Following The Tudors in Plymouth

Come with me and take a walk around some Tudor sites in the city of Plymouth... 

We often round up our favourite travel destinations with a top ten (or maybe twenty?) places we've visited, don't we? Well Plymouth in Devon is definitely high on my list. I visited earlier in the summer and discovered a city so incredibly rich in history, from Medieval to modern times. There's a lot here that feels like a step back into an earlier age: the narrow streets that curl up from the main roads of The Barbican, the masts bobbing about on the harbour and the piratey pubs and stone warehouses. 

As I was discovering the city I decided to find sites that the Tudors would have known, following in their leather-soled footsteps on Plymouth's famous cobbled streets... 

The Minerva Inn

Photo: (c) Jo Romero

Thought to be Plymouth's oldest pub and dating back to the 1500s, The Minerva is tucked away on Looe Street, where Sir Francis Drake - and a number of wealthy merchants - were said to have owned properties. Local legend says that some of the timbers used in the building were salvaged from wrecked ships from the Spanish Armada. Historic England's findings suggest that it was once two merchant's houses, later built into one and then later used as an inn. 

The Hoe

Photo: (c) Jo Romero

It was somewhere here in 1588 that Sir Francis Drake was said to have finished his game of bowls before dashing off to deal with the Spanish Armada just off the coast. As far as I can find, there's no real evidence for this show of exuberant bravado, but it makes for a great story. Walk up to the Hoe from the Barbican (about 10-minutes) and you'll be rewarded with beautiful views past the eighteenth-century lighthouse, Smeaton's Tower. There are also some old, piratey steps on the right hand side of the coastal line gazing out from here if you squint and look carefully. The Hoe is now a modern, landscaped park with a couple of caf├ęs so you can grab a cuppa and admire the view that these Elizabethan sailors would have enjoyed too. 

The Armada Memorial and Drake's Statue

Photo (c) Jo Romero

Erected in 1888 on the three-hundred year anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada (there's a lot of Drake vs Armada history here in Plymouth), the Armada memorial contains a statue of Britannia on top, with cannons, cannonballs and inscriptions below. Drake's statue, nearby, was placed here in 1884. Strutting on the top with a globe, and gazing out to sea (admittedly with a seagull usually perched on his head), is Drake. Not directly Tudor-related maybe but worth a visit to see the Victorian love of the Tudors in full force.

Elizabethan House and New Street

Photo: (c) Jo Romero

New Street is one of the piratey, cobbled streets that snake up from the marina at the Barbican. Just wandering up those cobbles makes you feel like you've gone back in time. On the left, there's Elizabethan House, a museum I was lucky enough to visit, where I received a guided tour. The house originally comprised of individually-let rooms and was built in the late 1500s. The first residents might have known characters like Drake and Hawkins by name and would have seen the masts of ships arriving and dropping anchor at the harbour. You can read more about my visit here. The restaurant next to Elizabethan House and the Tudor-beamed shop opposite are also sixteenth century in origin, according to signs displayed on the buildings when I visited. Further up the street is Elizabethan Gardens which was unfortunately closed when I was there, but by all accounts is a beautiful and peaceful Tudor garden. 

St Andrews Minster

Photo (c) Jo Romero

People have been worshipping at St Andrews since Saxon times, and it's where Catherine of Aragon came to give thanks for a safe arrival to England in 1501, on her way to meet Prince Arthur and her new father-in-law, Henry VII. The church was used for worship over the following centuries but was badly damaged by fire during World War Two. The ruins were briefly used as a peaceful garden before the church was fully restored in the 1980s. Here the Tudors would have come to pray, many sailors probably doing so before a voyage in the hope of returning safely home to their families after months or years at sea. According to the St Andrews website, both Drake and Hawkins visited the church and the Yogge family (Tudor merchants) contributed to its upkeep. 

Sutton Harbour

Photo: (c) Jo Romero

Historical documents of the sixteenth century are peppered with exciting snippets of information about Plymouth harbour. As we've seen, Catherine of Aragon would have stepped off her ship onto dry land here in 1501 and then in 1513 there are reports that the army docked here were consuming large amounts of beer and food. The author of the report grudgingly "hopes that they will have a good wind and depart."(1) Elizabeth I also had four of her own ships docked here in 1588, according to Spanish intelligence, "of 400-500 tons each, armed with bronze pieces and well fitted".(2)  There are many reports of various seafarers setting sail and returning here - Lewis Lader is one example that was picked up by the Spanish spy, as he returned with vast amounts of wealth from his voyages overseas.(3) One account from 1569 details Drake having as many as 100 ships docked here under his command.(4) These records really do give a feel for the Tudor people who visited or settled in Plymouth. If you could stand at the harbour here and travel back five-hundred years you'd hear many different accents, see people from different continents and hear a jumble of different languages being spoken. And you might also catch a glimpse of the Spanish informer scribbling down his despatches to Philip. You would have seen barrels being rolled up onto streets and into warehouses, the shouts of those selling food and ale along with a sea of wooden masts with their crow's nests spiking up into the sky. 

Prysten House

Photo: (c) Jo Romero

Tucked behind St Andrews Minster, Prysten House dates from the beginning of the Tudor Period, around 1498 during the reign of Henry VII. It was owned by the merchant Thomas Yogge. Leland, in his itinerary of 1535-1543, describes it as "a goodly house of more stone." (5) According to a leaflet produced by Visit Plymouth, Yogge presented the teenage Catherine of Aragon with a hog of red wine on her arrival in 1501. He died in 1509. The house would have been smaller in Tudor times, as it was extended in 1635, according to Historic England. 

The Old Customs House

The plaque on the stone-built, Old Customs House refers to this being the Customs House by 1586, when work was recorded on the building. It's built in stone, is just off the harbour's seafront and nowadays it's a bookshop, which is pretty perfect. 

Plymouth Castle 

Although very little remains of it today, the Tudors would have known a Medieval castle in Plymouth, in Lambhay Street. Leland described it as a "stronge castel quadrate having a eche corner a great rounde tower."(6) Today just a fraction of the original wall survives and a trace of it also remains in the name of Castle Dyke Lane, just off New Street. 

The Distillery

The building that we know as Plymouth Gin Distillery was once a merchant's house and then a debtor's prison and these are probably how the Tudors would have known it. Some say that it was a Medieval Friary before that. Sadly for the Tudors, gin started to be made on the premises in the early 1700s, so there was none of that juniper-infused tipple for them. 

Tudor House

Photo: (c) Jo Romero

The home of Captain William Parker, this well-preserved Tudor house stands alone nowadays amongst twentieth-century blocks on St Andrew's Street. A nearby sign opposite the house tells us that Parker was a cousin of John Hawkins and he also sailed in Francis Drake's fleet. Like many Tudors here, he became wealthy from his voyagers but did have links to slavery and privateering. Just a short walk from the harbour and the Hoe, he would have had quick access to the harbour and his ships from here. The house is a museum but is currently closed, with renovations planned, so watch this space. The house would have been known to the people of the city throughout the whole Tudor period, having been built in the mid-1400s. Historic England notes that it was remodelled in the sixteenth century and then more extensively in the seventeenth. 

Have you visited Plymouth? Where did you go? What were your favourite places? Are there any other places you would take a Tudor fan to, in the city? 

If you liked this, you might also like The Murky World of Elizabeth's Pirates and A Tour of Elizabethan House, Plymouth

All information is correct at the time of my visit, July 2021. 

Do check the current situation and any opening times and dates online or by phone before you travel. 

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Additional notes and sources:

1.'Henry VIII: May 1513, 11-15', in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1, 1509-1514, ed. J S Brewer (London, 1920), pp. 847-859British History Online  [accessed 3 September 2021].

2.'Simancas: July 1589', in Calendar of State Papers, Spain (Simancas), Volume 4, 1587-1603, ed. Martin A S Hume (London, 1899), pp. 547-552. British History Online  [accessed 31 August 2021].

3.'Simancas: April 1588, 11-20', in Calendar of State Papers, Spain (Simancas), Volume 4, 1587-1603, ed. Martin A S Hume (London, 1899), pp. 263-269. British History Online  [accessed 3 September 2021].