It is convenient for historians to conceive of history in neat discrete categories, but all too often that approach both obscures continuities and suggests that events are less brutally random than they are. There are, for instance, many ways of writing about the influence of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries on Elizabethan drama, from the survival of catholic ritual culture to the routes and routines of the traveling players. Indeed, two of the principal London playhouses – the Theatre in Shoreditch and the Blackfriars – were built in the former precincts of religious houses.
But some connections are more direct yet.
For all that Tudor London was dominated by the solidity, tradition and history that churches represented, it was also a city in transition. Henry VIII’s Reformation had ruined the great religious houses of England, and London suffered no less than the rest of the country. In 1536, there had been 12 monasteries in and around London, including the Benedictine order at St Helens in Bishopsgate and the Augustinians outside the walls to the north, at Holywell Priory in Shoreditch. There were twelve principal houses of friars in London, too, among them the Carmelites at Whitefriars and Dominicans at Blackfriars – and many smaller houses, together with 25 major hospitals under the auspices of the old religious orders and again innumerable minor ones.
That was, of course, not in Shakespeare’s lifetime and barely in that of his father, John, who was probably born in 1530. Fifty-odd years on from the dissolution, the institutions and social structures that they supported – including care for the poor and the sick – were indeed long gone: they had disappeared with such speed that the Lord Mayor in 1537-8, Sir Richard Gresham, who lived in Milk Street, had pleaded for some hospital buildings and churches to be spared, because without them Londoners simply didn’t have enough of either.
The shock waves through the social order that the dissolution unleashed were certainly still being felt at the end of the century: more explicit social controls, such as the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, were required to deal with the fallout, using the judicial system to deal with problems such as poverty, incapacity and mental illness that had hitherto been accommodated, if not necessarily addressed, by the old religious orders.
The buildings themselves proved less tractable. Certainly some were destroyed; but it is far from clear how clean or complete the destruction was. The reality was most likely somewhat messier, with the impact of the Reformation painfully and plentifully visible across the city in broken walls and ruined cloisters, newly open spaces, building sites and smart new houses abutting the boundaries of the old and unhoused orders.