Medieval London, Pt. III – Building Works

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) …

Building Works

The Normans built the first stone buildings within and without the walls of the City for hundreds of   years.  These included a number intended to symbolise their sovereign authority over the Saxons, most importantly the  White Tower in the Tower of London, built by William I, William II and Henry I, between 1076-1101, out of Kentish Rag and imported Caen Stone.  Hundreds went on to be imprisoned here over the centuries; and scores tortured, and/or executed,  in a variety of horrible ways.  One wonders how much better a world it would have been if all the imaginative effort expended in  devising means of inflicting suffering had instead been channelled elsewhere.   The   first Baynard’s Castle and Montfichet’s Tower, were both built, a little to the south-west of St Paul’s, in the late eleventh century (Baynard’s Castle by Ralph Baynard, and Montfichet’s Tower by Richard de Montfichet, both of them Norman noblemen); and both demolished in the early thirteenth (the second Blackfriars Priory was built on the site of the first Baynard’s Castle in the late thirteenth, in 1276).    As was,  further afield, Windsor Castle, between 1070-86. The Normans also initiated a major phase of church and other religious house building works in the late eleventh to early twelfth centuries, in the Norman or Romanesque style.  Within and without the walls of the City of London, the church of St Mary-le-Bow, or Bow Church was built by the Norman King William I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, in around 1077-87; St Mary-at-Lambeth sometime before 1086; what is now known as “Old St Paul’s”, by Bishop Maurice and his successors sometime  after 1087; St Giles Cripplegate in around 1100; St Magnus the Martyr probably shortly after the sanctification of the eponymous Magnus Erlendsen, Earl of Orkney, in 1135 (he had been  murdered by heathen Vikings sometime between 1115-8); and Winchester Palace in c. 1150.    The collegiate church and Benedictine monastery of St Martin-le-Grand was founded  by two brothers, Ingelric and Girard, in around 1056; the Cluniac Priory and Abbey of St Saviour,  or Bermondsey Abbey, in 1082;  the Augustinian Holy Trinity Priory in 1108; “old” Temple Church, the original English home of the Knights Templar, on Holborn, in 1118; the Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew in 1123; the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, the English home of the Knights Hospitaller, in Clerkenwell,  by Jordan de Briset and his wife, Muriel de Muntani, in around 1140; the Augustinian Priory of St Mary, also in Clerkenwell, in 1145;  and the Royal Hospital of St Katharine-by-the-Tower, by Queen Matilda, in 1148.  Interestingly, both the Templars’ and the Hospitallers’ churches had round naves, thought to have been  modelled on that of Church  of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Important new secular public buildings of the Norman period  included  Westminster Hall, built in 1097-99; and the Guildhall, built sometime before 1128.

Later, the Plantagenets continued the construction of  the Tower of London, Henry III adding an inner curtain wall in the late thirteenth century, and Edward I an outer one in the late thirteenth to early fourteenth, and it continued to be used as a royal residence by a succession of later Kings and Queens through to the seventeenth century.  The remarkable menagerie established here in the thirteenth century  was eventually closed down in the nineteenth by the then Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington, who did not want it interfering with military matters any longer (the animals were rehomed in  Regent’s Park, in what was to become the zoo there). 

The Tower of London in the late fifteenth century.
The figure  looking wistfully out of the window in the Tower is Charles, Duc d’Orleans. 
The “old” London Bridge may be seen in the background (and the Custom House in the middle ground).

The Tower features in the earliest known painting of London, by an unknown artist, dating to the late fifteenth century, and commissioned to illustrate a book of poems written by Charles, Duc d’Orleans, who was imprisoned here for twenty-five years after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.   Elsewhere in the City of London, the Plantagenets  built the second Baynard’s Castle in the early fourteenth century, in around 1338; and the Royal Wardrobe in the late fourteenth, in 1361. 

The Second Castle Baynard

The second Baynard’s Castle was built, in a river-front location,  in the early  fourteenth century, around 1338, and rebuilt in early fifteenth, around 1428, and again in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth.  It was used by a succession of Kings and  Queens in the late fifteenth to sixteenth  centuries, before being essentially completely  destroyed in the Great Fire in the seventeenth.  It was the London headquarters of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses.  According to the chronicler Fabian,   The Earl of March  was hailed King Edward IV here, before he was formally crowned in Westminster Abbey, in 1461  (“[T]he Earls of March and Warwick with a great power of men, …  entered into the City of London, the which was of the citizens joyously received, and … the said earl caused to be mustered his people …, … whereupon it was demanded of the said people whether … Henry [VI] were worthy to reign as king any longer or no.  Whereunto the people cried hugely and said Nay, Nay.  And after it was asked of them whether they would have the Earl of March as their king and they cried with one voice, Yea, Yea.  After the which admission thus by the commons assented, certain captains were assigned to bear report unto the said Earl of March then being lodged in his place called Baynard’s Castle”).  Later, in 1483, Richard III is believed to have asserted his claim to the throne, over that of Edward’s infant sons, here.   In Westminster, the Plantagenets built the Savoy Palace in the early fourteenth century, in 1324; and the Jewel Tower (part of the Palace of Westminster), in 1365-6.  And slightly further afield, a manor-house on the then-waterfront  in Rotherhithe in 1349-53.  Still further afield, a succession of Plantagenet Kings  extended Windsor Castle.   

The Plantagenets also continued the church and religious house building works  in the later Medieval, in the Gothic style.  Excluding St Paul’s, a  total of 118 London parish churches and other places of Christian worship are listed, in a curious mixture of Latin, French and English, in  Pope Nicholas IV’s  “Taxatio Ecclesiastica” of 1291, of which 115 can be identified with more or less certainty (98 within the walls of the City, and 17 without).  Their construction or reconstruction made extensive use of Roman masonry robbed from the City walls or other structures.  The reconstructed  walls of St Helen, for example, contain much Roman dressed stone, together with  a lesser quantity of brick or tile, most likely sourced  either from a   building  that once stood on the site, or from the City wall that once stood a short distance away.  

Within and without the walls of the City of London, among others, All Hallows Barking, All Hallows Staining, St Alphage, St Andrew Undershaft, St Ethelburga, St Etheldreda, St Giles Cripplegate, St Helen, St Katharine Cree, St Mary-at-Lambeth, St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral), St Olave Hart Street,  “Old St Paul’s”, St Sepulchre, and Westminster Abbey were all built, rebuilt or extended in the later Medieval (as was Winchester Palace).  The Augustinian Holywell Priory was founded in 1158; the Knights Templar “new” Temple Church, off Fleet Street, in 1160-1240; the Augustinian Priory of St Mary Spital in 1197; the Benedictine Nunnery of St Helen in 1210; the first Dominican Blackfriars Priory in 1223, and the second in 1278; the Franciscan Greyfriars Priory in 1225; the Priory of the Order of St Mary of Bethlehem in 1247; the Carmelite Whitefriars Priory also in 1247; the Augustinian Austin Friars Priory in 1265; the Pied Friars Priory in 1267; the Crutched Friars Priory in 1268; the Sack Friars Priory in 1270; the Franciscan Nunnery of St Clare-without-Aldgate, also sometime in the thirteenth century; the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary Graces in 1349; and the Carthusian Charterhouse, by Sir Walter Manny, “a stranger born, lord of the town of Manny, in the diocese of Cambray, beyond the seas,  who for service done to  Edward III was made Knight of the Garter”, in 1371.

St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) was partially rebuilt twice in the later Medieval period, following fires in 1212 and 1390.  Some of the masonry  used in the rebuilding of the cathedral  was salvaged from the fire debris, and shows signs of fire damage.   

“Old St Paul’s” was partially rebuilt and extended in the Gothic style in 1221-1240,  and in the “New Work” of 1256-1314 or thereabouts.  There are models of it  in the modern Cathedral and also in the Museum of London.  It was evidently  an impressive building, measuring some 600’ in length, and, according to some estimates, over 500’ in height, inclusive of the spire, which  was destroyed by lightning in 1444, and rebuilt  in 1462 (only to be destroyed by lightning again in 1561).  John Denham wrote of it  in 1624:  “That sacred pile, so vast, so high|That whether ‘tis a part of earth or sky|Uncertain seems, and may be thought a proud|Aspiring mountain or descending cloud … ”.   

The Chapter House of “old” St Paul’s

The Chapter House of “old” St Paul’s, built in 1332 by the Master Mason William Ramsay, who went on to die of the “Black Death” in 1349, was the earliest example in London of the Perpendicular Gothic style that was to remain the fashion  for the next two hundred years. 

Aerial view of octagonal outline of foundations

Sadly, only the octagonal outline of the foundations survives, in the  churchyard on the south side of the cathedral. 

Perhaps even more sadly, the celebrated wall-painting of the “Dance of Death” in the  Pardon Cloister of the north side of the cathedral, commissioned by John Carpenter during his tenure as Town Clerk, between 1417-38, was destroyed in 1549, that is, before the Great Fire, on the orders of Protector Somerset.  The painting  is said to have been based on the “Danse Macabre” in the Cimetiere des Innocents  in Paris.  According to Stow, “the metres, or posey of this dance, were translated out of French into English by John Lidgate, monk of Bury”.  (Lidgate, or Lydgate, was also, incidentally, the author of the famous poem “London Lickpenny”.)   (St) Paul’s Cross was built in  around 1191, damaged in 1382, possibly by the earthquake of that year, repaired in 1387, and rebuilt as a sort of open-air pulpit by Bishop Kempe in 1448/9. 

Westminster Abbey was substantially rebuilt under Henry III in the thirteenth century, in part by the  Master Mason  Henry (of) Reyns, generally known simply as Master Henry  (fl. 1243-53), alongside John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley.  It was further extended  in the fourteenth century, in part by the Master Mason Henry Yevele (c. 1320-1400), who was responsible for, among other things, the tombs of Edward III and Richard II (as well as, incidentally, the tomb of John of Gaunt in “Old St Paul’s).    Yevele was buried in the church of St Magnus the Martyr.  The abbey was refounded as a Cathedral after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, and acquired its present status of a  “Royal Peculiar” in 1556.   There are a great many important monuments in the interior, including those of no fewer than seventeen monarchs.  An equally large number of important state occasions have been held here, including all of the Coronations since that of the first Norman King, William I, in 1066. 

Important new  secular public building works of the Medieval period included London Bridge, rebuilt by Peter, Chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, between 1176-1209.   There is a fine scale-model of the bridge  as it would have looked in its heyday around 1400 in the church of St Magnus the Martyr on Thames Street. There were scores of buildings on it at that time, including a great many shops, and a chapel, dedicated to St Thomas Becket, then recently rebuilt in the Perpendicular style by Henry Yevele between  1384-96 (the bridge was on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury, where Archbishop Becket was the victim of the infamous “Murder in the Cathedral” in 1170).  The bridge also had  twenty arched openings or “locks” in between abutments and piers with cut-waters or “starlings” at their bases.  Many of the more devil-may-care watermen  would attempt to row through the openings in a dangerous practice known as “shooting the bridge”, some unfortunately losing their lives in the process.  William Gregory wrote as follows in his “Chronicle of London” of such an incident that took place in around 1428: “The vii day of Novembyr the Duke of Northfolke wolde have rowed thoroughe the brygge of London, and hys barge was rente agaynste the arche of the sayde bridge, and there were drowned many men, the number of xxx personys .. of gentylmen and good yemen”.  There was wisdom in the adage that  “London Bridge was made for wise men to go over, and fools to go under”!  At the southern end of the bridge, there were   the heads of executed criminals, impaled on spikes.  A little earlier, on St George’s Day, 1390,  in the presence of the then King, Richard II, a  friendly joust between the Englishman Lord Welles and the Scotsman Sir David Lindsay was held on the bridge – despite it  being no more than  twenty feet wide!  According to Hector Boece:  “At the sound of the trumpets the two champions hurled themselves at each other, and either splintered his lance without effect in dismounting his adversary.  Welles had directed his spear at his opponent’s head and hit him fairly on the visor, but the Scottish champion kept his seat so steadily that some of the spectators … shouted out that Lindsay had strapped himself to his saddle.  Thereupon the gallant Scot proved his honesty by vaulting to the ground and on to his horse’s back again in his heavy armour.  A second course followed with equal fortune, but at the third Welles was fairly overthrown.  The victor at once dismounted, and in the best spirit went to assist his fallen opponent …  [and] … never failed to call daily upon him during such time as he was confined to bed by the bruises and the severe shock of the fall”.    Other public building works of the – later – Medieval period included Westminster Hall, rebuilt in 1394-1401, in part by Hugh Herland (c. 1330-c. 1411), who was responsible for the spectacular hammerbeam roof.  And  its City rival, the Guildhall,  rebuilt in 1411-30, by John Croxton(e) (fl. 1411-47).  Croxton(e) also worked on the conversion of an existing building into  Leadenhall Market and  “Garner” (grain-store) between  1440-55.

New private buildings of the Medieval period included a number of Inns of Court.  Some of the  latter, such as the Merchant Taylors’, were particularly grand, including  gardens, grounds and alms-houses – for “decayed” members of the company – as well as Great Halls (and kitchens), offices and private chapels.   Private residences included that of the wealthy grocer and twice Mayor Stephen Browne, in  Billingsgate, which was evidently sufficiently grand as to have included  its own quay; and that of the wealthy grocer John Crosby, immediately south of the church of St Helen on Bishopsgate, later owned by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III), Thomas More, and Walter Ralegh, which Stow described as “very large and beautiful”.  Private residences of the common men and women of the working classes would likely have been built out of timber and thatch in the early Medieval period, as in the Saxon, often with   work-places either  included or attached as  lean-tos or pentices.  However, they would have been built more out of stone in the later Medieval, after the use in construction of combustible materials had  been  banned by the Mayor following the fire of 1212.  The  remains of some have been archaeologically excavated, for example on Poultry.  One, dating to the fourteenth century,  was evidently of a substantially stone building, arranged over two floors, with an open-fronted  (work)shop  and storage area on the ground floor, and living and sleeping accommodation in a so-called sola(r) on the upper, accessed by means of a  ladder rather than a   staircase; and without obvious evidence of any sanitary arrangement,  such as an earth closet.     Incidentally, documentary evidence suggests  that at least two of the other shops in the same terrace  were  ironmongers’, one  being  owned by the Tolesan or Tolosan family, probably  from  Tolosa in the Basque Country, a major iron-  producing and -exporting area, and another by Reginald de Hauberger, probably  a maker of, or dealer in, hauberks, or coats of (chain-)mail.  The floors of all these buildings would likely have been of tamped earth or of planking, strewn with rushes  or  meadowsweet straw, or possibly covered in rugs.    The windows would not have been glazed, but would have been shuttered.  Lighting would have been provided by – tallow – candles.  Furnishings might have included wooden beds with straw-filled palliasses or feather mattresses, wooden chests for storage, and (trestle-)tables with accompanying benches, stools or chairs for sitting on.  Kitchen utensils might  have been made of wood, leather, bone, horn, earthenware pottery or pewter,  and meals eaten with some combination of fingers, knives and spoons, but  without  forks (which were a post-Medieval innovation).    Charitable dwellings  founded in the Medieval period  included  the Stodies Lane  alms-houses of 1358, John Philpot’s ones of 1382, Thomas Knowles’s  ones of 1400, Richard Whittington’s  ones of 1423, and Elis David’s  ones of 1447 (the last-named in Croydon).  Note also that Dick Whittington’s  “College of St Spirit and St Mary” of c. 1410 included alms-houses for thirteen poor men as well as an actual college. 

The Medieval street layout, so organically developed or evolved, and so modified, after the Roman and Saxon  ones as to be unrecognisable, was less in the form of a grid than of an intricate, almost beguiling, maze or web, although there were many streets  parallel and many perpendicular to the river, some of the latter on land reclaimed.   The intricately intermingled alley-ways and court-yards were the capillaries and alveoles of the City, where persons  might pause, albeit fleetingly among the seething, and rest and refresh body and soul; the lanes and thoroughfares its  veins and arteries, moving people and trade far and wide.  Horse-drawn carts and wagons were widely used to  transport goods. 

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