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Biography of John Stow (1525–1605)

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In the introduction to his 1971 critical edition of A Survey of London, Charles Lethbridge Kingsford alludes to Stow’s description of himself as the first painful searcher into the reverend antiquities of London and also describes Stow as a citizen of long descent (1.vii). Stow’s grandfather, Thomas Stow, was a Tallow Chandler who was prosperous enough to leave to his son, also named Thomas Stow, £20 and the family business.
John Stow was the eldest of seven children. His memories of his childhood are replete with the names of the streets and sites in the area in which he was raised. His ancestors were buried at St. Michael, Cornhill. Stow’s grandfather and father in turn both supplied this church with lamp oil and candles (Kingsford 1.vii). His father lived on Throgmorton Street near the modern Drapers’ Hall where the younger Stow saw his father’s garden [. . .] encroached for the making of Thomas Cromwell’s pleasure-grounds (Kingsford 1.viii). Stow’s numerous written representations of charitable acts may stem from his childhood memories of seeing two hundred people served bread, meat and drink every day at Cromwell’s gate. Other memories include fetching many a halfpennyworth of milk hot from the kine in Goodman’s Fields (Kingsford 1.viii).
Stow never mentions his education, but Kingsford concludes that it must have been tolerable for his time and station. However, [Stow’s] description of how in his youth he had yearly seen on the eve of St. Bartholomew the scholars of divers grammar-schools repair unto the church yard of St. Bartholomew hardly suggests that he took part in their exercises (Kingsford 1.viii). Stow did not take up his family’s business, but rather apprenticed and was admitted to the Merchant Taylors’ Company in 1547. He was a working tailor for almost thirty years (Kingsford 1.viii). He was a member of the Yeomanry of the Company [. . .], but was never admitted to the Livery (Pearl v). His home and business were by the well within Aldgate between Leadenhall and Fenchurch Street (Kingsford 1.viii). According to Kingsford, Stow must have prospered fairly [. . . because] he took his brother Thomas to be his apprentice (1.viii-ix) and had enough money to purchase an assortment of manuscripts and books.
Over the next fifteen years, he appears to have educated himself in Latin, poetry, and the antiquities (Kingsford 1.ix). His first publication in 1561 was The workes of Geffrey Chaucer, newly printed, with divers addicions whiche were never in printe before (STC 5076). Subsequent publications included the Chronicles of England (STC 23333) in 1580 and the Annales of England (STC 23334) in 1592. A Survey of London was published in 1598 (STC 23341) and a second, longer edition in 1603 (STC 23343). Anthony Munday published expanded editions in 1618 and 1633. John Strype published a folio edition in 1720 (Beer). For more information on the printing history of A Survey, see the forthcoming essay by Paisley Mann, to be published on this site.
For many years prior to publishing A Survey of London, Stow had an ongoing dispute with Richard Grafton, the author of Abridgement of the Chronicles of England. They criticized each other’s work and Stow, though lauded as the better chronicler, seemed unable to let go of his grievances against Grafton (Kingsford 1.xii). Kingsford suggests that, as a self-taught man, he was jealous of the more educated chroniclers of his time (1.xii).
Kingsford also proposes that this rivalry may have been exacerbated by trouble in Stow’s personal life stating that his literary pursuits may have put him out of sympathy with his commercial kinsfolk and that there may have been some religious difference, for John was inclined to favour old beliefs, whilst his mother appears to have been Protestant (1.xiii). The family discord seems to have reached its climax when Stow, critical of his brother’s ill-advised marriage, called Thomas’s wife a harlot. On hearing this, Thomas convinced his mother to change her will. She decided to leave Stow only £5 when the other children received £10. Stow urged his mother to reinstate his share and is said to have appealed, I wax old and decay in my occupation and have a great charge of children, and a wife that can neither get nor save (1.xv). His mother died without making the change. Kingsford suggests the sensational details of the family dispute are of the greatest value for the light [. . . they shed] on other incidents in Stow’s career, and for its explanations of some allusions in his writings (1.xv).
In 1569, Stow was implicated in the circulation of a manifesto published by the Spanish ambassador against Elizabeth I (Beer). Stow admitted that he had been lent two copies and had made one for himself, but he was not circulating them publicly. He was not charged. Circumstances suggest that his brother may have been the informant. This incident may also have led to Stow [. . . being] reported to the Queen’s Council for having many “dangerous books of superstition (1.xvi) and the subsequent search of his house. Although Stow’s collection included a diverse range of subject matter only a small portion were described by the searchers as phantasticall popishe bokes. Nevertheless, the report concluded, his bokes declare him to be a great favourer of papistrye (qtd. in Kingsford 1.xvii).
Though the Privy Council did not pursue the matter any further, Stow never seemed able to pardon anyone who had grieved him. According to Kingsford, he never ignored an opportunity to reveal an error in his former rival Grafton’s work or to point [. . .out] the moral of his brother’s inequity (1.xviii). For example, A Survey includes an account of a false accuser of his elder brother [. . .] hanged (1.xix) for his dishonesty. Kingsford proposes that Stow’s excessive bitterness was a manifestation of the real danger of being suspected of popish inclinations (1.xix). In turn, he may have triumphed over his enemies (1.xix) because of his associations with and recognition by other noted antiquaries of the period. He belonged to the Society of Antiquaries, whose members counselled and helped each other. He shared with Holinshed diverse rare monuments, ancient writers and necessary register books (1.xxi) from his extensive collection.
Though his writing had given him friendship and renown, he is reported to have spent his later life with very little income. The Merchant Taylors’ Company established small pensions for less fortunate members and Stow received such a pension (Kingsford 1.xxiii; Beer). Stow, however, continued to complain about a
lack of money, a complaint endorsed by a number of contemporaries. Edmund Howes [Stow’s literary executor (Pearl vi)] wrote that Stow never rode but travelled on foot as he visited old buildings and searched for historical records, while Ben Jonson remarked that when he and Stow were walking together, they met two lame beggars whom Stow asked whether they would take him into their order.
Stow’s financial problems resulted from his difficulties in earning an adequate living from book sales and from his failure to attract a sufficiently generous patron (Beer). However, the ample inheritance Stow left his wife and daughters and the mural monument of Derbyshire marble and alabaster Stow’s widow had built near his burial site in the parish church of St Andrew Undershaft suggest that Stow overstated his poverty (Beer).
After Stow’s death, his contemporary and literary executor, Edmund Howes, observed that Stow was tall of stature, lean of body and of a pleasant and cheerful countenance, sober, mild and courteous. [. . .] He never tried to flatter, only to speak the truth (qtd. in Pearl v-vi). Although Howes understood Stow to be an agreeable, well mannered, unpretentious, and honest man, historians Ian Archer and Patrick Collinson believe the reliability of Stow’s chronicles to have been compromised by his effusive and discriminatory nostalgia. However, despite Stow’s tendency toward wistful recollections, Archer still values his celebration of the City, [ . . . because Stow also] voices his anxieties about the changes he has witnessed within his lifetime, changes which offended [. . .] his social ideals [. . .] of the harmoniously functioning body politic of mutually interdependent social groups all aware of their place in the hierarchy and their responsibilities towards others (19). Collinson, however, judges Stow’s nostalgia to be selective (28) and cites omissions that may not have agreed with Stow’s vision of an ideal community. One of the most striking omissions is that of London’s theatres. In the 1598 publication, Stow briefly mentions that Stage playes, hath beene vsed Comedies, Tragedies, Enterludes, and Histories, both true and fayned: For the acting whereof certaine publike places haue beene erected (qtd. in Collinson 31). In the 1603 publication, however, the passing reference to the playhouses of the Curtain and the Theatre were removed (Collinson 31).
Despite identifiable imperfections, Stow’s district-by-district perambulation of the boundaries and monuments of the wards, liberties and suburbs of London and his exposition of the traditional practices and values of the citizen class (Manley 36) remains an admired work central to scholarship on early modern London. Stow provides not only an extensive account of London’s physical setting and population, but also vital insights into a society in the midst of immense change as the institutions and values of the late medieval period responded to early modern capitalism.


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MLA citation

Joslin, Dalyce. Biography of John Stow (1525–1605). The Map of Early Modern London, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 20 Jun. 2018,

Chicago citation

Joslin, Dalyce. Biography of John Stow (1525–1605). The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed June 20, 2018.

APA citation

Joslin, D. 2018. Biography of John Stow (1525–1605). In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London. Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

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Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

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CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
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RT Web Page
SR Electronic(1)
A1 Joslin, Dalyce
A6 Jenstad, Janelle
T1 Biography of John Stow (1525–1605)
T2 The Map of Early Modern London
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RD 2018/06/20
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TEI citation

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