Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Book-women of Westminster

If you wanted a book in the mid 17th century London there were plenty of bookshops and wandering chapmen walked the streets with pamphlets and broadsheets with the latest news, ballads and the polemical writings of the many political and religious activists in the city.

But some of the best were found in the heart of government itself, right in Westminster Hall in booths set up between the law courts.


Westminster Hall in the 18th century


Westminster Hall was built in 1097, a huge space 240 feet long and 67 wide, as an audience chamber for the King. He had his seat and table at one end and, surrounded by courtiers, he conducted the business of the realm, dispensed justice and indulged in a little pageantry and some colossal feasts.

But by the 17th century it had been taken over by the law courts. The King lived up the road in Whitehall with the Banqueting House as his public dining and audience room. The southern end was the Court of the King’s Bench, though the last King to sit personally in judgement here was Richard III and the King’s chair and table had long since been removed. The northern end was divided between the Court of Chancery and the Court of Common Pleas. In medieval times these had been temporary (in case the King wanted a really, really big feast) but by the 17th century there were permanent wooden partitions and benches, and the centre of the hall, warmed by a huge open fire, was a throng of lawyers, court officials, litigants and spectators.

These included the ‘men of straw’, people who went around with straw poking out of their shoes to indicate that for a suitable fee they would testify on behalf of anyone. Since the floor of the hall was liberally sprinkled with straw by way of a carpet they could easily claim that they had picked it up by accident.

Between the courts were 48 booths about eight feet wide with wooden walls and open fronts. These were shops selling all kinds of things to the crowds of lawyers. These included ribbons and cloth, Samuel Pepys bought his gloves here in the 1660’s and caps, as well as refreshments such as pies and ale. But the bookshops, mostly run by women, were most common.

They sell law books; Coke’s ‘Institutes of the laws of England’, parts I and II, are very popular, and pamphlets published by the rebellious Parliament in their propaganda war with the King such as the ‘Petition of Right’ and the ‘Grand Remonstrance’ as well as unofficial write-ups of debates, and news sheets like the ‘Moderate Intelligencer’ and the ‘Mercurius Britannicus’ but you can find oddments of everything here.




Read allaboutit!

Mary Villiers the Mercury-woman

Mary has the best stock of news sheets, and even sells Royalist publications right in the heart of Parliament, being devoted to the principle of free speech. When the Court of High Commission which enforced Royal censorship and the licensing of printing presses by the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper-makers was abolished in 1641 any political or religious crank could print whatever he liked and in 1642 her stall is weighed down with hundreds of polemical tracts from the writing of John Lilburne to the withering critiques of modern morals of William Prynne. After June 1643 Parliament reintroduced censorship with the Ordinance on the Regulation of Printing, her stock falls off and she keeps the most scurrilous ones under the counter.

Mary practically worships the ground
John Lilburne walks on, he is her hero for standing up for the Freeborn Rights of the common people and has plenty to say about the corrupt judges of the surrounding courts, pointing out especially rotten ones as they wander through the hall in front of her. She has incited young and idealistic lawyers into starting fights with the more notorious ‘straw-men’, and she is a personal friend of Richard Overton, who writes and prints pungent satires and Leveller polemics under the pseudonym ‘Martin Marpriest’, and can arrange a meeting if her trust can be gained.



‘Lady’ Harriet Marples

Harriet is the widow of a barrister and a gentlewoman and deals mainly in law books. The most senior lawyers and judges nod to her in passing and to pick up the latest parliamentary proceedings, and she has a young law student, Elias Withering, working for her who can be hired to make transcripts of anything going on in the Palace of Westminster. It is alleged she can even get him admitted to the most private committee chambers, for good customer willing to stump up the fee.

She is also well informed as to the best and most plausible straw-men for lawyers in danger of losing a case due to lack of decent real witnesses, has a couple of burly footmen who are willing to ‘persuade’ jurors on the quiet, and even a pet MP or two whose votes are for hire, though quite what she has on them is anyone’s guess. She is always interested in gossip about the members to add to her stable, and will have work for glib and presentable adventurers who don’t mind a little perjury or running shady errands in the back passages of the Palace.

Her apparently well thumbed copy of Coke’s Institutes has a cavity cut out containing a small bottle of cheap gin and she keeps a bottle or two of wine and some glasses at the back of the booth to toast the success of her protoge lawyers. If you want a sensible conversation catch her before two in the afternoon.

Cecily Jones the Lambeth Witch

Cecily comes across the river from Lambeth to the Westminster Stairs every day in her son’s ferry boat and is looked down on by many for being from ‘South of the River’. She doesn’t just sell books but pipes and tobacco as well, and many suspect it is contraband. She dresses like a Puritan but talks like a fishwife, and if she falls out with a customer she will wave a dagger and threaten to cut out their liver in Old Palace Yard.

Her speciality is books on the occult, ostensibly written by various churchmen by way of a warning against witchcraft, but containing a good many true details about the proper casting of magic. She openly offers to draw up astrological charts to predict the outcome of cases and if asked nicely by the right kind of customer will invite them over to her house where she will cast curses on witnesses, lawyers and judges in order to get a good outcome, and maybe brew the odd potion. She is pretty deft with her knife and will collect samples of hair and snippets of clothing just wandering through the crowds in the Hall.

She does have some sense of justice and feels it needs a bit of help from time to time to get past the inconveniences of the actual law and it’s practitioners. Her favourite stunt is to cook up some of Dr Chiffinch’s Spike from Skull Moss (see
Undercroft issue 9) and use it on a straw man just before he takes the stand, forcing him to tell the actual truth.


Possible occurrences in Westminster Hall

  • King’s Bench and Common Pleas are at it again. With the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas Sir John Bankes buggering off to join the King in the north, Robert Heath, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench has been snaffling lucrative cases from the rival court. Tobias Chelmsley, Common Pleas’ Chirographer got into a fight with Elijah Plunkett, a King’s Bench Notary, after Plunkett tried to bribe him to let him amend some fines in his court roll. Chelmsly’s fingers were broken in the scuffle and the two court’s corps of Ushers eye each other across the floor of the hall, an ink bottle was thrown and the sound of furious quill sharpening can be heard all around. A battle or Writs will no doubt ensue.
  • Sir William Monson, lawyer, MP for Reigate and a member of Gray’s Inn, has marital troubles. The whisper going round the Hall is that his wife and her maids overpowered him and tied him naked to a bedpost and whipped him for being against the King. Various wags keep offering a seat.
  • Elias Withering, Harriet Marple’s creature, has not been seen for a few days. Someone thinks they saw what might be his left ear nailed to a post on London Bridge.
  • James Hopkins, a Suffolk clergyman, and his son Matthew are perusing the books on Cecily Jones’ stall with a lively interest and making notes as to the authors. What are they up to?
  • Mary Villiers has been done. She took fifteen copies of Abiezer Coppe’s sermon ‘Godde’s Mightie Erucation; or the Right Methode of Skinning a Cony’ and can’t shift them since they are heretical jabbering nonsense of the first water. You can pick one up for tuppence or find the printer for her and force him into a belated sale or return deal.
  • A monkey (or was it a demon?) has been seen clambering among the hammer-beams up in the Hall’s magnificent medieval roof. A witness says it had a spyglass and hat with a panache.
  • Newgate Prison leaks like a sieve. The Keeper of the Prison has been dragged down to Mary Villiers stall by a committee of MPs to be shown how many pamphlets are being written by inmates he is supposed to have banged up. Has he not noticed the wagon loads of ink these rascals must be having delivered? How are they doing it?