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Winchester Geese

It’s 1392 and you are a young Galaunt. These were young men, usually of between sixteen and twenty five years old. They were portrayed as fashion conscious to the point of peacockery, wearing embroidered caps, short gowns and long toed shoes. These fashionable young men, the forerunners of the later “Dandy” got a bad press from writers of the time as being of little value to the Kingdom, detrimental to society and a threat to the English way of life. Their many crimes, according to the medieval media were of being licentious, gluttons, drunkards and the besmirchers of young woman. The Galaunt was held up as a warning of the dangers of a wayward and indolent lifestyle.

So we’ve established your bona fides, your a twenty year old called Emerson Dickmane and your father, Emery is a wealthy merchant and member of the Worshipful Company of Pinners. You have lodgings in Abchurche Lane between Lombard Street and Canwicke Street (today Cannon Street) within the walls of the City of London.

It’s a Friday night and you seem to be at a loose end. You’ve dropped in at a nearby tavern for a drink but none of the “In Crowd” seem to be about, so your thoughts turn to a bit of female company. Finishing your drink, you make your way to London Bridge and cross to the Southwark side of the Thames.

Well versed in this frequent pastime, as you pass beneath the Great Gate, just before the Southwark drawbridge you slip your money purse into your hand and start to jingle the coins within. The effect is immediate and within a few seconds you are surrounded by a crowd of women ranging in shape, age and possibly disfigurement, all shouting to attract your attention. These ladies of negotiable virtue are known as Winchester Geese.

William of Wykeham

It was their competitive screeching around a prospective client as they vied for his favour that gave them the name “geese”. But why “Winchester geese”? The reason was that the brothels and their female workers fell under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, at the time of this story William of Wykeham. He was the local landlord, and far from being displeased by the presence of these licentious houses, the good bishop taxed them with vigour to increase his already exorbitant income.

These ladies plied their trade within his jurisdiction and unfortunately, on occasion, contracted and spread venereal disease. Catching something nasty was referred to as being “bitten by a Winchester goose” or getting “goose bumps“. Humour apart, the consequences could be dire as there was no effective treatment and death was a long slow affair.

Medieval attitudes to prostitution were hypocritical. The church preached that sex was strictly for procreation, but these ladies were viewed as a way of preventing good Christian men falling into even worse practices like sodomy or masturbation which were seen as mortal crimes by the church and were tolerated by the clergy. However, this tolerance was only apportioned to when the ladies were alive, when they died they were not given a burial within consecrated ground and so alternative resting places had to be found.

Surprisingly, given the time that has passed and the evolution of the southern bank of the Thames, it is still possible to visit one of these unconsecrated areas today. Cross Bones in the shadow of the Shard is a disused medieval burial ground on Redcross Way in Southwark about five minutes walk from Borough underground station. It is thought to have been established originally as an unconsecrated graveyard for “Winchester Geese” and was used latterly as a Paupers burial site.

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