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This Was London

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library
“Open City: London, 1500-1700,” now on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, carefully investigates the city during a “critical moment” in its history, one in which the town’s population exploded from 50,000 to 500,000 and England itself became a naval superpower, according to exhibit curator Kathleen Lynch.

This is the story of a nation’s capital and a burgeoning global power. 

Over two short centuries, this city grew from the population of a sleepy suburban town to the seat of the world’s most powerful empire. This city survived fire, and she grew. She survived plagues and sickness that destroyed her inhabitants. This city survived economic and religious unrest, but, still, she grew up and out, and she grew strong. 

Over 200 years, the city’s unbridled urban and suburban sprawl and her economic development shot out from all sides, circling the capital’s center like the skirts of a whirling urban-planning dervish. 

This is London’s story from the 16th century to the end of the 17th century, a critical and dramatic period in her history. By the end of this time, the Catholic Church had been displaced by the Church of England and a bill of rights that limited the power of the monarchy and parliament had been agreed to. At this same time, England had established herself as the world’s major colonizer, a naval superpower and a destination for immigrants from around the world. Like today, the influx of migrants during this period carried extraordinary social and economic consequences for the city.

Emerging Empire

“Open City: London, 1500-1700,” now on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, carefully investigates the city in this period. 

“It is a critical moment in London’s history,” exhibit curator Kathleen Lynch says. “When it has grown from a medieval town mostly contained within walls to, by the end of the period, [a place where] the population exploded tenfold.” 

During this time, Lynch says, London’s population went from 50,000 inhabitants to 500,000.

“London [went] from being the capital of England — England being this small island on the outskirts of Europe — to, by 1700, being the seat of an emerging empire and an emerging naval power.” 

The exhibit examines this critical period through studying the changes in three critical public spaces: the church, the theater and the markets. 

“We are trying to take a close-up look at what’s happening — how does it feel in the city when you get down to the parish church [level]? What are some of the forces that are butting up against each other, and how is change happening in that particular locale?” Lynch continues. 

In between these close-up views of a changing city, the exhibit is punctuated by maps of London that force the viewer to put the extraordinary population boom, urban sprawl and social change into perspective. 

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