The Historical Journal


The Bawdy House Riots of 1668*

Tim Harrisa1

a1 Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Holidays and festivals were traditional occasions when the young men of early modern London indulged in carnivals of misrule. One of the most striking examples of these were the ritualized attacks on brothels by apprentices, which customarily took place on Shrove Tuesday. These rituals, which often involved quite extensive destruction to property, seem to have occurred with persistent regularity, at least in the early Stuart period, there being twenty-four known Shrove Tuesday riots in the thirty-five years between 1606 and 1641. Such activities normally received moderate handling from the authorities, and only in exceptional circumstances did the courts choose to punish the rioters with heavy fines or a period of imprisonment. Contemporaries, it seems, were familiar with, and to a certain extent tolerant of this ‘ancient administration of justice at Shrovetide’ by the apprentices, as James Harrington called it. Such feats were even acclaimed in popular literature as being a sign of the virtue of London's young men. In this context, the response of the authorities to apprentice attacks on bawdy houses that occurred in Easter week of 1668 seems excessive. Here, fifteen of the ringleaders were tried for high treason, on a rather dubious interpretation of the law, and four were eventually hanged, drawn and quartered.


* I should like to thank Colin Brooks, Peter Burke, Mark Goldie, John Morrill and John Walter for their comments and criticisms on earlier drafts of this paper.