- London Calling!
London, thou art of townes A per se.Soveraign of cities, semeliest in sight,Of high renoun, riches, and royaltie;Of lordis, barons, and many goodly knyght;Of most delectable lusty ladies brightOf famous prelatis in habitis clericall;Of merchauntis full of substaunce and myght:London, thou art the flour of Cities all(Anonymous, sixteenth century)
Hell is a city much like London—A populous and a smoky city;There are all sorts of people undone,And there is little or no fun done;Small justice shown, and still less pity.(Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Hell," pt. 3, st. 1, Peter Bell the Third)
Divided by three centuries, these differing visions of London offer images and elicit emotions that would have been all too familiar to the Tudor and Hanoverian Englishmen and women for whom they were written. The first anonymous sixteenth century quotation, drawn from the aptly titled poem London and once ascribed to the Scottish poet and priest William Dunbar, provides readers with idyllic impressions of a city (and its people) divinely blessed with virtue, wealth, beauty, and learning. London was, quite literally, in the eyes of the poet, "Soveraign of cities." Over the next two or three centuries, London not only came to dominate the British Isles, but it also became the metropole of a burgeoning archipelagic, and then global, empire.1 Moreover, as it grew in size and scope [End Page 213] throughout the early modern period, so too did the challenges and problems that faced the city fathers and inhabitants of the "old Smoke." For Shelley, gazing out at the same city some 250 years after our anonymous poet, those same civic crises and social problems cast a dark shadow across the capital and posed innumerable challenges to many of its modest and more vulnerable inhabitants.
The experiences of early modern Londoners — patrician and plebeian alike — have been the focus of a rich, sustained, and vibrant academic and popular historiography.2 Despite voluminous, and at times vociferous, debate over aspects of its political, social, religious, economic, and cultural history, a number of the salient features of London's history are less contentious and generally accepted by scholars toiling in the field. Well known is the fact that London's population soared from 120,000 in 1550 to roughly 200,000 in 1600 and on upwards to 575,000 in 1700 — a rate of growth that eclipsed other major European cities over the same period.3 Equally important are the facts that, during the same period, London experienced prolonged immigration from its surrounding environs, it witnessed deep and at times lacerating poverty and immiseration, and it harboured stark inequalities between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the powerless, and between those ascending the social hierarchy through opportunity or newly found success and those falling from it through misfortune or miscalculation.4
Pressures that generated this urban expansion were not only local, national, and international in nature, but were galvanized by provincial economic and agrarian change and ongoing processes of political and economic centralization. These [End Page 214] processes may not have embodied a Tudor Revolution in government as was once assumed, but they proved still powerful enough to ensure that all political and commercial roads led to, and through, an increasingly dominant London. Surplus labour and in-migration, of a scale somewhere between on average 7,000 to 8,000 people per year from the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries, permanently punctuated London's political and economic pre-eminence as the metropole for England and, after 1707, for all of Britain. Metropolitan political centralization not only encouraged an influx of landed elites to the Court, to Parliament, and to the Inns of Court, but it also sustained a rebuilding of London that had begun in the midst of the Reformation and continued well into the later eighteenth century. The contours of these social, economic, political, religious, and cultural processes have been elaborated upon in considerable detail over...