Holland’s Leaguer was a notorious 17th-century brothel which stood, near London’s playhouses, on the south bank of the River Thames. It was run by a famous prostitute named Elizabeth Holland, and its prestigious clients included King James I himself. The ‘leaguer’ – meaning fortress – was a mansion with a moat and drawbridge, near Southwark’s Old Paris Garden. In winter 1631–32, King Charles I ordered for it to be raided, but the prostitutes outwitted the soldiers by luring them onto the drawbridge and plunging them in the moat below. Nevertheless, Holland’s Leaguer was closed later that year.
What is Goodman’s pamphlet, Holland’s Leaguer (1632)?
This pamphlet contains the fictionalised life-story of Dona Britanica Hollandia, which is set in the kingdom of Eutopia, but inspired by Elizabeth Holland’s experiences in London. It charts her ruinous progress from a vain young girl to a shrewd brothel-keeper. Some critics see this as an allegory for the corruption of the Church of England by Catholic and Puritan forces.
The tale of a brothel-keeper
Feeling her beauty is wasted at home, Hollandia goes to seek her fortune in the city. She has ‘infinite’ suitors (sig.B4r) and selects one as her husband, but she is led astray by a corrupt Jesuit and falls into prostitution. Enjoying the income but fearful of disease, she stops working as a ‘bewitching Whore’ and becomes a bawd, profiting from ‘the Sinnes of others’ (D1r).
On the pages digitised here (sig.E4v–G3r), Hollandia seeks new premises for her brothel and finds the ideal building in an ambiguous space, ‘out of the Citie, yet in view of the Citie, only divided by a delicate River’ (F1r). Just like Holland’s Leaguer, the brothel is perfectly placed to catch customers from nearby theatres, the Globe or ‘Continent of the World’, the Hope and the Swan (F2v). Hollandia creates a thriving business and the pamphlet ends with the failed siege on the brothel and the soldiers ‘halfe drowned’ in the moat (G2r). Goodman provocatively suggests that in this fictional kingdom the bawd still pursues her ‘damned profession’, though he says she could not do so in England where punishments have become ‘too sharpe and piercing’ (G3r).
Shakespeare’s bawd, Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure
Like Goodman’s pamphlet, Measure for Measure raises questions about lust and abstinence, human nature and social control. The acting ruler, Angelo, imposes the death penalty on Claudio for lechery, though he himself is guilty of a worse sin. At the same time, the comic tricksters – the brothel-keeper Mistress Overdone and her servant Pompey – show how far Vienna has given in to lechery. In response, Angelo issues a ‘proclamation’ that ‘All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be pluck’d down’, including Overdone’s brothel (1.2.93–96). This might allude to a real English proclamation of 1603, which called for the destruction of houses in the suburbs, where many brothels stood, to prevent the spread of the plague by ‘dissolute’ people.