Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts and descriptions of the historic City of London, this memorable – if gushing – one from the prologue to William Fitzstephen’s “Vita Sancti Thomae” or “Life of St. Thomas [Becket]”, probably penned in the 1170s or early 1180s …
“The fame of the city of London
Among the splendid cities of the world that have achieved celebrity, the city of London – seat of the English monarchy – is one whose renown is more widespread, whose money and merchandize go further afield, and which stands head and shoulders above the others. It is fortunate in the wholesomeness of its climate, the devotion of its Christians, the strength of its fortifications, its well-situated location, the respectability of its citizens, and the propriety of their wives. Furthermore it takes great pleasure in its sports and is prolific in producing men of superior quality. Each of which characteristic I shall address in turn.
The mild climate
There, without question, “the mild sky doth soften hearts of men”, not so that they become “weak slaves of lust”, but so that they are not brutal and uncivilized, instead being of a kind-hearted and generous disposition.
Christian worship there
The bishopric is seated in the church of St Paul there. At one time it was a metropolitan see, and it is believed that it will be again – if the citizens return to this island – unless perhaps the title of archbishop, which the Blessed Martyr Thomas held, should preserve that status in Canterbury, which has it now. Since St. Thomas has graced both of those cities – London in the early part of his life, and Canterbury in the later part – each has just grounds to argue against the other, with regard to [a claim on?] that saint. In relation to Christian worship, there are also in London and in its suburbs thirteen conventual churches and one hundred and twenty-six lesser, parish churches.
The setting and security of the city
On the east side stands the royal fortress [Tower of London], of tremendous size and strength, whose walls and floors rise up from the deepest foundations – the mortar being mixed with animal’s blood. On the west side are two heavily fortified castles [Baynard and Mountfichet]. Running continuously around the north side is the city wall, high and wide, punctuated at intervals with turrets, and with seven double-gated entranceways. Similarly, London had wall and turrets on its south side; but that greatest of rivers, the Thames, which teems with fish, through the ebb and flow of the tide lapping against the wall, has over time undermined it and caused it to collapse. In addition, further to the west, two miles from the city and linked to it by a populous suburb, there rises above the bank of that river the king’s palace, a structure without equal, with inner and outer fortifications.
The cultivated gardens
Beyond the suburban houses on every side and adjacent to each other, the citizens have beautiful and spacious gardens, planted with trees.
To the north there are tilled fields, pastures, and pleasant, level meadows with streams flowing through them, where watermill wheels turned by the current make a pleasing sound. Not far off spreads out a vast forest, its copses dense with foliage concealing wild animals – stags, does, boars, and wild bulls.
The arable fields of the city are not gravelly and parched, but are like the fertile fields of Asia which “make glad the crops”; their cultivation fills the granaries “with sheaves of Ceres’ stalk”.
The spring waters
There are also in the northern suburbs of London springs of high quality, with water that is sweet, wholesome, clear, and “whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright”. Among which Holywell, Clerkenwell and St. Clement’s Well have a particular reputation; they receive throngs of visitors and are especially frequented by students and young men of the city, who head out on summer evenings to take the air. Truly, a good city – if it has a good lord.
The reputation of the citizens
The city has won repute for its men and glory for its martial prowess, and has a very large population; so that, during the ruinous wars of the time of King Stephen, it was able to marshal an estimated 20,000 cavalry and 60,000 infantry fit for battle. The citizens of London are universally renowned and talked about for their superiority over those of other cities in the refinement of their dress, manners, and dining.
The married women of the city are true Sabines.
The three principal churches of London – St. Paul’s (seat of the bishop), Holy Trinity, and St. Martin’s – possess schools, by ancient right and privilege. But, thanks to the support of a number of those scholarly men who have won renown and distinction in the study of philosophy, there are other schools licensed there. On holy days, the schoolmasters assemble their students at the churches associated with the particular festival, for purposes of a training exercise. There the students debate, some using demonstrative rhetoric, others using dialectical logic. Yet others “hurtle enthymemes”, while those who are more advanced employ syllogisms. Some undergo the debating exercise just to be put through their paces, it being like a wrestling match of the intellect; for others it is to help perfect their skills in determining the truth. The contrivances of sophists receive credit for the torrent and flow of their arguments. Others apply false logic. Occasionally some speakers strive to persuade by delivering rhetorical orations, taking care to observe the rules of their art and not to leave out anything related to them. Boys from different schools fling versified arguments against each other, disputing matters of grammatical principles or rules governing the use of the future or past tenses. There are those who make use of epigrams, rhymes, and metrical verse – types of sarcasm traditionally heard at street-corners; with “Fescennine License”, they freely ridicule their associates, without naming names. They hurl “abuse and jibes”; with Socratic wit they take digs at the character flaws of their fellows, or even their elders, and “bite more keenly even than Theon’s tooth” with their “bold dithyrambs”. The audience being “ready to laugh their fill”, “with wrinkling nose repeat the loud guffaw”.
The daily routine of the city
Every morning you can find those carrying on their various trades, those selling specific types of goods, and those who hire themselves out as labourers, each in their particular locations engaged in their tasks. Nor should I forget to mention that there is in London, on the river bank amidst the ships, the wine for sale, and the storerooms for wine, a public cookshop. On a daily basis there, depending on the season, can be found fried or boiled foods and dishes, fish large and small, meat – lower quality for the poor, finer cuts for the wealthy – game and fowl (large and small). If friends arrive unexpectedly at the home of some citizen and they, tired and hungry after their journey, prefer not to wait until food may be got in and cooked, or “till servants bring water for hands and bread”, they can in the meantime pay a quick visit to the riverside, where anything they might desire is immediately available. No matter how great the number of soldiers or travellers coming in or going out of the city, at whatever hour of day or night, so that those arriving do not have to go without a meal for too long or those departing leave on empty stomachs, they can choose to detour there and take whatever refreshment each needs. Those with a fancy for delicacies can obtain for themselves the meat of goose, guinea-hen or woodcock – finding what they’re after is no great chore, since all the delicacies are set out in front of them. This is an exemplar of a public cookshop that provides a service to a city and is an asset to city life. Hence, as we read in Plato’s Gorgias, cookery is a flattery and imitation of medicine, the fourth of the arts of civic life.
In a suburb immediately outside one of the gates there is field that is smooth, both in name and in fact. Every Friday (unless it is an important holy day requiring solemnity) crowds are drawn to the show and sale of fine horses. This attracts the earls, barons and knights who are then in the city, along with many citizens, whether to buy or just to watch. It is a delight to see the palfreys trotting gently around, the blood pumping in their veins, their coats glistening with sweat, as they alternately raise then lower both feet on one side together. Then to see the horses more suitable for squires, rougher yet quicker in their movements, simultaneously lifting one set of feet and setting down the opposite set. After that the high-bred young colts, not yet trained or broken, “high-stepping with elastic tread”. Next packhorses, with robust and powerful legs. Then expensive war horses, tall and graceful, “with quivering ears, high necks and plump buttocks”. Prospective buyers watch as all are put through their paces: first, their trot, followed by their gallop (in which their two sets of legs, front and rear, are thrust out forwards and backwards, in opposition to each other). On occasions when a race is about to be held between these chargers – or perhaps other steeds who, like their kind, are strong enough to bear riders and lively enough to race – the fact is loudly proclaimed and a warning goes up to clear lesser horses out of the way. Two or sometimes three boys prepare themselves to take part as riders in such contests between the fleet-footed creatures. Skilled in controlling horses, they “curb their untamed mouths with jagged bits”; their biggest challenge is to prevent one of their competitors from taking the lead in the race. The horses too, in their own way, psych themselves up for the contest: “their limbs tremble; impatient of delay, they cannot stand still”. When the starting signal is given, they leap forward and race off with as much speed and determination as they can muster. The riders, eager for glory and hoping for victory, try to outdo one another in using spurs, switches or cries of encouragement to urge the horses to go faster. You start to believe that “all things are in motion”, as Heraclitus put it, and lose faith in Zeno’s theory that motion is impossible – so that no-one could ever reach the end of a racetrack! In a separate part [of Smithfield] are located the goods that country folk are selling: agricultural implements, pigs with long flanks, cows with swollen udders, “woolly flocks and bodies huge of kine”. Also to be found there are mares suited for pulling ploughs, sledges, and two-horse carts; some have bellies swollen with foetuses, while around others already wander their newborn – frisky foals who stick close to their mothers.
Ships and commerce
Middlemen from every nation under heaven are pleased to bring to the city ships full of merchandize:
“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; from China crimson silks; French wines; and sable, vair and miniver from the far lands where Russ and Norseman dwell”.
According to the chroniclers, London is far older than Rome. For it was founded by the same race of Trojans, but by Brutus prior to Rome’s foundation by Romulus and Remus. Consequently both still have in common the same ancient laws and institutions. The one, just like the other, is divided into wards. In place of consuls, London has sheriffs chosen annually. It has a senatorial order and lesser officials. It has a system of sewers and conduits in the streets. Judicial pleas, arguments, and deliberations each have assigned places, their courts. It has days fixed by custom for the holding of assemblies.
I cannot think of any city more commendable for the habits of its citizens in attending church, in observing the divine festivals, in giving alms, in providing hospitality, in formalizing betrothals, in contracting marriages, in celebrating weddings, in throwing banquets, in keeping guests entertained, as well as in attention to the burial and funeral needs of the deceased. The only problems that plague London are the idiots who drink to excess and the frequency of fires. To all this I should add that almost all the bishops, abbots, and lords of England are residents and, for all practical purposes, citizens of London. They have imposing houses there, where they stay and make lavish expenditures when summoned to the city by the king or archbishop to take part in councils or important gatherings, or when they come to deal with private business.
Let us look more closely now at the city’s recreations, since it is not productive for urban society to be always serious or practical – it also needs to smile and have fun. In relation to which, on the signet seals of the High Pontiffs, down to the time of Pope Leo, there was engraved on one side Peter the fisherman and over him a key, as though it were being passed down from heaven by the hand of God; around which, the motto “For me thou lef’st the ship; take thou the key”. While on the other side was engraved a city, with the words “Golden Rome”. Again, it was said in praise of Rome and Caesar Augustus: “All night it rains; with dawn the shows return. Caesar, thou shar’st thine empery with Jove.”
In place of such theatrical performances and plays, London has religious drama portraying the miracles performed by the Holy Confessors or the sufferings endured by martyrs illustrating their constancy.
Cockfighting and ball games
Let us begin with boys’ games (for we were all boys once). Each year on the day called “Carnival” schoolboys bring fighting-cocks to their schoolmaster, and the entire morning is given over to the boyish sport, for there is a school holiday for purpose of the cock fights. After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.
War games in the fields
Every Sunday in Lent, after lunch, a “fresh swarm of young gentles” goes out into the fields on chargers and “steeds skilled in the contest”, each being “apt and schooled to wheel in circles round”. Crowds of the lay sons of citizens pour through the city gates armed with military spears and shields; the younger carry spears whose metal point has been removed. “They wake war’s semblance” and practise military exercises. With a view to joining in the combats, there come many of the king’s entourage, when he is in residence; and from the households of earls and barons, young men not yet invested with knighthood. Each is consumed by a hope for a victory. The fierce horses whinny, “their limbs tremble; they champ the bit; impatient of delay they cannot stand still”. When finally “the hoof of trampling steed careers along”, the young horsemen have divided themselves into troops; some unhorse their comrades and speed past, while others chase those who retreat, but fail to catch them.
At Easter they hold games that are a sort of naval tournament. A shield being securely fastened to a mast fixed mid-river, a young man standing in the prow of a small boat, propelled by the current and by several rowers, has to strike that shield with a lance. If he can splinter the lance by striking it against the shield and manage to avoid being thrown off his feet, his prayers have been answered and his objective achieved. If on the other hand the lance strikes it square on without breaking, he’ll be cast into the fast-flowing river, and the boat will move on beyond him. However, there are anchored on either side two boats holding several young men to pluck out of the river any contestant who has taken a plunge, once his head emerges above water-level or “once more bubbles on the topmost wave”. On the bridge and on galleries overlooking the river are numerous spectators, “ready to laugh their fill”.
Summer games, such as wrestling and the like
On festival days throughout the summer young men exercise through sports such as athletics, archery, wrestling, shot-put, throwing javelins (by use of a strap) beyond a marker, and duelling with bucklers. “Cytherea leads the dance of maidens and the earth is smitten with free foot at moonrise”.
Winter baiting of boars, bull and bears with dogs
On most festival days during winter, before lunch, boars foaming at the mouth and hogs armed with “tusks lightning-swift” fight for their lives; they’ll soon be bacon. And fat bulls with horns or monstrous bears, under restraints, are set to fight against hounds.
Games on the ice
When the great marsh [Moor Field] that laps up against the northern walls of the city is frozen, large numbers of the younger crowd go there to play about on the ice. Some, after building up speed with a run, facing sideways and their feet placed apart, slide along for a long distance. Others make seats for themselves out of ice-slabs almost as large as millstones, and are dragged along by several others who hold their hands and run in front. Moving so quickly, the feet of some slip out from under them and inevitably they fall down flat. Others are more skilled at frolicking on the ice: they 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. But sometimes two, by accord, beginning far apart, charge each other from opposite directions and, raising their poles, strike each other with them. One or both are knocked down, not without injury, since after falling their impetus carries them off some distance and any part of their head that touches the ice is badly scratched and scraped. Often someone breaks a leg or an arm, if he falls onto it. But youth are driven to show off and demonstrate their superiority, so they are inclined to these mock battles, to steel themselves for real combat.
Those who amuse themselves with birds of prey
Many citizens enjoy sports involving high-flying birds – falcons, hawks and the like – or hounds for hunting in the woods. The citizens have hunting rights in Middlesex, Hertfordshire, throughout the Chilterns, and in Kent as far as the river Cray. The Londoners, in a time when they used to be called Trinovantes, repulsed Caius Julius Caesar, who “rejoiced to make no way save with the spilth of blood”. Regarding which, Lucan writes: “To the Britons whom he sought, he showed his coward back”.
Sons and daughters of the city of London
The city of London has been the birthplace of a number of persons who brought under their rule many kingdoms and the Roman empire, and many others who, through their excellent qualities, have been “raised to the Gods as lords of earth”, just as had been promised to Brutus by Apollo’s oracle:
“Brutus, past Gaul beneath the set of sun, there lies an isle in Ocean ringed with waters. This seek; for there shall be thine age-long home. Here for thy sons shall rise a second Troy, here from thy blood shall monarchs spring, to whom all earth subdued shall its obeisance make.”
During Christian times it gave birth to the noble emperor Constantine, who dedicated the city of Rome and all symbols of empire to God, St. Peter, and Silvester the Roman pope, to whom he showed his subordination by holding his stirrup; he preferred the title Defender of the Holy Roman Church, rather than the traditional one of emperor. So that the peace of His Eminence the Pope should not be disturbed by the hurly-burly of worldly affairs occasioned by his presence, Constantine entirely withdrew from the city he had handed over to the Pope, and built the city of Byzantium for himself.
In modern times, London has produced majestic and celebrated rulers: the Empress Matilda, King Henry III, and the blessed Thomas the archbishop, Christ’s glorious martyr, “than whom she bore no whiter soul nor one more dear” to all good people in the whole of the Latinized world”.