and drowned houses and fields (386-387). In The Faithful Annalist, W.G. records the 1236 flood, as well as a flood in 1269, 1335, and 1564. Most of these notations are followed by an observance that many cattle drowned; cattlemen kept their cattle near the Thames[[THAM2]] to have a ready source of water and grass. The Faithful Annalist reports the Thames[[THAM2]] froze in 1269, 1433, 1460, 1517, 1564, and 1607. These frosts often stopped normal human activity on the river and caused merchants to either go over land (on the ice) or forgo bringing goods to London[[LOND5]], which left many watermen out of work for the period of the freeze and could leave the city short of provisions. The thaw after the freeze could also be problematic. In 1564, a sudden thaw cause great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people in England[[ENGL2]], especially in York-Shire, it bore away Owse-bridge, and many other bridges (W.G. 175-6). The frosts were caused by the altering of tides by the London Bridge[[LOND1]], as pointed out by Thomas Hobbes in Decameron Physiologicum. Hobbes says the ice forms on the banks of the Thames[[THAM2]] and breaks off, coming down to London[[LOND5]] and part goes to the sea floating till it dissolve, and part, being too great to pass the bridge stoppeth there and sustains what which follows, till the river be quite frozen over (123). Here, the natural Thames[[THAM2]] butted against the culturally-constructed bridge to create a human-natural phenomenon.
The Faithful Annalist also remarks on strange natural occurrences on the Thames[[THAM2]]: in 1575, there happened two great tides in the river of Thames[[THAM2]]; the first by course, the second within an hour after which overflowed the marshes (119). We are not told what calamity these tides caused. In 1596, according to the Annalist, the Thames[[THAM2]] was the home of a great wind by whose rage the Seas and Thames[[THAM2]] overwhelmed many persons, and the great gates at the West end of Saint Pauls Church[[STPA2]] in London[[LOND5]], by force of the winde were blown open (110). People took note when the Thames[[THAM2]] stopped behaving as it should. For the rest of the time, the Thames[[THAM2]] was merely part of life in London[[LOND5]] and England[[ENGL2]]. It provided the best water, the best fish, the best place to get rid of trash, and the best way to move people and goods around the city and the country.

Religious Practices: Mythology and Christianity

The Celts perceived the Thames river[[THAM2]] as a sacred place, both as a giver and a taker of life, long before the arrival of the Romans and the later spread of Christianity throughout England[[ENGL2]]. The river is, therefore, the subject of a great many myths, legends and superstitious practices. The Celts, in awe of the seemingly magical qualities of water, frequently showed their appreciation for the Thames[[THAM2]] through gifts of jewelry, weapons, cauldrons, armour, coins, animal and even human sacrifices cast upon its waters (MacKillop, Myths and Legends 10). Shortly after the coming of the Romans in the first century, the Celts threw [o]ne of the great treasures of Celtic art, the bejeweled Battersea Shield into the Thames[[THAM2]], presumably as an offering to beseech aid from the gods against the invaders (10). The sacrifice of such priceless items reveals the importance the river in these ancient peoples’ lives.
The two major ancient deities were associated with the Thames[[THAM2]]: Brigantia and Belenus. Brigantia was a British goddess who flourished at the time of the Roman occupation. James MacKillop asserts that this goddess was possibly a British counterpart to the Gaulish Brigindo who came to personify the hegemony of tribes centered in modern West Yorkshire. In addition, the River Brent, a tributary joining the Thames[[THAM2]] at Brentford, is named for her (MacKillop A Dictionary). The Romans, MacKillop explains further, tended to equate Brigantia with their own goddess of wisdom, Minerva, even though more recent commentators see links between her and Brigit, the Irish fire goddess (Myths and Legends 12). Belenus, a continental Celtic sun god whose cult stretched from the Italian peninsula to the British Isles, is commonly linked to the Greco-Roman god Apollo, and his worship is associated with health giving waters such as those at Aquae Borvonis[Bourbon-les-Bains, north-east France] (MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology). Colloquial terminology from the time suggests a connection between the god Belenus with Billingsgate, originally Bile’s Gate, on the Thames river[[THAM2]] in London[[LOND5]].
The river is also represented by Father Thames, a water divinity of unknown origin who bears a striking resemblance to the tutelary gods of the Nile and the Tiber (Ackroyd 24). The horn of plenty associated with the Greco-Roman river god Achelous can be compared to the urn held by Father Thames, which can be construed as an expression of the fact that the river, once tamed, becomes fruitful (25). This stern, fatherly figure connotes more than just the river’s bounty, however. John Dryden, in his poem Annus mirabilis, The year of wonders, 1666, describes the personified river as fearfully retreating during the Great Fire[[FIRE1]]:
Old Father Thames rais’d up his reverend head,
But fear’d the fate of Simoeis would return:
Deep in his Ooze he sought his sedgy bed,
And shrunk his waters back into his Urn.
(Dryden 59)
Similarly, early modern writers personified the Thames[[THAM2]] as the Egyptian river goddess Isis. This attribution is likely due to John Leland’s Itinerary, in which he erroneously renders the Celtic Ysa as Isis; this error was proliferated by other writers. Regardless, it is no coincidence that three Roman effigies of the son of Isis, Horus, have been found in the waters by London Bridge[[LOND1]] and that the cult of Isis was maintained throughout the Roman Empire (Ackroyd 27). This evidence might suggest that the association of the river with Isis was not entirely a fabrication.
England’s[[ENGL2]] ancient mythological beliefs gave way to Christian theology and practice during Roman rule in the fourth century; these beliefs expanded throughout the early modern period, with the Reformation in the sixteenth century bisecting religious adherence between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England (Banks 84). The river remained integral to religious practice as England’s[[ENGL2]] embrace of Christianity spurred the construction of houses of worship, abbeys and convents along the river’s banks, as well as on London Bridge[[LOND1]] itself. Additionally, some Reformation Protestants brought their expression of Christianity directly into the waters of the Thames[[THAM2]] with their practice of baptism by immersion. The water itself could be seen as sacred, and so too could the structures over the water.
Bridges over the Thames[[THAM2]] carried sacred connotations because Christians understood the bridge as a metaphor for the mediating work of Christ between humankind and God (Ackroyd 129). Until the time of the Reformation, [i]t seems likely that no bridge was without its chapel, except for the smallest and most remote of them (130). The chapels were used not only to provide respite for travellers but also to collect offerings to pay for their upkeep (130). Travellers over the bridge, therefore, not only had to carry money for their business in London[[LOND5]] but also had to have enough coins to provide a perfunctory offering for their river crossing.
More elaborate houses of worship were common along the riverbanks because Londoners thought it advantageous to acknowledge God’s divine protection from the unpredictable river. These churches include St. Paul’s Cathedral[[STPA2]], destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666[[FIRE1]], as well as Westminster Abbey[[WEST1]], built in the eighth century on an island in the Thames[[THAM2]]. The abbey[[WEST1]] began as a small community of monks, and every British ruler has been crowned there since William the Conqueror[[WILL1]] (with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII, neither of whom was crowned (Westminster Abbey). In the 1530s, Henry VIII[[HENR1]] destroyed dozens of the monasteries and chapels (some of which were beside the Thames[[THAM2]]) in accordance with his break from the Roman church and establishment of the Church of England (Van der Vat 15).
As the religious culture during the Reformation period continued to diversify, heretical sects such as the Anabaptists broke away from the Church of England and one divisive issue between these denominations was baptism by water immersion (Dexter 37). In Heresiography (1645), Ephraim Pagitt notes, Yea, at this day they have a new crochet come into their heads, that all that have not beene plunged nor dipt under water, are not truly baptized, and there also they re-baptize (34). Though England[[ENGL2]] would continue to see immense changes in its Christian culture throughout the early modern period, the omnipresent Thames[[THAM2]] in the lives of London’s[[LOND5]] residents made it a consistent source of sacred inspiration.

Military History of the River

The military history of the Thames[[THAM2]] stretches as far back as the recorded history of the area. When Julius Caesar came to Great Britain in 54 BCE, the native British Catuvellauni tribe used the river as a defensive structure by driving sharpened wooden stakes into the banks of the river. The Venerable Bede held that these same stakes remained during his era at a place called Conway Stakes, writing that, traces of these stakes can still be seen; cased in lead and as thick as a man’s thigh (41). While Peter Ackroyd notes that the actual location of the first battle between the Catuvellauni and the Romans has been endlessly disputed, (67) it is clear that Romans launched various campaigns over the years and eventually conquered the natives, creating primordial London[[LOND5]] as a strategic military fort. Though the forces of Queen Boudica burned this incarnation of London[[LOND5]] to ground, some form of Roman settlement remained in the area until about 450. After this point, Viking raids began and increased in frequency. Viking raids would necessarily have used the Thames[[THAM2]] to reach London[[LOND5]]. This trend continued until the Danish warlord, Guthrum, and West-Saxon king, Alfred the Great[[ALFR1]], formalized Viking rule in 886 CE. Thus, for the English of this era, the Thames[[THAM2]] may have become a symbol of oppression. It was the vehicle that brought new overlords and conquerors to them and the avenue by which the tributes, which early Londoners paid to Vikings to keep them from raiding, left English shores.
The Thames[[THAM2]] maintained its military importance during the Elizabethan era; however, the Thames[[THAM2]] took on happier connotations in this later time, as it came to be a symbol of strength rather than weakness, growth and power rather than oppression. We can see the first hints of this beginning in 1513 when Henry VIII[[HENR1]] founded what came to be known as the Deptford Dockyard in Deptford, the South-East sector of London[[LOND5]]. This location served as a naval base and was the major dock for warships in London[[LOND5]]; in addition, it served as the location of the Tudor dockyards, which housed the main English shipbuilding apparatus during this time. Therefore, when Queen Elizabeth’s[[ELIZ1]] fleet defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, they would have had to sail down the Thames[[THAM2]] from these dockyards in London[[LOND5]] to reach the sea. As such, one could imagine the Thames[[THAM2]], Deptford, and the Tudor dockyards serving as symbols of burgeoning English power and influence, celebrated by common folk. For early modern Londoners, the river may have served as a symbolic link to the politics of their country; it was a tangible, available symbol of the work that the government, navy, and monarchy were pursuing.

Politics of the River

Politically, the Thames[[THAM2]] is a bit of a paradox. In the early modern period, the Thames[[THAM2]] was both a place of royal privilege and a place frequented by the common man. From the palace at Whitehall[[WHIT5]], which was situated on the west bank of the Thames[[THAM2]], the kings and queens of England[[ENGL2]] had river access via a private set of stairs called the Privy Stairs[[PRIV1]]. From these stairs, they could undertake journeys within London[[LOND5]] and beyond its boundaries, even following the Thames[[THAM2]] to its conclusion in the North Sea and thus leaving English shores. By this same token, the Thames[[THAM2]] also served to welcome royal guests and convey them directly to Whitehall[[WHIT5]] without subjecting them to an arduous journey through London’s[[LOND5]] crowded streets. According to Peter Heylyn’s ecclesiastical history of England[[ENGL2]], Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1688, the soon-to-be-crowned Charles I[[CHAR4]], hastening his marriage following his father’s death, conducted his queen[[HEMA1]] to Whitehall[[WHIT5]] by way of the river Thames[[THAM2]]:
But hearing that his Queen[[HEMA1]] was advancing to|ward him he went to Canterbury, and rested there on Trinity Sun|day the twelfth of Iune. That night he heard the news of her safe arrival at the Port of Dover, whom he welcomed the next morning into England[[ENGL2]] with the most chearful signs of a true afection. From thence he brought her unto Canterbury, and from thence by easie Stages to Gravesend, where entring in their Royal Barge, attended by infinite companies of all sorts of People, and entertained by a continual peal of Ordnance all the way they passed, he brought her safely and contentedly unto his Palace at Westminster[[WEST5]]. (Cyprianus anglicus 133)
Heylyn’s use of the words safely and contentedly suggest that the royal travel on the Thames[[THAM2]] was practiced for the safety of the monarchs as well as for their comfort. This attitude toward river travel should come as no real surprise if we consider how drifting down the Thames[[THAM2]] would compare to navigating the streets of London[[LOND5]]. The river, while full of barges and boats, presented an open space where threats could be easily identified. London[[LOND5]] streets, however, were frequently packed with swarms of people, among which danger could lurk unseen. Gliding along the water would also be more comfortable than being jostled in the back of a carriage, and thus the royal barge was frequently in use.
If there were ever any doubt on this matter, Heylyn’s Observations on the historie of The reign of King Charles in which he challenges an author’s account of Charles’s[[CHAR2]] movements, is enough to set the record straight:
From Canterbury his Majesty took Coach for Whitehall[[WHIT5]], where the third after his arrivall, &c.] If our Author meaneth by this, that his Majesty went in Coach but some part of the way onely, he should then have said so; but if he mean that he went so all the way to Whitehall[[WHIT5]], he is very much out: their Majesties passing in Coach no further than Gravesend, and from thence in the Royall Barge by water unto his Palace at Whitehall[[WHIT5]], accom|panied or met by all the Barges, Boats, and Wherries which could be found upon the Thames[[THAM2]]. (27)
In his challenging of the other author’s account, Heylyn makes clear that the notion of King Charles taking a coach to Whitehall[[WHIT5]] is inaccurate according to his own knowledge of the event, but perhaps more important is the incredulity he expresses at the notion of the king returning to his palace in London[[LOND5]] by coach. Clearly, then, the Thames[[THAM2]] was a well-traveled and preferred highway for England’s[[ENGL2]] monarchs.
Yet it was not just English monarchs that enjoyed the travel by barge on the Thames[[THAM2]]; other visiting monarchs would also take to the water during their time in London[[LOND5]]. According to A genealogical history of the kings of Portugal (1662),
The King[John IV] and Queen[Lucia] took Barge in order to Their entertainment by the City of London[[LOND5]] upon the River of Thames[[THAM2]], and came to Putney about Four of the Clock in the Evening, where They changed Their spare Barge, and were by the Lord Chamberlain conducted on Board that Barge which was prepared to bring Them to Whitehall[[WHIT5]], in which They were placed under a Canopy of Cloth of Gold, adorned with Five Plumes of White and Yellow Ostrich-Feathers; the Barge lined also with Cloth of Gold, and Cussions of the same. (Sandford)
The Portuguese king and queen then arrived at Whitehall[[WHIT5]], where they were treated to the spectacle of bonfires and fireworks. This fantastic account allows for a more nuanced picture of the royal use of the Thames[[THAM2]]. While certainly an efficient highway for travel into, around, and out of London[[LOND5]], the Thames[[THAM2]] was also a perfect place for displays of wealth and power. Londoners could gather on the riverbanks, transforming the Thames[[THAM2]] into a kind of parade route through London[[LOND5]], and one that was more secure and majestic than the city streets.
Yet royals and aristocrats did not have exclusive control of the Thames[[THAM2]]. A typical day in early modern London[[LOND5]] would see people from all walks of life venturing upon the Thames[[THAM2]]. From the merchants and bargemen who worked on the river, to the many people who would travel across or along it, navigating the Thames[[THAM2]] was something undertaken at all levels of society. Certainly, London Bridge[[LOND1]] saw a massive amount of foot traffic from those crossing from London[[LOND5]] into Southwark and vice versa, but many people would cross the Thames[[THAM2]] by boat or barge, departing from wharves or stairs on one bank and arriving at similar locations on the opposite banks. Small trips like these were relatively cheap, and as a result, very few people found themselves barred from accessing the Thames[[THAM2]]. According to a 1579 book of common law statutes a boat From London Bridge[[LOND1]], Saint Mary Oueries[[SOUT3]], or Paules wharfe[[PAUL2]], to Westmin|ster,[would cost] iij d. or els euery person. ob (Fitzherbert). These amounts, three pennies (iii d) for the boat, or a halfpenny (.ob) per person refer to small amounts that would be affordable by many Londoners.
Thus while the Thames[[THAM2]] afforded of royal privilege monarchs safety and comfort, it also allowed the average London[[LOND5]] citizen, a baker or a shoemaker, for instance, to travel the same waters from one side of the city to the other. In this way, the Thames[[THAM2]] broke down class barriers in early modern London[[LOND5]] to a certain degree, providing a space where all levels of society blended together, if only briefly.

Navigation on the Thames, 1514-1667

London’s[[LOND5]] tidal Thames[[THAM2]] saw an increase in traffic during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries due to the growing need for inter-city taxiing and burgeoning overseas enterprises. During these centuries, small passenger cruisers and large sea-worthy ships made up a scene of interweaving vessels vying for right-of-way as they embarked and disembarked along the city’s banks. London’s[[LOND5]] expanding urbanization congested streets so much that the smaller water-taxis (mostly commonly wherries, that is passenger vessels that resemble long, heavy skiffs without sails) were the fastest method of traveling around the city. In 1667, a diary entry of Samuel Pepys[[PEPY1]] declares that for speed he would go by water while travelling in London[[LOND5]]. Such travel was accomplished by hiring a waterman with a boat to carry passengers and their light cargo up, down, or across the river. Lord Mayor and Royal processions commonly leased wherries and barges in order to advance throughout the city. Concurrently, growing overseas exchanges, largely due to the voyages of Francis Drake[[DRAK1]] and Walter Raleigh, initiated an unceasing influx of transport and cargo vessels from around the world. Eventually these taxi and the commercial vessels transformed London’s[[LOND5]] Thames[[THAM2]] into a busy, watery highway, which required a more elaborate navigational system for water-craft to maneuver efficiently along the river’s shores. The construction, then, of various landings that could accommodate embarking and disembarking vessels expanded, many of which are identified on the Agas Map.
The London[[LOND5]] waterman, whose Watermen’s Company was founded de facto by a pricing regulation during the reign of Henry VIII[[HENR1]] (1514) and officially by Queen Mary[[MARY2]] in 1555, was a staple of Thames[[THAM2]] traffic within this realme of England[[ENGL2]] for tyme oute of minde. John Stow[[STOW6]], in his Survey of London[[SAIN2]] (1598), claims that at the time of his chronicle there were 40,000 people employed as watermen. Henry Humpherius, a nineteenth-century surveyor who is reading Stow[[STOW6]] and other historical documents, records that during the early seventeenth century approximately three thousand wherries would be active on the Thames[[THAM2]] in London[[LOND5]] at any given time.
Watermen were primarily reliant on three things to navigate the Thames[[THAM2]]: 1) Their bodies, including the physical strength needed to steer as well as the mental agility to maneuver the boats quickly; 2) their experience on the river, where an apprenticeship would last seven years according the company’s charter in 1555; and 3) their equipment, which primarily consisted of oars and what ever vessel they used, either a barge (for ferrying smaller freight and goods) or a wherry.
With their specialized skills for inter-urban commuters, rivermen would, according to most accounts, loudly solicit customers with shouts of Oars! and then, having secured passengers and their cargoes, maneuver their crafts around and through all the other traffic on the Thames[[THAM2]], embarking and disembarking at various stairs constructed along the banks of the river.

Ecological Effects of Navigation

Watermen traffic represents what may be analogous to a modern highway, imposing a significant ecological feature to the river navigation in early modern England[[ENGL2]]. Their very role was to move across the water of the Thames[[THAM2]], to use its currents, to work against its currents and to do so with an almost violent bustle that added an unnatural, manmade drift to the surface of the water. And if any one characteristic marked depictions of watermen, it is aural volume, as if their occupation required a need to overwhelm their natural settings, and even to subsume their fellow urban-dwellers. Navigating the Thames[[THAM2]] in early modern London[[LOND5]] really was a process of the city’s growth and influence forcing its denizens onto the river. The mounting effect of Londoners continually dumped onto the Thames[[THAM2]] is both ecological and sociological, like the paradox of innovations that also bring with them destruction and complexity.
This dual nature to navigating the Thames[[THAM2]] is certainly evinced in the literary representations of Rivermen. The eccentricity of rivermen is seen in the title of a collection of John Taylor’s[[TAYL2]] (who was dubbed the King’s Water Poet) poetry, The Sculler: Rowing from the Tiber to the Thames, with His Boate, Laden with a Hotch-Potch, or Gallimawfry of Sonnests, Satyrs, and Epigrams, Etc. And the destructive noise is heard in a character of Thomas Middleton’s A Faire Quarrell, who, when asked if uproariously canon-like speech is still in fashion, answers, as long as there are watermen at Westminster Stairs[[WEST4]] (E2v).


Stairs to the river were built for the purpose of networking various locations along the Thames[[THAM2]], and the Agas Map, along with other period maps, clearly mark their existence. Though many stairs took the name of nearby landmarks and show up as singular spots on maps, like Westminster Stairs[[WEST4]] or St. Mary Overies Stairs[[SOUT3]] on the Agas Map, artistic depictions suggest that many littoral stairways may have existed in one single location. Wenceslaus’s Westminster from the River, is a good example of this: What Wenceslaus’s his image suggests is that stairs likely refers to a causeways protruding from the actual stairs. The stairs would provide a place where boats could safely and efficiently dock and a place where travelers could physically reach the boats. However, traffic along the Thames[[THAM2]] may have required many staircases, as the image depicts, for moving along the Thames[[THAM2]].
The many landing areas also suggest the dangers of this navigation, as they would allow for pulling out of the river during turbulent weather. Navigating the Thames[[THAM2]] was more difficulty than that of other navigable rivers, due the weather patterns of the North Sea and the complicated tides, which could reach seven meters even though they were most consistently about five meters around London Bridge[[LOND1]]. Coupled with the inconsistent ebb and flow that accompanied the regular construction of embanked structures was the variable speeds of the currents which can range from two to seven knots.
Alongside environmental factors, river congestion within the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London[[LOND5]] transport system was treacherous. The ferry docks, quays (keys), cargo docks, and wharfs, used for commercial and, at times, martial purposes, hoys (coasting ships used as barges for heavy cargo), galley ships (large wooden sailing ships), and unwieldy naval vessels crowded into the Thames[[THAM2]]. The construction of landings were continual and constant, but they required embankments, whose construction only further narrowed the Thames[[THAM2]]. A waterman carrying passengers, then, would have to maneuver his wherry around larger vessels while also retaining a high level of awareness about currents, tides, the arches of London Bridge[[LOND1]], and even the deference owed to their station as they negotiated their right of way.
Landings along the river, though necessary, were often built ad hoc and didn’t follow rigorous regulations, only adding to the difficulty of navigation. The causeways that jetted from the stairs resembled the wharfs in London[[LOND5]], often referred to with their Anglo-Norman designation, quays (keys). Since both were constructed with wither-wood or stone, the Oxford English Dictionary [[OEDI1]] basically makes one distinction between a wharf and a quay: the former’s platform is described with the adjective substantial, whereas the latter’s is just designated landing. Docks were not fully developed structures during this period, and they generally took the form of pools, or small man-made bays carved out of the banks (Dix 23).

London Bridge

London Bridge[[LOND1]] was the only option for crossing over the river, but, as Pepys[[PEPY1]]’s diary suggests, travelling by water was the fastest mode of transportation from one part of the city to the other. So shooting in-between the arches, though dangerous (especially if the river was congested), was always more convenient. Though the statutes of 1514 and 1555 that governed the watermen did specify how many passengers and cargo would be allowed on the smaller vessels and even recommended speeds and degrees of attentiveness, they did not offer any suggestions about traffic direction or lanes. Watermen would have to discover, based on tide, current, and other environmental factors, just how successfully they could shoot through a portion of the bridge without an incident. In 1428, an extant account records the Duke of Norfolk’s barge striking a starling of London Bridge[[LOND1]] and sinking. Since the barge’s journey originated at St. Mary Overies Stairs[[SOUT3]], which is extremely close to London Bridge[[LOND1]], it is likely that there was not enough time to safely anticipate the correct the trajectory after embarking.

Economy on the Water

Because the Thames[[THAM2]] bisects the city, it was a key element in both the cultural and economic evolution of London[[LOND5]] because the river was the main source of trade both within the nation and internationally. This dependence on the Thames river[[THAM2]] for shipping and trade made the river a major component of the British economy, providing work for many London[[LOND5]] citizens. From running ferries to barges to work for the various British trade companies to even the occasional frost fairs, a tremendous variety of opportunities were available.
Although the river itself was accessed by citizens, via a number of keys and locks, options to traverse the river from bank to bank were somewhat limited. Citizens could cross the London Bridge[[LOND1]] with its numerous shops and houses or could traverse the river with the use of a ferry. Walter Thornbury[[THOR1]] tells us that the men who ran these ferries, called at times watermen, wherrymen, or ferrymen, formed over time their own sort of social caste. In the third volume of his work Old and New London[[THOR1]], Thornbury[[THOR1]] describes them as a rough, saucy, and independent lot, if we may judge from allusions to them which occur in the novels, comedies, farces, and popular songs of the last century (304, 1878). This caste of watermen appear to have at some point transcended from a lowly rank and developed into a more respected trade group.
Despite the apparent roughness of these men, they were not necessarily a group made up of just anyone. Watermen that ran along the Thames[[THAM2]] were licensed by the Lord Mayor and, as such, were answerable to both the Lord Mayor and the members of the Thames[[THAM2]] Conservancy. The rates of these watermen were similarly regulated. Thornbury cites a 1770 copy of the Rates of Watermen Plying on the River Thames Either with Oars or Skullers, found in the London[[LOND5]] Guide, which provides a table of the charges of watermen’s rates for travel. The table lists several potential voyages and their charges:
Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] a fare could be carried with oars for a shilling from London Bridge[[LOND1]] to Limehouse[[LIME3]], Shadwell Dock, or Ratcliff Cross[[RADC1]]; or from either side above London Bridge[[LOND1]] to Lambeth[[LAMB1]] or Vauxhall. Eightpence was the charge for the same mode of conveyance from the Temple, Blackfriars[[BLAC1]], or Paul’s Wharf[[PAUL2]] to Lambeth[[LAMB1]]; whilst sixpence would frank a voyager from London Bridge[[LOND1]] or St. Olave’s[[STOL1]], Tooley Street[[TOOL1]], to Wapping Old Stairs or Rotherhithe Church[[STMS52]]; or from Billingsgate[[BILL1]] and St. Olave’s[[STOL1]] to St. Saviour’s Mill, from any stairs below London Bridge[[LOND1]] and Westminster[[WEST5]], or from Whitehall[[WHIT5]] to Lambeth[[LAMB1]] or Vauxhall; whilst any lady or gentleman could be ferried over the water directly from any place between Vauxhall in the west, and Limehouse[[LIME3]] in the east, for fourpence The charges for skullers for each of the above-named voyages were exactly half the sums here named. (Thornbury 308, 1878)
Skuller here is an early spelling for sculler, which refers to man running a scull, a small boat with oars mounted upon each side. This document is indicative of a few different possibilities. One interpretation could be that rampant abuse led to the necessity of fare regulation, while another possible interpretation suggests that watermen provided such a necessary service that regulation was necessary to protect these men’s livelihoods. Later acts lend credibility to the second interpretation as well as the relatively few options of travel across the Thames[[THAM2]] itself.
A 1694 act attributed to William and Mary regarding the rates of water-carriage on the Thames[[THAM2]] sought to regulate these rates but also makes mention of damages to the various locks and keys of the river. The act assigned a penalty of five pounds to those found guilty of charging more than the assessed rate of passage and affords Justices of Peace power to settle the rates of carriage:
And bee it further enacted by the authority aforesaid That from and after the said First day of May the said Justices of the Peace or any Five of them in their respective General Quarter Sessions next after Easter-Day yearely shall have power and authority and they are hereby enjoyned and required to assesse and rate the prices of the carriage of all sorts of Goods whatsoever from any place in their said respective Counties to any other place or places upon the said Rivers in such Boats Barges or Vessells. (Raithby, 1819)
Here again we can interpret a level of concern, whether for citizens or watermen is unclear, but one can argue that this ability to reassess the legal rates of passage regularly protects the financial interests of watermen by maintaining an ability to keep a certain level of income. Under this model laid out by the action, we can speculate that should rates for other means of travel on the Thames[[THAM2]] have increased or decreased to the point that a waterman’s wages were in jeopardy, the regulating body might step in and make necessary adjustments. This act may also have existed to protect citizens seeking passage. It is easy to imagine a situation in which rates become too high and lead to a distressed public. While the act should have prevented that situation from occurring at all, it also would have afforded the ability to correct such an occurrence should it come to be. Further, the act designates that the five pound penalty be received by those charged the extraneous rate, stating that for every offence forfeit the su[m]m of Five pounds to bee recovered by the party grieved with double costs of suit. When it comes to damage to the Thames’[[THAM2]] various locks and keys, the act assigned responsibility to bargemasters:
Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] every Bargemaster and Owner of any Barge or Boat shall bee and is hereby made answerable and responsible for any damage or mischief that shall bee done by his barge or boat or the whole or any of the crew of his bargemen to any weares locks bucks winches turnpikes dams floodgates and other engines in and upon the said River And the said Bargemasters or Bargeowners shall and may bee sued and prosecuted for the same and if found guilty the Pltiffe shall not onely recover his damages thereby sustained but his full costs of suit any former law or usage to the contrary notwithstanding. (Raithby, 1819)
The decrees made by this act indicated not a minor nuisance but rather a larger set of persistent issues. Thornbury[[THOR1]] speaks in the London Bridge[[LOND1]] chapter of his work Old and New London: Volume 2 of barges shooting London Bridge[[LOND1]], a seemingly regular occurrence in which watermen would attempt to pass under the arches of the bridge at speed (16, 1878). This practice was quite dangerous, with a documented incident of a Duke of Norfolk’s boat attempting to shoot the bridge but striking on of the bridge’s several starlings and sinking, with several men dying. These accidents would doubtlessly damage the bridge or other passages as they were struck by the boats, and this act makes bargemasters responsible for the payment toward this damage.
Another act from William III sought to grant seamen, including ferrymen, bargemen, lightermen, fishermen, and sea faring men access to the advantages of Greenwich Hospital. This act allowed for registration of these men to receive benefits toward healthcare resulting from age, wounds or other accidents that led them to become disabled, as well as granting:
fitting and convenient Lodging Meat Drink Clothes and other Necessaries and Conveniences and also the Widdowes of such Seamen Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] who shall be slain killed or drowned in the Sea Service and the Children of such Seamen Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] so slaine killed or drowned and not of Ability to maintaine or provide comfortably for themselves[.] ()
The act, therefore, created a form of disability insurance for watermen and seamen and provides for both them and their families should these men become debilitating injured. The act was rather egalitarian, affording the privileges to Masters, mates, and their wives and men of at least 50 years of age who have served at least 7 years in the King’s Ships.

Economy on the Shore

The economy on the shore of the Thames[[THAM2]] was teeming with life and provided a foundation for the rest of London[[LOND5]] and its citizens. A large portion of the energy and activity of the economy in London[[LOND5]] was located on the Thames[[THAM2]] itself, shaping the Thames[[THAM2]] into the economic hub of early modern London[[LOND5]] (Ackroyd 104). Although business upon the Thames[[THAM2]] were clearly active, the shore of the Thames[[THAM2]] was vibrant and bustling as well, given the reliance of trade and livery companies located on the shore of the river. Trade companies like the East India Company, founded with a charter signed by Queen Elizabeth[[ELIZ1]] in 1600, the West India Company and the Spanish Company were all reliant on the Thames[[THAM2]] for importing and exporting goods to/from London[[LOND5]]. The East India Company, the first of the major trade companies to garner a charter, was able to capitalize early on the value of the Thames[[THAM2]] to their trading and by the end of the eighteenth century East Indiamen had been sailing from Blackwall for almost 200 years; the East India Company Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…]shipped valuable cargoes from the East to the Thames[[THAM2]] at Blackwall before moving them by barge to the City (Hobwell 575). However, it was not until the early nineteenth century that more of these major trade companies truly grounded themselves along the Thames[[THAM2]] through the construction of wet docks along the Thames[[THAM2]] (Hobwell 575-6). These larger trade companies main presence was felt elsewhere in the world, with their ushering in the era of long distance trading.
At a much more local level than the burgeoning internationally focused trade companies were the livery companies[[livery_companies]] located along the Thames[[THAM2]]. These livery companies[[livery_companies]] are much more trade specific, gaining their name and purpose from their specific trade. To make headway in the early modern world of London[[LOND5]], a man needed to be part of a livery company (Picard 230). Twelve major, or great, livery companies[[livery_companies]] were located in London[[LOND5]] during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which are as follows: Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vinters and Clothworkers. Most, if not all, of the livery companies[[livery_companies]] began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many of which still exist today. The names of some of the livery companies[[livery_companies]] make it quite clear that they were a central part of the economy on the shore of the Thames[[THAM2]]. Companies such as the Fishmongers had a hall[[FISH2]] located on the west end of London Bridge[[LOND1]], tying them directly to the shore of the Thames[[THAM2]], and the Thames[[THAM2]] itself (Thornbury, 1). While the other livery company’s[[livery_companies]] connection with the economy on the shore of the Thames[[THAM2]] is not as obvious as that of the Fishmongers, their reliance on the Thames[[THAM2]] as a means of transporting good to and from places cannot be understated. A portion of most livery company’s[[livery_companies]] operation, whether that be their hall, courts, almshouses, or other establishments, was not located directly on the shore of the Thames[[THAM2]], instead further in the city. However, along the banks of the Thames[[THAM2]] the warehouses of these livery companies[[livery_companies]] were ever expanding, creating a very crowded and cluttered shore.
A large portion of the professions located along the Thames[[THAM2]], as evidenced by the trade and livery[[livery_companies]] companies, dealt with the import and export of goods to/from London[[LOND5]]. However, without the aid of people like the dock workers, lock keepers, and other shore-based professions, the import/export business would not have operated properly. Lock keepers lived in cabins next to the locks they operated, and workers on the docks and wharfs used the river as transport to and from their jobs.

Crime and Punishment on the Thames

Crime is as old as humanity, as is the practice of establishing civilizations around bodies of water. Therefore, using water as a tool of crime and punishment was and still is an inevitable part of human history. The Thames[[THAM2]] has been used to assist theft, cover up murder, display the bodies of criminals, and test for witchcraft. Obviously, the Thames[[THAM2]] is no longer utilized for all of these purposes, but crime and justice undoubtedly still exist on the river. The Thames River Police, created in 1798, was the first regular police force in London[[LOND5]] and still survives as the Marine Policing Unit, proving that river crime did not die out with the early modern period. It is likely that as long as civilization exists on the Thames[[THAM2]], both misdeeds and the execution of justice will as well.


At times, the river has been an arm of justice killings: for example, Giovanni Biondi tells of an assassin who, after being caught attempting an assassination of Henry VI[[HENR2]], was taken away and immediately drowned in the Thames[[THAM2]]. Far more often, however, the river was used as a water grave for criminals. Very soon after the assassination attempt on Henry VI’s[[HENR2]] life, several people gathered by the Thames[[THAM2]] were heard plotting to throw a bishop into the Thames[[THAM2]] and drown him. Biondi also speaks of a rumor that Richard III[[RICH3]]], after having his nephews murdered in the Tower of London[[TOWE5]], put their bodies in coffins of lead and sunk them at the mouth of the Thames[[THAM2]]. Unlike hangings and gibbetings at Execution Dock, using the Thames[[THAM2]] as a means of disposal is not a practice that has ceased since early modern times. In 2001, a dismembered human torso, named Adam in lieu of a definite identity, was found in the Thames[[THAM2]], close to the reconstructed Globe Theater. In 2005, a man strangled his wife, forced her body into a suitcase, and dumped it in the Thames[[THAM2]], hoping the tide would sweep it to sea where it could remain undiscovered forever. The river Thames[[THAM2]] is large, close to the sea, and tells no secrets; it will likely always be used to facilitate or cover up murder.


As London[[LOND5]] was such a major port of trade and travel, the river Thames[[THAM2]] was very susceptible to piracy in early modern times. Pirates were a well-known and feared part of maritime life. Thomas Adams[[ADAM3]] describes pirates as one of the myriad dangers of the sea, calling them criminals whose sole purpose is to rob and spoil. Adams[[ADAM3]] even calls the devil the arch pyrate of all (24). The fact that Satan himself is described in terms of piracy shows that the profession was considered to be baser and more wicked than any other. Pirates would accost vessels both while sailing and while moored. Giovanni Biondi (1641) relates an incident when King Henry IV[[HENR4]] was pursued by French pirates who lay in wait at the mouth of the Thames[[THAM2]], and in 1812 Thomas Hodgson describes a band of pirates whose practice was to split up; one group would run a ship aground, and the other would board and rob it. These pirates, as well as other kinds of water-borne criminals, were punished brutally and without mercy. If a pirate were caught, he was typically sent to Execution Dock at Wapping on the Thames[[THAM2]], where he would be hanged. Execution Dock was perhaps the most famous and dreaded final destination of the waterborne criminals; it was in constant use for over four hundred years, not ceasing operations until 1830. Criminals were often executed where they committed their crimes, whether on land or on water, both as symbolic justice and as a warning to other would-be malefactors. Pirates would be left on display longer than would other kinds of criminals; their bodies would usually remain hanging by the river until three tides had come and gone. In some cases, the criminals would be tarred and strung up in gibbets, metal cages with hoops inside which were designed to hold a body in place for long periods of time. Sometimes pirates could be displayed in gibbets for months or even years, the tar keeping the bodies from decay. The most notable example is Captain William Kidd, whose body remained imprisoned in its iron cage for three years after his Execution[[EXEC1]]. Unfortunately, the sight of their executed comrades did not seem to deter other pirates. The problem grew so severe that the Thames Police Office was instituted in 1798 in an attempt to deal with it (Guilfoyle 262). Crime on the river continues to be a threat to this day, even if its methods have changed over the years.

Heads on Spikes as Punishment for Treason

Criminals often had their misdeeds memorialized along the Thames[[THAM2]]. In the fourteenth century, a tradition began in which the heads of high-profile offenders against the crown were mounted on spikes overlooking London Bridge[[LOND1]]. Here they stood as a constant, grisly warning to the subjects who hurried across the bridge each day. The heads exhibited were usually those of men accused of treason. King Edward I began this macabre custom. In 1305, he called for the head of William Wallace—leader in the Scottish fight for independence whose legendary heroism we know from the movie Braveheart—to be dipped in tar and raised upon a pike on the south gate of London Bridge[[LOND1]]. Edward I’s[[EDWA1]] method of making an example of traitors was emulated by succeeding monarchs and lasted for centuries. The heads displayed over the years included that of Jack Cade[[CADE1]] in 1451, Lord Thomas Bardolf in 1408, Roger Bolinbroke in 1440, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More[[MORE1]] in 1535, and Thomas Cromwell[[CROM1]] in 1540, though hundreds of other heads took their turn attesting to English citizens the dire consequences of opposing the monarchy. A foreign observer named Paul Hentzner recorded the following impression of London Bridge[[LOND1]] in 1598:
On the south is a bridge of stone eight hundred feet in length, of wonderful work; it is supported upon twenty piers of square stone, sixty feet high and thirty broad, joined by arches of about twenty feet diameter. The whole is covered on each side with houses so disposed as to have the appearance of a continued street, not at all of a bridge. Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty. (3)
The procedure of a typical Execution[[EXEC1]] and beheading can be seen in the action taken by Henry of Lancaster[[HENR4]], soon to be known as Henry IV[[HENR4]], against four knights in 1399. The four men were charged with carrying out the strangling of the Duke of Gloucester at the behest of Richard II[[RICH2]]. Contemporary readers familiar with Shakespeare’s[[SHAK1]] Richard II[[SHAK10]] will know the history. In the account of Sir John Froissart, translated in 1803, these four knights are named as follows: Sir Bernard Brocas, the Lord Marclais, Master John Derby, Receiver of Lincoln, and the Lord Stelle, Steward of the King’s Household (663-664, qtd. in Chronicles 212). Before their beheading, the knights were locked up in four different prisons. The mayor and citizens of London[[LOND5]] then heard the Articles of Deposition against them, including the confession from Richard II[[RICH2]] regarding the help he received from the four men. In Chronicles of London Bridge, Richard Thomson reports that the Londoners cried out with execrations against[the four knights] and loudly demanded their immediate condemnation (212). Soon after, the four were officially sentenced to death, and their sentence specified that they were to be brought before the window of the Tower of London[[TOWE5]] where Richard II[[RICH2]] was imprisoned so that he could witness their distress. Each knight would then be tied to two horses and dragged through the streets to Cheapside[[CHEA5]] where the Execution[[EXEC1]] would occur. There each man would be beheaded and his body hung in a gibbet, while his head would be mounted upon a spike overlooking the south gate of London Bridge[[LOND1]]. Sir John Froissart, quoted in Thomson’s account, mentioned that Richard II[[RICH2]] was in despair for his other followers expected similar treatment due to the fierceness of the crowd’s fury (qtd. in Chronicles 213).
In the sixteenth century, one of the most well-known heads exhibited on London Bridge[[LOND1]] was that of Sir Thomas More[[MORE1]]. Formerly Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII[[HENR1]] as well as a close friend of the King[[HENR1]], More’s[[MORE1]] refusal to agree to the 1534 Act of Parliament pronouncing King Henry VIII[[HENR1]] Supreme Head of the Church of England led to More’s[[MORE1]] indictment for treason. A devoted Catholic to the end, More[[MORE1]] had for some time prior to his indictment opposed King Henry’s[[HENR1]] separation from the Catholic Church in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon[[ARAG1]] and marry Anne Boleyn[[ANNE1]]. Because More[[MORE1]] would not take an oath to uphold the Crown’s supremacy, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London[[TOWE5]]. Despite repeated pleas from the King[[HENR1]] and others, including King Henry’s[[HENR1]] chief minister, that he change his mind and be released, Thomas More[[MORE1]] held fast to his convictions. His trial was popularly recognized as a farce, for the outcome was pre-determined. More[[MORE1]] was condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but King Henry[[HENR1]] later reduced his sentence to beheading.
Upon hearing that More’s[[MORE1]] execution[[EXEC1]] had taken place, King Henry[[HENR1]] is said to have turned to Queen Anne[[ANNE1]] and cried, You, you are the cause of that man’s death! However much the King[[HENR1]] regretted Thomas More’s[[MORE1]] death, he ordered that the man’s head be raised on a spike above London Bridge[[LOND1]] as that of a traitor. There the head stayed for a month, until it was removed to make way for other heads. More’s[[MORE1]] head would have been thrown into the Thames[[THAM2]], but the martyr’s daughter Margaret Roper, who had been keeping close watch, bribed the executioner to give her the head of her father. Thomas Stapleton’s account reports that the head of Thomas More[[MORE1]] could not have been mistaken for that of anyone else, and that More’s[[MORE1]] countenance was almost as beautiful as before. Miraculously, More’s[[MORE1]] beard, which had been white when he died, had become a reddish-brown colour (191). Margaret Roper preserved her father’s head with spices, and it became a sacred relic as the renown of Thomas More’s[[MORE1]] martyrdom spread. Sir Thomas More[[MORE1]] was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935, and his head was eventually buried in a vault at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, where it remains today.
During the reign of Charles II[[CHAR5]], the display of heads on spikes was moved from London Bridge[[LOND1]] to the Temple Bar[[TEMP1]], where John Timbs reports that the mounting of severed heads continued as late as 1772. The spikes were at last removed permanently from Temple Bar[[TEMP1]] at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Timbs 773).

Witchcraft Trials

Offending women, particularly suspected witches, were punished differently than gibbeted pirates and head-spiked traitors but no less brutally. In early modern times, water was considered a vital tool in the detection of witchcraft. Suspected witches would be thrown into the water with hands and feet tied; if they floated they were proven witches, and if they sank they were innocent. Suspicion and paranoia concerning witchcraft was rampant in England[[ENGL2]] at that time, reaching from the lowest levels of peasantry to the highest echelons of royalty. For example, King James I[[JAME1]] wrote a book called Daemonologie (1597), which states that God appointed water to be a sign of the monstrous impiety of witches by its refusal of them. The connection to water comes through the witches’ refusal or denial of the holy sacrament of baptism. For this reason, witches were also unable to cry while confessing, even though, according to James[[JAME1]], women were able to cry on command in any other situation if it benefited them. The Thames[[THAM2]], as the largest and most readily available source of water to early modern Londoners, was often used as such a witchcraft-detector. If the suspected floated in the river and was proven a witch, she was taken out of the water and often tortured and then executed. Even if proven innocent by sinking, the suspect often drowned anyway, unable to swim with hands and feet bound.

Ducking as a Punishment for Scolds

Similar to using the Thames[[THAM2]] as a test and punishment for witches was the practice of ducking. Ducking in the Thames[[THAM2]] was a common form of early modern punishment that twenty-first century readers may find somewhat shocking. An offender relegated to ducking was tied onto a chair and lowered into the river multiple times. Many villages even built special ducking stools, also called cucking stools, just for this purpose. Ducking stools consisted of a chair attached to a long pole that could be lowered into the river and raised up again by people standing on the bank. Scolding women were the primary victims of punishment by ducking stool, although occasionally quarrelsome couples suffered ducking as well. A legal document from 1675 defines a scold as a troublesome and angry woman, who by her brawling and wrangling amongst her neighbors, doth break the publick Peace, and beget, cherish and increase publick Discord (qtd. in Boose 186). For a woman to nag, to slander her neighbors, or to talk back to her husband was also considered scolding, and early modern society took the offense quite seriously.
This preoccupation with scolding women is exemplified in Shakespeare[[SHAK1]]’s The Taming of the Shrew and reveals a focus on insubordinate women shared by other works of the period.[1] David Underdown suggests that this extreme reaction to scolding women arose from fears of impending breakdown of social order due to increasing problems such as land shortage, inflation, excessive population growth, poverty, vagrancy (Underdown 116). The early modern concept of social order dictated that women submit to men, so for a woman to assume authority in the way she spoke was perceived as a threat to the stability of society. So strong were the fears of rebellion against the social order that laws were passed to make the penalization of scolds official, and suits against scolds repeatedly occur in court records; legal action against scolds was especially prevalent between 1560 and 1640 (Underdown 119). The frequency of duckings can be inferred by the fact that ducking stools wore out quickly. In Kingston, along the Thames[[THAM2]], a ducking stool built in 1572 had to be rebuilt in 1573 due to overuse (Ackroyd 157).
The practice of ducking began in the Middle Ages; Piers Plowman, written in the thirteenth century, includes a ducking scene, and the town of Colerne, Wiltshire built a cucking stool in 1401. Ducking gained popularity in the sixteenth century and spread to the American colonies, where it remained popular for hundreds of years. As late as 1825, a Pennsylvania court sentenced a woman to be ducked in the river three times as a penalty for scolding, though a judge ruled against it at that time. Thankfully, ducking is no longer a legally supported punishment, for it had died out by the early 19th century. However, the practice exemplifies how closely the Thames[[THAM2]] is tied to the consciousness and everyday life of the English people.

Recreation: Frost Fairs and Pageants

The pageants and frost fairs that took place alongside and upon the Thames river[[THAM2]] brought diverse groups of Londoners together and created culture clashes as the population shared the common ground of the frozen river. These celebratory events highlight the essential role of the river in the social lives of early modern Londoners. The Thames[[THAM2]] was the site of royal pageants and the annual mayoral pageants, both of which emphasized the distinctions between royalty and local government: those who ruled by blood and birthright, and those who ruled through connection and election. Lawrence Manley writes that the theatricalization of London’s[[LOND5]] traditional civic ceremonies was an essential development in the expansion of celebratory literature and myth that justified the city’s increasingly dominant role in the social order (212). For occasional royal ceremonies, the coronation festivities occurred over a two-day period before concluding at Cheapside[[CHEA5]] with the crowning of the new monarch. In contrast, the Lord Mayor’s Shows were an annual city event. Though these shows were celebrated as public, these elected mayors were still a member of a wealthy and powerful merchant class.
In addition to pageants, the occasional freezing of the river created the opportunity for frost fairs--unique events of commerce and frivolity among residents of early modern London[[LOND5]]. In total there were only 26 fairs that occurred on the Thames[[THAM2]], as the river had to be completely frozen to support the weight of the fairs. Due to the Little Ice Age, in which the weather dipped in Europe, a disproportionate number of frost fairs occurred in this period: five in the sixteenth century and ten in the seventeenth. In Old and New London[[THOR1]] (1878), Walter Thornsbury[[THOR1]] describes the frost fair that occurred in 1683: men and boys[were] making slides, skating, and sledging in all directions and Gallants in the fashionable dresses of the day are promenading, with wigs and swords; while the ladies, true to the instinct of their sex,[were] shopping briskly. Thornbury’s[[THOR1]] depiction creates imagery of bustling commerce and festivity on the frozen water. The frost fairs, therefore, were not only social events, but they also provided a means by which London’s[[LOND5]] growing middle class could participate in buying and selling in a vast economic space that would not exist without the frozen Thames[[THAM2]]. The last frost fair occurred 1814, but since the rebuilding of London Bridge[[LOND1]] in the 1830s, which had larger arches and allowed for the tidal waters to flow through more easily, the river has not frozen completely.

Art: Songs, Poetry, and Literature

The Thames river[[THAM2]] has inspired a prolific amount of poetry, song and other literature. During his tenure as a Surveyor in the King’s Court, the poet Sir John Denham (1615-1669) wrote Cooper’s Hill as a metaphor for politics in London[[LOND5]]. Originally writing the poem to describe the physical features of the Thames[[THAM2]] as a metaphor for the history of the region, Denham’s poem analogizes the political power structure of London[[LOND5]] with the rush of the Thames river[[THAM2]]. Arguably the most famous of the river poets, John Taylor[[TAYL2]]ended his studies early to pursue an apprenticeship as a waterman on the Thames[[THAM2]], igniting his fascination and inspiration from a young age. His endeavor was undeniably successful as he eventually would earn the patronage of both James I[[JAME1]] and Charles I[[CHAR4]]. This water poet would continue to produce, write, and publish both prose and poetry inspired by the Thames[[THAM2]] until his death. The playwright Ben Jonson[[JONS1]] references the Thames[[THAM2]] in his Poem VI: To the Same, wherein the speaker requests that his wary lover Celia grant him as many kisses as there are drops in silver Thames[[THAM2]] (1, 15). Jonson’s[[JONS1]] poem conveys the romance the Thames river[[THAM2]] inspired as it flowed through early modern London[[LOND5]].

Gardens on the Thames

The elaborately structured gardens alongside the Thames[[THAM2]] reflected positively on Londoners as this type of horticulture was held in high regard. In Our River (the Thames) (1835), George Dunlop Leslie remarks upon these superlative English gardens, describing his preferred arrangement to be where the tulips are long in the stalk and quaint in colour, where spiderwort, crown imperial, southernwood, cenothera and polyanthuses flourish, and sweetbriar and honeysuckle perfume the air (180). Perhaps the most storied garden in early modern London[[LOND5]] was the Queen’s Garden along the Thames[[THAM2]], named after Queen Henrietta Maria[[HEMA1]] (b.1609- d.1669). In Survey of London[[SAIN2]] Monograph 14 (1937), George Chettle imagines the queen lingering in her garden; describing the Italian gateway for this garden, much like the one which was built at Beaufort House, Chelsea, and the other Italian-style sculptures and statues. On the west of the garden lay the orchards behind the Friary, bounded on the south by the brick wall which marked the line of the road from Deptford to Woolwich (Chettle). The Queen’s Garden was restructured and reordered repeatedly throughout the seventeenth century and beyond. It remains a popular tourist destination today.

Food Procurement and Preference

The Thames[[THAM2]] was a key supplier of food and water for Londoners, either directly or as the waterway for the burgeoning food import business in London[[LOND5]]. In general, Thames[[THAM2]] river water was considered free to all for personal consumption, though some people enjoyed its taste more than others. Commercially, a significant amount of water was used for brewing beer, a favorite beverage of Londoners. Brewers, convinced that water from different sources produced different qualities of beer, considered Thames[[THAM2]] river water to be the most excellent (Harrison Food and Diet ch. 6). By the late sixteenth century, water from the Thames[[THAM2]] became easier to acquire for personal or business use as tankard bearers organized into companies and sold water in the city (Ackroyd 249). Additionally, water wheels near London Bridge[[LOND1]] pumped water into the homes of London[[LOND5]] residents (249). Until the nineteenth century, half of London’s[[LOND5]] supply of water came from the Thames[[THAM2]] (250). This readily available water supply was perhaps the most essential natural resource to support London’s[[LOND5]] growing population.
In addition to water for drinking and brewing beer, the Thames[[THAM2]] was home to an immense variety of wildlife and fish that was a major source of the food supply of the region. Oysters, herrings, haddock, and eel were plentiful, and (with the exception of swans) the wildlife of the Thames[[THAM2]] were considered free for the taking. The frequent flooding of the river brought haddock and eel so close to the surface of the water that you shall take haddocks with your hands beneath the bridge, as they flote aloft vpjon the water (Holinshed 1.47). River eel was a favorite dish among Londoners, and eel pie was eaten at least as early as the sixteenth century. Shakespeare[[SHAK1]] mentions it in King Lear[[SHAK4]]: LEAR. Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put em i th’ paste alive (II.4). Swans, plentiful on the Thames[[THAM2]], were a delicacy of the upper classes because their ownership was restricted to the Crown and those in the highest tax bracket (Gross). Roasted swan was a favorite of the wealthy monk in Chaucer’s[[CHAU1]] Canterbury Tales, Now certainly he was a fair prelaat; / He was not pale as a forpyned goost./A fat swan loved he best of any roost (The Monk’s Portrait 204-207).
Additional varieties of food became available to Londoners as imports increased, arriving from other countries via the river. Jonathan Schneer writes that, [d]uring the Tudor years England[[ENGL2]] had grown into one of the world’s greatest trading nations and London’s[[LOND5]] advantageous location on the broad curving waterway Gap in transcription. Reason: ()[…] was perfectly placed for the flourishing Baltic and growing Atlantic trades making it England’s[[ENGL2]] busiest port by the reign of Queen Elizabeth (65). Customs accounts record exotic imported food arriving in England[[ENGL2]] as early as 1300. Around this time, almonds were a commonly found import, as were cumin and saffron, though these spices were used both for culinary and medicinal purposes. Figs, raisins, and dates would have also been seen in the holds of ships in this century, and this was but a taste of the wide selection of foods foreign trade provided (Thirsk 10).
As food imports became more common, Londoners began to acquire a taste for this more exotic fare. Even so, the bulk of people’s food was grown locally, and food from the river continued to be a mainstay of the London[[LOND5]] diet in the early modern period (195,196). Exotic foods from far away lands would not likely have been affordable for the common citizen; therefore, homegrown foods and fish caught from the Thames[[THAM2]] would have remained on the diets of most people.

Cite this page

MLA citation

University of Texas, Arlington English 5308 Fall 2014 Students. The Thames. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022, Draft.

Chicago citation

University of Texas, Arlington English 5308 Fall 2014 Students. The Thames. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022. Draft.

APA citation

University of Texas, Arlington English 5308 Fall 2014 Students. 2022. The Thames. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from Draft.

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  - University of Texas, Arlington English 5308 Fall 2014 Students
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - The Thames
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#UTXA1" type="org">University of Texas, Arlington English 5308 Fall 2014 Students</name></author>. <title level="a">The Thames</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target=""></ref>. Draft.</bibl>




Variant spellings