Medieval London, Pt. II – Social History

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

Social History

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


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

Faith at least offered hope of life eternal.


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

Anchorhold, St Mary Magdalene, East Ham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Food and Drink

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Medical Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Administration and Governance

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

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

Richard or Dick Whittington

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

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


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

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

The Law

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

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

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

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

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

Trade and Commerce

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

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

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

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

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

Livery Companies

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

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

The Hanseatic League

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

Wealth and Poverty

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

Entertainment and Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Oteswich memorial, St Helen (Bishopsgate)

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

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

1 thought on “Medieval London, Pt. II – Social History

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