In the 1580s and 1590s London experienced high inflation, plague outbreaks, and prolonged dearth caused, in part, by the City's phenomenal population explosion in the late sixteenth-century. (1) The Crown and City responded to these conditions with a surge of anti-building legislation. Numerous Royal Proclamations, issued at the urging of the City's officials, blamed unregulated building for the increasingly disturbing changes in London's social topography. John Stow's Survey of London (1598), which provides a detailed account of London's wards and parishes during the reign of Elizabeth I, vividly illustrates the power of the Crown and City's anti-building rhetoric, describing the ecological devastation and social disintegration ushered in by unregulated building. However, Stow complicates the traditional paradigm governing the Elizabethan debates about building, in which building is discussed almost exclusively in terms of urban containment (or, less frequently, urban expansion), by attributing specific negative or positive consequences to particular types of building. By doing so, Stow demonstrates the emerging power of what I call "a discourse of building," which focuses on issues of style, material, and location and emphasizes the type of expansion. More importantly, the striking similarities between the nascent urban planning ideas expressed in the Survey of London and those promoted in seventeenth-century building regulations make a strong case for elevating the role texts such as Stow's played in generating alternative solutions to London's urban expansion problems during the period.
Elizabeth's 1580 Royal Proclamation against building assumed national scope with an Act of Parliament in 1588, effectively sanctioning a discourse of building founded on the idea that banning any new, subdivided, or multi-occupant buildings would curb London's skyrocketing population. (2) A series of Elizabethan anti-building proc lamations was based on the premise that the new and subdivided buildings and the landlords who rented to multiple tenants in already overcrowded houses fueled London's population expansion and thus contributed to higher food and fuel prices, the spread of plague and fire, and the inability of her majesty "to have her people ... well governed by ordinary justice." The remedy was "to command all manner of person, of what quality soever they be, to desist and forbear from any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of London ... where no former house hath been known" on threat of "close prison" and "seizure of all building materials." The Crown and the City authorities wished to encourage London's recent arrivals to "provide themselves with other places in the realm where many houses rest uninhabited to the decay of divers ancient good boroughs and towns." (3) London's new and converted buildings acted as material evidence for those outside the capital who accused the City of siphoning off inhabitants, devaluing rental income, and stealing business away from other towns, all of which helped popularize the image of London as the "great wen" or as an "overgrown spleen." One anonymous petitioner from the period complained that "retailers and artificers, at the least of such things as pertain to the back or belly, do leave country towns where there is no vent and do fly to London, where they be sure to find ready and quick market." (4) These complaints should not be dismissed as mere exaggerations. By the mid-seventeenth century, London's high mortality rate coupled with its low birth rate demanded an influx of more than 8,000 new residents annually to sustain its growth, and many, if not most, came from other parts of England. (5)
The rhetoric of the Royal Proclamations placed London's overcrowding and its increased population, and the host of social problems accompanying rapid growth, in a causal relationship to its new buildings and daily altering topography. The anti-building regulations implied if building could be banned, then London's population growth could be contained. Without the increase in population made possible by new and converted buildings, according to the logic of the proclamations, inflated food and fuel prices, the threat of plague, fire, and political insurrection could all be controlled. The regulations persuasively posit a causal relationship between London's changing socioeconomic difficulties and its new buildings, which consisted most often of sheds (penthouse shops) added to the upper stories of dwellings, hastily subdivided houses, or carelessly built tenements. The overcrowded houses built along narrow lanes and alleys with overhanging jetties contributed to the speed at which disease and fire spread. Attempts to ban building, however, meant overcrowding increased as did substandard building, partly because surreptitious building was subject to demolition if detected by authorities, thus encouraging hastily-built and shoddily-constructed houses. The result of this restrictive legislation, as Ferdinand Braudel argues, was a "whole clandestine proliferation of hovels and shanties on land of doubtful ownership." (6) The dark shadow cast over London in the 1590s by high grain prices and plague outbreaks in 1592, 1593, and 1603 coincided with vigorous enforcement of building regulations. (7) During this period, the Privy Council ordered buildings and tenements to be torn down in several areas and aggressively prosecuted over ninety-five violators in Star Chamber between 1590 and 1602 for building in contravention of the Royal Proclamations. (8) While increased enforcement of the regulations proved consistently ineffective in solving London's many social ills, a discourse of building retained its powerful hold over Crown and City officials because of the simplicity of its logic--no more building equals no more people. The highly visible destruction of illegal structures also offered the Crown and City a way to prove they were responding to the complaints of its citizenry.
Ah Elizabethan discourse of building collapsed distinctions between London's material and social topography, using alterations in the former to understand and control the alarming transformations in the latter. Jack Goldstone's articulation of the "distributional effects of relative shifts in population and resources" helps understand why London's population growth proved so threatening to those in Power. He asserts, "the impact of population growth is not simply proportional to changes in overall population, but often many times greater, particularly for marginal groups." (9) London had become a magnet for the growing number of unemployed and often unruly laboring poor, and, perhaps, less threateningly, but no less problematic, for the rapidly expanding gentry; the overcrowding within existing structures alongside expanses of new construction vividly reflected changes in London's social topography. (10) The gentry more than tripled in size from 1540 to 1640, prompting many younger sons eager for patronage jobs to relocate for longer periods to London to curry favor for court positions. The Crown and the City made limited exceptions for the wealthy and socially elite to build in London, but Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I all tried to prevent permanent relocation with Proclamations exhorting them not only to return to the country but refrain from constructing new homes in London. These efforts can be interpreted as genuine acts of political necessity. As R. Malcolm Smuts argues, "the resort of the gentry to the court ... fostered a broader interest in the king's affairs than James or Charles thought healthy." In short, court gossip fueled political awareness resulting in political action. The growing number of gentry exerted acute pressure on an increasingly financially unstable Crown that was quickly running out of court positions and crown lands to pacify the elite's hunger for patronage. (11) The number of new houses close to the court acted as concrete reminders of their growing numbers and influence.
According to Norman G. Brett-James, the most egregious building offenses and those meeting with the harshest penalties were the attempts to build on new foundations. (12) Formerly open ground disappeared under new buildings, radically altering the topographic and social patterns of the city, and new buildings, eventually converted to tenements, provided housing for yet more people. Each new building, then, meant much more than the addition of one householder or the disappearance of a small section of open ground. More importantly, the influx of the gentry to London contributed to the exodus of the poor from the countryside and their relocation to London to find work and earn higher wages. (13) A.L. Beier identifies London's vagrant population from 1516 to 1625 as consisting overwhelmingly of young male apprentices, with servants accounting for "between 34 and 47 percent," in the three parishes he examined. (14) Masterless men, foreigners, and strangers represented yet another threat to those in power. Rapid changes to the city's built environment were visible reminders to the Crown and City officials of the influx of politically ambitious gentry and those who followed in their wake.
The number of buildings, the rent paid for them, and the demographics of those who lived in them provided a way not only for those in power to monitor and comprehend social, political, and economic change. Everyday Londoners also associated …