Ladies of London: Prostitution in the 1570s

Duncan Salkeld

In the tenth scene of Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, Lady Lucre takes ink from ‘the box of all abomination’ and spots the face of Lady Conscience. The action is designed to indicate the moral contamination and depravity of London. The City has prostituted itself to fraudsters, usurers, and foreigners, and allowed itself to be tainted through sordid deals or shameful behaviour. This article draws on evidence of prostitution from the Governors’ Minute Books of Bridewell Hospital to gain glimpses into the lives of London women in the 1570s. Many were vulnerable to exploitation. A few, like Anne Levens, Elizabeth (‘Bess’) Kelsey, and Mary Dornelly, managed to make a living from prostitution until they were prosecuted. Others, like Jane Trosse, Rose Flower, and Black Luce of Clerkenwell, enjoyed a degree of fame, surfacing in literary and dramatic texts of the time. The article illustrates ways in which women either suffered alone, or worked to achieve a measure of solidarity with others despite the risks. In refusing to romanticize London, and the women drawn to it in hope of prosperity, Wilson’s play conceals an implied realism beneath its cover of allegory.

Stephen Gosson’s mocking reference to Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582) provides an invaluable outer limit for the play’s date of composition. Consensus broadly allocates the play to 1581.1 Gosson was struck in particular by the tenth scene where Lucre spots the face of Conscience with ink, an action that represents venereal disease as a symptom of wider social and moral decay. The city has prostituted itself, sold itself to fraudsters, usurers, and foreigners, and allowed itself to be tainted through sordid deals or shameful behaviour.2 At the time he was writing the play, Wilson seems to have belonged to the earl of Leicester’s troupe, a travelling company that toured the provinces as far as Newcastle to the north, Shrewsbury to the west, and Southampton to the south.3 The play is relatively short, comprising about 1,652 lines, concise and portable enough to be played on different kinds of occasion. It depicts London as a corrupt and dangerous centre, but one with judicial institutions able to contain and remedy that corruption. If it was an ideological work designed to export civic structures and measures as models of restraint for provincial contexts, the point was lost on Gosson. He regarded it as tendentious: ‘What credit hath any good counsel in players lips when it workes no amendment in themselves?’ In 1582, his readers might have felt he had a point.

The archives of London’s Bridewell Hospital provide a good deal of information about prostitution in the years leading up to Wilson’s play, specifically for 1574-9.4 It is not quite accurate to say that prostitution in early modern London had a structure or system, but there were patterns of behaviour, cause and consequence that characterized it, or gave a certain, rather bleak familiarity to it. Early modern prostitution was a complex phenomenon driven by a number of factors: the predation of men who had money; the deprivations of women who lacked work; the vulnerabilities of girls uneducated about reproduction; and the risky pleasures of transgression. Some women were no doubt allured by the dream of achieving wealth, status, or power by making themselves sexually available to men of influence. But abandonment, pregnancy, disease, and punishment often accompanied this choice, and the history of prostitution is filled with innumerable tales of exploitation, suffering, and despair. One myth the Bridewell material ought to dispel is the widespread notion that early modern prostitute activity in London centred around Southwark and Bankside. Illicit activity had not, of course, been entirely eradicated from this area after the closure of ‘the stews’ in 1546, but it was drastically reduced, and the little that comes to light is far outweighed by cases reported in all areas across London north of the river.

It is worth bearing in mind both how difficult and how common it was for young women in early modern England to find themselves displaced from home, perhaps pregnant out of wedlock, and looking for shelter or work. Itinerant women were especially vulnerable. In 1603, Joan Heliker, a single woman with child, was arrested for ‘stealinge milke from the Cowe in Islington feilds’.5 We can only guess at the rest of her story. Joan Birde, originally of Chichester, told the Bridewell court in 1601 that she had come up from the country to seek ‘service’. Finding herself ‘by chaunce’ at Gracious Street, she asked for directions to a lodging in Southwark. Stopping near a cook’s shop, she encountered one Stephen Nicholas, a ‘Frenchman’, who offered her a room in his rents. He took her up ‘three paier of staires’ and locked her in, taking the key. He waited till she was abed, returned, and raped her. The commotion brought up the master and mistress of the house who called the watch. In the fray, Nicholas also stole her purse.6 Parish registers and other sources give repeated examples of pregnant young women giving birth in the streets or the fields. Alice Barnett, whipped as ‘an harlot’ in the summer of 1603, gave birth in the street and claimed a Somerset man was the father of the child.7 The Watch of Bread Street apprehended Ellen Skelton in September 1607 as a vagrant. She had lately been delivered of a child ‘in the street’ and was found to be ‘franticke’. Three days later, still ‘lunatick’, she was given a few clothes and sent to Bethlem.8 None of these women seem to have been prostitutes, but they illustrate a pattern of exploitation caused by displacement and abandonment that many young women experienced. There were a few who managed to make a living from prostitution, for a time at least. Anne Levens was perhaps the highest earning of all sixteenth century London prostitutes. Her brother Christopher initially served as her pimp and, in 1573, arranged an assignation for a fee of twenty nobles with Cyprian Velutelli, an Italian merchant, in the garden of a house in Crutched or ‘Crowched’ Friars in the east of the city just north of Tower Hill.9 Thereafter, Levens worked alone, across London in different houses north of the Thames. Her clients included not just wealthy merchants like Velutelli brothers Cyprian and Acerbo, or Alexander Palavicino, but also Dutch merchants from the Steelyard, a ‘tall black man with a black beard’, a ‘very fair youth’ with ‘a perfect yellow beard’, and a ‘man from the contrey’ named ‘Mandreant’ from whom she received some thirty or forty pounds.10 Together with Elizabeth Kelsey who wore a silk gown and pearl earring, she stayed frequently at one Blount’s house near the Tower, a place that welcomed ‘Dutche men, Italians, straungers and shipmen’.11 Levens earned enough to lend £10 to Mathias Vanbargen of the Steelyard, a substantial sum.12 But the high-life didn’t last. She was detained at Bridewell in 1576 and released two years later on 10 December 1578, on condition that she depart the City within three days.13 In November 1576, Elizabeth Kelsey was denounced in court by a pimp William Mekyns as an ‘arrant whore’ who ‘caryed the fashion with Dutche, Frenche, Spanishe, Italyans and all’.14 She was kept by one of the earl of Warwick’s men who liked to play cards at Blount’s, and she once joined a group of men and women at one Elliott’s house in Knightrider Street for a supper of venison, tarts and Hippocras wine.15 She disappears from the record thereafter, but was never, it seems, apprehended.

Perhaps the most unruly woman in all Elizabethan London was Jane Trosse. Thomas Nashe jokes near the beginning of The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) that the fortified French town of Terouanne had opened up in surrender more times than did Jane Trosse.16 Repeatedly imprisoned in the notorious Wood Street Counter, the ‘cage’ (a small lock-up in the street) and Bridewell, Trosse proved impossible to control. She was a prostitute, thief, cross-dresser and infamous roaring girl. The authorities even begged her father to take her out of London, so challenged were they by her behaviour.17 She was first brought in from the Sessions house ‘for her lewd liffe’ in June 1576, having lain with ‘one Peter the Spanyorde’ and stole ‘vi double pistoletts’ [gold coins] from his pockets.18 Locked up in the Counter, she escaped by promising to do for Robert Bingham anything he asked, so long as he lent her twenty shillings. Bingham had heard she was ‘a fine wench’ and gave her a ring, a pair of gloves, and ten shillings to ‘clear her out of the Compter’.19 She hid for a week in the chamber of a gentleman of Gray’s Inn but was arrested again for wearing ‘unseemly apparel more manlike than woman like’ and for lying together ‘in bedd’ with Joseph Adnett and his wife Elizabeth.20 She was arrested again in April 1577, having caught a venereal infection.21 In Bridewell, she was repeatedly punished for cursing, talking filthily, refusing to work, stealing, and trying to escape. In 1577, the Bridewell clerk wrote her up as ‘a horrible strumpet’, an escapee and thief, to be whipped ‘for strickeing and beatinge the matrone and for that she will not worke’.22 An inventory of her goods in 1578 listed a gold ring, five shillings and eight pence in cash (the value of a Spanish escudo or ‘pistolet’), a looking-glass, a velvet cap, and some rather delicate ‘perlls of net worke and lawne kirchers’.23 Still unvanquished, she was punished again at Bridewell in 1579 for ‘abhomynable sweringe and evill behavior in the house and other evill usage not mete to be wrytten’.24 Pregnant by one Robert Newman, she managed to secure her release. On 18 July 1579, Newman promised to pay for her ‘diet’ and collect her. The masters at Bridewell resolved to hold on to her cap, glass, and cash until he did.25

A huge number of early modern treatises, pamphlets and publications glance in one way or another at the topic of prostitution, and amid them all, the lives of a few individuals emerge. Nashe made light of Jane Trosse, and Margaret Barnes became widely celebrated in pamphlets, plays, and ballads as ‘Long Meg of Westminster’.26 Two other women at the centre of prostitute activity in 1570s London were Rose Flower and Black Luce. Codedly, Nashe recalled Rose Flower in Have With You to Saffron-Walden as the best woman in London for experimentation.27 The boisterous, bawdy chaos of the Gesta Grayorum, or Gray’s Inn revels of 1594 owes more than a little to Nashe’s satirical influence. A letter provocatively signed ‘John Puttanemico’ and supposedly written from ‘the Harbour of Bridewell’ details what at first might seem a sober report of a battle at sea, but is in fact a piece of gossip about a sexual encounter. The letter describes a ‘hot skirmish’ in the ‘Straits of the Gulf of Clerkenwell’ between a ‘merchant of St. Giles’s, called Amarpso’ and an ‘Admiral of the Amazons called the Rowse-flower’. Clerkenwell, a north-western London suburb was, of course, nowhere near the sea, situated beside a small stream that ran south to the Thames and became the River Fleet. As the letter explains, ‘the Merchant having gained the Wind, came up with her in such close manner, that he brake his Bolt-sprite in her hinder Quarter’.28 Testimonies at Bridewell disclose that Rose Flower had worked as a prostitute since at least 1574, when Elizabeth Barnewell served her as bawd. She ran a bawdy house in Shoreditch open to ‘euery foke’, and there was always ‘1 or 2 hores in her house for all that come’.29 Flower moved between bawdy houses dotted around north London. Henry Boyer, a pimp living in Cowe Cross, just south of Clerkenwell, was alleged to have taken ‘Rose Flower’ to chambers in Whitefriars and the Strand. John Lee of Lyme Street, who boasted that ‘he went to Sir Henry Lees and there he could have a Lady when he lysted to be noughte’ was also said to ‘abuse Rose Flower at Shoreditch in her howse’.30 Few aristocrats were better connected to Elizabeth’s court than Sir Henry, the man who commissioned and owned the famous Ditchley portrait of the queen.

Black Luce, known also as Lucy Negro, ran a brothel in Clerkenwell with an associate named Gilbert East. A prosecution in May 1577 explains that her real name was Luce Baynam, and that her house had been open to all at least since 1573.31 She and East are cited in a series of prosecutions in the mid-1570s, and although East was arrested and examined, Luce apparently always escaped prosecution. Between them, they hosted a number of women familiar to the authorities including Anne Levens but also Margaret Goldsmith known as ‘little Meg’ or sometimes ‘Mistress Tarleton’, Mary Dornelly, and Alice Furres. Mary Dornelly dressed in a silk gown and was kept especially for ‘great company’ that visited the premises.32 A stranger named Mandrell kept Alice Furres at Black Luce’s house, and gave her twenty shillings and a dog with silver bells.33 Captain Augustyne, the French ambassador’s steward, frequented Alice Furres there through the summer of 1576. Although the establishment was raided at midnight, Luce herself seems to have escaped punishment.34 In 1577, she spent a week in the country, in Northampton, with one John Gardener.35 Mary Dornelly told the court that one Edward Dyer and a Master Beeston frequented her, and that the latter had offered to marry her.36 The same Christmas revels account that mentions Rose Flower lists Black Luce among guests at Gray’s Inn on 20 December 1594, eight days before Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors was performed there as part of the season’s festivities. She is given the jocular title of ‘Abbess de Clerkenwell’ who leads a ‘choir of nuns’ with ‘burning lamps’ (ie the pox).37 In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare describes kitchen wench Luce as ‘swart’, puns on the homophone ‘loose’, and has Dromio quip about the courtesan as a ‘light’ wench who may ‘burn’.38 The last line of Sonnet 144 makes the same rueful joke. Plausibly, Luce was in the audience on ‘The Night of Errors’ of 28 December, though we cannot be sure. But she surfaces in other plays. In 1600, she is mentioned as among loose companions of the renegade Captain Spicing in Edward the Fourth Part One, a play attributed to Thomas Heywood. Barnabe Barnes in The Devil’s Charter (1606) has the clown Baglioni conjure his friend ‘in Negra Luciaes name’.39 A case at Bridewell indicates that Black Luce was still operating a bawdy house in 1601. Gilbert East, meanwhile, seems to have become Philip Henslowe’s bailiff. Black Luce was evidently well known in the theatrical world of the 1590s. Edmund Tilney, Christopher Beeston, George Wilkins, and Thomas Dekker all lived in Clerkenwell, as did Matthew Shakespeare who in all likelihood married George Peele’s sister, Isabel, in 1569, and whose children were baptized in the parish church of St James throughout the 1570s.40 In the years leading up to Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London, Black Luce was one of the two most active, successful and provocative brothel owners in London. We do not know that she was black-skinned but allusions to her associates as ‘Tartars’ in the Gesta Grayorum perhaps point in that direction. She was never detained, it seems.

We do not know who exactly played in The Three Ladies of London, but there is a strong likelihood that actors who would later join Wilson in the Queen’s Men company were involved. Two of these were brothers, Lawrence and John Dutton, connected with Oxford’s and Warwick’s companies prior to 1583. In 1588, the brothers would lead the Queen’s Men on a trip to Nottingham.41 Associates of East and Luce included Thomas Wise of Whitefriars, Jane Fuller of Houndsditch, and John Shawe who kept houses in Thames Street and Smithfield. When Shawe was arrested, he testified that, ‘Sir Owen Hoptons second sonne resorteth much to his house this quarter of a yeare and he hath had thuse of the body of little margarett & Elizabeth Jane ffullers mayde margarett is nowe at one horspoll at the Bell beyond shoreditch churche and there one Lawrence dutton kepes her he is a player & there is two brethren and by reporte both ther wyves are whores’.42 Just three months earlier, on 11 October 1576, William Langton, servant with ‘Lawrence Dutton of Shorediche’, had been charged at Bridewell with attempting to rape one Margaret Blackbancke. Two years later, Shawe’s wife was alleged to fetch an unnamed ‘players wiffe’ to her house.43 When the Queen’s Men were formed in 1583, they were licensed to play at the Bell and Cross Keys Inns on Gracious Street, the road running south from Bishopsgate and nearby Shoreditch. On 12 June 1560, Cicely Denyce proprietor of the Bell had been carted for being ‘a common bawde’ and held at Bridewell. Two days later, the owner of the Cross Keys, Richard Ibbotson, had similarly been charged with being ‘a common whoremonger’. He was whipped and fined forty shillings.44 The early playing spaces and theatres would never lose this reputation for bawdry, and allegations against the Dutton brothers would only have confirmed it. Nevertheless, these were just allegations. They were never followed up, and no other member of the Queen’s Men is cited among the host of prosecutions that filled the Bridewell Court Books through the 1570s.

Wilson’s play has none of the historical verisimilitude we might detect in a Queen’s Men play like The Famous Victories of Henry V, or perhaps The True Tragedy of Richard III. It has Dissimulation, Fraud, and Simplicity travelling to London and meeting up with Simony and Usury who enter on stage hand-in-hand, but none of these characterizations hint at any particular group or individual. The play aims at a kind of realism in its depiction of Mercadorus who first appears in Scene 3 ‘like an Italian Merchant’. Sir Horatio Palavicino, his nephew Alexander, Cyprian and Acerbo Vellutelly, Benedict Spinola, and Nicholas Lucatelli were just some of the wealthy, prominent Italians in late-sixteenth-century London organizing trade with the European continent and beyond, and they are all repeatedly named as prostitute clients in Bridewell prosecutions.45 Wilson at least seems to have an idea of what his audience were likely to recognize as an ‘Italian Merchant’. His is a London play, reminiscent of Hick Scorner (1514), but unlike that earlier morality piece, it names no names. It was written to look askance at London, probably from the vantage point of a village green or an inn-yard in the shires, but it is all done under the protective cover of allegory. The play achieves a kind of realism not in its London figures but through the displaced, hungry, homeless and sometimes ambitious travellers it depicts as on their way to the great metropolis, just the kind of itinerants Leicester’s men might have met often enough on the road – like Simplicity, the ragged-trousered miller (‘all mealy, with a wand in his hand’) wandering down the country lane singing, ‘No dwelling in London, no biding in London, for Conscience and Love’ (9.178).


[1] On the play’s date, see H.S.D. Mithal (ed.), An Edition of Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London and Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (PhD Diss. University of Birmingham, 1959; repr. New York and London, 1988), xx-xxi; Lloyd Edward Kermode (ed.) Three Renaissance Usury Plays (London and New York, 2009), 32-3; and Martin Wiggins, in association with Catherine Richardson, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue (Oxford and New York, 2012), 2.265-9, esp. 266. All references in this essay to Wilson’s play are taken from Kermode’s edition. For Gosson’s attack, see Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in fiue Actions (London, 1582), sig. D2.

[2] For discussion of the play and its sequel in relation to the social implications of infection, see Duncan Salkeld, Shakespeare Among the Courtesans: Prostitution, Literature, and Drama, 1500-1650 (Farnham and Burlington, VT, 2012), 39-41.

[3] Scott McMillin and Sally Beth MacLean, The Queen’s Men and their Plays (Cambridge and New York, 1998), 19.

[4] Bridewell has no archives for the period 1580-96. Citations from the Bridewell Hospital Court of Governors’ Minute Books (hereafter BCB) are given by volume and folio number, followed by hyperlink to digitized images of the original sources hosted by Bethlem Royal Hospital, Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham, Kent, at

[5] BCB 4.373v, 747. For further details regarding the women discussed in this essay, see Shakespeare Among the Courtesans, 69-95, 119-150.

[6] BCB. 4.278r, 556.

[7] BCB 4.398r, 796.

[8] BCB 5.217v, 463.

[9] BCB 3.352r, 742.

[10] BCB 3.96r, 225, 226, 227, 228.

[11] BCB 3.188r, 409.

[12] BCB 3.96v, 226.

[13] BCB 3.354r, 746.

[14] BCB 3.92v, 218.

[15] BCB 3.188r-v, 409, 410.

[16] R.B. McKerrow (ed.) The Works of Thomas Nashe (1904-10); repr. with corrections and notes by F.P. Wilson (Oxford, 1958), 2.209.

[17] BCB 3.351v, 741.

[18] BCB 3.29v, 94. See also BCB 3.103r, 239 and 107r, 247.

[19] BCB 3.142r-v, 317, 318.

[20] BCB 3.183v-185r, 401, 404. The original foliation is mis-numbered here.

[21] BCB 3.204r, 441.

[22] BCB 3.217v, 471 3.366v, 771 and 3.368v, 775.

[23] BCB 3.325r, 689.

[24] BCB 3.387r, 812.

[25] BCB 3.404v, 847.

[26] See Bernard Capp, ‘Long Meg of Westminster: A Mystery Solved’, Notes and Queries 243.3 (Sept. 1998), 302-4.

[27] R.B. McKerrow (ed.) Works, 3.54.

[28] W.W. Greg (ed.) Gesta Grayorum (Malone Society Reprints, 1914), 49-50.

[29] BCB 2.28r-30v, 90, 91, 93, and 3.317v, 671.

[30] BCB 3.317v-318v, 671, 673, BCB 3.160r, 353.

[31] BCB 3.213r, 462.

[32] See BCB 3.22r, 78, 3.33v, 102, 3.104r, 241.

[33] BCB 3.103v, 240.

[34] BCB 3.120r, 273.

[35] BCB 3.229r, 494.

[36] BCB 3.285v, 607.

[37] Greg, Gesta Grayorum, 12.

[38] See Salkeld, Shakespeare Among the Courtesans, 133-4.

[39] R.B. McKerrow (ed.), The Devil’s Charter by Barnabe Barnes (Louvain, 1904), p. 45, l.1571.

[40] See Salkeld, Shakespeare Among the Courtesans, 141-50.

[41] Edwin Nungezer, A Dictionary of Actors and of Other Persons Associated with the Public Representation of Plays in England before 1642 (1929; repr. New York, 1968), 123.

[42] BCB 3.120v, 274. Mark Benbow first brought these allegations against the Duttons to light in R.M. Benbow, ‘Dutton and Goffe versus Broughton: A disputed contract for plays in the 1570s’, Records of Early English Drama Newsletter (1981.2), 3-9. For fuller details on the brothers, see Mark Eccles, ‘Elizabethan Actors I: A-D’, Notes and Queries 236[NS 38].1 (March 1991), 38-49, esp. 47-9. Also, William Ingram, ‘Laurence Dutton, Stage Player: Missing and Presumed Lost,’ Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 14 (2001): 122-42. The Bell Inn at Shoreditch seems to be conflated with The Bell on Gracious [Gracechurch] Street in David Kathman, ‘London Inns as Playing Venues for the Queen’s Men’, in Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme, and Andrew Griffin (eds), Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and Conditions of Playing (Farnham and Burlington, VT, 2009), 70. Another prosecution gives the former’s location as at ‘the further end of Shorditche beyond the churche’ (BCB 3.124v, 282).

[43] BCB 3.75r, 185, 3.359v, 757.

[44] For the prosecutions of Denyce and Ibbotson, see Salkeld, Shakespeare Among the Courtesans, 35-6; also BCB1.86r, 204.

[45] For further details regarding these prosecutions, see Duncan Salkeld, ‘Much Ado about Italians in Renaissance London’ in Michele Marrapodi (ed.), Shakespeare and the Italian Renaissance: Appropriation, Transformation, Opposition (Farnham and Burlington, VT, 2014), 305-16.