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Smithfield is located in Faringdon Without Ward, which was the farthest ward westward of London, right outside the city walls. Initially the large open pasture, from which the locality receives its name, stretched to the eastern bank of the River Fleet. One of the main streets that ran through Smithfield to Aldersgate was Long Lane. According to Stow, from long lane ende to the Bars is inclosed with Innes, Brewhouses, and large tenements (Stow 1598, sig. X4r). From the Elms, Smithfield extended from Bow Lane to Holborn to Cow Lane, ending where Cock Lane met Pie Corner (Stow 1598, sig. U8v).

Name and Etymology

Smithfield is believed to be a corruption of the name Smethefeld, originally Smethefelda, meaning smooth or level field from the Old English smethe, and feld (Mills).

Name and Etymology

The availability of land for grazing, and its close proximity to both the Turnmill Brook segment of the River Fleet1 and Smithfield Pond, made Smithfield the ideal location to carry out all kinds of commerce related to livestock, hence street names such as Chick Lane, Cow Lane, and Pie Corner (Thornbury). To the west of Long Lane, there were large pens where sheep were kept until market days. Past Cowbridge was Smithfield Pond, which, according to Stow, was called Horsepool during the Middle Ages because as knights rode through Smithfield, their horses would stop to drink from the pond (Thornbury). The watering hole, because of its location, very quickly evolved into a renowned horse-market known as Smithfield Market.
The horse market at Smithfield subsequently became the informal hub of the livestock trade. This concentration of livestock in turn attracted both cloth merchants and butchers. In an 1174 letter, William Fitzstephen, clerk to Thomas Becket, describes the site as a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold, and in another quarter are placed vendible of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk (History of Smithfield Market).


Throughout the Middle Ages, monarchs frequently used the great open spaces of Smithfield for tournaments (Richardson). During his reign, Edward III hosted several jousting tournaments at Smithfield. In 1357 great and royall Iusts were then holden in Smithfield which were attended by the kings of France and Scotland (Stow 1633, sig. 2O1r). In 1362, Edward III held a tournament during the first five days of May which was attended by the French king and knights from Spain, Cyprus and Armenia. One of the largest tournaments was hosted by Richard II. By Stow’s estimate, sixty knights and ladies were in attendance (Stow 1633, sig. 2O1r). The knights paraded from the Tower of London to Smithfield with their squires and ladies in tow. The tournament and subsequent feasting lasted several days (Thornbury).
In the time of Henry V, beyond Turnemill Brooke, a new building, called the Elms was constructed. The building was so named for the prominent forest of elm trees that grew nearby. Here, many executions took place.
In addition, the Smithfield greens were also used to settle disputes between gentlemen via duel or ordeal by battle (Thornbury). Often the men battled to the point where one could kill the other. When such an occasion arose, the king would then stop the fight and forgive them both (Stow 1633, sig. 2O1v).
In 1381, Smithfield was used as a meeting place for the Peasant’s Revolt. The Revolt, lead by Wat Tyler, was caused by economic and social unrest following the devastating outbreak of plague in 1348 and increasing frustration at the exorbitantly high tax rates mandated in order to fund the Hundred Years War. On 15 June, Wat Tyler and his rebels met with Richard II and his men at Smithfield to negotiate (Thornbury). When Wat Tyler and the rebels refused to disarm in the presence of the king, a battle ensued (Richardson). During the fight, Tyler was stabbed in the throat by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth (Thornbury). After Tyler’s death, the rebellion effectively came to an end.
In addition to being ideal for grazing and tournaments, the open space in Smithfield also proved to be an ideal venue for the staging of public executions. Criminals and heretics were burned, boiled or hanged on Smithfield’s grounds before the gallows were moved to Tyburn during the reign of Henry IV (Thornbury). In 1305, Sir William Wallace, who fought for Scotland’s independence and inspired the film Braveheart, was executed at the Elms on the eve of the fair of St. Bartholomew. Accused of high treason, Wallace was dragged from Westminster Hall to Smithfield Market. Here, he was hung, drawn and quartered. Wallace was then emasculated, eviscerated, beheaded, then divided into four parts (the four horrors) Gap in transcription. Reason: (SM)[…] His head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge, which was later joined by the heads of his brother, John, and Sir Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth (Richardson).
Near the end of Henry VIII’s reign, two highly discussed executions took place at Smithfield. Anne Askew, who mingled with aristocracy, and Nicholas Shaxton, bishop of Salisbury, were burned at the stake for their heretical denial of the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament during Mass (Bartholomew Fair and Smithfield). Subsequently, during Queen Mary’s reign, a great many of her 277 Protestant victims were burned at the stake in Smithfield. Queen Elizabeth’s likewise ordered the execution of a number of Anabaptists on the very same grounds (Thornbury).
Despite its notoriously bloody character, the Smithfield area is also bound up with a rich religious tradition. The priory of St. Bartholomew the Great was established in Smithfield in 1123 by a monk named Rahere, who had once been Henry I’s court jester and revel-master (Thornbury). Legend said that Rahere underwent a conversion experience when he fell deathly ill on a pilgrimage to Rome. Approached by St. Bartholomew the Apostle in a dream, he was instructed to build a church in the saint’s name in the suburbs of London (Thornbury). After a series of miracles occurred at the priory, Henry I established a charter for the church and granted permission for a three day fair to be held annually, beginning on the feast day of St. Bartholomew (Thornbury). The fair became a staple of London summer activities and thrived until 1855 when it was suppressed due to the abundance of illicit activities being conducted on the fair grounds. According to Henry Morely, there were most likely two fairs—one in Smithfield and one just inside the gates of the priory (Thornbury). Due to the cloth fair’s popularity, it very quickly began to attract a variety of vendors, showmen, and entertainers. At the fair, a visitor could find puppet shows, wrestling matches, and bull and bear baiting (Bartholomew Fair and Smithfield).
As a public gathering space, Bartholomew Fair was subject to closure during plague time. In 1593, Queen Elizabeth cancelled Bartholomew Fair in an effort to curtail transmission of the disease (A proclamation to reforme). She also ordered that the markets be shut down, instructing that the open space of Smithfield be used only for the selling of livestock and dairy products.

Literary References

Three direct references to Smithfield appear in the works of Shakespeare. Falstaff references the Smithfield horse market in Henry IV, Part 2:
Falstaff: Where’s Bardolph?
Page: He’s gone into Smithfield, to buy your worship a horse.
Falstaff: I bought him in Pauls, and he’ll buy me a horse in Smithfield. An I could get me but a wife in the stews, I were manned, horsed, and wived.
(Shakespeare 1.2.322-327)
Here Falstaff alludes to a proverb found in Simon Robson’s Choise of Change (1585) and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Robson puts the proverb thus: A man must not make choice of 3. things in 3. places. Of a wife in Westminster. Of a servant in Paules. Of a horse in Smithfield. Least he choose a queane, a knave, or a jade. The other two references appear in Henry VI, Part 2. In 2.3 King Henry VI sentences the witch Margery Jourdain to be burned at the stake in Smithfield: The witch in Smithfield shall be burnt to ashes (Shakespeare 2.3.7). This detail comes directly from one of Shakespeare’s sources for the play, Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548). In 4.6, Dick the Butcher informs Jack Cade: My lord, there’s an army gathered together in Smithfield (Shakespeare 4.6.11-12). In the next scene, 4.7, which takes places in Smithfield, Cade and the rebels succeed in defeating this army sent to put down their rebellion.
Perhaps the best know literary treatment of Smithfield appears is in Ben Jonson’s eponymous comedy Bartholomew Fayre. It was first performed by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men on 31 October 1614 at the Hope Theatre, and presented to the court at Whitehall Palace the following day (Campbell). The play chronicles Londoners from all walks of life as they attempt to navigate the fair and its raucous and unruly world. Largely episodic in structure, the play lacks any discernible plot or obvious protagonist. Rather, the comedy’s humor depends upon the vividly drawn setting and evocation of the unique experience of living in Jacobean London. Fran C. Chalfant points to references in Jonson’s work to Smithfield’s layered history. In Act 4, Bartholomew Cokes lament[s] his misfortune at the hands of cutpurses (Chalfant). Cokes says, if ever any Bartholomew had that luck Gap in transcription. Reason: (SM)[…] that I have had, I’ll be martyr’d for him and in Smithfield, too (Jonson 4.2.67-68). Chalfant suggests that martyr’d at Smithfield is a reference to Smithfield’s long history of heretical executions.

Great Fire

The Great Fire of 1666 sputtered out in Smithfield. The fire stopped at Pie Corner where Cock Lane meets Giltspur Street. The Fortune of War Public House occupied the corner and in commemoration of the end of the fire, a gold en cherub, meant to represent gluttony, was placed on the outside of the building. Many Londoners apparently thought that gluttony was the cause of the fire because it started on Pudding Lane and ended at Pie Corner (Conlon).
Drawing of Smithfield by Hugh Alley. Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.
Drawing of Smithfield by Hugh Alley. Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.


  1. For the purposes of this entry, the particular segment of the River Fleet that flows through Smithfield, designated Turnmill Brook, will be used. (SM)


Cite this page

MLA citation

Mineer, Sydney. Smithfield. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022, mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/SMIT1.htm.

Chicago citation

Mineer, Sydney. Smithfield. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022. mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/SMIT1.htm.

APA citation

Mineer, S. 2022. Smithfield. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/editions/7.0/SMIT1.htm.

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

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
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CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/SMIT1.htm
UR  - https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/edition/7.0/xml/standalone/SMIT1.xml
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TEI citation

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