Access over 150 additional episodes in our back catalog on Patreon! Join today at

When it comes to stepping back into the life of William Shakespeare and walking around the streets of London to see what the sights, sounds, smells, people and places were really like, no one does that better than a time traveler. In order to take just such a trip, and take a short jaunt down a London street during the 16th century, we are delighted to welcome a man who is a listener favorite and longtime listener-requested guest, the history-time-traveler himself, and author of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Ian Mortimer, to the show today.  

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay 

Dr Ian Mortimer is best known as the Sunday Times-bestselling author of the four Time Traveller’s Guides – to Medieval England, Elizabethan England, Restoration Britain and Regency Britain – as well as four critically acclaimed medieval biographies, a prize-winning novel and several other titles. In total, his books have sold more than 1.3 million copies and been translated into sixteen languages. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. His work on the social history of medicine won the Alexander Prize in 2004 and was published by the Royal Historical Society in 2009. He has been described by The Times as ‘the most remarkable medieval historian of our time’. He lives on the edge of Dartmoor, in Devon.

I’ll be asking Ian Mortimer about:

  • One of the things I believe we would have been surprised to have happen or to have seen if it were us walking down the streets in London were public punishments. Ian, can you share with us what kinds of punishments happened in the streets of London and whether these were considered public spectacles, I mean, would they have sold tickets to this event?  
  • In his book, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, Ian talks about bathing, specifically, saying that there’s more ways than soap and water to get clean. Ian, what were some of the ways Elizabethan England used to keep clean?  
  • Speaking of sanitation, Ian writes about the medical profession of Elizabethan England, saying that they really were on par with modern surgeons in terms of skill, but it was a lack of knowledge around infection and bacteria that made medicine dangerous for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Ian, share with us some examples of medical procedures we know of from the Elizabethan period that are just as skillfully done then as now, and then explain why bacteria made some of this skill ultimately futile in the medical profession. 
  • …and more!

Plenti and Grase by Mark Dawson 

Before the Mast, edited by Judi Gardiner and Michael J Allen (Available at Blackwells at the time of posting this episode. Can be hard to find).

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer (US Version)

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer (UK Version) <— This is the one Ian Mortimer recommends.

16th Century Hair Comb, featured in the episode. Find out more inside!

Elizabethan Hair Care and Wigs

Explore the vanity table of the 16th century and examine exactly what were the kind of Elizabethan wigs, hair dye, hair brushes, and toilette products used for women (and men) of turn of the 17th century London, with our guest and contributor to the Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits exhibition at the Royal Museum Greenwich, Sue Prichard.

Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew | Smithfield 1546 | Public Domain | Image Source

Elizabethan England’s Public Executions

One of the things I believe we would have been surprised to have happen or to have seen if it were us walking down the streets in London were public punishments. Ian shares that there were a variety of punishments offered publicly, but they weren’t considered a form of entertainment so much as they were the government’s way of warning people off the idea of committing crimes, essentially saying, “Here’s what happens to you if you don’t stay in line.”

Punishing a woman accused of excessive arguing in the ducking stool | Illustration from an 18th century chapbook reproduced in Chap-books of the eighteenth century by John Ashton (1834).| Unknown author, dated before 1800 | Public Domain | Source

They would not have sold tickets, but there would have been several kinds of punishments. Death penalties, a deterrent against crime, and therefore the death penalty was carried out very much in public with hanging or drawn and quartering and in the case of women, hanged and then burned to death, or burning people alive, was all happening on the streets. Execution for heresy, there are still anabaptists being burned alive in Elizabethan London, and hanging for theft, women burnt for petty treason (murdering their husbands or their employer). Absolute crowds attending these especially if they are important people. Further down the ranks, you have pillaries, your ears are nailed to the wood and they cut your ears off to get you out of them. Sedition, selling bad fish, are all reasons to put someone in pillories. The most common punishment was whipping. Homeless were whipped out of town, petty thieves were whipped—stripped half naked and tied to the back of a cart and dragged through the town while being whipped. Could also be tied to a whipping post—a schoolmaster whipped a boy so much the skin came off his back and this was cruel and unusual punishment and the schoolmaster was treated to the same as a punishment. The last is the dunking stool—being dipped into water as a punishment, or even to be cucking stool can be normal stools or at the end of a long pole. 

Complete Lesson Pack

Get the Complete Lesson Pack on Public Executions that coordinates with our episode with Murat Öğütcü on Public Executions in Elizabethan England when you Become a Member of That Shakespeare Life (along with all of our other lesson plans, worksheets, and activity kits). The Public Executions lesson pack looks at public displays of death including those in King Lear, Hamlet, and Measure for Measure. The lesson pack explores Robert Devereux’s public execution in 1601 (When Shakespeare was 37), and makes connections between the plays and what was happening in real history when those plays were written.

15th century illustration depicting a bath, from On The Tudor Trail |Accessed Feb 2019

Elizabethan England and Ways to Keep Clean

When it came to bathing in Elizabethan England, there was a wide variety of opinions on what was deemed acceptable, with more than a little skepticism surrounding water.

You’ve got to bear in mind the backdrop here of water and what water means to people. We assume water is in itself clean, but in Elizabethan times you couldn’t assume that. There was a whole scale to cleanliness of water. Rain water that fell on your roof and you collect it yourself was cleanest, followed by spring water you control, and then spring water a ta distance followed by well water, then lastly is river water, and you don’t eat anything to do with that because everyone throws their refuse, meat scraps, and anything else. The clean stuff is expensive and having water brought to you in a town could be very expensive. You wouldn’t use water to wash with, but use linen. Linen is called rubbers—it’s two warm linen towels, you clean your hair or use lye as well, followed by the rubbers. It’s used to clean the skin, and once you have the linen, you just keep it clean and you can reuse it. It soaks up sweat and removes grime. 

Speaking of sanitation, Ian writes about the medical profession of Elizabethan England, saying that they really were in line with modern surgeons in terms of skill, but it was a lack of knowledge around infection and bacteria that made medicine dangerous for Shakespeare’s lifetime.

16th Century Male Anatomy Figure, Labeled for Medical use. From Wellcome Images. Public Domain. Source

[Doctors of the Elizabethan period were] not on a par, because we do have more knowledge now, but bear in mind the violence and the violence had a lot of first hand experience for how to operate. What they do then is extremely difficult would be removing bullets or arrowheads, especially if it was broken off, using instruments that go into the wound following the weapon track, then expanding the area with a special tool to remove the arrow or bullet. There are a number of wound based surgical processes that may well be impressive in the skill that they could do them. Stitching up of wounds, and amputation is up there as well. They could take advantage of being very fast and take advantage of endorphins, but you have to go through skin, flesh, bone, and that takes time. They did have opiates and could use opiate pain killers, but you could also use alcohol, and there is distilled alcohol this time, so not just copious amounts of wine, but something stronger. Certainly high risk for bacteria into the blood stream. 

Elizabethan England Entertainment

When it came to having fun in Elizabethan England, one primary thing to remember is that there weren’t really “night’s out” because anything people wanted to do for fun had to be done while the sun was still shining. Going out for fun did include going to the theater, but might also include going to a pub, or seeing a bear baiting event.

Hope Theatre and bear baiting arena, from Hollar’s View of London (1647) | Public Domain | Source

Daytime was actually the time for entertainment. Alehouse and tavern was your evening entertainment, which might include Thomas Platter’s diary couldn’t get into a London tavern without a bagpiper by the door, town Waites performing music in public, hunting sports, hurling was a sport that was popular, wrestling in the North, football existed as a rough game across the whole country (not really approved of) and also baiting sports, bear baiting (quite rare, but ended with a spectacle of a monkey tied to an old horse, and the dogs let loose on the horse and the monkey shrieked as the horse was ripped to shreds beneath the monkey) and bull baiting. I defy you to make characters likable if they are going to bear baiting and then a horse is killed while a monkey is screaming. Bull baiting had to be done by law, you weren’t allowed to butcher a bull without baiting it first…There were several theaters in London, none outside that we know of, but there was the Red Lion, The Swan, The Fortune, and the Rose, and in addition to thees there are Inns, and the Elizabethan theater with its galleries is an adaptation of an Inn gallery. If you happen to go to the New Inn in Gloucester, you have four sides of a gallery overlooking a courtyard, and this is the sort of place actors would have started to ply their trade at these kinds of inns in the 16th century. Palaces and stately homes. 5-6 theaters, but no more than that, and when Puritanism shows up in the 1600s, very quickly the theaters go away, even the Globe was converted into apartments at one point. The sights and sounds would have been a constant battle to keep the audience quiet enough to see it on stage, but when you have quiet cheap entertainment like that, what you normally call cheap seats (though this is actually standing) the theater was also associated with prostitution, and hang on to those with money, you would struggle to hear all the words, general babble in the background to hear the actors. Refuse on the floor, so stinking loud. 

A scene of 14th century bear baiting, with a chained bear attacked by several dogs, as men watch and encourage the dogs | Public Domain | Source

Elizabethan Modes of Travel

I have always assumed that people like Shakespeare would have gotten around by horse, or just by walking. While Ian explains these modes of travel were certainly valid, there was also a rare, but available, form of transportation: The Carriage.

An incomplete Post Medieval lead alloy toy coach (late 16th century). | Public Domain| More details on this artifact from the Portable Antiquities Scheme | Image Source

The other option really is carriage and they existed but they were largely for women in this period. By the 17th century it was both sexes equally, but in Elizabethan times they existed but they were something of a novelty, but they were extremely expensive, you could spend 1000 GBP in the 15th century. They were still using the Roman road system which didn’t stand up to the road system, really, so they were impractical. When the protestants who had fled to Antwerp go there they realized everyone was in carriages, and they brought back with them the dignified idea of using a carriage for upper class women. Men were resistant to the idea of carriages (William Cecil travelled with his wife, she went in a carriage and he rode on a horse behind her). Sex, money, and route you took because some roads and bridges were impossible for carriages. Most people would have used a horse, not just to save their legs or because it was good exercise, but because you wanted to emphasize your status. Shakespeare would have rode a horse, because people associated him as a gentleman that way, if he had been on foot, they would presume he wasn’t a gentleman. 

It was possible that people could hitch a ride with a passing goods cart, or on someone else’s carriage, but it was not a formalized process yet. That means that while you could jump in the back of a moving carriage to save your legs, you couldn’t hail an Elizabethan taxi cab.

Carriers existed but they were very slow. Carrying goods from one place to another, would have happened on many occasions, but not formalized as a process where you see it in 18th century as a kind of taxi service, but if you aren’t able bodied it’s better than walking. Some parts of the country wagons couldn’t offer that because of the ground being unsuitable to the mode of travel. 

Shakespeare’s Walk From Stratford Upon Avon to London

William Shakespeare’s home was in Stratford Upon Avon, and during his walk to London there are several inns and taverns along the way. In this printable map, I identify several inns and taverns along the way that are also mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. There are even a few that were owned by close friends of William Shakespeare. The map includes a diagram of all the places Shakespeare could have stopped on his Walk to London, along with quotes from his plays that mention specific locations, and some bonus history. Access this printable and all our printable resources inside the member’s resource library.

Staying at Inns and Taverns on Your Elizabethan Journey

View into the Courtyard of an Inn at Colmar by Eduard Gaertner| 19th century | Public Domain | Source

On foot, a person could only walk around 20 miles before it was necessary to stop for food, refreshment, or rest. A traveler would often stop at local inns and taverns along their route to rest for the night, before beginning their journey again on foot the next day.

Options of where to say: probably the remnants of the medieval idea of hospitality (where you stay in the house of a local just by showing up and requesting a place to stay) only about 2000 inns scattered around the major cities (20 cities) and only 600 market towns. Rural inns were uncommon, townal (sic) things were inns, if you were in a rural area, you asked to stay in the homes of the people there…Some of the places during a medieval pilgrimage like hospitals and such would carry on operating as places of hospitality and became a sort of inn, in Canterbury the Christ Church priory put up an inn with 100 inns for pilgrims going to see St. Thomas’ Shrine, and those became sorts of inns or places where you could get accommodation afterwards. Largely, you rely on people you know. This is why people keep in touch with their second, third, fourth cousins so they have a means of information and safe refuge when they are traveling. 

When it came to saying in the big city of London, England, there were still inns and taverns available, but it was more common to stay with a local resident. Hospitality was a big thing for London in the 16th century, and travelers to the area could request to stay with anyone in the city that might have space.

Comment and Share

If you like our show, please leave us a comment and a rating on the podcast platform you’re listening from today. Taking the time to rate us on Apple Podcasts or other platforms really helps our rankings and lets other people hear about the show. If you can drop us a rating and review, we’d really appreciate it!

If you’re listening right here in the show notes, please leave us a comment down below. We’d love to hear from you!

You can share this episode on social media to help more people hear about our show and the great history we talk about each week! Tweet this episode using this link or share the website on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or LinkedIN.

Other Episodes You Might Enjoy

Episodes For Patrons:

Over 150 additional episodes of our show are available for patrons of our show. Sign up to be a patron by clicking on any of the episodes shown below. Once you sign up, you’ll have immediate access to all the episodes plus the bonus history that coordinates with each one.

That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!