The soft-skinned prostitute
Men were willing to pay four times the going rate “to lie” with Anne Cobbie
Anne Cobbie was a prostitute who worked in the bawdy house of Mr John and Mrs Jane Bankes in the parish of St Clement Danes, Westminster in the 1620s (by which point England’s Tudor dynasty had been replaced by the Stuarts). It was said that men would rather give her a “piece” – a gold coin worth 22 shillings – “to lie with her” than another woman five shillings “because of her soft skin”. Mary Hall, another prostitute from the Bankes’ establishment, described Anne as a “tawny moore”. This suggests she had relatively light skin, and so perhaps was from one of the ‘Barbary States’ of north Africa, or even, given her English surname, the mixed-race child of a black Tudor and an Englishman or woman.
Cobbie’s activities were illicit, since Henry VIII had closed down the last legal brothels in 1546, and she duly found herself in Westminster Sessions Court – one of 10 women cited when the Bankes were charged in 1626 with “keeping a common brothel house”. The action was brought by one Clement Edwards, a former rector of Witherley in Leicestershire, whose wife had left him to work in the Bankes’ establishment. Although the Bankes were briefly incarcerated in the Gatehouse Prison, close to Westminster Abbey, Anne Cobbie evaded punishment (which could include carting, flogging, a fine, banishment from the city or imprisonment in Bridewell prison, where inmates were forced to beat hemp and spin flax).
Cobbie’s story is unusual, in that there is actually more evidence of African men visiting English prostitutes than vice versa at this time. In December 1577, “Jane Thompson a harlot’” was whipped because “she had consented to commit whoredom with one Anthony a blackamore”, and they were caught in bed together “the door locked to them”.