John Stow, Merchant Taylor and Historian

12 May 2021

On 19 April 2021 many of us enjoyed the Stow Lecture. This was delivered on Zoom by Professor Vanessa Harding of Birkbeck College, London University, who gave us a brief introduction to John Stow’s importance for the history of the City of London. The Lecture replaced the three-yearly Stow Ceremony, which had to be cancelled in 2020 because of Covid. The Ceremony involves replacing the quill pen in the hand of Stow’s marble memorial effigy in the church of St Andrew Undershaft.

The Ceremony is currently administered jointly by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society and the Company. It originated in the early years of the 20th century, and for many years was an annual event. The new quill pen used to be placed in Stow’s hand by the Lord Mayor. Today this duty is performed by the Master. 


Who was John Stow? In a nutshell, he was a Merchant Taylor and working tailor during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, with an interest in history. Self-taught, he assembled a magnificent collection of historical manuscripts and also published widely himself. His Chronicles and Annals of English history lie behind much of our understanding of the 15th and 16th centuries; his Survey of London, first published in 1598, was the first detailed study and description of an English city.

Stow was never Master of the Company. Indeed he never progressed beyond Freeman. Nor was he wealthy. In later life he had to be supported by others. He was not one of the City’s commercial elite. His fame rests entirely upon his historical writings. These were carried out more or less in isolation, and at the expense of his paid work as a tailor. Having little money, he travelled everywhere on foot when examining old buildings, or searching for historical records.

Stow died in London aged 80 on 5 April 1605 and was buried in St Andrew Undershaft. There he has a wonderful monument in marble (pictured below). This shows him seated at his desk, writing and surrounded by books. Above is the motto aut scribenda agere, aut legenda scribere ('Either do things worth writing about, or write things worth reading').

The main inscription says that the monument was paid for by his wife, but the family was not wealthy. Also, a tomb of this quality suggests a high degree of aesthetic awareness, and perhaps access to a carver of international repute. Few Lord Mayors have tombs as fine as this. The prominent heraldry of the Merchant Taylors' may also be significant. If the Company did not pay for the monument, and there is no evidence that it did, the tomb was surely designed and subsidised by Stow’s friends among the Court and Livery.

I shall now give more detail about this remarkable Merchant Taylor. Little of what follows is new. Much has been copied directly from Barrett Beer’s account of Stow in the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A briefer account is in Matthew Davies’ and Ann Saunders’ History of the Merchant Taylors' Company, 2004.

Stow’s background and family

Stow was born in the parish of St Michael Cornhill, London. The eldest of seven children of Thomas Stow (d. 1559), tallow-chandler, in a family of 'good substance and credit'. He married his wife Elizabeth (surname unknown) after 1549. Following his marriage, he lived near the well in Aldgate, between Leadenhall Street and Fenchurch Street, later moving to Lime Street ward, where he remained until his death.

Stow cannot be connected with any city school, nor did he study at a university or at the inns of court. Nevertheless, he wrote English with fluency and clarity, had a good command of Latin, and possessed an extraordinary knowledge of English history and literature. His education was acquired perhaps at a school without an established reputation or through self-study. Although not himself a university-educated Renaissance humanist scholar, he became acquainted with many such, including William Camden, and Archbishop Matthew Parker of Canterbury. They treated Stow as an equal.

From 1579 the Merchant Taylors' Company provided Stow with a pension of £4 per annum. This was doubled in 1593 through the generosity of Robert Dow (Master 1578 - his portrait hangs in the Court Room). In 1600 it was increased again, to £10 a year. In 1604 King James I issued Stow with a ‘licence to beg’. A copy of this licence exists in the British Library and is illustrated in Davies and Saunders’ History of the Company.

Stow’s published works

Stow's first publication, The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer, with Divers Addicions whiche were never in printe before, appeared in 1561. In 1568 he also edited a collection of 33 works of John Skelton. Late in life he published Certaine worthy manuscript poems of great antiquity preserved long in the studie of a Northfolke gentleman (1597). The book was dedicated to Edmund Spenser and included the 'Statelie Tragedy of Guistard and Sismond''The Northern Mother's Blessing', and 'The Way to Thrift'.

As well as literary editions, Stow compiled chronicles. During his lifetime he produced a total of 21 editions or issues of chronicles, making him the most prolific historical writer of the 16th century. His longer chronicles — the Chronicles of England (1580) and the Annales of England, first published in 1592, which were printed in quarto — provide detailed accounts of English history from the earliest times. They are continued down to the accession of James I in Stow's own last edition. His smaller summaries and abridgements offer cheaper, simplified ‘pocket’ guides to the English past. The first of these, and his first published chronicle, the Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles, appeared in 1565 and was subsequently extended and enlarged. His accounts of the reigns of Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-8) and Elizabeth (1558-1603) were based on his own records, on those provided by his friends and correspondents, and on personal experience. Over the years, Stow not only extended but made significant revisions to the chronicles. His assessment of a particular individual or event cannot be determined without consulting and comparing the different editions.

Stow also made significant contributions to the famous second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), the source of much of Shakespeare’s history plays. Stow regularly laid claim to this work, but Abraham Fleming is now regarded as the actual compiler.

The ‘Survey of London’

Stow's most famous work, the Survey of London, was first published in 1598. It has remained continuously in print. A topographical survey of the city and its suburbs, Stow drew on a wide range of classical and medieval historical literature and public and civic records, as well as upon his own intimate personal knowledge of the city. The reader travels with Stow through each of the city's wards and the adjoining city of Westminster, learns about the wall, bridges, gates, and parish churches of London, and peruses lists of mayors and sheriffs. We hear about the pageantry of the sixteenth-century city, such as the elaborate feast for serjeants-at-law at Ely Place in 1531 that lasted five days. Attended by the king and queen and foreign ambassadors, the abundance of food rivalled a coronation feast. Stow also notes the great buildings of London that symbolised its substantial wealth. For him the most beautiful houses in the city, or even in England, were in Goldsmiths' Row, on the south side of Cheapside between Bread Street and Wood Street, built in 1491:

Ten fair dwelling-houses and 14 shops... uniformly built four stories high, beautified toward the street with the Goldsmiths' arms… cast in lead, richly painted over and gilt.

But he also records the negative aspects of urban growth, in the shape of unsightly sprawl, filth, the destruction of ancient monuments, and above all poverty. He also shows us London changing, as in the famous passage about the Minories, where before the Reformation there had been a Nunnery of Poor Clares:

Near adjoining to this Abbey on the south side thereof was sometime a farm belonging to the said nunnery, at the which farm I myself in my youth have fetched many a halfpenny worth of milk, and never had less than three ale pints for a halfpenny in the summer, nor less than one ale quart for a halfpenny in the winter, always hot from the kine, as the same was milked and strained. One Trolop, and afterwards Goodman, were the farmers there, and had thirty or forty kine to the pail. Goodman’s son being heir let out the ground first for grazing of horse, and then for garden plots, and lived like a gentleman thereby.

In another passage, he reports the land-grab by Thomas Cromwell (another Merchant Taylor) from his neighbours in Throgmorton Street, including Stow’s own father, to enlarge the garden of his splendid new house. We may note in passing that the site of this same house is now Drapers’ Hall:

[The new] house being finished, and having some reasonable plot of ground left for a garden, he [Cromwell] caused the pales of the gardens adjoining to the north part thereof on a sudden to be taken down; twenty-two feet to be measured forth right into the north of every man’s ground; a line there to be drawn; a trench to be cast; a foundation laid; and a high brick wall to be built. My father had a garden there, and a house standing close to his south pale. This house they loosed from the ground, and bare upon rollers into my father’s garden twenty-two feet, ere my father heard thereof. No warning was given him, nor other answer, when he spake to the surveyors of that work, but that their master Sir Thomas commanded them so to do. No man durst go to argue the matter, but each man lost his land, and my father paid his whole rent for that half which was left. The sudden rising of some men causeth them to forget themselves.

Stow’s Survey is certainly thorough, but there are striking omissions; he took no interest in theatre, or in the plays of Shakespeare. But while William Camden's Britannia was written in Latin for the educated élite, Stow's Survey was composed in the language of his fellow countrymen.

Stow’s significance as a historian

Stow’s collection of manuscripts included chronicles, charters, ecclesiastical and municipal records, wills, literary works, and learned treatises. If he could not acquire the original, he sat down and copied out the whole thing, something almost inconceivable today. The Harley collection in the British Library contains the largest group of his manuscripts. Others are in the Bodleian Library, Lambeth Palace Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library and elsewhere. The Company itself possesses one medieval chronicle, copied out by Stow in his distinctive hand. This was purchased from the book trade in 1899.

Stow’s medieval manuscripts included the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris, the Gesta Regum of William of Malmesbury, and Gerald of Wales's Itinerary through Wales. He copied the long English version of the Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV in England, and thereby preserved it for posterity. Stow was also an avid collector of printed books, but no complete inventory has survived. After his death his collection was dispersed.

C. L. Kingsford published an edition of Stow's Survey in 1908 which has never been bettered. He argued that Stow was 'the first English historian to make systematic use of public records'. He was apparently the only English authority to record the attempted rescue of the sons of Edward IV from the Tower of London in 1483, in an account whose phrasing (in the Annales of England) suggests that he had seen official indictments that no longer exist. Kingsford concluded that through his use of public records, Stow did more to advance the study of 15th-century England than any other writer of his time.

Stow died in 1605, but his influence extended well into the 17th century through reprints and enlargements of his work. Edmund Howes published expanded editions of the chronicles in 1607, 1611, 1615, 1618, and 1631, while Anthony Munday (with the personal encouragement of Stow and some of his 'best collections') corrected and extended the Survey of London in 1618 and 1633. The most important later editions of the Survey are John Strype's expanded folio edition of 1720, and Kingsford's comprehensively annotated edition of the 1603 text, published in 1908. Both are available online.

Stow has traditionally been viewed — often with more than a hint of condescension — as an earnest, hard-working antiquarian, who produced highly accurate but old-fashioned works that were superseded by the humanist scholarship of university-educated intellectuals. The Survey of London is usually acknowledged to be his most enduring work because it offers a descriptive account of the capital during the Tudor period. The chronicles came to be regarded as less significant than the second edition of Holinshed because of the latter's connection with Shakespeare's history plays. In reality, as scholars increasingly recognise, Stow was the most productive historical writer of the 16th century. His chronicles were more widely read than those of any other historian of his era and, unlike Holinshed, covered the whole 16th century. As an eyewitness to events from the death of Henry VIII to the accession of James I, he provides important insights into the political and cultural life of his age from the perspective of an ordinary London citizen. He is also very readable. His Survey in particular is instantly accessible to the reader, even today.

Stephen Freeth
Company Archivist

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