Tuesday, October 15, 2013
What are the Liberties?
Greetings my well regarded readers, I hope that in the north hemisphere your Fall or Autumn isn’t proving too much of a trial after the joys of Summer.
Today I have a few announcements before we move on to the body of the blog. Firstly my Tudor novella The Fetter Lane Fleece will be available free for two days from the 15/10/13 at Amazon USA/Aust and Amazon UK so I encourage you to call by and if you haven’t already download a copy for your entertainment. In the mean time I’d like to thank those of my readers who’ve stopped by and left a review, every of them (even the obvious sock puppets) help improve the position of an Indie writer.
Now on to the meat of our discourse;
In a 1601 speech to the House of Commons, Stephen Soame, MP for the City of
London, spoke in support of a bill that would have extended the City’s jurisdiction into
the neighbouring liberty of St Katherine by the Tower. The privileges enjoyed by the
Liberties, he argued, ‘are the very sincke of sinne, the nurserye of nawghtie and lewd
places, the harbors of thieves, roagues and beggars, and maynteyners of ydle persons,
ffor when our shoppes and howses be robbed, thether they ffly ffor releife and sanctuarie, and we cannot helpe our selves.’
The prorogation of Parliament a few days later killed his bill, but Soame’s characterisation of St Katherine’s proved more durable. Such descriptions of the liberties, made by Soame and other contemporaries, have led many modern scholars to assume that the Liberties posed a constant threat to metropolitan order. There is, however, reason to believe that the Liberties were more complex and less purely problematic than their general historiographical portrayal would suggest.
In 1530 two dozen religious foundations dotted the landscape of the capital. The sixteen religious houses within or immediately adjacent to the City of London were joined by eight others in Spitalfields, Clerkenwell, Westminster and Southwark.
Extract The City of London and the Problem of the Liberties, c1540 – c1640
A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Modern History
Anthony Paul House Christ Church Trinity Term 2006.
So what are the Liberties? My main character Ned Bedwell seems to spend an inordinate amount of time frequenting the Liberties rather than attending to his duties as a Law apprentice. What could be the attraction? Well for a start the reason Stephen Soame was frothing so fervently about the disorders of the Liberties was a very simple one. They were exempt from the normal processes of civil and royal jurisdiction by fact of belonging to the English Church. Over time the Church had accumulated a lot of properties in and around London via grants, purchase or deeds, before the Great Dissolution under Henry VIII it is possible that around a fifth of the city of London was under their direct control as owners or landlords. And where they held sway so did Canon law, it was as if the city and surrounding regions were covered in a patchwork of independent tax and law free zones pretty much like the Virgin or Channel Islands today for the obscenely rich. To escape local justice if any thief or other insalubrious person made to one of the Liberties then they were immune to seizure or prosecution by the local constables and justice of the peace. Of course the upholders of civic law could always petition the Church to gain hold of the miscreant, however such proceedings were both expensive and long drawn out. The Church was jealous of its rights and maintained its exemption from civil laws. At least Until King Henry VIII clipped their wings.
Of course this refuge form common law was an opportunity that the denizens of deceit and depravity found irresistible, especially since the Church wasn’t very effective in policing its own property. Thus by the 1530’s the various Liberties were considered over run by thieves, beggars’ vagrants’ whores, malcontents, coiners, forgers and murderers. The fact that they also housed brothels, gaming dens stews and other places of vile debauchery and sin probably made them more attractive for the average Londoner, especially the young lads of the Inns of Court. Though they weren’t the only inhabitants, it was also a favoured refuge for foreigners, debtors, Guildless tradesmen and surprisingly evangelicals spreading the word of the Bible in the English tongue. However the situation of the Liberties in and around London is somewhat more complex than this simple explanation. The legal or other position of these areas was frequently a useful carrot or occasionally goad for the Royal Sovereign to use in his negotiations with the London Guildhall and the Church over taxes and privileges. For London the Liberties also served as a useful excuse for ‘failing’ to deal with crimes or imposing royal writs since these ‘territories’ made a ‘mockery of their zeal and commitment to his Majesties lawful demands’. Come the Great Dissolution in the late 1530’s the status of the Liberties changed though you’ll have to wait a few novels until Ned Bedwell undergoes this transformation of England to see what survives and what goes under. Though I suspect there will always be a place for rogues, whores and dice men in the Tudor realm.
The Fetter Lane Fleece Links from the 15/10/13-17/10/13