Cardinal’s Cap Alley, SE1
Towards the western end of Bankside and to the west of the Globe Theatre is to be found the quaintly named Cardinal’s Cap Alley, which then joins Skinmarket Place. When I went to take a look at it, it was gated off but never mind. It sheds a fascinating light on the seamier side of the area’s history.
Bankside, as the southern side of the Thames was called, was outside the jurisdiction of the City of London and was notorious for activities that were frowned upon in the City, not least public theatres, bull and bear baiting pits and its stews, as the brothels were called. Each stew had the name of the establishment painted on the wall facing the Thames, as a form of advertisement or, perhaps, as a two-fingered gesture to the prudes on the other side of the river.
Up to twelve brothels operated under licence from Henry VII but in 1546 Henry VIII thought enough was enough and decided to “extinguish such abominable license.” With great ceremony the brothels were proclaimed by “sound of trumpet, no more to be priuleged, and vsed as a common Bordell,” but you cannot keep a good man down. Brothels, albeit unlicensed, continued to ply their dubious trade.
One such brothel was called the Cardinal’s Cap or Hat, which almost certainly stood at the site occupied by No 49, Bankside and which is the entrance to the modern-day alley. It is possible that an establishment stood there from at least 1360 but even allowing for the vagaries of royal licence, it seems to have had a precarious existence. John Skelton, in his poem Why come ye not to court from 1522, noted, “but at the naked stewes. I vnderstande how that/ the syne of the Cardynall hat/ that Inne is now shyt vp/ with gup, whore, gup, now, gup.”
As late as the mid 17th century the Cardinal’s Hat was associated with prostitution, as this rather bawdy couplet from the anonymous play, Vanity of Vanities, from 1660, shows: “they talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat, / they’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.”
Given its proximity to the Globe Theatre it is tempting to think that the Bard of Stratford popped in for a refreshing drink and to take in the rather picaresque atmosphere. In King Henry VI, Part 1, he makes an allusion to prostitution and the headwear of a cardinal, the Duke of Gloucester warning the Bishop of Winchester thus; “thou that giv’st whores indulgences to sin,/ I’ll canvas thee in thy broad cardinal’s hat/ if thou proceed in this thy insolence.”
Why cardinal’s cap or hat?
There were a number of establishments in and around London through the ages with that name. Samuel Pepys popped into one in Lombard Street for a drink on June 23, 1660. So it may just have been a common pub name with no specific associations with the area. Others, though, think it may be a reference to the fact that Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was appointed a cardinal, once owned it or that it is an ironic allusion to the similarity between a cardinal’s hat and the tip of a penis. I suspect there is no specific allusion in the name but who knows for certain?
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren based himself in Bankside while supervising the reconstruction of the city. It affords a superb view of St Paul’s, his crowning glory. There is even a plaque on No 49, Bankside which states “here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Pauls Cathedral. Here also, in 1502, Catherine, Infanta of Castille & Aragon, afterwards the first Queen of Henry VIII, took shelter on her first landing in London.”
Modern research suggests that this was not where Wren was based but rather somewhere slightly to the east, behind what is now the Founders Arms. The then owner, Malcolm Munthe, rescued the plaque from the Wren house when it was about to be demolished and put it on his house, No 49. Nevertheless, this false attribution has helped the preservation of a splendid house, the present incarnation of which was built in 1710, from the predations of so-called developers.
And finally, before we leave this fascinating area of London, we should note that it was much nearer the banks of the Thames. In the 1970s the Greater London Council, in their wisdom, altered the waterline to construct the pedestrianised area that exists today.