If you mention “The Holland’s Leaguer” in passing these days someone is bound to imagine you are talking about football (soccer to those of us in the U.S.) but, in fact, that would be erroneous. The Holland’s Leaguer was the most splendid and influential whorehouse in Stuart London. And its owner, who styled herself Donna Britannica Hollandia, got her start with seamen.
Born Elizabeth Baker some time in the 1570s and probably in the countryside that skirted London, the future madam to the stars was married young to a sailor named Holland. Bess, as she was known, evidently went off to sea with her husband because she ended up in Holland just short of a year after her marriage. Deposited in a strange land with no money and her husband gone back to sea, Bess brings to mind the adage about seafarer’s wives: When a sailor married he bought his wife a tub and a looking glass; if she was too lazy to take in washing, she could look in the glass and see herself starve.
Intent to neither take in washing nor go hungry, Bess turned to the world’s oldest profession. Most probably she was planning to save her money to get back to London. As luck would have it she fell in with a merchant captain who took her aboard ship, imaging he had a willing companion for his upcoming voyages. When the captain, who appears to have been Italian, dropped anchor in the Thames Bess hightailed it home and never looked back. She returned to her chosen occupation, but with an eye for the bright lights and the big money.
By 1603, Bess had transformed herself into Britannica and she was running a house nearly dockside on the Thames on a street still known as Cocke’s Lane. The house tripled in size over the course of the next few years due to Bess’ shrewd management and she moved her business to a splendid manor house in the Paris Gardens district. She styled herself a mysterious foreign “quean”, as the finest strumpets were then called, and she kept a house full of “queans” to rival her and plump virgins “brought up by wholesale from the Countrey”. Things were going so well that Bess could post a plaque in her reception room reading “James Stuart slept here”, ensuring her business would grow.
Next to her plaque, Bess kept paintings of her girls. A gentleman coming in for a night’s entertainment could enjoy a glass while he perused the portraits and made his selection. The girls were clean and looked after by a “chucker-out” who was an ex-con of enormous proportions particularly devoted to Donna Britannica. The favorite contraceptive in the house was a pessery made from a nutmeg soaked in vinegar and, according to Bess’ no nonsense memoirs, “shoved up the whibwob”.
The ladies didn’t come cheap either. Although the “Countrey” girls were probably less expensive the high class “queans” who only saw a customer or two each evening might set a man back 50 pounds just for the pleasure of dining with her. What came after was open for negotiation. And the now notorious brothel entertained only the best including not only the King but men like the Duke of Buckingham who was without doubt the power behind James’ throne.
Bess’ house continued to do a brisk trade but fortunes ebbed with politics. Charles I tried to shut her down, only to have his men repulsed with the contents of chamber pots by the ladies and servants there in. It was from this incident that the name Holland’s Leaguer came, although why I cannot say. The great Donna Britannica did some time in jail during Cromwell’s Commonwealth and, as she was by now “an aging quean” came out a bit the worse for the wear.
The Restoration saw a return to the delights of the flesh and The Holland’s Leaguer enjoyed a brief renaissance. Notorious rakes like the Duke of Albemarle spent fortunes in one night on wine, women and song but the great Donna Britannica presided less frequently on any given evening. By the 1660s she has slipped out of the record, with new “queans” like Bess Broughton and the infamous Nell Gwynn, who was “whore enough to be a Duchess” to quote her own words, stepping into the limelight.
When Elizabeth Holland died is not known for certain, but her Holland’s Leaguer was defunct by 1680. It would always be remembered though even if its madam, who refused to stoop to washing or starvation, isn’t.
Picture by Crispin de Passe, from the frontispiece of Le miroir des plus belles courtisanes de ce temps