Today in London’s immoral history: ‘Holland’s Leaguer’, notorious Bankside brothel, resists siege by constables, 1632.

Holland’s Leaguer was a notorious 17th-century brothel which stood, near London’s playhouses, on the south bank of the River Thames.

It was run by a famous prostitute named Elizabeth Holland, and its prestigious clients included King James I himself. The ‘leaguer’ – meaning fortress – was a mansion with a moat and drawbridge, near Southwark’s Old Paris Garden. In winter 1631–32, King Charles I ordered for it to be raided, but the prostitutes outwitted the soldiers by luring them onto the drawbridge and plunging them in the moat below. Nevertheless, Holland’s Leaguer was closed later that year.

Holland’s Leaguer had originally been part of the estate known as the Liberty of Old Paris Gardens, later a famous centre of pleasure and wild nightlife.  It lay on the South Bank of the river Thames, In Southwark’s Bankside, an area long famous for brothels, prostitution and immoral goings-on. The Leaguer stood close to the Thames bank; being close to the Swan, Globe, and Hope theatres meant it attracted those attending plays, as well as being popular those who hired a waterman to row them across the river to the waiting women. It was run by a prostitute named Elizabeth (Bess) Holland. Bess was possibly married to a member of the Holland family, big in the Elizabethan underworld.

Opened in 1603, Holland’s Leaguer was the congregating place for all the Dutch prostitutes in London. It sat alongside the river and was described in 1632 as a ‘Fort citadel or Mansion Howse’; fortified by a moat, drawbridge and portcullis. In general most other houses of prostitution at the time were barely different from ordinary dwellings.  But Holland’s Leaguer was exceptional, and claimed to be an island, outside local legal jurisdictions. The Leaguer hired an armed bully or Pandar to deal with disagreeable patrons or intruders who got in without paying.   The place ran on an organized system, forming a sort of community for the women who worked there.  There were garden walks for sauntering and “doing a spell of embroidery or fine work,” (apparently this meant flirting).  The property extended to a summerhouse, which was used for liaisons. The river was used for disposal of awkward customers. Unlike the less decent Bankside stews, Holland’s Leaguer was generally a high-class affair: patrons included King James I and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.  It had a business-like atmosphere, good food, luxurious surroundings, modern plumbing, medical inspections, clean linens, and high-class prostitutes. A visit to Holland’s Leaguer and dinner with the top prostitute or ‘queen’, Bess, cost around £20 a head (maybe £1700 today), and this presumably did not include any after dinner activities.

Holland’s Leaguer operated as a female community, in some ways set apart from the rest of society, owned and managed by a woman, which was unusual enough to be controversial, and may have contributed to the attempt to raid the brothel in 1632. Holland’s Leaguer became so popular that in January 1632 it was besieged by soldiers on the orders of Charles I who had ordered it to be closed down. However, when a troop of soldiers arrived, the story goes that Bess lured them onto the drawbridge and let it down, depositing them into the moat. The prostitutes inside then emptied the contents of their chamber pots, which were filled with boiling hot water, on to the soldiers who naturally hastily retreated. Bess evaded the city authorities and despite two summons to the Court of High Commission in 1631, she managed to escape the city and set up shop elsewhere by the end of 1632. She became known widely as “Elizabeth Holland a woman of ill reporte.”  Holland’s Leaguer ran on its own for a few years but eventually closed down and the property sold in the 1680s.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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