Thomas Platter, A Swiss Tourist in London

Thomas Platter, a native of Basel, visited England in 1599. The following excerpt from his diary, translated from the German, describes the many popular amusements and spectacles to be witnessed in Elizabethan London.


[Click on image to enlarge] On September 21st after lunch, about two o'clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar >> note 1 with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.

On another occasion not far from our inn, in the suburb at Bishopsgate, if I remember, also after lunch, I beheld a play in which they presented diverse nations and an Englishman struggling together for a maiden; he overcame them all except the German who won the girl in a tussle, and then sat down by her side, when he and his servant drank themselves tipsy, so that they were both fuddled and the servant proceeded to hurl his shoe at his master's head, whereupon they both fell asleep; meanwhile the Englishman stole into the tent and absconded with the German's prize, thus in his turn outwitting the German; in conclusion they danced very charmingly in English and Irish fashion. Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats, which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment. The actors are most expensively and elaborately costumed; for it is the English usage for eminent lords or knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them then for sale for a small sum to the actors.

How much time then they may merrily spend daily at the play everyone knows who has ever seen them play or act.

There is also in the city of London not far from the horse-market, which occupies a large site, a house where cock-fights are held annually throughout three quarters of the year (for in the remaining quarter they told me it was impossible since the feathers are full of blood), and I saw the place, which is built like a theatre. In the center on the floor stands a circular table covered with straw and with ledges round it, where the cocks are teased and incited to fly at one another, while those with wagers as to which cock will win sit closest around the circular disk, but the spectators who are merely present on their entrance penny sit around higher up, watching with eager pleasure the fierce and angry fight between the cocks, as these wound each other to death with spurs and beaks. And the party whose cock surrenders or dies loses the wager; I am told that stakes on a cock often amount to many thousands of crowns, especially if they have reared the cock themselves and brought their own along. For the master who inhabits the house has many cocks besides, which he feeds in separate cages and keeps for this sport, as he showed us. He also had several cocks, none of which he would sell for less than twenty crowns; they are very large but just the same kind as we have in our country. He also told us that if one discovered that the cocks' beaks had been coated with garlic, one was fully entitled to kill them at once. He added too, that it was nothing to give them brandy before they began to fight, adding what wonderful pleasure there was in watching them.

Every Sunday and Wednesday in London there are bearbaitings on the other side of the water. . . . The theatre is circular, with galleries round the top for the spectators; the ground space down below, beneath the clear sky, is unoccupied. In the middle of this place a large bear on a long rope was bound to a stake, then a number of great English mastiffs were brought in and shown first to the bear, which they afterwards baited one after another: now the excellence and fine temper of such mastiffs was evinced, for although they were much struck and mauled by the bear, they did not give in, but had to be pulled off by sheer force, and their muzzles forced open with long sticks to which a broad iron piece was attached at the top. The bears' teeth were not sharp so they could not injure the dogs; they have them broken short. When the first mastiffs tired, fresh ones were brought in to bait the bear.

* * *

With these and many more amusements the English pass their time, learning at the play what is happening abroad; indeed men and womenfolk visit such places without scruple, since the English for the most part do not travel much, but prefer to learn foreign matters and take their pleasures at home.

There are a great many inns, taverns, and beer-gardens scattered about the city, where much amusement may be had with eating, drinking, fiddling, and the rest, as for instance in our hostelry, which was visited by players almost daily. And what is particularly curious is that the women as well as the men, in fact more often than they, will frequent the taverns or ale-houses for enjoyment. They count it a great honour to be taken there and given wine with sugar to drink; and if one woman only is invited, then she will bring three or four other women along and they gaily toast each other; the husband afterwards thanks him who has given his wife such pleasure, for they deem it a real kindness.

In the ale-houses tobacco >> note 2 or a species of wound-wort are also obtainable for one's money, and the powder is lit in a small pipe, the smoke sucked into the mouth, and the saliva is allowed to run freely, after which a good draught of Spanish wine follows. This they regard as a curious medicine for defluctions, >> note 3 and as a pleasure, and the habit is so common with them, that they always carry the instrument on them, and light up on all occasions, at the play, in the taverns or elsewhere, drinking as well as smoking together, as we sit over wine, and it makes them riotous and merry, and rather drowsy, just as if they were drunk, though the effect soon passes — and they use it so abundantly because of the pleasure it gives, that their preachers cry out on them for their self-destruction, and I am told the inside of one man's veins after death was found to be covered in soot just like a chimney. The herb is imported from the Indies in great quantities, and some types are much stronger than others, which difference one can immediately taste; they perform queer antics when they take it. And they first learned of this medicine from the Indians, as Mr. Cope, a citizen of London who has spent much time in the Indies, informed me; I visited his collection with Herr Lobelus, a London physician, and saw the following objects.

This same Mr. Cope inhabits a fine house in the Snecgas; >> note 4 he led us into an apartment stuffed with queer foreign objects in every corner, and amongst other things I saw there, the following seemed of interest.

  1. An African charm made of teeth.
  2. Many weapons, arrows, and other things made of fishbone.
  3. Beautiful Indian plumes, ornaments, and clothes from China.
  4. A handsome cap made out of goosefoots from China.
  5. A curious Javanese costume.
  6. A felt cloak from Arabia.
  7. Shoes from many strange lands.
  8. An Indian stone axe, like a thunderbolt.
  9. Beautiful coats from Arabia.
  10. A string instrument with but one string.
  11. Another string instrument from Arabia.
  12. The horn and tail of a rhinoceros, is a large animal like an elephant.
  13. A fan made out of a single leaf.
  14. Curious wooden and stone swords.
  15. The twisted horn of a bull seal.
  16. A round horn which had grown on an English woman's forehead.
  17. An embalmed child (Mumia).
  18. Leathern weapons.
  19. The bauble and bells of Henry VIII's fool.
  20. A unicorn's tail. >> note 5

* * *

This city of London is not only brimful of curiosities but so populous also that one simply cannot walk along the streets for the crowd.

Especially every quarter when the law courts sit in London and they throng from all parts of England for the terms to litigate in numerous matters which have occurred in the interim, for everything is saved up till that time; then there is a slaughtering and a hanging, and from all the prisons (of which there are several scattered about the town where they ask alms of the passers by, and sometimes they collect so much by their begging that they can purchase their freedom) people are taken and tried; when the trial is over, those condemned to the rope are placed on a cart, each one with a rope about his neck, and the hangman drives with them out of the town to the gallows, called Tyburn, almost an hour away from the city; there he fastens them up one after another by the rope and drives the cart off under the gallows, which is not very high off the ground; then the criminals' friends come and draw them down by their feet, that they may die all the sooner. They are then taken down from the gallows and buried in the neighboring cemetery, where stands a house haunted by such monsters that no one can live in it, and I myself saw it. Rarely does a law day in London in all the four sessions pass without some twenty to thirty persons — both men and women — being gibbeted.

And since the city is very large, open, and populous, watch is kept every night in all the streets, so that misdemeanor shall be punished. Good order is also kept in the city in the matter of prostitution, for which special commissions are set up, and when they meet with a case, they punish the man with imprisonment and fine. The woman is taken to Bridewell, the King's palace, situated near the river, where the executioner scourges her naked before the populace. And although close watch is kept on them, great swarms of these women haunt the town in the taverns and playhouses.

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