Medieval and post-Medieval London (Part II – Social history)

Makeover

There are sufficient surviving records of one kind or another to enable us to undertake a reasonably accurate reconstruction of everyday life in London from Medieval to post-Medieval  times.

Atmosphere (Guildhall)

Atmosphere (Guildhall)

These include the Domesday Book of 1086,  now in the National Archive in Kew, which was, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a sort of inventory undertaken by the Normans of  who owned what,  and of what taxes they were  liable to; and a multitude of  court, corporation, ward and parish records, many of which are now in the Guildhall Library.  Incidentally, the Domesday Book was so known by the Anglo-Saxons “for as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skilful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to … its sentence cannot be put quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book ‘the Book of Judgement’ … because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable”. 

More personal contemporary eye-witness accounts include those of William FitzStephen, writing in 1183; the anonymous author of “A Chronicle of London”, writing sometime after 1483; Henry Machyn, writing between 1550-63; John Chamberlain, writing between 1597-1626;  John Stow, writing in 1598; John Manningham, writing between 1602-03; John Evelyn, writing between 1631-1706; James Howell, writing in 1657; and Samuel Pepys, writing between 1660-69.  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”.

Pepys window (Guildhall)

Pepys window (Guildhall)

Perhaps the best known of the chroniclers, though, is Pepys, who kept a diary from 1659 to 1669, when his eyesight finally failed him.  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 Pepys 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”.  Personally having rather more of a sympathetic regard for the author of “A Survay of London… ”, Stow, I refer the reader  to the admirable biography by Claire Tomalin for a fully informed and  balanced view of Pepys, and of his undoubted accomplishments, especially at the Navy Office where he worked as a civil servant and ultimately Secretary to the Admiralty (it has been said that, “without Pepys,   there could have been no Horatio  Nelson”).

(*) He also obsessed over his health, although perhaps understandably, given that as a young man  he had survived, somewhat against the odds, a surgical operation to remove a gall-stone – the anniversary of which event he celebrated each year rather like a second birthday!

Population.  From various accounts, it appears that the population of London was probably of the order of 10-15000 at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, 40000  a century later in 1180, 80000 in 1300, 40000 in 1377, after the “Black Death” of 1348, 60000 in the 1520s, 80000 in 1550, 120000 in 1583, 200000 in 1630, 460000 in 1665, before the “Great Plague”, and 360000 in 1666, immediately after the “Great Plague”, and 500000 in 1700. 

The unprecedented rise in population in the Tudor and Stuart periods made London one of the first great world cities, and was accompanied for the first time by significant growth beyond the old City Wall.  Interestingly, the death rate in the ancient capital always exceeded the birth rate, significantly so during outbreaks of Plague, such that the population could only be maintained and grown by immigration, either from elsewhere in England, or from Europe, for example from  Normandy, Gascony, Flanders and Lombardy, or from even further afield.   

Administration. As noted above, the City became in essence at least in part self-governing in Medieval  times, under the Corporation and its officials: the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen, who were initially appointed and subsequently elected, albeit elected by,  and from within, a wealthy and influential elite; and the Sheriff (Shire-Reeve), Bailiff, and Constable. 

The Corporation became responsible for, among other things, the prosperity and orderliness of the City, including  the education of the populace, and the maintenance, if not the establishment, of the law

Gog or Magog (Guildhall)

Gog or Magog (Guildhall)

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 fifteenth century onwards, some of which are still running, although none on their original sites.   Christ’s Hospital (Orphanage and School) was  founded by the authorities in 1552 on the site of the former conventual buildings of the Greyfriars Priory  (and  later   burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt, and relocated to Horsham in Sussex in 1902).    The City of London School was founded through  the benefaction of the Town Clerk, John Carpenter,  in 1442, on  a site adjacent to the Guildhall (and later refounded in  Milk Street in 1837, and relocated  to its present position  on reclaimed embankment in Blackfriars in 1986).  The Mercers’  School was founded through the Mercer’s Company in 1542, on the site of St Thomas’s Hospital (and  later burnt down in Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt in Old Jewry, relocated to Budge Row, Watling Street, and  College Hill, and closed  down in 1959).  The Merchant Taylors’ School was founded through the Merchant Taylors’ Company in 1561, on the site of the former estate of the Dukes of Suffolk  (and later relocated to Northwood).  Gresham College was founded through the benefaction of the financier Thomas Gresham in 1579 (and later relocated to Barnard’s Inn).  The  College of Physicians was founded in 1518, at Amen Corner (and later burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt, and relocated to Regent’s Park).  Training in the law was provided through the Inns of CourtGray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, and Inner and Middle Temple, founded on former monastic sites after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century.

Important trials (Guildhall)

Important trials (Guildhall)

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; serious ones by deportation to the colonies, once founded,  and only the perceived most serious, of which it has to be admitted there were scores, by capital punishment.  (Interestingly, imprisonment was originally only of those awaiting trial or sentencing, and not intended as a punishment, 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).  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 (Daniel Defoe, who was  perceived to have been unjustly convicted, was garlanded with flowers).   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 a shilling – and other felons; boiling, for poisoners; burning, for religious dissenters of unfortunately unfashionable persuasions; “pressing” (under a heavy weight), 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 at Tower HillandWest Smithfield, and at Tyburn, near the modern Marble Arch, at the western end of Oxford Street.  (Among those done to death at Tyburn  were, in 1499, Perkin Warbeck, for pretending  to the throne; in 1534,   Elizabeth Barton, for warning King Henry VIII against divorcing Catherine of Aragon and  marrying   Anne Boleyn, apparently while possessed  by spirits (being a ventriloquist, in the original sense of the word);   and, in 1660, ritually and grotesquely, the  disinterred corpse of Oliver Cromwell, for the regicide of Charles I).  Capital sentences could be commuted in the cases of those who could claim the “benefit of clergy”, by reciting a psalm that came to be known as the “neck verse” (“Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam”).  One such case was that of the playwright Ben Jonson, who had killed a man – named Gabriel Spencer – in a duel in Hoxton, and was still able to get off “scot free”.

Religion.  Medieval to post-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  diseases, occupational diseases and 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.  Faith at least offered hope of life eternal.

Crypt (Guildhall)

Crypt (Guildhall)

The predominant religion of the period  was Christianity, and after the Reformation either Catholic or Protestant depending upon Royal patronage.   Sadly, if not entirely atypically of human history, there  was much  persecution of the one 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.  There was also persecution of believers of other faiths, and of non-believers, by both.  A minority community of Jews became  established in England, including in London, in the reign of the Norman king William I, “the Conqueror”,  in the late eleventh century, many of its members originating from Rouen in Normandy and  involved in money-lending (Christians being barred from the practice at the time).  Tragically, the Jews became subject in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to   a series of what in later times would be referred to as pogroms or purges.   They  were  eventually 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).   After the expulsion, the only Jews remaining in England were either converts or coverts.  Finally, nearly four hundred years after the expulsion, Jews  were permitted  to re-settle in England in 1656, under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, and following a personal approach to Cromwell by  one Menasseh ben Israel.  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.

Medieval window (Guildhall)

Medieval window (Guildhall)

There was a major phase of – Catholic – church building beginning in the  late eleventh and  twelfth centuries, perhaps as an act of penance, to assuage the guilt of the conqueror and oppressor, and lasting into the thirteenth to fifteenth continent  (also of  synagogue building, on and around  Old Jewry).    By the thirteenth  century, there were around 100 churches in the City, as recorded in the “Taxatio Ecclesiastica” of Pope Nicholas IV of 1291,  some of the associated parishes constituted of only a few streets.  Late parishioners’ bequests for “Chantries”, or prayers to be chanted for those in Purgatory, were often spent on extravagant embellishments. 

Monastic  houses began to be established  in and around the City in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, among them those of the hermit monks and nuns of the Benedictine and Carthusian orders, the mendicant friars of the Carmelite, Dominican and Franciscans orders (the White, Black and Grey Friars, respectively), the monk- and nun- like regular and friar-like secular canons of the Augustinan order(s), and 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 seeds of the – 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.  The attempt of the  Lollard Revolt of 1414 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, and its local leader, Sir John Oldcastle, was summarily put to death (by hanging, in chains, over a slow fire).

As noted above, the Reformation proper came into effect following the issuing of the Act of Supremacy by Henry VIII in 1534, which made him the Supreme Head of the – Protestant – Church in England, and free from the authority of the – Catholic – Church in Rome, and allowed him to hang a large number of Catholic “heretics” at Tyburn (those martyred during and after his reign are commemorated by a plaque on the nearby – twentieth-century – Tyburn Convent, and by effigies and a stained-glass window in the church of St Etheldreda).  Henry’s successor, Edward VI (1547-53) remained a Protestant, but Edward’s   successor, Mary (1553-8), also known as “Bloody Mary”, reverted to  Catholicism, and burned at the stake a large number of Protestant “heretics”, including, in Oxford, the Anglican Bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, and at West Smithfield in London, the common men John Rogers, John Bradford, John Philpot and others (commemorated by a plaque).  In  turn, Mary’s successor, Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the last of the Tudors, reverted once more to Protestantism.   James I (1603-25), the first of the Stuarts,  James I (1603-25)  remained a Protestant, and saw off the Catholic “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, having Guy Fawkes and the other ringleaders tortured and then hanged, drawn and quartered, and their remains prominently exhibited, as a deterrent to others.  Charles I (1625-49), also nominally a Protestant, so abused his supposed “Divine Rights” in the  eyes of Parliament, and of the population at large, as to trigger the  Civil War between supporting Royalists and opposing Parliamentarians. 

Trade and Commerce.  Commerce prospered alongside Religion in Medieval to post-Medieval  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.

Angry fish (Guildhall)

Angry fish (Guildhall)

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 to post-Medieval  times.  The waterfront, the Port of London, much of it then recently reclaimed, bristled with bustling wharves.    A prodigious range of comestible and manufactured goods was imported in, including fresh fish  to Queenhithe and Billingsgate, and shell-fish to Oystergate (oysters were an important source of protein, especially for the poor, and discarded oyster shells are still a common find on the foreshore of the Thames); wine from Gascony to Vintry; dried fish or “stock-fish”, and Baltic goods, furs and timber,   to Dowgate; and spices, and finished textiles.  Wool was the chief export, chiefly to the Low Countries,  and the trade in it was enormously  lucrative (sheepskins and other animal hides,  food-stuffs, and Cornish tin were also exported).  The Custom House was originally built as long ago as 1275.  Fresh fish and shell-fish was traded at Billingsgate and Oystergate; “stock-fish” at the Stocks Market; meat at the “Shambles” on Newgate and on Eastcheap; poultry on Poultry; grain at Cornhill; bread, milk, honey and a range of general goods at the market on Cheapside; and general goods also at the market on  Leadenhall Street, and at open-air fairs.  The Royal Exchange was founded in 1565.  By Tudor to Stuart times, ultimately immensely important overseas trade links had become forged through  the establishment of the Muscovy Company, an outgrowth of the even more venerable “Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands” (or, in full, the “Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown”), in 1555; the Levant Company, in 1581; the (Honourable) East India Company (see East India House), in 1600; the Virginia Company (of London), in 1606; and the Royal African Company, originally the “Company of Royal Adventurers trading to Africa”, in 1660.  To the City’s – and indeed the country’s – eternal shame, some of the trade from the late seventeenth century onwards was in slaves.

Great Hall (Guildhall)

Great Hall (Guildhall)

As time went by, the traders grew rich, in some cases fabulously so, and founded many influential trades guilds or Livery Companies.   The Livery Companies established working practices and standards (and may or may not have controlled commodity prices).  They also provided apprenticeships for members at the beginning of their working life, 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’ and Merchant Taylors’ (alternately), Haberdashers’, Salters’, Ironmongers’, Vintners’, and Clothworkers’. 

Although some working-class people made money by “bettering” themselves, and becoming artisanal craftsmen, or by supplying the demands of the bourgeois mercantile elite for fancy goods and services, most remained steadfastly poor.  There was never an equitable distribution or redistribution of wealth, although there was at least as system for charitable patronage and donation from the rich, from the churches and from the Livery Companies,  to the poor.  The rich burnt wax candles; the poor, tallow (that is, rendered animal fat).  All would appear to have lived rather uneasily together (although there is also a certain amount of evidence from tax records of concentrations of wealth in the wards in the centre and west of the  City, and of poverty in the east, especially around Aldgate, and without the walls).

Guildhall

Guildhall

Langour

Langour

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 the annual Bartholomew Fair every August from the twelfth century, and there were there also jousting tournaments from the fourteenth; at East Smithfield a further fair, and on Undershaft an annual May Fair; on Cheapside further tournaments; on Moorfields, in the winter, when the Walbrook froze over, ice-skating; on the Thames, when it froze over, for example in 1410, 1608, and 1683-4, “frost-fairs”; in the Tower of London, from the thirteenth century, bizarrely, a menagerie of elephants, lions, bears and so on; on the South Bank, in Southwark, from the mid-sixteenth century, bear-baiting; and everywhere, all the time, football,  gambling, “the immoderate drinking of foolish sorts”, and “stew-houses”, or brothels.

There were also, though,  “miracle plays” performed by City clerks and apprentices  at Clerkenwell, from at least as long ago as the twelfth century.  And  enormously popular contemporary plays performed in a range of contemporary play-houses, some of them on the sites of dissolved monasteries, others, such as the Globe and Rose in Southwark, purpose-built, in Tudor, Stuart and Restoration times.  

Chaucer window (Guildhall)

Chaucer window (Guildhall)

London was   the home of Chaucer (1343-1400) and Shakespeare (1564-1616), and figured prominently in their famously bawdy and redolent works;  of Spenser (1552-1599), Marlowe (1564-1593), Donne (1572-1631) and Jonson (1572-1637), and Milton (1608-1674), Bunyan (1628-1688) and Dryden (1631-1700); of the sculptor Torrigiano (1472-1528) and the painters Holbein (1497-1543), Bettes (1531-1570) and Hilliard (1547-1619); of the philosopher More (1478-1535); of the composer Tallis (1505-1585); and of the architects Jones (1573-1652) and Wren (1632-1723); and it was the birthplace  of the English Renaissance.  Chaucer lived in Aldgate, and walked to and from his place of work in the  Custom House in Billingsgate (he was the “Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides”), by way of the church of All Hallows Barking and the priory of the Crutched Friars.  Shakespeare is known to have lived in the parish of St Helen BIshopsgate, near  The Theatre and the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch, in 1596, in Southwark, near   the Globe, in 1599, and in Silver Street, near  the  Blackfriars Theatre, in 1604, and also to have purchased  a property in Ireland Yard, again near the Blackfriars Theatre, in 1613 (according to the Deed of Conveyance in the London Metropolitan Archives, which incidentally bears one of the few surviving examples of his signature, it cost him  £140, at a time when the annual salary for a teacher was £20).  As Peter Ackroyd put it in his marvellous biography: “Shakespeare did not need to address London directly in his work; it is the rough cradle of all his drama”.

The City was also an important centre of  publishing, of books, tracts, pamphlets and newsletters; and the centre of   the English Enlightenment, a flourishing of learning, and most particularly of what was known as Natural Philosophy and is now known as Science, culminating in the  founding of the Royal Society  of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in 1660.  The  Charter of the Royal Society describes one of its  objectives as being “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)”. 

Food and Drink. The staple foods of the day were those of the butcher – or on high days and holy days the fishmonger – and baker, and there was not a lot  of fruit and veg eaten, so there was a lot of constipation (in Pepys’s day, it was common practice to  take  relieving purges).  As noted above, uncooked meat was sold at the “Shambles” on Newgate and on Eastcheap, poultry on Poultry, fresh fish and shell-fish at Billingsgate and Oystergate, dried fish or “stock-fish” at the Stocks Market; bread, and a range of general goods, at the market on Cheapside.  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”), and in eating establishments or “ordinaries”.   The relationship with meat animals was intimate: people lived with their livestock; 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.  At the same time, there was no sanitary means of disposing of any waste.  Neither was there any means – other than pickling or salting – of preventing food or waste from going off, hence the widespread use in cooking of  herbs and spices, to mask “corrupt savours”.

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 supply 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 cholera or typhoid.  So, a supply had to be brought in from outside.  A so-called Great Conduit was built, by public subscription, in 1236, to bring water from a spring at Tyburn, roughly opposite where Bond Street tube station now stands,  toCheapside, about three miles away, by way of  a system of  lead (!) pipes.  Sections  have recently been discovered 2m below Medieval street level in Paternoster Row and in  Poultry.   The Great Conduit   was extended at either end in the fifteenth century so as to run from Oxlese, near where Paddington station now stands,  to Cheapside and Cornhill, about six miles away (water was then either piped directly from the conduit to homes and businesses that could afford the expense of the installation of “quills”, or collected from stand-pipes, and carried there by property owners, or, in buckets suspended from shoulder-yokes, by “cobs”, of whom there were 4000 by 1600).  The so-called  Devil’s Conduit under Queen’s Square probably dated to around the same time, a photograph taken in 1910, shortly before its demolition in 1911-13,  showing it to contain graffiti from  1411.  By the sixteenth century, the 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 of 1666, but thereafter replaced by Maritz’s grandson, and  continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.    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, which is still in use to this day (parts of it can still be seen, too, along the “New River” walk in Islington, for example in Canonbury Grove).    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, doing  so with a mixture of drive and determination, the financial support of 29 investors or “adventurers”, and the tacit backing of the king.  His financial 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 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”.  Fittingly, there is a statue to the great man on Islington Green in Islington.

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.  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”.  There were a quite literally staggering 1153 drinking establishments in London in 1656, ranging from basic ale-houses through middling taverns to up-market inns.  Among them were the “Bell Savage” of 1452 on Ludgate Hill (where the Native American Princess Pocahontas stayed in 1616-7); the “Olde Cheshire Cheese” of 1584 on Fleet Street; the “Seven Stars” of 1602 on Carey Street; the “Mitre”, of 1603, the  “Tipperary”, formerly the “Boar’s Head”, of 1605, and the “Devil”, of 1608, all on Fleet Street; the “Wig and Pen” of 1625 on the Strand; and the “Olde Wine Shades” of 1663 on Martin Lane. (Of which, the “Seven Stars”, the “Tipperary”, the “Wig and Pen” and the “Olde Wine Shades” survived the Great Fire of 1666, and still survive, together with what is now the “Hoop and Grapes” and what was once a private house of 1290 on Aldgate High Street).  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.   (At this time, tobacco was smoked in clay pipes, the remains of which came to litter  the City like the cigarette ends of today).  More socially acceptable was the consumption of equally addictive, although less harmful, coffee and tea, first introduced from overseas in the 1650s, in coffee- and tea-  houses – the first of which was the “Pasqua Rosee’s Head”, just off Cornhill, whose former site is now marked  by a Corporation “Blue Plaque”. 

Sanitation.  Which brings us to the indelicate matter of waste, and the disposal thereof.   That is to say, human and animal excrement, 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, to be washed downhill in  gutters, and into the   Thames or one of its tributaries – one of the streets thus coming to be known as  Shiteburn Lane (and later, so as to offend   one less sensibility, Sherborne Lane).   (To be fair, some public latrines were built directly over the Fleet and Walbrook, including a 128-seater provided by Dick Whittington, thereby at least cutting out the middle man, so to speak).  Eventually, though, this practice was outlawed as the streets became breeding grounds for vermin and disease, not to mention evil-smelling, and exceedingly unpleasant underfoot – whence the invention of the “patten”, the platform sole of the day.  After the mid-fourteenth century, waste was compelled to be  collected by rakers and carters, and disposed of further afield  “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 was carried down the Thames, in “dung-boats” to be dumped, some deposited in land-fill sites outside the City, and some spread as fertiliser on surrounding fields.  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- Anglo-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 to post-Medieval  London was a City of crowding and clamour and squalour and stench.  Oh, the humanity!

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 both our “Medieval London – The City that Chaucer knew” and “Post-Medieval London – The City that Shakespeare knew” – four-hour – themed specials.

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” page, by e-mail (lostcityoflondon@sky.com), or by phone (020-8998-3051).

To read Part one of this article, click on the following link – Medieval and post-Medieval London (Part 1 – History)

Further information about the Medieval themed special is included in the following blog post: Medieval London

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