Sounds of Early Modern London

If you have ever been to London, or you are from there, you probably know that the city today is awash with noise, from passing buses, construction overhead, the occasional train, cars, and the crush of people from all over the world speaking every different language under the sun.

London in the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare was rather different. Well, obviously, no cars. But in the Jacobethan period, London was the largest urban centre in England by far and was to continue its massive growth throughout most of the next century. In Europe, only Paris and Naples had greater populations by 1600, though even these cities were dwarfed by the cultural and military powerhouse that was Istanbul. So, fewer people, less noise.

Also, around 1600, the very loudest noises that someone might encounter in a tour around the city were far quieter than the loudest noises that we might encounter today. No jackhammers and automobiles here. Rather, the sounds of unamplified voices, animals, and industry filled the air. Barry Truax, speaking about pre-modern societies generally, notes that “more ‘smaller’ sounds can be heard, more detail can be discerned in those that are heard, and sounds coming from a greater distance form a significant part of the soundscape. In terms of acoustic ecology, one might say that more ‘populations’ of sound exist, and fewer ‘species’ are threatened with extinction” (70-1).

So what were the species of sound that you might hear if you were transported back to Jacobethan London?

As Bruce R. Smith notes in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, we actually know a bit about this from the diary of Philip Julius, Duke of Stettin-Pomerania, who rode into London on 12 September 1602 and described:

On arriving in London we heard a great ringing of bells in almost all the churches going on very late in the evening, also on the following days until 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening. We were informed that the young people do that for the sake of exercise and amusement, and sometimes they lay considerable sums of money as a wager, who will pull a bell the longest or ring it in the most approved fashion. Parishes spend much money in harmoniously-sounding bells, that one being preferred which has the best bells. The old Queen is said to have been pleased very much by this exercise, considering it a sign of the health of the people.

Loudest of all the bells was that of St Mary-le-Bow, and it was that bell that signalled the rhythms of the workday. Shopkeepers, artisans, and apprentices rose and worked to the sound of that bell tolling out the days of their life. In fact, there was a proverbial association between the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow and the true Londoner. By 1617, Fynes Moryson wrote “Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow-bell, are in reproach called Cockneys, and eaters of buttered toast.”

The sound of the bells was only one form of music that would have pervaded early modern London. Music was present in the pre-modern city in ways that are alien today. It wasn’t just entertainment. It accompanied daily chores and work (working songs); it served as a way for shoesellers, oystersellers, and rag-and-bone men to advertise; it could be heard emerging from barber shops and brothels and public houses alike. Women at spinning and carding wool would sing, as evidenced by John Case who asked in The Praise of Musick in 1586 “Who does not straightways imagine upon music when he hears his maids either at the woodhurdle or the milking pail?”  Sailors and waterboatmen would sing at their work as they went up and down the Thames. Songs emerged from the schools of the day, where school songs were a mainstay of the educational culture until well into the twentieth century. Even though, as Christopher Marsh points out, professional minstrels had been largely eliminated over the course of the 1500s by statutes that saw them as nothing more than beggars and vagabonds, songs still emerged everywhere.

The sounds of the workplace would also fill the ears of a visitor. Thomas Dekker in his pamphlet The Seven Deadly Sins of London from 1606 invokes the sounds of a London street.

Hammers are beating in one place, tubs hooping in another, pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth: here are porters sweating under burdens, there merchantmen bearing bags of money, chapmen (as if they were at leapfrog) skip out of one shop into another.

The sounds of each industry, from the hammering of blacksmiths and farriers, to the turning and scraping of plates and candlesticks, to the anguished cries of the slaughtered cattle, sheep and chickens permeated the city as it was no longer the case, as it had once been in the early 1500s, that each industry was relegated to a particular part of London. No matter where you went, you’d hear the sound of industry and manufacture – the hammering and scraping, tapping and making of every object of the early modern world.

Let’s not forget voices though. A huge portion of the population of London were immigrants who came from the rural counties beyond the city and their voices would have been trained by years of living outdoors without the sound reflective walls of the city. They would have used their voices differently than an urban dweller would, as urban residents tend to restrict our voices, pulling them back to fit in the small flat rooms of our daily lives. Indeed, this distinction between indoor and outdoor sound was puzzled over by Helkiah Crooke in his 1616 Microcosmographia, where he argued that voices from within a house can’t be heard outside, while voices outside a house can be heard within because “the sound entering the house is contracted, gathered, or united, and therefore it must needs move the sense more fully” (700).

The cry of unrestricted voices would resonate off of the architecture of the city and carry in ways that we can’t really understand today. The sound of the city would depend on where the listener stood and where the speaker stood. Some streets were cobbled, to be sure, reflecting the sound back and forth along the road and the walls of the houses, but most streets were merely sound absorbing mud and dirt (Smith 59-60). Thus the soundscape of an individual street would be totally different from its neighbour. The penetration of certain species of sound into the houses of even side streets could be wholly unpredictable.

Given all this, it is easy to sympathize with characters like Jonson’s Morose in Epicœne. Apart from the sounds of industry, there was also the sound of entertainment, which Morose seems most upset at. In fact, Morose’s description of what he’d gladly listen to rather than be married to a talkative woman is a kind of thumbnail sketch of the soundscape of early modern London itself. He’d happily sit “in a belfry, at Westminster Hall, i’ the Cockpit, at the fall of a stage, the Tower wharf (what place is there else?) London Bridge, Paris Garden, Billingsgate, when the noises are at their height and loudest. Nay, I would sit out a play that were nothing but fights at sea, drum, trumpet and target!”

If we could get in a time machine and listen to the sounds of early modern London, the speciation of sound, rather than the wall of noise that greets us in contemporary London, is what would probably surprise us most. From the choir of schoolboys carried on the wind to the incessant tapping of the neighbouring goldsmith, every London street would be different and every one would have its own unique character and voice.


For more on this topic, please read

  • Bruce R Smith. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor
  • David Lindley. Shakespeare and Music
  • Christopher Marsh. Music and Society in Early Modern England
  • Ross Duffin. Shakespeare’s Songbook
  • Wes Folkerth. The Sound of Shakespeare

1641 The Grand Remonstrance

The relationship between King Charles I and Parliament began on a sour note.

Charles, who had been personally insulted in marriage negotiations with Spain, forced a war upon the divided Parliament in 1625.

Charles I by Daniel Mytens

Though the House of Commons agreed to the war, the first Parliament of his reign did not explicitly grant Charles the traditional right to collect excise and import duties, known as poundage and tonnage.

The war with Spain expanded to include France and over the next few years, bankrupted the country.  Charles faced increasing opposition from the House of Commons until he prorogued Parliament in 1629.

For the next eleven years, Charles attempted to rule the country without Parliament.

This was not in and of itself unusual – Charles father James had ruled without parliament for a period of seven years – but given the antagonistic nature of Charles and the House of Commons, Charles own authoritarian style of government and finally his overwhelming unpopularity, the decision to move to Personal Rule was politically dangerous.


Charles was able to rule without Parliament for so long, mostly because the wars with France and Spain had been concluded and he avoided entering continental conflicts throughout the 1630s.

Internally though, dissent grew as Charles imposed his sense of decorum and order upon the government and the churches.

Charles attempted throughout his reign to unite the governments of his three Kingdoms, with quite poor results.

In fact, it was his attempt to unify all of his kingdoms under one prayer book that resulted in Civil War in Scotland.

Prayerbook Rebellion

For the first time since he prorogued Parliament in 1629, Charles needed to raise funds to prosecute a war and to do that, he needed to recall Parliament.

The resulting session, known as the Short Parliament because it sat for only three weeks, saw the King and the Commons at loggerheads.

The King saw Parliament as his bankroll so that he could execute a war against the rebelling Scots.

The Commons saw Parliament as a chance to present Charles with a list of their grievances, which had been unaddressed in the years of Personal Rule.

Charles and Parliament

After a few weeks of deadlock, Charles realized that the Commons had no intention of helping him and called Parliament to an end.

This action fed the accusations of paranoia that had dogged him all of his life.

The Scots invaded England and the English army in the North rebelled and rioted alongside Scottish troops.

It became apparent to all that Charles would have to call another Parliament, this time called the Long Parliament as it sat for eight years.

The Long Parliament pulled concession after concession out of Charles:

  • The Triennial Act which stated that Parliament must be called at least once every three years;
  • The imprisonment and execution of some of Charles closest advisors;
  • The abolition of the Star Chamber, a kind of supreme court which always acted in favour of the king.

In 1641 a bloody rebellion brokeirish rebellions.jpg out in Ireland and Parliament adopted the Grand Remonstrance, reciting the evils of Charles’s reign and demanding church reform and parliamentary control over the army and over the appointment of royal ministers.

Charles responded to the Grand Remonstrance by attempting to arrest the MPs responsible for it, which drove a further wedge between the court and the Commons.

By 1642, the English Civil War had begun in earnest.


1485 Henry VII Enters London


When Henry VII entered London, he not only started a new dynasty, but he immediately started to intervene in the old dynasties to make sure that they didn’t challenge his new position.Henry VII a.jpg

Proclaimed King of England by Sir William Stanley, he was as yet unmarried to Elizabeth of York, the to-be mother of Henry VIII. Instead, he stayed with the Queen Mother, also confusingly named Elizabeth. (Seriously, everytime I get to that bit in Richard III when he’s wooing Elizabeth, I have to apologize that they used so few names back in the medieval/early modern periods.)

Nineteen year old Elizabeth of York was housed at Coldharbour House, along with the eight year old Duke of Buckingham and the ten year old Earl of Warwick. Coldharbour House was granted by Henry VII to Margaret Beaufort, who then went on to arrange marriage between Thomas Grey and Eleanor St. John, neutralizing the Grey’s opposition to the new dynasty. Further, Margaret Beaufort took into her custody the surviving heiress of the York house, Cecily of York.

Within the next few months, working with his mother and his close allies, Henry VII ensured that the families who had been so influential in the previous decades, the Greys, the de Veres, the Stanleys, would be firmly on his side.

1571 Duke of Norfolk Arrested

Today in 1571, the Duke of Norfolk was arrested for his participation in the Ridolfi Plot. Here’s a picture of Christopher Eccleston as the Duke of Norfolk in Elizabeth because… hey, Christopher Eccleston is awesome.

Christopher Eccleston.jpg

Celebrate by laying a ridiculously convoluted, horrifically pie-in-the-sky plan that could never have possibly worked, worthy of the Emperor in Star Wars, then wonder why it is that everything is laying in ruins, smoking, all around you.

One of the things I find fascinating is historical economics. I know that a lot of it is guesswork, but educated guesswork can be incredibly useful sometimes. The following is an infographic I created using data from The Agrarian History of England and Wales  Vol IV. 1500-1600. Gen. Ed. H. P. R. Finberg, Ed. Joan Thirsk.  Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1967. The dates for the plague years are from various sources.

Wage Rates in Southern England Infographic

As you can see, there is a downward trend in terms of the actual purchasing power of a labourer’s wage throughout Henry VIII’s reign. This came despite the fact that the return of the plague again and again would have reduced the labour pool and thereby (theoretically) have driven up prices, wages, and inflation. Clearly something else was going on to cause the downward spiral that we see throughout the early 1500s.

There is a temporary boost to purchasing power following Elizabeth’s coronation in the late 1550s, but that is followed by a slow decline as the Cost of Living increases at a rate that hadn’t been seen since the 1540s, when Henry VIII had made England into a pariah state in Europe.

Finally, things begin to even out under James, but by that point, systemic inflation had become a part of daily life.