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Westward, Ho: The Development of Covent Garden

The relatively open space between London and Westminster became an increasingly attractive draw for high-end residential development. Those who could afford it headed west to escape the crowded and fetid streets of the city for fresher air and water. Francis Russell, fourth earl of Bedford, had come into control of the old convent garden that had supplied produce to Westminster Abbey. With advice from architect Inigo Jones, the earl built an upscale town square to cater to London’s aristocratic classes and courtiers. It became known as Covent Garden. The theaters followed. So did all the religious and political tensions of the capital city.

Howell. Londinopolis. London, 1657

Hollar. Piazza in Covent Garden. London, 1645–50

Brome. Five new playes. London, 1659

City of London. Orders... concerning the infection of the plague. London, 1646

Henry Herbert. Letter to Mr. Michaell Mohan. Manuscript, 13 October 1660

D’Avenant. The cruelty of the Spaniards in Peru. London, 1658

John Ferrers. Letter to Thomas Parker. Manuscript, 15 April 1682

In James Howell's updated version of John Stow’s Survey of London, Covent Garden is briefly introduced: its background as gardens for the convent at Westminster, the continental influence on Inigo Jones’s Italianate piazza, the arcaded walkways, and even the contested jurisdiction over its small church, one of the first Protestant churches built in London. Within the boundaries of the parish of St. Martin in the Fields, St. Paul’s church had been funded by the earl of Bedford, who fought against the diocese for the right to appoint a nonconformist minister.


Wenceslaus Hollar's engraving of the piazza in Covent Garden lacks its famous covered produce market. That is because commerce was actively discouraged. Inigo Jones’s piazza was a large open space intended for the enjoyment of its leisured upper class residents. The columned church portico and the arcades visible to the far right hint at his plan to surround the piazza with protected, paved walkways. Such innovations attracted aristocrats like Sir Edmund Verney, the first of the “Persons of the greatest Distinction” to sign a lease.


Despite the beauty of such architecture, not everyone was a fan of the “urban sprawl” filling up much of the remaining open space around London. Richard Brome’s play, The Weeding of Covent Garden, was probably first produced at Blackfriars just as ground was breaking on the real estate development in the early 1630s. It satirizes the growth of capitalism as reflected in such development and land speculation. The play’s character Rookbill, an architect, specifically targets architect Inigo Jones and his grand designs, but the play also capitalizes on the buzz about this innovative residential square.


The newer suburbs like Covent Garden were not immune from the “general contagion” of the plague. As in the city proper, every parish in the surrounding liberties and the city of Westminster had to establish watchmen, mark the houses of the sick, and prevent day-time burials in a coordinated effort against an outbreak of the plague. Although many had moved west to escape them, the filth and disease of the city followed.


Because it was outside the city proper, the west end became another popular place for public theaters. One of these, the Cockpit Theater was converted from a cock-fighting arena. Reopening in 1617 after a devastating fire that gave it another name,

the Phoenix, this was the first theater in London’s west end. When theaters reopened after the Restoration, Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, sent an official demand to the actors that the ticket prices be lowered (to the rates “as were formerly taken at the Black-fryers”) and a stern reminder that he still had the authority to censor “prophanes and Ribaldry” in the theater.


The playwright Sir William D’Avenant ensured a measure of continuity in English theatrical traditions. But at the Cockpit, he also introduced new conventions in scenic design and, especially, music. With the tacit permission of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, and before the London theaters officially reopened, D’Avenant presented an operatic take on the favorite English theme of Spanish cruelty. The inclusion in this play of an English army of liberation for the enslaved Peruvians had to be explained in a note as a prophetic “vision,” or poetic license.


The upscale suburbs were not immune to politics, either. A letter from John Ferrers, written during the tense years of the “Exclusion Crisis,” when parliament voted to

exclude the future King James II from the royal succession because he was a Catholic, describes several bonfires that raged in the city one night. As might be expected in an aristocratic neighborhood, an anti-parliamentary fire was set in Covent Garden. But not all aristocrats supported the king. The next year, Lord William Russell, grandson of the earl who built Covent Garden, was implicated in an anti-royalist plot, and executed.

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