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Andrew Taylor on the Bawdy House Riots

Posted on 25th March 2020 by Mark Skinner

Andrew Taylor is one of the most accomplished writers of historical crime fiction working today. His Marwood and Lovett novels have garnered both remarkable sales and great critical acclaim, and the fourth installment, The Last Protector, is published this month. In this exclusive essay, Taylor discusses the Bawdy House Riots, which play a pivotal role in the compelling plot.    

Sex and royalty, politics and religion: those four volatile elements dominated Restoration England. For a few days in spring, 1668, they combined in a toxic mixture that led to the worst outbreak of rioting since the return of Charles II. This is the event at the heart of The Last Protector, where it helps to bring about another crisis in the tangled lives of James Marwood and Cat Lovett.

In the latter part of the 17th century, selling sex acquired a dangerous political dimension. The court of Charles II was extravagant and licentious. The King himself had a string of expensive and unpopular mistresses, among them the avaricious Lady Castlemaine. Many of his courtiers followed the royal example. This put Whitehall Palace at odds with much of the country, whose morality was still coloured by Puritanism.

Easter Monday was a public holiday, a traditional time for apprentices to let off steam. This time the unrest was much more serious. The rioters targeted London’s brothels.  They ejected the 'Poxed and Painted' whores. They destroyed or stole anything of value. In many cases, they even tore down the buildings.

Part of their motivation was deeply unpleasant. Under the guise of enforcing public morality, the apprentices and their allies indulged in their misogyny and, perhaps, derived an obscure sexual pleasure from chasing half-dressed women through the streets.

Underlying this, however, were layers of political and religious dissent. By attacking the brothels, the rioters were by extension also attacking the royal authority. It was widely said in the streets that Whitehall was the greatest brothel of all, and that it deserved destruction just as much as its humbler cousins did.

The King and the court were also, with some justification, believed to be sympathetic to Roman Catholics, the most hated minority in England. After all, the King’s wife was a Roman Catholic, as was Lady Castlemaine. His brother and heir, the Duke of York, was widely (and correctly) believed to be on the brink of conversion.

The riots went on for four days. Their wider political (and religious) significance was made clear to everyone with the publication of The Poor-Whores Petition to the most Splendid, Illustrious and Eminent Lady of Pleasure, the Countess of Castlmaine etc.’

No one knows who wrote it. In The Last Protector, I make an informed guess about its author – a person who had the means, the motive and a well-established capacity for making mischief. The petition was widely circulated and spawned a number of equally satirical responses.

The petition purported to be a plea for help from the prostitutes who had been expelled from their houses of business in such places as Dog and Bitch Yard, Saffron Hill, Rosemary Lane, Nightingale Lane and the Ratcliffe Highway. Its author portrayed Lady Castlemaine, the King’s mistress, as the arch-whore, and also reminded readers that she was a Roman Catholic. She was furious.

The alleged signatories were Madame Creswell and Damaris Page, probably London’s best-known brothel keepers. In a sense, the two women were an acknowledged part of the establishment. Moreover, like Castlemaine herself, they had used their charms and their acumen to build successful careers in a man’s world.

Madame Creswell owned brothels in Camberwell, Clerkenwell, and Moorfields, as well as providing a rural establishment for favoured customers in the summer. Marwood encounters her in Dog and Bitch Yard. By and large, the authorities left Madame Creswell alone because she was protected by numerous influential clients. She died rich and outwardly pious in 1698.

Damaris Page, a bigamist, dominated prostitution in the east end of London, catering in particular for the ever-shifting population of seafarers. She diversified into property – the business was even more lucrative if you owned the premises. In some cases, Samuel Pepys recorded, she doubled her money by selling her paying customers to naval press gangs.

Were Page and Creswell in their brothels any worse than Castlemaine in her luxurious Whitehall lodgings? The mob thought not. And for once, perhaps, the mob was right.

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