100:  Of Citie Cats and Conies

There came the day when I resolved to pass beyond the citie wall, come what may.

A large three-storey brick building, built over an archway with a portcullis.
Ludgate, from a drawing c1650 via Wikimedia Commons. It probably looked much the same when Tricks saw it in 1598.

I sat above the street that led to the gate, watching people trudge below me.  Then I heard a man commanding all to make way.

They did, but with sour looks.

Behind the man walked four harnessed horses.  They drew one of those new-fangle carts that fine folks call a coach.  Another man sat on the coach, holding their reins.

I sprang onto its roof, and lay flat as a flounder.  I hearked women’s voices within – a lady and her gentlewoman, I guessed – but none heeded me.

Once through the gate and over the Bridge of Stinks [the Fleet bridge], I glimpsed a second great gate ahead.  And was vexed, for none had told me of it.

Which was the gate by the inns for skollers of the law?  The gate that Essex’ House lay near?

I was wearie of gates.  And small enough, most like, to slip beneath a shut one.

So I sprang from the coach and hid myself in a churchyard, there to wait until the road was clear.  I caught a coney [rabbit] for my supper.

After I’d ate, two starvelings slipped from the shadows and fell upon my leavings.

“Eat, and welcome, friends,” sayt I.  “Pray tell me, is that great house yonder for skollers of the law?”

They gave me saucie looks.

“Sure,” sayt one, “they’re studious in there.”

The other sayt, “They leave that house more cunning than they was when they came in.”

I was about to offer thanks, when the first sayt, “Pray forgive us, friend.  We took you for a cat.”

“But now we know you’re a coney of another kind,” sayt the second.

Each snapped a last morsel of my rabbit, and skipped away.

I followed them, but turned westward across the rooves.  When I came among tall trees I arrkst myself, Is this where Essex dwells?

An orange, black and white cat standing on a tiled roof against a background of trees.

But, so nigh to the river and far from the road, I had no hope of finding any marks left by little dog Wattie.

Then I saw another cat watching me, peaceable enough.  He turned his head aside when I eyed him.

I took his scents.  Never had I nosed so many coming off one cat!  Nutmeg, pepper, cloves; no end of costly spices.  Then parsley, sage, and rue.  Mixed with other herbs and roots I knew, but couldn’t name.

He was as perfumed as a pomander.

He’d took my scents, too.  He arrkst me, sudden, where I’d caught the coney.

“By the citie gate,” sayt I, most courteous.  “And I hope I robbed none by so doing.  In truth, I offered the choicer parts to two lean sisters who came by.  But I fear hunger stole their wits, for they spake in riddles.  And called me coney, too.”

“Picker and Stealer, they call theirselves,” sayt he.  “They haunt the prison, and learn wicked talk there.”

The prison?

“Then where,” I arrkst, “is the Earl of Essex’ house?”

He stepped from our tree onto the wall at the river’s edge.  “There,” he sayt.  “See the torch that lights his stairs?  But I believe all places in his house are taken.  Who would not serve Essex?”

“I seek no place,” sayt I (untruthful). “I’m in the service of my lord of Southampton.”

“What?” cried he, starting up.  “Is his lordship come?  When shall they be wed?”

“Can no London cat speak plain?” I arrkst.  “When shall who be wed?”

“Why, your Earl and his fair mistress that’s cousin to noble Essex.  She has a kit in her belly.”

He seemed about to say more, but there came a fearful howl.

I looked down to see a great cat whose scars and scabs bore witness to many a bloodie fray, then up to see my new friend flee.

I followed him.  We ran along the wall beside the dark river.

“That villain can’t catch us now,” sayt my friend, pausing to rest.  “He’s too old and slow.”

I sat beside him.

He sayt, “Yonder lies the prison, where nimble cats can cross into the citie.  Picker and Stealer showed me the way.”

Below me the dark water licked at another set of stairs.  Above, the Queen Cat of Heaven’s myriad eyes dimmed themselves against the coming day.

And, mazed as I was by all I’d seen and heared that night, I knew I loved this citie.


Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorLike many an impatient traveller, Tricks alights from the coach too soon.  She should have stayed until it passed through Temple Bar, where Fleet Street became The Strand.  Then she could have disembarked in front of Essex House.

Instead she mistook the prison of Bridewell for an Inn of Court, to the delight of Picker and Stealer.  “Coney” was an Elizabethan term for any gullible soul who could be easily caught, i.e. conned.

A pen and ink drawing of a female rabbit and a male rabbit in Elizabethan dress.Or, as we might say, a dumb bunny.

Small booklets, purportedly written to warn respectable folk about the wiles of coney-catchers, were popular and entertaining reading.

There was no Embankment in those days.  The mansions by the river had their own “stairs” – steps down to private jetties.

Tricks’ fragrant friend seems to have known a way onto Bridewell’s wall and then its roof.  Bridewell had been one of Henry VIII’s palaces, and later an ambassador’s residence.  In the 1550s it was given to the city to serve as an orphanage, house of correction for disorderly women, and later a workhouse for vagrants.

During Bridewell’s better days, a covered corridor had been built over the River Fleet to give access to additional lodgings in Blackfriars.  If this corridor was still in existence in 1598, the cats may have used its roof as a bridge.

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12 thoughts on “100:  Of Citie Cats and Conies

  1. April Munday August 18, 2017 / 12:24 am

    I worked in Blackfriars for a while. I didn’t know Essex House was round there. I went into St Bride’s a couple of times. You can see bits of Roman wall there. The Great Fire and the last war between them destroyed much that was old.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 18, 2017 / 1:02 am

      Essex House wasn’t that close to Blackfriars; it would have been just east of St Clement Danes, where Essex Street and Devereux Court now are. But only just in Westminster. I have a lot of fun with this map http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/agas.htm but copyright prevents me from using sections of it in my blog. I’m glad that the plan to change the layout of London’s streets as part of the post-Great Fire rebuild didn’t go ahead, or old London would be even more difficult to find than it is now.

      Like

    • April Munday August 18, 2017 / 4:10 am

      That’s a great map. I love that everything north of Holborne is countryside.

      I worked in Salisbury Square, which is down the 2nd turning left after the Fleet Bridge heading west. It’s less that 10 minutes on foot to Essex Street.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 18, 2017 / 8:47 am

      Ah! Salisbury Square must be named for Salisbury House. And Southampton House sat in semi-rural splendour in the vicinity of the British Museum.
      I’m addicted to that map.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. colonialist August 18, 2017 / 9:08 am

    Amazing that he likes the city in spite of Picker and Stealer and the nasty old tom.
    So the E of S has got his mistress kitted out the wrong way, has he?

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 18, 2017 / 4:21 pm

      I think she’s enjoying that mix of bewilderment, fear, and excitement that intrepid travellers have.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rachel McAlpine August 20, 2017 / 3:50 pm

    I hear her voice! Suddenly with the last sentence I know her and share her feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. chattykerry August 22, 2017 / 8:23 am

    I love your phraseology – as flat as a flounder and perfumed as a pomander! So evocative. My mum had a coney fur coat back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 22, 2017 / 9:16 am

      Yes – I remember hearing about coney fur coats, too.

      Like

  5. dornahainds August 23, 2017 / 3:25 am

    Loved the history of Old English. The way you Coney the scenes make me feel like I am actually there in that moment. 🥀🥀🥀🥀😎

    Liked by 1 person

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