‘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.

Nothing survives today of Hicks Hall. One sees only the bellying out of the street where it once stood, and the disused Victorian warehouse (‘Geo. Farmiloe & Sons, Lead & Glass Merchants’) that more or less marks the spot. But what does survive is the written record, and within it the throng of petty offenders who passed through here, accused rightly or wrongly of picking pockets, filching cloaks, making affrays, calling constables knaves, committing lewd acts, enticing other men’s apprentices, keeping disorderly tippling-houses, and a hundred and one other minor infractions: a rich sociological soil sample of life out in the suburbs of London, which in parts would have had the attributes we associate with ‘suburban’, but which were mostly considered a ‘noysome’ sprawl full of poverty, crime and vice.

On that day in 1613, the case of the fornicating Frenchmen was only one of about 150 cases that the magistrates heard. There was the miller charged with ‘putting in musty corn instead of sweet’, and selling ‘heavy sacks for light, 2 lb in every sack’. There was the card-sharp up for ‘cozening Giles Hall at decoy’, and another trickster for ‘cheating a Derbyshire gentleman with counters instead of silver’, and a burglar, Thomas Mason (‘alias Humming Tom’), who had broken into the house of Sir Walter Cope. There was the woman from Finsbury accused of ‘cozening Elizabeth Barnes of certain money for a little powder in a paper’: she had promised that Elizabeth ‘should have her purpose of musicon by carryenge the powder about her’, apparently meaning it would attract some musician she fancied, but clearly it didn’t. And among these mischief-makers (and a few more serious cases which the magistrates sent straight up to the Gaol Delivery Sessions at Newgate) there were the carnal sinners of one sort and another. I count a dozen cases, including that of the three Frenchmen, in this category. Among them are Susan Browne, ‘taken in bed with a Scotsman in a common bawdy house’; Anthony Horne, tailor, ‘locked up in a shed in Chiswell Street with Margery Blague in the night, and apprehended by the constable’; Henry Manne, gentleman, ‘complained to be a very disordered fellow, and keeping company with Alice Sherwood, a common whore’; Joan Wilson, ‘charged with incontinency and keeping company with Richard Ganny in uncivil manner, upon the complaint of Wilmote, the said Ganny’s wife’; Susan Ellington, ‘for keeping very evil rule and light huswifery in her house’; and – lest these quaintly phrased veneries obscure a harsher reality – Mary Pilkinton, spinster, the inmate of a brothel on Whitecross Street, charged with ‘burying a bastard child in a yard in the same’.

Most of these people, we may assume, are there to answer the charges against them, in that milling, echoing, warehouse-like courtroom in Clerkenwell, where a log fire smokes in the ornate fireplace inscribed with phrases of gratitude to Sir Baptist. And amid them we find Christopher Mountjoy, waiting for the case of the three Frenchmen to be called. He is already somewhat disgruntled, because one of the three musketeers, Abraham Trippie, has failed to show up, thus breaking the conditions of his bail, and putting in jeopardy the not inconsiderable sum of £20 which Mountjoy has pledged as surety. As we know from the earlier case of the unpaid dowry, he was not someone who spent money gladly. ‘He would rather rott in prison,’ he had said in the hearing of a neighbour, than give his daughter and son-in-law ‘any thinge more’; other witnesses in that case recalled similarly crabbed, blustery, mean-minded comments.

In 1613 Mountjoy was a man probably in his late fifties. He was a widower, a householder, a taxpayer, a ‘denizen’ or naturalised citizen who had lived in London for more than 30 years; he was a supplier of headgear à la mode to an upmarket clientele which had at one time included King James’s fashion-mad consort, Queen Anne, and he was – not least – a familiar acquaintance of Shakespeare. A rather respectable figure, it may seem from this summary, an immigrant success story, though there is also some evidence to suggest another, less respectable side to him. Just a few months earlier he had been ‘censured’ before the spiritual court of the French Church for living in sin with his maidservant, by whom he had fathered ‘2 bastardes’. His lifestyle is described as ‘debauched’ and ‘disordered’ (‘dereglée’). That, at least, was the view of the Calvinist elders of the French Church, and perhaps he already has an inkling that the Middlesex Justices are about to take a similar line.

So far his only involvement in the case has been in this perfectly neutral role of providing surety for his fellow Frenchmen. But as the hearing unfolds at Hicks Hall we find him more deeply implicated in the affair. It is revealed that the ‘fornicacion’ in question took place in a property owned or leased by him (though it is not the house on Silver Street where he lived). We learn this from the committal proceedings, which record the offence and the summary judgment of the magistrates upon it:

James Millett and James Depree committed to putt in good sureties for their good behaviour for committing fornicacion with one ffrancis williams they two with one Abraham Tippey all at one tyme att severall tymes for a fortnight together in the house of one Christopher Mountioye a Tiremaker in St Giles without Cripplegate in most beastlyke manner. The said Christopher Mountioye likewyse committed to putt in very good sureties p.b.g. [pro bono gestu, ‘for his good behaviour’] and to bringe forthe Abraham Tippey for whom he is bayle.

The same judgment follows for Frances Williams, who is also ‘committed p. bono gestu’.

It is clear that the magistrates considered Mountjoy culpable. Like the other offenders he is bound over for good behaviour: he has himself become one of the offenders. Quite what the charge is against him is not stated, though the obvious inference is that, at the least, he knew about the ‘beastlyke’ behaviour going on in that house in St Giles. We also note, from the phrasing of the committal, that this congress à quatre was not just a one-off Saturday night orgy, but something that had happened ‘at several times’ over the space of a fortnight. This too might bear on Mountjoy’s culpability as an accessory. He could reasonably have disclaimed knowledge of a single lewd act, taking place in a house which he owned but did not live in. A continuous arrangement of lewdness sounds more suspicious.

The sentence he receives, along with the other guilty parties, is lenient enough, and fairly standard for this sort of case. It is a reprimand more than a punishment, though it involves him in the business of ‘putting in’ sureties – money which will be forfeited if he is in trouble again within a specified period, usually one year. A later entry names his sureties: they are a local vintner, Benjamin Flint, and a Cheapside goldsmith, Laurence Strowbridge. We hear Mountjoy’s social world in this – wine and gold – though Strowbridge may just be a moneylender, offering to pay the surety as a loan with interest, rather than a personal contact.

Further hints as to the nature of Mountjoy’s offence are to be found in the ‘act book’ of the French Church. As noted earlier, this mentions that he had been brought before the magistrates; the date of the entry, 27 February 1614, makes it pretty certain that it refers to this appearance in Clerkenwell three months previously. The statement is brief: Mountjoy has been ‘tiré au Magistrat pour ses paillardises & adultères’. These words suggest he had been charged with something more than just being an accessory. In Randall Cotgrave’s French-English dictionary, published in 1611, paillardise is defined as ‘lecherie, whoredom, venerie, obscenitie, uncleanness’, in fact ‘any filthie or beastlie humour’, while the related verb paillarder is glossed as ‘to haunt bawdie howses’ and ‘to bitch-hunt it’. The other word used is ‘adultères’. Mountjoy was at this time unmarried (Marie Mountjoy had died in 1606, and his subsequent marriage to Isabel d’Est was not until 1615), so the primary sense of ‘adultery’ is not strictly applicable. However, in early usage the meaning was ‘extended to unchastity generally’ – the OED cites an example from the 1590 Geneva Bible, a book much prized by the Calvinists of the French Church.

The gist of the synopsis seems clear enough. The church elders are saying that Mountjoy had been charged with some kind of illicit sexual activity. As they had themselves recently ‘censured’ him for sleeping with his maid, they no doubt thought the charge was just. Indeed I wonder if these two accusations against Mountjoy in 1613 – the censure of the spiritual court in May; the charges at the Middlesex Sessions in December – might actually be the same accusation made twice. The maid is not named in the French Church document: she is simply called his ‘servante’. It has been assumed that she was herself French, but we know of two earlier maids in the Mountjoy household – Margaret Brown and Joan Langford – and both were English. Could Mountjoy’s servant and concubine in 1613 be Frances Williams? This is speculation, of course, though it would explain why Mountjoy ends up being charged along with the three Frenchmen. As the evidence of their fornication with Frances is presented to the magistrates, it emerges that Mountjoy has himself been fornicating with her over a period of years (long enough, anyway, to have produced those ‘2 bastardes’ attributed to them). I have suggested that Frances was a prostitute: she may more precisely be a servant housed and employed by Mountjoy and pimped out by him when occasion serves.

It would be useful at this point to learn something more about the accuser, Adam Bowin, whose initial complaint – ‘an information he hath given against the said parties’ – brought them all to court, and whose evidence led to their conviction. What do we know of him? He is described in the Sessions documents as a resident of Bishopsgate, and his occupation is given as ‘tuff taffatamaker’. This immediately suggests that he too was French or Flemish, the production of taffeta (‘a light thin silk stuff with considerable lustre’) being a speciality of the immigrant silk-weavers. ‘Tuft’ (or tufted) taffeta, which Bowin produced, was woven with raised patterns, to produce a velvet pile of a different colour to the ground. Huguenot and Walloon craftsmen were the first to manufacture this costly fabric in England. Our accuser is very likely the Adam Bowin whose daughter Suzanne was married at the French Church in 1621; the marriage register tells us she had been born in London, so Bowin was certainly in England by the early years of the 17th century. He may have been there a good deal longer. In the 1593 Return of Strangers – a detailed census of immigrants in London – there are 19 ‘taffety-weavers’ listed: there is no Adam Bowin among them, but there is an Adam Boren, and given the fluid spelling of foreign names in these documents, they sound like the same man. If so, he was a French-speaking Walloon from ‘Torney’ or Tournai, in what is now southern Belgium, and he had a wife called Marie from the same city. Tournai was a centre for taffeta-weaving: 12 of the ‘taffety-weavers’ listed in the census came from there. In 1593 he was a householder, with four children, all English-born: the eldest was a girl of ten. Tournai had been occupied by Spanish forces under the Duke of Parma in 1581; many refugees came to England at that time, and Boren or Bowin was probably among them.

It seems Adam Bowin was a successful Huguenot craftsman in the fashion business, who had been living and prospering in London since the early 1580s – someone, in short, very like Christopher Mountjoy. They must certainly have known one another. How much they liked one another can perhaps be gauged from events at the magistrates’ court, where Bowin’s ‘information’ about the three Frenchmen led to embarrassing disclosures about Mountjoy himself. Bowin was a member of the French Church. He would have already known about Mountjoy’s promiscuous lifestyle, censured by the elders in May, when he lodged his complaint about the goldworkers in around November. Without wishing to turn this into a conspiracy theory, I suspect that the real target of the complaint was Mountjoy (or Mountjoy and his strumpet, Frances), and I wonder if there isn’t someone else in the background, another Frenchman living in St Giles, and one who certainly had a motive to cause Mountjoy trouble: Stephen Belott, his son-in-law, and his bitter antagonist in the still unresolved case of the missing dowry. When it is said that the foursome were ‘seene’ in flagrante, one assumes it was Bowin who saw them. Did he somehow stumble upon them, with a cry of affronted piety? Or was there a word in his ear, discreetly directing him to the house of the detested Mountjoy, where he could catch them in the act?

I have searched in vain for further information on the troublesome trio of goldworkers. Jacques Depre (nowadays generally spelled Du Pré) has a name too common to be helpful. At least two of them appear in the registers of the French Church in the 1620s, but nothing connects them with the offender of 1613. Jacques Mullett may be the silkweaver’s servant James Mulett who appears in a list of ‘strangers’ living in Bishopsgate, but that was back in 1583, 30 years earlier. And Abraham Trippie is perhaps related to René Tripier, a native of Le Mans, who was living in the parish of St Stephen’s on Coleman Street in the late 1590s (and who was therefore a neighbour of the mercer Henry Wood, a business associate of the Mountjoys and a rather overheated admirer of Mountjoy’s sparky wife, Marie). This Tripier was married at the French Church in January 1601, but Abraham cannot be a son of this marriage: the presence of a 12-year-old in that overfreighted bed is not impossible, but the description of him as a goldworker is very unlikely. The three Frenchmen remain bodiless, apart from the very corporeal record of them in 1613.

The last entry concerning Mountjoy in the Sessions Register is merely administrative – it records the ‘extracting’, or paying into the Exchequer, of the £40 surety for his good behaviour – but it adds to our store of information by giving a more precise address for the scene of the crime: ‘his house in whitecrostreete’. Whitecross Street was a long narrow road leading northwards from the city walls up to Old Street. We can further specify that the house stood on the upper stretch of the street, north of its intersection with Chiswell Street, because that was the only part of the street which was in Middlesex, and which therefore came under the jurisdiction of the Middlesex magistrates. The southern part of St Giles parish, though outside the city walls, was administratively part of the City; walking north you crossed the county boundary into the badlands of Middlesex.

One notes the intensely local flavour of the case. Mountjoy’s surety Benjamin Flint lives on Whitecross Street (or probably, since he is a ‘vintner’, runs a tavern there). So does one of Frances Williams’s sureties, Robert Bowker (who is described in one entry as a carpenter and in another as a glover), while her other, a scrivener called West, lives a block away on Golding Lane. The gardener Richard Meade, co-surety for the three Frenchmen, is not far away either, being of the Middlesex part of St Giles. The name is a common one, but he may be related to John Meade of Golding Lane, a porter, who features at the Sessions in 1614 (bound over to keep the peace) and twice in 1615 (standing bail for a prostitute, and prosecuting a local barber for ‘cozening’ him).

This northern stretch of Whitecross Street is all that remains today – the rest, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in 1940, now lies under the giant Barbican estate. Halfway up this pleasant, quietish, intermittently scruffy street you come to a turning on the left into Fortune Street, and many who walked up here in 1613 would have been heading for precisely this spot, for the street marks the site of the Fortune Playhouse, which stood between Whitecross Street and Golding Lane. A squarish wooden structure which is said to have accommodated a thousand spectators, it was built in 1600 by the impresario Philip Henslowe, worried about falling revenues at his Southwark playhouses, the Rose and the Swan, due to competition from Shakespeare’s company at the newly opened Globe. Henslowe’s partner in the Fortune venture was his son-in-law, the actor Edward Alleyn, who improved the occasion by buying some properties to let on Whitecross Street. There were actors living on the street: Roger Barfield of Queen Anne’s company, who rented one of those tenements owned by Alleyn, and William Stratford of Prince Henry’s troupe, who lived ‘at the upper end’ of the street, and was buried at St Giles in 1625. Former colleagues of Shakespeare’s such as William Sly and Nicholas Tooley are also found in the St Giles registers, as is his younger brother Edmund, also a player, who buried an infant son there, ‘base-born’, in 1607: he was perhaps acting at the Fortune in that year.

Where there were playhouses and players there was infallibly that ad hoc outgrowth of leisure and pleasure which so worried the authorities – taverns, dicing-houses, bowling alleys and, above all, brothels. One such tavern would be Benjamin Flint’s, and one such brothel the Whitecross Street establishment run by Helen Clare, ‘a harbourer of lewd persons’, whose girls included Mary Pilkinton, charged at the sessions of December 1613 with burying her baby in the backyard of the house. Another name to mention here is that of George Wilkins, hack author and brothel-keeper: he too was a St Giles character until he shifted operations to Clerkenwell in about 1610. Wilkins frequently appeared before the Middlesex magistrates, sometimes on charges of gross violence against the prostitutes who worked for him. He has documented dealings with Mountjoy and Stephen Belott, and indeed – perhaps through this connection – with Shakespeare, with whom he collaborated on the writing of Pericles in 1607-08. An unpleasant character (though also an underrated writer), Wilkins belongs to the overall tone of this story, but seems to have no specific link with it.

Mountjoy’s house on Whitecross Street is not mentioned in the lawsuit about the dowry, heard at the Court of Requests the previous year. At the hearing on 19 June 1612 (which Shakespeare did not attend), witnesses were asked about Mountjoy’s financial state, including the specific question, ‘What leases of houses or tenements hath he, and where do the said houses or tenements lie?’ Two of them – Mountjoy’s brother, Noel, and a near neighbour, Christopher Weaver – gave clear answers, agreeing in most details. We learn that Mountjoy ‘hath but the lease of two houses’. One is the property on Silver Street ‘wherein he dwelleth’, which is ‘divided into two tenements’, one for himself and one rented out. The other is a property in ‘Brainforde’ (now Brentford), which he sublets. From these ‘he gaineth an overplus of rent more than he payeth’, and this profit is estimated by both deponents as about £18 per annum. They are witnesses generally favourable to Mountjoy, and they would favour his cause by downplaying his disposable income, but it is unlikely they are both lying about how many houses he had. A more plausible deduction is that Mountjoy acquired the Whitecross Street property sometime after June 1612.

The most significant part of Mountjoy’s property portfolio in 1612 is the house in Brentford. Though now a neat and orderly West London suburb, Jacobean Brentford had a lurid reputation. It was a ‘place of resort’ for Londoners, with numerous brothels, and is frequently mentioned in plays and pamphlets as a place for a dirty night or weekend. ‘Let’s to mine host Dogbolt’s at Brainford,’ says an adulterous gallant in Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho! (c.1606). ‘There you are out of eyes, out of ears: private rooms, sweet linen, winking attendance, and what cheer you will.’ There are similar references in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), and in the theatrical smash of 1612, Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, where the beau Laxton makes a ‘lecherous voyage’ to Brentford with Moll Cutpurse.

I have wondered whether Mountjoy’s house in Brentford was just such a place of amorous assignation – a pleasure den or bawdy-house, if not quite a full-scale brothel – and gave reasons in The Lodger for thinking it might be. The new evidence from the Middlesex Sessions rather vividly corroborates this idea. To his house in disreputable Brentford can now be added this other house, in the equally disreputable purlieus of the Fortune playhouse. And to the speculation that he had a sideline in the sex trade can now be added this eyewitness report, which takes us right inside one of the rooms in his house, and shows us three men in bed with a light-tailed lady whose services they must surely be paying him for.

‘If it be not a bawd’s house,’ Constable Elbow says, it is certainly ‘a naughty house’. He is talking of Mistress Overdone’s brothel, a place so dodgy that even the irreproachable Mrs Elbow might be ‘accused in fornication, adultery and all uncleanliness there’. The phrasing is apt for this case at the Sessions, with its teasing glimpse into Mountjoy’s real-life ‘naughty house’ in Whitecross Street; and apt also because Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which Elbow appears, can be dated to about 1604, and was therefore probably written in his lodgings at Mountjoy’s other house in Silver Street. Shakespeare has no connection with this case nearly a decade later, except that it shows us more of the louche and not very likeable Frenchman he had once lived with, and more of the dark and dirty side of Jacobean London which he drew on when writing the brothel scenes in Measure for Measure and Pericles. This tawdry episode brings us briefly into that quotidian world of people and streets and rooms which lies, for the most part unreachably, just the other side of those texts.