The soft-skinned pros­ti­tute

Men were will­ing to pay four times the go­ing rate “to lie” with Anne Cob­bie

BBC History Magazine - - Black Tudors -

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”.

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