Histories of London, 1640s to 1660s: Continuities and Turning Points

[Richard Bell is CMRS Career Development Fellow in Renaissance History at Keble College, Oxford. In this post he outlines his response to the questions raised in the opening post on Integrating Histories of London, focusing on continuities and turning points.]

During the middle decades of the seventeenth century, Londoners experienced civil war, revolution, plague and fire. Unsurprisingly, this period looms large in accounts of the early modern capital. It often features as the start or end point of social histories, or is studied alone (often in minute detail) by political historians. Yet why is this? Was this a turning point in the history of early modern London? Or does this periodisation have more to do with the nature of divisions between historians than a marked break in longer patterns of continuity and change between 1500 and 1800?


My own interest is in understanding how social and economic developments in early modern London contributed to (and were in turn shaped by) the political upheavals of the 1640s and 1650s. Since the work of Keith Lindley and Robert Brenner in the 1990s, there’s been relatively little written on the social history of revolutionary London and its connections to political conflict. Yet I think there’s a growing realisation that there’s a lot to be said on this topic.

We know London was central to, and acutely experienced, the social and economic changes of the early modern period. We also know that London was at the heart of the political conflicts of the mid-seventeenth century. Not only was Westminster obviously central, but the City of London and its suburbs were also important sites of political contest and mobilisation. Yet we know less about how these two things connected, and the relationship between long-term changes in London and the political events of the period. Continue reading


Histories of London, c.1650-1800: Institutions, Work, Poverty and Crime

[In this post, Brodie Waddell sets out another response to the issues raised in the opening post on Integrating Histories of London.]

The history of early modern London cannot be written without the people who are often neglected in sweeping national histories. Whereas monarchs and politicians still receive the most attention in conventional textbooks of early modern history, it is the merchants, shopkeepers, craftspeople, criminals and beggars who populate the pages of metropolitan histories, especially those that focus on the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

So, why were these ‘ordinary’ – or even ‘marginalised’ – people so important to development of London at this time?


Six people one might encounter on the streets of London: British Library.

As a historian whose research has wandered recklessly around early modern England, I have no unique expertise on the capital. Yet, the richness and accessibility of the sources held at the London Metropolitan Archives and freely available online at London Lives has encouraged me to spend more time working on the city’s history since arriving at Birkbeck in 2012. More importantly, working here has meant that I’ve benefitted hugely from the chance to learn from nearby colleagues who know much more about this field than I do. I’ve been able to read or hear a wonderful range of London-focused scholarship through conferences, seminars and supervisions as well as publications. Specifically, the impressions I set out below emerge mostly from what I have gleaned from Vanessa Harding, Jerry White, Mike Berlin, Matthew Davis, Sarah Birt, Charlie Taverner, Anna Cusack, Laura Gowing, Jenny Bishop, Richard Bell and the others at the workshop.

To my mind, if we are trying to understand how people outside the ruling civic elite fit into the ‘grand narratives’ of the metropolis, what we are really talking about is agency and structure. The question of the balance between agency and structure is one that features every historical subfield, but I think it has been especially important to recent work on London.

Before going any further, I know that this terminology is rather old-fashioned and simplistic, but simplicity can be useful when thinking about grand narratives. Moreover, obviously neither agency nor structure were all encompassing. The balance between them is always situational and historically contingent. This is precisely what makes it an interesting question for historians.

How much agency did different people have in ‘late’ early modern London (c.1650-1800)? Continue reading

Histories of London, c.1500-1650: Space, Narratives and Numbers

[Dr Jennifer Bishop is a College Lecturer at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. In this post, she outlines her response to the questions raised in the opening post on Integrating Histories of London, focusing on the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.]

‘She is certainly a great world, there are so many worlds in her’ (Donald Lupton, 1632).

Donald Lupton’s description of London in 1632 neatly encapsulates our view of the early modern city. London was, and indeed is, composed of multiple overlapping and interlocking “worlds” – and the task of the historian is to explore these worlds, and to try and understand the relationships between them. It is perhaps no surprise that many studies of the city have been strongly influenced by the ‘spatial turn’. This is evident in the digital mapping projects of recent years – the Map of Early Modern London being the best example – and also a number of microhistorical studies of the individual streets, parishes, suburbs, and landmarks that made up the physical city.


Visscher’s view of London, 1616

But equally as important as understanding London’s topography, the spatial turn has also directed our attention towards how ordinary people understood and navigated the early modern city. Historians now ask how and where different groups, individuals, and communities lived, worked, and socialised; which areas of the city were frequented by men and which were associated with women; which were popular with migrants and which were open only to citizens. We have a greater appreciation of the character and reputation of different spaces, and by asking how these changed over time (not only over the years, but also how they could also change simply in the transition from day to night), we can see a ‘microcosm’ of the changing urban world. Overall, by seeking to understand how disparate networks of people joined up and communicated across the metropolis, we have been able to recover some of the various overlapping and interlocking configurations that made up the early modern city. This approach to the history of London has resulted in some incredibly rich scholarship, with a special attention to minority and marginal groups, and a strong sense of London’s diversity and plurality as one of its key defining features.

The question we set out to discuss in this workshop was, how can we connect these diverse histories and stories together? Can we join up the histories of different groups and minorities in a meaningful way over the long early modern period, bringing them into dialogue over time as well as across space? In short, can we bring London’s multiple ‘worlds within worlds’ into a coherent, meaningful, whole? Continue reading

Integrating Histories of London, c.1500-1800

[Dom Birch, Esther Brot and Jonah Miller are doctoral students at King’s College London. In this post, they set out why and how they think the diverse histories of early modern London can be integrated with each other and with larger national narratives, reflecting on a workshop on this topic that they ran in autumn 2018.]

Between 1500 and 1800 the city of London changed—a lot. It was over this period that we begin to see the development of a London that we might recognise. By the end of the eighteenth century the city had many of its modern-day hallmarks: political power was linked to the metropolis, it was a driver of fashion and popular culture, it was a centre of a globalised world, and the city had grown to include what would have previously been considered its suburbs. The existential changes in London’s nature, and the way in which the history of London can be linked to the history of England, make it a compelling place to study. Understanding early modern London means understanding how it transformed from its medieval origins to an archetype of modernity. This field of study has, however, faced several difficulties recently. So, with this in mind, in October we brought together a group of historians whose work on London we felt is particularly innovative to talk through what, exactly, early modern London was.

The idea for this workshop originally came from the recognition that we were all working on the history of London in some capacity. This may sound obvious but as historians we’re often trained to think of the work we do in certain ways. We all think of ourselves as social historians and within that label as social scientists (Dom), historians of government (Esther) or cultural historians (Jonah). Despite these different fields of study, we were all researching groups of people who lived in London and would often find ourselves together in the London Metropolitan Archives—using sources from London. It then became apparent that this wasn’t an issue faced by us alone. There are plenty of historians working either in or on London who wouldn’t see themselves as historians of London. They might instead have as a primary motivator a historical theme (religious history) or a group of people (foodsellers or guild members). We thought it would be worthwhile to bring these different perspectives together for a discussion on early modern London more generally, and to ask what different focuses and methods could bring to the study of the city.

Braun and Hogenberg (1560-72) London map

London in the late sixteenth century: too big for one historian?

As we started to plan the workshop it became obvious that there are many issues in the history of London that can’t be solved by one single historian, or a small group of historians. Continue reading