Today in London’s riotous history, 1668: ‘Bawdy House Rioters’ attack brothels across the City

The Bawdy House Riots of 1668 saw crowds attack & pull down brothels, outwardly in a moral crusade; though of course moral causes were a good excuse for a bit of burning & looting. However the mob was also said to have been infected with Leveller ideas, & there was talk of “tearing down the Great Bawdy House at Westminster” (meaning Parliament).

In reality, as with many outbreaks of London rioting, from the Peasants Revolt to 2011, the Bawdy House Riots may have been the product of a mingling of many motives, carried out by several overlapping crowds, and subsequently had contradictory or disputed meanings applied to them by commentators anxious to impose their own fears and obsessions… A tendency repeated by numerous historians, still debating the causes and meaning of the riots 350 years later…

On 23 March 1668 a crowd of London apprentices, servants, and artisans, dressed in green aprons, attacked brothels (‘bawdy houses’) in Poplar—kicking off a bout of rioting that over five days would spread from the east end of the City to the west-end brothels.  On the second day, the crowd, now numbering as many as 40,000 people, organised itself into regiments, with their own captains, and proceeded to besiege brothels in East Smithfield, Moorfields, and Shoreditch.  King Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and Lieutenants of the city to suppress the riot, which resulted in the arrest of a number of participants.  But the crowd responded to the arrests on the third and fourth day by besieging the prisons and releasing their comrades.  On the final day, the attacks continued in Holborn before they were finally suppressed.  Among the rallying cries of the mob were “down with the Red Coats!”  “Reformation and Reducement!”  “We have been servants, but we will be masters now!”  They threatened both “that if the king did not give them liberty of conscience, that May-day must be a bloody day” and that “ere long they would come and pull White-hall down”.

Fears that the attacks on brothels had been a cover for a more revolutionary agenda were exacerbated by satirical pamphlets which appeared in the aftermath of the riots, that compared the events to the popular 1647 uprising led by Thomaso Aniello in Naples; many of the publications dwelt upon the popular perception of the growing connection between bawdy houses and the licentious court of Charles II.  In The Poor-Whores Petition. To the Most Splendid, Illustrious, Serene and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlemayne (25 March 1668), Charles II’s powerful mistress is addressed by common whores.  The famous bawds Damarose Page and Madam Creswell petition the grand whore for protection and in The Gracious Answer of the Most Illustrious Lady of Pleasure (24 April 1668), “Castlemaine” promises redress for the “barbarity of those Rude Apprentices, and the cruel Sufferings that the Sisterhood was exposed unto.”

15 of the suspected ringleaders of the uprising were arrested, and charged with high treason: four were subsequently convicted, and then horrifically punished – castrated, drawn and quartered—a punishment usually reserved for traitors and rebels.

Samuel Pepys mentions the rumours that the rioters had men among them who had fought in the civil war, and that some of them talked of attacking the royal palace, ‘the great bawdy house at Whitehall’:

“The Duke of York and all with him this morning were full of the talk of the ‘prentices, who are not yet [put] down, though the guards and militia of the town have been in armes all this night, and the night before; and the ‘prentices have made fools of them, sometimes by running from them and flinging stones at them. Some blood hath been spilt, but a great many houses pulled down; and, among others, the Duke of York was mighty merry at that of Damaris Page’s, the great bawd of the seamen; and the Duke of York complained merrily that he hath lost two tenants, by their houses being pulled down, who paid him for their wine licenses 15l. a year. But here it was said how these idle fellows have had the confidence to say that they did ill in contenting themselves in pulling down the little bawdyhouses, and did not go and pull down the great bawdy-house at White Hall. And some of them have the last night had a word among them, and it was “Reformation and Reducement.” This do make the courtiers ill at ease to see this spirit among people, though they think this matter will not come to much: but it speaks people’s minds; and then they do say that there are men of understanding among them, that have been of Cromwell’s army: but how true that is, I know not.”

As often occurred in London riots in the medieval and early modern centuries, London’s prisons were also attacked, including the Clerkenwell House of Detention…

The implications of the riots were very serious for the authorities – they revived the fears of civil war, a very recent trauma, the spectacle of the levellers, ranters and all the other sects and movements, that had challenged the status quo in the 1640s and ‘50s. The disturbances seemed a revival of overt challenge to the social hierarchy, recalling very directly the myriad ways in which the civil war had opened up questioning of society… When one group of rioters in 1668 broke open Finsbury Jail, in order to rescue some of their fellow rioters who had already been arrested for their involvement in the disturbances, they told the jailer: ‘We have been servants, but we will be masters now’ – a remark which had frightening levelling implications for the authorities.

Commentators of the time, and historians, since, have put forward a number of explanations for the events of 1668… as the product of the apprentices longstanding tradition of “carnivalesque insurrection” and “folkloric unrest”… as a more specific response to Charles II’s reassertion of the Act of Uniformity (restricting the rights of non-conformist churches) in the weeks leading up to the riots, arguing that the apprentices’ politicised resurrection of brothel bashing was aimed against religious policy… as reflecting the apprentices’ longstanding tendency to “define themselves in antagonism against demonised women”.

“For humble tradesmen and apprentices to rise up and instruct the king which laws he should or should not be enforcing, to the point of trying to enforce certain laws (those against brothels) themselves, was indeed a usurpation of the regal authority; the act, by its very nature, places the common man on a level with the king (even if only temporarily), and in this respect was political levelling. If the reading of the riots as an anti-court protest is correct, then the crowd was trying to hold the royal court accountable to the law, and the belief that the law applied to all, regardless of social status (even the king), was a fundamental Leveller principle. The idea embodied in the riots that ordinary people could exercise the power of the sword, use force themselves to impose justice or even to resist duly constituted authority, was indeed political levelling and a Levelling principle. As George Hickes put it in a sermon of 1682, in the context of challenging what he took to be the Whig belief that power lay radically in the people (another Leveller notion): ‘What a great sin it is for the subjects of any government upon any pretence whatsoever, to take up Arms without Authority from the lawfull Sovereign, be it in riots, tumults, or rebellions, or any other illegal meeting howsoever called; for God hath committed the power of the Sword to the lawfull Sovereign onely.’ “

However, while on the one hand the riots contained a powerful echo of the radical ends of the English Revolution, they also reflected both long held prejudices and newer concerns about sexuality and commerce…

The Bawdyhouse rioters possessed republican sympathies – yes, but as in the Civil War years, these were also often deeply Puritan views as well. This expressed itself not only in rebellion against a monarchy that had replaced the ‘Godly’ commonwealth, but also in moral revulsion against the ‘immoral’ persons within the society around them.

“In the 1660s the prostitute very quickly became not only a synecdoche for but the privileged emblem of a new economic and aesthetic order of things.  That a pervasive popular animosity towards both whores and the theatre coincides exactly with the rising celebrity of the actress among London elites, I want to suggest, reflects deep worries about the sexual and labouring identity not only of women, but also of young men from across the spectrum of low-status artisanal occupations… Just as privileged mercantilist and aristocratic sectors of the London population were coming to openly embrace the commercialism that both the theatre and the prostitute had historically embodied, the explicit nature of commercial articulations in the opening decades of the Restoration, by exposing the alienated and objectified condition of laborers more generally, sparked violent protest against this ascendant aesthetic and sexual economy.” (Katherine Romack, Striking the posture of a whore: The bawdy-house riots and anti-theatrical prejudice)

As Romack relates, the Restoration of the 1660s saw not just a concerted effort to re-establish the authority of the king and aristocracy over society (deeply weakened by more than 20 years of rebellion and war), but also to “divide the free-men of the city from their apprentice servants” (weakening one of the bonds that had helped to build the parliamentary coalition against king Charles I).At the same time, apprenticeship as an institution was being rapidly undermined by economic changes within and outside the London guild system. This not only made apprentices’ position within the world of work more precarious (compared to what had been a hard but reasonably stable relationship for centuries) – it also began to dissolve the power of the apprentices collectively, to weaken their power to gather, act as a crowd, affect political and social struggles.

For up to 200 years apprentices had been a central, if not dominant, feature of urban disturbances (often erupting around feast days, and sometimes highly ritualised). Since the late 16th century, many had also been influenced by puritan religious ideas.  By the mid-1660’s, apprentices were also beginning to feel that their futures in their trades were not as stable as previous generations could have expected; apprenticeship was becoming detached from a declining guild system, and established privileges and guarantees were being eroded. Apprenticeship was becoming more and more like servitude on starvation wages. Demarcation between the working poor and apprentices were blurring.

This may have been a factor that drove apprentices to riot both against what seemed like new immorality as well as aiming barbs at authority in general…

To some extent the Bawdy House Rioters were lumped together and described as ‘apprentices’, when many were not; the tendency to label them as apprentices has been seen as part of “a strategy through which the aspiring merchant class shed its republican tendencies”, and made common cause with the restored monarchy.

Katherine Romack sees the antagonism of the Bawdyhouse rioters toward “the mercenary sexual performances of London prostitutes and the growing tension between this class of adolescent males and the theatre” as “the product of a failure of traditional patriarchal ideologies of gender to keep pace with the radical acceleration of wage labour.  We can, from this perspective, read the riots as a failed expression of class-consciousness.  The “craft” of the common whore (her impersonations, imposture, and class transvestitism) elicited a hostile response from the rioters because she presented a challenge to traditional ideologies of youthful masculinity.  The sexually objectified female performer exposed, in short, the young men’s own subjection to the marketplace.  The most violent assault on the theatres and the brothels in this period came, most naturally, from those who intuited their own prostituted condition.” (Romack)

She suggests that as early as 1660, the apprentices were already beginning to understand that the old certainties of apprentice life and the expectation of job security were dissolving, or as he puts it, “patrimonial narratives that had traditionally ensured their subordination” were outdated, that “the prostitution endemic to commerce had pervaded all levels of culture from workshop to court”.

“Exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of the guild system, the apprentices’ hostility towards prostitutes resulted from the failure of those fictions of servitude that had once rendered palatable their status sexually, in the patriarchal family unit, and on-stage. The violence of the authorities’ response to the apprentice riots of ’68, suggests that they had more to fear from the apprentices than a little festive brothel bashing, for it was precisely the disastrous effects of reification against which these youthful subordinate subjects rebelled.  Their cries of “we have been servants but we will be masters now!” as they ravaged the brothels in ’68 mark not only an implicit realisation but also a desperate denial of their own prostituted condition.  Tragically, however, the rioters fell victim to a fatal misrecognition: they became so caught up in the visual emblems of commodity fetishism (in its objects and proxies—in whores) that they lashed out at women, who were themselves equally subject to the workings of the market.  The young men failed, in short, to understand that commodity fetishism neither inheres in, nor originates from, its objects. Conflating the object of desire with its cause is also, ironically, the pornographic attitude to sexuality.”

According to this reading of the Riots, the apprentices’ hostility toward prostitutes did not arise primarily from a moral objection to sex, but from “a collective response against their increasing alienation and disenfranchisement”… Only rather than substantially attacking any of the economic class that was benefitting from the turbulent changes, much of the disorder was concentrated on targeting women on the margins. Puritan morality successfully diverting confused social anger and economic insecurity into collective male violence.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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