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Falcon Stairs

Sharing a name with the nearby Falcon Inn, the Falcon Stairs provided river access for the area of Southwark known to early modern Londoners as the bank side (and later, Bankside). Being outside of London’s city limits, Southwark offered the early modern citizen a collection of entertainments of questionable virtue that were more difficult to come by in London proper. In Southwark, Londoners could attend plays at the Rose and Globe theatres, watch bear- and bull-baiting, and even visit one of the many brothels (called stews) that made Bankside infamous in the early modern period.
According to James Howell in his Londinopolis, a traveler gliding along the Thames would instantly be aware of the stews on the Thames’ south bank, the buildings being decorated in such ways as to advertise their charms to those upon the river:
These allowed stewhouses had signes on their frontes, towardes the Thames, not hanged out, but painted on the walles, as a Boares heade, the Crosse keyes, the Gunne, the Castle, the Crane, the Cardinals Hat, the Bel, the Swanne, &c. (Howell sig. 2E3r.)
Thus travelers arriving at the Falcon Stairs would have seen the nearby stews during their crossings of the Thames and would be well-aware of the range of options available for their entertainment.
The legality of Southwark’s local charms was a matter of concern for many centuries, and the simple fact that establishments like bull- and bear-baiting arenas, playhouses, and stews were located outside of the city limits of London, demonstrates the tenuous legality of these establishments. John Stow notes in his famous Survey of London that the stews especially were subject to much legislation, being regulated and outlawed on various occasions:
I haue alſo ſéene diuers Pattents of confirmation, namely one dated 1345. the ninetéenth of Edward the third. Alſo I find that in the fourth of Rychard the ſeconde, theſe Stewhouſes belonging to VVilliam VValworth then Mayor of London, were farmed by Froes of Flaunders, and were ſpoyled by Walter Teighler, and other rebelles of Kent: Notwithſtanding I finde that ordinances for the the ſame place, and houſes were againe confirmed in the raigne of Henry the ſixt to be continued as before. Alſo Robert Fabian writeth that in the yeare 1506. the 21. of Henry the ſeuenth, the ſaid ſtewe houſes in Southwarke were for a ſeaſon inhibited, and the dores cloſed vp, but it was not long (ſaith he) ere the houſes there were ſet open againe for ſo many as were permitted, for (as it was ſaid) whereas before were eightéene houſes, from thenceforth were appointed to be vſed but twelue onely. (Stow 1598, sig. Y6v)
From this account, it is quite clear that despite various attempts to close them, the stews persisted, and thus it is no surprise that the 1546 ruling by Henry VIII to close the row of stews in Bankside, referenced a few paragraphs later by Stow, did not spell the end for prostitution in this area. In a sermon delivered after this ruling, Hugh Latimer is recorded as saying, my Lords, you haue put downe the stewes. But I pray you what is the matter a mended? what a vayleth that? ye haue but chaunged the place, and not takē the whordom away (Latimer sig. F6v). Thus it is safe to assume that prostitution continued in Bankside and throughout Southwark throughout the early modern period. Henry also outlawed bull- and bear-baiting, but later monarchs like Elizabeth I were known to be quite fond of this activity so that Southwark continued to be a place for Londoners to indulge in notorious pursuits throughout the early modern period (Chambers 58).
From the nature of the entertainments in Southwark, we may conclude that it was a riotous place that drew all kinds of Londoners across the Thames. Many of these people would cross London Bridge and make their way west through the streets of Southwark toward Bankside’s many attractions. Some of them, however, would have crossed the Thames by barge or boat, disembarking at the Falcon Stairs after a short journey in which the slowly approaching shores of Bankside would, no doubt, have quickened their pulses with anticipation. We might imagine then that the Falcon Stairs were tread upon with footsteps unlike those that ascended many of the other river stairs along the Thames. These footsteps would not be labored or uninterested as those of a laborer going about his business, but hurried, excited, perhaps even nervous, and certainly impatient of the good times waiting atop the river bank.


  • Citation

    Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character. Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1863.

    This item is cited in the following documents:

  • Citation

    Howell, James. Londinopolis, an historicall discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain whereunto is added another of the city of Westminster, with the courts of justice, antiquities, and new buildings thereunto belonging. London, 1657. Wing H3090.
  • Citation

    Latimer, Hugh. 27 sermons preached by the ryght Reuerende father in God and constant matir [sic] of Iesus Christe, Maister Hugh Latimer, as well such as in tymes past haue bene printed, as certayne other commyng to our handes of late, whych were yet neuer set forth in print. London: John Day, 1562. STC 15276.

    This item is cited in the following documents:

Cite this page

MLA citation

Riley, Gregory. Falcon Stairs. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022, INP.

Chicago citation

Riley, Gregory. Falcon Stairs. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022. INP.

APA citation

Riley, G. 2022. Falcon Stairs. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from INP.

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  - Riley, Gregory
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Falcon Stairs
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="#RILE2"><surname>Riley</surname>, <forename>Gregory</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Falcon Stairs</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>. INP.</bibl>



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