‘A Naughty House’

Charles Nicholl discovers new evidence about Christopher Mountjoy

Among the cases before the magistrates at the Middlesex Sessions of 1 December 1613 was one which involved three French ‘goldworkers’ resident in the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate, and a woman from Whitechapel called Frances Williams. The charge was fornication. Though not in itself unusual, the charge had an extra twist, repeated with minor variations in most of the entries relating to it: ‘they were all 4 seene in bed together at one tyme.’ The documentation is scanty, and we have no Jacobean tabloids to furnish us with further juicy details – ‘Immigrants in Group Sex Romp!’ – but one fact which makes the case worth pursuing is the involvement of Shakespeare’s former landlord Christopher Mountjoy. There is an obvious link: like the three goldworkers, Mountjoy was French. Also like them, he lived in the Cripplegate area (though his house was within the London city walls, on respectable Silver Street, whereas the alleged fornicators lived out in the rougher extramural suburb of St Giles). These are community connections. But what else – what more specifically – has drawn him into this prosecution, and into the rather murky story that lies behind it?

This new material about Mountjoy does not impinge directly on Shakespeare, who had not lived at his house for some years, and who is anyway not answerable for the behaviour of his landlord. But it does throw further light on the character and circumstances of a man who was part of Shakespeare’s London life, and who had a precisely identifiable, and in some measure domestically intimate, relationship with him. They first met, according to Shakespeare’s own recollection, in about 1602. Mountjoy was a tiremaker – a maker of the decorative headgear for ladies known as ‘tires’ or ‘attires’ – and the first contact between them may have been in the ambit of theatrical costuming. By 1604, certainly, Shakespeare was lodging with the Mountjoys (Christopher and his French wife, Marie), and in that year assisted in the engagement, or ‘troth-plighting’, of their daughter Mary to one of their apprentices, Stephen Belott. Some years later Belott sued Mountjoy for an unpaid dowry of £60, and Shakespeare was among those called to give evidence at the Court of Requests in Westminster. He did so on 11 May 1612, though – somewhat conveniently for Mountjoy – he could not remember what sum of money had been promised for the dowry. This was his last recorded dealing with Mr Mountjoy, a year and a half before this rather different kind of court case at the Middlesex Sessions.

I explored the story of the Mountjoy family in my book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (2007), but missed this later morsel of evidence. I should not have missed it, especially as there is a signpost to it in the records of the French Church in London, which mention that Mountjoy had been ‘tiré au Magistrat’, though without saying where or when. I am grateful to the sharp eyes of Andrew Wilson, who spotted the Mountjoy reference by chance (or by alphabetical serendipity: he was researching a family ancestor called Merryweather) and kindly shared it with me. The story, such as it can be reconstructed, is contained in two sets of court documents: the Sessions Roll, which lists the ‘recognizances’ of those standing bail for the accused; and the Sessions Register, which briefly records, in situ, the proceedings of their day in court. Mountjoy makes an appearance in both.

On 20 November 1613, ‘Christoferus Mountioy de Silverstreet london Marchant Taylor’ pledges himself as a surety for the three accused Frenchmen. They are named as Jacobus Mullett, Abrahamus Trippie and Jacobus Depre. (The two Jacobi would, of course, be Jacques in French and James in English. Mullett is elsewhere written as Millett, and Trippie as Tippey.) Mountjoy puts up £20 – half of the required bail – to guarantee their appearance at the forthcoming Sessions of the Peace, where they are ‘bound to answere their incontinencye wth one ffra: Williams: they were all 3 in bed together wth her at one tyme’. The other half of the bail is posted by one Richard Meade, also of St Giles parish, whose occupation is given as ‘gardiner’. A few days later the procedure is repeated, and two other men stand surety for the fourth defendant, ‘ffrancisca Williams de whitechappell, spinster’. The designation ‘spinster’ is erroneous, for it appears from later entries that she has a husband. She may herself be the source of this misinformation, though it would also conform to the magistrate’s assumption that she is a single woman of loose morals. Her husband, quite possibly estranged, was James Williams of Whitechapel, described as a ‘yeoman’, which means he owned some kind of property. Frances’s marital status does not at all preclude the possibility she was a prostitute, or at least one of the legion of semi-professionals in that trade – a ‘light-tayled huswyfe’, as the pamphleteers liked to put it, the spelling halfway between ‘housewife’ and its eroded variant, ‘hussy’. Finally, on 29 November, we meet the accuser, Adam Bowin. He is a man in the textile business – a ‘tuff taffatamaker’ – from the parish of St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate. He puts up his own security to appear in court to give evidence against the Frenchmen (which will also be evidence against Frances Williams, though she is not actually mentioned). He is ‘bound to Justifie an informacion he hath given against the said parties for incontinency: 3 men with one woman in a bed’.

And so the scene is set for the brief courtroom drama of 1 December 1613. This takes place in the newly erected Sessions House in Clerkenwell, known as Hicks Hall because it was built by the rich mercer and financier Sir Baptist Hicks, who was himself one of the Justices of the Peace on the Middlesex circuit. Sessions had previously been held in the less salubrious surrounds of the nearby Castle Tavern. Hicks Hall, which opened in 1612, was an imposing three-storey house standing at the bottom end of St John’s Street, not far from Smithfield market. When it was built the street had to be rerouted around it, which did not please the residents, and one of the first to appear at the new court was a local apothecary’s wife, Grace Watson, charged with ‘giving reviling speeches against Sir Baptist Hicks touching the building of the Sessions House’. A later writer describes it as ‘a shapeless brick lump containing a great warehouse in the centre for the court, and houses for the officers all round and joined on to it’. In the 18th century the area below the oval-shaped courtroom was used for dissecting the cadavers of criminals: it may be the locale shown in the famously gruesome anatomy scene in Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty.

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