Medieval and post-Medieval London (Part 1 – History)

Iron glove (Tower of London)

Iron glove (Tower of London)

This  was a time of historical, political, religious and social transformation, not to say turmoil, over six hundred years, and under six royal houses  and a Parliamentarian – albeit authoritarian –  Commonwealth and Protectorate; of historical events that determined the then-future destiny of the country of England and its capital city.  It  was a time of  war, unending war: war between the English  and the  Scots, and the Welsh, and the Irish; war between the English and the French, and the Spanish, and the Dutch; and,  when there was no-one else willing to fight, war among the  English (the Wars of the Roses, in the mid-fifteenth century, and the Civil War, in the mid-sixteenth).  War, and Plague.  The defining spirit of the age  was one of ebullient confidence,  undercut in the dead of night by dread; of  “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”.

The Tower from the Shard

The Tower from the Shard

Medieval  History

Under the Normans, that is, William I, “the Conqueror” (1066-87), William II (1087-1100), Henry I (1100-35) and Stephen (1135-54), and their successors the Plantagenets, Henry II (1154-89), Richard I (1189-99), John (1199-1216), Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307), Edward II (1307-27), Edward III (1327-77) and Richard II (1377-99), the Lancastrians, Henry IV (1399-1413), Henry V (1413-22) and Henry VI (1422-61), and the Yorkists, Edward IV (1461-83), Edward V (1483) and Richard III (1483-5), it was a time of conquest and oppression; of crusade, and of pilgrimage; of pestilence; and of penitence.   Of fanfare, and of plainsong.

The Tower and Traitors' Gate from the South Bank

The Tower and Traitors’ Gate from the South Bank

Under the Normans, and indeed the Plantagenets, the  City of London remained outwardly little changed, still largely confined within the Roman walls and laid out according to the Anglo-Saxon street plan.  There were, though, sweeping changes to the way the City, and indeed the country, was run, under  the king and his place-men, under the Feudal System.  At the same time, 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 Norman and Plantagenet kings  made a series of placatory  political moves to maintain  and even extend  the rights and privileges that the City  had enjoyed under the Anglo-Saxon King Edward, “the Confessor”.  William I, “the Conqueror”, granted the City a  Charter in 1067, which read, in translation (from Old English rather than 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”, inscribed on a strip of vellum measuring only six inches by one-and-a-half, is now in the London Metropolitan Archives).  Richard I appointed the  first Lord Mayor, in effect to run the City,  in 1189; and the prestige of the position was such that John invited a later, and by then elected,   Lord Mayor to be  a witness to the signing and sealing of the  the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, which set in motion the train of events that eventually led to our modern system of Parliamentary democracy, in 1215  (two of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta are  now in the British Library).

White Tower

White Tower

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; Castle Baynard, the Royal Wardrobe, the Tower of Montfichet, and the Fleet Prison, in the west; and the Savoy Palace a little further afield to the west, on the Strand.

St John's Chapel - Tower of London

St John’s Chapel – Tower of London

St Peter ad Vincula (Tower of London)

St Peter ad Vincula (Tower of London)

Cell - in the Tower of London

Cell – in the Tower of London

The City was subject to a series of ravages in the fourteenth century, first by a Famine of Biblical proportions in  1315, and then by the so-called “Black Death” in 1348-49, 1361, 1368 and 1375.  The “Black Death” appears to have been an especially virulent and contagious strain  of Bubonic Plague, possibly pneumonic or septicaemic, and hence capable of being passed from person to person; and, moreover, one more than usually resistant to cold, and hence capable of surviving over winter  (the spread of the disease is ordinarily significantly slowed by outdoor temperatures of less than 10 deg C).  Around half of the population of the City, or 40000 people, died in the 1348-49 outbreak, most of whom  were buried, with more or less ceremony, in “Plague pits” in East and   West Smithfield.  The horror can only be imagined.

In the immediate aftermath of the “Black Death”, 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 an understandably even more unpopular, and extremely unjustly enforced,  Poll Tax in 1377.  Civil unrest followed in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which  came to a head in a confrontation, at West Smithfield, between on the one side  a thousands-strong peasant mob (*), and on the other, heavily-armed knights and henchmen, officers of the City, and the  then boy-King Richard II, as chronicled by Froissart.  The revolt also effectively ended then and there, with the death of one of its  leaders,  Wat Tyler, at the hands of the Fishmonger and Lord Mayor of London William Walworth – whose dagger is to this day exhibited  in Fishmongers’ Hall.  (The other leader of the revolt, incidentally, was Jack Straw, after whom Jack Straw’s Castle on Hampstead Heath is named).

During the “Wars of the Roses” in the fifteenth century, between 1455-85, London was an important centre of  political machination, and the Tower, at least according to legend, the scene  of a series of chilling politically motivated murders, in forgotten dreadful cubicles behind  great  locked doors.  There was some actual action  in the City as well, in 1460,  when the Lancastrian garrison under Lord Scales used a primitive – and unreliable – type of  chemical weapon called “wildfire” in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Yorkist forces  from entering, and again in 1471, when the by then Yorkist garrison was bombarded and then assaulted by Lancastrian forces  under the privateer Thomas Nevill, illegitimate son of William Nevill, Lord Fauconberg, and otherwise known as the Bastard Fauconberg.   And there were pitched battles on  the outskirts, at St Alban’s in 1455 and 1461, and at Barnet in 1471 (many of those  killed at the latter location  being  buried in Austin Friars Priory).

(*) By this time, the  mob had already slaked its blood-thirst by sacking some Establishment buildings in the City, including the aforementioned Savoy Palace and Tower of London, and killing many of their occupants, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury (together with many other innocent by-standers – especially foreigners).

The Tower in the snow

The Tower in the snow

Post-Medieval History

Tudor History

Under the Tudors, that is, Henry VII (1485-1509), Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-8) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603), it was above all a time of Reformation and Dissolution.  The Act of Supremacy of 1534 marked the beginning of the English Reformation, and made the then King, Henry VIII, the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and free from the authority of Rome.  It was followed by the  Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536-41, which essentially resulted in the appropriation by the Crown  of all the assets owned by all the monastic houses in England, Wales and Ireland.

After the Dissolution, the assets of the monastic houses were disbursed, under the auspices of Henry’s  Vicar-General and Vice-Regent in Spirituals Thomas Cromwell, and his Court of Augmentations.   In London, the change in land ownership and usage is evident in the marked contrast between the map of 1520, from before the event, and the  “Copper Plate” one of 1556-8, the “Agas” one of 1561-70, and the Braun and Hogenberg one of 1572, from after the event.  Many of the former monastic properties evidently became parish churches, hospitals, orphanages or schools, or combinations thereof, or Inns of Court, or  play-houses, while others passed into private ownership.    Of the  the former monks, nuns and priors, many went to work in the newly created parish churches, while others moved to monastic houses on the continent, and still others were forced to seek out entirely new ways of life.  All were apparently offered pensions, although none of their servants was.

Stuart History

Under the Stuarts, that is, James I (1603-25), Charles I (1625-49) and Charles II (1660-), it was a time of bloody Civil War, between Royalist and Parliamentarian (1642-49), and of regicide (1649); and of a peculiarly English revolution under the Parliamentarian Commonwealth and Protectorate  of Oliver and Richard Cromwell (1649-60), ending with the Restoration of the Monarchy (1660) – albeit, importantly,  a Monarchy that could thenceforth  only rule with the  consent of Parliament.

The City of London  remained Parliamentarian rather than Royalist in its sympathies throughout the course of the Civil War, with the exception of certain of its churches, most notably St Helen and St Katharine Cree.  The  City’s Puritan populace even broke its rule against working on the Sabbath  in order to construct  the so-called “Lines of Communication” that served as its defences.   (Incidentally, there is no longer any trace of the “Lines of Communication”, although there was until recently a plaque in Spital Square in Spitalfields illustrating where they were located).  In 1642, 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.  There 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 40000 troops.   It was a decisive moment in the history of the war, the country, and its  capital.  The war eventually ended with the trial of the King, Charles I, on the charge of treason, and his beheading, in Whitehall, in 1649. 

London  later suffered terribly  during an outbreak of Bubonic Plague – the “Great Plague” – in 1665, which killed at least 70000 people, and possibly as many as 100000 – far more than the “Black Death” of 1348-9, although far fewer in proportion to the overall population.  (There had also been outbreaks in 1603, 1625 and 1636).  Pepys noted in his diary with mounting dread the advance of the disease across Europe from October, 1663, and the vain attempts to stem it by the quarantining of  incoming ships, until its eventual arrival in April, 1665; and Defoe later wrote a harrowing account of the following “Plague year”.   Plague was, and is, in its non- pneumonic or -septicaemic form, spread to humans by bites from fleas carried by rats infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis – all too easily  in the crowded conditions in which people, livestock, pets and vermin  lived, cheek-by-jowl, in London in the seventeenth century.  At the time, it was thought to be spread by cats and dogs, which were therefore rounded up and killed in large numbers, the resulting  reduction in predation ironically allowing the real culprits, the rats, to increase correspondingly in number.  It is commonly thought that the Plague was only killed off by the Great Fire of September, 1666, but the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks’ “Bills of Mortality” indicate that it had already begun to die out towards the end of 1665, with the onset of winter (the “Bills of Mortality” are now in the London Metropolitan Archives).  The  “Bills of Mortality” also show that of the 70000 recorded Plague deaths in London, only 10000 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 60000  Plague deaths were in the 16 parishes without the walls, the 5 in Westminster, and the 12 in Middlesex and Surrey (Stepney was the worst affected, with 6500 deaths).

Medieval and Post-Medieval London on our Walks

Medieval and post-Medieval Sites in and around the City of London are visited on all our  standard walks, and on our “Medieval London – The City that Chaucer knew” and “Post-Medieval London – The City that Shakespeare knew”, which are both four-hour themed specials.

Peverel graffito (Tower of London)

Peverel graffito (Tower of London)

Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section of the web-site.  Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section,  by e-mail (, or by phone (020-8998-3051).

2 thoughts on “Medieval and post-Medieval London (Part 1 – History)

  1. Pingback: Medieval and post-Medieval London (Part II – Social history) | The Lost City of London

  2. Pingback: Life and Death in Tudor London (Henry Machyn) | The Lost City of London

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