On the night of Sunday, 21 January 1543 the prostitutes of Bankside, a red-light district in Southwark, were out in force. A new session of Parliament was due to open the following day and, as the prostitutes were forbidden from working ‘after the sun is gone to rest’ while Parliament was sitting, this was their last legal night of trade for quite some time. Hordes of women dressed in gaudy concoctions of silk and taffeta clustered round the Boar’s Head, the Unicorn and the other ‘bawdy houses’ of the suburb, a tumult of colour against the buildings, which were painted white to distinguish them from more reputable establishments. As the night progressed, many went inside to seek refuge by the hearth, but some were prepared to brave the harsh riverine draughts and work the route along the South Bank of the Thames.
Soon after midnight it seemed as though their forbearance might be rewarded as a few specks of candlelight were spied edging across the river. At this time of night, long past the London curfew, it could mean only one thing. As the boats drew closer, it became apparent that about half a dozen restless young men were on board. But they had no intention of alighting. Instead they took out their stonebows and began to fire at their targets on the bank. The women rapidly dispersed and soon the gang grew bored and rowed back to the steps north of the river. It had been a busy night. Earlier on they had rampaged through the streets and alleys of London, shouting obscenities at anyone foolish enough to outstay the curfew and smashing the windows of smart merchant dwellings and even some churches. Back on dry land after their whorebashing, the vandals continued to terrorise the neighbourhood until two o’clock, when they returned to their lodging, the inn of one Mistress Milicent Arundel in St Lawrence Lane, Cheapside.
The following morning, there was ‘a great clamour’ in the City and a strong civic determination to hunt down the vandals and bring them to justice. Many suspected they were members of the ubiquitous vagabond community; others thought they were apprentices, tight on cheap ale. But few were prepared for the name that emerged. For the ringleader, it transpired, was no apprentice and certainly no vagabond, but an earl, and not only an earl, but the heir to England’s premier peer, a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter and, so it was thought, a sensitive and refined poet.
Back in Mistress Arundel’s inn, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was beginning to regret his night of hell raising. He was, he told his friend George Blagge, ‘very sorry’ and wished for ‘all the good in the world it were undone’. Maybe twenty years ago Henry VIII would have smiled benignly at Surrey’s antics, but age and infirmity had made him capricious and cruel. The prospect of him finding out was not one that Surrey relished. ‘But,’ he concluded with a smirk, ‘we will have a madding time in our youth.’