Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Grub Street in 1641

Imagine that it’s the very end of 1640. You are in your late twenties, and have lived in London since your late teens after starting an apprenticeship in 1629. You have been exposed to the social and intellectual ferment of the capital’s puritan lectureships, and possibly even to some of the more controversial ideas in circulation in the city’s godly underground. Your master’s stall is a stone’s throw from the heart of the London book trade around St Paul’s, from where you will acquire a critique of Catholicism published in the same year as you are made free from your apprenticeship. There have been running battles over the position of the altar table in your parish church of St Giles Cripplegate, and the vicar and vestry (one of whom had daubed a crucifix on the church wall) are at daggers drawn with other more godly members of the congregation. You’ve just come back to London after a year spent studying theology at Cambridge, and want to play your part in fighting the religious changes being introduced by Archbishop Laud. You decide you want to to write and sell puritan books. Where do you start?

This is the situation that the ironmonger Henry Walker found himself in at the end of 1640. The transition from ironmonger to clergyman and pamphleteer may seem unusual to us: contemporaries certainly commented on it, particularly Walker’s critics, for whom it was evidence of a base, uncultured intellect. But if we look at the geography of Walker’s career at this stage of his life, it becomes clear that his shift from ironmonger to bookseller and writer actually may not have been that difficult.

In the late 1630s, Walker was working as an ironmonger in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate. He lived there with his wife Mary, and from September 1639, his first daughter Anne. He seems to have lived in Butler’s Alley, in between Grub Street and Moor Street: at least, that is where a pamphlet sold by him in 1641 gave his address, and in the absence of any other evidence we can assume that is probably where he was trading from in the late 1630s too.

Even at this stage, Grub Street was starting to become synonymous with a certain part of the London book trade. By the time the Walker family moved to Cripplegate, the parish had already been a focal point of London’s book trade for over seventy years. Robert Crowley, for example, the parish’s vicar first from 1565 to 1568, then from 1578 to 1588, had earlier in his career been an underground printer who published some of the earliest Protestant propaganda. By the late 1630s, Grub Street and the surrounding courts and alleys were becoming home to printers who would play a comparable role in producing puritan and Parliamentarian propaganda during the civil wars and beyond.

I’ve plotted on the map below some of the printers with whom Walker cooperated during 1641 and beyond. The map is from John Strype’s Survey of London (1720) so is not contemporary: however, the fire of 1666 did not reach Cripplegate, so it is fairly safe to assume that the core of the street plan would have been the same 80 years beforehand.




It quickly becomes clear that Walker would not have had to go very far to find help with his ambition to print and sell books.

The Walkers’ house and premises was in at the Moor Lane end of Butler’s Alley, a narrow passage that met Grub Street at its other end. I’ve marked this with a red star.   A short walk down Butler’s Alley, taking a left turn at the end onto Grub Street past the sign of the Flying Horse, was Honeysuckle Court: site of the printing house of Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, close by the parish’s lower pump. I’ve marked this with a blue star.

Alsop was a veteran of the book trade, having begun printing in around 1616 with his former master, Thomas Creed. Fawcett in turn had become Alsop’s junior partner in around 1625. A state investigation into the book trade in 1634 concluded that Alsop was ‘unruly’, whereas his partner Fawcett was a ‘poor man’, but ‘the abler man and better workman and better governor’. Alsop and Fawcett printed the first (surviving) book that Walker wrote, and I have concluded from bibliographical analysis of other texts that he wrote and sold in 1641 that they played a role in printing a number of these, too.

A few minutes’ walk to the west, close to the church of St Giles, was Andrew and Jane Coe’s printing house. I have marked this with a green star. Andrew took up his freedom in 1638 and texts with his imprint begin to appear from 1642 onwards. It was to the Coes’ press that Walker took his first newsbook Perfect Occurrences to be printed.

A little further west, at the sign of the sugar loaf in Goldsmith’s Alley off Red Cross Street, was the press of Thomas Paine and Matthew Simmons. I’ve marked this with a yellow star. Like Alsop and Fawcett, this pair would find themselves in trouble with the authorities on a number of occasions in 1641 for illegal printing. Paine was the printer who produced Walker’s infamous petition of January 1642 titled To Your Tents, O Israel: Walker had allegedly borrowed a bible belonging to Thomas’s wife to consult when writing it. Faced with the prospect of serious charges – Walker himself only avoided execution after intervention from Charles I – Paine shopped Walker to the authorities, although by 1650 when the political climate was rather different, he received a gratuity of £20 from the Council of State to recognise the difficulties he had experienced during the trial.

We can assume that Walker’s connections with these printers had a commercial context. It is likely that Walker paid to have most of his pamphlets printed by them. There may also have been a religious or political side to them: Payne’s colloboration on To Your Tents, for example, may have been done in return for cash, but given the risks and the uproar throughout London over the attempted arrest of the five members that prompted Walker’s petition, it seems more likely that it was a plot hatched together. But mapping the geography of these connections makes clear that there was another side to them: these printers were also Walker’s neighbours. Walker would have passed them in the street and seen them in local alehouses. He worshipped alongside them every Sunday in Cripplegate church. He probably saw Thomas Fawcett’s daughter Sara buried in September 1636 after succumbing to the plague, followed by Bernard Alsop’s son Abraham a month later. They were probably acquaintances, perhaps even friends.

So Walker’s move into writing and selling books no longer looks quite such a leap. He was living in a parish full of printers and booksellers, and it would not have taken much to turn over at least part of his shop to book-selling. Ironmongers had relatively basic shops, needing little in the way of specialist equipment other than a table, steelyard balance and scales. There is evidence that a number or ironmongers in this period diversified into selling other items, including books. Whenever it was that Walker decided to begin selling books – whether in the late 1630s or only in 1641 after coming down from Cambridge – he did not have to look far for stock. And when, at the end of 1640, he had finished the manuscript of his first book, he only had to walk five minutes to discuss prices with Alsop and Fawcett.


Some blogs I really should have found sooner:

Horses, People and Parliament

Gavin Robinson, Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War: Extracting Resources and Constructing Allegiance (Ashgate, 2012).

‘Parliamentarian’ and ‘Royalist’ are two of those words that it’s easy to throw around unthinkingly. Partly it’s because they are such a convenient shorthand for a set of concepts that are too complicated to express succinctly, that we can forget the nuances that come with them. But as the introduction of Horses, People and Parliament points out, it’s also because they are bound up with the particular way civil war allegiance has been defined in the twentieth century:

Essentialist assumptions about identity are so deeply embedded in the English language that they are difficult to challenge, or even recognize. It feels perfectly natural to say that a person was royalist, and awkwardly unnatural to say that a person did royalism.

Gavin’s starting point, following the lead set by Rachel Weil, is that there is much profit to be made from thinking about the external aspects of allegiance: what a person did, rather than what a person felt. This can feel counter-intuitive for historians conditioned to trying to reconstruct individual beliefs and collective mentalities. A person’s actions, after all, can be carried out unwillingly or due to necessity, rather than through free will. But as Gavin points out, the sources for reconstructing what a seventeenth-century person thought are much less abundant than those for reconstructing what the same person did.

And for contemporaries, actions could be just as, if not more, important than their beliefs. For MPs and county committee members struggling to fund the war effort, allegiance was ultimately about providing resources in cash and in kind. For a certain kind of godly puritan, a dry, legalist adherence to godly doctrines was inferior to a vigorous, outward-focused style of worship which turned those doctrines into practical actions. Seventeenth-century concepts of gender were as much performative as they were essentialist. Contemporaries did not necessarily privilege beliefs over deeds.

Following this idea to its logical conclusion may mean, as Gavin argues, that we need to jettison the terms Royalist and Parliamentarian altogether. Too often one comes across accounts of seventeenth-century men and women which say ‘she was a Royalist’, or ‘he was a Parliamentarian’: only to find out that this is based on a single tax they paid, item they sold, or statement they uttered. As Gavin points out, if civil war identities can be reduced to a mixture of only five binary oppositions – class, gender, religion, ethnicity and which side was picked – that still leaves thirty-two different sets of identities.

Allegiance, then, is messy and complicated. Rather than seeking to tidy up the mess, Horses, People and Parliament tries to use empirical evidence of how MPs and county committees sought to supply their armies with horses in order to uncover and describe it. Although Gavin seeks to draw out trends where he can, what emerges most from his analysis is the individual, and how hard they are to put into boxes. There are elite women like Lady Leye of Dichley, described in one account book as one of ‘severall men’. There are middling sort men like the vicar Cornelius Burges, who orchestrated a petition to Parliament offering a cavalry troop to Parliament, previously assumed to have been a example of localism but also with links to the junto. There are horses like those belonging to Captain George Thompson, ‘one blacke w[i]th two white feete and a blase downe his face, the other a bright bay’, or like Gunpowder and Sparks sent by the Earl of Lincoln as part of a group of seven. All of these individuals, whether human or animal, refuse easy categorisation.

The description of Lady Leye, in particular, is a wonderful vignette that captures some of the paradoxes in how contemporaries conceived of allegiance (and how different these can be to our own conceptions). It is a minor niggle, but I would have liked to have seen more on the role of gender in unpicking twentieth-century categories of allegiance. Gavin has been inspired by work by Ann Hughes and others, which analyses in a contextually-specific way what contemporaries understood by gender, to do the same for allegiance. Chapter one, in particular, uses gender as a way to unravel the monolithic identities – ‘well-affected men’, and so on – that were imposed on those who provided resources to Parliament. Other chapters look at how the wives of delinquents could exercise agency beyond that of their husbands, and at how concepts of masculinity were tied up with how Parliament defined and ‘othered’ its enemies. However, the focus is not quite as sustained in subsequent chapters as it is in the first (although bonus marks for the reference in the index under ‘men’, which simply reads passim).

But I like the messiness of what emerges from this analysis. It builds on recent historiography that sees contingency and chance as critical to the origins and outcome of the civil wars. And it stresses the way in which allegiance was fashioned or constructed, rather than necessarily innate. Actions could foist identities upon people unwillingly just as much as they could carefully craft an allegiance. Those appearing before the Committee of Compounding, for example, were quick to stress what they had done to support Parliament, or at least what they had not done to support the king. But those providing horses for Essex’s army in 1642, or for the Eastern Association in 1643, could equally provide them only with reluctance or at the hands of requisitioners.

I also love Gavin’s argument that, on this definition, animals could have allegiances just as much as humans. Horses had their own temperaments, and did not always respond to human attempts to control them. Given how essential horses were to civil war armies – not just for cavalry, but for supply as well – their willingness or unwillingness to comply could be just as important as human decisions about whether to provide king or Parliament with resources.  There are shades here of ‘for the want of a nail’, not just in terms of how battles were fought but also in terms of how resources were gathered.

Where the book is perhaps a little less systematic in unpicking traditional labels is with the third member of the trio in its title: Parliament. The horses and people who feature in the book emerge very strongly as diverse individuals. So too do MPs, whose identities were complicated by their twin roles in their constituencies and Westminster. Gavin is careful with his language, using royalist and parliamentarian rarely (and then only without capitals, and usually to describe how the terms have been used by others). Even so, despite stressing the factional divisions amongst MPs, at points in the book Parliament itself to some extent retains a single identity. This is a difficult point: terms like king and Parliament are synecdoches behind which lie much wider groups of people, but history books would be unreadable if we didn’t employ them. Nevertheless, there were a few points in this book where Parliament does things, and where I wondered: who actually did this? On any given day, the attendance in the Lords and the Commons varied; the motivations of the men attending may have been different; the influences of local committees, petitioners and men-of-business may have varied. Parliament did not have a single will or an essential, internal identity – despite the conventions of parliamentary language that survive to this day, and which would like you to believe that it does.

Horses, People and Parliament has important things to say about how parliamentary armies were supplied with horses, overturning a number of orthodoxies about how Parliament (see? I’ve done it too) went about the task, and about the priority it gave it. But at its heart, the book is an argument: a challenge to historians to think more widely about the vocabulary and methodologies they use when analysing and describing civil war identities. It has certainly succeeded in challenging me.

Disclaimer: Gavin kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I commented on a chapter or two of it in draft as well as following the early stages of some of its ideas on Gavin’s blog. I hope I have not pulled any punches as a result (and I suspect Gavin would be the first to encourage me not to hold back with criticism!).


Sotheby’s has got various royal proclamations and Parliamentary acts and ordinances from the mid-seventeenth century up for auction this Tuesday. The lots include:

The Daily Mail picked up the story on Saturday. While it’s nice to see early modern book history in the news, it’s a bit depressing to pick out the cliches in the way the article is framed.

First there is the portrayal of Oliver Cromwell as a killjoy sourpuss:

One thing is certain – Oliver Cromwell was hardly known for his sense of humour.

Anti-puritan stereotypes of the early seventeenth century seem to be so well-built as to be indestructible, to judge by how frequently they still appear today. Ben Jonson would be proud that Zeal-of-the-land Busy has cheated death for nearly four hundred years. In fact while many aspects of Cromwell’s life and career defy settled interpretation, one thing about which we can be certain is that he did have a sense of humour. This was a man who had snowball fights with his servants; who, growing bored of a meeting, hurled a cushion at Edmund Ludlow then fled the room; who was supposed to have flicked ink at Henry Marten after signing the king’s death warrant. Patrick Little’s excellent article in Cromwelliana (sadly not online) on this topic deserves a wider audience.

Then there is the reference to:

Tempestuous times facing ordinary Englishmen as their leaders tussled for power.

The phrasing here is I’m sure simply unthinking, but the political and religious battles of the 1640s and 1650s penetrated far deeper into society than just the ruling classes. Power struggles at Whitehall and set piece battles at Marston Moor and Naseby were reflected in parishes across England: and they involved Englishwomen as well as Englishmen.

Finally there is the slightly anachronistic reference to the various texts as posters nailed to trees. This conjures up pictures of Billy the Kid-style wanted posters, and perhaps some did end up on trees, but I suspect most proclamations, acts and ordinances reached their widest audience by being read aloud: in churches and at sermons, at assizes and market days, within communities and army regiments. Those that were pasted up must have been fixed in prominent places – maybe a tree if it was a prominent landmark in a parish, but more likely at the front of a church, town gates, or near taverns or market crosses. Kevin Sharpe’s Image Wars is particularly good on the use both Charles and Parliament made of published proclamations and ordinances.

I should suppress my curmudgeonly tendencies at this point and give the Daily Mail credit for running a story where no other newspaper has – and which, to judge by their website’s comments, does seem to have attracted lots of interest. But I would love to see some coverage of early modern books from mainstream news organisations which foregrounds the texts and their readers, rather than simply their authors. Their absence from stories like this does seem surprising, given that the news industry is so bound up with both.

(No 3 in an occasional series. Previously: 1, 2)

Bugby Chapel


If you come out of Epsom station, cut round the back of the library, and keep heading east you will find a main road lined by 1980s office blocks, inhabited by a jobcentre and various financial services companies. The streets behind them are a mix of late-Victorian two-up two-downs, built around the time the railways came to Epsom, and 1970s terraced houses. This part of the town used to have lots of bigger eighteenth- and nineteenth century buildings, but most of them have long since been demolished.

One which does survive, though, is Bugby Chapel. It sits in the middle of an estate full of bungalows and maisonettes, and it is easy to walk within 50 yards of it and never realise it is there. It was built in 1779, as a chapel for the nonconformist minister William Bugby. Nine years later the vicar of Epsom, Jonathan Boucher, described it thus:

There was formerly a congregation of Presbyterians here, and a meeting-house, but they are all gone or have conformed; and the meeting-house is shut up. A few years ago, a gardener of the place, by traversing, it is said, a great part of the kingdom, collected money enough to build a small house, where he now has a small and uncertain congregation of Methodists. He has a licence, as a protestant dissenter. Of the inhabitants of Epsom, I cannot learn that there are so many as 20 who are his stated and constant attendants, and they are chiefly people of the lowest class. Yet he sometimes has large congregations. This preacher’s name is Bugby.

W. R. Ward, Parson and Parish in Eighteenth-Century Surrey (Surrey Record Society, 1994),  p. 109.

In fact the congregation seems to have been Calvinists – presumably Particular Baptists – rather than adherents of Wesleyan Methodism. The church’s small numbers seem to have petered out altogether by the early nineteenth century, but it was then revived and at some point became a Unitarian Baptist congregation, when it was known as Salem Chapel.

This congregation in turn moved to new premises at the other end of the town, and in 1954 the building was reconsecrated as a synagogue. It lasted in this role until the 1990s, at which point the building was renovated and turned over to use as an office. It had been listed in 1975 with this description:

C18.  Rendered. Hipped and sprocketed tile roof. 1 storey. Brick modillion eaves cornice. South side has 2 round-arched windows with intersecting glazing bars. Panelled double doors, gabled hood with
pitched tile roof and bargeboards. North side has 2 round-arched sashes.

According to the listing entry the building seems to have been part of a much longer row of eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses, which presumably were demolished and replaced.

For more on Bugby Chapel:

I was delayed, I was waylaid

The latest issue of the London Review of Books has this wonderful letter in it:

I have just seen Brian Harrison’s 1986 review of my book Victorian Lives (LRB, 19 June 1986). He says my sources were not typical of contemporary prisoners; that I paint too bleak a picture of their experience; and do not recognise the ‘Victorian activism’ of the reformed prison. He is wrong on all three counts.

Philip Priestley
Wells, Somerset


I just hope Brian Harrison replies in another sixteen years’ time to say that it’s Priestley who’s wrong.

Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style

Nina Katchadourian’s series of Flemish self-portraits – taken in an aeroplane toilet – are too good not to share:

While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror using my cellphone. The image evoked 15th-century Flemish portraiture. I decided to add more images made in this mode and planned to take advantage of a long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, guessing that there were likely to be long periods of time when no one was using the lavatory on the 14-hour flight. I made several forays to the bathroom from my aisle seat, and by the time we landed I had a large group of new photographs entitled Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style.

Via mlkshk.