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. 

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