The City and the Town

Ever since the Middle Ages, the city had been a totally different world. Everything in the city was geared toward manufacturing and commerce and unlike the country, where the most common relationship was that of landlord to tenant, the city relationship was that of employer to employee, and the city society derived its structure from the Guild.

The Guilds dominated all aspects of city society. Only those artisans who were masters in the Guild (known as "Free of the Company" or "Free of the City") were free to set up a shop and practice their trade in the City. Anyone who wasn't free of the City, unless they enjoyed some royal exemption, or business was so good the Guilds could stand the
competition; could generally work as nothing other than an employee of a master. Those who worked for a master were either journeymen: skilled laborers who might eventually become masters; unskilled laborers who toiled for a daily wage; or apprentices, who were young men set out by their parents to learn a trade.

Women enjoyed a unique position within the Guild system. Whereas under no other circumstances would they be considered legally competent, when a master died, his widow took over his position in the Guild and ran his workshop and his affairs with status equal, under the law, to that of her late husband. The economic disruption of the sudden loss of a thriving workshop was of far more concern to the city government than the status of some particular woman.

The Guilds not only dominated manufacturing, but they were the City Government. The Guild Hall was the City Hall, and the Lord Mayor was a distinguished liveryman (Guild Officer) in one of the Guilds (usually a Merchant), selected by the Guilds to run the City for a one year term. Many of those who were not craftsmen per se had to be members of a Guild to do business in a major town. The Guild Merchant, for instance, was the Guild of all the pure capitalists and entrepreneurs.

While not "citizens" (ie inhabitants of the city), and not permitted to take part in city government, the nobility played a significant part in City life. Their money and patronage was eagerly sought and towns cultivated great noblemen for their access to the Queen.

Of all the urban centers of England, the one that served as the greatest magnet for the nobility was London. London was where one had to be to be in touch with the latest trends in art, literature and fashion, as well as news and politics. When Parliament was in session, it sat in Westminster (outside London) and when a law suit had to be settled, it had to be settled in London.

The real draw of London for the nobility however were not these things, but the Queen. Except when she was on progress, the Queen's Court was always in residence in or near London, and it was from the Queen that all power and preferment came. If a nobleman wanted to play any role in the management of his country, or if he wanted to improve his position or defend his position from enemies, he had to come to Court.

It was therefore considered necessary for any noble or member of the gentry with any pretensions to fashion consciousness, political importance or influence at court, to have lodgings in London.

Also haunting the towns were the sons of the gentry who wandered the streets in the most outlandish fashions their parents' money could buy, frequenting taverns and theaters, fighting duels and bringing little credit to their families.

The towns were also the place where one could find the professionals; the doctors and the lawyers; and the chief churchmen, the Bishops. Each "City" had its Bishop, and York and Canterbury had Archbishops. (The traditional definition of a city was a place that had a bishop).

Then, at the bottom of the pyramid, were the scavengers. These were the garbage men of the 16th Century, whose job it was to clean the filthy streets of the towns, clearing up the piles of refuse, litter and the occasional dead body.

The town also had the same low-life as the countryside. However, where in the countryside the low-life were always on the move, they found a home in the town. The roads of merry old England were dangerous places, but the streets of her cities were even worse.

The "low life" of the cities had their own clearly delineated caste system, and were dominated by the "Upright Men", who were powerful and ruthless crime bosses, much like modern Mafia "godfathers". These Upright Men had control over vast networks of criminal activity, from cutting purses to prostitution to smuggling, kidnapping and murder-- and even begging. The vast majority of Elizabethan criminals were not independent, but were working for, or paying tribute to one of these Upright Men.

A Ruffler goeth with a weapon to seek service, saying he hath been a servitor in the wars, and getteth his relief. But his chiefest trade is to rob poor wayfaring men and market women.

A Prigman goeth with a stick in his hand like an idle person. His property is to steal clothes of the hedge [where they would be set to dry] which they call 'storing of the rogueman'.

A Whipjack is one that, by color of a counterfeit licence (which they call a 'jibe' and the seals they call 'jarks'), doth use to beg like a mariner; but his chiefest trade is to rob booths in a fair, or to pilfer wares from stalls, which they call 'heaving of the booth'

A Frater goeth with like licence to beg for some spittal-house (hospital). Their prey is commonly upon poor women as they go and come to the markets.

A Quire Bird is one that came lately out of prison, and goeth to seek service. He is commonly a stealer of horses, which they term a'prigger of palfreys'.

An Upright Man is one that goeth with the truncheon or a staff, which they call a 'filchman'. This man is of so much authority that, meeting with any of his profession, he may call them to account and command a share or 'snap' unto himself of all that they have gained by their trade in a month. And if he do them wrong, they have no remedy
against him -- no, though he beat them, as he useth commonly to do. He may also command any of their women, which they call 'doxies', to serve is turn. He hath the chief place at any market walk and other assemblies, and is not of any to be controlled.

John Awdeley, The Fraternitye of Vagabondes (1575)