Post-Medieval London, Pt. III – Social History

Blue Plaque marking site of Pasqua Rosee’s Head, just off Cornhill

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Social History

Everyday life in London in post-Medieval  times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.   For most women, it  continued to  revolve around the “daily grind”.  For some, there would have been  opportunities for advancement in education,  in paid employment  or self-employment, albeit in the trades rather than in the professions, and in public office.  However, as the anonymously-authored “The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights” pithily put it in 1632, “Women have no voice in Parliament, they make no laws, they consent to none, they abrogate none”. 



The predominant religion of the period  before the Reformation was Catholicism; and after the Reformation, either Protestantism – or a hard-line form thereof known as Puritanism – or Catholicism, depending upon Royal patronage.   Sadly, if not entirely atypically of human history, there  was much  persecution of the one sect by the other, such that the fortune and fate of a man could  be determined by his faith and allegiance, or by scheme and intrigue, as by the toss of a coin. 

Father John Gerard

In 1597, the Jesuit priest Father John Gerard was imprisoned and tortured in the Tower of London, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get him to reveal the whereabouts of Father Henry Garnet (who eventually went on to be executed in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605).  And in 1655 “one of earliest Sufferers [among the early “Quakers”]  in the City of London was Anne Downer, a Maiden about thirty Years of Age, the first Person of that Sex who preached publickly in that City:  … , committed to the House of Correction, …  detained there ten Weeks, and because she refused to work, …  beaten with a Rope’s End”.  There was also persecution of believers in  other faiths, and of non-believers. 


Jews had been expelled from the country in 1290, and for the most part for the next few  hundred years lived there only either  as coverts or “Marranos”, or as converts to Christianity, some of the latter in  London in the Domus Conversorum on Chancery Lane. 

Roderigo Lopez

There was, though, at least one acknowledged Jew in a position of prominence in London in Tudor times – the Portuguese Roderigo Lopez, the sometime Physician-in-Ordinary to the Queen, Elizabeth I (who was eventually executed for allegedly attempting to poison her in 1594).  And another in early Stuart times – the Portuguese Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, a wealthy Leadenhall Street merchant and trader in silver, gunpowder  and cochineal (who went on to be the first Jew to be endezined as an English citizen in 1655). 

Menassen ben Israel

Jews were finally  formally readmitted,  under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, and following a personal approach to Cromwell by  one Menasseh ben Israel, in 1656.  The first to arrive were Sephardim, escaping religious persecution in Portugal, Spain and elsewhere in western Europe.  Slightly later came the Ashkenazim, from central and eastern Europe.   A  Sephardic Synagogue was built on Creechurch Lane, on the eastern fringe of the City, in 1657, and later relocated torebuilt on an adjacent site on  Bevis Marks in 1701, where it still stands.  The Bevis Marks Synagogue was built by Joseph Avis, a Quaker, who refunded to the congregation the difference between the final cost of the construction and his original – higher – estimate, not wanting to profit(eer)  from working on a House of God. And the Ashkenazi Great Synagogue was built on nearby Duke’s Place in 1690.  Sadly, it was destroyed during the bombing of the Blitz of the Second World War.  The old Jewish cemetery in Cripplegate, until 1177 the only one in all England, to which bodies would be brought for burial from as far afield as Exeter and York, was also destroyed in the War.  New  cemeteries  were opened in  Mile End in the East End of London in the late seventeenth century (Betahayim Velho), and in the early eighteenth (Betahayim Novo).  The latter lies in what is now  the Mile End campus of Queen Mary College.

Some Londoners were curious as to Jewish  observances; others suspicious, mistrustful or fearful.  In 1662, one Joseph Greenhalgh wrote in a letter:  “Lately … I lighted upon a learned Jew with a mighty bush beard, …  with whom … I fell into conference … ; at which time he told me that he had special relation as Scribe and Rabbi to a private Synagogue … in London, and that if I had a desire to see their manner of worship … he would give me such a ticket,  as, upon sight thereof, their porter would let me in … .  When Saturday came, … I … was let … in … , but there being no Englishman but myself, … I was at first a little abashed to venture alone amongst all them Jews, but my innate curiosity to see things strange …  made me confident … .  I … opened the inmost door, and … went in and sate me down among them; but Lord … what a strange … sight was there … [as] would have frightened a novice … .  Every man had a large white … covering … cast over the high crown of his hat, which from thence hung down on all sides, … nothing to be seen but a little of the face; this, my Rabbi told me, was their ancient garb, used in divine worship in … Jerusalem … : and though to me at first it made altogether a strange … show, yet me thought it had in its kind, I know not how, a face and aspect of venerable antiquity ”.

And in   1663, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: “[A]fter dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue [on Creechurch Lane]: … Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service … would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”.  Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had witnessed the service of Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in the Torah”), marking the end of the Sukkot(h), the  annual cycle of readings from the Torah, which is always a celebratory rather than a solemn event.  The associated activity  that most bewildered him was the Hakafot (dancing with the Torah).   There would almost certainly also have been drinking of ritual wine (symbolising life), although he does not mention it.  Indeed, a traditional source recommends performing the priestly blessing earlier than usual in the service, to make sure that the priests are still sober  when the time comes!


The earliest records of Muslims (“Mahometans”) visiting if not living in London are from the Tudor period.  There were a number of important emissary visits by Muslims to London during the reign of Elizabeth I, as she sought to build  an alliance between the Islamic World and Protestant England against Catholic Spain. 

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud

One was by Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, the principal secretary to the King of Barbary, depicted in an extraordinary contemporary portrait of 1600  in turbaned dress, an exotic scimitar on his left hip, a full beard – and forthright expression – on his face.  The alliance essentially ended when the Anglo-Spanish War ended in 1604 (the first full year of the Stuart King James I’s rule).

Food and Drink

The rich  continued to gorge themselves on meat, and the poor, whose wages were still only 2s/week or less,  to subsist on potage, as in the Medieval period.  According to surviving records, the guests at a banquet in the Great Hall in Ely Palace in 1531, who included  Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, managed over the course of five days to work their way through 24 oxen, 51 cows, 91 pigs, 100 sheep, 168 swans, 444 pigeons and 720 chickens – not to mention 340 dozen, that is, 4080, larks!  The lack of fibre in the diet of the wealthy evidently led to  widespread constipation!  In  Pepys’s time, it was common practice to  take  purges to relieve the condition – and days off work to recover from the consequences! 

By the sixteenth century, the water supply system had become inadequate  to meet the demands of the rising population (it had also become subject to much abuse and over-use by individuals and by commercial and industrial concerns).  A short-term solution to this problem  was provided  by the construction by the Dutchman Pieter Maritz in 1582 of a – rather rickety – apparatus under one of the arches of London Bridge that  allowed water to be pumped from the Thames  into the heart of the City – or, in the case of the original demonstration to City officials, over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!  The apparatus was destroyed in the Great Fire, but thereafter replaced by Maritz’s grandson, and  continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.   

Surviving Section of New River, Canonbury Grove, Islington

A longer-term solution was provided by the construction by the Welshman and wealthy merchant, goldsmith, banker and Member of Parliament Sir Hugh Myddelton or Myddleton in 1609-13 of a  10’ wide and 4’ deep canal, or “New River”, all the way from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire into the City, an incredible 37 miles away, parts of which  may still be seen along the “New River Walk”, for example in Canonbury Grove in Islington.  The “New River” was formally opened on September 29th, 1613, by Myddelton’s older brother Thomas, the Mayor of London.   The playwright, poet and writer of pageants Thomas Middleton (no relation)  wrote in “The manner of His Lordships entertainment … at that most famous and admired worke of the running streame from Amwell head, into the cesterne neere Islington … ”: “Long have we laboured, long cherished and prayed|For this great work’s perfection, and by th’aid|Of heaven and good men’s wishes ‘tis at length|Happily conquered by cost, art and strength.!And after five years’ dear expense in days,!Travail, and pains, besides the infinite ways!Of malice, envy, false suggestions,!Able to daunt the spirits of mighty ones|In wealth and courage, this, a work so rare,|Only by one man’s industry, cost  and care|Is brought to blest effect … ”.  Myddelton had to overcome any number of technological  obstacles, and much land-owner and political opposition, to see this major civil engineering project through to completion, (the “New River” relied on gravity to allow flow, and hence had to be constructed on a gradient, of as little as two inches per mile).  He did so with a mixture of drive and determination, the financial support of 29 investors or “adventurers”, and the tacit backing of the King.  His backers had to wait some time until they   profited from the enterprise (actually, until 1633, although by 1695 the New River Company ranked behind only the East India Company and the then newly-constituted  Bank of England in terms of its capital value).  The public  health benefits of Myddelton’s project were immediate, though,  and immeasurable,  and indeed it has been described as “An immortal work – since men cannot more nearly imitate the Deity than in bestowing health”.  Myddelton died in 1631, and was buried in the church of  St Matthew Friday Street, where he had served as a warden.  Concerted  attempts to locate his coffin and monument following the church’s demolition in 1881 were ultimately unsuccessful.  However, fittingly, there is a statue to the great man on Islington Green in Islington.  And some of the fittings from the New River Company’s offices, including Grinling Gibbons’s (?) “Oak Room”, may still be seen  in the  London Metropolitan Water Board building, also in Islington.

Ale and beer  continued to be staple drinks.  By 1656, there were a quite literally staggering 1153 drinking establishments in the City, ranging from basic ale-houses through middling taverns, where wine could  also be had, to up-market inns, where there would be food and drink of the finest, accommodation and often also entertainment.  Among them were the “Bell Savage” of 1452 on Ludgate Hill; the “Olde Mitre” of 1546 in Ely Court; the ”Devil and St Dunstan” of 1563,  the “Olde Cheshire Cheese” of 1584, the “Cock” of 1600, and the “Mitre” of 1602/3 all on Fleet Street; the “Seven Stars” of 1602 on Carey Street;  the “Wig and Pen” of 1625 on the Strand; and the “Olde Wine Shades” of 1663 on Martin Lane.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, drunkenness became something of a social problem.  So  did the so-called “dry-drunkenness” caused by  smoking tobacco, first introduced from the Americas  in the 1570s.   In the post-Medieval period, tobacco was smoked in clay pipes, the remains of which came to litter  the City like the cigarette ends of today, and are common finds on the foreshore of the Thames. 

Coffee-House jests

More socially acceptable was the consumption of equally addictive, although less harmful, coffee and tea, first imported from Arabia and China respectively  in the 1650s.  Coffee and tea were expensive commodities in the later seventeenth century, and  consumed  exclusively  by  the  rich.  The coffee- and tea- houses that began to spring up all over London at this time became places where respectable wealthy gentlemen, who would not be seen dead in ale-houses, might congregate to converse,  and to transact  business: one, Lloyd’s, eventually evolved into an entirely separate  business enterprise, and another, Jonathan’s, into the Stock Exchange.

Blue Plaque marking site of Pasqua Rosee’s Head, just off Cornhill

The very  first of the coffee-houses to open was at the sign of  “Pasqua Rosee’s Head”, just off Cornhill, in 1652.  The eponymous Pasqua Rosee was employed as a man-servant by one Daniel Edwards, a London merchant,  member of the Levant Company and trader in Turkish goods; and he, Rosee,  appears to have run the coffee-shop as a sideline, in partnership with one Christopher Bowman,  a freeman of the City and former coachman of Edwards’s father-in-law, Alderman Thomas Hodges.   It is thought that Rosee and Edwards  met in Smyrna in Anatolia, although also that Rosee was ultimately of ethnic Greek extraction.  The “Coffee House”, also just off Cornhill, the “Globe” and “Morat’s”, in Exchange Alley, and an unnamed coffee-house in St Paul’s Churchyard, were also all open by the early 1660s, and all referred to in Samuel Pepys’s diary, as was an unnamed tea-house, where in 1660 he   “did send for a cup of tee, a China drink, of which I had never drunk before”.  A contemporary advertising handbill  described the “Vertue of the Coffee Drink First publiquely made and sold in England by Pasqua Rosee” as follows:  “The Grain or Berry called Coffee”, groweth upon little Trees, only in the Deserts of Arabia.  It is brought from thence, and drunk generally throughout all the Grand Seigniors Dominions.  It is a simple innocent thing, composed into a Drink, by being dryed in an Oven, and ground to Powder, and boild up with Spring water, and about half a pint of it to be drunk, fasting an hour before, and not Eating an hour after, and to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured … .  The quality of the Drink is cold and Dry … .  It quickens the Spirits, and makes the Heart Lightsome … .  … It suppresseth Fumes exceedingly, and … will very much … help Consumption and the Cough of the Lungs [hmm, not so sure about that].  … It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for business … ; and therefore you are not toe Drink it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours”.  One  George Sandys    described the coffee of the time  as “black as soote, and tasting not much unlike it”.  Incidentally, the first chocolate-house opened in a Frenchman’s house in Queen’s Head Alley, off Bishopsgate, in 1657, and “Mr Bland’s”  in 1664, the latter  also referred to in Pepys’s diary, as the place where he went to drink his “morning’s draft in chocolate”.   Chocolate was a very considerable luxury in the mid 1600s, costing as much as 13s/lb (£50/lb in today’s terms, according to  the National Archives “Currency Convertor”). 

Bow on the River Lea remained  the site  of a cottage industry involving  the milling of grain for use in baking and distilling.  Indeed, milling  continued here  right up until the last century, and one – eighteenth-century – tidal mill, the House Mill, on Three Mill Island, has recently been restored as a working museum.


The systems and standards of sanitation remained as in the Medieval.  Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary one day in 1660 of how he had gone down into his cellar and “ … stepped into a great heap of **** ”, by which he found that his neighbour Mr Turner’s “house of office” was full to bursting!  The open sewer that the  River Fleet had become  by the fourteenth century was only finally  enclosed in the eighteenth.   The line of the river is followed by that of Farringdon Road, Farringdon Street  and New Bridge Street.

Medical Matters

The diagnosis and treatment of disease continued to be based essentially on Galenic principles.  Treatments remained largely plant-based, with medicinal herbs being widely grown both at monastic sites, for example at Syon Abbey, and also,  commercially, elsewhere, for example, in the herbalist and Apothecary John Parkinson’s garden in Long Acre in Covent Garden. 

John Parkinson

Parkinson (1567-1650) made his living preparing and dispensing plant-based and other medicines from a shop on Ludgate Hill, a short walk from the Apothecaries’ Hall.   He  was one of the founder-members of the Apothecaries’ Company, and also the Apothecary to James I, and Royal Botanist to Charles I.   (Another of the co-founders of the Company, of whom there is a fine marble bust in its  Hall, Gideon de Laune, was the Apothecary to James’s queen, Anne of Denmark.)  Parkinson also wrote  “A Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers” in 1629, and  “The Theatre of Plants” in 1640. 

Nicholas Culpeper

Another herbalist and writer – of “The Complete Herbal” –  Nicholas Culpeper,  of Spitalfields, died in 1654  of Consumption, or possibly of some other lung disease  caused by excessive smoking, and was buried in Bedlam.  (Note here, though,  that simply breathing the London air of the time, badly polluted as it was by the burning of coal, would also have had deleterious effects on health.)  Sad to say, the herbal treatments  remained largely ineffectual against the diseases of the day, including Sweating Sickness in addition to  Plague, Ague and Consumption (interestingly, the incidence of Leprosy  had become extremely low throughout Britain, and indeed western Europe, by the beginning of the post-Medieval period, possibly on account of an acquired collective immunity).

Sweating Sickness   was diagnosed by  “a … burnyng sweate … : by the tormentyng …  of which … men …  being not hable to suffre the … heat, … cast away … sheets & …  clothes”, leading to  delirium, and in almost all cases,  after a matter of hours, death (“all … after yelded up their ghost”).  The disease  is now thought to have been either Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) or Pulmonary Anthrax (the latter caused by inhaling spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, perhaps contained in contaminated wool).  It appeared in England – by way of Wales – with the arrival from France of Henry VII in 1485, and in the October of that year killed numerous people in London, sparing neither aristocracy nor bourgeoisie.   There were notable subsequent outbreaks in England in  1488, 1506/7, 1517, 1528/9 and  1551/2, after which last date the disease disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as it had appeared, never to return (it is also possible that it  killed Arthur Tudor at Ludlow Castle in 1502, while sparing  his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who went on to marry his brother, Henry VIII, in 1509).  The boy-king Edward VI wrote of the outbreak of  1551/2 as follows:  “At this time came the sweat into London, which was more vehement than the old sweat.  For if one took cold he died within 3 hours, and if he escaped it held him but 9 hours, or 10 at the most.  Also if he slept … , as he should be very desirous to do, then he raved, and should die raving”.  As Henry Machyn put it, it  “carried off many people both noble and commoners”.   Dyer estimates that 1-2% of the population died  of sweating sickness in England in 1551/2, based on analysis of surviving parish records.  However, the figures were at least locally   much higher  in closed religious communities, in which the disease was readily spread from person to person during services or even auricular confessions.   In the case of Syon Abbey, the Martyrologium records that 10% of the brothers and sisters died in the outbreak of 1488, including Robert Bryde on 16th May, Thomas Westshaw on 1st June, Robert Derham on 4th June, Robert Hall on 7th, Robert Frynge and Alice Hatton on 10th June,  Isabel Lambourn on 15th  June, Catherine Dymock on 17th June, Marion Cross on 4th July, Catherine Fogg on 2nd October, and Joan Payne on 20th October.

Surgical operations continued to be performed by Barber-Surgeons.  Somewhat against the odds, Samuel Pepys survived having a gallstone the size of a billard ball removed, without anaesthetic, by the skilled surgeon Thomas Hollier, on March 26th,  1658.   Each year thereafter, he celebrated the anniversary of the event rather like a second birthday, writing  in his diary on March 26th, 1660: “This day it is two years since it pleased God that I was cut of the stone at Mrs Turner’s in Salisbury Court; and did resolve while I live to keep it a festival, as I did last year at my house, and for ever to have Mrs Turner and her company with me.   … I can and do rejoice, and bless God, being at this time, blessed be his holy name, in as good health as ever I was in my life”.

Some of the   hospitals that had been attached to monastic houses in the Medieval period survived the Dissolution and into  the post-Medieval.  The mental hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, or “Bedlam”, was cruelly depicted  a mad-house even on the  Jacobean stage.  And in 1669, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: “I to the Office, while  the young people went to see  Bedlam” – to view and mock the antics of the inmates, as a low form of  entertainment.  It was subsequently rebuilt by Robert Hooke in Moorfields in 1676, relocated to  the junction of Kennington Road and Lambeth Road  in the Borough of Southwark in 1815, and relocated again to the site of a former country house estate in Beckenham in the Borough of Bromley in Kent in 1930.   The Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber’s (1630-1700) extraordinary statues of figures representing “Raving and Melancholy Madness”, that used to stand outside the old hospital in Moorfields, may now be seen inside the museum of the new one in Beckenham.  Also inside the museum may be seen  a padded cell, a strait-jacket and other restraints, and an Electro-Convulsive Therapy kit, from the hospital’s later days.

Post-Medieval London, Pt. II – Stuart History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Stuart History

Under the Stuarts, it was a time of War and Plague and purifying Fire.  Of a bloody Civil War, between Royalist and Parliamentarian.  And of a peculiarly English revolution under the Parliamentarian Commonwealth and Protectorate  of Oliver and Richard Cromwell, which ended with the Restoration of the Monarchy – albeit, importantly,  a monarchy that could thenceforth  only rule with the  consent of Parliament. 

An early meeting of the Royal Society

It was also, though, the time not only of a continuing Renaissance in the arts, but also of the birth of science, or “natural philosophy”, as it was known.  The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, nowadays generally known simply as the Royal Society, was founded in 1660, the  founding members being William Ball, William Brouncker, 2nd Viscount Brouncker, Jonathan Goddard, Abraham Hill, Robert Moray, Paul Neile, William Petty and Lawrence Rooke.  The purpose of the Society, according to its Charter, was “To improve the knowledge of all natural things, and all useful Arts, manufactures, Mechanick practises, Engines and Inventions by Experiments – (not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar [or spelling, presumably], Rhetorick or Logick)”.  Its  first meetings were held at Gresham College.  Perhaps the most famous seventeenth-century collection of Naturalia, or “Cabinet of Curiosities”, was the Musaeum Tradescantianum, founded in around 1634 by the gentleman-travellers and collectors John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1580-1638), and his son John Tradescant the Younger (1608-62), and housed in  a building called “The Ark” in Vauxhall, which was the first such in England  to be open to the general public –  albeit at a cost of 6d.  In time, the Tradescants’ collection was  acquired by Elias Ashmole, and in 1691 donated by him to Oxford University, to form the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum.  Incidentally, the Tradescants, who were actually employed as gardeners – John the Elder  by  Robert Cecil, the 1st  Earl of Salisbury, and by William Cecil, the 2nd Earl; and John the Younger  by  Charles II – are both buried in the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, which now incorporates a Garden Museum.

On March 24th, 1603, John Manningham wrote: “This morning about three at clock her Majesty departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from the tree … .  About ten at clock the Council and divers noblemen having been awhile in consultation, proclaimed James VI, King of Scots, the King of England, France and Ireland … ”. 

The Arch of Londinium, through which James I processed on his triumphal entry into London

On March 15th, 1604, James made a triumphal entry into the City of London, and thence processed to  Westminster to attend his first parliament, amid much pomp and pageant.  A number of contemporary accounts of the event still survive, including that of the King himself, who wrote,  with characteristic bombast: “The people of all sorts rode and ran, nay, rather flew to meet me, their eyes flaming nothing but sparkles of affection, their mouths and tongues uttering nothing but sounds of joy, their hands, feet, and all the rest of their members in their gestures discovering a passionate longing and earnestness to meet and embrace their new sovereign.”  On its way through the City, the  procession passed beneath  a series of allegorically-themed triumphal arches, designed by Stephen Harrison, that formed the backdrops for entertainments by some of the finest writers of the day, including Dekker, Jonson, Middleton and Webster.

James I at the Banqueting House on Whitehall

James, like Elizabeth, was a Protestant, although one widely suspected of harbouring Catholic sympathies. 

The Somerset House Conference that brought to an end the Anglo-Spanish War

One of his first acts as king, in 1604, was to help bring to an end the Anglo-Spanish War, that had begun in 1585, on terms that were publicly perceived to be favourable to Catholic Spain.

The Gunpowder Plotters (by a Dutch artist who had never actually seen any of them)

In 1605, he saw off the  Catholic “Gunpowder Plot”,  “a most horrible conspiracy of the Papish … ” to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster, and had Guy Fawkes and the other ringleaders executed,  and their remains exhibited, as a deterrent to others.  Sir Edward Hoby, the son-in-law of Elizabeth I’s cousin Henry Carey, the 1st Baron Brunsdon, and the nephew of her chief advisor William Cecil, the 1st  Baron  Burghley or Burleigh, and a courtier during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, wrote of the event: “On the 5th of November we began our Parliament, to which the King should have come in person, but refrained, through a practice but that morning discovered” (the discoverer, one Thomas Knyvet(t), the Keeper of Whitehall Palace, was rewarded by the granting of  an extension of the lease on his house, in what was to become Downing Street).  The plot was to have blown up the King at such time as he should have been set in his royal throne, accompanied by his children, Nobility and Commons and … Bishops, Judges and Doctors, at one instant and blast and to have ruined the whole estate and Kingdom of England.  And for the effecting of this there was placed under the Parliament house, where the King should sit, some 30 barrels of gunpowder … .  In a vault under the parliament chamber before spoken of one Johnson [Guy Fawkes’s  assumed name] was found … who, after being brought into … the court, and there demanded if he were not sorry for his so foul and heinous a treason, answered he was sorry for nothing but that the act was not performed.  Being replied unto him that no doubt there had been a number in that place of his own religion, how in conscience he could do them hurt, he answered a few might well perish to have the rest taken away.  … When he was brought into the King’s presence, the King asked him how he could conspire so hideous a treason against his children and so many innocent souls which never offended him? He answered that … a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy”. 

A computer visuaiisation of John Donne’s “Gunpowder Sermon”

Popular   suspicion of James’s  supposed Catholic sympathies remained, even after the Gunpowder Plot, and in 1622, on the seventeenth anniversary thereof, the Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, felt compelled to give a sermon at (St) Paul’s Cross reassuring the congregation as to the King’s  commitment to Protestantism.   In his sermon, he described him  as “in his heart, as farre from submitting us to that Idolatry, and Superstition, which did heretofore oppresse us, as his immediate Predecessor, whose memory  is justly precious to you, was”.  

The Civil War

Equestrian statue of Charles I, Trafalgar Square

When James I died in 1625, his son Charles I came to the throne, and, sadly, so abused his supposed “divine rights” as a King in the  eyes of Parliament, and of the population at large, as ultimately to trigger the  Civil War between supporting Royalists and opposing Parliamentarians, under Oliver Cromwell, in 1642.  In 1641, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland, an ardent supporter of the King in his power-struggle with Parliament in the period leading up to the Civil War, was executed on Tower Hill for high treason  (specifically, for allegedly saying to the King “You have an army in Ireland you may employ here to reduce this Kingdom”).  His last words, taken from the Psalms, were: “O put not your trust in Princes, nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them”.  A not particularly oblique reference to the sense of betrayal he felt toward the King, who had promised him that he “should not suffer in his person, honour or fortune”; and then, when expedient, signed his death warrant!  Then in the January of 1642, the King and his henchmen entered the Houses of Parliament and attempted to arrest five Members of Parliament, namely, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, John Pym and William Strode (Hampden was Cromwell’s cousin, and one of his ablest military commanders during the early part of the war, dying of wounds sustained at the Battle of Chalgrove Field  in 1643).  It is said that when the King demanded to be told the whereabouts  of the MPs, the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, retorted:  “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”.   The attempted arrest,  which is ceremonially re-enacted each year during the State Opening of Parliament, when the Crown’s  representative, “Black Rod”, is despatched from the Lords to the Commons, there to have the doors slammed shut in his face, was essentially the last in the  series that eventually led to the outbreak of war  in the August.

The City of London  remained largely Parliamentarian in its sympathies throughout the course of the Civil War, and pivotal to its eventual outcome.  The  early political philosopher  Thomas Hobbes opined that “but for the City the Parliament never could have made the war”.  A leading  Royalist,  Charles I’s  Secretary of War Edward Walker, decribed London as “the head and fountain of this detested rebellion”.  And another went so far as to remark that “[if] posterity shall ask who would have pulled the crown from the king’s head, dissolved Monarchy, enslaved the laws, and ruined the country; say, ‘twas the proud, unthankful, schismatical, rebellious, bloody City of London’”. 

At the time of the outbreak of the war, the City of London’s militia, the so-called “trained bands”, comprised around 6,000 men organised into  twenty companies and four regiments (North, South, East and West).    Subsequently,  it grew to 8,000 men in forty companies and six regiments (Red, Blue, Green, White, Orange and Yellow).  And eventually to 20,000 men in fourteen regiments (five of them “auxiliary”).  The militia was at least partly  under the command of the Mayor and Aldermen.  Its primary role was the defence of London, although  it also contributed brigades of foot to Parliament’s armies in the field.   Its importance waned after the establishment of the New Model Army in 1645.  The  Honourable Artillery Company was unusual in that it, or rather elements of it, fought on both sides!   The  City’s civilian population, including large numbers of Puritans, broke its rule against working on the Sabbath  in order to construct  a ring of defences, eleven miles in circumference, known as the “Lines of Communication”.  There is now little trace of these defences, although the remains of one of the star forts that once formed part of of them have recently been unearthed in an  archaeological excavation in Spital Square in Spitalfields. 

On November 7th,  1642, Giovanni Giustiniani, the Venetian ambassador to the court of Charles I, wrote,  in a letter to the Doge and Senate of Venice: “They do not cease to provide with energy for the defence of London … .  They have sent a number of parliamentarians to the surrounding provinces with instructions to get together the largest numbers they can of their trained bands, with the intention of despatching these subsequently to where the remains of the parliamentary army are quartered.  They have brought a number of the companies of these trained bands … into this city.  All the troops are kept constantly at arms.  There is no street, however little frequented, that is not barricaded …, and every post is guarded … .  At the approaches to London, they are putting up trenches and small forts of earthwork, at which a great number of people are at work, including the women and … children.  They have issued a new manifesto to the people full of the usual representations against the …King, for the purpose of arousing their enthusiasm still more in the support of this cause”.  And later, in 1643, William Lithgow wrote: “I found the … court before Whitehall Gate guarded, and what was more rarer, I found the grass growing deep in the … king’s house.  The daily musters and shows of all sorts of Londoners here are wondrous and commendable in marching to the fields and outworks … carrying … iron mattocks and wooden shovels, with roaring drums, flying colours and girded swords; most companies being interlarded with ladies, women and girls … carrying baskets to advance the labour … .  I saluted … two forts upon Tyburn Way and Marylebone Fields … , both pallisaded, double-ditched and barricaded with iron pikes, the one clad with eight demi-culverins and the other … with four … , both wondrous defensible”.    

A twentieth-century depiction of the Battle of Brentford

The Battle of Brentford took place on November 12th,  1642.  The site of the battle is marked by a granite memorial and by a series of informative plaques.  According to the plaques, what happened here was as follows:“Parliamentarians had arrived in the prosperous market town on Friday 11 November.  The following day the royalists marched from Hampstead Heath and in the early afternoon broke through a parliamentary barricade at the bridge over the Brent.  … [T]he royalists were delayed, fighting two or three hours until the parliamentarian soldiers fled.  This position was defended by about 480 of Lord Brooke’s regiment and survivors of the earlier fighting, with two small pieces of artillery. The royalists soon gained the upper hand.  There seem to have been no civilian dead despite the capture of the town.  About 20 royalists were killed, and perhaps 50 parliamentarians died in the fighting with more drowning in the Thames.  Parliamentary Captain John Lilburne was amongst those captured”.  And what happened next was as follows:  “Later that afternoon the royalists pressed on towards London.  There were more parliamentary troops in a large open area, probably Turnham Green and Chiswick’s Common Field.  These green-coated men of John Hampden’s regiment of foot charged five times, holding the royalists back.  But with night coming and the royalists exhausted from fighting both sides disengaged.  The royalist soldiers who had captured Brentford ransacked the town … The Battle of Turnham Green took place the following day”.  John Gwyn, a royalist soldier, wrote:“We beat them from one end of Brainford to the other, and from thence to the open field, with … resolute and expeditious fighting, …  push of pike and the butt-end of muskets, which proved so fatal to Holles’ butchers and dyers that day”.

The Battle of Turnham Green took place the following day, on November 13th,  1642.  The site of the battle is marked by a series of explanatory  plaques.  According to the plaques, after losing the Battle of Brentford, the Parliamentarians took up a strategic defensive position at Turnham Green, with their left flank protected by the river, and their right by a series of enclosures.  It was here that the following day  they  essentially faced down the Royalists, who found themselves unable to manoeuvre past, in one of the largest-ever confrontations on English soil (albeit a substantially bloodless one), involving some 40,000 troops.   This was a decisive moment in the history of the war, the country, and its  capital. 

The demolition of the Cheapside Cross

On May 2nd, 1643, John Evelyn wrote in his diary: “I went from Wotton to London, where I saw the furious and zealous people demolish that stately Cross in Cheapside”.  The so-called Eleanor Crosses on Cheapside and at Charing Cross in Westminster, originally put up in the late thirteenth century by the then King, Edward I, in memory of his late wife, Eleanor of Castile, were both demolished in the Civil War, as symbols of Royal oppression.  The closest surviving one to London is in Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire.  In 1645, William Laud, sometime Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, and a man well known for his “High Church” views and his fierce opposition to and persecution of Puritans, was executed as a traitor  on Tower Hill. Among the charges levelled  against him were: “That, by false erroneous doctrines, and other sinister ways and means, he went about to subvert religion, established in this Kingdom, and to set up popery and superstition in the church … ”, and “that, to save and preserve himself from being questioned and sentenced from these and other his traiterous designs, from the first year of his now Majesty’s reign, until now, he hath laboured to subvert the rights of parliamentary proceedings, and to incense his Majesty against parliaments … .” 

The “Putney Debates”

In   1647, with the war virtually  won, the Parliamentarian leadership gathered in the church of St Mary in Putney for the “Putney Debates”.  The debates, chaired by Cromwell and attended by officers and men of his New Model Army, many of whom were “Levellers”, addressed  nothing of less import than the post-Civil War future and constitution of England.  Among the issues debated  were whether power should be vested in the King and House of Lords or in the Commons, and  whether there should be universal – male – suffrage (“one man, one vote”).  Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, personifying the radical contingent, famously argued that:“ … [T]he poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee … ”.  Among the outcomes was a declaration of “native rights” for all Englishmen, including  freedom of conscience, and equality before the law.  Rainsborough went on to be killed during the siege of Pontefract, and to be buried in the church of St John in Wapping on November 14th, 1648.  For a fuller account of his extraordinary life, the reader is referred to “The Rainborowes” by Adrian Tinniswood.    Then, on December 6th,  1648, the Parliamentarian Colonel Thomas Pride expelled over one hundred Presbyterian Members of the “Long Parliament” from the Houses of Parliament, in what became known as “Pride’s Purge”.  At this time, the King and supporting Royalists were Episcopalians, and opposing Parliamentarians were divided among two factions, Independents and Presbyterians.  The Independents mistrusted the English Presbyterians because their Scottish counterparts had earlier entered into an alliance with the King, hence the purge.  The Independent Members who remained after the purge, constituting the “Rump Parliament”, then instigated the legal proceedings against Charles  that led to his trial for treason, and eventually to his execution. 

The Inter-Regnum

The execution of Charles I

On January 30th, 1649, having bid a heartbreaking goodbye to his young children, Charles was executed for treason outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall.  It was a freezing cold day, so he put on an extra shirt,  that no-one might see him shiver, and think him scared (“the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some observers may imagine proceeds from fear [and] I would have no such imputation”).  Eventually, after what must have been a harrowing wait, at 2pm, he delivered an almost inaudible address to the crowd, and at the end proclaimed  “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world”.  He then made a silent prayer,  laid his head upon the block, and had it stricken from his body.  Whereupon, according to an eye-witness account by one Philip Henry, “there was such a Grone given by the Thousands there present, as I never heard before & desire I may never hear again”.  The usually ubiquitous John Evelyn was pointedly not among those who bore witness to the event, writing in his diary: “The Villanie of the Rebells proceeding now so far as to Trie, Condemne, & Murder our excellent King … struck me with such horror that I kept the day of his Martyrdom a fast, & would not be present, at that execrable wickednesse … ”.

On May 19th,  1649,  at what was effectively the end of the Civil War (although skirmishing was to continue for a further two years), the Long  Parliament passed an Act making England  a Commonwealth and Free State “where Parliament would constitute the officers and ministers of the people without any Kings or lords”.  The authoritianism of the Commonwealth – and later Protectorate – made it increasingly unpopular.  On December 25th,  1657, John Evelyn wrote in his diary: “I went to London with my wife, to celebrate Christmas day, Mr Gunning preaching in Exeter chapel … .  Sermon ended, as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surprised and kept prisoner by them … .  … In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others … to examine us one by one; some they committed to the marshal, some to prison.  When I came before them, they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made, that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the nativity (so esteemed by them), I durst offend …, and … pray for  Charles Stuart … .  I told them we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all Kings, princes, and governors.  They replied … with other frivolous and ensnaring questions, and much threatening; and, finding no color to detain me, they dismissed me with much pity of my ignorance.  These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity”.  And in 1658, John Reresby wrote in his diary: “The citizens and common people of London had then soe far imbibed the custome and manners of a Commonwealth that they could scarce endure the sight of a gentleman, soe that the common salutation to a man well dressed was “French dog,” or the like. Walkeing one day in the street with my valet de chambre, who did wear a feather in his hatt, some workemen that were mending the street abused him and threw sand upon his cloaths, at which he drew his sword, thinkeing to follow the custome of France in the like cases. This made the rabble fall upon him and me, that had drawn too in his defence, till we gott shelter in a hous, not without injury to our bravery and some blowes to ourselves”.

The Restoration of the Monarchy

On April 25th,  1660, which would have been Oliver Cromwell’s 61st birthday (he had died in 1658), the “Convention Parliament” was convened for the first time, in theory as a “free parliament”, with no allegiance to either the Commonwealth or the Monarchy, although in practice as one with overwhelmingly Monarchist sympathies.  Indeed, according to Trevelyan, it was “by the letter of the law no true Parliament, because the King did not summon it, on the contrary, it summoned the King”.      And on May 8th, it restored the monarchy to Prince Charles, making him King Charles II.   

On May 29th, Charles  entered the City of London.  According to an unnamed source: “On Tuesday, May the 29th (which happily fell out to be the anniversary of his majesty’s birth-day), he set forth of Rochester in his coach; but afterwards he took horse on the farther side of Black-heath … .  … In magnificent fashion his majesty entered the borough of Southwark, about half an hour past three of the clock … ; and, within an hour after, the city of London at the bridge; where he found the windows and streets exceedingly thronged with people to behold him; and the walls adorned with hangings … ; and in many places … loud musick; all the conduits … running claret wine; and the … companies in their liveries … ; as also the trained bands … standing along the streets … , welcoming him with joyful acclamations.  …   From which place, … his majesty … entered Whitehall … , the people making loud shouts, and the horse and foot several vollies of shot, at this his happy arrival.  Where …  parliament received him, and kissed his royal hand.  At the same time … the Reverend Bishops … , with divers of the long oppressed orthodox clergy, met in that royal chapel of King Henry the Seventh, at Westminster [Abbey],  there also sang Te Deum, & c. in praise and thanks to Almighty God, for … his … deliverance of his majesty from many dangers, and … restoring him to rule these Kingdoms, according to his just and undoubted right”. 

Charles II’s Coronation Procession or Cavalcade

On April 22nd, 1661, Charles  ceremonially processed  on horseback through the City of London to Westminster, as portrayed by the Dutch artist Dir(c)k Stoop in a painting now in the Museum of London.   The route passed  through four specially-constructed allegorically-themed triumphal arches: one on Leadenhall Street; one at the Royal Exchange on Cornhill; one on Cheapside; and one in Whitefriars (the arches are thought to have been inspired by those designed by  Rubens for the triumphal entry of Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria into Antwerp in 1635).   The associated lavish entertainments  were described in detail in print by the Scots stage-manager John Ogilby, in a book entitled, in part (!),  “The entertainment of His Most Excellent Majestie Charles II, in his passage through the city of London to his coronation containing an exact accompt of the whole solemnity, the triumphal arches, and cavalcade … ”.   The following day, April 23rd, Charles was formally crowned King at Westminster Abbey.  Samuel Pepys wrote of the occasion in his diary: “About 4 I rose and got to the Abbey, … and ..,  with a great deal of patience I sat … till 11 before the King came in. …    At last comes in the Dean and Prebends of Westminster, with the Bishops (many of them in cloth of gold copes), and after them the Nobility, all in their Parliament robes, which was a most magnificent sight. Then the Duke, and the King with a scepter (carried by my Lord Sandwich) and sword and mond  before him, and the crown too. The King in his robes, bare-headed [that is, without his customarily-affected wig], which was very fine. And after all had placed themselves, there was a sermon and the service; and then in the Quire at the high altar, the King passed through all the ceremonies of the Coronacon, which to my great grief I and most in the Abbey could not see. The crown being put upon his head, a great shout begun … ”

Before he had even been formally crowned, Charles instigated a massive man-hunt for  the surviving regicides who had signed his father’s death warrant, most  of whom had gone into hiding, many  in continental Europe, and some  even in the Americas.   He eventually executed them all,  in so doing  violating  the terms of his own “Declaration of Breda”, which had promised a pardon for all crimes committed during the Civil War and inter-regnum.  On October 13th,  1660, Major-General Thomas Harrison was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn (“he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition” as Pepys drily noted); on October 14th, Thomas Scot, Adrian Scroop, John Cook and John Jones at Charing Cross; and on October 15th, John Carew, also at Charing Cross.  John Cook had been  the chief prosecutor at Charles I’s trial.  Shortly before his execution, he wrote: “We fought for the public good and would have enfranchised the people and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom”.  And on June 14th, 1662, Sir Harry Vane, who had been a leading Parliament but not a regicide, was beheaded at Tower Hill.  Pepys  wrote on this occasion: “[A]bout eleven o’clock, … we all went out to the Tower-hill; and there, over against the scaffold, made on purpose this day, saw Sir Harry Vane brought.  A very great press of people.  He made a long speech, many times interrupted by the Sheriff and others there; and they would have taken the paper out of his hand, but he would not let it go. … [So] trumpets were brought that he might not be heard.  Then he prayed, and so fitted himself, and received the blow … ”.  The composure and courage with which the regicides met their fate elicited much  sympathy from the watching masses – far from the reaction that  the authorities had wanted!

A seventeenth-century woodcut depicting Venner’s Rebellion

On January 19th,  1661, the cooper Thomas Venner was hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason, for attempting, with fifty or so following so-called  “Fifth Monarchists”, to overthrow the recently restored King Charles II and seize  London in the name of “King Jesus”.  (They believed  Him about to return, in fulfilment of a prophecy in the Book of Daniel that Four Monarchies would precede the Kingdom of Christ – the Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian and Roman.)   Venner and his men, many of whom were veterans of the Parliamentarian New Model Army of the Civil War,  had earlier  in the month congregated in Swan Alley, descended  upon and occupied St Paul’s, accosted passers-by and asked them who they were for, and shot dead one man who answered that he was for Charles.   They had then  gone on the run, and on the rampage, for several days, with Venner personally responsible for   three murders, committed  with a halberd, on Threadneedle Street (a number of people killed in the  rebellion were buried in the Bedlam Burial Ground).    The men were finally surrounded  by  an overwhelmingly superior force of troops, according to one colourful account,  in the Helmet Tavern on Threadneedle Street and the Blue Anchor on Coleman Street, where they made a last stand,  and were either  killed or captured (after troops broke in from roof level, smashing aside the roof tiles with the butts of their muskets).   Venner himself was captured, after being wounded no fewer than nineteen times, and then tried and convicted at the Old Bailey for his crimes.

A seventeenth-century Dutch depiction of the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667

The Second Anglo-Dutch War broke out in 1665, as England and the Netherlands continued to vie for control of the seas and lucrative maritime trade.    The early exchanges mainly went England’s way.  In August 1666, the English Vice-Admiral Robert Holmes launched a raid on the Vlie estuary, razing to the ground the town of West-Terschellling on the island of Terschelling, and destroying around 130 Dutch merchantmen, in what was to become known as “Holmes’s Bonfire”.  The following month, the Great Fire essentially destroyed the City of London, and came to be widely interpreted by the Dutch as an act of divine retribution for “Holmes’s Bonfire”, and by the English as an act of Dutch sabotage.  The war’s later exchanges went the way of the Netherlands,  as England’s  economy and war effort suffered during and after the Great Plague in 1665 and Great Fire of London in 1666.  In 1667, the Dutch Admiral de Ruyter launched a raid on the  English naval base on the Medway, a tributary of the Thames, a short distance downstream from London, capturing the fort at Sheerness, and destroying eighteen naval ships, including the “Loyal London”, “Royal James” and “Royal Oak”, and capturing another, the flagship, the “Royal Charles”.  It was an ignominious defeat for the Royal Navy, and effectively  forced the English to sue for peace.  The war ended in 1667, with the  Dutch ascendant in the field.  In accordance with the terms of the  peace treaty, the  Treaty of Breda, the Dutch were allowed to retain control of the spice island of Pulau Run in the Moluccas in the East Indies, and also of the sugar plantations in Suriname in  South America.  In exchange, the English were able to keep factual possession of the perceived less valuable New Netherland in North America, the capital of which, New Amsterdam, they renamed New York, after James, Duke of  York (the future James II).

Also in 1665, London  suffered terribly  during an outbreak of Bubonic Plague that came to be known as the “Great Plague”.  There had also been outbreaks in the sixteenth century and in the earlier part of the seventeenth,  in 1563, 1578-9, 1582, 1592-3, 1603, 1625, 1636 and 1647.   One John Harvard of the Queen’s Head Inn in Southwark decided to sail to America to seek his fortune after the rest of his family died in the outbreak in 1625, and the  university that he helped found  there, in Cambridge, Massachusetts,  now bears his name.  The “Great Plague” of 1665 killed at least 70,000 people in London, and possibly as many as 100,000 – far more than the “Black Death” of 1348-9, although far fewer in proportion to the overall population.  This was despite, and perhaps in part because of, the  intervention  of the Mayor, John Lawrence, who issued “Orders … ”  to combat the spread of the disease  which included the shutting up – for twenty-eight days – of all houses which had been  “visited”, complete with all their inhabitants, whether  infected or not (the houses were marked with foot-high  red crosses and guarded by watchmen, who provided food for as long as any inhabitants survived, while  also making sure that none was able to leave). 

The “Bills of Mortality” for the “Plague Year”

The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” – now in the London Metropolitan Archives – show that of the 70,000 recorded Plague deaths in London in 1665, only 10,000 were in the 97 parishes within the walls of the City  – possibly because a significant proportion  of those inhabitants who could afford to do so had fled to the country.  The remaining 60,000  Plague deaths were in the 16 – generally poorer – parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey.  St Giles Cripplegate, St Giles-in-the-Fields, St Margaret Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Stepney, where there were “pest-houses”, were among the worst affected, with a total of well over 20,000 deaths – 6,500 of them in Stepney alone.  The bodies of the Plague victims were buried either in parish churchyards or in emergency “plague pits”, the latter including those of Tothill Fields in Westminster, to the west; Bedlam, Bunhill Fields and  Holywell Mount, to the north; Aldgate and the  Stepney pest-fields, to the east; and Crossbones Graveyard and Deadman’s Place, to the south. On a macabre note, the bulk of the parish church  of All Hallows Staining  collapsed  in 1671, due, it is thought,  to undermining of the foundations by burials of – 112 – Plague victims!

In his diary, Samuel Pepys wrote with mounting horror of the advance of the disease across Europe from October, 1663, of  the vain attempts to stem it by the quarantining of  incoming ships, of its eventual  arrival in London in June, 1665, and then of its devastating spread over the succeeding summer and autumn.  On August 31st,  1665, he  wrote: “[T]he plague having a great increase this week, beyond all expectation of almost 2,000, making the general Bill [of Mortality] 7,000, odd 100; and the plague above 6,000”.  On September 14th: “[T]he Bill … in the City … is increased and likely to continue so, and is close to our house there.  My meeting dead corpses of the plague, carried to be buried close to me at noon-day …  in Fenchurch Street.  To see a person sick of the sores carried close by me by Grace-church in a hackney-coach.  My finding the Angell tavern, at the lower end of Tower-hill, shut up; and more than that, the alehouse at the Tower Stairs; and more than that, that the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there, a little while ago at night.  To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself.  To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams, to know how they did there, is dead of the plague; and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water … is now dead of the plague.  … To hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick.  And, lastly, that both my servants, W. Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulchre’s parish, of the plague this week, do put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason”.  And on September 20th:  “But, Lord! What a sad time it is to see no boats upon the river; and grass grows all up and down White Hall court, and nobody but poor wretches in the streets! And, which is worst of all, the Duke [of Albemarle] showed us the number of the plague this week, … that it is encreased …  more than the last, which is quite contrary to our hopes and expectations, from the coldness of the late season.  For the whole general number is 8297, and of them of the plague 7165; which is more in the whole … than the biggest Bill [of Mortality] yet: which is very grievous to us all”.  On the same day, one  John Tillison wrote: “Death stares us continually in the face in every infected person that passeth by us; in every coffin which is … carried along the streets.  … The custom was … to bury the dead in the night only; now, both night and day will hardly be time enough to do it.  … [L]ast week, … the dead was piled in heaps above ground … before either time could be gained or place to bury them.  The Quakers … have buried in their piece of ground [Bunhill Row] a thousand … .  Many are [also] dead in … other places about the town which are not included in the bill of mortality”.  The “Great Plague” was now at its peak in London, killing over a thousand people a day.  In the City, it had become so deathly still that there were weeds growing wild everywhere, even along Cornhill, Leadenhall Street, Bishopsgate and the other great streets, and in the Exchange.  So  silent  that far and wide the river  could be heard flowing under the score  arches of the old bridge.  My distant ancestor Frances West’s first husband, Citizen and Clothworker Robert Mickell, died of the plague on  September, 17th, 1665, having written in his will only days earlier, evidently only too aware of his own mortality, “I … being well in body … praised bee God for the same but considering the frailty of man’s life and not knowing how soon it may please Almighty God my creator to call me out of this transitory world doe make and ordayne this my last will and testament … ”. 

Pepys  later wrote with  heartfelt relief of the Plague’s  ultimate departure  in the winter of 1665 (it is commonly thought that it  was only killed off by the Great Fire of September, 1666, but the “Bills of Mortality” confirm Pepys’s observation   that it died out at the beginning of the winter of 1665).  On October 5th: “The Bill, blessed be God! is less this week by 740 of what it was the last”.  And on October 26th: “The ‘Change pretty full, and the town begins to be lively again”.  The plague  was now well past its peak, and some semblance of normality was beginning to return to a stricken city.  And the heroic physician Nathaniel Hodges, the only one, it is thought, who had remained in London throughout the plague year to treat the afflicted, could finally rest.  Twice he thought he felt himself succumbing to the  symptoms of the disease, and twice he kept it at bay by drinking increased draughts of sack (he also took a preventive electuary as large as a nutmeg each day).  He went on write an account of his experiences entitled   “Loimologia, sive, Pestis nuperae apud opulum Londinensem grassantis narratio historica” in1672, lamenting therein the uselessness of bezoar stone, unicorn horn and dried toad as anti-pestilential treatments.  Tragically,  he died a pauper in Ludgate Prison in 1688, and was buried in the church of St Stephen Walbrook.

Post-Medieval London, Pt. I – General and Tudor History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …


The Medieval period ended, and the post-Medieval or early Modern period  began, when the last Plantagenet or Yorkist King, Richard III, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the Wars of the Roses, and the first Tudor King, Henry VII, came to the throne, in 1485.   The post-Medieval was a time of continuing historical, political, religious and social turmoil, over two hundred years, and under two royal houses  and a Parliamentarian – albeit authoritarian –  Commonwealth and Protectorate.  It  was also a time of  continuing  war: war between the English  and the  Scots and the Irish; war between the English and the French, and the Spanish, and the Dutch; and war among the  English (in the Civil War in the seventeenth century). 

There are sufficient surviving records of one kind or another to enable us to undertake a reasonably accurate reconstruction not only of the history of but also of the social history, of post-Medieval London.  These include court, corporation and ward records, and also parish registers, of “every wedding, christening and burying”, the keeping of which  was mandated in 1538, by Henry VIII’s Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell.    Personal contemporary eye-witness accounts include those of Andreas Franciscus, writing in 1497; Henry Machyn, writing between 1550-63; Charles Wriothesley, writing around 1558, and not later than  1562; Grenade, writing in 1578; John Chamberlain, writing between 1597-1626; John Stow, writing in 1598; John Manningham, writing between 1601-3; John Evelyn, writing between 1631-1706; James Howell, writing in 1657; John Reresby, writing sometime after 1658; and Samuel Pepys, writing continuously between 1660-9, and discontinuously between 1670-86, after his eyesight had begun to fail him.  Contemporary biographical sketches of some of the key historical figures of the period are given by John Aubrey in his “Brief Lives … ”, published in 1696.

The Venetian Franciscus wrote of London in 1497, in early Tudor times: “The town itself stretches from East to West, and is three miles in circumference.  However, its suburbs are so large that they greatly increase its circuit.   … Throughout the town are to be seen many workshops of craftsmen … .  This makes the town look exceedingly prosperous and well-stocked … .    The working in wrought silver, tin or white lead is very expert here, and perhaps the finest I have ever seen.  There are many mansions, which do not … seem very large from the outside, but inside … are quite considerable … .  All the streets are so badly paved that they get wet at the slightest quantity of water, and this happens very frequently … .  A vast amount of evil-smelling mud is formed, which does not disappear … but lasts … nearly the whole year round.  The citizens, therefore, in order to remove mud and filth from their boots, are accustomed to spread … rushes on the floors of all houses … .  Merchants not only from Venice but also Florence and Lucca, and many from Genoa and Pisa, from Spain, Germany, …  and other countries meet here to handle business with the utmost keenness … .   Londoners have such fierce tempers and wicked dispositions  that they not only despise the way … Italians  live,  but actually pursue them with uncontrollable hatred, and whereas at Bruges foreigners are hospitably received … by everybody, here the Englishmen use them with the utmost contempt and arrogance, and make them the object of insults.  They eat very frequently, at times more than is suitable … ”.  It is interesting to note how closely Franciscus’s description follows  the Venetian senate’s written instructions to its ambassadors on intelligence-gathering!  And the Frenchman  Grenade wrote in late Tudor times, in 1578: “[T]he city …  with its buildings is wondrously pleasing on the eye, and in its shape and situation alongside the river, describes an arc of very beautiful form.  …   This river conveys large vessels  of between two and 300 tons burden to the … city : … by which means all manner of goods from all countries abound here.  … She is encompassed on all sides by beautiful meadows … , gardens and cultivable lands, which, on account of their fertility, yield much produce each year.  The villages (of which there is a great number in the environs) are … only about two harquebus shots distant from the city”.  Machyn was  a merchant taylor or clothier but is now best known as a chronicler of Tudor times.  His  chronicles  cover  the Reformation, and the conversion of the country to Protestantism, under Henry VIII, and the Counter-Reformation, and reversion to Catholicism,  under his daughter Mary.  Judging from his actions, as well as from  the tone of his chronicle, Machyn would appear to have been at least  a closet Catholic.  In 1561, he committed the sinful act of “spyking serten [slanderous] words against Veron the [Protestant] preacher”, for which he paid penance at (St) Paul’s Cross. 

Stow was another merchant taylor, but also an amateur antiquarian, and the author of “A Survay of London … ”, recounting  in intricate detail not only the topography but also the social history of the City in  the Elizabethan era, and rather ruing most of the many changes that had taken place  over its course.  The famous last  words of the “Survay” of 1598 were “And so I end, wanting time to travel further in this work”.  An updated  second edition was published in 1603 (and updated versions by Anthony Munday in 1618 and in 1633, and by John Strype in 1720). 

Stow’s memorial in the  church of St Andrew Undershaft shows him with a quill-pen in his hand.  Every third year, on or around the anniversary of his death on April 5th, as part of a special service in the church in his memory, he is ceremonially presented  with a new quill, and his old one is given to the  winner of an essay competition for local children, with London as its subject. 

Chamberlain is best known now as the author of a large number   of letters that, collectively, “constitute the first considerable body … in English history and literature that the modern reader can easily follow”.  His  letters  cover  such  events in late Tudor to early Stuart times as the trial of the Earls of Essex and Southampton, the Gunpowder Plot, and the execution of Walter Ralegh.  Most of the nearly 500 that still survive were written to Sir Dudley Carleton while the latter was serving as an ambassador in Venice and The Hague, and were evidently intended to keep the ambitious diplomat abroad  informed  of events – especially those befalling “the better sort of people” – at home.  They contain much court and City tittle-tattle (“who’s in, who’s out”), picked up, no doubt,  in St Paul’s Cathedral, which at the time had a reputation as  the fount of all such – it appears that  Chamberlain was an inveterate “Paul’s walker”! 

Evelyn was a gentleman of independent means, closely connected to court circles, a keen gardener, an author (of, for example, “Fumifugium” and “Sylva”); and also, like his friend Samuel Pepys,  a diarist.  His diary covers the Civil War and Commonwealth, the Restoration, the Great Plague, the Great Fire and much besides.   The  striking portrait of him painted by Robert Walker in 1648, and now in the National Portrait Gallery, shows a still youthful man with fine slender features, nonetheless wearing a melancholy expression, as he meditates on death, symbolised by a  skull at his left hand.  From 1653 onwards, Evelyn lived at Sayes Court in Deptford.  On February 6th, 1698, he noted in his diary that he had leased his  estate out to “The Czar Emp: of Moscovy [Peter the Great], [his] having a mind to see the Building of Ships [in the nearby royal dockyard]”.  Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, the Czar, who had something of a  reputation for drunken riotous living, proved  far from a model guest.   He  proceeded to comprehensively  trash Evelyn’s house – knocking a hole in the wall to allow easier access to the shipyard, breaking over three hundred windows, twenty pictures and  fifty chairs, ruining all the paintwork, curtains and bedding, covering all the floors with ink and grease, and in all causing – in today’s terms – several tens of thousands of pound’s worth of damage!  Worst of all, he destroyed Evelyn’s pride and joy, the “impregnable” hedge  in his garden, “four hundred foot in length, nine Foot high, and five in diameter … [that] mocks at the rudest assaults of the Weather, Beasts or Hedge-breakers”, making a great play of being repeatedly pushed through it in a wheelbarrow – of the £162 7s compensation eventually paid to Evelyn  by the Office of Works, £1 was specifically to cover the damage   to his wheelbarrows!  Perhaps as an act of atonement, the Czar planted a mulberry tree in Evelyn’s garden, which still stands, albeit now ancient and gnarled, in what is now Sayes Court Park. 

Perhaps the best known of the chroniclers, though, is Pepys, a high-ranking civil servant in the Navy Office, and eventual Secretary to the Admiralty; and, also, famously, a diarist.  Pepys’s diary  covers such momentous events in late Stuart times as the Restoration  of the Monarchy of 1660,  the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.  Pepys  was an Establishment figure, well known in official and court circles; and, as such,  less an “everyman” caught up in events than one very much of his time, and, particularly, place, that is to say, his place in the prevailing social and class hierarchy.  His thoughts and deeds were often to greater or lesser degrees self-serving: he obsessed over his wealth (“To my accounts, wherein … I … , to my great discontent, do find that my gettings this year have been … less than … last… ”); employed sycophancy  and deceitfulness to increase  the same, or otherwise to get his way; and was not beyond resorting to emotional cruelty,  especially towards his wife, Elizabeth, and even to physical violence.  However, his written words were almost always honest and true, and unsparingly and disarmingly so when describing his own shortcomings, or otherwise to his detriment.  There was something of  a child-like quality to the man, characteristically beautifully described by Robert Louis Stevenson, in part as follows:   “Pepys was a young man for his age, came slowly to himself in the world, sowed his wild oats late, took late to industry and preserved till nearly forty the headlong gusto of a boy.  So, to come rightly at the spirit in which the Diary was written, we must recall a class of sentiments which with most of us are over and done before the age of twelve”.  His accomplishments  were many and varied, though, especially those at the Navy Office  (it has been said that, “without Pepys,   there could have been no Horatio  Nelson”).

Tudor History

Under the Tudors, it was above all a time of religious  Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and of religious war – not to mention cold war and espionage.  The Protestant Reformation of the Catholic Church may be said to have begun in Germany in 1517, with the publication by Martin Luther of the “Ninety-Five Theses” or “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences”, which, among other things,  roundly attacked the established practice of the sale of indulgences  (“When a penny in the coffer rings,|A soul from Purgatory springs”).   Protestantism  was to spread through much of northern Europe over the succeeding thirty years.

Henry Tudor was  crowned King Henry VII  of England in 1485.   In   1497, around 10,000 – lightly – armed Cornish rebels gathered on Blackheath preparatory to marching on London to protest against oppressive royal rule and punitive taxation (suspension of the privileges of the “Stannary Charter” of 1305).  Unfortunately for them, they failed to rally  any support there from the Kentish, who were rightly fearful of a reprisal of the sort that had been meted out to them for their support of the “Peasants’ Revolt” in  1381 and Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450.  It was thus a comparatively  weak force, further diluted by desertion,  that eventually lighted out  for London, and certainly one that was easily crushed by the King’s 20,000-strong professional army  at the Battle of Deptford Bridge (also known as the Battle of Blackheath).  Contemporary records indicate that between two hundred and two thousand Cornishmen were killed in the battle, along with between eight and three hundred of the King’s men.  The principal rebel leaders   Michael Joseph the Smith (“An Gof”) and Thomas Flamank were  captured at the battle and later hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, whereupon their heads were put up on pike-staffs on London Bridge.  Flamank was quoted as saying  “Speak the truth and only then can you be free of your chains”.  Nonetheless, the persecution and pauperisation of the Cornish continued for many years to come.

Henry’s son, also Henry, was crowned King Henry VIII in 1512, while still in his early twenties.  According to Hall’s “Annals”, on May Day in 1515: “The King and the Queen [Catherine of Aragon] accompanied with many lords and ladies rode [from the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich] to the high ground of Shooters Hill to take the open air, and as they passed by the way, they espied a company of tall yeomen, clothed all in green with green hoods and bows and arrows, to the number of two hundred.  Then one of them which called himself Robin Hood came to the King desiring him to see his men shoot, and the King was content.  Then he whistled, and all the 200 archers shot and loosed at once, and then he whistled again, and they likewise shot again; their arrows whistled by craft of the head, so that the noise was strange and great and much pleased the King, the Queen and all the company.  Then Robin Hood desired the King and Queen to come into the greenwood and see how the outlaws lived.  … Then the horns blew till they came to the wood under Shooters Hill, and there was an arber made of boughs with a hall and a great chamber and an inner chamber very well made and covered with flowers and sweet herbs, which the King much praised.  Then said Robin Hood: ‘Sir, outlaws’ breakfast is venison, and thereafter you must be content with such fare as we use’.  Then the King and Queen sat down and were served with venison and wine by Robin Hood and his men, to their great contentation”.  On and around May Day two years later, in 1517, the so-called “Evil May Day” riots, marked by attacks on “aliens” and on their places of residence and of business, took place in the City of London, following an inflammatory speech by a Dr Beal or Bell at St Paul’s Cross,  inciting the crowd “to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”.  At the time there was considerable popular resentment towards “aliens”  in general and “alien”  merchants in particular, on account of their perceived preferential treatment by City authorities.  The riots were eventually broken up only after thousands of troops were called in and  hundreds of rioters taken prisoner.  The ring-leaders were then more or less immediately hanged, drawn and quartered, and their remains gibbeted.  The remainder, though, despite also facing the death penalty for the treason of “breaking the peace of Christendom”, were eventually pardoned by the king, Henry VIII, probably largely thanks to pleas for mercy made by his queen, Catherine of Aragon, and by Thomas Wolsey. At this, the prisoners “took the halters from their necks and danced and sang”.  According to a contemporary account, in the  “The Chronicle of the Grey Friars”:“Thys yere was yell [evil] May Day, that yong men and prentes of London rose in the nyght, and wolde have had James Mottas an owte-landych mane … slayne … , but he hyde hym in hys gotters in hys howse; and from thence they wente un to sent Martyns, and there spoyled the … shoppes; and thane rose the mayer and shreffes and wolde have cessyd them, but they cowed not.  … And iiij or v days after … , … at the last there were dyvers of them hongyd within the citte on gallos  … .  And within shorte space the kynge satte in Westmyster halle, and there was commandyd the … rest of them …  to come with halters abowte their neckes … to ask pardone, and soo a generall pardone was gevyne unto theme alle that came that tyme”.  In the aftermath of the riots, the annual May Day celebrations that had taken place for hundreds of years were discontinued, and the May Pole that gave Undershaft its name was taken away. 

One of Henry VIII’s less-well-known contributions to English history was his consolidation of the country’s armed forces both at sea and on land – his construction of an island-fortress.   The Royal Naval Dockyard in Woolwich was opened early in  his reign, in 1512, and prospered in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before eventually closing down in the nineteenth (the Royal Arsenal here became operational  in 1671, and was decommissioned in 1967).  A number of historically important ships were built here, including the carvel-built “Henry Grace a Dieu” or “Great Harry”, in 1514; the “Prince Royal, in 1610; the “Sovereign of the Seas, in 1637; and the “Royal Charles”, in 1655 (not to mention the “Beagle”, in 1820).   The Dockyard in Deptford was opened  in 1513, and, like that in Woolwich, prospered in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before eventually closing down in the nineteenth.   Documentary evidence indicates that a number of naval vessels  were  brought to a  specially constructed “pond(e)” or wet dock here in 1520, possibly for repairs, among them  the recently-salvaged flagship, the “Mary Rose” (now in the Royal Naval Dockyard in  Portsmouth, where it was built), the  “Peter Pomegarnet” or “Peter Pomegranate”, the “Great Bark”, and the “Lesser Bark”.   The Dockyard  in  Erith was opened  in 1514, and closed in 1521, due to persistent flooding.   That  in Chatham in Kent was opened in 1567, that is, early in the  reign of Elizabeth I, and prospered in the late sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, before eventually closing in the twentieth.  Chatham enjoyed the considerable advantage over the London dockyards of being located twenty-five miles downriver, at the point at which  the Thames is met by the Medway, and obviously that much closer to the open sea.  The so-called “Gresham Ship”, an armed merchantman, recently (re)discovered, wrecked, in – and recovered from – the Thames Estuary, is an example of the sort built in the aforementioned dockyards in the Tudor period.  Dendrochronological – tree-ring – analysis of the ship’s timbers has yielded a construction date of around 1574, that is to say, during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Partial reconstruction indicates that the intact vessel  would have measured a little over 80’ from bow to stern, and a little under 25’ from side to side, and weighed some 160 tons, making it similar in size to Drake’s “Golden Hind(e)” (built in 1577).  It was carvel-built, of robust construction, and fitted with gun ports.  Significantly, one of the four cannon recovered from the ship bears  the initials T.G., together with the grasshopper insignia of the City merchant Thomas Gresham, which is how came to be known as “The Gresham Ship” (Thomas Gresham lived from 1519-79, founding what was to become known as the Royal Exchange in 1568, and, by bequest, Gresham College in 1597).  It is possible that  the “Gresham Ship” might actually be the “Cherabin”, which surviving historical records indicate was owned by the Levant Company between 1590-1600; served under Thomas Howard as a privateer in the Azores in 1591, capturing prize cargoes of sugar, ginger, sarsaparilla, brazilwood and suchlike, valued at £2,000 (at least £400,000 in today’s terms); and, significantly, sank, in the Kentish Flats, in 1603 (after losing its rudder in a storm, and striking a sandbank). 

Tilbury Fort in Essex was originally built  by Henry VIII in 1536, and was later extended and reinforced by Elizabeth I in 1588, to counter  the threat from the Spanish Armada. What is now known as the Honourable Artillery Company had its origins in the “Fraternity or Guild of Artillery of Longbows, Crossbows and Handgonnes”, incorporated by a Royal Charter of Henry VIII  in 1537 (and also known – although probably not to his face – as “Fat Hal’s Militia”).  The original roles of the unit were “the maintenance of the science of artillery” and “the better increase of the defence of this our realm”.  From 1572 onwards, it also assumed responsibility for training the City of London’s part-time militia, the so-called “trained bands”.  It remains the oldest unit still serving  in the Regular – if not the Territorial – Army (the Grenadier Guards were formed from its ranks in 1656, and the Royal Marines in 1664).   From around the time its formation in the middle of the sixteenth century up until the end of the seventeenth, the company trained in the Artillery Yard in Tasel Close in Spitalfields.  The remains of the Master Gunner’s House, dating to 1581, have recently been unearthed in an  archaeological excavation in Spital Square, together with the remains of firing platforms.  Nearby are Artillery Lane and Artillery Passage.

In 1527, Henry VIII’s  first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after nearly twenty years of marriage, having borne him a daughter (Mary), but not a longed-for son and heir, Henry decided to petition the Supreme Head of the Catholic Church, Pope Clement VII, to seek an annulment that would allow him to marry Anne Boleyn.  This quest was to become known as “The King’s Great Matter”.  In 1529, the Legatine Court, convened in the Parliament Hall in Blackfriars Priory, under  the Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, and the King’s representative, the Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor and, in practice, alter rex, or “other king”, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey,  ruled against  any such action.  Wolsey  died in 1530, en route from York to London, where he had been due to face a trial for treason  over his failure to  secure the  annulment that Henry sought.  Among his last words were the following: “Had I but served my God with but half the zeal as I served my king [in his “Great Matter”], He would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies”.  The most of his many notable earlier services to the state included arranging the “Anglo-French Treaty” in 1514, and the “Treaty of London” – essentially a pan-European non-aggression pact – in 1518, as well as the “Field of Cloth-of-Gold” (Camp du Drap d’Or) in  1520.

In the event, in the January of 1533, Henry proceeded to marry  Anne in spite of the Legatine Court’s ruling, albeit in secret, and in the June of the same year, had her  formally crowned Queen.  Three short years later, in  1536, he was to order her  execution   in the Tower for treason.  Henry also ordered the executions of Anne’s brother George, on trumped-up charges of an adulterous and incestuous relationship with her; and of William Brereton, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, and Francis Weston, also on charges of adultery.  Accused alongside the aforementioned,  but ultimately spared the axe, was the courtier Thomas Wyatt the Elder (incidentally, also a fine poet, widely credited with introducing the Petrarchan sonnet into English literature).  Wyatt the Younger would enjoy  no such good fortune  under Queen Mary.  On the scaffold, Anne gave a short speech to the assembled crowd, recorded  in Foxe’s “Actes and Monuments” as follows: “Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul”.

The King  made himself, rather than the Pope,  the Supreme Head of the Church in England, through the passing of the Act of Supremacy of 1534, whereafter his subjects were made to swear  oaths acknowledging not only his supremacy  (the Oath of Supremacy), but also that of his children  and  successors to the throne (the Oath of Succession).  Even after the break with Rome, and despite his excommunication by Pope Paul III in 1538, the King  – the erstwhile “Fidei Defensor” or “Defender of the Faith” – appears to have remained theologically essentially Catholic.  At  the same time, though,   the Church in England, and the country at large, became increasingly Protestant.   Among those primarily responsible for the rise of  Protestantism were Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Thomas Cromwell, the King’s  Chief Minister from 1534, and Vicar-General, and Vice-Gerent in Spirituals, from 1535.  The spread of the word was facilitated  by the publication  of an English translation of the Bible, by Miles Coverdale, in 1535, and by the availability of copies thereof in every parish church in the land by between  1538-41.  It was Cranmer who established   the doctrines and liturgies  of the Protestant church, and  suppressed   – certain – Catholic sacraments, the practices of veneration of images and relics, and the belief in Purgatory, through the “Ten Articles” of 1536, the “Bishop’s Book” of 1537, the “Six Articles” of 1539,  and the “Forty-Two Articles” of 1553 (and also through his input into the “King’s Book”, attributed to Henry himself, of 1543).  The “enforcer” Cromwell  was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1540, having  been attainted, or  in other words found guilty without trial, of a range of charges almost certainly trumped up by his enemies, including the Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Stephen Gardiner  (King Henry  is said later to have regretted his execution).    He had finally fallen out of favour, and victim to the sort of court intrigue that to that date he had himself customarily been behind, over his ill-advised choice of Anne of Cleves as the new wife for the King.  The lawyer, politician and chronicler Edward Hall recorded that  “[H]e … committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office [Execution]”.  Cranmer would  be burned at the stake in Oxford in 1556, during the then Catholic Queen Mary’s Counter-Reformation, for Protestant heresy.  At the stake, he thrust into the rising flames the “unworthy” right hand with which he had signed the  earlier coerced recantation of his Protestant faith,  and retracted the recantation with the words: “as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine”.  Coverdale would  be exiled under Mary, between 1553-8, eventually to  return to London in 1559, and die there in 1569.  His body would be buried in the church of St Bartholomew by the Exchange, and later, when that church was demolished, moved to St Magnus the Martyr.

Any Catholic threat to the Protestant Reformation, whether actual or interpreted, was dealt with without mercy.  By way of an example, in 1534,  Elizabeth Barton, otherwise known as the “Holy Maid of Kent”, was hanged and beheaded  at Tyburn for treason, for having prophesied that if the Henry were to break from  the Church in Rome, he would die, and be sent to Hell.  In 1535, John Houghton, the Prior of the London Charterhouse, two further Carthusian priors, a Bridgettine monk from Syon Abbey, and a parish priest from Isleworth, were  hanged, drawn  and quartered at Tyburn, for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy (later, a  further six  monks from the Charterhouse were executed; and nine allowed to die, of starvation, in gaol, in Newgate).  The Bridgettine monk,  Richard Reynolds, famously encouraged those  who suffered alongside him by promising them that after their “sharp breakfast” they would enjoy a “heavenly supper”.    Also in 1535, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester and a Cardinal, and Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, humanist, social philosopher, author (of “Utopia”) and “the King’s good servant, but God’s first”,  were beheaded at  Tower Hill, also for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy  (interestingly, both Fisher and More are honoured as saints  by both the Catholic Church and the Church of England).    More had earlier witnessed, through the window of his prison cell in the Tower, Houghton and his co-condemned being taken to Tyburn to be executed, and had commented to his daughter, Meg Roper: “These blessed Fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage”.  His son-in-law William Roper wrote of his, More’s  execution:  “And soe was he brought by Mr Lievetenaunt out of the Towre, and thence led towards the place of execution, where goinge upp the Scaffold, … he sayde … ‘I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lievetenaunt, see me safe upp, and for my cominge downe let mee shift for my selfe’.  Then desired he all the people thereaboutes to pray for him, and to beare witnesse with him, that he should suffer death in and for the faith of the holie Catholique Church, which done hee kneeled downe, and after his prayers sayed, hee turned to the executioner, and with a cheerful Countenance spake unto him, ‘Plucke up thy spirittes, man, and be not affrayed to do thine office … ’.  Soe passed Sir Thomas Moore out of this world to God … ”. 

And in 1538, John Forest, a Franciscan friar and confessor to Catherine of Aragon, was burned at the stake in West Smithfield for heresy, for refusing to recant his faith; fuel for the fire, according to folk-legend, being provided by a statue of St Derfel from the pilgrimage site of Llandderfel in North Wales, which it had been prophesied would “one day set a forest on fire”. 

Neither were heterodox Protestants immune from persecution.  In 1538, two  unnamed Anabaptists were burned at the stake in West Smithfield for heresy, and the following year  a further three on  Newington Causeway – one named Mandeville, one Collins, and another unnamed.  And, famously, in  1546, the last full year of Henry’s reign, Anne Askew, gentlewoman, was burned at the stake in West Smithfield, for preaching against the then still orthodox  belief in transubstantiation.  She had previously been racked by the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesley, and his henchman, Richard Rich, in the Tower of London, and   she had to be carried from there to,  and seated at,  the stake.    The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, in his “Book of Martyrs” of 1563,  gives the following as Anne Askew’s own account: “They said to me there, that I was a heretic, and condemned by the law, if I would stand in my opinion. I answered, that I was no heretic, neither yet deserved I any death by the law of God. But, as concerning the faith which I uttered and wrote to the council, I would not, I said, deny it, because I knew it true. Then would they needs know, if I would deny the sacrament to be Christ’s body and blood. I said, ‘Yea: for the same Son of God that was born of the Virgin Mary, is now glorious in heaven, and will come again from thence at the latter day like as he went up. And as for that ye call your God …  a piece of bread … ,  …  let it but lie in the box three months, and it will be mouldy, and so turn to nothing that is good. Whereupon I am persuaded that it cannot be God’“.

The Reformation was followed by the  Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536-40, which essentially resulted in the appropriation by the Crown  of all the monastic houses in England, Wales and Ireland, of which there were several hundred, and of all of their assets (monastic houses in Scotland were annexed by the Scottish King, James VI, in 1587).    The smaller  houses, with incomes of less than £200 per year, as evaluated by the Valor Ecclestiacus, were dissolved  under The Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries of 1536; the larger  ones, by The Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries of 1539; and corresponding orders were  given to “pull down to the grounds all the walls of the churches, stepulls, cloysters, fraterys, dorters [and] chapterhowsys”.   

After the Dissolution, the lands and assets of the monastic houses were disbursed, under the auspices of Thomas Cromwell, and his Court of Augmentations.   In London, the change in land ownership and usage is evident in the marked contrast between the “British Atlas of Historic Towns” map of 1520 (Lobel, 1989), from before the event, and the “Copper Plate” map of c. 1559, the “Agas” one of c. 1570, and the Braun and Hogenberg one of  1572, from after the event.  Many of the properties of the monastic houses evidently became parish churches, hospitals, orphanages or schools, or combinations thereof, or playhouses, while others passed into private ownership.  For example, the priory church of St Mary Overie became the parish church of St Saviour, and eventually the collegiate church of St Mary Overie and St Saviour, or Southwark Cathedral; and that part of the priory church of St Bartholomew that was spared demolition became the  parish church of St Bartholomew the Great, the associated hospital remaining in use, and growing in importance.   The Charterhouse became initially a private residence in turn occupied by Sir Edward North, the Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, from 1545; and eventually a charitable alms-house and school founded by a bequest from Thomas Sutton,  the one-time Master of the Ordnance of the Northern Parts and the richest man in England, from 1611 (the school relocated to Godalming in Surrey in 1872). Parts of the precincts of Holywell, Blackfriars  and Whitefriars Priories became playhouses.  For a while,  Blackfriars priory church housed  the “Office of the Revels”, where plays were either approved or censored, and then licensed, and also where theatrical  sets and costumes were procured, under the “Master of the Revels” Thomas Cawarden, who held the post from 1544-59.  After Cawarden’s death, the “Office … ” relocated to either the  Gate-House or the Great Chamber – sources differ – of the  Priory of St John in Clerkenwell, in 1560.  And later still, in 1608, to Whitefriars.   Incidentally, Whitefriars Priory  was not dissolved immediately, and its  precinct served  initially as a temporary sanctuary for its  friars, and eventually as a semi-permanent one  for the population at large.  Indeed, the right of  sanctuary,  and exemption from  local law, was upheld by Elizabeth I in 1580 and James I in 1608.  In consequence, the  area was to become notorious for its fugitive criminals and criminality, and,  eventually   to be known as “Alsatia”, after the – literally – lawless territory lying between   France and Germany and outside the jurisdiction of either.  Of the  former monks, nuns and priors of the dissolved monastic houses, of whom there were several hundred city-wide, and several thousand country-wide, most went to work in the newly created parish churches, although a still substantial number were forced to seek out entirely new ways of life.  Most were at least  offered more or less generous pensions.  Note also, though, that some  monks  were executed during the Reformation.

Henry VIII died in 1547, and was  buried in Windsor Castle (it is said that while his body was being transported there for burial, it was temporarily accommodated at at the former Syon Abbey, where it burst open in its coffin, and dogs lapped at  the liquid that seeped out).  On his death-bed, he handed over his kingly power, and with it the responsibility for the defence of the Protestant faith, to his young only son, Edward, borne to him by his third wife, Jane Seymour (who died in the process). 

There is an extraordinary at least broadly contemporary anonymous painting of the scene, entitled “An Allegory of Reformation” (now in the National Portrait Gallery).  It depicts  Edward with a defeated Catholic Pope at his feet!   Lying to Edward’s right is his dying father Henry.  Standing to his left is  his  uncle, Edward Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector.  Seated round a table, under a painting of image-breaking, are: in white vestments, Thomas  Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; with a grey beard, John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford and Lord Privy Seal; and five further gentlemen whose identities are either disputed or altogether unknown. 

Edward duly became the boy-King Edward VI on his coronation.  There  was   a painting of his coronation procession, of which copies survive, the original having been lost.  It is noteworthy for featuring a fine bird’s-eye view of the City of London.  Edward was  a hard-line Protestant.  And a literal iconoclast.  According to “The Chronicle of the Grey Friars”:  “Item the 5th day …  in September [1547] began the King’s visitation at Paul’s and all the images pulled down: and the 9th day of the same month the said visitation was at St. Bride’s, and after that in divers other parish churches … .  …  Item at this same time was pulled up all the tomes, …  altars, …  and walls of the quire … in the church that was at some time the Gray friars and sold, and the quire made smaller … . Item … following [1548] … was Barking chapel at the Tower hill pulled down, and Saint Martin’s [le Grand] … , Saint Nicholas in the chambulles [Shambles], and Saint [Audouen, Ewen or] Ewyns, and within the Gatte of Newgate these were put with the church that was at some time the Gray Friars: and also [St Mary] Strand church was pulled down to make the protector duke of Somerset’s place larger”.  There  was a regal and statesman-like side to the boy-King  as well.  In 1551, he wrote in his diary of how he had, amid much pomp, accommodated and entertained the Catholic Queen Dowager (and mother of Mary Queen of Scots) Mary of Guise at Westminster, after her ship had been forced ashore by bad weather en route from France to Scotland.  His entry reads in part as follows: “[D]ivers … lords and gentlemen, … ladies and gentlewomen went to her, and brought her through London to Westminster.  At the gate there received her the Duke of Northumberland, Great Master, and the Treasurer, and Comptroller, and the Earl of Pembroke, with all the sewers [messieurs], and carvers, and cup-bearers, to the number of thirty.  In the hall I met her, with all the rest of the Lords of my Council, as the Lord Treasurer, … etc., and from the outer gate up to the presence chamber, on both sides, stood the guard.  And so having brought her to her chamber, I retired to mine.  I went to her at dinner; she dined under the same cloth of state, at my left hand; at her rearward dined my cousin Francis, and my cousin Margaret; at mine sat the French Ambassador.  We were served by two services, two sewers, cupbearers, and gentlemen.  Her master hostel [Maitre d’Hotel] came before her service, and my officers before mine.  … After dinner, when she had heard some music, I brought her into the hall, and she went away”.

Edward had stipulated in his will that he wished to be succeeded not by his half-sister, Mary, Henry’s daughter, by his first wife Catherine of Aragon, who was a Catholic, but by Lady Jane Grey, who was a fellow Protestant.  Jane was indeed duly proclaimed Queen on 10th June, 1553, but was overthrown by Mary only nine days later, on 19th June.  She was later tried and convicted on a charge of treason in the November of  1553, and eventually executed in the February of  1554.   Her father, Henry Grey, was  executed a matter of a few days after her, for his role in “Wyatt’s Rebellion”.

Mary was proclaimed Queen on 19th June, 1553.   Stow wrote: “In the year 1553 the 19. of July, the Counsell partlie moved with the right of the Lady Maries cause, partly considering that the most of the Realme was wholly bent on her side, changing their mind from Lady Jane lately proclaimed Queene, assembled themselves at this Baynardes Castle, where they communed with the Earle of Pembrooke and the Earl of Shrewsbury and Sir John Mason Clearke of the Counsell, sent for the Lord Mayor, and then riding into Cheape to the Crosse, where Gartar King at Armes, Trumpet being sounded, proclaimed the Lady Daughter to King Henry the eighth and Queene Katharen Queene of England … ”. As intimated above, she  evidently enjoyed a measure  of popular  support, at least initially.  Henry Machyn described how her coronation was accompanied by “song, and … belles ryngyng thrugh London, and bone-fyres, and tabuls in evere strett, and wyne and beer and alle … ”. 

Under Mary’s reign, the country reverted to Catholicism.  And, under her Counter-Reformation, a number of Protestants were executed for heresy  – hence her nick-name, “Bloody Mary”, and that of one of her most enthusiastic supporters, Bishop Edmund Bonner, “Bloody Bonner”.  The total  number of persons executed under Mary has been estimated to have been 290 (with a further several hundred going into exile).  Note in this context, though, that  the numbers  of those executed under her Protestant predecessors Henry VIII and Edward VI have  been estimated to have between 37,000-72,000, and 5,500, respectively; and the number executed under her Protestant successor Elizabeth I, 2-600. 

In late 1553 to early 1554,  Thomas Wyatt the Younger plotted a rebellion against Mary, and in particular her plan to marry the Catholic King of Spain, Philip. The aims of the rebellion were  to overthrow Mary, and to put in her place her half-sister Elizabeth (and also to  have Elizabeth marry the Protestant Earl of Devon, Edward Courtenay).  These aims were to be achieved by force of arms, with each of the four main rebel leaders responsible for assembling  an army in his respective corner of the country before marching on London: Wyatt in Kent; Henry Grey (the father of Lady Jane Grey), the Duke of Suffolk, in Leicestershire; Sir James Croft in Herefordshire; and Sir Peter Carew in Devon.  In the event, only Wyatt succeeded in raising much of a rebel  army, which grew further on its march to London through desertions from forces sent to oppose it, and eventually became some four thousand strong.     The  army arrived in Southwark in  the February of 1554, to find its way into the City of London blocked at London Bridge by further forces, responding to Mary’s stirring rallying-call at the Guildhall two days earlier (the army  was also  threatened by cannon in the Tower of London, commanded by the Lieutenant of the Tower, John Bruges or Brydges, who intimated that he was prepared to put them to use).   It then  withdrew, wheeled west to Kingston to cross the river there, marched back east and   attempted to enter the City again at Ludgate, where it was again faced down, and where it broke up.  After the failure of his rebellion, Wyatt was tortured at the Tower before being tried, convicted and eventually executed in the April.    His torturers had evidently hoped that he would somehow implicate Elizabeth, but he did not.  Elizabeth was herself temporarily imprisoned in the Tower while her supposed complicity was further investigated, but none was ever  proven. 

In the February of 1555, John Rogers, the vicar of the church of St Sepulchre, was burned at the stake in West Smithfield, becoming the  first of the so-called “Marian martyrs”.   John Foxe, in his “Book of Martyrs”,  gives the following account of Rogers’s execution:  “[He] was brought …  toward Smithfield, saying the psalm “Miserere” by the way, all the people wonderfully rejoicing at his constancy, with great praises and thanks to God for the same. And there, in the presence of … a wonderful number of people, the fire was put unto him; and when it had taken hold both upon his legs and shoulders, he, as one feeling no smart, washed his hands in the flame, as though it had been in cold water. And, after lifting up his hands unto heaven, not removing the same until such time as the devouring fire had consumed them – most mildly this happy martyr yielded up his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father. A little before his burning at the stake, his pardon was brought, if he would have recanted, but he utterly refused. He was the first proto-martyr of all the blessed company that suffered in Queen Mary’s time, that gave the first adventure upon the fire. His wife and children, being eleven in number, and ten able to go, and one sucking on her breast, met him by the way as he went towards Smithfield. This sorrowful sight of his own flesh and blood could nothing move him; but that he constantly and cheerfully took his death, with wonderful patience, in the defence and quarrel of Christ’s gospel.”  A plaque in West Smithfield marks the site of Rogers’s execution.  Later in 1555, John Bradford and John Philpot were also burned in West Smithfield.  In this instance, Foxe gives this  account:  “ … When Bradford and Leaf came to the Stake … , they lay flat on their faces, praying to themselves the space of a minute of an hour.  Then one of the Sheriffs said … , Arise and make an end … .  At that word they both stood … and … Bradford took a Fagot in his hand, and kissed it, and so likewise the Stake.  … And so … Bradford went to the Stake: and holding up his hands, and casting his countenance to Heaven, he said thus, O England, England, repent thee of thy sins, repent thee of thy sins.  Beware of Idolatry, beware of false Antichrists, take heed they do not deceive you.  And … one of the Officers … made the fire … .  [And] Bradford … asked all the world forgiveness, and forgave all the world, and prayed the people to pray with him, and turned … unto the young man that suffered with him, and said, Be of good comfort Brother; for we shall have a merry Supper with the Lord this night: And so spake no more words that any man did hear … ”.  As in the case of Rogers, a plaque in West Smithfield marks the site of Bradford and Leaf(e)’s execution.  And in 1556, eleven  men and two women were burned in Stratford, in front of a crowd of 20,000.

When Mary died in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter by his second  wife Anne Boleyn, became Queen, and the  country reverted once more to Protestantism.  The “Recusancy Acts”, intended to enforce  participation in Protestant religious activities, were passed in the first year of Elizabeth’s  reign, in 1558.   Breaches were punished by fines, property confiscations or even imprisonment (the fine for missing a church service was 1s – half a week’s wages for an unskilled labourer).  Elizabeth’s accession was extremely popular, and, as Henry Machyn put it: “All London did eat and drink and made merry”.  Her coronation procession in 1559 paused on its way to Westminster Abbey for the staging of various pageants in her honour (the date having been chosen as a  particularly auspicious one by her astrologer John Dee).  The first of these  symbolised her Genealogy, and emphasised her “Englishness” and Protestantism (in contrast to her late sister Mary’s “Spanishness” and Catholicism), and her descent from Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, whose marriage had  unified the country after the Wars of the Roses.  The second, her Government, and its virtues of True Religion, Love of Subjects, Wisdom and Justice.  The third, during which the Mayor presented her with a gift of gold, the Interdependence of the Crown and the City.  The fourth, during which a figure representing Truth presented her  with a copy of the Bible bearing the English inscription “The Word of Truth”, the Thriving – English, Protestant – Commonwealth.   The fifth, Elizabeth as Deborah, the prophetess of the Old Testament who rescued the House of Israel and went on to rule for forty years.  Elizabeth’s reign was  widely, although by no means universally,  regarded as some sort of “Golden Age” of – comparative – stability, peace and prosperity; of exploration and discovery, and of the arts, in particular the performing arts.  It brought  “Melody and joy and comfort to all true Englishmen and women”.   

The merchant-adventurer, privateer (that is, essentially, pirate), and naval commander Martin Frobisher set sail on board the “Gabriel” from Ratcliff in 1576 on the second of his three ultimately unsuccessful voyages in search of the North-West Passage through the Arctic to Cathay (China) in the Pacific, returning from Canada with a cargo of what turned out to be worthless “fool’s gold”.  The site in Ratcliff is marked by a “London County Council” plaque of 1922 in King Edward Memorial Park. Incidentally, the plaque also commemorates another merchant-adventurer, Hugh Willoughby, who had even earlier, in 1553, set sail on board the “Bona Esparanza” from Ratcliff, in search of the North-East Passage through the Arctic to the Pacific, getting as far as Novaya Zemlya before having to turn back,  and dying on the remote Kola Peninsula, east of Murmansk,   on what was supposed to have been an overwintering stop.  Frobisher went on to be knighted for his services in seeing off the Spanish Armada in 1588.  He died in 1594, of wounds sustained in another action against the Spanish.  His organs were buried in the church of St Andrew in Plymouth, and the rest of his body in the church of St Giles Cripplegate in London, where there is a memorial to him.  There is a portrait of Frobisher,  commissioned by the Cathay Company, and painted by the Dutch artist Cornelis Ketel in 1577, in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  It depicts a man of action, an “uncultured” man, with an “acutely violent temperament”, wearing a bosun’s whistle round his neck, and a scabbarded rapier  on his left hip, and brandishing a wheel-lock pistol in his right hand.   Frobisher also wears  a particularly splendid pair of baggy knee-length breeches called “Venetians”, and a matching jerkin, over a plain white doublet. 

The Devonian explorer, privateer and naval commander Francis Drake set sail from Plymouth on board the “Golden Hind(e)” in 1577 on a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe.  On his return to England in 1581, his ship was “drawn into a creek … at Deptford as a perpetual memorial for having circuited round about the whole earth”, and “consecrated it with great ceremonie, pompe and magnificence eternally to be remembered”, and Drake was knighted by the Queen, Elizabeth I.  The ship  remained at Deptford for about 100 years, until it started to disintegrate and had to be broken up.  A  plaque on the water-front there marks the site.   

There is a replica of the ship in St Mary Overie Dock in Southwark, a couple of miles upstream from Deptford. 

There is a fine miniature portrait of Drake, on the reverse of a playing card, painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. 

The Devonian landed-gentleman, writer, poet,  court favourite,  politician, soldier, spy and explorer Sir Walter Ralegh was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1584 to explore, colonise and rule any “remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People [in the New World]”,  in return for one-fifth of all the gold and silver that might be mined there.  He first organised, although did not himself participate in, two voyages to Roanoke in Virginia in the 1580s, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish an English colony in North America, under the governorship of John White (it was not until 1607 that a successful colony was to become  established, at Jamestown in Virginia).   White first went out to Roanoke in 1587, but returned to England shortly afterwards in order to pick up further supplies.  He had intended to go back again within the year, but, for various reasons, was not actually able to do so until three years later than planned.  When he finally did arrive back in Roanoke, in 1590, he found no trace of the colony or of the colonists, other than an abandoned stockade, with one of its posts inscribed with the single word   “CROATOAN”.   Ralegh then himself participated in a voyage in  1595 in search of “El Dorado”, the fabled city of gold in South America, again with no success.  In between times,   in 1591,  he had been temporarily imprisoned in the Tower of London, for having married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth I’s  ladies-in-waiting, without first having sought the Queen’s express permission.  Later, after  Elizabeth I died, and James I succeeded her to the throne, Ralegh was imprisoned again, this time on the altogether more serious charge of complicity in the so-called “Main Plot” against the new King in 1603 (which sought to remove him and replace him with his cousin Arbella Stuart).  He was eventually pardoned and released from captivity in 1616, in order to undertake a second voyage in search of “El Dorado”.  This time, he did find gold, albeit by the expedient of ransacking a Spanish outpost, in violation of the terms not only of his pardon, but also of   the Treaty of London of 1604, that had brought to an end the long-running Anglo-Spanish War.  On his eventual return to England in 1618, he was arrested and executed in Westminster Palace Yard, essentially to appease the Spanish.   

There is a miniature portrait of Ralegh, painted by Nicholas Hilliard in c. 1585, in the National Portrait Gallery, depicting him in the Queen’s colours of black and white.  Ralegh is of  course remembered  for supposedly once having made the chivalrous gesture of casting  one of his cloaks upon a puddle  so as to allow the Queen to walk over it without getting her feet wet.  He is also widely credited with  having supposedly introduced the potato, and tobacco, to England.

What is now known as the Anglo-Spanish War, between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, broke out, after a prolonged period of escalating tension,  in 1585, with the seizure of  English ships moored in Spanish and Netherlandish ports.  The war  would only finally be ended in 1604, that is, during the first full year of the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James I, with the signature of the Treaty of London in  Somerset House, an event commemorated by a painting now in the Queen’s House in Greenwich.    At its height, the threat of a Spanish invasion of England was very real, never more so than at the time of the ill-destined Spanish Armada in 1588.  In February, 1587, the Protestant Queen, Elizabeth I, had had the  Catholic Pretender, Mary, Queen of Scots, executed.  The Catholic King of Spain, Philip II, vowed revenge, and in July, 1587, obtained Papal authority to overthrow Elizabeth by force of arms and place whoever he chose on the throne in her stead.   To that end, he assembled an armada of 130 ships, and in 1588, despatched it under the Duke of Medina Sidonia to the Netherlands to “join hands” with an army  under the Duke of Parma,  the intention being that the two forces then cross the Channel together, and sail up the Thames to take London.  In the event, the armada arrived early at the rendezvous, harried by the English fleet under Howard and Drake, and the Duke of Parma’s men were not ready to embark.  Later, in attempting to escape English fireships, the armada was dispersed to the four winds, and many of its ships were wrecked, with great loss of life.    Elizabeth I, who had been in Richmond Palace or St James’s Palace in London throughout the crisis, and in consultation with Burleigh and Walsingham, addressed her armed forces at Tilbury Fort, as follows:  “My loving people, We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my Kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.  I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain,  or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.  I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you on a word of a prince, they shall be duly paid. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my Kingdom, and of my people”.  Interestingly, a   carved ivory sculpture  of Christ salvaged from an  Armada shop may be seen in the church of All Hallows Barking.

Interestingly, on April 6th, 1580, London was hit by a large earthquake (there had previously been smaller  ones in 1247 and 1382).  This one actually had its epicentre in the Straits of Dover, but its magnitude was such – possibly 8 or more on the European Macroseismic Scale – that its effects were felt over a wide area of south-eastern England and the near-continent of Europe.    In London, it caused significant damage to property.  It also caused the deaths of   the child-apprentices Thomas Gray and Mabel Everite, who were struck by masonry falling from the roof  of Christ Church, Newgate Street (the boy was killed outright; the girl died of her injuries a few days later).  A number of contemporary publications  still survive that describe the earthquake, albeit as a supernatural rather than a natural  phenomenon, as a  divine warning and  call to repentance.  One, issued the day after the earthquake, contains “A godly newe ballat moving us to repent by ye example of ye earthquake happened in London ye 6. of Aprill 1580”, which reads, in part, as follows:

“It came at eve, as Aprill day
Shut up its water eye,
And fill’d all London with dismaye,
And that all suddenly.
In open streete
Did all men meete
Leaving their houses shaking fearfully.
The belles as of themselves did toll
The knell of all the people:
Huge stones fell downe, and others roll
From tower and from steeple.
These none could shun,
Though fast they run:
They soon o’ertooke and kill’d both whole and creeple.
In one short minute, strange to view,
The cittie stood amaz’d,
Confusion rang’d the wardes all through;
Eche on his neighbour gaz’d.
All were agast,
But soone it past:
If it continued, London had been raz’d”.

Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, in   1601, Robert Devereux, the 2nd  Earl of Essex, led an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow her and her court, a treasonous act for which he was later tried, convicted, and beheaded at the Tower of London.  Some of his supporters were also executed, although some others, including the Earl of Southampton, were spared.   Essex had earlier been publicly disgraced and politically and financially ruined by being placed under house arrest and removed from his office as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for  failing to execute Elizabeth’s orders to him to suppress an insurrection in that country (the so-called “Tyrone’s Rebellion” or “Nine Year’s War”).  His overthrow plan was once widely believed to have involved taking a  boat from Essex Steps to the “Globe” in Southwark on February 7th, 1601, to bribe the  “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” to overplay the scene in that day’s performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” in which the King is deposed, with a view to encouraging support among the watching crowd.  Sadly, like  all too many good stories, this one has since been conclusively demonstrated to have had no actual basis in historical fact.   Essex’s actual plan, such as it was, simply to march from Essex House to the City of London, began to backfire on the morning of the fateful following day, February 8th, when four of the Queen’s men arrived at the house  to arrest him, and he was forced to take them hostage.  He recklessly decided to carry   on regardless, but when he and his followers, numbering some two hundred, arrived at the City, they were  met with a   hostile reception, having by that time  already been denounced as traitors  (by Robert Cecil, the 1st  Earl of Salisbury, the  Secretary of State).  At this, most of his followers deserted him, and he was forced to return to Essex House, where after a short siege, during which he attempted to destroy any evidence that might incriminate him, he found himself forced to surrender to the Queen’s men (under the  Earl of Nottingham).   

Unexpected Ightham

Courtyard (with Kennel)

Ightham Mote is a Grade I listed Medieval moated manor house, one of the most complete of its kind, situated in the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty approximately thirty miles south-east of London.

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The Great Hall
Portrait of Dame Dorothy Selby (1572-1641) in the Great Hall.
The portrait is attributed to the Flemish master Marcus Gheeraerts.

The house was originally built in the fourteenth century, circa 1340-60. Its earliest recorded owner and occupier was Sir Thomas Cawne. On his death, it passed to his son-in-law Nicholas Haute, and remained in the Haute family for well over 100 years, until it was purchased by Sir William Clement in 1521. It was later purchased by Sir William Selby in 1591, and remained in the Selby family for just under 300 years.

Ightham Mote was rented out by the American railroad magnate William Jackson Palmer between 1887-89, when it became a centre for members of the Aesthetic Movement. Notable visitors to the house at this time included the artist John Singer Sargent, the writer Henry James, and the actress Ellen Terry.

In 1890, the Mote was bought by Sir Thomas Colyer-Fergusson, who undertook a substantial programme of repairs and restorations, and opened the property to the public on one day a week.

The New Chapel contains a wooden cross commemorating Thomas’s third son Riversdale, who was killed in the First World War, and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Thomas’s first son Max was killed in in the Second World War.

Ightham Mote was eventually acquired by the National Trust in 1985.

The Billiard Room

Medieval London, Pt. V – Archaeological Finds

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Archaeological Finds

A series of Museum of London and other publications either describe in detail or summarise the findings of archaeological excavations at various Medieval sites around the City.

There are also a couple of recent popular books on the subject, “London in Fragments” by Ted Sandling, and “Mudlarking” by Lara Maiklem.

Replica of Medieval pilgrim badge from London (showing martyrdom of Thomas Becket)

The more important archaeological finds  from Medieval London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums, including the Museum of London, which houses an extensive collection. 

Medieval pottery from London. Image: Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA) website.

The commonest Medieval  finds on the foreshore of the Thames are sherds of – glazed or unglazed – pottery, fragments of  tile, coins and jetons, or trading tokens, and pins. 

Early Medieval “London-Type Ware”. Image: Kent Archaeological Society website.

Typical early Medieval  pottery  finds include  locally manufactured “London-Type Ware”; late Medieval ones, “Surrey White Ware” and “Mill Green Ware” (from Essex). 

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Medieval roofing tile from London. Note hole for peg.

Roofing tiles  are sometimes  found with  large rounded holes for  wooden pegs.

Please note that the removal of any finds from the foreshore is now only allowed under licence from  the Port of London Authority.

Medieval London, Pt. IV – Surviving Structures

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Surviving Structures

Essentially nothing now  remains of the majority of the Medieval seats of power, religious houses and secular  buildings that stood within and without the walls of the City of London before the Great Fire. 

The Tower of London

However, the Tower of London, which survived the fire, survives still, substantially intact, within the walls of the City London; …

The Chapel of St John in the Tower of London (late eleventh century).
Note the typically Norman or Romanesque style of architecture, in particular the rounded arches.

… the Chapel of St John in the White Tower representing  a fine example of the  Norman or Romanesque architectural style. 

And on nearby Tower Hill are the remaining ruins of the Medieval Postern Gate. 

The Jewel Tower (built in 1366)

The Jewel Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster, also stands. 

Surviving structure of Edward III’s manor-house

And the footings and some of the standing structure of Edward III’s manor-house, in Rotherhithe.

Moreover, of the 97 churches within the walls of the City at the time of the fire, 8, namely, All Hallows Barking, All Hallows Staining, St Alphage, St Andrew Undershaft, St Ethelburga, St Helen, St Katharine Cree and St Olave Hart Street, survived the fire, and survive still, with at least some pre-fire structures standing, above ground (note  also that St Alban Wood Street, St Mary Aldermary, St Dunstan-in-the-East, St Mary-at-Hill and St Michael Cornhill were rebuilt after the fire incorporating into their designs significant portions of pre-fire structure). 

St Helen Bishopsgate (1210). An example of the Early English Gothic style.

St Helen  is a substantially complete early thirteenth-century (re-)building of c. 1210, with later additions, embellishments and restorations, and  stands  as a fine example of the Early English Gothic architectural style.  It  is dubbed “The Westminster Abbey of the City” because of the beauty of its interior and the richness of its memorials.  The alabaster effigies of Sir John de Oteswich and his wife, salvaged from the church of St Martin Outwich, date to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, and that of Sir John Crosby to the late fifteenth.  The arcade separating the former nuns’ quire from the nave dates to 1475, and the nuns’ squint, built into the monument to Johane Alfrey, to 1525. 

All Hallows Barking has the restored body of a  Medieval church severely damaged during the Blitz of the Second World War, together with an undercroft   and crypt, in one of the chapels of which is  an altar table of stone salvaged by the Knights Templar from the thirteenth-century Crusaders’ castle at At(h)lit below Mount Carmel in the Holy Land.  There are also numerous Medieval monuments, including a canopied tomb to John Croke (d. 1477), and a fine Flemish painted panelled altar-piece, known as the Tate Panel, dating to at least the fifteenth century. 

All Hallows Staining has  a fourteenth- or fifteenth- century tower.   

The relocated  St Alphage has the tower and shell of a fourteenth-century building, namely, the  chapel of Elsing or Elsyng Spital, which was converted into a parish church after the Dissolution in the sixteenth.  The original eleventh-century church, located a little to the north, was demolished at the same time. 

St Andrew Undershaft is a  substantially complete early sixteenth-century building of c. 1530-2, that is, strictly, of the post-Medieval period, although still built in an  essentially Medieval Gothic style. 

St Ethelburga has the restored   body of a thirteenth- to sixteenth- century building severely damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993. 

St Katharine Cree has an early sixteenth-century tower of 1500-4, that is,  of the post-Medieval period, although built in the Medieval style. 

And St Olave Hart Street has the restored body of an essentially  thirteenth- to fifteenth- century church, with later additions, severely damaged during the Blitz. 

A further 5 City of London churches, namely All Hallows London Wall, St James Duke’s Place, St Katherine Coleman, St Martin Outwich and St Peter-le-Poer, were also  undamaged in the fire but either demolished or rebuilt afterwards; 49 were burned down in the fire and rebuilt afterwards; and 35 were burned down in the fire and not rebuilt afterwards.   

Without the walls, St Bartholomew the Great, St Bartholomew the Less, St Etheldreda, St Giles Cripplegate, St Mary Overie  (Southwark Cathedral), the west tower and south porch of St Sepulchre, “new” Temple Church, and Westminster Abbey also still stand.   The round nave of “new” Temple Church, built between 1160-85, is in the Norman style; the rectangular nave, built between 1220-40, in the Early  English  Gothic style. 

North entrance, Westminster Abbey

Much of the external structure of Westminster Abbey is thirteenth-century English  Gothic, including the north entrance, …

Chapter House, Westminster Abbey

… and the chapter house, although the Henry VII Lady Chapel is sixteenth-century Perpendicular Gothic (and the west towers, by Hawksmoor,  eighteenth-century Baroque).  

St Etheldreda

St Etheldreda, built in 1294, stands as an example of the Decorated Gothic style of the late thirteenth century, which was never as   flamboyant as on the continent. 

Southwark Cathedral from Borough High Street.
This is the view that pilgrims on their way to Canterbury would have had in Chaucer’s time.

The exterior shell of St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) is substantially thirteenth- to fourteenth- century Perpendicular Gothic .  The interior contains  many memorials, including a wooden effigy of a knight buried in around 1275. 

Medieval wall painting, St Martin Ruislip

Rather  further afield, ten miles or so to the north-west, stands St Martin Ruislip, with its late Medieval, ?fifteenth-century, wall-painting depicting the “Seven Deadly Sins”, that miraculously survived the Reformation. 

And, within or without the walls, precious fragments  of Bermondsey Abbey, …

Surviving fragment of Blackfriars Priory believed to be part of the prior’s or provincial’s lodgings)

… Blackfriars Priory, …

… the Charterhouse, …

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Surviving Gothic arch from Holy Trinity Priory

… Holy Trinity Priory, …

Gate-House, Priory of St John (rebuilt in1504)
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Effigy of Prior William Weston, crypt of former priory church (d. 1540).
It is said that Weston died on the very day of the Dissolution, of a broken heart.

… the Priory of St John, …

Crypt-cum-Charnel House, Priory of St Mary Spital.
This is where many of the victims of the famine of 1258 were buried.

… the Priory of St Mary Spital, …

Surviving remains of Whitefriars Priory

… Whitefriars Priory, …

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Great Hall, Winchester Palace (twelfth century; rose window a fourteenth-century insertion)

… and Winchester Palace, that survived the Reformation and Dissolution, remain. 

Door to “Cell B”, Charterhouse

The surviving parts of  the “rambling nest of Medieval and Renaissance buildings” in the Charterhouse that date back to the monastic period include some of the stone buildings in Wash House Court as well as the doorway to “Cell B” in the Norfolk Cloister, with its guichet or serving hatch.   Many of the buildings, fragments of buildings, and  fitments on the site sustained damage during the Blitz of the Second World War, and had to be  restored to their original state in  the post-war period.  The restoration work was undertaken by John Seely, 2nd Baron Mottistone and his partner Paul Paget, whose home and office was at nearby 41/42 Cloth Fair.

Exterior, Westminster Hall (essentially late fourteenth century)
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Interior, Westminster Hall. Note the double-hammerbeam ceiling.

Furthermore, Westminster Hall still stand stands. Westminster Hall is fortunate to still stand, as it must have come close to  being  washed away by the great flood of 1241, chronicled by Matthew Paris, during which “such deluges of rain fell, that the river Thames, overflowing its usual bounds and its ancient banks, spread itself over the country towards Lambeth … and took possession, far and wide, of the houses and fields in that part” and “ …  people rode into the great hall at Westminster on horseback”. 

Guidhall (early fifteenth century; porch an eighteenth-century addition).
The slate oval in the courtyard describes the outline of the Roman Amphitheatre, which lies 20′ beneath.

As do parts of the Guildhall.  The walls of the Guildhall – up to the level of the clerestorey – still survive from the Medieval period, as do some of the original windows, made from slivers of  horn, and the crypts.  The porch, though, is a later, eighteenth-century addition, by Dance, in a bizarre style described as Hindoo Gothic (the Medieval frontage had featured statues of the civic virtues of Temperance, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence (or Discipline)).  Inside, the famous statues of the mythical giants Gog and Magog replace two sets of earlier ones, the first destroyed in the Great Fire, and the second in the Blitz of the Second World War. 

Barnard’s Inn Hall (late fourteenth century)

The Hall of Barnard’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court, also still stand; as do parts of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall.

Crosby Hall

The private residence of Crosby Hall, originally built on Bishopsgate by Sir John Crosby in 1466-75, now stands at a new location in Chelsea.  There are some wonderfully evocative old black-and-white photographs it in its original location in 1907. 

Elis David alms-houses (bulit in 1447)

And Elis David’s  alms-houses also still stand in Croydon. 

Medieval London, Pt. III – Building Works

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Building Works

The Normans built the first stone buildings within and without the walls of the City for hundreds of   years.  These included a number intended to symbolise their sovereign authority over the Saxons, most importantly the  White Tower in the Tower of London, built by William I, William II and Henry I, between 1076-1101, out of Kentish Rag and imported Caen Stone.  Hundreds went on to be imprisoned here over the centuries; and scores tortured, and/or executed,  in a variety of horrible ways.  One wonders how much better a world it would have been if all the imaginative effort expended in  devising means of inflicting suffering had instead been channelled elsewhere.   The   first Baynard’s Castle and Montfichet’s Tower, were both built, a little to the south-west of St Paul’s, in the late eleventh century (Baynard’s Castle by Ralph Baynard, and Montfichet’s Tower by Richard de Montfichet, both of them Norman noblemen); and both demolished in the early thirteenth (the second Blackfriars Priory was built on the site of the first Baynard’s Castle in the late thirteenth, in 1276).    As was,  further afield, Windsor Castle, between 1070-86. The Normans also initiated a major phase of church and other religious house building works in the late eleventh to early twelfth centuries, in the Norman or Romanesque style.  Within and without the walls of the City of London, the church of St Mary-le-Bow, or Bow Church was built by the Norman King William I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, in around 1077-87; St Mary-at-Lambeth sometime before 1086; what is now known as “Old St Paul’s”, by Bishop Maurice and his successors sometime  after 1087; St Giles Cripplegate in around 1100; St Magnus the Martyr probably shortly after the sanctification of the eponymous Magnus Erlendsen, Earl of Orkney, in 1135 (he had been  murdered by heathen Vikings sometime between 1115-8); and Winchester Palace in c. 1150.    The collegiate church and Benedictine monastery of St Martin-le-Grand was founded  by two brothers, Ingelric and Girard, in around 1056; the Cluniac Priory and Abbey of St Saviour,  or Bermondsey Abbey, in 1082;  the Augustinian Holy Trinity Priory in 1108; “old” Temple Church, the original English home of the Knights Templar, on Holborn, in 1118; the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew in 1123; the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, the English home of the Knights Hospitaller, in Clerkenwell,  by Jordan de Briset and his wife, Muriel de Muntani, in around 1140; the Augustinian Priory of St Mary, also in Clerkenwell, in 1145;  and the Royal Hospital of St Katharine-by-the-Tower, by Queen Matilda, in 1148.  Interestingly, both the Templars’ and the Hospitallers’ churches had round naves, thought to have been  modelled on that of Church  of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Important new secular public buildings of the Norman period  included  Westminster Hall, built in 1097-99; and the Guildhall, built sometime before 1128.

Later, the Plantagenets continued the construction of  the Tower of London, Henry III adding an inner curtain wall in the late thirteenth century, and Edward I an outer one in the late thirteenth to early fourteenth, and it continued to be used as a royal residence by a succession of later Kings and Queens through to the seventeenth century.  The remarkable menagerie established here in the thirteenth century  was eventually closed down in the nineteenth by the then Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington, who did not want it interfering with military matters any longer (the animals were rehomed in  Regent’s Park, in what was to become the zoo there). 

The Tower of London in the late fifteenth century.
The figure  looking wistfully out of the window in the Tower is Charles, Duc d’Orleans. 
The “old” London Bridge may be seen in the background (and the Custom House in the middle ground).

The Tower features in the earliest known painting of London, by an unknown artist, dating to the late fifteenth century, and commissioned to illustrate a book of poems written by Charles, Duc d’Orleans, who was imprisoned here for twenty-five years after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.   Elsewhere in the City of London, the Plantagenets  built the second Baynard’s Castle in the early fourteenth century, in around 1338; and the Royal Wardrobe in the late fourteenth, in 1361. 

The Second Castle Baynard

The second Baynard’s Castle was built, in a river-front location,  in the early  fourteenth century, around 1338, and rebuilt in early fifteenth, around 1428, and again in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth.  It was used by a succession of Kings and  Queens in the late fifteenth to sixteenth  centuries, before being essentially completely  destroyed in the Great Fire in the seventeenth.  It was the London headquarters of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses.  According to the chronicler Fabian,   The Earl of March  was hailed King Edward IV here, before he was formally crowned in Westminster Abbey, in 1461  (“[T]he Earls of March and Warwick with a great power of men, …  entered into the City of London, the which was of the citizens joyously received, and … the said earl caused to be mustered his people …, … whereupon it was demanded of the said people whether … Henry [VI] were worthy to reign as king any longer or no.  Whereunto the people cried hugely and said Nay, Nay.  And after it was asked of them whether they would have the Earl of March as their king and they cried with one voice, Yea, Yea.  After the which admission thus by the commons assented, certain captains were assigned to bear report unto the said Earl of March then being lodged in his place called Baynard’s Castle”).  Later, in 1483, Richard III is believed to have asserted his claim to the throne, over that of Edward’s infant sons, here.   In Westminster, the Plantagenets built the Savoy Palace in the early fourteenth century, in 1324; and the Jewel Tower (part of the Palace of Westminster), in 1365-6.  And slightly further afield, a manor-house on the then-waterfront  in Rotherhithe in 1349-53.  Still further afield, a succession of Plantagenet Kings  extended Windsor Castle.   

The Plantagenets also continued the church and religious house building works  in the later Medieval, in the Gothic style.  Excluding St Paul’s, a  total of 118 London parish churches and other places of Christian worship are listed, in a curious mixture of Latin, French and English, in  Pope Nicholas IV’s  “Taxatio Ecclesiastica” of 1291, of which 115 can be identified with more or less certainty (98 within the walls of the City, and 17 without).  Their construction or reconstruction made extensive use of Roman masonry robbed from the City walls or other structures.  The reconstructed  walls of St Helen, for example, contain much Roman dressed stone, together with  a lesser quantity of brick or tile, most likely sourced  either from a   building  that once stood on the site, or from the City wall that once stood a short distance away.  

Within and without the walls of the City of London, among others, All Hallows Barking, All Hallows Staining, St Alphage, St Andrew Undershaft, St Ethelburga, St Etheldreda, St Giles Cripplegate, St Helen, St Katharine Cree, St Mary-at-Lambeth, St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral), St Olave Hart Street,  “Old St Paul’s”, St Sepulchre, and Westminster Abbey were all built, rebuilt or extended in the later Medieval (as was Winchester Palace).  The Augustinian Holywell Priory was founded in 1158; the Knights Templar “new” Temple Church, off Fleet Street, in 1160-1240; the Augustinian Priory of St Mary Spital in 1197; the Benedictine Nunnery of St Helen in 1210; the first Dominican Blackfriars Priory in 1223, and the second in 1278; the Franciscan Greyfriars Priory in 1225; the Priory of the Order of St Mary of Bethlehem in 1247; the Carmelite Whitefriars Priory also in 1247; the Augustinian Austin Friars Priory in 1265; the Pied Friars Priory in 1267; the Crutched Friars Priory in 1268; the Sack Friars Priory in 1270; the Franciscan Nunnery of St Clare-without-Aldgate, also sometime in the thirteenth century; the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary Graces in 1349; and the Carthusian Charterhouse, by Sir Walter Manny, “a stranger born, lord of the town of Manny, in the diocese of Cambray, beyond the seas,  who for service done to  Edward III was made Knight of the Garter”, in 1371.

St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) was partially rebuilt twice in the later Medieval period, following fires in 1212 and 1390.  Some of the masonry  used in the rebuilding of the cathedral  was salvaged from the fire debris, and shows signs of fire damage.   

“Old St Paul’s” was partially rebuilt and extended in the Gothic style in 1221-1240,  and in the “New Work” of 1256-1314 or thereabouts.  There are models of it  in the modern Cathedral and also in the Museum of London.  It was evidently  an impressive building, measuring some 600’ in length, and, according to some estimates, over 500’ in height, inclusive of the spire, which  was destroyed by lightning in 1444, and rebuilt  in 1462 (only to be destroyed by lightning again in 1561).  John Denham wrote of it  in 1624:  “That sacred pile, so vast, so high|That whether ‘tis a part of earth or sky|Uncertain seems, and may be thought a proud|Aspiring mountain or descending cloud … ”.   

The Chapter House of “old” St Paul’s

The Chapter House of “old” St Paul’s, built in 1332 by the Master Mason William Ramsay, who went on to die of the “Black Death” in 1349, was the earliest example in London of the Perpendicular Gothic style that was to remain the fashion  for the next two hundred years. 

Aerial view of octagonal outline of foundations

Sadly, only the octagonal outline of the foundations survives, in the  churchyard on the south side of the cathedral. 

Perhaps even more sadly, the celebrated wall-painting of the “Dance of Death” in the  Pardon Cloister of the north side of the cathedral, commissioned by John Carpenter during his tenure as Town Clerk, between 1417-38, was destroyed in 1549, that is, before the Great Fire, on the orders of Protector Somerset.  The painting  is said to have been based on the “Danse Macabre” in the Cimetiere des Innocents  in Paris.  According to Stow, “the metres, or posey of this dance, were translated out of French into English by John Lidgate, monk of Bury”.  (Lidgate, or Lydgate, was also, incidentally, the author of the famous poem “London Lickpenny”.)   (St) Paul’s Cross was built in  around 1191, damaged in 1382, possibly by the earthquake of that year, repaired in 1387, and rebuilt as a sort of open-air pulpit by Bishop Kempe in 1448/9. 

Westminster Abbey was substantially rebuilt under Henry III in the thirteenth century, in part by the  Master Mason  Henry (of) Reyns, generally known simply as Master Henry  (fl. 1243-53), alongside John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley.  It was further extended  in the fourteenth century, in part by the Master Mason Henry Yevele (c. 1320-1400), who was responsible for, among other things, the tombs of Edward III and Richard II (as well as, incidentally, the tomb of John of Gaunt in “Old St Paul’s).    Yevele was buried in the church of St Magnus the Martyr.  The abbey was refounded as a Cathedral after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, and acquired its present status of a  “Royal Peculiar” in 1556.   There are a great many important monuments in the interior, including those of no fewer than seventeen monarchs.  An equally large number of important state occasions have been held here, including all of the Coronations since that of the first Norman King, William I, in 1066. 

Important new  secular public building works of the Medieval period included London Bridge, rebuilt by Peter, Chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, between 1176-1209.   There is a fine scale-model of the bridge  as it would have looked in its heyday around 1400 in the church of St Magnus the Martyr on Thames Street. There were scores of buildings on it at that time, including a great many shops, and a chapel, dedicated to St Thomas Becket, then recently rebuilt in the Perpendicular style by Henry Yevele between  1384-96 (the bridge was on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury, where Archbishop Becket was the victim of the infamous “Murder in the Cathedral” in 1170).  The bridge also had  twenty arched openings or “locks” in between abutments and piers with cut-waters or “starlings” at their bases.  Many of the more devil-may-care watermen  would attempt to row through the openings in a dangerous practice known as “shooting the bridge”, some unfortunately losing their lives in the process.  William Gregory wrote as follows in his “Chronicle of London” of such an incident that took place in around 1428: “The vii day of Novembyr the Duke of Northfolke wolde have rowed thoroughe the brygge of London, and hys barge was rente agaynste the arche of the sayde bridge, and there were drowned many men, the number of xxx personys .. of gentylmen and good yemen”.  There was wisdom in the adage that  “London Bridge was made for wise men to go over, and fools to go under”!  At the southern end of the bridge, there were   the heads of executed criminals, impaled on spikes.  A little earlier, on St George’s Day, 1390,  in the presence of the then King, Richard II, a  friendly joust between the Englishman Lord Welles and the Scotsman Sir David Lindsay was held on the bridge – despite it  being no more than  twenty feet wide!  According to Hector Boece:  “At the sound of the trumpets the two champions hurled themselves at each other, and either splintered his lance without effect in dismounting his adversary.  Welles had directed his spear at his opponent’s head and hit him fairly on the visor, but the Scottish champion kept his seat so steadily that some of the spectators … shouted out that Lindsay had strapped himself to his saddle.  Thereupon the gallant Scot proved his honesty by vaulting to the ground and on to his horse’s back again in his heavy armour.  A second course followed with equal fortune, but at the third Welles was fairly overthrown.  The victor at once dismounted, and in the best spirit went to assist his fallen opponent …  [and] … never failed to call daily upon him during such time as he was confined to bed by the bruises and the severe shock of the fall”.    Other public building works of the – later – Medieval period included Westminster Hall, rebuilt in 1394-1401, in part by Hugh Herland (c. 1330-c. 1411), who was responsible for the spectacular hammerbeam roof.  And  its City rival, the Guildhall,  rebuilt in 1411-30, by John Croxton(e) (fl. 1411-47).  Croxton(e) also worked on the conversion of an existing building into  Leadenhall Market and  “Garner” (grain-store) between  1440-55.

New private buildings of the Medieval period included a number of Inns of Court.  Some of the  latter, such as the Merchant Taylors’, were particularly grand, including  gardens, grounds and alms-houses – for “decayed” members of the company – as well as Great Halls (and kitchens), offices and private chapels.   Private residences included that of the wealthy grocer and twice Mayor Stephen Browne, in  Billingsgate, which was evidently sufficiently grand as to have included  its own quay; and that of the wealthy grocer John Crosby, immediately south of the church of St Helen on Bishopsgate, later owned by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), Thomas More, and Walter Ralegh, which Stow described as “very large and beautiful”.  Private residences of the common men and women of the working classes would likely have been built out of timber and thatch in the early Medieval period, as in the Saxon, often with   work-places either  included or attached as  lean-tos or pentices.  However, they would have been built more out of stone in the later Medieval, after the use in construction of combustible materials had  been  banned by the Mayor following the fire of 1212.  The  remains of some have been archaeologically excavated, for example on Poultry.  One, dating to the fourteenth century,  was evidently of a substantially stone building, arranged over two floors, with an open-fronted  (work)shop  and storage area on the ground floor, and living and sleeping accommodation in a so-called sola(r) on the upper, accessed by means of a  ladder rather than a   staircase; and without obvious evidence of any sanitary arrangement,  such as an earth closet.     Incidentally, documentary evidence suggests  that at least two of the other shops in the same terrace  were  ironmongers’, one  being  owned by the Tolesan or Tolosan family, probably  from  Tolosa in the Basque Country, a major iron-  producing and -exporting area, and another by Reginald de Hauberger, probably  a maker of, or dealer in, hauberks, or coats of (chain-)mail.  The floors of all these buildings would likely have been of tamped earth or of planking, strewn with rushes  or  meadowsweet straw, or possibly covered in rugs.    The windows would not have been glazed, but would have been shuttered.  Lighting would have been provided by – tallow – candles.  Furnishings might have included wooden beds with straw-filled palliasses or feather mattresses, wooden chests for storage, and (trestle-)tables with accompanying benches, stools or chairs for sitting on.  Kitchen utensils might  have been made of wood, leather, bone, horn, earthenware pottery or pewter,  and meals eaten with some combination of fingers, knives and spoons, but  without  forks (which were a post-Medieval innovation).    Charitable dwellings  founded in the Medieval period  included  the Stodies Lane  alms-houses of 1358, John Philpot’s ones of 1382, Thomas Knowles’s  ones of 1400, Richard Whittington’s  ones of 1423, and Elis David’s  ones of 1447 (the last-named in Croydon).  Note also that Dick Whittington’s  “College of St Spirit and St Mary” of c. 1410 included alms-houses for thirteen poor men as well as an actual college. 

The Medieval street layout, so organically developed or evolved, and so modified, after the Roman and Saxon  ones as to be unrecognisable, was less in the form of a grid than of an intricate, almost beguiling, maze or web, although there were many streets  parallel and many perpendicular to the river, some of the latter on land reclaimed.   The intricately intermingled alley-ways and court-yards were the capillaries and alveoles of the City, where persons  might pause, albeit fleetingly among the seething, and rest and refresh body and soul; the lanes and thoroughfares its  veins and arteries, moving people and trade far and wide.  Horse-drawn carts and wagons were widely used to  transport goods. 

Medieval London, Pt. II – Social History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Social History

Everyday life in London in Medieval  times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.  The lives of almost  all women –  other than those from the “higher” strata of society, that is, the aristocracy and clergy, including ordained clergy  – revolved around the “daily grind” of managing their households, and providing food for, and caring  for, their families, and they  would have had  little time for extraneous  activities or  interests.   Moreover, they would have enjoyed less  freedom under the Law than in Saxon times.  Indeed, under the Medieval Law of Coverture, a  married woman, or femme covert, had no legal rights whatsoever independent  of her husband, and was essentially his chattel – although she could seek a form of “divorce”, either a mensa et thoro (equivalent to a modern  legal separation), or a vinculo (equivalent to an  annulment).  An unmarried woman or widow, or femme sole, in contrast, was at least legally allowed  to manage her own business.  And there is evidence that, in London and some other towns, a femme covert might be permitted to adopt the more privileged status of a femme sole to enable her to do so.  Many were apprenticed to, and went on to work as, weavers, embroiderers or dressmakers; some,  as brewers, bakers, butchers, cordwainers, drapers or grocers; and a few, as apothecaries and even surgeons.


Medieval Londoners were God-fearing folk, and one could argue that they had cause to be.    The sporadic and apocalyptic  outbreaks of Famine and Plague must have seemed to them to have been visited upon them by a vengeful God, or “Destroying Angel”.  Life could also be cut painfully short by other – including occupational –  diseases,  accidents, and acts of violence.   And the deaths of mother and/or baby in the act of childbirth would have been distressingly common, and infant mortality shockingly high (with which in mind, most newborns were baptised within 7-10 days, many  on their first Sunday).  Two  of the eleventh- to twelfth- century skeletons excavated from the burial ground  of the church of St Nicholas Shambles were of young men exhibiting  indications  of possibly fatal sharp-force traumas to the head, inflicted in one case by a sword and in the other by an arrow.    And another was  of a young woman, interpreted as having died of “maternal exhaustion”, with the bones of a  full-term foetus in her abdomen.   The woman was comparatively small, and the foetus large, and unable to be delivered through the pelvic cavity.

Faith at least offered hope of life eternal.


The predominant religion of the period was Catholic Christianity, which pervaded all areas of life, even the very air,  with  its incense and incantations.  Note, though, that the seeds of the post-Medieval Protestant Reformation may be said to have been sown with the so-called Lollardy of the late fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, which indeed has been referred to as the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, and which similarly sought to restrict the secular wealth and power of the established church, and to return to apostolic poverty and mission.   There was a major phase of church building and rebuilding, perhaps as an act of penance, to assuage the guilt of the conqueror and oppressor, beginning in the  late eleventh and  twelfth centuries.    Late parishioners’ bequests for “Chantries”, or prayers to be chanted for those in Purgatory, were often spent on extravagant embellishments.  Hermits known as anchorites or anchoresses came to live in cells known as anchorholds in a  number of churches in Medieval London.  Simon the Anker was an anchorite in the church of All Hallows London Wall in the early sixteenth century.  And Katherine Foster, Margaret Elyote and Katherine Man were in turn anchoresses in Blackfriars Priory church in  the late fifteenth to early sixteenth.  

Anchorhold, St Mary Magdalene, East Ham

There is a surviving example of an anchorhold in  the church of St Mary Magdalene in East Ham.

Further religious or monastic  houses began to be established  in and around the City in the late eleventh   to fourteenth centuries, among them those of the eremetical  monks and nuns not only of the Benedictine but also of the Cluniac, Cistercian and Carthusian orders; the peripatetic mendicant friars of the Dominican, Franciscan and Carmelite orders (the Black, Grey, and White Friars, respectively); the “other” friars (the Pied, Crossed or Crutched, and Sack Friars); the monk- and nun- like regular and friar-like secular canons and canonesses of the Augustinian or Austin order(s); and the so-called “fighting monks” or “Monks of War”, the Knights Templar and  Hospitaller.  The monastic houses came to dominate not only the religious life, but also the philosophical and indeed even the physical life of the City, becoming wealthy and powerful in the process, and making many enemies as well as friends. 

The hermit- monks and -nuns following Benedictine rule  foreswore earthly delights, and instead dedicated their lives to divine service, and the rhythms of their days were tuned to  the   “Liturgy of the Hours”: matins in the middle of the night; lauds at dawn; prime in the first hour; terce in the third; sext in the sixth; none in the ninth; vespers “at the lighting of the lamps” at dusk; and   compline before retiring at  night.  In contrast, as Clifford Lawrence put it, in his 1994 book, “The Friars”,  the model of the apostolic life led by the mendicant friars was not the exclusive property of a cloistered elite: “[I]t did not involve flight from the world, but engagement with it; and it was accessible to every Christian, clerk and layman alike.  It offered an ideal of sanctity and a programme that could be realised without abandoning … secular responsibilities, and as such commended itself to lay people in search of a religious vocation … .  It provided them with an active role and a spiritual status that were denied them by monastic theology and classical canon law”.   The various orders of friar only became established in London in the thirteenth century, during the long reign of Henry III.  The Knights Templar and Hospitaller came into being in the twelfth century.  Their primary roles were in  the protection of  Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in the participation in Crusades; their secondary and tertiary ones,  in  infrastructure and financial activities, the unnecessary secrecy  surrounding their involvement in the same  making them the subject of much mistrust.  In 1237, Matthew Paris  chronicled the departure of  a party of Knights Hospitaller from the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell to the Holy Land  as follows: “They … set out from their house … , and proceeded in good order, with about thirty shields uncovered, with spears raised, and preceded by their banner, through the midst of the City, towards the bridge, that they might obtain the blessings of the spectators, and, bowing their heads with their cowls lowered, commended themselves to the prayers of all”.  Later, on Friday 13th October,  1307, according to myth the original unlucky “Friday the Thirteenth”,  a number of leading Knights Templar were arrested around Europe, on a  variety of charges, at least some no doubt trumped up by debtors and other vested interests, under a warrant reading “God is not pleased. We have enemies of the faith in the Kingdom” (“Dieu n’est pas content, nous avons des ennemis de la foi dans le Royaume”).  They were later tortured into confessing to having “spat three times on the Cross” (” … craché trois fois sur la Croix … “), and done to death by being burned at the stake, and the entire Order was  eventually disbanded, essentially to be subsumed into that of the Knights Hospitaller.  The temporary imprisonments and trials of several Knights Templar took place in the church of All Hallows Barking, or All Hallows-by-the-Tower,  in London in 1311.  The Grand Preceptor Guillaume or William de la More died in solitary confinement in the Tower in 1312.

Medieval London would have been full of pilgrims.  London was a  site of pilgrimage in its own right, with large numbers  flocking each year to the shrine of Erkenwald in St Paul’s Cathedral, or that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, or to lesser ones in Bermondsey Abbey, Syon Abbey, Our Lady of Willesden (!) or St Anthony’s Hospital.  It would also have been the point of departure for local pilgrims on their way  to other sites, for example, the shrines of Henry VI in Windsor Castle, St Alban in St Albans Abbey, St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral, or St John in Beverley Minster, or that of Our Lady of Walsingham in Walsingham Priory (not to mention Santiago de Compostela, Rome or the Holy Land).   

Importantly, London would also have been a  gathering-point  on the pilgrimage route from the north to the shrine of  St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral (“The Pilgrim’s Way”).    Thomas Becket had been born in Milk Street, just off Cheapside in the City of London, to the Mercer Gilbert and his wife Matilda, who were originally from Normandy, in either 1119 or 1120 (his mother was in fact not the daughter of a Saracen Emir, as a much later myth had it).   He had  been educated at Merton Priory and St Paul’s School, preparatory to securing a position with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec, and had become   Archbishop himself in 1162, after Theobald’s death.  And he  had then entered a “controversy” or “dispute” with the King, Henry II, over clerical independence and the so-called “Constitutions of Clarendon” of 1164, resulting in a period of exile in France from 1164-70.    Finally, on Tuesday 29th December, 1170, the “turbulent priest”  Thomas Becket was murdered by knights acting on what they had interpreted as an instruction from the king, in Canterbury Cathedral.  The site became an important one of pilgrimage throughout the later Middle Ages (the penitent Henry making the journey barefoot – at least from the hospital of St Nicholas in Harbledown – in 1174, the year after Thomas was made a saint).  The practice ceased after the Reformation under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, when images of Becket were ordered to be “putte downe and auoyded out of all churches, chapelles and other places”, and a painter from Southwark was paid for “defasynge” diverse examples in the chapel on London Bridge by then rededicated to St Thomas the Apostle rather than the Martyr.  However, it may be said to have resumed in later  centuries.  Research published by the Chaucer Society in the nineteenth century suggests that the route taken by pilgrims from London to Canterbury ran more less along the line of the old Roman road of Watling Street – or its modern equivalent, the A2 – through Dartford, Rochester and Faversham (note in this context that Rochester is mentioned in the Monk’s prologue, Sittingbourne in the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and Boughton-under-Blean, which is near Faversham, in the Canon Yeoman’s prologue, in “The Canterbury Tales”).  Further research from around this time suggests that the journey along this – fifty-eight mile – route would have taken four days, with overnight stops at each of the three aforementioned towns, where suitable accommodation was available.  It would have involved travelling sixteen miles on the first day (London to Dartford); fourteen on the second (Dartford to Rochester); eighteen on the third (Rochester to Faversham); and ten on the fourth (Faversham to Canterbury).  The first day’s journey, from the  City of  London to Dartford, would have been by way of London Bridge, Borough   High Street, Tabard Street, the Old Kent Road,   St Thomas-a-Watering, Deptford, Blackheath, Shooters Hill, Welling, East Wickham, Bexley and Crayford.  Pilgrims would also have had the option of taking a short detour to Lesnes Abbey, founded by Richard de Luci, Chief Justiciar to Henry II, in 1178, and dedicated by him to St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr, possibly as penance for his, Richard’s – indirect – involvement in Thomas’s murder.  The abbey was closed down by Cardinal Wolsey  in 1524, whereafter most of its buildings were pulled down (some of the salvaged stone being used in the construction of Hall Place in Bexley).  Some picturesque ruins still remain. 

A replica of a pilgrim souvenir depicting the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. 
This is the one I treated myself to after completing my pilgrimage from London to Canterbury in 2017. 
The original was found in Thames-side deposits in Dowgate in the City of London.

Sufficient numbers of pilgrim souvenirs, in the form of badges, free-standing figures, ampullae and reliquary chasses, have been found in Thames-side locations in London as to suggest that they were deliberately deposited there in accordance with some forgotten rite.


A minority community of Jews became  established in England in the late eleventh century, during the reign of the Norman King William I, many of its members originating from Rouen in Normandy, and practising  usury,  which was forbidden to Christians under Canon Law.  At or after this time, a  number of synagogues were built in and around Old Jewry in the heart of the City of London, and the  remains of Jewish ritual baths or mikvaot (sing. mikvah or mikveh) have been found here (one of which has been reconstructed in the Jewish Museum in Camden).  It was not long, though   before the Jews of England, including London, began to be subject to persecution, and a series of what in in similarly unenlightened later times would be referred to as pogroms or purges.  From as early as 1253 onwards, they  were compelled to wear distinguishing marks on their clothing, in the form of pieces of white cloth or  yellow taffeta worn on the chest.  And  in 1278, around 680  were arrested in London,  and detained in the Tower, on suspicion of the capital offence of coin clipping and counterfeiting, of whom  300 were subsequently hanged.  Eventually,   all the Jews of England   were ordered, under the Edict of Expulsion issued by  Edward I on the day of the Fast of Tisha B’Av,  July 18th, in 1290, to be expelled by November 1st of that year.  On the actual day of the expulsion, one ship’s captain had his Jewish passengers from London disembark on a sandbank at Queenborough in the Thames estuary, and then left them there to drown on the rising tide – for which terrible crime, he was later hanged.   

Interestingly, in 1232, Henry III established  on Chancery Lane a Domus Conversorum, or home for Jews who had converted to Christianity, where they were given shelter, sustenance and a modest allowance – although only on surrender of their properties.   The home  later came into the possession of  the Master of the Rolls, and,  in 1837, the – old – Public Record Office was built on the site.

Food and Drink

The staple foods of the day were those of the baker and the butcher, or on high days and holy days, of which there were an inordinate number, the fishmonger.  The rich  gorged themselves on meat, and as FitzStephen put it: “Those with a fancy for delicacies can obtain for themselves the meat of goose,  guinea-hen or woodcock – …  all … set out in front of them”.  The poor, whose wages were  as little  as 1s or 12d/week or less in 1300, could only afford cheap meats, such as suet or marrowbone, typically at 1d per lb., chicken at 1½d each, and rabbit, at 2d each (*).  They would have eked these out with  “potage”, a sort of cereal and home-grown vegetable stew.  They would probably also have made extensive use of home-grown or foraged culinary herbs, such as chickweed, sorrel, wild garlic, wild mustard, and cress, and even what would nowadays be regarded as weeds, such as stinging nettles and burdock.  And, incidentally, of  non-culinary, insect-repellent or medicinal, herbs such as fleabane, marigold, meadowsweet and soapwort.  Archaeological evidence from No. 1 Poultry indicates that a  range of – again cultivated as well as wild – fruits and nuts was also consumed, including apples, blackberries, bullaces, crab apples, cherries, elderberries, grapes, hazels, pears (generally known as “wardens”), plums, raspberries, sloes and strawberries.  Cooked meat and other ready-to-eat foods were  sold on the street by hawkers (“One cryd hot shepes feete|One cryd mackerel … |One … rybbs of befe, and many a pye”).   The relationship with meat animals was intimate: people lived with chickens; and pigs ran wild in the streets, creating a considerable public nuisance.  Little of the animal was wasted, everything edible being eaten, the fat being rendered to make tallow, and the hide being tanned to make leather.  Garlic, herbs and spices were widely used in cooking to mask the “corrupt savours” of foods that had started to spoil – at a time when the only means of preserving them were pickling and  salting.  Dishes could be sweetened either with honey, perhaps purchased on Honey Lane, off Cheapside, in London, or with sugar, although obviously only after it was introduced, from  the Moorish World, in the twelfth century.  (Potatoes were only introduced, from the New World, in the post-Medieval period, in the  late sixteenth century.)

Water  was drawn from City’s rivers, or from springs or wells.  In FitzStephen’s time, it was pure and clean and sweet and wholesome.  Later, though,  “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt” – and  obviously they couldn’t have that!  And, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the water from the Thames had become so contaminated by waste from ships and from shore as to be not only unpalatable but unsafe to drink, for fear of contracting a water-borne disease such as Bloody Flux (Dysentery).  So, a supply had to be brought in from outside.  A (lead!) pipeline was built, by public subscription, in 1236, to bring water from a spring at Tyburn, roughly opposite where Bond Street tube station now stands,  to the so-called Little Conduit, Standard and Great Conduit on Cheapside, about three miles away (sections  have  recently been discovered 2m below Medieval street level in Paternoster Row and in  Poultry).   Most people collected water from the conduits themselves, although some had it delivered to them – in buckets suspended from shoulder-yokes – by water-carriers or “cobs” (of whom there were 4000 by 1600), and the few that could afford   to had a private supply piped directly to their homes or businesses in specially installed so-called “quills”.  The pipeline    was extended at either end in the fifteenth century so as to run from Oxlese, near where Paddington station now stands,  to Cornhill, about six miles away (and indeed was extended again in the sixteenth).  The so-called  Devil’s Conduit under Queen’s Square probably dates to around the same time, a photograph taken in 1910, shortly before its demolition in 1911-3,  showing it to contain graffiti from  1411.  And the  Aldermanbury Conduit under Aldermanbury Square dates to 1471.   The White Conduit in Bloomsbury dates to around 1300, and formed part of the independent water supply system to the Greyfriars Priory just inside Newgate a mile or so to the east.  Most, if not all, of the monastic houses of Medieval London  had such  systems, some of them markedly extensive (and, incidentally, at least some also had fish-ponds)

Ale and  beer, or  “liquid bread”, became a staple in the City, as soon as it was unsafe to drink the water – “small beer” for breakfast, even (beer was brewed with hops, which first begun to be imported from the Low Countries in the late Medieval period).  Wine was also imbibed in quantity.  When King Edward I and his wife Eleanor of Castile  were crowned at Westminster on the Sunday after the feast of the Assumption in 1274, “the Conduit in Chepe ran all the day with red and white wine to drink, for all such who wished”.  Purpose-built drinking establishments began to spring up in and around the City in the Medieval period.  Among them were the “Tabard” of 1304, on Borough High Street in Southwark; the “Bull Head” of 1307, the “Nag’s Head” of 1356, the “Star” of 1405, and the “Mitre” of 1461, all on Cheapside; the “Pope’s Head” of 1318, and the “Cardinal’s Cap” of 1369, on Lombard Street; the “Bear” of 1319 at Bridge Foot; the “Swan” of 1413, on Old Fish Street;  the “King’s Head” of 1417, and the “Sun” of 1429, on New Fish Street; the “Bell” of 1464, on King Street [Whitehall] in Westminster; the “King’s Head” of 1472, on Chancery Lane.  The “Tabard” was known to and  written about by ChaucerIt was burned down in the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676, and rebuilt as a coaching-inn in 1677, only to be demolished in 1873, after the arrival of the railway at nearby   London Bridge rendered most such establishments surplus to requirements (only the “George” of 1677 still standing).  Its former site is marked by a “Blue Plaque” in Talbot Yard.

In the  Medieval period,  Bow on the River Lea became established  as the site  of a cottage industry involving  the milling of grain for use in baking and distilling.  It was controlled by Stratford Langthorne Abbey (the Abbey of St Mary Stratford Langthorne). 

The prices of staples such as bread and ale were fixed by a thirteenth-century statute known as the “Assize of Bread and Ale”, although it was probably customary to haggle over the price of  other foodstuffs  sold in non-standard weights and measures.  Persons in breach of price or other regulations  were subject to fines and other fitting punishments.  For example, bakers would be pilloried  for selling under-weight loaves, and would have the offending items strung around their necks.  In 1319, a butcher named William Spertyng was pilloried  for attempting to sell putrid meat, and had it burned under his nose.  And in 1364, a vintner named John Penrose was punished for selling bad wine by being made to drink a draught of the same, and having  the rest poured over his head.

(*) Prior to decimalisation in the twentieth century, the basic units of currency were the penny (d), shilling (s) and pound (£).  There were 12 pennies in a shilling, and 20  shillings in a pound.  And prior to the  going over to SI units, the basic units of weight were the ounce (oz), pound (lb) and stone (st).  There were 16 ounces in a pound, and 14 pounds in a stone.  One pound was a little under  half a kilogram.   By the way, the basic units of measure were the inch (in), foot (ft) and yard (yd). There were 12 inches in a foot, and 3 feet in a yard.  One yard was a little under a metre.  Reference standards for weights and measures came to be kept in the Guildhall.


Which brings us to the indelicate matter of waste, and the disposal thereof.   That is to say, human and animal waste, food waste, and the equally if not even more noxious by-products of the City’s cottage industries (butchery, tallow chandlery, tannery, soap manufacture, glass manufacture, from animal horn,  and so on).  Originally, essentially all of the above was simply dumped in the streets, thence, at least in theory, to be carried  in  open  drains into the   Thames or one of its tributaries (to be fair, some public latrines were built directly over the Thames or its tributaries, thereby at least cutting out the middle man, so to speak).  The problem was that, in practice,  the drains often became blocked and/or overflowed, resulting in  certain streets becoming  breeding grounds for vermin and disease, not to mention evil-smelling, and exceedingly unpleasant underfoot – whence the invention of the “patten”, a protective slip-on undershoe recalled in the name of the church of St Margaret Pattens.  One street even came to known as  Shiteburn Lane, and later, so as to offend   one less sensibility, Sherborne Lane.   In the mid-fourteenth century, the old practice was outlawed, and waste was compelled to be collected and taken away, by so-called “rakers” and “carters”, under the supervision of “scavengers” (who also had other, wider, responsibilities).   It was first collected into “lay-stalls”, at the City limits, by rakers, one of whom is mentioned in William Langland’s “Piers Plowman”, which was written sometime between 1370-90.   It was then  taken away by carters, “without throwing anything into the Thames for the saving of the body of the river … and also for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water and upon the Banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people”, and anyone guilty of any violation was punished by “prison for his body, and other heavy punishment as well, at the discretion of the Mayor and the Aldermen”.  Some of the waste was spread as fertiliser on the fields surrounding the City, some deposited in land-fill sites, and some transported down the Thames, in “dung-boats”,  to be dumped.  Nonetheless, a considerable amount of damage had already been done to the environment and  to public health, and the Fleet and Walbrook had effectively become dead rivers, the post-Saxon history of the former  being  described as “a decline from a river to a brook, from a brook to a ditch, and from a ditch to a drain”.  Environmental archaeological examination of Medieval Fleet deposits from a site in Tudor Street revealed the existence of 140 species of mainly micro-organisms in one, early layer, indicating – apart from nematode worms from human faeces – a generally healthy condition; but only two stress-tolerant and opportunistic species in a second, later layer, indicating increasing toxicity; and none at all in a third, latest layer, indicating the total eradication  of all life, as described in the archive records for 1343.

All in all, Medieval London was a City of crowding and clamour and squalour and stench.  Nosegays and pomanders notwithstanding.

Medical Matters

The diagnosis and treatment of disease in Medieval England would have been based essentially on Galenic principles – as in Roman times.   Diseases would have been diagnosed on the basis of perceived  imbalances in the four humours, namely choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile), phlegmatic (phlegm) and sanguine (blood).  And treated according to the “theory of opposites”, for  example, in the case of excesses, by blood-letting or purging, through the use of herbal concoctions.  Sadly, the mainly herbal treatments administered by monks, Apothecaries and Physicians, were of limited efficacy against the diseases of the day, including  Plague, Ague, Leprosy,   and Consumption (see below).  A study  on a large population of eleventh- to twelfth- century skeletons excavated from  the burial ground  of the church of St Nicholas Shambles has shown that 193/234 (82%) of individuals survived childhood, and 180 (77%) into adulthood (18-25 years), although only 145 (62%) into later adulthood (>26 years); that the most common age of death was 26-35 in both males and females; and that the average height of adults was 5’8” in males, and 5’2” in  females.  Several similar studies have been undertaken on the health of the monastic orders in Medieval London.  These studies have revealed no statistically significant evidence to support  the widely-held view that Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH), a form of pathology associated with  a high-calorie diet, obesity and diabetes, is also associated with a monastic lifestyle.   The studies have, though,  revealed that certain monastic orders were  more prone  to stress-related diseases  than others, with the Augustinians and Cluniacs suffering the most, and the Dominicans and Cistercians the least (from Cribra Orbitalia, Enamel Hypoplastic Defects, and non-specific periosteal new bone formation). 

Bubonic Plague was diagnosed by painful swellings or buboes in the groin or armpit.  It is now known to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, in turn generally transmitted by the bite of an infected  rat flea, or human flea, or human body louse, all of which were common in the conditions in which people, livestock, pets and vermin  lived, cheek-by-jowl, in London in the Medieval to post-Medieval period.   In the Medieval to post-Medieval period, it was thought by some to be spread by cats and dogs, which were therefore rounded up and killed in large numbers (ironically, the resulting  reduction in predation allowing rats to proliferate).  The 1348-9 outbreak, now referred to as the “Black Death”,  and the 1665 outbreak, now referred to as the “Great Plague”, caused so many deaths in such comparatively short amounts of time that they may in part have been of particularly virulent and contagious pneumonic or septicaemic strains  of the disease,  capable of being passed directly from person to person, without  the involvement of vector insects, for example by one coughing up and another breathing in droplets of infected matter.  Significantly in this context, the “Black Death”  was able to continue to spread and even to spike over the winter of 1348-9, when vector insects  would have been inactive, as they are  everywhere  today at temperatures of less than 10degC. 

Quartan Ague, the commonest strain,  was diagnosed by a high fever recurring every fourth day.  It is now known to be caused by the parasitic protozoan  Plasmodium malariae, in turn transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito of the genus Anopheles.  In the Medieval period, it was  thought to be associated with miasmas or harmful airs associated with stagnant water (whence “Mal-aria”).  There  is actually something to this, as stagnant water  provides the perfect habitat  for the vector mosquito.  Note in this context that there was a major epidemic in 1241 after the great floods of that year, as chronicled by Matthew Paris: “Thus the year passed away, … generating epidemics and quartan agues”.

Leprosy  was diagnosed by the loss of the ability to sense pain and by the consequent loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries or infections.  It is now known to be an infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis, and to be spread from infected person to person.  In the Middle Ages, sufferers were regarded as unclean, and stigmatised by being made to carry a bell with which to announce their presence.  Indeed, all  lepers were banished and banned  from the City of London under a Royal Edict issued by Edward III in 1346, which read, in part: “all leprose persons inhabiting … should auoid within fifteen dayes …, and … no man suffer any such leprose person to abide within his house, vpon paine to forfeite his said house, and to incurre the Kinges further displeasure”.  An entry in the “Letter-Book … ” of 1372 … read: “John Mayn, …  who had oftentimes … been commanded … to depart from the City, … and avoid the common conversation of mankind – seeing that he …  was smitten with the blemish of leprosy – … was [ordered] before the mayor and aldermen … [to] depart forthwith … , and … not return … , on pain of undergoing the punishment of the pillory”. 

Even quite intricate surgical operations were evidently skilfully performed, and most  patients survived the actual surgery, although sadly many succumbed to  uncontrollable infection afterwards.  Operations performed by monks were proscribed  by a Papal Decree issued by Boniface VIII after the Council of Tours in 1163 (“Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine”).  After this date, they came to be undertaken by Barber-Surgeons.

Some  twenty-five  hospitals, mainly attached to monastic houses, sprang up around the City in the Medieval period, including the surviving St Mary of Bethlehem, St Bartholomew’s, and St Thomas’s.  They  are perhaps best thought of as places to  which patients would go to in anticipation of compassionate care (“hospitality”), if  not necessarily effective treatment.  Some of the hospitals specialised in the treatment of particular types of patient: for example, St Mary of Bethlehem, or “Bedlam”, famously, in the treatment of mentally ill persons; St Anthony’s Hospital, in the treatment of those suffering from  “St Anthony’s Fire”, or ergotism, a disease caused by eating cereals contaminated by an alkaloid-secreting fungus; Elsing or Elsyng Spital, also known as St Mary Elsing or St Mary-within-Cripplegate, in the treatment of blind persons;  and the “Lazar(us) Houses” of St Giles-in-the-Fields, Westminster and Knightbridge to the west of the City of London, Kingsland to the north, Mile End to the east, and Southwark to the south, in the treatment of lepers.     St Mary of Bethlehem was originally built  just outside Bishopsgate in 1247, part of it becoming a hospital  in 1329/30, a mental hospital of a sort purportedly as long ago as 1377, and demonstrably as long ago as  1403; and  infamous for the shameful ill-treatment of its inmates by all and sundry in the unenlightened times that followed.   St Anthony’s Hospital was built on the site of a former synagogue on Threadneedle Street in 1242.  Elsing or Elsyng Spital was built in 1330/1 by one William Elsing or Elsyng, who went on to die of the “Black Death” in 1349 (after which the building became an Augustinian Priory as well as a hospital).  The sites of the various leper hospitals were deliberately chosen so as to allow a degree of social isolation, and yet at the same time to provide the opportunity for  the inmates to beg for alms from the occasional passers-by.   St Giles-in-the-Fields was quite literally “in the fields” between the Cities of London and Westminster.


From various accounts, it appears that the population of London was of the order of 10-15,000 at the time of the “Domesday” survey in 1086; 40,000  a century later in 1180; 80,000 in 1300; and 40,000 in 1377, after the “Black Death” (the “Domesday” survey was undertaken by the Normans principally to determine who owned what, and what taxes they were  liable to).  The  death rate among native Londoners tended to exceed the birth rate, significantly so during outbreaks of Plague, such that the city’s population could only be maintained and grown by immigration, either of “foreigners” from elsewhere in England and Scotland; or of “aliens” from Europe, for example from  Normandy, Gascony, Flanders and Lombardy, or indeed from even further afield.   The  subsidy rolls of 1292 and 1319 record primarily French, Flemish/Dutch, Italian and German “aliens”; while  those of 1440 and 1483 record primarily German “aliens”, numbering 1,307 out of  a total of 2,540, but also French, Flemish/Dutch, Italian (Genoese, Venetian and Lucchian), Spanish and other, including Indian.  These records show that the highest numbers of “aliens” lived  in the wards of Broad Street, Cripplegate, Farringdon, Langbourn and Tower, each of which housed over 500.  The  highest numbers of Italians lived in the wards  of Broad Street and Langbourn, the latter the location of the financial district centred on  what is now known as Lombard Street.  The  highest numbers of “Northern Europeans”, though, lived in the ward of Dowgate, the  location of the local head-quarters of the Hanseatic League, the “Steelyard”, on the river-front immediately upstream from London Bridge.  From 1439 onwards, “alien”  merchants were required by Act of Parliament to be hosted by locals, and to submit to them accounts of all of their business transactions.  The so-called “Views of Hosts” of 1440-4 contain detailed information on  approximately 300 “aliens” (and their hosts).  Some of those involved in the trade with Venice were from as far afield as that  city-state’s eastern dependencies on the Dalmatian coast, the Peloponnese, the Greek islands and beyond, and would have spoken a variety of languages, including Croatian, Greek, Turkish and Albanian.  Venetian galley crews also evidently included a number of “Moors”. A recent bioarchaeological study of human remains  in the emergency “Black Death” burial ground  in  East Smithfield, in use between  1348-50, revealed that seven out of forty-one individuals examined (17%) might have been of African or mixed African/Asian/European origin.  One of these individuals exhibited arthritic changes to bones in his hands, feet and back, possibly as a result of a lifetime of manual labour.

Administration and Governance

Under the Normans, and indeed the Plantagenets, the  City of London remained outwardly little changed, at least initially, still largely confined within the Roman walls and laid out according to the Saxon street plan.   There were, though, sweeping changes to the way the City, and indeed the country, was run, at least initially, under  the autocratic Feudal System.  Under the Feudal System, the King and his place-men, the barons and knights,  essentially owned all the land; and granted the peasantry, that is to say, in descending order of status,  the manorial serfs, villeins, and bordars, access to it only in exchange for rent, labour, produce or services, or for some combination thereof.  At the time of the “Domesday” survey in 1086, the population of England was 2,000,000, of which, considerably less than 1% belonged to the royal, noble and ecclesiastical elite, and 20% were classified as semi-free serfs, 40% as villeins, and 30% as bordars, also known as cottars (all numbers are approximate).  Also at this time, 10% of the population were unfree slaves, owned and sold like chattels.   However, shortly afterwards, in 1102, the Church Council of London, convened by, issued a decree ordering “Let no man dare hereafter to engage in the infamous business, prevalent in England, of selling men like animals”.  And by the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, slavery appears to have been effectively eliminated (most former slaves by this time having been granted small-holdings, and become bordars). Under the Normans and Plantagenets, the  ruling elite, though powerful, was small, and more than a little  wary of the large and potentially rebellious population now nominally under its control.  In consequence, successive kings  made a series of placatory  political moves to maintain  and even extend  the rights and privileges that the City  had enjoyed under the Saxon King Edward “The Confessor”.  But lest the City go getting ideas above its station, there were everywhere within it and without reminders of the Royal presence, and of where the real power lay: the Tower of London, and the gallows and scaffold on Tower Hill, in the east; and Baynard’s Castle, Montfichet’s Tower, and the Royal Wardrobe, in the west. 

The City of London  became in essence at least in part self-governing in the Medieval  period, under the Corporation and its officials, namely the Mayor (Lord Mayor from 1351), Sheriffs, Aldermen and Common Councilmen, who were initially appointed and subsequently elected, albeit elected by,  and from within, a wealthy and influential elite, including representatives of the trades guilds or Livery Companies.   Among the more notable Mayors of the period  were the aforementioned Henry FitzAlwyn, a Draper, who held the post from 1189 until his death in 1212, and William Hardel(l),  another Draper, who held it in 1215; Serlo le Mercer, a Mercer, who held the post six times, between 1217-22; Richard Renger, who held it seven times, between 1222-7 and 1237-9;  Andrew Bu(c)kerel, a Pepperer (Grocer), who also held it seven times, between 1231-7; and Gregory de Rokesley, a Goldsmith, who held the post  eight times, between 1274-81 and in 1285. 

Richard or Dick Whittington

Perhaps the most famous, through, was Richard or Dick Whittington (c. 1354-1423).  Whittington, a Mercer, was  appointed Mayor in 1397, on the death of the incumbent, Adam Bamme, and elected to the post on a further three occasions, later in 1397, in 1406 and in 1419.  Among the many public works undertaken by Whittington, in or out of public office, were the reconstruction of the Guildhall; the conversion into a Market and Garner of the Leaden Hall; the establishment of the College of St Spirit and St Mary, on what is now College Hill, where he lived; the  reconstruction of the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, also on College Hill; the reconstruction of Newgate Prison, which had been damaged during the “Peasants’ Revolt”; and the bequest of a library valued at £400 to Christ Church Newgate Street.  Not to mention the construction of a 128-seater public latrine, popularly known as “Whittington’s Longhouse”, in the parish of St Martin Vintry!  Magna Carta of 1215 had granted the City “all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water”.  In exchange, the Crown required that, each year, the newly elected   Mayor present himself or herself at court to ceremonially “show” his or her allegiance.  This  event eventually became the Lord Mayor’s Show we know today.  Interestingly, the  associated parade of the mayor and his or her entourage, from the City to  Westminster, used to take place  on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude at the end of October, whereas now it takes place on the second Saturday in November.  The parade also used to take place on the water, whereas now it takes place  on land – although the mobile stages are referred to as “floats”.  It travels, accompanied by much pomp, from the Lord Mayor’s official residence, Mansion House,  past St Paul’s Cathedral, to the Royal Courts of Justice, where the Cities of London and Westminster meet.

The Corporation became responsible for the infrastructure of the City and the health and welfare of its Citizens, including the maintainence of the City walls, and communal buildings and gardens; the oversight of  industrial activity within the walls; street-cleaning; the provision of   water-supply and sewage systems; and the implementation of measures to prevent or control  disease – at least insofar as this was possible.  It also became at least partially responsible for the more general prosperity and orderliness of the City, including  the education of the populace, and the maintenance, if not the establishment, of the law. 


The Corporation and its benefactors, many of them associated with burgeoning  trades guilds or Livery Companies, with vested interests in vocational training, were responsible for founding a number of educational establishments from the twelfth century onwards, some of which are still running (although none on their original sites).   What was eventually to become the City of London School was founded through  the benefaction of the Town Clerk, John Carpenter,  in 1442, in the chapel of the  Guildhall; and the  school attached to St Paul’s Cathedral  was re-founded by Dean John Colet in  1509. And St Peter’s College, or Westminster School, attached to Westminster Abbey, was founded in the twelfth century.  A surviving set of rules for its pupils to follow reads: “After they have made their beds properly, let them leave their room quietly, without clattering, and approach the church modestly and with washed hands, not running or skipping, or even chattering, or having a row with any person or animal; not carrying bow (!) or staff, or stone in the hand … ; but marching along simply and honestly and with ordered step”, adding “[T]hose who breach these rules will feel the rod without delay”.  Literacy rates have been estimated to have  been of the order of 50% by the end of the Medieval period or beginning of  the post-Medieval, and functional literacy rates would have been even higher.  Functional numeracy, including an ability to “construe the accounts”, would also by this time have become  important requirements,  perhaps particularly so to the large numbers of small business owners. 

There were no universities in London in the Medieval or post-Medieval periods, such that those seeking a higher education had to travel, for example, to Oxford, or even overseas, perhaps to Paris or Bologna to study law, or to Montpellier or Salerno  to study medicine.

The Law

The law of the land was established centrally, by Parliament.  It was essentially maintained locally, through  the fore-runners of the police, namely, the sergeants, and constables or  night-watchmen; and through the courts.  As the then  Mayor, Henry Galeys, put it, in his “Provision for the Safe-Keeping of the City”, in 1282: “As to the safe-keeping of the City:- All the gates of the City are to be open by day; and at each gate there are to be two serjeants to open the same, skilful men, and fluent of speech, who are to keep a good watch upon persons coming in and going out that so no evil may befall the City.  At every parish church, curfew is to be rung at the same hour as at St Martin’s le Grand; so that they begin together, and end together; and then all the gates are to be shut, as well as taverns for wine or for ale; and no one is then to go about by the alleys or ways.  Six persons are to watch in each ward by night, of the most competent men of the ward thereto; and the two serjeants who guard the gates by day, are to lie at night either within the gates, on near thereto”.  There were only a few tens  of sergeants (including one for each of the – then – twenty-five wards, and a comparable total based at the Guildhall), and a few scores of constables or  night-watchmen, to police a population of a few tens of thousands.  They had to deal with every type of crime, from petty theft, through adulteration or false weighing of foodstuffs (or other breaches of manufacturing and retail regulations), to counterfeiting currency, and   assault and murder.   

The right of every Englishman accused of a crime  to a trial by jury in a court of law was first codified in Magna Carta of 1215, the great charter that ultimately gave rise  to our modern legal and – democratic – parliamentary systems: two of the four surviving copies of which are  now in the British Library in London.  This and some of the other  provisions of Magna Carta that have resonated  down the centuries read – rather wonderfully – as follows: “39 – No man shall be taken or imprisoned … or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers … .  40 – To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny right or justice. … 52 – If anyone has been … deprived by us without lawful judgement of his peers of lands, castles, liberties or … rights, we will restore them to him at once … . … 61  [“The Security Clause”] – … We give and grant … the following security: namely, that the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the realm that they wish, who with all their might are to observe … and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted and confirmed to them by this our present charter … . … 62 – Wherefore we wish and firmly command that the English church shall be free, and the men in our realm shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions well and peacefully, freely and quietly, fully and completely, … in all things and places for ever, as is aforesaid … .  Given under our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign”.  Peripatetic courts operated at many fairs and markets, such as  the Bartholomew Fair.  They came to be known as “Pie Powder” courts, from a corruption of the French “pieds poudres”, meaning “dusty feet”.

The right to legal counsel and representation, by attorneys (solicitors) and pleaders-before-court (barristers), became established in the later thirteenth century; formal training of pleaders-before-court, in so-called Inns of Court,  strategically situated between the Cities of London to the east and Westminster to the west,  at Temple  in the early fourteenth, at Gray’s Inn in the late fourteenth, and at Lincoln’s Inn, in its present location, in the fifteenth.  John Fortescue, a sometime Governor of Lincoln’s Inn, wrote of the Inns of Court in 1470:  “In England, laws are learned in three languages, namely English [which was in fact the everyday language of the court from the late fourteenth century onwards], French and Latin [and] not in universities, but in a certain public academy situated near the King’s courts [in Westminster].  That academy is not situated in the city, where the tumult could disturb the student’s quiet, but in a suburb.  There are in this academy ten lesser Inns of Chancery to each of [which] at least a hundred belong.  These students are for the most part young men learning the elements of the law, who, becoming proficient as they mature, are absorbed into the greater Inns of Court, of which there are four in number, and to the least of which belong 200 students or more. … [I]n these greater inns there can no student be maintained for less expenses by the year than 20 marks.  And if he have a servant to wait upon him, as most of them have, then so much the greater will his charges be.  Now by reason of these charges the children only of noble men do study the laws … .  For the poor and common sort of the people are not able to bear so great charges … and merchant men can seldom find in their hearts to hinder their merchandise with so great yearly expenses.  And thus it falleth out that there is scant any man found within the … laws, except he be a gentleman born … . Wherefore they more than any other kind of men have a special regard to their nobility and to the preservation of their honour and fame.  And to speak uprightly there is in these greater  inns, yea and in the lesser too, beside the study of the laws, as it were an university or school of all commendable qualities requisite for noble men.  There they learn to sing, and to exercise themselves in all kinds of harmony.  There also they practise dancing, and other noble men’s pastimes, as they do which are brought up in the King’s house”. 

The  law was upheld through a judicial system that placed particular emphasis on punishment as a deterrent to crime, although in its defence it also at least attempted to make the punishment fit the crime, with  the  least serious or petty crimes punishable by fines or corporal punishment, and only the perceived most serious – of which it has to be admitted there were scores – by capital punishment.    Corporal punishment included the use of the pillories and stocks, which restrained convicted criminals and allowed them to be harangued or to have missiles thrown at them by the general public.   In 1327: “John Brid, baker, was … put upon the pillory, with … dough hung from [his neck]; … until vespers at St Paul’s … be ended”, for “falsehood, malice and deceit, by him committed, to the nuisance of the common people”, for stealing dough from persons using his premises to bake their bread.  Capital punishment took one of a number of forms, for example, hanging, for murderers, and also for common thieves – of any article valued at over 1s – and other felons; boiling, for poisoners; burning, for religious dissenters of unfortunately unfashionable persuasions; peine forte e dure (pressing, under increasingly heavy weights), for those accused who refused to confess; beheading, for those of noble birth; and, most gruesomely, hanging, drawing (disembowelling) and quartering, with or without the refinement of castrating, for traitors, that is, those found guilty of high treason.  Executions were  carried out not only in prison but also in public,  in various parts of the city, most famously on  Tower Hill and in West Smithfield, or  at Tyburn, at the western end of Oxford Street, near the modern Marble Arch.  Among those executed at Tower Hill were Robert Hales, who was the Lord High Treasurer, and Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, both during the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381.  And among those executed at West Smithfield were William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter, who was hanged, drawn and quartered here in 1305, for high treason; and one Margery Jordemaine, the “Witch of Eye”, who was burned at the stake here in 1441 for allegedly plotting to  kill the then King, Henry VI,  by means of  witchcraft.   Contrary to popular belief, comparatively few women were burned for witchcraft in  Medieval England  (although many more were hanged).

Interestingly, imprisonment was mainly of persons  awaiting trial, sentencing, or sentence of execution,  and was not widely used  as a punishment in its own right, although in actual practice it was such, on account partly of the inhumane conditions under which prisoners were kept, and partly of the brutal treatment meted out to them.   With some exceptions, including the Bread Street and Poultry  “Compters”  and the Cornhill “Tun”, London’s prisons were deliberately located outside the walls – and jurisdiction – of the City, so as not to sully its gilded streets (the same also being true, incidentally, of other undesirable buildings, industries and activities, not to mention persons).    Some of the more famous – or infamous – ones were on the south side of the river in Southwark, including at one time or another the Borough Compter, Clink, King’s Bench, Horsemonger Lane, first and second Marshalsea, and White Lion.  The surviving part of the wall of the second, nineteenth-century, Marshalsea Prison, where Dickens’s father was incarcerated for debt, may still be seen, adjacent to the church of St George the Martyr.  There were also the Bridewell and Fleet to the west, and the Tothill Fields Bridewell in Westminster (one  of the surviving gates of the Tothill Fields Bridewell  may still be seen, in Little Sanctuary, a short distance from its original location).   Perhaps the most infamous prison of all, Newgate, on the western edge of the City, was originally built in 1188, and subsequently rebuilt in 1236,  and  again,  at the behest of Dick Whittington,  in 1422, after having been destroyed  during the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381.  Newgate became a byword for everything bad about the prison system, with Dick Whittington writing in 1419 “by reason of the foetid …  atmosphere …  in the heinous gaol … many persons are now dead who would be alive” (many more would die here yet, of “Gaol Fever”, or  Typhus).  Throughout the Medieval period, condemned prisoners  were dragged on a pallet all the way from Newgate, past baying crowds, to Tyburn to be executed, some of them  being allowed to stop at a tavern on the way to drink themselves into a merciful early oblivion.

Trade and Commerce

Trade prospered alongside religiosity in the Medieval City of  London, as it always  had, always would and no doubt always will – although the relationship between the two was at times strained, like that between an errant child and its parents.  Throughout the Medieval and post-Medieval periods, only Freemen of the City – or Citizens – were entitled to trade here (note also that from the early fourteenth century onwards, Freemen had to be members of one or other of the Livery Companies: see below).  Freedom of the City  was acquired by one of three means: servitude (apprenticeship); patrimony (inheritance); or redemption (purchase).  Patrimony was probably the commonest.

The City had become an important port and trading centre, through which a significant proportion of the entire country’s imports and exports were channelled,  by Medieval times.    The waterfront, the Port of London, much of it then recently reclaimed, bristled with bustling wharves (some trade flowing from the upstream to the downstream side of London Bridge after the drawbridge that allowed large vessels  to pass upstream became practically  unusable sometime around  the turn of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries).  Among  the ships involved in maritime trade in London were the so-called “cogs” of the early Medieval period, which were clinker-built, that is, with overlapping timbers; and  “shouts” such as the “Blackfriars III” ship of the later Medieval.  Rather wonderfully, the names of three shipbuilders of London who worked together on “a new boat belonging to the Bridge House called a shoute” are preserved in the Bridge House account rolls for 1382-98.  They are William Talworth, John de Stokflete and Walter Sakyn.

A prodigious range of comestible and manufactured goods was imported into London, from all over the known Old World, that is to say, closest to home, from the lands bordering the English Channel, North Sea and Baltic; and further afield, from those  bordering the north-east Atlantic and Mediterranean, or linked to the latter by the Silk or Spice Routes.    These included  fresh fish  from the Thames, imported to Billingsgate and Queenhithe, and shell-fish, to Oystergate (oysters were an important source of protein, especially for the poor, and discarded oyster shells are still common finds on the foreshore of the Thames); wine from Gascony, to Vintry; and “Baltic goods”, including timber, amber, “Stockholm Tar” and, as FitzStephen put it “sable, vair and miniver from the far lands where Russ and Norseman dwell”,  to Dowgate.  And, again as FitzStephen put it:  “Gold from Arabia; from Sabaea spice and incense; from the Scythians arms of steel well-tempered; oil from the rich groves of palm that spring from the fat lands of Babylon; fine gems from Nile; [and] from China crimson silks … ”.  (Note that significant numbers of fritware  containers for exotic goods,  known as albarelli (sing. albarello), likely to have been imported from  the Islamic World, have been found  in archaeological excavations at Plantation Place, off Fenchurch Street.)     Fresh and dried or “stock” fish was sold at the open street markets at Billingsgate and Queenhithe, and on Old Fish Street; meat on Eastcheap, at the “Shambles” on Newgate Street, and in Smithfield; poultry and game on Poultry; grain on Cornhill; and bread, milk and honey, and a range of general and exotic goods,  in the shops and selds on Cheapside, Cornhill, Gracechurch Street, Leadenhall Street and Newgate Street.  General and exotic goods were also  sold at the covered markets on  Leadenhall Street and at the Stocks.

Wool and, later, finished woollen cloth were  the most important exports, chiefly to the Low Countries,  and the trade, centred in Bakewell or Blackwell Hall near the Guildhall, was enormously  lucrative.  Sacks of wool were weighed and valued, and customs duties assessed, in the churchyard  of  St Mary Woolchurch Haw, and subsequently at the purpose-built Custom House (see below).  Sheepskins and other animal hides,  food-stuffs, and Cornish tin were also exported. 

The Custom House was originally built at least as long ago as 1377, in Billingsgate, close to the centre of activity on the water-front, its purpose being to collect the duties payable on exports of wool; and subsequently rebuilt, following a fire, in 1559.   It was burned down in the Great Fire in 1666, and rebuilt yet again, by Christopher Wren, in 1668-71.  Wren’s building was destroyed in an explosion in 1714, and rebuilt by Thomas Ripley; and Ripley’s building in turn  burned down in another fire in 1814.   The present Custom House was built by David Laing in 1814-7; and rebuilt, following a partial collapse caused by the rotting of the beech-wood  foundation piles, by Robert Smirke in 1825.  Perhaps surprisingly, given its previous history, it survived the Blitz of the Second World War unscathed.  It is designed to be, and is, best viewed from the river than from the road.   

Livery Companies

Trades guilds, or Livery Companies,  so-called for their distinguishing attire, began to be founded from the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries onwards,  possibly essentially as part of an attempt to control the freedom to trade at a time of comparative over-population and shortage of work.  The Livery Companies established working practices and maintained quality standards (through so-called “searches”).  They  also provided apprenticeships for members at the beginning of their working lives, and alms for those at the end of theirs.  The  twelve “Great” Livery Companies, whose coats-of-arms adorn the walls of the Great Hall of the Guildhall, are, in order of precedence, the Mercers’, Grocers’, Drapers’, Fishmongers’, Goldsmiths’, Skinners’, Merchant Taylors’, Haberdashers’, Salters’, Ironmongers’, Vintners’, and Clothworkers’.  The Skinners’ and Merchant Taylors’ alternate between sixth and seventh in the order of precedence, in accordance with the “Billesdon Award”, a ruling made by the then-mayor, Robert Billesdon, in 1484,  to end their long-running dispute.  To this day, any such state of confusion is  proverbially  referred to as one of “sixes and sevens”. 

The Livery Companies may, or may not,  have exerted control over commodity prices.  They were certainly  exempted from payments of pontage, pavage and murage, which covered the costs of upkeep of London’s bridge, (paved) roads and walls, respectively.  And they certainly  made money.

The Hanseatic League

The trade with the ports on the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic came to be controlled by an alliance called the Hanseatic League, which was formally founded in 1241, and which had its London headquarters at the so-called Steelyard – essentially a semi-autonomous enclave of Germany.   The relationship between the Hanse and local merchants was sometimes strained.  In 1388, the following writ was issued in Westminster: “Whereas the merchants of … London … complained that the men of … Germany … arrested their servants and goods in … Stralsund, … the King commands the mayor and sheriffs of London to arrest all the men … of … Germany … in …   London  … , and to detain them until they … answer to such charges as may be made against them on behalf of the King …  ”. 

Wealth and Poverty

As time went by, most if not all of the City trading organisations,  and many individual master- craftsmen and -traders, grew rich, in some cases fabulously so.  In contrast, although some semi-skilled  artisanal journeymen were able to make some money by supplying the demands of the burgeoning bourgeoisie for fancy goods and services, most unskilled labourers remained steadfastly poor, and deprived of any real opportunity of social mobility.   There was never an equitable distribution or redistribution of wealth, although there was at least an informal  system of  charitable patronage and donation from the churches,  from other rich institutions such as the Livery Companies,  and from rich individuals, to the poor.  The rich burned wax candles; the poor, tallow (that is, rendered animal fat).  All would appear to have lived rather uneasily together.  Note, though, that there is a certain amount of evidence from tax records of concentrations of wealth in the wards in the centre of the  City, and of poverty in those around its margins, and without the walls, in both the Medieval and post-Medieval periods. 

Entertainment and Culture

For the entertainment of the many and the edification of the few, there was at West Smithfield  archery, wrestling and cock-fighting, a weekly horse fair, and an annual Bartholomew Fair every August from the twelfth century, and there were also regular jousting tournaments from the fourteenth.  At   East Smithfield, there was  a further fair;  on Undershaft an annual May Fair; and on Cheapside further tournaments. In the Tower of London, from the thirteenth century, there was, bizarrely, a menagerie of elephants, lions, bears and so on. Louis IX of France presented Henry III with an African elephant in 1255, which became one of the prize exhibits in the menagerie, before it died  in 1257, possibly – or  possibly apocryphally –   of a surfeit of the red wine fed to it by its keeper, one Henri(cus) de Flor.  Surviving records indicate that the cost of transporting the elephant  to the Tower, building a special house for it there, and feeding it, was well over £50, at a time when a knight could live comfortably for a year on £15.  Visitors to the Tower menagerie were allowed “free” entry if they presented the warders with a cat or dog to feed to the lions.  The polar  bear was able to feed itself by fishing  in the Thames (at the end of a long tether). 

A Medieval depiction of animal-baiting (from the Luttrell Psalter)

On Bankside in  Southwark, from at least as long ago as the fifteenth century, there was animal-baiting. The oldest record of the royal office of “Master of the Bears”, who organised bear-baiting, is from 1484, which was during the reign of the last Plantagenet King, Richard III.  On Moorfields, in the winter, when the Walbrook froze over, which it evidently did repeatedly in the Medieval period, there was improvised ice-skating, as described  by Fitzstephen (“[T]he  younger crowd …  equip each of their feet with an animal’s shin-bone, attaching it to the underside of their footwear; using hand-held poles reinforced with metal tips, which they periodically thrust against the ice, they propel themselves along as swiftly as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a crossbow”).  And on the Thames, when it froze over, which it evidently did repearedly between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, impromptu “frost fairs”.  Records indicate that in all the river froze  over  nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895, becoming the site of “frost fairs” at least in  1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14.  Everywhere, all the time, there was drinking, gambling, and rough sport.  Repeated attempts were made over the years to ban football.  In 1314, the Mayor of London, Nicholas de Farndone, issued the following order: “And whereas there is great uproar in the City, through certain tumults arising from the striking of great footballs in the fields of the public, from which many evils perchance may arise, which may God forbid, we do command and do forbid, on the King’s behalf, on pain of imprisonment, that such game be practices from henceforth within the city … ”.  Also  wrestling within the bounds of St Paul’s!  An order issued in the fifteenth century read as follows: “That no manne ne childe, of what estate or condicion that he be, be so hardy as to wrestell, or make any wrestlyng, within the seintury ne the boundes of Poules, ne in non other open place within the Citee of London, up peyne of emprisonement of fourty days, & making fyn un-to the chaumbre after the discrecioun of the Mair & Aldermen”.  And, of course, there were  “stew-houses”, or brothels.  The first “stews” were established  in the  early twelfth century, in Bankside, between  the Thames to the north, Bank End to the east, what was then Maiden Lane and is now Park Street to the south, and Cardinal’s Cap Alley to the west, on land owned either by the Bishops of Winchester, who had built a palace on nearby Clink Street in c. 1144, or by the Prioresses of Stratford Priory (the Priory of St Leonard Stratford-at-Bow).    Tax records from the fateful year of 1381 show that there were seven open  at this time; further records from the later 1400s, that there were eighteen at this time.  A set of “Ordinances for the Governance of the Stews” had to be issued as long ago as 1161.   Some of the ordinances were concerned with the welfare of the working girls, for example “no brothel-keeper to prevent his whore entering or leaving the premises at will” and “quarterly searches of every brothel must be carried out to ensure no woman is imprisoned there against her will … ”.  Others, though, restricted their rights, for example “all whores to wear some agreed garment indicating their profession” (and “no whore to wear an apron”).   Still others were concerned with public health, for example “no brothel-keeper to let any whore work on his premises if he knows she has ‘the burning sickness’”.  Or with public order, for example “no whore to entice any man into the brothel by pulling on his coat or any other item of clothing”, “no whore to throw stones at passers-by or pull faces at them for refusing to come in” and “no whore to chide with any man and make a fray”.  A  “Proclamation as to Street Walkers by Night, and Women of Bad Repute” was issued in 1393.  It read, in part, as follows: “Whereas many and divers affrays, broils and dissensions have arisen in times past, and many men have been slain and murdered [!] by reason of the frequent resort of, and consorting with, common harlots … , we do by our command forbid … that any such women shall go about … the … city, … but they are  to keep themselves to the places thereunto assigned, that is to say, the Stews on the other side of the Thames [on Bankside in Southwark], and Cokkeslane [Cock Lane] … ”. 

There were also, though, occasional royal spectacles, and civic ceremonials such as the Lord Mayor’s Show.  Miracle, mystery or morality plays, “holy plays, representations of miracles, which holy confessors have wrought, or representations of torments wherein the constancy of martyrs appeared”, were staged from at least as long ago as the twelfth century; Creation and Passion plays, performed by City clerks and apprentices,  in the  fourteenth  and fifteenth, at the so-called “Clerks’ Well” that gave its name to Clerkenwell.  One such,  at “Skinners’ Well” in 1409, lasted eight days, and  presented the entirety of scriptural history “from the Creation of the world”.

And London was the home of the courtier, diplomat, bureaucrat, writer, poet, and inventor of the iambic pentameter  Geoffrey Chaucer (1342?-1400), and figured prominently in his famously bawdy and redolent works, which were originally written in Middle English; and of  his  friend, fellow – “Ricardian” – poet, and inventor of the iambic tetrameter John Gower (1330-1408).  (Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; Gower in St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral)).   Chaucer was variously employed as a  “Varlet de Chambre” by Edward III,  between 1367-74; as the “Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides” by  Edward III and Richard II, between  1374-86; and as “Clerk of the King’s Works” by Richard II, between  1389-91 (he is also thought  to have studied Law at the Inner Temple, in c. 1366).  In the course of his employment, in 1373, he is thought to have come into contact with Petrarch and Bocaccio, and to have been introduced to Italian poetry, in Italy.  Between 1374-86, he would undoubtedly have met travellers from all over the country and continent at his then place of work at the Custom House on the river-front in Billingsgate, including those making the pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, some of them perhaps providing inspiration for the colourful characters he wrote about in the “Canterbury Tales”.  He would appear to have written “The House of Fame”, “The Legend of Good Women”, “Parlement of Foules”, and “Troilus and Criseyde”, and also at least to have begun to write  “The Canterbury Tales”, at this time, at his lodgings in Aldgate.  Earlier, in 1369, he had written   “The Book of the Duchess” in honour of his mentor John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche of Lancaster (who had died of the plague that year). 

All reading matter had of course to be written out long-hand – on vellum – in the Middle Ages.  The Stationers’ Company originated  in 1403 through  a union of  text-writers (Scribes), illuminators (Limners), bookbinders, booksellers, and suppliers of parchment, paper and pens.  Printing on paper, and hence mass production, only became possible at the turn of the Medieval and post-Medieval periods.  William Caxton set up the first printing press in Greater London at the sign of the “Red Pale” in Westminster in 1476 (he is buried in the nearby church of St Margaret, Westminster).  Caxton published his first book,   Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, also in 1476, and a range of chivalric romances, classics and histories, most of them in English, thereafter, indicating that his customers were  reading for both betterment and pleasure.  If they belonged to the working- rather than to  the leisured- class,   finding the free time to read  books might have been more of an issue for them than finding the money to buy them, mass-produced  ones  being more reasonably priced than hand-made ones (which were always  expensive luxuries).


Contemporary representations – most of them, it has to be acknowledged, of the rich –  indicate that the everyday dress of both men and women essentially throughout the Middle Ages consisted of various types of gown and under-garment, the latter probably including linen “drawers” for men, and shifts for women.  The materials from  which the gowns were made varied across society, with the wearing of expensive fabrics and furs restricted to the ruling classes, and that of cloth-of-gold to royalty, as stipulated by the so-called “Sumptuary Laws” (and the later “Acts of Apparel”).  Materials that have been found during the course of archaeological excavations in London include variously woven sheeps’ wool, goats’ hair, linen, silk and velvet; variously dyed with madder (shades of red), kermes (further shades of red), weld (yellow), woad (light blue), indigo (dark blue) and indigo purple.  The cuts varied both across society and through time, as a general rule tending to become   shorter and closer through time. 

Oteswich memorial, St Helen (Bishopsgate)

In the church of St Helen, there is a  memorial to the gentleman John (de) Oteswich and his  wife Mary, that is thought to date to the turn of the fourteenth and  fifteenth centuries.  It depicts John  wearing a long, loose gown with flared sleeves, of a type known as a “houppelande”, and also as carrying on his belt a sort of short sword known as a “baselard” on his left hip, and a sort of man-bag known as a “scrip” on his right.   And  Mary wearing a similar gown, covered by a “coat-hardie”, and a veiled head-dress or “wimple”.  The Medieval men and women of London were clearly concerned not only about their clothes, but also their hair, eyebrows, ears and nails, as evidenced by the discoveries  in archaeological excavations of diverse  accessories, including  girdles, buckles, strap-ends, mounts, brooches, buttons, lace chapes, pins, beads, chains, pendants, rings, bells, purses, cased mirrors, combs, cosmetic implements  and sets, and needle-cases.  The  physical evidence is supported  by literary sources – the Carpenter’s wife in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” plucked and darkened her eyebrows!

Throughout Europe, men’s shoes became increasingly elongated and pointed at the toe from the twelfth century to the fifteenth, to the extreme extent in the late fourteenth to fifteenth that the points had to be tied to the wearers’ legs to prevent  tripping!  Such shoes, known as “crakows” or “poulaines”, after Krakow in Poland,  became particularly popular in England after the marriage of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, though their wearing was subsequently  restricted to Lords, Esquires and Gentlemen by a “Sumptuary Law” in  1463, and eventually banned altogether in 1465 (an anonymous monk of Evesham wrote in 1394: “With this Queen there came from Bohemia into England those accursed vices … half a yard in length, thus it was necessary for them to be tied to the shin with chains of silver before they could walk with them”).  Fine  fourteenth-century examples  have  been found on the foreshore of the Thames near the second Baynard’s Castle, built in 1338, and the Royal Wardrobe, built in around 1361, that  would likely have been worn by high-status individuals  associated with one or other of these buildings (their impracticality would have ruled out their  use by working men).  Interestingly, a pair of pattens evidently designed to protect poulaines is depicted in the Flemish  artist Jan van Eyck’s famous “Portrait of [the Luccan merchant] Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife”, painted in 1434, and now in the National  Gallery in London.

Medieval London, Pt. I – History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …



The Medieval period  was one  of historical, political, religious and social transformation, not to say turmoil, over four hundred years, and under four  royal houses; of historical events that determined the then-future destiny of the country of England and its capital city (Map 3).  It was a time of conquest and oppression; of crusade and pilgrimage; of pestilence and  penitence; of fanfare and  plainsong.   And  of  war, unending war: war between the English  and the  Scots, and the French, and the Welsh; and,  when there was no-one else willing to fight, war among the  English, in “The Anarchy” of  the twelfth century, the Barons’ Wars of  the thirteenth,  and the Wars of the Roses of  the fifteenth.  It was a time, too, of a certain rebelliousness and  occasional outright rebellion amongst  elements of the population,  that was perhaps the product of  an innate independent-mindedness and anti-authoritarianism, and that was to continue into the post-Medieval period and beyond.   The defining spirit of the Medieval age  may be said to have been one of ebullient confidence,  undercut in the dead of night by dread.  The attitude toward death was less fearful than that of our own modern age; that toward an uncertain  after-life, in Heaven, Hell or  Purgatory, much more so.  What perhaps most  set the Medieval apart from our age  was  the nature and degree of religious observance: the Latin masses and sung chantries; and the  repeated summonings by bells.  It would have felt utterly alien to us, to our more secular  sensibilities.  For me, this is its  fascination.

There are sufficient surviving records of one kind or another, in Middle English, Norman French or Latin, to enable us to undertake a reasonably accurate reconstruction not only of the history of but also of the social history of Medieval London.  These include the “Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London” of 1188-1274, deriving from the so-called “Liber de Antiquis Regibus”, produced for  the Alderman Arnald Thedmar or FitzThedmar in the late thirteenth century; the “Letter-Books of the City of London” of  1275-1509, of which the most important are  the  “Liber Horn”, produced  for the City Chamberlain Andrew Horn between  1311 and sometime in the 1320s, and the  “Liber Albus”, produced for the Common  Clerk John Carpenter in the years up to 1419; and a multitude of  other court, corporation, and ward records, many now in  the Guildhall Library or London Metropolitan Archives.    More personal contemporary eye-witness accounts include those of William FitzStephen, writing, in the prologue of his “Vita Sancti Thomae” or “Life of St Thomas”, in 1183; Richard of Devizes, also writing in the late twelfth century;  Jean Froissart, writing between 1377-1410; Wenzel Schaseck and Gabriel Tetzel, both writing in 1465; and the anonymous author of “A Chronicle of London”, writing around 1483. 

FitzStephen memorably, if gushingly, described  London, as “the most noble city”, a city that  “pours out its fame more widely, sends to farther lands its wealth and trade, lifts its head higher than the rest”, a city “happy in the healthiness of its air, in the Christian religion, in the strength of its defences, the nature of its site, the honour of its citizens, the modesty of its matrons”, a city in which  “the only pests … are the immoderate drinking of foolish sorts and the frequency of fires”.   

Richard of Devizes wrote, at more or less the same time, although in a markedly  different tone: “Whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find … in that one city.  … [D]ice and gambling; the theatre and the tavern.  … [M]ore braggarts … than in all France … .  Acrobats, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses”.

Froissart was a French courtier from Valenciennes who made repeated visits to England between 1361, when he came to join the entourage of Edward III’s Queen, Philippa of Hainault, and c. 1400.  He wrote a series of “Chroniques” or “Chronicles” between 1377 and c. 1410, the first sometime after 1377; the   second, in 1388; the third, in 1390; and the fourth, in c. 1410.  The  “Chroniques” cover, among other important events in the history of London, and indeed England, the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381; Richard II’s power-struggles with Parliament,  and with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of  Gloucester, and the other Lords Appellant, in 1386-8; and the King’s  eventual decline and deposition at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke, the Earl of Derby (and future Henry IV), in 1397-9.

Schaseck, from Birkov in what is now the Czech Republic, visited London as part of the diplomatic delegation of Leo of Rozmital in 1465, and wrote: “London is a grand and beautiful city and has two castles. In the first, located at the very end of the city surrounded by the ocean’s gulf, lives the English King. He was present at the time of our arrival. Across the gulf there is a bridge made of stone and quite long, and houses have been built on both sides of it stretching its full length. I have never seen such a quantity of kite birds as I have here. Harming them is forbidden and is punishable by death”.   Tetzel, from Grafenberg in what is now Germany,    visited London as part of the same delegation in 1465, and wrote: “We have passed through Canterbury through the English kingdom all the way to the capital, which is home to the English King. Its name is London and it is a very vigorous and busy city, conducting trade with all lands. In this city there are many craftsmen, and mainly goldsmiths and drapers, beautiful women and expensive food”.

Norman History

The death of the English King, Harold, during the Battle of Hastings (from the Bayeux Tapestry)

The first of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Conquest, visited in 1066.  Despite spirited resistance, London soon fell to Norman forces under William the Bastard, the Conqueror, marching north from the fateful battle-field of Hastings.  The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” recounts: “The best men from London … submitted from force of circumstances, but only when the depredation was complete.  It was great folly that they had not done so sooner when God would not remedy matters because of our sins.  They gave him [William] hostages and swore oaths of fealty, and he promised to be a gracious lord to them”.  And the Norman chronicler William of Jumieges: “[we] engaged them [Londoners] in battle, causing no little mourning in the City because of the very many deaths of her own sons and citizens”.  William Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey in  1066.  Orderic Vitalis wrote in his “Historia Ecclesiastica” of the occasion: “So at last on Christmas Day …, the English assembled at London for the King’s coronation, and a strong guard of Norman men-at-arms and knights was posted round the minster to prevent any treachery or disorder.  And, in the presence of the bishops, abbots, and nobles of the whole realm of Albion, Archbishop Ealdred consecrated William duke of Normandy King of the English and placed the royal crown on his head.  This was done in the abbey church of St Peter the chief of the apostles, called Westminster, where the body of King Edward [the Confessor] lies honourably buried.  But at the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred.  For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their King, all of them gladly shouted out with one voice if not one language that they would.  The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult …, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings.  The fire spread rapidly …, the crowd who had been rejoicing … took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition ran out of the church in frantic haste.  Only the bishop and a few clergy and monks remained, … and with difficulty completed the consecration of the King who was trembling from head to foot.   … The English, after hearing of the perpetration of such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge”.

The “William Charter” (London Metropolitan Archives)

The following year, William   granted the City of London a  Charter, which read, in translation (from Old English rather than Norman French): “William King greets William the Bishop and Geoffrey the Portreeve and all the citizens in London, French and English, in friendly fashion; and I inform you that it is my will that your laws and customs be preserved as they were in King Edward’s day, that every son shall be his father’s heir after his father’s death; and that I will not that any man do wrong to you.  God yield you.” The so-called “William Charter” is now in the London Metropolitan Archives. 

Two of William I’s sons  went on to be  crowned King: William II , in 1087; and Henry I, in 1100.  In 1132, Henry acknowledged London’s status as effectively a county or shire in its own right, by issuing a charter granting it the authority to appoint its own “Shire-Reeve” or Sheriff.  Earlier, incidentally, on October 17th, 1091, under William, London had been hit by a large tornado, which damaged London Bridge, destroyed 600 houses and killed  two persons.  The tornado also virtually  levelled the newly-built church of St Mary-le-Bow, also known as Bow Church, on Cheapside.  From contemporary accounts of the damage it caused – one of which describes it as having driven  four 26’ rafters vertically into the ground – modern   meteorologists have estimated that the  tornado would have rated T8 on the T scale, with winds in excess of  200 mph. 

The second  Horseman  of the Apocalypse, War, visited for the first time in   “The Anarchy” of 1135-41, “when Christ and his Saints slept”, and there was prolonged and bloody fighting over the succession to the throne  following the death of Henry I.  Henry’s only legitimate son had  died earlier, aboard the “White Ship”, and  his  daughter, Empress Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen of Blois, laid rival claims.  London lay under  Stephen’s control, and when Matilda attempted to seize control of the capital after he was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, it resisted, and she withdrew.   According to one account, ”the whole city flew to arms at the ringing of the bells, which was the signal for war, and all with one accord rose upon the countess … as swarms of wasps rise from their hives”.  London then lent its support to Stephen’s wife Maud, and back to the man himself once he was released from captivity. 

Plantagenet History

The  Angevin or Plantagenet Henry, son of Geoffrey V of Anjou and Matilda, was crowned King Henry II when Stephen died in 1154.

The elder of Henry’s surviving sons was crowned King Richard I in 1189.  According to one account, which now  resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the coronation ceremony was accompanied by “evil omens”, including the presence of a  bat fluttering around the King’s head during the crowning, and the mysterious pealing of bells.  Shortly afterwards, representatives  of the Jewish community, who had been barred from the ceremony, arrived at the abbey to present gifts and their respects to the newly-crowned King, only to be beaten and stripped by the King’s men, and thrown out onto the street.  Tragically, this came to be taken as a licence to attack the entire – sizeable – Jewish  population of London.  According to Roger of Howden, in his “Gesta Regis Ricardi”, the “jealous and bigoted” citizens went on to kill many, including Jacob of Orleans, a respected scholar, to burn  the houses of many others, and to force  the remainder to seek sanctuary in the Tower of London, or to flee the city altogether, until it was safe to return.  And according to Richard of Devizes, “On the very day of the coronation, about that solemn hour in which the Son was immolated to the Father, a sacrifice of the Jews … was commenced in the city of London, and so long was the duration … that the holocaust could scarcely be accomplished the ensuing day … ”.  A horrified Richard was forced  to issue a writ ordering the cessation of the  persecution of the Jews (he also  allowed those who had been forcibly converted to Christianity to  revert to Judaism).  He also ordered the execution of those  guilty of the most egregious offences against them. 

A statue of Henry Fitzailwyn (Holborn Viaduct)

Later in 1189, Richard  appointed the  first Mayor of London, Henry FitzAilwyn de Londonestone, in effect to run the City.

Later still in Richard’s reign, in 1196, according to an  account given by Roger of Wendover:  “About this time there arose a dispute in the city of London between the poor and the  rich on account of the tallage, which was exacted by the King’s agents for the benefit of the exchequer: for the principal men of the city, whom we call mayors and aldermen, having held a deliberation at their hustings, wished to preserve themselves from the burden, and to oppress the poorer classes.  Wherefore William FitzRobert [also rendered as FitzOsbert], surnamed ‘with the beard’ [William Longbeard] … called the mayors of the city traitors to our lord the King for the cause above mentioned; and the disturbances were so great in the city that recourse was had to arms.  … [T]he King, his ministers, and the chief men of the city charged the whole crime on William.  As the King’s party were about to arrest him, he … escaped, defending himself with nothing but a knife, and flying into the church of St Mary of the Arches [St Mary-le-Bow], demanded the protection of our Lord, St Mary, and her church, saying that he had resisted an unjust decree for no other purpose than that all might bear an equal share of the public burden, and contribute according to their means.  His expostulations, however, were not listened to, … and the archbishop [Walter] … ordered that he should be dragged from the church to take a trial, because he had created a sedition … among the people of the city.  When this was told to William, he took refuge in the tower of the church, for he knew that the mayors … sought to take away his life.  In their obstinacy they applied fire, and sacreligiously burned down a great part of the church.  Thus William was forced to leave … , … seized, … and … conveyed away to the Tower of London.  Soon after, … he was … dragged, tied to a horse’s tail, through the middle of  London to Ulmet [Tyburn] … : after which he was  hung in chains on a gallows.   … With him were also hanged nine of his neighbours or of his family, who espoused his cause”.  According to other contemporary sources, William Longbeard was “in origin one of the most noble citizens of London”, but nonetheless became “the champion of the poor, it being his wish that every person, both rich and poor, should give according to his property and means, for all the necessities of the state”.  In one remarkable and radical speech that provoked outrage and fear throughout the Establishment, he proclaimed: “I am the saviour of the poor.  Oh poor, who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and … do this joyfully, for the time of your visitation is at hand.  For I will divide … the humble and faithful people from the haughty and treacherous … , as light from darkness”.

John   was crowned King in 1199.  During his reign, in 1212, there was a terrible fire, in which thousands of people are purported to have died.   According to a near-contemporary account: “An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.”   The fire badly damaged the recently-built bridge, leaving it only partially usable for years afterwards, and necessitating a partial rebuild.  It also damaged  Sy Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral).  In 1215, John  granted the City of London the right to elect its own Mayor: his so-called  “Mayoral Charter” is now in the Guildhall.  The prestige of the position was such that the by-then Mayor, William Hardel(l),  was invited by John to be  a witness to the sealing of, and indeed an Enforcer or Surety of, Magna Carta, at Runnymede in Surrey, later in 1215.  This was after rebel barons had entered London to force John’s hand.  Ralph of Coggeshall wrote: “With alliances sworn with the citizens of London via go-betweens, … the barons came to London and seized it without opposition, the citizens being busy at Mass. Having entered, the barons captured all of the King’s supporters whom they found, depriving them of their goods. They broke into the houses of the Jews, rifling store-houses and strong boxes, and having spent much time in this holy work, abundantly restuffed their own empty purses. Robert FitzWalter, Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex and Gloucester, vigilantly and daily reinforced the City walls with stones taken from the houses of the Jews. They could not, however, take the Tower of London, defended against them by a small but brave garrison. As soon as it became known, far and wide, that the barons had seized the royal metropolis, all, save only the earls of Warenne, Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Ferrers and Salisbury, and amongst the barons only William Brewer … defected to the baronial party; … so that …  the King was seized with such terror that he now dared travel no further than Windsor”.

A frieze depicting the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede (Supreme Court building, Westminster)

The First Barons’ War broke out still later in  1215, when it became clear that when John  had no intention of abiding  by the terms of Magna Carta.   When John died in 1216, the barons refused to recognise his son Henry III as King, and instead supported  the rival claim to the title of the French King Philippe II’s son Louis, also known as the Dauphin.  The Dauphin and barons suffered a heavy military defeat at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, after which they were forced to retreat to their power-base in London, there  to await reinforcements from France, which in the event never arrived, the transporting  fleet  being intercepted en route.  Incidentally, two prominent Londoners were captured at the battle, namely  the aforementioned Robert FitzWalter, formerly of Baynard’s Castle, and Richard de Montfichet, of Montfichet’s Tower, both of which  had been demolished on John’s orders after the baronial conspiracy of 1212, in which FitzWalter had been implicated.  The Dauphin then agreed to  relinquish  his claim to England and end the war, by signing the so-called Treaty of Lambeth, brokered by William Marshall, later in 1217 (there is a famous alabaster effigy of Marshall in Temple Church).  In exchange, the barons and people were given back the liberties that had been taken away under John’s unjust rule.  The Second Barons’ War broke out in 1264.   As in the case of the First Baron’s War, London remained a barons’ stronghold essentially throughout.  Following his victory at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, during which the King, Henry III was captured, the barons’ leader, Simon de Montfort convened what is widely regarded as England’s first representative Parliament in Westminster Hall in 1265 (before this date,  Parliament, or its precursor, had met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey;  and after 1548, it met in the then-secularised Royal Chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster.  De Montfort was killed, and Henry freed from captivity, at the Battle of Evesham later in 1265, which left the royalists holding the upper hand until the eventual cessation of hostilities, according to  the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth,  in 1267. 

The  third Horseman  of the Apocalypse, Famine,  visited during the reign of Henry III in 1257/8,  and again during the reign of Edward II in 1314-7.  The City of London was subject to a famine of Biblical proportions in  1257/8, as indeed were the entire country and continent.  The “Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs” for 1257/8 record that: “In this year, there was a failure of the crops; upon which … a famine ensued, to such a degree that the people from the villages resorted to the City for food; and there, upon the famine waxing still greater, many thousand people perished … ”.  It is likely that many of the many thousands of individuals buried in the crypt-cum-charnel house of St Mary Spital, which have recently been shown to date to the middle of the thirteenth century, died during this famine.  As to the underlying cause, it has been speculated to have been brought about by a “volcanic winter” following the explosive  eruption of Mount Samalas on the island of Lombok in Indonesia in 1257.  Another famine, albeit less well documented in London, affected  the country and continent between 1314-7.  It, too, appears to have been associated with – prolonged – bad weather, even in supposed summer months, and associated harvest failure, and to have been compounded by livestock disease and death (“murrain”).  Initially, it was the poor who were  particularly badly affected, being unable to afford to pay a premium for increasingly scarce  foodstuffs, and indeed even for the staple, bread, especially after attempts to restrict its price ultimately proved unsuccessful.   But, by the summer  of 1315, there was essentially nothing for anyone rich or poor to eat anywhere in St Albans, even the King, Edward II, and his court, who visited the town in  August.  As to the underlying cause in this case,  it has been speculated to have been brought about by either a short-term cooling spike caused by another volcanic eruption, perhaps of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand, or a long-term climatic cooling trend at the transition from the “Medieval Warm Period” into the “Little Ice Age”, or a superposition of the two.  The balance between sufficiency and deficiency of food supply  was always extremely precarious, and easily tipped.  Food shortages would persist well into the post-Medieval period, with food riots in London in 1595.

The First War of Scottish Independence began with the English conquest of Scotland during the reign of Edward I in 1296, and lasted until the restoration of independence, either  de facto after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, or de jure after the  Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton during the reign of Edward II in 1328.   

William Wallace memorial (West Smithfield)

One of the principal Scottish leaders, William Wallace (“Braveheart”), was captured  by the English at Robroyson near Glasgow in 1305.  He was then taken to London, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason in West Smithfield.

The  fourth and final  Horseman of the Apocalypse, Plague, visited during the reign of Edward III in 1348-9, and again  in 1361 (the so-called “Pestis Secunda”, or “Second Plague”), 1368  (the “Third Plague”), 1375 (the “Fourth Plague”), and during the reign of the Lancastrian King Henry VI in 1433-5.  And death followed.  It is estimated that around half of the population of the City of London, or 40,000 people, died in the 1348-9 outbreak that came to be known as the “Black Death”.  Twenty-six out of the fifty monks of Westminster Abbey died, and were buried in the  cloister.  The abbot, Simon Bircheston, also died, and was buried separately, near the Chapter House door, alongside earlier abbots of the late eleventh to twelfth centuries, his epitaph reading in part: “May this blessed father now flourish with the kind Fathers in the presence of God”.  Other named victims included the leading bell-founder Peter de Weston’s widow Matilda and son Thomas,  the gilder Dionysia la Longe, the painter John of Mimms, and Henry of Rochester.  The contemporary chronicler Robert of Avesbury wrote: “The pestilence which had first broken out in the land occupied by the Saracens became so much stronger that, sparing no dominion, it visited with the scourge of sudden death the various parts of all the Kingdoms … .  [I]t began in England in Dorsetshire … in the year of the Lord 1348, and immediately advancing from place to place it attacked men without warning … .  Very many of those who were attacked in the morning it carried out of human affairs before noon.  And no one whom it willed to die did it permit to live longer than three or four days.  …  And about the Feast of All Saints [November 1st, 1348], reaching London, it deprived many of their life daily, and increased to so great an extent that from the feast of the Purification [February 2nd, 1349] till after Easter [April 12th, 1349] there were more than two hundred bodies of those who had died buried daily in the cemetery which had been then recently made near Smithfield, besides the bodies which were in other graveyards … .  The grace of the Holy Spirit finally intervening, …  about the feast of Whitsunday [May 31st, 1349], it ceased at London … ”.  He also wrote: “In that same year of 1349, about Michaelmas, over six hundred [flagellants]  came to London from Flanders … .  Sometimes at St Paul’s and sometimes at other points in the city they made two daily public appearances … .  …   Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails. Each tail had a knot and through the middle of it there were sometimes sharp nails fixed. They marched naked in a file one behind the other and whipped themselves with these scourges on their naked and bleeding bodies.  Four of them would chant in their native tongue and, another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross”.  The horror of the Black Death can only be imagined.  The many thousands of dead were buried, with more or less ceremony, in “plague pits” in East Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, founded in 1350; and at West Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Carthusian monastery of Charterhouse, founded in 1371 (as Stow put it, “A great pestilence … overspread all England, so wasting the people that scarce the tenth person of all sorts was left alive, and churchyards were not sufficient to receive the dead, but men were forced to choose out certain fields for burial”).    Some have recently been unearthed in archaeological excavations, and on analysis have been found to contain traces of the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis biovar medievalis (see section on “Medical Matters” below).

In the immediate aftermath of the “Black Death” of 1348-9, the demand for labour came to greatly exceed the supply, City- and country- wide.  At the same time, the work-force had its wages frozen,  under the “Ordinance of Labourers” of 1349; and then became subject to understandably even more unpopular, and extremely unjustly enforced,  Poll Taxes,  in  1377, 1379 and 1381. 

The death of Wat Tyler during the “Peasants’ Revolt”.

Civil unrest followed in the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381.  A Hanseatic merchant described, in a letter,  what happened at the outset of the revolt: “[O]n the day of Corpus Christi two counties near London called Kent and Essex came with all their might to the city of London to speak with the king. When they entered they …  carried out great misdeeds … [and] … slayed many foreign people”, adding “we all stayed secretly with our London friends, because we reckoned, we would be protected there for so long as the bad people were in the city”.  The revolt came to a head in a confrontation, at West Smithfield, between on the one side  a thousands-strong mob, and on the other, heavily-armed knights and henchmen, officers of the City, and the  then boy-King Richard II.  By this time, the  mob had already slaked its blood-thirst by sacking some Establishment buildings in the City, including the Tower of London and John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, and killing many  of their occupants, together with many other innocent by-standers.  Among  the dead were Robert Hales, the Lord High Treasurer, who had introduced the Poll Tax, and Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury; both unceremoniously beheaded on Tower Hill.  As well as being the Treasurer, Hales was also the Prior of the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell.  Its  buildings, too, were  deliberately targeted during the revolt.  It is significant that no attempt was made to harm the King, whose perceived status from birth was not only royal but also essentially divine and sacrosanct, as indicated by the symbology of the Wilton Diptych (in the National Gallery).  The  French chronicler Jean  Froissart (c.1337-c.1405) described, in the second of his “Chroniques”, completed in 1388, what happened at the culmination of the revolt: “This day all the rabble … assembled under Wat Tyler, John Straw and John Ball, at a place called Smithfield … . There were present about 20,000, … breakfasting, and drinking Rhenish wine and Malmsey Madeira … without paying for anything … . [W]hen the King, attended by sixty horses, … arrived before the Abbey of St Bartholomew, … and saw the crowd of people, he stopped, saying that he would …  endeavour to appease them. Wat Tyler … was only desirous of a riot … .   … The Mayor of London [the fishmonger William Walworth], with about twelve men, rode forward, armed under their robes, …  seeing Tyler’s manner of behaving, … .  [T]he Mayor, … supported by the King, … then drew a kind of scimitar [now in the Fishmongers’ Hall], and struck Tyler such a blow on the head as felled him to his horse’s feet.  As soon as the rebel was down, he was surrounded on all sides, in order that his own men might not see him; and one of the King’s squires, by name John Standwich, immediately leaped from his horse, and drawing his sword, thrust it into his belly, so that he died.  When the rebels found that their leader was dead, they drew up in a sort of battle array, each man having his bow bent before him.  The King at this time … hazarded much, though it turned out most fortunately for him; for … he left his attendants, giving orders that no one should follow him, and riding up to the rebels, … said ‘Gentlemen,   … I am your King, remain peaceable’.  The greater part, on hearing these words, were quite ashamed, and those among them who were inclined for peace began to slip away …  ”. 

Two further crises followed the “Peasants’ Revolt” during the course of Richard II’s reign, as chronicled by Froissart.  The first was a series of  power-struggles with Parliament, and with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of  Gloucester, and the other Lords Appellant, in 1386-8.  At this time, the King, and his Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, sought an unprecedentedly high  rise in taxes to continue to fund the war against France that had begun in 1337 (and that would only end in 1453, which is why it is now known as the “Hundred Years’ War”).  Parliament – the “Wonderful Parliament” – refused to give its consent unless the  unpopular Chancellor was removed from power, whereupon the King famously responded that he would not dismiss as much as a scullion from his kitchen at the request of Parliament, and only eventually acceded to the request when threatened with deposition.  Richard  was so incensed by this curbing of his prerogative powers that he sought, and secured,  a legal ruling from Chief Justice Robert Tresilian to the effect that Parliament’s conduct in the matter had been unlawful and treasonable.  He also went on a “gyration” of the country to garner support for his cause, and began to establish a military power-base in the north, at  Chester.  On his return to London, he found himself  confronted by the Dukes of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick, and that they had in turn brought a charge  of treason against de la Pole, Tresiilan and another loyalist, Nicholas Brembre, the Mayor of London.  According to Froissart, the King had previously been advised by Brembre that “many Londoners” supported him,  encouraging him march on the capital, “to test the temper of the citizens”, with “fifteen thousand men …  under … [his] ….  banners”, whereas in the event, Londoners resisted his advance, and Brembre  fled to Wales, where he was  later “found and captured”.  The King attempted to delay the treason trial proceedings in anticipation of the arrival of supporting troops from Chester, whereupon Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick joined forces with the Earl of Derby (Henry Bolingbroke), and the Earl of Nottingham, to form the Lords Appellant, and intercepted, and routed, the King’s troops at Radcot Bridge.  At this, Richard no longer had any choice but to comply with the appellants’ demands.  Tresilian and Brembre were executed, and de la Pole, who had fled the country, was sentenced to death in absentia, by the “Merciless Parliament” of 1388.  The King’s  circle of favourites was broken. 

The second crisis of the latter part of Richard’s reign witnessed  the King’s eventual decline and deposition, between  1397-9.  It began with his attempt to re-assert his authority after the first crisis, in the so-called “Tyranny”.  In 1397, he had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested on charges of treason: Gloucester either died or was killed on the King’s instructions, while awaiting trial;   Arundel was tried,  convicted  and   executed; and Warwick tried, convicted and sentenced to death, although his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.  The King then set about the systematic persecution of the appellants’ supporters, fining them, and at the same time distributing largesse to his own followers.  And in 1398, he convened a packed “Parliament of Shrewsbury”, which  overturned all the earlier rulings of the “Merciless Parliament”, and essentially made the King once more an absolute monarch. However, the House of Lancaster, personified by John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke, now Earl of Hereford, remained a formidable opponent to the King.  Richard attempted to resolve this outstanding issue by ordering   Bolingbroke into exile in France, initially   for ten years, and eventually  for life.   But in 1399, Bolingbroke returned from exile,  to mount a challenge to the King, landing in the north of England, and there forging an important strategic  alliance with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.  He, Bolingbroke, then marched south with a strong and ever-growing force, encountering little Royalist resistance along the way, the King and much of the  nobility being in  Ireland.  When the King eventually returned to England, he found himself facing overwhelming odds, and was forced to surrender himself to Bolingbroke, who had him imprisoned in the Tower of London, and eventually deposed, after hearings before  by an assembly of Lords and Commons at Westminster Hall, on October 1st,  1399.  He, Richard, is thought to have been allowed to starve to death in captivity in Pontefract Castle on or around February 14th, 1400.

Lancastrian and Yorkist  History, and the Wars of the Roses

The Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke was formally crowned King Henry IV, after the deposition of Richard II, on the feast day of St Edward the Confessor, October 13th (although technically the heir-presumptive had been Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, who was descended from Edward III).  The Welsh Revolt against English rule broke out during  his reign, in 1400, and ended during that of his son Henry V in 1415, in defeat for the rebels.  Its principal leader, Owain Glyndwr, the anglicised version of whose name is Owen Glendower, went into hiding in 1415, never to be seen or heard of again (Owain’s lieutenant Rhys Ddu was   captured on a raid into Shropshire in 1410, brought to London, “laid on a hurdle and so drawn forth to Tyburn  through the City”,  and there “hanged and let down again”, and “his head … smitten off and his body quartered and sent to four towns and his head set on London Bridge”).  Owain’s daughter Catrin and her children had previously been captured by the English at the Siege of Harlech in 1409.    They  had then been taken to London, where they were imprisoned in the Tower, and at least most if not all of them died there in 1413, under circumstances best described as “mysterious” (the children had a claim to the English throne through their late father the aforementioned Edmund Mortimer, and some suspect that they were done to death so as to prevent them from making any such claim).  Surviving records indicate that Catrin and two of her daughters were buried not in the Tower but in the churchyard of St Swithin London Stone on the other side of the city (there are no records of what became of her other daughter, or of her son Lionel). 

Catrin Glyndwr memorial (St Swithin’s churchyard)

A modern Gelligaer bluestone sculpture by Nic Stradlyn-John and Richard Renshaw, inscribed with a Welsh englyn by Menna Elfyn, marks the spot.  Freely (by me) rendered into English, the  englyn reads: “In the Tower, now her home,|Her heart-song turns to longing:|The exile’s silent lament”.

The  attempt of the  Lollard Revolt of 1413/4 to overthrow the established church came to nothing when the supporters of the movement, gathered at St Giles-in-the-Fields on the western outskirts of the City of London, were betrayed and dispersed.  Its  local leader, Sir John Oldcastle, was later put to death at St Giles – by hanging in chains over a slow fire – in 1417 (another Lollard Priest, William Taylor, was burnt at the stake for heresy in West Smithfield in 1423).

Henry V was crowned King in 1413.  A month after his famous victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, he  made a triumphal return to London.  An anonymous author wrote the following eye-witness account:  “[T]he citizens went out to meet the King at the brow of Blackheath, … the mayor and … aldermen in scarlet, and the … lesser citizens in red cloaks with red-and-white party-coloured hoods, to the number of about 20,000 … . And when the King came through the midst of them … and the citizens had given glory and honour to God, and congratulations to the King … the citizens rode before him towards the city, and the King followed … .   When they arrived at the … bridge … there placed on the top of the tower was  an enormous figure, with … the keys of the city hanging from a staff in his … hand … .  … And when they reached the … aqueduct in Cornhill they found the tower hidden under a scarlet cloth stretched in the form of a tent, on spears hidden under the cloth.  Surrounding … were the arms of St George, St Edward, St Edmund and of England, … inset with this pious legend: ‘Since the King hopes in the Lord and in the mercy of the highest, he shall not be moved’.  Under a covering was a band of venerable white-haired prophets, … who released, when the King came by, sparrows and other small birds in great cloud as a …  thanksgiving to God for the victory He had given …, while [they] sang in a sweet voice … [a] psalm … .  Then they went on to the tower of the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside which was decked with an awning of green … and erected to resemble a building.  … And when they came to the [Eleanor] cross in Cheapside … it was hidden by a beautiful castle of wood … .  … And when they came to the tower …  at the exit …  towards St Paul’s, … above the tower was stretched a canopy sky-blue in colour … and the top … was adorned by an archangel in shining gold … .  Below … was a figure of majesty represented by a sun darting out flashing rays … . … Such was the dense throng of people in Cheapside … that a bigger or more impressive crowd had never gathered before in London.  But the King himself went along, amidst … the citizens, dressed in a purple robe, not with a haughty look and a pompous train … but with a serious countenance and a reverend pace accompanied by only a few of his most faithful servants; following him, guarded by knights, were the captured dukes, counts and the marshal.   From his silent face and … sober pace it could be inferred that the King … was giving thanks and glory to God alone and not to man.  And when he had visited the sanctuary of SS Peter and Paul [Westminster Abbey], he rode away to his palace of Westminster, escorted by his citizens”.

Henry VI was crowned King in 1422.  During the course of his reign, in  1450 Jack Cade, alias Mortimer,  and thousands of armed supporters entered London “to punish evil ministers and procure a redress of grievances”.  Cade went on to strike  the “London Stone” on Cannon Street  with his sword, and declare himself “Lord of this City” (an  act immortalised by Shakespeare in “Henry VI, Part II”); and in this capacity to oversee the show-trial at the Guildhall and subsequent execution on Cheapside of the corrupt Lord High Treasurer, James Fiennes, Baron of Saye and Sele, and his son-in-law William Crowmer.   Unfortunately for Cade, in succeeding days he lost what support he had for his cause among the citizens of London, as his followers descended into drunken  rioting and looting in the City.  Eventually, the citizens drove him and his followers from the City, after a pitched battle on London Bridge, during which scores of combatants were killed.  Cade was later captured and executed in Sussex, whereupon  his   body was brought to London and beheaded and quartered in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, and his head was put upon a pike on London Bridge, overlooking the former rebel headquarters in the “White Hart” on Borough High Street.   Thus ended the “Harvest of the Heads”.

The Yorkist Edward IV  was crowned King in 1461, after the overthrow of the Lancastrian Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses; Edward V in 1483; and Richard III in 1483.  Note, though, that for a brief  period in 1470-1, Edward IV was forced into exile, following a falling-out with two of his principal supporters, his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, otherwise known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”, and that during this period Henry VI was readepted to the throne.

During the Wars of the Roses, between the Lancastrians and Yorkists, between 1455-85, London was an important centre of  political machination; and the Tower, at least according to some accounts, the scene  of a series of chilling politically motivated murders, in forgotten dreadful cubicles behind  great  locked doors.  It appears  that Henry VI was done to death here, possibly on the orders of Edward IV, in 1471; and that George, Duke of Clarence was done to death here, possibly on the orders either of his elder brother, Edward IV, or his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester,  in 1478 (by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine).  It also appears that the  recently-deceased Edward IV’s sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the “Princes in the Tower”, were done to death here, possibly on the orders of their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester  – the future Richard III – in 1483.   Certainly, the deaths of his nephews removed any obstacles standing between the ambitious Richard and the crown, which he was duly eventually offered in Baynard’s Castle, in 1483.

There was, though, some military action on the outskirts of London, in the Battles of  St Albans in 1455 and 1461, and  of  Barnet in 1471. 

The First Battle of St Albans, which traditionally marks the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, was fought on 22nd May, 1455, between Lancastrian  forces under the King, Henry VI, to the south and west, and Yorkists under Richard, Duke of York and his allies, the Neville Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, advancing towards London from the north and east.  It  resulted  in a Yorkist victory, the capture of the Lancastrian King, Henry VI, and the appointment of York as Lord Protector.  The Second Battle of St Albans was fought on Shrove Tuesday, 17th  February 1461, between Yorkist forces under Warwick to the south and east, and Lancastrians under King Henry VI’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou, advancing towards London from the north and west.  A frontal assault – involving much hand-to-hand combat – followed by a wide outflanking manoeuvre  resulted in a Lancastrian victory, albeit a bloody one, and in the release of Henry VI from captivity.  However, it was a victory that was not further capitalised on.

A scene from a re-enactment of the Battle of Barnet

The decisive Battle of Barnet was fought on Easter Sunday, April 14th, 1471, between  a Yorkist army under Edward IV, and a Lancastrian army  under the  turncoat Earl of Warwick (Text-Figure 7).  Earlier, Edward had sallied forth from Bishopsgate in the City of London, and marched ten miles or so up the Great North Road to meet Warwick’s advance from the north, battle lines being drawn a little to the north of Barnet, at that time  a small market town in Hertfordshire: the Yorkists to the south; the Lancastrians to the north.  The night before the day of the battle, the two sides bombarded each other with artillery fire, such that on the morning of the day of the battle, the air was thick with smoke as well as fog, and visibility was poor.  Historical written accounts of the battle are correspondingly unclear, and no systematic archaeological survey of the battle site has  yet been undertaken that might clarify the course of events (as in the cases of Towton and Bosworth Field).  The consensus view among historians is that the Lancastrian army got the better of the early exchanges, its right, under the Earl of Oxford, turning the Yorkist left, forcing it to flee to the south, and then pursuing it into Barnet, and ransacking the town.  Oxford’s men later  returned to the field of battle from the south, only to be fired on by their fellow Lancastrians, under Montague, who in the smoke, fog and general confusion had mistaken them for Yorkists (their banners also evidently resembled those of the Yorkists).  The Lancastrians were then themselves turned by the Yorkists, and pursued and routed; Warwick was killed in the ensuing melee, as depicted in the “Ghent Manuscript”; and the Yorkists won a great victory.  John Paston, a Lancastrian, wrote in a letter to his mother: “[M]y brother … is alive and fareth well, and in no peril of death: nevertheless he is hurt with an Arrow on his right arm, beneath the elbow; and I have sent him to a Surgeon, which hath dressed him, and he telleth me that he trusteth that he shall be whole within right short time … .  [A]s for me, I am in good case blessed be God; and in no jeopardy of my life … .  [T]he world, I assure you, is right queasy … [unsettled]”. Most of the dead, from both sides, numbering somewhere between 1,500-4,000, were buried on  the battlefield, possibly where the essentially late fifteenth-century Monken Hadley Church now stands (Fabian’s “Great Chronicle of London” refers to the construction of a “lytyll Chappell” at the burial site).  However,  some noblemen were taken back to London to be buried in Austin Friars Priory; and Warwick’s body was for a while put on display in St Paul’s, where, according to von Wesel, it was seen by “many thousands”.  The battlefield site is marked by an eighteenth-century obelisk monument bearing the inscription “Here was fought the Famous Battle Between Edward the 4th and the Earl of Warwick on April 14th, 1471, in which the Earl was Defeated and Slain”.  Many of the artefacts recovered from the site over the centuries may be seen in the Barnet Museum, including cannonballs, various types of arrowhead, and spurs.  The Battle of Barnet  was reportedly  one of the earliest engagements to have involved the use of handguns, although as yet no physical evidence has been recovered to substantiate the written reports.  “Warkworth’s Chronicle” recounts that Edward had “300 Flemings handgunners”, armed with arquebusses, in his army.

There was also some action in the City.  On July 2nd,  1460,  a Yorkist army arrived at the gates of London, and was admitted by Aldermen sympathetic to their cause.  At this, the Lancastrian garrison in the Tower, under Thomas, the Seventh Baron Scales, indiscriminately opened fire on the City in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent its  occupation, using both  conventional and  chemical weapons from the Royal Armoury, causing both combatant and civilian  casualties,  and occasioning extreme public outrage, ultimately resulting in Scales’s  summary execution (as a contemporary chronicler put it: “They that were within the Tower cast wildfire into the City, and shot in small guns, and burned and hurt men and women and children in the streets”).  The chemical weapon, let loose from a  primitive and unreliable flame-thrower, was  “Greek fire” or “wildfire”, which may be  thought of as a form of napalm, that stuck and set fire to  everything – and everyone –  it came into contact with, and flared  up even more fiercely if water was cast onto it.    

And on May 14th,  1471, shortly after the Battle of Barnet, London’s  by then Yorkist garrison was bombarded and then assaulted, as the contemporary “Chronicle of London” put it, “on alle sydys”, by Lancastrian forces  under the privateer Thomas Nevill, illegitimate son of William Nevill, Lord Fauconberg, and otherwise known as the Bastard Fauconberg.  In response, the  Mayor, John Stockton,  and his Sheriffs, John Crosby and John Ward,  rode from gate to gate to rally the City’s  defences, “in alle haast with a Trumpett” (Crosby was later knighted for his role in the City’s defence: his memorial in the church of St Helen shows him in armour).  And for the most part the defences held firm.  Aldgate came under the most sustained attack, “with mighty shott of hand Gunnys & sharp shott of arrowis”.  Indeed, some attackers even  managed to enter the City there, only to be held up by defenders under the Recorder of the City, Thomas Ursewyk, and an Alderman named John Basset, and then to be forced to retreat  by the arrival of defensive reinforcements from the Tower of London, “which dyscomffortid the Rebellys”.  The attack had failed, and the attackers who had evaded capture took to their ships, and sailed out to the safety of the Thames estuary.  Many  of those  who had been captured  were summarily executed, including Spysyng and Quyntyn. 

Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London, Pt. II – Building Works and Surviving Structures

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

Map 2.  Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London.  1 – St Paul’s  Cathedral; 2 – (St) Paul’s Cross, St Paul’s Churchyard (site of folkmoot); 3 – Cheapside; 4 – St Alban Wood Street; 5 – Aldermanbury; 6 – Guildhall, Guildhall Yard (site of husting); 7 – St Lawrence Jewry, Gresham Street; 8 – St Olave Jewry, Ironmonger Lane; 9 – St Mary Aldermary, Watling Street; 10 – Queenhithe; 11 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 12 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 13 – Eastcheap; 14 – St Dunstan-in-the-East, St Dunstan’s Hill (off Great Tower Street); 15 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 16 – St Olave Hart Street.

Building Works

Within the walls of the City, the first St Paul’s Cathedral was founded by Bishop Mellitus and the Kentish King Aethelburg in 604, a matter of a few short years after the arrival of the Gregorian mission under Augustine in 597.  Again as the  Venerable Bede put it:  “In the Year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, ordained … Mellitus to preach to the province of the East Saxons … .  … [W]hen this province … received the word of truth, by the preaching of Mellitus, King Aethelbert built the church of St Paul the Apostle, in the city of London, where he and his successors should have their episcopal see … ”.  The   first cathedral  went on to be destroyed by fire in 675.  The second, “The Church of Paulesbyri”, was built during the  Bishopric of  Erkenwald, between 675-85,  and destroyed by the Vikings in 961.  The  third was built in 961, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The church of All Hallows Barking was  originally built in  around 675, by Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking (the sister of Erkenwald, Bishop of London).  That of St Helen built as least as long ago as 1010, being recorded as being used for the safe keeping of the relics  of St Edmund in that year; and that of St Peter-upon-Cornhill was built at least as long ago as 1038, being  mentioned in the will of Bishop Aelfric, who died in that year.  And that of St Lawrence (Jewry) at least as long ago the late tenth to early eleventh centuries,  a large number of timbers  from coffins in the churchyard being  dendrochronologically dated to  that range, and indeed an admittedly  much smaller number even to the seventh to ninth centuries.   Many other churches are of probable or possible Saxon origin, the best substantiated being  St Benet Fink, where a grave-slab tentatively dated on stylistic grounds to  the late tenth or early eleventh century has been found.  The palace of the Mercian King Offa was originally built in the eighth century.  

What is now known as Queenhithe was first recorded, as “Aethered’s Hithe”, in 898; …

Surviving timber from arcaded “aisled hall” (Museum of London)

… and it is evident, from dendrochronologically-dated timbers re-used in a revetment on the river-front, that an arcaded “aisled hall” – in context most likely a royal palace or other high-status building – was built here between 956-79.  Evidently also in the vicinity in the time of Alfred in the late ninth century  were the London residences of the  Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Worcester, the latter a stone building  previously known as “Hwaetmunde’s Stan” – possibly a surviving part of the Roman bath-house on Huggin Hill.  Billingsgate was first recorded in around 1000.  

Without the walls, in Southwark, the Nunnery of St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) was purportedly originally founded in 606 (and subsequently refounded as an Augustinian Priory in 1106).  Between the City of London and Westminster, the church of St Andrew Holborn was built at least as long ago as 959, being referred to as an “old wooden church” in a Charter of that year.  And in  Westminster, the church of St Clement Danes on the Strand, “so called because Harold (surnamed Harefoot) King of England of the Danish line and other Danes were here buried”,  was at least purportedly originally  built in wood by Alfred in the late ninth century, and subsequently rebuilt in stone by Cnut in the early tenth.   

Saxon Westminster Abbey as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.
The body of Edward the Confessor is being brought to the abbey for burial.

Also in Westminster, the Benedictine Monastery of St Peter was founded by Bishop Dunstan under  King Edgar the Peaceable in 960, on what was then Thorney Island (and, according to legend, the site of a church founded by Sebert in 604); and the Palace of Westminster, by Cnut, in 1016.  The Monastery was subsequently  rebuilt, as Westminster Abbey, under Edward “The Confessor”, in the years up to 1065.  A monk of St Bertin’s Abbey wrote in 1065: “Outside the walls of London … stood a monastery dedicated to St Peter, but insignificant in buildings … .  … The King [Edward the Confessor], therefore  … gave his attention to that place, for it both lay hard by the famous and rich town and also was a delightful spot, … [and] … decided to have his burial place there [he was to die in 1066].  Accordingly, he ordered that out of the tithes of all his revenues should be started the building of a noble edifice, worthy of the Prince of the Apostles … ”. 

The layout  of the streets in the Saxon City of Lundenburg  was essentially  longitudinal, such as to allow easy access  to Lundenwic to the west.  The principal streets were Eastcheap to the east and Cheapside to the west, with Leadenhall Street and Cornhill to the north, and Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street to the south, of the old Roman Basilica and Forum in the centre (note in this context that the Saxons appear to have held Roman ruins in superstitious awe, a line in an Old English poem entitled “The Ruin” referring to them as “enta geweorc” or “labours of giants”).  Saxon street names were characteristically blunt, often  referring simply to available goods or services (“c(h)eap” meant  “market”). 

Surviving Structures

Structures that survive from Saxon and Viking London  are extremely few and far between. 

Essentially nothing now  remains of the original Saxon fabric in St Paul’s Cathedral, St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral),  or St Lawrence Jewry.  Nothing remains either of the palace of the Mercian King Offa, incorporated into the church of St Alban Wood Street, in turn severely damaged during  the Blitz of the Second World War, and substantially demolished in the post-war period.  Nor anything of  Queenhithe or Billingsgate, other than the names  (and the aforementioned timbers from Queenhithe, now in the Museum of London).  Nor of the folkmoot or husting.

However, there are surviving – seventh-century and later – Saxon remains and artefacts in the church of All Hallows Barking. 

These include, in the nave, a fine stone arch possibly as old as the late seventh century, c. 675, incorporating Roman bricks or tiles. 

They also include, in the crypt, two stone crosses: one, dating to the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries, plain and simple, and bearing  a Saxon Runic inscription featuring the personal name Delvar; …

… and the other, dating to the turn of the tenth and eleventh,   beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing  a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts, a characteristic of “Dark Age” iconography. 

And,  in one of the chapels leading off the crypt,  a  so-called “Pluteus Stone” featuring two Peacocks drinking from the Fountain of Life, thought to have come from an Eastern Orthodox Church in the  Byzantine region, and tentatively dated to sometime in the late eleventh century   (the “East-West Schism” took place in 1054).  Incidentally, there is an almost identical “Pluteus Stone” in the iconostasis in the church of Santa Maria dell’Assunta, otherwise known as Torcello Cathedral, on the island of Torcello in the Veneto in Italy. There is also some surviving precisely-dated eleventh-century  and  imprecisely-dated pre-eleventh-century stone-work fabric  in  the church of St Bride, off Fleet Street, the latter of which has been postulated, although not proven, to date to the sixth century, the church’s purported founder Bride, or Bridget, the   Abbess of Kildare in Ireland, living  from c. 450-525.    And in Westminster Abbey, there is a surviving eleventh-century shrine to Edward “The Confessor”.  And an eleventh-century crypt, containing the Chapel of the Pyx.

Further  afield, there is an  altar-stone in St Pancras Old Church in Camden, arguably datable on stylistic grounds to the late sixth century, around  the time of the conversion of the Saxons by St Augustine in 597, and the construction of the first incarnation of St Paul’s Cathedral in 604 (interestingly, the land on which the church stands was granted to  St Paul’s in 604). The  altar-stone, inlaid into  a Georgian altar-table, depicts five crosses, whose unusual forms are remarkably  reminiscent of that on the tomb on a small island in the Firth of Lorne believed to be of Columba’s mother Eithne, who died in the late sixth century.   Note, though, that “unsporting scholars” have pointed out that similar altar-stones  are also known from the later Medieval period. 

There is an indisputably  Saxon rood (cross) in the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney  (the former Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury Dunstan died in 988, although he was not canonised until 1029). 

And five miles east of Epping, in a dappled clearing in the dark heart of the ancient  wild-wood that today bears its name, there is the extraordinary church  of St Andrew in Greensted.  Greensted Church, as it is more commonly known, is purportedly the oldest wooden church  in the world.  The original  church on the site was probably built at least as long ago as the middle of the seventh century, the   time that St Cedd set about converting the East Saxons to Christianity from his base at Bradwell-on-Sea  (incidentally, Cedd went on to attend the Synod of Whitby in 664, and to die of the plague in Northumbria later that same year).  Sadly, though, the only remaining physical evidence as to the existence of this structure  is in the form of post-holes discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1960.  Work began on the present church in the middle of the eleventh century  (dendrochronological evidence acquired in 1995 indicating  that the trees used in its  construction were felled between 1060-3).   Nearly a thousand years later, much  of the nave  still stands, incorporated into later extensions.  It  was evidently originally windowless, aside from some small “eag-thyrels” or eye-holes, and a single larger “niche”, known by many as  a lepers’ “squint”.  Rather wonderfully, scorch-marks can still be seen  on some of the wall timbers, suggesting that  the gloomy interior was once lit by wall-mounted lamps.   Adze-marks can also still be seen on some timbers.

Archaeological Finds

A series of Museum of London and other  publications deal with the finds from and reconstructions of Early Saxon sites in Lundenwic.  Another describes the remains of a number of Late Saxon “sunken-featured buildings”, also known as “grub-huts” (Grubenhauser) or “pit-houses”, in Lundenburg.  Yet another deals with finds from Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 25 kilometre  (16 mile) radius of the City.  As in preceding times, preferred sites for occupation were on well-drained land on gravel  terraces close to rivers.  Settlements consisted mainly of small isolated farms and hamlets, with only occasional larger and wealthier estates.  

The more important archaeological finds  from Dark Age London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums (Hackney Museum features a reconstruction of a Saxon dugout canoe found in Clapton on the River Lea). 

The Museum of London houses an extensive   collection of finds from Saxon and Viking London. 

The Saxon ones  consist mainly of  pottery, brooches and other items of personal adornment, locally-minted coins, and weapons. 

The Viking ones  consist mainly of items of militaria or cavalry paraphernalia, …

… but also include an eleventh-century  grave-stone found in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1852, and bearing “Ringerike-style” decorations and a  Viking Runic inscription to the effect that “Ginna and Toki had this stone set up”. 

The museum also features an archaeologically-based  reconstruction of a typical Saxon dwelling.  It is a single-storey building  with a wooden frame, wattle-and-daub walls and a thatch roof, with a wooden door, and without windows.  Externally, it has about  it something of the appearance of a large shed, but inside it is   really rather homely.  In the side-aisles, as it were, between the external walls and the internal pillars supporting the roof,  are  beds on raised platforms draped in woven blankets and animal skins, and wooden chests for storage and for seating.  And in the central open space  is a hearth over which a bubbling cauldron is suspended from  a chain attached to one of the beams in the roof-vault.  As in an Iron Age house, the smoke from the fire would have simply been allowed to drift away through gaps in the thatch in the roof (a chimney would have had the effect of drawing the fire, creating an increased safety hazard).