The ruler of the London underworld in the 17th century was an actor, a thief, a fraudster, a folk hero—and a woman.

By Phil James

In the year 1611, the audience at London’s Fortune Playhouse were treated to an unusual sight. Across the river from the Globe Theater, where William Shakespeare was producing a play called The Tempest, audiences looking for cheaper fare gathered in the pit—standing room only—to banter on about the daily affairs of the city.

There were merchants who’d just sailed all the way to the nether regions of the known world to gather everything from spices to pigments to exotic game taken from ports in the Orient; there were gamblers rolling dice on the ground and at times on the proscenium arch of the stage itself; there were drunks, pickpockets, grifters and prostitutes, all seeking a small piece of the pie from the thousands pouring in from the countryside.

For the audience, the play was just a sideshow to a number of theatrics happening within the confines of the Fortune. The playhouse, built only a decade prior and made to be larger and sturdier than the “new-erected house called the Globe”, as its owner noted, was built for only £520, and its proprietor, Edward Alleyn, hoped to attract some of the playwriting talent trying to compete with William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

But the star of today’s matinee was not a man. Tall, broad-shouldered and as magnanimous as any big-ticket player, a woman known as Mary Frith—or Moll Cutpurse, as she was known on the streets, shocked and awed the Fortune audience by getting up on stage and joining in the performance. Dressed as a man, the audience couldn’t believe the Queen of the London underworld was doing something no woman had ever done before.

You see, Frith became one of the only women ever to appear on the Elizabethan stage. As one of the great forgotten anti-heroes of the era, Moll Cutpurse, or Mary Frith, or Long Meg—became a symbol of female empowerment and rebellion during the rise of one of the world’s great cities.

At around the time when William Shakespeare wrote his famous monologue from As You Like It — “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” — Frith was playing countless theatergoers at her own game.

***

To retrace the life of Mary Frith, we must dive into a vast criminal underworld that operated only a stone’s throw away from the center of a burgeoning empire. During the Elizabethan era, the time of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558–1603) and the continuing peace thereafter, London was the most populous metropolis in the world, and attracted merchants from the extended tendrils of various new trade routes.

London was ten times the size of any other city in England, and still growing. There were many reasons why so many converged upon the city, notwithstanding the famine and disease that recently struck the North of the country. In short, the opportunities to make a small fortune abounded. By the beginning of the 17th century, the supplementary population spilled over the river, outside the old gates, and established insular neighborhoods with their own economic structure. Right across the Thames River emerged a black market.

Just as big cities host an innumerable amount of freelancers today (and arguably an rapidly expanding freelance economy), London unwittingly became the center of a major human experiment, one that lead to the rise of immortalized artists such as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe. London also fostered one of the largest centers of prostitution in the Western World at that time, not to mention a thriving shadow economy that dealt with everything from illicit resale to basic street peddling. Unencumbered by social mores, women comprised a large portion of this underclass.

It’s not clear when Mary Frith left her father’s shoemaking business to become a thief, but what is known is that she planted her feet in the illicit London underworld from a very young age. But to call Frith’s London an ‘underworld’ is a bit of an overstatement, as much of the criminal activity occurred in plain sight. For the nobility living in large houses by the Strand, crossing the Thames towards Southwark was like entering another world, one of bacchanalian indulgence in the form of gambling houses, brothels and bowling alleys. There were also playhouses hosting some of the finest theater ever conjured up by the human mind.

At this time, the London playhouses were a gathering place for both the upper and lower classes. But while England’s finest thespians—all of whom were male—entranced the audiences, thieves would often lurk around the pit to pick pockets or steal purses while one’s eyes were fixed upon the stage. The great irony of the thievery is that most patrons were wary of criminals going after their loot, so the perps needed to be skillful actors to convince fellow audience members that they were innocent bystanders themselves.

With so many migrating to London in search of fortune, desperation forced many to cling to the city’s impoverished underbelly. But that’s not to say the London Underworld was anarchistic. In fact, the organizational capabilities of some of the criminal enterprises, as well as its unique lingua franca, were nothing short of astounding. Not only did they have their own police force and their own civilized meetings, but they even set up schools to teach professional swindling.

The Fortune Playhouse in London

The Fortune Playhouse in London

The majority of the criminals in the industry were known as cutpurses, or conycatchers (cony is an archaic term for rabbits), who engaged in intricate forms of pickpocketing that would fool visitors and foreign merchants. One type of theft, the nip and foist, often involved men and women working together to ease a nobleman into a false sense of security.

They would take the visitors out across the Thames to watch some of the finest entertainment London had to offer, be it bowling alleys, bear-baiting rings or the theater. From there, the thieves would conspire with bar owners, prostitutes and other thieves to take all the money they could before disappearing.

Their foray into the seedier parts of the city likely lead them to Mary Frith, who was already a successful criminal by her late 20’s. As with many other criminals, Frith was no stranger to the playhouse.

There is evidence that women operated more frequently within the shadow economy based around the theaters. As a known broker of stolen goods, Frith must have eventually encountered Prince Henry’s Men, the primary group of players at the Fortune Theater.

Men and women engaged in commerce around the local theaters, but women were the primary beneficiaries of loans and most of the pawn accounts in the area were owned by women, according to records collected by the owner of the Fortune Playhouse. Their ruler was not a monarch, but money. And it’s in this world that Frith and many other women would thrive.

***

Of course, to keep the wealth pouring into the capital, the city needed to advise its visitors on how to protect themselves from the professional criminals that lurked the streets. So they sought out those who knew both sides of society best—the playwrights—to publish street pamphlets warning against the dark arts of the thieving class.

They hired Thomas Dekker, the son of Dutch immigrants and a rising star in the industry, to publish broadsides, a type of pamphlet printed and sold for little money, to warn tourists of the city’s criminal element. As a playwright, he spent his early years feuding against Ben Jonson in the so-called “War of the Poets”, where he produced biting satires of him and his work.

But Dekker was also an astute observer of the lower classes, and addressed the challenges of poverty, prostitution, crime and violence in ways no English writer would do until Charles Dickens. One of his plays, A Strange Horse-Race, deals with illicit gambling; another, with a non-profit hospital (The Wonder of a Kingdom). He even wrote a play about the leisurely practice of bear-baiting (More Work for Armourers), something we can only find today in the Game of Thrones universe.

Dekker met Thomas Middleton around 1604, and they would produce relatively successful theater together for almost a decade. A college dropout, Middleton was forced to move to London during his mother’s legal battles with an impoverished explorer who sought her estate. Forced to sell his part of his inheritance to survive, he sought refuge in the theater and eventually began writing his own plays. In under two decades, he succeeded in becoming “The Chronicler of the Citty of London”, a kind of poet laureate administered by the city. Like Dekker, his plays were dark and dealt with oft-ignored troubles in society.

Today, he’s remembered for penning complex female characters, notably women rejected by society. It’s worth noting that The Roaring Girl, the play that Middleton and Dekker wrote together, opened only a few months before another iconic female character, Lady Macbeth, would first appear onstage.

***

Frith is known today because of several fictionalized biographies, novels based on her life, as well as a couple of comedies in which she is featured. Perhaps the most famous of these was called The Roaring Girl. The play is about a highborn couple who want to marry but can’t get the approval of their fathers, so Sebastian, the main male character, pretends to fall in love with Moll (Mary). The couple believes that this will disgust the fathers enough to approve the original marriage proposal.

While The Roaring Girl’s plot is conventional at best, Moll-the-character is not. In fact, on the original woodcut title page of the play, Moll wears men’s clothing while holding a rapier and smoking a pipe. For all of Shakespeare’s dalliances with women disguised as men—think Viola in Twelfth Night or Rosalind in As You like It—Dekker and Middleton seemed to care little about subtlety. You don’t exactly need Freud to see what they’re trying to say.

But what is most intriguing about the title page is the inscription beneath the image: “My case is alter’d,” it reads. “I must worke for my living.” What exactly her “case” is remains a mystery, but Dekker and Middleton were likely making an elaborate pun. For one, “case” could mean her situation, as in a court case; secondly, it could also mean her physical statethe archaic expression “in good case” described being in good health. And thirdly, “case” could have a yonic connotation, as in, a genital alteration.

We do know that London’s authorities viewed her manner and style of dress as repulsive. When they arrested Frith, they deemed her men’s clothing to be to “the disgrace of all womanhood”, and tried to be make her confess to a number of infidelities, including prostitution. But while she confessed to pickpocketing, public intoxication and even blasphemy, she vehemently denied that she had engaged in whoredom.

The Frontispiece for Dekker and Middleton's "Roaring Girl"

The Frontispiece for Dekker and Middleton’s “Roaring Girl”

Apparently, Dekker and Middleton portrayed the real Moll Cutpurse quite accurately. When Moll-the-character challenges a man to a duel, she addresses his nascent misogyny with a sharp-witted invective:

thou art one of those,

That thinks each woman thy fond flexible whore:

If she but casts a liberal eye upon thee,

Turns back her head, she’s thine;

What we also know is that London hosted a minor “battle of the sexes” during the era. The  ‘Roaring Girl’ designation derived from a subculture that combined aspects of extravagant fashion and overbearing machismo. “Roaring Boys”, as they were called, were early incarnations of the punk, and in some respects, the hipster. Loud, boisterous but stylish, “roaring boys” best described the rambunctiousness of the playwrights and their followers during the Elizabethan era, who celebrated with infamous parties and binge drinking.

But what some historical documents suggest is that a movement that was once drowned in boisterous testosterone was not just copied but also taken over by women in London. It’s difficult to pinpoint what characteristics were adopted by women at the time, but what’s known for certain is that it became so popular that King James himself ordered women to stop wearing “brode brimd hats” and “pointed doublets” (The kind of long sleeve shirt William Shakespeare wore in his portraits), according to John Chamberlain, a writer from the era. The king also told them to stop cutting their hair short.

The performance of The Roaring Girl was not without its controversies. As with any fringe act introduced into the mainstream, it was bound to raise a few eyebrows among the authorities concentrated around the center of London. But one particular performance—recorded in the books of the religious authorities—immortalized a telling break of the fourth wall.

The ecclesiastical court, the religious police that monitored the theatrical performance, depicted the scene in great detail. At first, they described that she was a part of the usual lot of miscreants that frequented the tenements for thievery and gambling, but then they went on to talk about how she not only appeared on stage, but how she disguised herself as a male character in the play about her.

“She told the company then present yt she thought many of them were of opinion that she was a man,” stated the court’s Correction Book. But not to be outdone by their presence, she also “sat upon the stage in the public viewe of all the people there presente in man’s apparel & played upon her lute and sange a song”, an act made made more extraordinary by the fact that there is virtually no evidence of any other woman previously appearing on stage in the major London theaters.

So the court suspended the performances at the theater and soon arrested Frith. But not only because of the play’s message, but because of its audience which, according to the suppressing order, included “divers cutt-purses and other lewde and ill disposed persons in greate multitudes”.

But of course, Frith’s mischief didn’t end on the stage. When summoned to St.Paul’s Cross— the ground upon which today stands the cathedral of the same name—to pay repentance, she supposedly cried and convinced the clergy that she was sorry. But it didn’t take long until they noticed that she was drunk out of her mind.

***

What one character in the play says, in a monologue teeming with self-awareness, suggests that the convergence of such diverse aspects of humanity within one place is cause for celebration and not condemnation: “Stories of men and women, mixed together/Fair ones with foul, like sunshine in wet weather -“, says the haughty noble Sir Alexander Wengrave.

It’s surprising that Mary Frith is not as well-known as Shakespeare’s iconic characters of the Globe, especially since the period is now considered a golden age for the Arts in England.In the 1980’s, Frith briefly reappeared as an icon of second-wave feminism, and was even the subject of a novel by Ellen Galford, who is known as one of the forerunners of the lesbian fiction movement.

But of course, Dekker and Middleton are not Shakespeare. T.S. Eliot, who read endlessly, recognized the failures of the play to live up to the Bard’s, but nevertheless tipped his cap to the unforgettable character they created:

“The Roaring Girl is as artificial as any comedy of the time,” he said. “[Its} plot creaks loudly; yet the Girl herself is always real. She may rant, she may behave preposterously, but she remains a type of the sort of woman who has renounced all happiness for herself and who lives only for a principle.”

The importance of Frith as a criminal is far less important than the notion that women may have held more power than was assumed by the more powerful classes in London at the time. It’s one thing to have been a woman in power at the time—after all, Queen Elizabeth is  today one of the most celebrated matriarchs in English history. But what makes Frith so extraordinary is that she held a position of power regardless of the society that rejected her for her gender.

Phil James is the founder of Qwiklit and a masters’ student at the University of California, Berkeley. @philjames_ // @qwiklit

2 thoughts on “The ruler of the London underworld in the 17th century was an actor, a thief, a fraudster, a folk hero—and a woman.

  1. Pingback: William Lilly en de sterrenfluisteraars | KritischeMassa·Be

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