Open City: London, 1500–1700-Folger Shakespeare Library
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Open City: London, 1500–1700

On Exhibit June 5–September 30, 2012
Press Contacts:
Amy Arden
(202) 675-0326

Garland Scott
(202) 675-0342

(Washington, DC)  In the two centuries between 1500 and 1700, London transformed from a medieval capital to an early modern metropolis. The city also underwent an unprecedented series of catastrophes and natural disasters: deadly plagues, religious disputes, civil wars, the Great Fire, the overthrow of Charles I, and economic upheaval. Yet rather than diminishing London, these events ushered in an era in which London wielded global influence as the seat of the emerging British Empire


Open City: London, 1500-1700 explores the dramatic political, religious, and economic changes that reshaped London, from the dissolution of the monasteries to the rebuilding of the city after the Great Fire. Through three important gatherings places—churches, theaters, and markets—Open City examines how Londoners formed communities, negotiated social hierarchies, and understood their places in the world.  


In addition to affecting life in the early modern period, many changes have ongoing impact. “All of these changes—to economic competition, to capital, to religion not being imposed by the state, to reigning in the power of monarchs—are changes that have defined our world today,” exhibition curator Kathleen Lynch said.


Lynch cites several examples of major changes that occurred during these two centuries that continue to affect life today, noting that by the end of the 17th century, the Church of England was no longer a state church, English rulers had agreed to a Bill of Rights limiting their powers, and increases in overseas colonization coupled with influxes of immigration carried economic and social impact. 


“So much of the way we operate in Western democracies is due to the rules of the game established in this period,” Lynch noted.


Even for those who have never been there, London is familiar.

“People are interested in London, especially now with events such as the recent royal wedding and the upcoming Olympics. We feel a kinship to the city because of our shared history,” curator Betsy Walsh said. 


In these two crucial centuries, London was home to figures who are now household names: famous monarchs like Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I; extraordinary dramatists such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson; and architects Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, whose works can still be seen today.  


“This was a defining period of change in London’s history, when London moved from the periphery of Europe more to the center of world trade and world networks,” Lynch said.


Maps offer a unique window into London’s metamorphosis, depicting changes inside the city as well as London’s deepening connections with the rest of the world.

“In the early maps we see most of the development clustered within the medieval city walls, with large green spaces outside of the city proper.  Later maps, document the rapid expansion of the city beyond the wall,” explained Walsh. 


Using information from a variety of sources, Open City charts the wide-ranging changes wrought by new ideas, products, and people moving through its dynamic public spaces: churches, theaters, and markets.


Exhibition Highlights


Open City features maps, diaries, letters, drawings, and other documents relating to London in the years between 1500 and 1700. The exhibition includes nearly 100 items drawn entirely from the Folger collection.


Highlights include:

  • Broadening horizons. This panoramic view of London by Wenceslaus Hollar shows a rapidly growing city; two decades later, many of the buildings depicted in the etching were destroyed by the Great Fire. 
  • Rank and file. A chart showing the pew assignments of members of a London church offers a fascinating glimpse into social hierarchies and organized religion.
  • Map quest. Maps from the period show London’s changing cityscape, as many former religious sites are repurposed and open spaces are gradually overtaken by urban development.
  • Casualty lists.  Records of plague victims, as well as those who died from other causes, are sobering reminders of the devastating effects of disease in an era before modern medicine.
  • Shakespeare’s townhouse. The deed to a London townhouse purchased by William Shakespeare in Blackfrairs, the site of a former monastery, shows how locations often transitioned between religious and secular uses.   

Open City brings the dynamic world of London on the cusp of the modern era to life. Through eyewitness accounts and other documentary sources, the exhibition offers on-the-ground testimony about what people experienced during the transformation of one of the world’s leading cities.

About the Curators

Kathleen Lynch is Executive Director of the Folger Institute, where she is responsible for organizing the seminars, workshops, and other formal programs for scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her research interests include the intertwined histories of regulations of religion and the book trade. Her book, Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World, was recently published by Oxford University Press.


Elizabeth (Betsy) Walsh joined the Folger Library staff in 1974 and is currently Head of Reader Services. She has been a contributor to Shakespeare Magazine, and has served as a curator and consultant for a number of Folger exhibitions including The Reader Revealed (2001), Voices for Tolerance (2004) and Breaking News (2008).


Related Programs

Exhibition Viewing and Lecture Series
Join us for a series of informal lectures on life in London during the early modern period, as well as special after-hours opportunities for viewing the exhibition.


St. Paul’s Cathedral Before Christopher Wren
June 18
St. Paul’s Cathedral is the City of London’s most important monument and historic building. Dr. John Schofield, the Cathedral Archaeologist for St. Paul’s Cathedral, will discuss how recent archaeological and historical research is now reconstructing the pre-Wren medieval cathedral, which was likely the largest building in medieval Britain and one of the largest in Europe. A reception and exhibition viewing follow.
Hours: Monday at 7pm
Tickets: Free. Advance reservations preferred at

Blackfriars: “The Most Convenient Place”
Monday, July 9
Before it became synonymous with a theater, Blackfriars was a London precinct literally at the nexus of the City, the Church, and the Court. Its’ ideal location at the intersection of London’s two rivers and close proximity to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Inns of Court made it prime real estate for the rich, while its status as a “liberty” of the city and a sanctuary from authority made it a favorite haunt of London’s non-conformists. Ralph Alan Cohen of the American Shakespeare Center discusses Blackfriars as the place to be and the place to be seen.
Hours: Monday at 7pm
Tickets: Free. Advance reservations preferred at


Readings from The Roaring Girl
Monday, July 30
Actors from Washington, DC’s Taffety Punk Theatre Company present a staged dramatic reading of excerpts of The Roaring Girl, a bold, brilliant play by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. The play was first produced in 1611 and was restaged famously in the 1980s by the Royal Shakespeare Company. David Schalkwyk, Folger’s Director of Research, talks about why this “city comedy” reveals so much about Jacobean London.
Hours: Monday at 7pm
Tickets: Free. Advance reservations preferred at


September 27– 29

Folger Institute
Early Modern Cities in Comparative Perspective
Complementing the Folger exhibition Open City: London, 1500-1700, this academic conference includes a case study of London and its scientific communities, as well as speakers on public ceremonies, intellectual communities, the book trade, and economics. 
Registration Fee: $75


September 28–30

Folger Consort
London: Music from the City of Shakespeare
Hear the wealth of dances, consort lessons, and ayres that flourished as London transformed into a modern city. 
Hours: Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 5pm and 8pm, Sunday at 2pm
Tickets: $37


Online Resources

Visit for anonline version of Open City, including a mobile tour app, images, an audio tour, and related information. 


* * * * *


About Folger Shakespeare Library


Folger Shakespeare Library is a world-class center for scholarship, learning, culture, and the arts. It is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500–1750). Folger Shakespeare Library is an internationally recognized research library offering advanced scholarly programs in the humanities; an innovator in the preservation of rare materials; a national leader in how Shakespeare is taught in grades K–12; and an award-winning producer of cultural and arts programs—theater, music, poetry, exhibitions, lectures, and family programs. By promoting understanding of Shakespeare and his world, Folger Shakespeare Library reminds us of the enduring influence of his works, the formative effects of the Renaissance on our own time, and the power of the written and spoken word. A gift to the American people from industrialist Henry Clay Folger, the Folger Shakespeare Library—located one block east of the U.S. Capitol—opened in 1932. Learn more at


Press release issued on May 21, 2012.
Related Folger Events:
LONDON: Music from the City of Shakespeare   

Press may request images online.
For public and scholarly use, please contact the
Folger photography department.
London, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Hand-colored engraving, 1574.

Wenceslaus Hollar. Byrsa Londinensis vulgo the Royal Exchange. Etching, ca. 1644

Wenceslaus Hollar. Winter. Etching, 1643

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