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The Geography of Tudor London

The Geography of Tudor London

he first maps of London were published in the Tudor period and they give us important information on what London was like. London was made up of three main areas: the City of London inside the ancient City walls, the City of Westminster to the west and Southwark on the south bank of the River Thames. London was also surrounded by villages like Highgate and Islington, which are now suburbs of London.

Although Tudor London was much smaller than today’s capital, it was the largest city in England and one of the biggest in Europe. At the beginning of the 16th century about 50,000 people lived in London but by the end of the century that number had risen to around 200,000.

The base for the government of the City of London was the Guildhall. The main centre of royal government for the whole country was Westminster, though there was a royal fortress, the Tower of London, on the east side of the City. Cheapside was the main road through the City of London and was lined with shops, market stalls and taverns. There was only one bridge across the river here, London Bridge, which linked the City of London to Southwark.

See what Tudor London looked like from this map of 1574

Map of London, 1574

Find out about Newgate, one of the gates into the City of London

Painting of London as seen from Southwark, mid-17th century

Find out about the different activities that took place in the fields outside Tudor London

Map showing the area to the north of the walls of the City of London, 1559

Map of the eastern part of the City of London, 1559

London Bridge

ondon Bridge was the only bridge across the river in Tudor London so it was very busy with people and carts coming in and out of London. It was covered in shops, houses and taverns - the rents from these buildings helped to pay for repairs to the bridge. Walking across London Bridge would have felt like walking along any busy shopping street in London - you would not have been able to see the river for much of the time.

People lived in houses above the shops on the bridge. It was quite a clean place to live as the toilets emptied directly into the river. It could be dangerous though - a little girl called Anne Hewett fell into the river from her house on London Bridge. Luckily she was rescued and later married the man who saved her.

London Bridge was 300 years old at the start of King Henry VIII’s reign. It opened in 1209. The bridge had 19 piers which stood on wide plinths in the river called ‘starlings’. The starlings restricted the flow of the river,

creating a waterfall effect under the bridge which made it dangerous to go through by boat.

There was a large stone gate at the south end of London Bridge where the heads of people who had been executed for treason were displayed. These were a grim warning about what would happen to you if you betrayed your country or disobeyed the king or queen.

Find out what London Bridge was like in Tudor times

Find out about the dangers of living in a house on London Bridge

Model of London Bridge as it would have looked in the 16th century

Find out about the dangers of travelling by boat underneath London Bridge

View of London Bridge, late 16th - early 17th century

Find out about the decapitated heads of criminals that were displayed on London Bridge

View of London Bridge, 1616

Model of the west side of London Bridge, as it would have looked about 1600

View of the City of London, Westminster and Southwark, 1543


heapside was the main street running east-west through the City of London. It was London’s most important shopping street and was lined with shops, taverns and market stalls. Cheapside had the finest shops in the City - many of them sold luxury goods like gold, jewels and expensive cloth. The word ‘cheap’ meant ‘market’ - it did not mean that the items sold here were cheap!

At the western end of Cheapside was Goldsmiths’ Row, where a line of goldsmiths’ shops was based. This was where a hoard of spectacular 16th- and 17th-century jewellery was found in 1912. It is now known as the Cheapside Hoard and is in the Museum of London’s collection.

As Cheapside was the main route from the royal fortress of the Tower of London to the royal palace at Westminster, it was the location of several royal processions for special occasions like coronations

(when the king or queen was crowned). The royal family and their courtiers would ride through the City and Londoners would line the street to watch them.

Cheapside was also the location of two public water fountains - the Great Conduit and the Standard. These supplied fresh drinking water to the City.

Find out about Cheapside and the royal processions that took place there

Find out how drinking water was supplied to London

View of Cheapside during the procession of Queen Mother, Maria de Medici

Find out where a hoard of 16th and 17th-century jewellery was found on Cheapside

The Cheapside Hoard - the greatest collection of Tudor and Jacobean jewellery ever discovered


he Guildhall was the centre of City government and was like a Town Hall. It was where the Lord Mayor, and the other officials who were in charge of running the City of London, worked. There had been a Guildhall on this site since medieval times.

Inside the Guildhall was a great hall where feasts were held on special occasions, council chambers where the officials carried out the administration of the City and court rooms for dealing with disagreements between Londoners and where criminals were often put on trial.

Next to the Guildhall was Blackwell Hall, the City’s main cloth market (this is where the Guildhall Art Gallery is today). Most of the woollen cloth in England was sold in London and the trade made London a very wealthy city. The market was open from Thursday to Saturday every week.

Find out about the government of the City of London at the Guildhall

Find out what it was like to be Lord Mayor of Tudor London

Find out about the Great Hall at the Guildhall, which was a banqueting hall and court room


olborn was one of the main streets west of the City of London. In Tudor times the road was in bad condition as it had not been repaired for over 100 years. King Henry VIII said it was ‘very foul and full of pits’ and ‘very perilous’ (‘dangerous’) for the people walking or riding along it. The street was repaired on his orders in 1541.

Holborn is the location of one of the few surviving Tudor buildings in central London - Staple Inn. It was built in 1586 but has been repaired many times since then. The front of Staple Inn is a row of Tudor houses with shops at street level. Behind these stood a law school where students would come from around the country to study law. Many students rented rooms in the houses at the front of Staple Inn. These would have been young men from rich families who learned singing and dancing, as well as law, so they could behave properly amongst other wealthy people.

Staple Inn probably looks quite different today from the way it looked in Tudor times but it still gives a good idea of what large Tudor town houses were like. It is made from wood and the upper floors of the building lean out over the road which creates more room inside.

Find out about Tudor street repairs in Holborn

Find out what it was like to live as a law student at Staple Inn

Find out what Tudor houses looked like

The Tower of London

he Tower of London is a fortress that has stood here since the 11th century. In Tudor times the Tower of London had many uses: it was a royal residence where the kings and queens sometimes stayed; it was a state prison and place of execution; it was a store for the crown jewels and all the royal weapons and armour; it was the Record Office for the courts at Westminster; it was the Royal Mint where the coins were made and it even housed a zoo.

Many wealthy and important people were held prisoner in the Tower of London. King Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were imprisoned here before they were beheaded for treason. Some prisoners were allowed to live here with their family and servants. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, lived with his wife and children in the Tower – he was allowed a cook and a library and was even allowed to conduct scientific experiments during his imprisonment. Other prisoners were less fortunate and were tortured so they would

confess their crimes. Famous Tudor prisoners at the Tower include: Thomas Cramner, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Katherine Howard, the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh.

View of the Tower of London from the River Thames, 1647

Find out how the Tower of London had many different parts, including a zoo and a prison

Plan of the Tower of London, 1597

Find out what it was like to be a rich prisoner in the Tower of London

Painting of the Beauchamp Tower where noble prisoners were held at the Tower of London, 1798

Find out about some of the famous Tudor prisoners in the Tower of London

Find out how less fortunate prisoners were tortured at the Tower of London

Photo of the Tower of London, taken in 2006