Author Archives: Bob Jones - The Lost City of London

About Bob Jones - The Lost City of London

My name is Bob Jones and I am a writer on the history of London.

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. 

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.

Medieval London, Pt. I – History

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



The Medieval period  was one  of historical, political, religious and social transformation, not to say turmoil, over four hundred years, and under four  royal houses; of historical events that determined the then-future destiny of the country of England and its capital city (Map 3).  It was a time of conquest and oppression; of crusade and pilgrimage; of pestilence and  penitence; of fanfare and  plainsong.   And  of  war, unending war: war between the English  and the  Scots, and the French, and the Welsh; and,  when there was no-one else willing to fight, war among the  English, in “The Anarchy” of  the twelfth century, the Barons’ Wars of  the thirteenth,  and the Wars of the Roses of  the fifteenth.  It was a time, too, of a certain rebelliousness and  occasional outright rebellion amongst  elements of the population,  that was perhaps the product of  an innate independent-mindedness and anti-authoritarianism, and that was to continue into the post-Medieval period and beyond.   The defining spirit of the Medieval age  may be said to have been one of ebullient confidence,  undercut in the dead of night by dread.  The attitude toward death was less fearful than that of our own modern age; that toward an uncertain  after-life, in Heaven, Hell or  Purgatory, much more so.  What perhaps most  set the Medieval apart from our age  was  the nature and degree of religious observance: the Latin masses and sung chantries; and the  repeated summonings by bells.  It would have felt utterly alien to us, to our more secular  sensibilities.  For me, this is its  fascination.

There are sufficient surviving records of one kind or another, in Middle English, Norman French or Latin, to enable us to undertake a reasonably accurate reconstruction not only of the history of but also of the social history of Medieval London.  These include the “Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London” of 1188-1274, deriving from the so-called “Liber de Antiquis Regibus”, produced for  the Alderman Arnald Thedmar or FitzThedmar in the late thirteenth century; the “Letter-Books of the City of London” of  1275-1509, of which the most important are  the  “Liber Horn”, produced  for the City Chamberlain Andrew Horn between  1311 and sometime in the 1320s, and the  “Liber Albus”, produced for the Common  Clerk John Carpenter in the years up to 1419; and a multitude of  other court, corporation, and ward records, many now in  the Guildhall Library or London Metropolitan Archives.    More personal contemporary eye-witness accounts include those of William FitzStephen, writing, in the prologue of his “Vita Sancti Thomae” or “Life of St Thomas”, in 1183; Richard of Devizes, also writing in the late twelfth century;  Jean Froissart, writing between 1377-1410; Wenzel Schaseck and Gabriel Tetzel, both writing in 1465; and the anonymous author of “A Chronicle of London”, writing around 1483. 

FitzStephen memorably, if gushingly, described  London, as “the most noble city”, a city that  “pours out its fame more widely, sends to farther lands its wealth and trade, lifts its head higher than the rest”, a city “happy in the healthiness of its air, in the Christian religion, in the strength of its defences, the nature of its site, the honour of its citizens, the modesty of its matrons”, a city in which  “the only pests … are the immoderate drinking of foolish sorts and the frequency of fires”.   

Richard of Devizes wrote, at more or less the same time, although in a markedly  different tone: “Whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find … in that one city.  … [D]ice and gambling; the theatre and the tavern.  … [M]ore braggarts … than in all France … .  Acrobats, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses”.

Froissart was a French courtier from Valenciennes who made repeated visits to England between 1361, when he came to join the entourage of Edward III’s Queen, Philippa of Hainault, and c. 1400.  He wrote a series of “Chroniques” or “Chronicles” between 1377 and c. 1410, the first sometime after 1377; the   second, in 1388; the third, in 1390; and the fourth, in c. 1410.  The  “Chroniques” cover, among other important events in the history of London, and indeed England, the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381; Richard II’s power-struggles with Parliament,  and with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of  Gloucester, and the other Lords Appellant, in 1386-8; and the King’s  eventual decline and deposition at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke, the Earl of Derby (and future Henry IV), in 1397-9.

Schaseck, from Birkov in what is now the Czech Republic, visited London as part of the diplomatic delegation of Leo of Rozmital in 1465, and wrote: “London is a grand and beautiful city and has two castles. In the first, located at the very end of the city surrounded by the ocean’s gulf, lives the English King. He was present at the time of our arrival. Across the gulf there is a bridge made of stone and quite long, and houses have been built on both sides of it stretching its full length. I have never seen such a quantity of kite birds as I have here. Harming them is forbidden and is punishable by death”.   Tetzel, from Grafenberg in what is now Germany,    visited London as part of the same delegation in 1465, and wrote: “We have passed through Canterbury through the English kingdom all the way to the capital, which is home to the English King. Its name is London and it is a very vigorous and busy city, conducting trade with all lands. In this city there are many craftsmen, and mainly goldsmiths and drapers, beautiful women and expensive food”.

Norman History

The death of the English King, Harold, during the Battle of Hastings (from the Bayeux Tapestry)

The first of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Conquest, visited in 1066.  Despite spirited resistance, London soon fell to Norman forces under William the Bastard, the Conqueror, marching north from the fateful battle-field of Hastings.  The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” recounts: “The best men from London … submitted from force of circumstances, but only when the depredation was complete.  It was great folly that they had not done so sooner when God would not remedy matters because of our sins.  They gave him [William] hostages and swore oaths of fealty, and he promised to be a gracious lord to them”.  And the Norman chronicler William of Jumieges: “[we] engaged them [Londoners] in battle, causing no little mourning in the City because of the very many deaths of her own sons and citizens”.  William Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey in  1066.  Orderic Vitalis wrote in his “Historia Ecclesiastica” of the occasion: “So at last on Christmas Day …, the English assembled at London for the King’s coronation, and a strong guard of Norman men-at-arms and knights was posted round the minster to prevent any treachery or disorder.  And, in the presence of the bishops, abbots, and nobles of the whole realm of Albion, Archbishop Ealdred consecrated William duke of Normandy King of the English and placed the royal crown on his head.  This was done in the abbey church of St Peter the chief of the apostles, called Westminster, where the body of King Edward [the Confessor] lies honourably buried.  But at the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred.  For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their King, all of them gladly shouted out with one voice if not one language that they would.  The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult …, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings.  The fire spread rapidly …, the crowd who had been rejoicing … took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition ran out of the church in frantic haste.  Only the bishop and a few clergy and monks remained, … and with difficulty completed the consecration of the King who was trembling from head to foot.   … The English, after hearing of the perpetration of such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge”.

The “William Charter” (London Metropolitan Archives)

The following year, William   granted the City of London a  Charter, which read, in translation (from Old English rather than Norman French): “William King greets William the Bishop and Geoffrey the Portreeve and all the citizens in London, French and English, in friendly fashion; and I inform you that it is my will that your laws and customs be preserved as they were in King Edward’s day, that every son shall be his father’s heir after his father’s death; and that I will not that any man do wrong to you.  God yield you.” The so-called “William Charter” is now in the London Metropolitan Archives. 

Two of William I’s sons  went on to be  crowned King: William II , in 1087; and Henry I, in 1100.  In 1132, Henry acknowledged London’s status as effectively a county or shire in its own right, by issuing a charter granting it the authority to appoint its own “Shire-Reeve” or Sheriff.  Earlier, incidentally, on October 17th, 1091, under William, London had been hit by a large tornado, which damaged London Bridge, destroyed 600 houses and killed  two persons.  The tornado also virtually  levelled the newly-built church of St Mary-le-Bow, also known as Bow Church, on Cheapside.  From contemporary accounts of the damage it caused – one of which describes it as having driven  four 26’ rafters vertically into the ground – modern   meteorologists have estimated that the  tornado would have rated T8 on the T scale, with winds in excess of  200 mph. 

The second  Horseman  of the Apocalypse, War, visited for the first time in   “The Anarchy” of 1135-41, “when Christ and his Saints slept”, and there was prolonged and bloody fighting over the succession to the throne  following the death of Henry I.  Henry’s only legitimate son had  died earlier, aboard the “White Ship”, and  his  daughter, Empress Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen of Blois, laid rival claims.  London lay under  Stephen’s control, and when Matilda attempted to seize control of the capital after he was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, it resisted, and she withdrew.   According to one account, ”the whole city flew to arms at the ringing of the bells, which was the signal for war, and all with one accord rose upon the countess … as swarms of wasps rise from their hives”.  London then lent its support to Stephen’s wife Maud, and back to the man himself once he was released from captivity. 

Plantagenet History

The  Angevin or Plantagenet Henry, son of Geoffrey V of Anjou and Matilda, was crowned King Henry II when Stephen died in 1154.

The elder of Henry’s surviving sons was crowned King Richard I in 1189.  According to one account, which now  resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the coronation ceremony was accompanied by “evil omens”, including the presence of a  bat fluttering around the King’s head during the crowning, and the mysterious pealing of bells.  Shortly afterwards, representatives  of the Jewish community, who had been barred from the ceremony, arrived at the abbey to present gifts and their respects to the newly-crowned King, only to be beaten and stripped by the King’s men, and thrown out onto the street.  Tragically, this came to be taken as a licence to attack the entire – sizeable – Jewish  population of London.  According to Roger of Howden, in his “Gesta Regis Ricardi”, the “jealous and bigoted” citizens went on to kill many, including Jacob of Orleans, a respected scholar, to burn  the houses of many others, and to force  the remainder to seek sanctuary in the Tower of London, or to flee the city altogether, until it was safe to return.  And according to Richard of Devizes, “On the very day of the coronation, about that solemn hour in which the Son was immolated to the Father, a sacrifice of the Jews … was commenced in the city of London, and so long was the duration … that the holocaust could scarcely be accomplished the ensuing day … ”.  A horrified Richard was forced  to issue a writ ordering the cessation of the  persecution of the Jews (he also  allowed those who had been forcibly converted to Christianity to  revert to Judaism).  He also ordered the execution of those  guilty of the most egregious offences against them. 

A statue of Henry Fitzailwyn (Holborn Viaduct)

Later in 1189, Richard  appointed the  first Mayor of London, Henry FitzAilwyn de Londonestone, in effect to run the City.

Later still in Richard’s reign, in 1196, according to an  account given by Roger of Wendover:  “About this time there arose a dispute in the city of London between the poor and the  rich on account of the tallage, which was exacted by the King’s agents for the benefit of the exchequer: for the principal men of the city, whom we call mayors and aldermen, having held a deliberation at their hustings, wished to preserve themselves from the burden, and to oppress the poorer classes.  Wherefore William FitzRobert [also rendered as FitzOsbert], surnamed ‘with the beard’ [William Longbeard] … called the mayors of the city traitors to our lord the King for the cause above mentioned; and the disturbances were so great in the city that recourse was had to arms.  … [T]he King, his ministers, and the chief men of the city charged the whole crime on William.  As the King’s party were about to arrest him, he … escaped, defending himself with nothing but a knife, and flying into the church of St Mary of the Arches [St Mary-le-Bow], demanded the protection of our Lord, St Mary, and her church, saying that he had resisted an unjust decree for no other purpose than that all might bear an equal share of the public burden, and contribute according to their means.  His expostulations, however, were not listened to, … and the archbishop [Walter] … ordered that he should be dragged from the church to take a trial, because he had created a sedition … among the people of the city.  When this was told to William, he took refuge in the tower of the church, for he knew that the mayors … sought to take away his life.  In their obstinacy they applied fire, and sacreligiously burned down a great part of the church.  Thus William was forced to leave … , … seized, … and … conveyed away to the Tower of London.  Soon after, … he was … dragged, tied to a horse’s tail, through the middle of  London to Ulmet [Tyburn] … : after which he was  hung in chains on a gallows.   … With him were also hanged nine of his neighbours or of his family, who espoused his cause”.  According to other contemporary sources, William Longbeard was “in origin one of the most noble citizens of London”, but nonetheless became “the champion of the poor, it being his wish that every person, both rich and poor, should give according to his property and means, for all the necessities of the state”.  In one remarkable and radical speech that provoked outrage and fear throughout the Establishment, he proclaimed: “I am the saviour of the poor.  Oh poor, who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and … do this joyfully, for the time of your visitation is at hand.  For I will divide … the humble and faithful people from the haughty and treacherous … , as light from darkness”.

John   was crowned King in 1199.  During his reign, in 1212, there was a terrible fire, in which thousands of people are purported to have died.   According to a near-contemporary account: “An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.”   The fire badly damaged the recently-built bridge, leaving it only partially usable for years afterwards, and necessitating a partial rebuild.  It also damaged  Sy Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral).  In 1215, John  granted the City of London the right to elect its own Mayor: his so-called  “Mayoral Charter” is now in the Guildhall.  The prestige of the position was such that the by-then Mayor, William Hardel(l),  was invited by John to be  a witness to the sealing of, and indeed an Enforcer or Surety of, Magna Carta, at Runnymede in Surrey, later in 1215.  This was after rebel barons had entered London to force John’s hand.  Ralph of Coggeshall wrote: “With alliances sworn with the citizens of London via go-betweens, … the barons came to London and seized it without opposition, the citizens being busy at Mass. Having entered, the barons captured all of the King’s supporters whom they found, depriving them of their goods. They broke into the houses of the Jews, rifling store-houses and strong boxes, and having spent much time in this holy work, abundantly restuffed their own empty purses. Robert FitzWalter, Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex and Gloucester, vigilantly and daily reinforced the City walls with stones taken from the houses of the Jews. They could not, however, take the Tower of London, defended against them by a small but brave garrison. As soon as it became known, far and wide, that the barons had seized the royal metropolis, all, save only the earls of Warenne, Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Ferrers and Salisbury, and amongst the barons only William Brewer … defected to the baronial party; … so that …  the King was seized with such terror that he now dared travel no further than Windsor”.

A frieze depicting the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede (Supreme Court building, Westminster)

The First Barons’ War broke out still later in  1215, when it became clear that when John  had no intention of abiding  by the terms of Magna Carta.   When John died in 1216, the barons refused to recognise his son Henry III as King, and instead supported  the rival claim to the title of the French King Philippe II’s son Louis, also known as the Dauphin.  The Dauphin and barons suffered a heavy military defeat at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, after which they were forced to retreat to their power-base in London, there  to await reinforcements from France, which in the event never arrived, the transporting  fleet  being intercepted en route.  Incidentally, two prominent Londoners were captured at the battle, namely  the aforementioned Robert FitzWalter, formerly of Baynard’s Castle, and Richard de Montfichet, of Montfichet’s Tower, both of which  had been demolished on John’s orders after the baronial conspiracy of 1212, in which FitzWalter had been implicated.  The Dauphin then agreed to  relinquish  his claim to England and end the war, by signing the so-called Treaty of Lambeth, brokered by William Marshall, later in 1217 (there is a famous alabaster effigy of Marshall in Temple Church).  In exchange, the barons and people were given back the liberties that had been taken away under John’s unjust rule.  The Second Barons’ War broke out in 1264.   As in the case of the First Baron’s War, London remained a barons’ stronghold essentially throughout.  Following his victory at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, during which the King, Henry III was captured, the barons’ leader, Simon de Montfort convened what is widely regarded as England’s first representative Parliament in Westminster Hall in 1265 (before this date,  Parliament, or its precursor, had met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey;  and after 1548, it met in the then-secularised Royal Chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster.  De Montfort was killed, and Henry freed from captivity, at the Battle of Evesham later in 1265, which left the royalists holding the upper hand until the eventual cessation of hostilities, according to  the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth,  in 1267. 

The  third Horseman  of the Apocalypse, Famine,  visited during the reign of Henry III in 1257/8,  and again during the reign of Edward II in 1314-7.  The City of London was subject to a famine of Biblical proportions in  1257/8, as indeed were the entire country and continent.  The “Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs” for 1257/8 record that: “In this year, there was a failure of the crops; upon which … a famine ensued, to such a degree that the people from the villages resorted to the City for food; and there, upon the famine waxing still greater, many thousand people perished … ”.  It is likely that many of the many thousands of individuals buried in the crypt-cum-charnel house of St Mary Spital, which have recently been shown to date to the middle of the thirteenth century, died during this famine.  As to the underlying cause, it has been speculated to have been brought about by a “volcanic winter” following the explosive  eruption of Mount Samalas on the island of Lombok in Indonesia in 1257.  Another famine, albeit less well documented in London, affected  the country and continent between 1314-7.  It, too, appears to have been associated with – prolonged – bad weather, even in supposed summer months, and associated harvest failure, and to have been compounded by livestock disease and death (“murrain”).  Initially, it was the poor who were  particularly badly affected, being unable to afford to pay a premium for increasingly scarce  foodstuffs, and indeed even for the staple, bread, especially after attempts to restrict its price ultimately proved unsuccessful.   But, by the summer  of 1315, there was essentially nothing for anyone rich or poor to eat anywhere in St Albans, even the King, Edward II, and his court, who visited the town in  August.  As to the underlying cause in this case,  it has been speculated to have been brought about by either a short-term cooling spike caused by another volcanic eruption, perhaps of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand, or a long-term climatic cooling trend at the transition from the “Medieval Warm Period” into the “Little Ice Age”, or a superposition of the two.  The balance between sufficiency and deficiency of food supply  was always extremely precarious, and easily tipped.  Food shortages would persist well into the post-Medieval period, with food riots in London in 1595.

The First War of Scottish Independence began with the English conquest of Scotland during the reign of Edward I in 1296, and lasted until the restoration of independence, either  de facto after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, or de jure after the  Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton during the reign of Edward II in 1328.   

William Wallace memorial (West Smithfield)

One of the principal Scottish leaders, William Wallace (“Braveheart”), was captured  by the English at Robroyson near Glasgow in 1305.  He was then taken to London, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason in West Smithfield.

The  fourth and final  Horseman of the Apocalypse, Plague, visited during the reign of Edward III in 1348-9, and again  in 1361 (the so-called “Pestis Secunda”, or “Second Plague”), 1368  (the “Third Plague”), 1375 (the “Fourth Plague”), and during the reign of the Lancastrian King Henry VI in 1433-5.  And death followed.  It is estimated that around half of the population of the City of London, or 40,000 people, died in the 1348-9 outbreak that came to be known as the “Black Death”.  Twenty-six out of the fifty monks of Westminster Abbey died, and were buried in the  cloister.  The abbot, Simon Bircheston, also died, and was buried separately, near the Chapter House door, alongside earlier abbots of the late eleventh to twelfth centuries, his epitaph reading in part: “May this blessed father now flourish with the kind Fathers in the presence of God”.  Other named victims included the leading bell-founder Peter de Weston’s widow Matilda and son Thomas,  the gilder Dionysia la Longe, the painter John of Mimms, and Henry of Rochester.  The contemporary chronicler Robert of Avesbury wrote: “The pestilence which had first broken out in the land occupied by the Saracens became so much stronger that, sparing no dominion, it visited with the scourge of sudden death the various parts of all the Kingdoms … .  [I]t began in England in Dorsetshire … in the year of the Lord 1348, and immediately advancing from place to place it attacked men without warning … .  Very many of those who were attacked in the morning it carried out of human affairs before noon.  And no one whom it willed to die did it permit to live longer than three or four days.  …  And about the Feast of All Saints [November 1st, 1348], reaching London, it deprived many of their life daily, and increased to so great an extent that from the feast of the Purification [February 2nd, 1349] till after Easter [April 12th, 1349] there were more than two hundred bodies of those who had died buried daily in the cemetery which had been then recently made near Smithfield, besides the bodies which were in other graveyards … .  The grace of the Holy Spirit finally intervening, …  about the feast of Whitsunday [May 31st, 1349], it ceased at London … ”.  He also wrote: “In that same year of 1349, about Michaelmas, over six hundred [flagellants]  came to London from Flanders … .  Sometimes at St Paul’s and sometimes at other points in the city they made two daily public appearances … .  …   Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails. Each tail had a knot and through the middle of it there were sometimes sharp nails fixed. They marched naked in a file one behind the other and whipped themselves with these scourges on their naked and bleeding bodies.  Four of them would chant in their native tongue and, another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross”.  The horror of the Black Death can only be imagined.  The many thousands of dead were buried, with more or less ceremony, in “plague pits” in East Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, founded in 1350; and at West Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Carthusian monastery of Charterhouse, founded in 1371 (as Stow put it, “A great pestilence … overspread all England, so wasting the people that scarce the tenth person of all sorts was left alive, and churchyards were not sufficient to receive the dead, but men were forced to choose out certain fields for burial”).    Some have recently been unearthed in archaeological excavations, and on analysis have been found to contain traces of the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis biovar medievalis (see section on “Medical Matters” below).

In the immediate aftermath of the “Black Death” of 1348-9, the demand for labour came to greatly exceed the supply, City- and country- wide.  At the same time, the work-force had its wages frozen,  under the “Ordinance of Labourers” of 1349; and then became subject to understandably even more unpopular, and extremely unjustly enforced,  Poll Taxes,  in  1377, 1379 and 1381. 

The death of Wat Tyler during the “Peasants’ Revolt”.

Civil unrest followed in the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381.  A Hanseatic merchant described, in a letter,  what happened at the outset of the revolt: “[O]n the day of Corpus Christi two counties near London called Kent and Essex came with all their might to the city of London to speak with the king. When they entered they …  carried out great misdeeds … [and] … slayed many foreign people”, adding “we all stayed secretly with our London friends, because we reckoned, we would be protected there for so long as the bad people were in the city”.  The revolt came to a head in a confrontation, at West Smithfield, between on the one side  a thousands-strong mob, and on the other, heavily-armed knights and henchmen, officers of the City, and the  then boy-King Richard II.  By this time, the  mob had already slaked its blood-thirst by sacking some Establishment buildings in the City, including the Tower of London and John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, and killing many  of their occupants, together with many other innocent by-standers.  Among  the dead were Robert Hales, the Lord High Treasurer, who had introduced the Poll Tax, and Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury; both unceremoniously beheaded on Tower Hill.  As well as being the Treasurer, Hales was also the Prior of the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell.  Its  buildings, too, were  deliberately targeted during the revolt.  It is significant that no attempt was made to harm the King, whose perceived status from birth was not only royal but also essentially divine and sacrosanct, as indicated by the symbology of the Wilton Diptych (in the National Gallery).  The  French chronicler Jean  Froissart (c.1337-c.1405) described, in the second of his “Chroniques”, completed in 1388, what happened at the culmination of the revolt: “This day all the rabble … assembled under Wat Tyler, John Straw and John Ball, at a place called Smithfield … . There were present about 20,000, … breakfasting, and drinking Rhenish wine and Malmsey Madeira … without paying for anything … . [W]hen the King, attended by sixty horses, … arrived before the Abbey of St Bartholomew, … and saw the crowd of people, he stopped, saying that he would …  endeavour to appease them. Wat Tyler … was only desirous of a riot … .   … The Mayor of London [the fishmonger William Walworth], with about twelve men, rode forward, armed under their robes, …  seeing Tyler’s manner of behaving, … .  [T]he Mayor, … supported by the King, … then drew a kind of scimitar [now in the Fishmongers’ Hall], and struck Tyler such a blow on the head as felled him to his horse’s feet.  As soon as the rebel was down, he was surrounded on all sides, in order that his own men might not see him; and one of the King’s squires, by name John Standwich, immediately leaped from his horse, and drawing his sword, thrust it into his belly, so that he died.  When the rebels found that their leader was dead, they drew up in a sort of battle array, each man having his bow bent before him.  The King at this time … hazarded much, though it turned out most fortunately for him; for … he left his attendants, giving orders that no one should follow him, and riding up to the rebels, … said ‘Gentlemen,   … I am your King, remain peaceable’.  The greater part, on hearing these words, were quite ashamed, and those among them who were inclined for peace began to slip away …  ”. 

Two further crises followed the “Peasants’ Revolt” during the course of Richard II’s reign, as chronicled by Froissart.  The first was a series of  power-struggles with Parliament, and with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of  Gloucester, and the other Lords Appellant, in 1386-8.  At this time, the King, and his Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, sought an unprecedentedly high  rise in taxes to continue to fund the war against France that had begun in 1337 (and that would only end in 1453, which is why it is now known as the “Hundred Years’ War”).  Parliament – the “Wonderful Parliament” – refused to give its consent unless the  unpopular Chancellor was removed from power, whereupon the King famously responded that he would not dismiss as much as a scullion from his kitchen at the request of Parliament, and only eventually acceded to the request when threatened with deposition.  Richard  was so incensed by this curbing of his prerogative powers that he sought, and secured,  a legal ruling from Chief Justice Robert Tresilian to the effect that Parliament’s conduct in the matter had been unlawful and treasonable.  He also went on a “gyration” of the country to garner support for his cause, and began to establish a military power-base in the north, at  Chester.  On his return to London, he found himself  confronted by the Dukes of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick, and that they had in turn brought a charge  of treason against de la Pole, Tresiilan and another loyalist, Nicholas Brembre, the Mayor of London.  According to Froissart, the King had previously been advised by Brembre that “many Londoners” supported him,  encouraging him march on the capital, “to test the temper of the citizens”, with “fifteen thousand men …  under … [his] ….  banners”, whereas in the event, Londoners resisted his advance, and Brembre  fled to Wales, where he was  later “found and captured”.  The King attempted to delay the treason trial proceedings in anticipation of the arrival of supporting troops from Chester, whereupon Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick joined forces with the Earl of Derby (Henry Bolingbroke), and the Earl of Nottingham, to form the Lords Appellant, and intercepted, and routed, the King’s troops at Radcot Bridge.  At this, Richard no longer had any choice but to comply with the appellants’ demands.  Tresilian and Brembre were executed, and de la Pole, who had fled the country, was sentenced to death in absentia, by the “Merciless Parliament” of 1388.  The King’s  circle of favourites was broken. 

The second crisis of the latter part of Richard’s reign witnessed  the King’s eventual decline and deposition, between  1397-9.  It began with his attempt to re-assert his authority after the first crisis, in the so-called “Tyranny”.  In 1397, he had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested on charges of treason: Gloucester either died or was killed on the King’s instructions, while awaiting trial;   Arundel was tried,  convicted  and   executed; and Warwick tried, convicted and sentenced to death, although his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.  The King then set about the systematic persecution of the appellants’ supporters, fining them, and at the same time distributing largesse to his own followers.  And in 1398, he convened a packed “Parliament of Shrewsbury”, which  overturned all the earlier rulings of the “Merciless Parliament”, and essentially made the King once more an absolute monarch. However, the House of Lancaster, personified by John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke, now Earl of Hereford, remained a formidable opponent to the King.  Richard attempted to resolve this outstanding issue by ordering   Bolingbroke into exile in France, initially   for ten years, and eventually  for life.   But in 1399, Bolingbroke returned from exile,  to mount a challenge to the King, landing in the north of England, and there forging an important strategic  alliance with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.  He, Bolingbroke, then marched south with a strong and ever-growing force, encountering little Royalist resistance along the way, the King and much of the  nobility being in  Ireland.  When the King eventually returned to England, he found himself facing overwhelming odds, and was forced to surrender himself to Bolingbroke, who had him imprisoned in the Tower of London, and eventually deposed, after hearings before  by an assembly of Lords and Commons at Westminster Hall, on October 1st,  1399.  He, Richard, is thought to have been allowed to starve to death in captivity in Pontefract Castle on or around February 14th, 1400.

Lancastrian and Yorkist  History, and the Wars of the Roses

The Lancastrian Henry of Bolingbroke was formally crowned King Henry IV, after the deposition of Richard II, on the feast day of St Edward the Confessor, October 13th (although technically the heir-presumptive had been Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, who was descended from Edward III).  The Welsh Revolt against English rule broke out during  his reign, in 1400, and ended during that of his son Henry V in 1415, in defeat for the rebels.  Its principal leader, Owain Glyndwr, the anglicised version of whose name is Owen Glendower, went into hiding in 1415, never to be seen or heard of again (Owain’s lieutenant Rhys Ddu was   captured on a raid into Shropshire in 1410, brought to London, “laid on a hurdle and so drawn forth to Tyburn  through the City”,  and there “hanged and let down again”, and “his head … smitten off and his body quartered and sent to four towns and his head set on London Bridge”).  Owain’s daughter Catrin and her children had previously been captured by the English at the Siege of Harlech in 1409.    They  had then been taken to London, where they were imprisoned in the Tower, and at least most if not all of them died there in 1413, under circumstances best described as “mysterious” (the children had a claim to the English throne through their late father the aforementioned Edmund Mortimer, and some suspect that they were done to death so as to prevent them from making any such claim).  Surviving records indicate that Catrin and two of her daughters were buried not in the Tower but in the churchyard of St Swithin London Stone on the other side of the city (there are no records of what became of her other daughter, or of her son Lionel). 

Catrin Glyndwr memorial (St Swithin’s churchyard)

A modern Gelligaer bluestone sculpture by Nic Stradlyn-John and Richard Renshaw, inscribed with a Welsh englyn by Menna Elfyn, marks the spot.  Freely (by me) rendered into English, the  englyn reads: “In the Tower, now her home,|Her heart-song turns to longing:|The exile’s silent lament”.

The  attempt of the  Lollard Revolt of 1413/4 to overthrow the established church came to nothing when the supporters of the movement, gathered at St Giles-in-the-Fields on the western outskirts of the City of London, were betrayed and dispersed.  Its  local leader, Sir John Oldcastle, was later put to death at St Giles – by hanging in chains over a slow fire – in 1417 (another Lollard Priest, William Taylor, was burnt at the stake for heresy in West Smithfield in 1423).

Henry V was crowned King in 1413.  A month after his famous victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, he  made a triumphal return to London.  An anonymous author wrote the following eye-witness account:  “[T]he citizens went out to meet the King at the brow of Blackheath, … the mayor and … aldermen in scarlet, and the … lesser citizens in red cloaks with red-and-white party-coloured hoods, to the number of about 20,000 … . And when the King came through the midst of them … and the citizens had given glory and honour to God, and congratulations to the King … the citizens rode before him towards the city, and the King followed … .   When they arrived at the … bridge … there placed on the top of the tower was  an enormous figure, with … the keys of the city hanging from a staff in his … hand … .  … And when they reached the … aqueduct in Cornhill they found the tower hidden under a scarlet cloth stretched in the form of a tent, on spears hidden under the cloth.  Surrounding … were the arms of St George, St Edward, St Edmund and of England, … inset with this pious legend: ‘Since the King hopes in the Lord and in the mercy of the highest, he shall not be moved’.  Under a covering was a band of venerable white-haired prophets, … who released, when the King came by, sparrows and other small birds in great cloud as a …  thanksgiving to God for the victory He had given …, while [they] sang in a sweet voice … [a] psalm … .  Then they went on to the tower of the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside which was decked with an awning of green … and erected to resemble a building.  … And when they came to the [Eleanor] cross in Cheapside … it was hidden by a beautiful castle of wood … .  … And when they came to the tower …  at the exit …  towards St Paul’s, … above the tower was stretched a canopy sky-blue in colour … and the top … was adorned by an archangel in shining gold … .  Below … was a figure of majesty represented by a sun darting out flashing rays … . … Such was the dense throng of people in Cheapside … that a bigger or more impressive crowd had never gathered before in London.  But the King himself went along, amidst … the citizens, dressed in a purple robe, not with a haughty look and a pompous train … but with a serious countenance and a reverend pace accompanied by only a few of his most faithful servants; following him, guarded by knights, were the captured dukes, counts and the marshal.   From his silent face and … sober pace it could be inferred that the King … was giving thanks and glory to God alone and not to man.  And when he had visited the sanctuary of SS Peter and Paul [Westminster Abbey], he rode away to his palace of Westminster, escorted by his citizens”.

Henry VI was crowned King in 1422.  During the course of his reign, in  1450 Jack Cade, alias Mortimer,  and thousands of armed supporters entered London “to punish evil ministers and procure a redress of grievances”.  Cade went on to strike  the “London Stone” on Cannon Street  with his sword, and declare himself “Lord of this City” (an  act immortalised by Shakespeare in “Henry VI, Part II”); and in this capacity to oversee the show-trial at the Guildhall and subsequent execution on Cheapside of the corrupt Lord High Treasurer, James Fiennes, Baron of Saye and Sele, and his son-in-law William Crowmer.   Unfortunately for Cade, in succeeding days he lost what support he had for his cause among the citizens of London, as his followers descended into drunken  rioting and looting in the City.  Eventually, the citizens drove him and his followers from the City, after a pitched battle on London Bridge, during which scores of combatants were killed.  Cade was later captured and executed in Sussex, whereupon  his   body was brought to London and beheaded and quartered in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, and his head was put upon a pike on London Bridge, overlooking the former rebel headquarters in the “White Hart” on Borough High Street.   Thus ended the “Harvest of the Heads”.

The Yorkist Edward IV  was crowned King in 1461, after the overthrow of the Lancastrian Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses; Edward V in 1483; and Richard III in 1483.  Note, though, that for a brief  period in 1470-1, Edward IV was forced into exile, following a falling-out with two of his principal supporters, his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, otherwise known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”, and that during this period Henry VI was readepted to the throne.

During the Wars of the Roses, between the Lancastrians and Yorkists, between 1455-85, London was an important centre of  political machination; and the Tower, at least according to some accounts, the scene  of a series of chilling politically motivated murders, in forgotten dreadful cubicles behind  great  locked doors.  It appears  that Henry VI was done to death here, possibly on the orders of Edward IV, in 1471; and that George, Duke of Clarence was done to death here, possibly on the orders either of his elder brother, Edward IV, or his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester,  in 1478 (by drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine).  It also appears that the  recently-deceased Edward IV’s sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, the “Princes in the Tower”, were done to death here, possibly on the orders of their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester  – the future Richard III – in 1483.   Certainly, the deaths of his nephews removed any obstacles standing between the ambitious Richard and the crown, which he was duly eventually offered in Baynard’s Castle, in 1483.

There was, though, some military action on the outskirts of London, in the Battles of  St Albans in 1455 and 1461, and  of  Barnet in 1471. 

The First Battle of St Albans, which traditionally marks the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, was fought on 22nd May, 1455, between Lancastrian  forces under the King, Henry VI, to the south and west, and Yorkists under Richard, Duke of York and his allies, the Neville Earls of Salisbury and Warwick, advancing towards London from the north and east.  It  resulted  in a Yorkist victory, the capture of the Lancastrian King, Henry VI, and the appointment of York as Lord Protector.  The Second Battle of St Albans was fought on Shrove Tuesday, 17th  February 1461, between Yorkist forces under Warwick to the south and east, and Lancastrians under King Henry VI’s Queen, Margaret of Anjou, advancing towards London from the north and west.  A frontal assault – involving much hand-to-hand combat – followed by a wide outflanking manoeuvre  resulted in a Lancastrian victory, albeit a bloody one, and in the release of Henry VI from captivity.  However, it was a victory that was not further capitalised on.

A scene from a re-enactment of the Battle of Barnet

The decisive Battle of Barnet was fought on Easter Sunday, April 14th, 1471, between  a Yorkist army under Edward IV, and a Lancastrian army  under the  turncoat Earl of Warwick (Text-Figure 7).  Earlier, Edward had sallied forth from Bishopsgate in the City of London, and marched ten miles or so up the Great North Road to meet Warwick’s advance from the north, battle lines being drawn a little to the north of Barnet, at that time  a small market town in Hertfordshire: the Yorkists to the south; the Lancastrians to the north.  The night before the day of the battle, the two sides bombarded each other with artillery fire, such that on the morning of the day of the battle, the air was thick with smoke as well as fog, and visibility was poor.  Historical written accounts of the battle are correspondingly unclear, and no systematic archaeological survey of the battle site has  yet been undertaken that might clarify the course of events (as in the cases of Towton and Bosworth Field).  The consensus view among historians is that the Lancastrian army got the better of the early exchanges, its right, under the Earl of Oxford, turning the Yorkist left, forcing it to flee to the south, and then pursuing it into Barnet, and ransacking the town.  Oxford’s men later  returned to the field of battle from the south, only to be fired on by their fellow Lancastrians, under Montague, who in the smoke, fog and general confusion had mistaken them for Yorkists (their banners also evidently resembled those of the Yorkists).  The Lancastrians were then themselves turned by the Yorkists, and pursued and routed; Warwick was killed in the ensuing melee, as depicted in the “Ghent Manuscript”; and the Yorkists won a great victory.  John Paston, a Lancastrian, wrote in a letter to his mother: “[M]y brother … is alive and fareth well, and in no peril of death: nevertheless he is hurt with an Arrow on his right arm, beneath the elbow; and I have sent him to a Surgeon, which hath dressed him, and he telleth me that he trusteth that he shall be whole within right short time … .  [A]s for me, I am in good case blessed be God; and in no jeopardy of my life … .  [T]he world, I assure you, is right queasy … [unsettled]”. Most of the dead, from both sides, numbering somewhere between 1,500-4,000, were buried on  the battlefield, possibly where the essentially late fifteenth-century Monken Hadley Church now stands (Fabian’s “Great Chronicle of London” refers to the construction of a “lytyll Chappell” at the burial site).  However,  some noblemen were taken back to London to be buried in Austin Friars Priory; and Warwick’s body was for a while put on display in St Paul’s, where, according to von Wesel, it was seen by “many thousands”.  The battlefield site is marked by an eighteenth-century obelisk monument bearing the inscription “Here was fought the Famous Battle Between Edward the 4th and the Earl of Warwick on April 14th, 1471, in which the Earl was Defeated and Slain”.  Many of the artefacts recovered from the site over the centuries may be seen in the Barnet Museum, including cannonballs, various types of arrowhead, and spurs.  The Battle of Barnet  was reportedly  one of the earliest engagements to have involved the use of handguns, although as yet no physical evidence has been recovered to substantiate the written reports.  “Warkworth’s Chronicle” recounts that Edward had “300 Flemings handgunners”, armed with arquebusses, in his army.

There was also some action in the City.  On July 2nd,  1460,  a Yorkist army arrived at the gates of London, and was admitted by Aldermen sympathetic to their cause.  At this, the Lancastrian garrison in the Tower, under Thomas, the Seventh Baron Scales, indiscriminately opened fire on the City in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent its  occupation, using both  conventional and  chemical weapons from the Royal Armoury, causing both combatant and civilian  casualties,  and occasioning extreme public outrage, ultimately resulting in Scales’s  summary execution (as a contemporary chronicler put it: “They that were within the Tower cast wildfire into the City, and shot in small guns, and burned and hurt men and women and children in the streets”).  The chemical weapon, let loose from a  primitive and unreliable flame-thrower, was  “Greek fire” or “wildfire”, which may be  thought of as a form of napalm, that stuck and set fire to  everything – and everyone –  it came into contact with, and flared  up even more fiercely if water was cast onto it.    

And on May 14th,  1471, shortly after the Battle of Barnet, London’s  by then Yorkist garrison was bombarded and then assaulted, as the contemporary “Chronicle of London” put it, “on alle sydys”, by Lancastrian forces  under the privateer Thomas Nevill, illegitimate son of William Nevill, Lord Fauconberg, and otherwise known as the Bastard Fauconberg.  In response, the  Mayor, John Stockton,  and his Sheriffs, John Crosby and John Ward,  rode from gate to gate to rally the City’s  defences, “in alle haast with a Trumpett” (Crosby was later knighted for his role in the City’s defence: his memorial in the church of St Helen shows him in armour).  And for the most part the defences held firm.  Aldgate came under the most sustained attack, “with mighty shott of hand Gunnys & sharp shott of arrowis”.  Indeed, some attackers even  managed to enter the City there, only to be held up by defenders under the Recorder of the City, Thomas Ursewyk, and an Alderman named John Basset, and then to be forced to retreat  by the arrival of defensive reinforcements from the Tower of London, “which dyscomffortid the Rebellys”.  The attack had failed, and the attackers who had evaded capture took to their ships, and sailed out to the safety of the Thames estuary.  Many  of those  who had been captured  were summarily executed, including Spysyng and Quyntyn. 

Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London, Pt. II – Building Works and Surviving Structures

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) …

Map 2.  Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London.  1 – St Paul’s  Cathedral; 2 – (St) Paul’s Cross, St Paul’s Churchyard (site of folkmoot); 3 – Cheapside; 4 – St Alban Wood Street; 5 – Aldermanbury; 6 – Guildhall, Guildhall Yard (site of husting); 7 – St Lawrence Jewry, Gresham Street; 8 – St Olave Jewry, Ironmonger Lane; 9 – St Mary Aldermary, Watling Street; 10 – Queenhithe; 11 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 12 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 13 – Eastcheap; 14 – St Dunstan-in-the-East, St Dunstan’s Hill (off Great Tower Street); 15 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 16 – St Olave Hart Street.

Building Works

Within the walls of the City, the first St Paul’s Cathedral was founded by Bishop Mellitus and the Kentish King Aethelburg in 604, a matter of a few short years after the arrival of the Gregorian mission under Augustine in 597.  Again as the  Venerable Bede put it:  “In the Year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, ordained … Mellitus to preach to the province of the East Saxons … .  … [W]hen this province … received the word of truth, by the preaching of Mellitus, King Aethelbert built the church of St Paul the Apostle, in the city of London, where he and his successors should have their episcopal see … ”.  The   first cathedral  went on to be destroyed by fire in 675.  The second, “The Church of Paulesbyri”, was built during the  Bishopric of  Erkenwald, between 675-85,  and destroyed by the Vikings in 961.  The  third was built in 961, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The church of All Hallows Barking was  originally built in  around 675, by Ethelburga, Abbess of Barking (the sister of Erkenwald, Bishop of London).  That of St Helen built as least as long ago as 1010, being recorded as being used for the safe keeping of the relics  of St Edmund in that year; and that of St Peter-upon-Cornhill was built at least as long ago as 1038, being  mentioned in the will of Bishop Aelfric, who died in that year.  And that of St Lawrence (Jewry) at least as long ago the late tenth to early eleventh centuries,  a large number of timbers  from coffins in the churchyard being  dendrochronologically dated to  that range, and indeed an admittedly  much smaller number even to the seventh to ninth centuries.   Many other churches are of probable or possible Saxon origin, the best substantiated being  St Benet Fink, where a grave-slab tentatively dated on stylistic grounds to  the late tenth or early eleventh century has been found.  The palace of the Mercian King Offa was originally built in the eighth century.  

What is now known as Queenhithe was first recorded, as “Aethered’s Hithe”, in 898; …

Surviving timber from arcaded “aisled hall” (Museum of London)

… and it is evident, from dendrochronologically-dated timbers re-used in a revetment on the river-front, that an arcaded “aisled hall” – in context most likely a royal palace or other high-status building – was built here between 956-79.  Evidently also in the vicinity in the time of Alfred in the late ninth century  were the London residences of the  Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Worcester, the latter a stone building  previously known as “Hwaetmunde’s Stan” – possibly a surviving part of the Roman bath-house on Huggin Hill.  Billingsgate was first recorded in around 1000.  

Without the walls, in Southwark, the Nunnery of St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral) was purportedly originally founded in 606 (and subsequently refounded as an Augustinian Priory in 1106).  Between the City of London and Westminster, the church of St Andrew Holborn was built at least as long ago as 959, being referred to as an “old wooden church” in a Charter of that year.  And in  Westminster, the church of St Clement Danes on the Strand, “so called because Harold (surnamed Harefoot) King of England of the Danish line and other Danes were here buried”,  was at least purportedly originally  built in wood by Alfred in the late ninth century, and subsequently rebuilt in stone by Cnut in the early tenth.   

Saxon Westminster Abbey as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.
The body of Edward the Confessor is being brought to the abbey for burial.

Also in Westminster, the Benedictine Monastery of St Peter was founded by Bishop Dunstan under  King Edgar the Peaceable in 960, on what was then Thorney Island (and, according to legend, the site of a church founded by Sebert in 604); and the Palace of Westminster, by Cnut, in 1016.  The Monastery was subsequently  rebuilt, as Westminster Abbey, under Edward “The Confessor”, in the years up to 1065.  A monk of St Bertin’s Abbey wrote in 1065: “Outside the walls of London … stood a monastery dedicated to St Peter, but insignificant in buildings … .  … The King [Edward the Confessor], therefore  … gave his attention to that place, for it both lay hard by the famous and rich town and also was a delightful spot, … [and] … decided to have his burial place there [he was to die in 1066].  Accordingly, he ordered that out of the tithes of all his revenues should be started the building of a noble edifice, worthy of the Prince of the Apostles … ”. 

The layout  of the streets in the Saxon City of Lundenburg  was essentially  longitudinal, such as to allow easy access  to Lundenwic to the west.  The principal streets were Eastcheap to the east and Cheapside to the west, with Leadenhall Street and Cornhill to the north, and Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street to the south, of the old Roman Basilica and Forum in the centre (note in this context that the Saxons appear to have held Roman ruins in superstitious awe, a line in an Old English poem entitled “The Ruin” referring to them as “enta geweorc” or “labours of giants”).  Saxon street names were characteristically blunt, often  referring simply to available goods or services (“c(h)eap” meant  “market”). 

Surviving Structures

Structures that survive from Saxon and Viking London  are extremely few and far between. 

Essentially nothing now  remains of the original Saxon fabric in St Paul’s Cathedral, St Mary Overie (Southwark Cathedral),  or St Lawrence Jewry.  Nothing remains either of the palace of the Mercian King Offa, incorporated into the church of St Alban Wood Street, in turn severely damaged during  the Blitz of the Second World War, and substantially demolished in the post-war period.  Nor anything of  Queenhithe or Billingsgate, other than the names  (and the aforementioned timbers from Queenhithe, now in the Museum of London).  Nor of the folkmoot or husting.

However, there are surviving – seventh-century and later – Saxon remains and artefacts in the church of All Hallows Barking. 

These include, in the nave, a fine stone arch possibly as old as the late seventh century, c. 675, incorporating Roman bricks or tiles. 

They also include, in the crypt, two stone crosses: one, dating to the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries, plain and simple, and bearing  a Saxon Runic inscription featuring the personal name Delvar; …

… and the other, dating to the turn of the tenth and eleventh,   beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing  a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts, a characteristic of “Dark Age” iconography. 

And,  in one of the chapels leading off the crypt,  a  so-called “Pluteus Stone” featuring two Peacocks drinking from the Fountain of Life, thought to have come from an Eastern Orthodox Church in the  Byzantine region, and tentatively dated to sometime in the late eleventh century   (the “East-West Schism” took place in 1054).  Incidentally, there is an almost identical “Pluteus Stone” in the iconostasis in the church of Santa Maria dell’Assunta, otherwise known as Torcello Cathedral, on the island of Torcello in the Veneto in Italy. There is also some surviving precisely-dated eleventh-century  and  imprecisely-dated pre-eleventh-century stone-work fabric  in  the church of St Bride, off Fleet Street, the latter of which has been postulated, although not proven, to date to the sixth century, the church’s purported founder Bride, or Bridget, the   Abbess of Kildare in Ireland, living  from c. 450-525.    And in Westminster Abbey, there is a surviving eleventh-century shrine to Edward “The Confessor”.  And an eleventh-century crypt, containing the Chapel of the Pyx.

Further  afield, there is an  altar-stone in St Pancras Old Church in Camden, arguably datable on stylistic grounds to the late sixth century, around  the time of the conversion of the Saxons by St Augustine in 597, and the construction of the first incarnation of St Paul’s Cathedral in 604 (interestingly, the land on which the church stands was granted to  St Paul’s in 604). The  altar-stone, inlaid into  a Georgian altar-table, depicts five crosses, whose unusual forms are remarkably  reminiscent of that on the tomb on a small island in the Firth of Lorne believed to be of Columba’s mother Eithne, who died in the late sixth century.   Note, though, that “unsporting scholars” have pointed out that similar altar-stones  are also known from the later Medieval period. 

There is an indisputably  Saxon rood (cross) in the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney  (the former Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury Dunstan died in 988, although he was not canonised until 1029). 

And five miles east of Epping, in a dappled clearing in the dark heart of the ancient  wild-wood that today bears its name, there is the extraordinary church  of St Andrew in Greensted.  Greensted Church, as it is more commonly known, is purportedly the oldest wooden church  in the world.  The original  church on the site was probably built at least as long ago as the middle of the seventh century, the   time that St Cedd set about converting the East Saxons to Christianity from his base at Bradwell-on-Sea  (incidentally, Cedd went on to attend the Synod of Whitby in 664, and to die of the plague in Northumbria later that same year).  Sadly, though, the only remaining physical evidence as to the existence of this structure  is in the form of post-holes discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1960.  Work began on the present church in the middle of the eleventh century  (dendrochronological evidence acquired in 1995 indicating  that the trees used in its  construction were felled between 1060-3).   Nearly a thousand years later, much  of the nave  still stands, incorporated into later extensions.  It  was evidently originally windowless, aside from some small “eag-thyrels” or eye-holes, and a single larger “niche”, known by many as  a lepers’ “squint”.  Rather wonderfully, scorch-marks can still be seen  on some of the wall timbers, suggesting that  the gloomy interior was once lit by wall-mounted lamps.   Adze-marks can also still be seen on some timbers.

Archaeological Finds

A series of Museum of London and other  publications deal with the finds from and reconstructions of Early Saxon sites in Lundenwic.  Another describes the remains of a number of Late Saxon “sunken-featured buildings”, also known as “grub-huts” (Grubenhauser) or “pit-houses”, in Lundenburg.  Yet another deals with finds from Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 25 kilometre  (16 mile) radius of the City.  As in preceding times, preferred sites for occupation were on well-drained land on gravel  terraces close to rivers.  Settlements consisted mainly of small isolated farms and hamlets, with only occasional larger and wealthier estates.  

The more important archaeological finds  from Dark Age London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums (Hackney Museum features a reconstruction of a Saxon dugout canoe found in Clapton on the River Lea). 

The Museum of London houses an extensive   collection of finds from Saxon and Viking London. 

The Saxon ones  consist mainly of  pottery, brooches and other items of personal adornment, locally-minted coins, and weapons. 

The Viking ones  consist mainly of items of militaria or cavalry paraphernalia, …

… but also include an eleventh-century  grave-stone found in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1852, and bearing “Ringerike-style” decorations and a  Viking Runic inscription to the effect that “Ginna and Toki had this stone set up”. 

The museum also features an archaeologically-based  reconstruction of a typical Saxon dwelling.  It is a single-storey building  with a wooden frame, wattle-and-daub walls and a thatch roof, with a wooden door, and without windows.  Externally, it has about  it something of the appearance of a large shed, but inside it is   really rather homely.  In the side-aisles, as it were, between the external walls and the internal pillars supporting the roof,  are  beds on raised platforms draped in woven blankets and animal skins, and wooden chests for storage and for seating.  And in the central open space  is a hearth over which a bubbling cauldron is suspended from  a chain attached to one of the beams in the roof-vault.  As in an Iron Age house, the smoke from the fire would have simply been allowed to drift away through gaps in the thatch in the roof (a chimney would have had the effect of drawing the fire, creating an increased safety hazard).

Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London, Pt. I – History and 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) …


Map 2.  Dark Age (Saxon and Viking) London.  1 – St Paul’s  Cathedral; 2 – (St) Paul’s Cross, St Paul’s Churchyard (site of folkmoot); 3 – Cheapside; 4 – St Alban Wood Street; 5 – Aldermanbury; 6 – Guildhall, Guildhall Yard (site of husting); 7 – St Lawrence Jewry, Gresham Street; 8 – St Olave Jewry, Ironmonger Lane; 9 – St Mary Aldermary, Watling Street; 10 – Queenhithe; 11 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 12 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 13 – Eastcheap; 14 – St Dunstan-in-the-East, St Dunstan’s Hill (off Great Tower Street); 15 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 16 – St Olave Hart Street.

Considerably less is known about this period of history than either the succeeding or indeed even the preceding one, such that it is often referred to as the “Dark Ages” (Map 2). 

One of the reasons we know so little is that the (Anglo-)Saxons appear to have built almost exclusively using perishable materials such as timber, wattle-and-daub, and thatch, which typically leave very little archaeological record.  

What is known is that there was essentially a hiatus in the occupation of London between when the Romans left, in the  fifth century, and when the Saxons arrived in numbers at the turn of the sixth and seventh.   Archaeological evidence points to a Saxon presence in the city, although not a full-scale occupation, from around 430-50.  Note, through, that the Old English “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” records  that in 457 the Saxons “Hengest and Esc fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Crayford, and there slew four thousand men” and that “the Britons then  forsook the land of Kent, and in great consternation fled to London”.

When the Saxons – from what is now Germany – did arrive, they chose for some reason to make  their principal  settlement about a mile to the west (upstream), and without the walls, of the  old Roman City of Londinium, around what is now Aldwych in the City of Westminster, and they named it Lundenwic. 

Lundenwic became  subject to increasingly frequent and savage raids by the Vikings – from Scandinavia – in the ninth century.  On the wings of dragons  they came in 839, axes agleam, and according to the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, went  only after “great slaughter.  And back they came in 851 “and stormed … London”, and again in 872 “and there chose their winter-quarters”.  There is some archaeological evidence that the Saxons had essentially abandoned Lundenwic to the Vikings  by 867.  Northumbrian  stycas (coins) of this date have been found in an infilled defensive ditch surrounding the settlement.

Then in 878, Alfred the Great emerged from the marshy fastnesses of Athelney in Somerset to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in Wiltshire, and subsequently to force them to withdraw into what became known as the Danelaw in the  north and east of the country  (east of the River Lea in London).  

“Alfred Plaque”, Queenhithe

Eight years later, in 886, according to Asser, a monk and later Bishop of Sherborne, in his “Life of King Alfred”, he “restored the [Roman] city of London … splendidly … and  made it habitable again … ”; and moved the  Saxon settlement to within its perimeter and river walls, and renamed it Lundenburg.  In the process, he  set out the street plan that still in essence survives to this day.  He then “entrusted it  [and command of its burgwara or militia] to the care of [his son-in-law] Aethe(l)red, ealdorman of the Mercians”, to hold it under him.  Aethered died in 910/1, whereupon  Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder, King of Wessex, took control of the city until his death in 924/5, in turn to be  succeeded by his son Aethelstan, the first King of All England.    Interestingly, 7 out of just over 100, or 7%,   of the known names of moneyers  living and working in London between c. 973-1016, that is, while it was still – for the most part – at least nominally under Saxon rule, are Scandinavian.   This compares to  25 out of 62, or  40%,  in Lincoln, and 48 out of 74, or 65%,   in York, in the Danelaw. Gutter Lane off Cheapside takes its name from Godrun, Gudrun or Guthrun, an Old Norse name for a woman.   It was first recorded as Godrun Lane in the twelfth century.  On a more-or-less related note, Eastcheap, was first recorded – as Estcep – on a Harold I “Jewel Cross” penny  made  by the moneyer Eadwold most likely sometime between 1035-7.

The Viking raids resumed  in the late tenth century and continued into the early eleventh.  In 994, again according to the “Chronicle”, “Olaf [Trygvasson] and [the Danish King] Swein [Forkbeard] came into London …  with 94 ships, and they proceeded to attack the city stoutly and wished also to set it on fire … .  But the holy Mother of God showed her mercy to the citizens on that day and saved them from their enemies”.   And in 1012, another fleet overwintered in Greenwich, and there murdered the captured Archbishop of Canterbury, Aelfeah “with bones of …  oxen”, having failed to secure the ransom they had demanded for his release.  Aelfeah’s body was initially laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and subsequently  translated to Canterbury Cathedral in 1023 (by the then Christianised Viking King, Cnut).  He was made Saint Alfege or Alphage  in 1078, and the churches of St Alfege in Greenwich and St Alphage London Wall in the City of London are dedicated to him.

“London Bridge is broken down”. (C) Look and Learn.

In   1013, the city fell again to the Danish Vikings under Swein, albeit again only temporarily, being retaken in 1014 by the English King Aethelred “The Unready”.  According to one interpretation of events, at this time, Aethelred was in alliance with the Norwegian Viking Olaf, Olav or Olave  Haraldsson, who deliberately destroyed the Saxon incarnation of London Bridge – and the Danish  Viking army assembled on –  it by pulling it down with ropes tied to his long-boats.   Snorri Sturluson  wrote, in the – embellished – Norse “Olaf’s Saga” of the thirteenth century, “Olaf, and the Northmen’s fleet with him, rowed … under the bridge, laid their cables around the piles which supported it, and then rowed off … as hard as they could down the stream.  … Now …  the piles being …  broken, the bridge gave way; and a great part of the men upon it fell into the river, and all the others … surrendered … , and took Aethelred to be their king.  So says Ottar Svarte [Olaf’s court-poet, writing in the eleventh century]: ‘London Bridge is broken down.|Gold is won, and bright renown.|Shields resounding, war-horns sounding,|Hild is shouting in the din!|Arrows singing, mail-coats ringing-|Odin makes our Olaf win’“ (incidentally, many believe this ode to be the origin of the much-loved nursery-rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”).   Intriguingly,    there is no mention  in the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles” of  such an event having taken place (although obviously this does not mean that it did not).  According to another  interpretation, Olaf actually destroyed  London Bridge  while fighting against rather than alongside the English, and possibly during Thorkell the Tall’s abortive assault of 1009 rather than in 1014.   We may never know exactly what happened.   We do know, though, that Olaf was especially revered in London, and that six churches were dedicated to him here in the Middle Ages, after his canonisation by the  English Bishop of Selsey, Grimkell or Grimketel in 1031.  

St Olave Hart Street

These were St Nicholas Olave, St Olave Broad Street, St Olave Hart Street, St Olave Jewry and St Olave Silver Street in the City, and St Olave in Southwark.  Olaf had converted to Christianity in Rouen in Normandy in the winter of 1014/15, and had,  as King Olaf II, introduced the religion to Norway in 1015; and  had gone  on to be martyred fighting heathen Danish Vikings at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.   

Nidaros Cathedral

In the later Middle Ages, his tomb, in the most northerly cathedral in Christendom, in Nidaros [Trondheim] in Norway, became an important pilgrimage site, and the centre of a widespread “cult of Olav”. 

In  1016, the Viking Cnut, son of Swein Forkbeard, son of Harald Bluetooth, decisively defeated in battle the Saxon Edmund “Ironside”, son of Aethelred and Aelgifu of York,  to become King of England as well as Denmark; and London came to be known by some as Lundunir or Lundunaborg.   And in 1017, Cnut  married Aethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, one of the more remarkable women of the age, wife of two Kings, mother of two more, and in her own right an influential political as well as an important dynastic figure, as described in the “Encomium Emmae Reginae”.  Cnut was in turn succeeded by Harold “Harefoot”, his son by Aelgifu of Northampton, in 1035, and  Harthacnut,  his son by Emma,  in  1040.   Harold Harefoot’s body was initially buried  in Westminster Abbey, but was subsequently dug up  and flung into a fen by his half-brother Harthacnut, and eventually  retrieved and reburied, possibly  in the church of St Clement Danes.

Finally, the Saxon Edward “The Confessor”, son of Aethelred and Emma,   became King when the Viking Harthacnut died, leaving no heir, in 1042; and the ill-fated Harold Godwin(e)son, Harold II, in 1066.

Social History

Everyday life in London in Saxon  times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.   Recent research has shown that Saxon  women were granted some not inconsiderable freedoms in law, and although their principal responsibilities were household, they also held the rights to own land.


The early Saxons were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries onwards. In 597, Pope Gregory I sent a mission from Rome to attempt their wholesale conversion to – Roman – Christianity, one of the members of which was Augustine, and another Mellitus, which latter went on to become the first Bishop of London in 604, and the third Archbishop of Canterbury in 615.  In 616, the previously converted East Saxons temporarily  reverted to paganism, after the death of their King. As the Venerable Bede put it in 731, in his “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum” (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”): “In the year of our Lord 616 … the death of Sabert [Sebert], King of the East Saxons … left three sons, still pagans, to inherit his … crown.  They immediately began openly to give themselves up to idolatry, … and … granted free licence to their subjects to serve idols.  And when they saw the bishop [Mellitus] … celebrating Mass … , filled, as they were, with folly and ignorance, they said unto him … ‘We will not enter into that font, because we … do not stand in need of it, and yet we will be refreshed by that bread’.  And being … earnestly admonished by him, that this could by no means be done, nor would any one be admitted to partake of the sacred Oblation without the holy cleansing, …  they said, filled with rage, ‘If you will not comply with us in so small a matter as that which we require, you shall not stay in our province’.  And they drove him out … and his company … from their Kingdom [Essex] … ”.  Among the many features of historical or archaeological note in Greenwich Park – a World Heritage Site – are approximately fifty  rather eroded burial mounds or barrows on Croom’s Hill, a little to the west of the line of the Prime Meridian.  Archaeological excavations on the burial mounds have unearthed swords, shields and other pagan grave goods dating to  the seventh century, i.e., the Saxon period.  It is possible, though,  that the barrows themselves were originally of Bronze Age construction, a number of instances of such re-use having been recorded elsewhere in England.

The early Vikings were pagan, but they later began to become Christianised from the ninth century onwards.

Food and Drink

Evidence from finds from Saxon rural occupation and riverside fish-trap sites in the Greater London region, within a 25 kilometre  (16 mile) radius of the City,  indicates that the  agricultural economy centred on the production of cereal crops, including  wheat, barley, oats and rye, and of cattle, presumably for milk as well as meat. Pulses, nuts, fruit and berries were also produced and consumed.

Note in this context that plant- and animal- based remedies featured prominently in early Medieval medicine.  The Old English text in the mid tenth-century “Bald’s Leechbook” describes, among other things, how  salves  and potions were used to treat not only injuries and infections, but also, rather wonderfully, visitations from elves (aelfcynne), night goblins (nihtgehgan) and devils (deofol).   And the Old English and Latin text and accompanying illustrations in an anonymous early eleventh-century herbal indicate that both parsley (peterslilie) and sweet basil or “snake plant” (naedderwyrt) were used to treat snake bites.


The population of Saxon London is estimated to have been at the most several thousand (that is, significantly less than that of Roman London).

Administration and Governance

Saxon London was for the most part only a  regional rather than a national administrative centre, as the “Seven Kingdoms” only finally  united to become England under Alfred’s grandson Aethelstan, who was crowned in Kingston  in 924/5 (as, later, were Edmund in 939, Edred in 946, Edwig in 956, Edward the Martyr in 975 and Aethelred the Unready in 978/9).  The “Seven Kingdoms”, also known as the  “Heptarchy”,  comprised East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex.  Of these, Essex, Mercia and Wessex in turn held  sway over London. 

Nonetheless, London was the site of both the folkmoot, or outdoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval (St) Paul’s Cross;  and the husting or indoor assembly, thought to have been on a site near the Medieval Guildhall.  Saxon society was comparatively democratic, and any free man  was entitled to voice his opinion at the folkmoot (and, as noted above, Saxon women were also granted some freedoms in law).  However, only a noble  ealdorman, or earl, appointed by the King could attend the husting,  and only Kings, greater nobles and bishops the peripatetic parliamentary assembly known as the  Witan.   Saxon Society was also comparatively meritocratic,  and permissive of a measure of mobility, albeit within an overall  hierarchy (note that although Kings were elected, they  were elected from  within the ranks  of the nobility).  The highest among the free men were the thanes, or knights, the lowest the various classes of ceorls, or peasants (whence Cerle-ton or Charlton in south-east London).  Below them were the theows, or slaves.

Perhaps the most famous law-giver of Saxon times was Alfred, who in the late 880s or early 890s established a new code of law, based on Christian principles, and enshrined in the so-called  “Domboc”.  The code established  folk-rights and privileges.  Judicial  courts ruled  on cases of alleged breaches, and meted  out such fines or corporal or capital punishments as were deemed appropriate.  Some of the punishments appear barbaric by modern standards, such as the judicial drowning of a Saxon woman at London Bridge, for witchcraft, in the tenth century, as documented in a charter dated to between 963-75; and the postulated judicial drowning of another, at Queenhithe, in or around the eighth, as indicated by radiometric dating of skeletal remains, staked out on the foreshore, to between 680-810.  That is not to mention the supposedly “oath-helping” Ordeals by Fire, Iron or Water!  Aethelstan passed laws relating specifically to the governance of London in the succeeding early tenth century (he reigned from 924/5-39).  His “Judicia Civitatis Londoniae” makes explicit reference to a governance structure comprising a single governor, or in effect a mayor (in place of a bishop and port-reeve), “eorlish” aldermen, and “ceorlish” commons.

Trade and Commerce

Foodstuffs continued to be brought into Saxon  London from the immediate hinterland.  Other goods continued to be  brought in    by boat from all around northern Europe, including the Low Countries and Scandinavia, and also, in the case of precious stones, gold, silk and other luxuries, even further afield.  Saxon London came to be  characterised by the Venerable Bede as “a great emporium for many nations that come to it by land and sea”.

Roman London, Pt. 2 – Building Works and Surviving Structures

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

Map 1 – Roman London.  1 – Blackfriars; 2 – Ludgate; 3 – Central Criminal Court Building, Old Bailey (section of wall); 4 – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch Building, Giltspur Street (section of wall); 5 – Watling Street; 6 – Newgate; 7 – St Vedast-alias-Foster, Foster Lane (fragment of tessellated pavement); 8 – Remains of Cripplegate Fort, Noble Street; 9 – St Alphage Gardens/Salters’ Hall Gardens, London Wall (section of wall); 10 – Remains of Amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard; 11 – Gresham Street; 12 – Moorgate and Princes Street (line of Walbrook stream); 13 – Poultry and Walbrook (“The Pompeii of the North”); 14 – Remains of Temple of Mithras, Bloomberg Building, Walbrook; 15 – Site of “Governor’s Palace”, Cannon Street Station; 16 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 17 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 18 – Ermine Street; 19 – Remains of Basilica and Forum, Gracechurch Street; 20 – Bury Street; 21 – Fort, Plantation Place, Fenchurch Street; 22 – Remains of Billingsgate Roman House, 101 Thames Street; 23 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 24 – Site of Basilica or “Palaeo-Christian” church, Novotel Building, Pepys Street; 25 – Cooper’s Row and Tower Hill (sections of wall).

Restoring the mosaic of Roman London from the  isolated “tesserae” that remain is a challenging task.  The Roman London Bridge and embryonic Port of London was   originally built in c. 50 (and rebuilt in stone and timber in c. 90, and in stone many, many times in the succeeding nearly two millennia). 

A recently-discovered post-Boudiccan fort on   Mincing Lane  was built in c. 63, although it appears to have been out of use by c. 80.   The  “Governor’s Palace” was built during the Flavian period of the late first century, c. 69-96, on the then-waterfront, which was much further north in Roman times than it is today, and it remained in use throughout the  second and third, before being substantially demolished at the turn of the third  and fourth, the remains being discovered during   the nineteenth.  The first undoubted Basilica and Forum were built in c. 70 (there may have been earlier ones, destroyed during the Boudiccan Revolt of 60 or 61), and rebuilt and considerably extended in c. 100-30, before being substantially demolished in c. 300,  the remains being discovered during   excavations at 168 Fenchurch Street  in 1995-2000.   The Amphitheatre was originally built in timber in c. 75, rebuilt in stone in the second century, and renovated in the late second to early fourth, before falling into disuse, and eventually being substantially demolished, in the late fourth, possibly around 365,  the remains coming to light again during   excavations on the site of the Medieval Guildhall in 1987.  A fort was built at Cripplegate in the early second century for a garrison of 1,500 infantry and cavalry troops. The City wall, incorporating the aforementioned fort, was originally built at the turn of the second and third centuries, that is, around the time of the rival emperorships of and power-struggle between Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus (the wall cuts through, and thus  post-dates, a deposit containing a coin of Commodus dating to 183-4, and  is in part contemporary with a deposit containing a coin of Caracalla dating to 213-7).    It was subsequently extended and reinforced  in the late  third, when a river wall was added, and again in the mid fourth, when bastions were added, as defences against Saxon raids. It  was twenty feet high, six to eight feet thick, and two miles long. There being no local source of stone, the wall was  built out of Kentish Rag – an estimated 85000 tons of it – quarried near Maidstone and transported down the Medway and up the Thames to London on barges.  The remains of a frame-first carvel-built barge known as the “Blackfriars I” ship, dendrochronologically dated to 130-175, were found  at Blackfriars in 1962, with its 25-ton cargo intact.   All  Roman ships discovered to date in and around the Port of London have been carvel-built, that is to say, with non-overlapping timbers. 

The  Temple of Mithras on the Walbrook was originally built in the early third century, c. 220-40, and abandoned in the fourth, when Christianity came to replace paganism throughout the Roman Empire, the remains being revealed  during the bombing of  the Blitz of the Second World War.  The Temple of Mithras was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street in 1962, and reconstructed again – inside a specially designed  space – in the Bloomberg Building on Walbrook in 2017.  Some of the finds from the recent archaeological dig on and around the temple site may be viewed in the Bloomberg Space (other finds, from the original post-war dig, including a marble bust  of Mithras in his distinctive Phrygian cap, may be viewed in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London).

There was probably also a  Temple of Isis on the Thames in the third century, as indicated by the finding of a re-used altar stone dedicated to the goddess in Blackfriars.  And plausibly a Temple of Diana on Ludgate Hill, as indicated by the finding of a bronze statuette of the goddess somewhat to the south-west of St Paul’s Cathedral, between the Deanery and Blackfriars.  (No Temple of Cybele has as yet been found, although the worship of that goddess was evidently practised in Roman London, as indicated by the finding in the Thames of a curious  piece of liturgical equipment, interpreted by some as a “castration clamp”, featuring figures of her and of consort Atys, and also by the findings at various locations in the city of figurines of Atys.)  Just outside Newgate, on the east bank of the Fleet adjacent to Watling Street, there was a possible octagonal Romano-Celtic temple of the late second century,  which was replaced by a suburban villa by the early fourth.    And in Greenwich Park, also adjacent to Watling Street, another possible Romano-Celtic temple, this time consisting of  a central cella and outer ambulatory, surrounded by a walled enclosure.

An  enigmatic, only partially excavated, building, variously interpreted as a late Roman Basilica or – on the basis of similarity to the Basilica di Santa Tecla in Milan – a “palaeo-Christian” church or cathedral, was built  in the south-east, between  Pepys Street and Trinity Square, sometime in the fourth century.  Note also that a Roman origin has been postulated, although not proven, both for the church of St Peter-upon-Cornhill in the City,  and for St Pancras Old Church in Camden. Perhaps significantly in this context, the present church of St Peter-upon-Cornhill lies,  and presumably the previous one(s) lay, within the footprint of the disused second – to third- century Basilica, possibly at least in part adopting its form, as was common practice in the early Christian church (note also that, according to one – possibly mythical – account, a church was established here by a  King Lucius in 179).   In the case of St Pancras Old Church, there is clearly recognisable Roman brick or tile incorporated into the surviving Norman north wall, which could indeed  have been robbed  from a Christian church that once stood on the site – or perhaps from a pagan compitum or shrine (such as was often located on such prominent  ground adjacent to a water-course).  The  local historian Charles Lee went so far – in other words possibly too far – as to suggest a date, “possibly as early as 313 or 314” (remember that 313 was the year of the issuing of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of Christianity, and 314 was the year of the Christian Council of Arles, attended by at least one representative from  London).  Coincidentally or otherwise,  the patronal Pancras was martyred on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian in 304.

The pattern of the Roman roads within and outwith the City may best be described as radiating out from the Basilica and Forum toward and beyond the various City Gates, which were, anti-clockwise from the east, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate (Moorgate, between Bishopsgate and Cripplegate,  was a  later addition). Interestingly, the Romans do not appear to have had names for their roads. Ermine Street, which was the main south to north route of Roman Britain, linking London to Lincoln and York, takes its name from the Saxon Earninga straet, after one Earn(e).  Its route is followed in part by Fish Street Hill, Gracechurch Street and Bishopsgate. Watling Street, the main east to west route, linking  Richborough on the Kent coast to London, and London to Wroxeter, takes its name from the Saxon Waeclinga straet, after one Waecel.  Its route is followed in partby Newgate Street.

Surviving Structures

Essentially the only structures that survive from Roman London  are parts of the “Governor’s Palace”, the Basilica and Forum, the Amphitheatre, the City wall, and the Temple of Mithras.  The “Governor’s Palace” forms a  Scheduled Ancient Monument substantially buried beneath  Cannon Street Station. 

The London Stone

The so-called “London Stone”, which presently  stands outside No. 111 Cannon Street, opposite the station,  is believed by some to have been formerly associated in some way with  the “Governor’s Palace”, possibly as a milliarium, or centre-stone, from which Roman roads radiated and distances were measured (it  is carved out of Clipsham Stone from Rutland, which is known to have been used for construction in Roman times). 

Pier base, Basilica

A pier base from the Basilica can be seen in the basement of No. 90 Gracechurch Street.  

The Amphitheatre, re-imagined

The  Amphitheatre and associated artefacts can be viewed in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery. 

City wall, St Alphage Gardens. Here, only the lowermost part – at ground level – is actually Roman.
The lower – stone – part is Medieval; the upper – brick – part post-Medieval.
City wall, Tower Hill. The statue of Trajan is a replica.

The best-preserved sections of the City wall are near the Museum of London  on London Wall to the west, and around Tower Hill to  the east. The section in St Alphage Gardens includes not only Roman but also Medieval fabrics, the latter including stonework dating to the reign of Henry III in the thirteenth century, and brickwork dating to that of Edward IV in the fifteenth.

Part of fort, Cripplegate

Parts of the incorporated fort at Cripplegate may be viewed by prior arrangement with the Museum of London. 

Location of Billingsgate Roman House

The surviving parts of the Billingsgate Roman House, including a  bath-house with tepidarium (warm bath), caldarium (hot bath) and frigidarium  (cold bath), may also be viewed by prior arrangement with the Museum of London.  

The Temple of Mithras, re-imagined

The recently-reconstructed  Temple of Mithras may be viewed inside the Bloomberg Building on Walbrook.  

It will be noted that, with the sole exception of the wall,  all of these structures, are below – and indeed 20’ or more below – modern street level.  Over the two millennia of London’s existence, street level has risen at an average rate of  1’ per 100 years – simply through the accumulation of demolition rubble.

Archaeological Finds

A series of Museum of London monographs and other publications describe in detail the findings of archaeological excavations on the Roman London Bridge and waterfront, “Governor’s Palace”,  Basilica and Forum, Amphitheatre, and Temple of Mithras (see above); from Poultry and Walbrook (see below); from Gresham Street, where a number of Romano-British round-houses have recently been found; and  from around the various gates to the Roman city, from the waterfront, and from Southwark, south of the river.  A “Kent Monograph” describes the only Roman villa in a London Borough, in Orpington in Bromley (formerly part of the county of Kent). 

Note here that recent excavations around Poultry and Walbrook have led to one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in London, that of the “Pompeii of the North”.   Here have been uncovered entire streets of Roman houses of various status, an entire  waterfront development, and    many, many thousands of artefacts – including, importantly, many made  of organic materials that would normally have perished but that were preserved in the abnormal anaerobic conditions of the waterlogged deposits of the river Walbrook (such as  wooden writing tablets).   Note also that large numbers of  skulls have been found over the years in the deposits of the river Walbrook.  It is likely that some of the skulls originated in the Roman burial ground north of the City wall in Moorfields, and that they were subsequently naturally transported and deposited to the south by the waters of the Walbrook, in the process becoming hydrodynamically sorted from their skeletons.  Some others, though,  appear to have been deliberately placed in pits, and, moreover, exhibit evidence  of blunt- or sharp- force trauma, and these could be those of victims of gladiatorial combat, or of judicial execution, or perhaps of ritual decapitation, that is, head-hunting.  Alternatively, they could be those of victims of the “Boudiccan Revolt” of 60-1, or the “Carausian Revolt” of 296.  Or possibly of  a  native British uprising  during the Hadrianic emperorship of 117-38,  referred to by Marcus Cornelius Fronto in a letter to Marcus Aurelius, dated 162, as follows: “under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the … Britons”.

The more important, including high-status, archaeological finds  from Roman London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums, that is to say, the  Museum of London on London Wall, the British Museum in Bloomsbury in the West End, and the Victoria and Albert in South Kensington.   The Museum of London houses a particularly extensive collection of finds in its Roman gallery, including an excellent  display of those from the Temple of Mithras.  It also features fine scale models of the Roman London Bridge and waterfront, the Basilica and Forum,  and the Huggin Hill bath-house; and reconstructions of a kitchen from a high-status Roman house, and of two formal dining rooms, or triclinia (sing., triclinium), complete with mosaics. 

Tessellated pavement, All Hallows Barking

There are also  interesting displays of in situ Roman tessellated pavements and of associated finds in the crypts of the churches of All Hallows Barking, on Byward Street, and St Bride, off Fleet Street (and a fragment of ex situ tessellated pavement in  St Vedast-alias-Foster, Foster Lane, that was originally discovered 18’ below the floor of St Matthew Friday Street when it was demolished in 1886).  All Hallows Barking also features a fine dioramic reconstruction of Roman London (made before the Amphitheatre was discoved). 

Timber from Roman wharf, St Magnus the Martyr

Part of a  timber from one the Roman wharves stands outside St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street.  Another part of the same timber has recently been dendrochronologically dated to 62 or 63 (that is,  immediately  after the Boudiccan Revolt).  The commonest Roman  finds on the foreshore of the Thames are everyday items such as sherds of pottery, fragments of roofing or hypocaust tile, and coins, alongside beads, bone pins and gaming pieces.   More rarely, lamps  are also found, as are individual “tesserae”.

Roman London, Pt. I – History and 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) …


Map 1 – Roman London. 1 – Blackfriars; 2 – Ludgate; 3 – Central Criminal Court Building, Old Bailey (section of wall); 4 – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch Building, Giltspur Street (section of wall); 5 – Watling Street; 6 – Newgate; 7 – St Vedast-alias-Foster, Foster Lane (fragment of tessellated pavement); 8 – Remains of Cripplegate Fort, Noble Street; 9 – St Alphage Gardens/Salters’ Hall Gardens, London Wall (section of wall); 10 – Remains of Amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard; 11 – Gresham Street; 12 – Moorgate and Princes Street (line of Walbrook stream); 13 – Poultry and Walbrook (“The Pompeii of the North”); 14 – Remains of Temple of Mithras, Bloomberg Building, Walbrook; 15 – Site of “Governor’s Palace”, Cannon Street Station; 16 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 17 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 18 – Ermine Street; 19 – Remains of Basilica and Forum, Gracechurch Street; 20 – Bury Street; 21 – Fort, Plantation Place, Fenchurch Street; 22 – Remains of Billingsgate Roman House, 101 Thames Street; 23 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 24 – Site of Basilica or “Palaeo-Christian” church, Novotel Building, Pepys Street; 25 – Cooper’s Row and Tower Hill (sections of wall).

Rome under Claudius invaded  Britain in 43AD/CE, and Roman London, or Londinium, was founded in c. 47-8, as evidenced by dendrochronological or  tree-ring dating of timbers from a Roman drain uncovered during archaeological excavations at  No. 1 Poultry  (Map 1).  The city was sited in a strategic position on high ground overlooking  the Thames, at the lowest crossing-point on the river, and at a point at which it  was also still tidal, enabling easy access to the open sea, and the empire beyond the sea  (note that there is some evidence that the tidal head moved downstream in the later Roman period, and that some port facilities followed it, from the City eastward toward  Shadwell and Ratcliff).  If Rome was built on seven principal hills, Roman London was built on two, Ludgate Hill to the west, and Cornhill to the east, with the valley of one of the “lost” Thames tributaries –  the Walbrook – in between. 

Victorian statue of Boadicea in Westminster

The early  Roman city was razed to the ground  by revolting ancient Britons under Boudica or Boudicca (Boadicea of the Victorian re-imagining), the   Queen of the Iceni,  in 60 or 61.  Boudicca’s late husband, Prasutagus, had been a nominally independent ally of the Romans.  When  he died, he willed his tribal kingdom jointly to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor.  However, the  Romans chose to ignore his wishes, and to annex his land and property for their exclusive use.  Moreover, they had Boudicca flogged, and her daughters raped.  This drove the Iceni to  revolt, alongside  their tribal neighbours, the Trinovantes.   At the  time of the revolt, several Roman legions under the Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus were away attacking  the druid stronghold on  Anglesey.  They had to be rapidly recalled to London to face the advancing Britons, who  had already destroyed Colchester, or  Camulodunum.  Realising that he was confronted by  a much larger army, Suetonius  essentially  abandoned the city to its fate, in order to regroup (St Albans, or Verulamium, would also be destroyed).     Tacitus wrote:  “The inhabitants … who stayed because they were women, or old, or attached to the place, were slaughtered … .  … For the British … could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn and crucify – as though avenging, in advance, the retribution that was on its way”.  The revolt ended with the Romans crushing the Britons  at the so-called Battle of Watling Street, one of the many purported locations for which  is the aforementioned Ambresbury Banks in Epping Forest.  At the end of the battle, facing capture,  Boudicca chose to end her own life by taking poison (according to one account).

Replica of tablet commemorating Julius Alpinus Classicianus, Tower Hill

After the Boudiccan revolt, the city was rebuilt, initially by the Procurator Julius Alpinus Classicianus under the Emperor Nero, and subsequently under the Flavian, Trajanic and Hadrianic emperorships, in the late first to early second centuries, only to be partially destroyed again by the so-called “Hadrianic fire” in c. 125.  The enclosing wall was originally built at the turn of the second and third centuries. 

The city then declined through the “crisis” of the third century, and into the fourth, during which time the Roman Empire as a whole came under increasing attack from within as well as without – Britain was ruled by its own rival Emperors Clodius Albinus in the late second century, and Carausius and Allectus in the “Carausian Revolt” of the third, after which latter, it was retaken by the Emperor Constantius Chlorus in 296.   It appears that many of Roman London’s  public buildings, including the “Governor’s Palace”, and the Basilica and Forum,  were  substantially  demolished at the turn of the third and fourth centuries  – perhaps as punishment for its perceived support of the “Carausian Revolt”.  “Barbarian” raids – by Picts and Gaels, and by Saxons and other Germanic tribes – began in the fourth  century.   The city  finally fell, and was essentially abandoned,  in the early fifth, around 410, after  the occupying army and the civilian administration, the instruments of Empire, were recalled   to Rome to assist in its defence against the encroaching Barbarians (on the orders of the Emperor Honorius).

Social History

Everyday life in London in Roman times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul. 


The predominant religion during the early part of the Roman occupation was pantheistic paganism, which perceived deities in all things, abstract as well as tangible; and during the later part, Christianity.  The principal funerary rite was cremation, although this later gave way to inhumation.  Remains were typically buried outside the city limits, for example, just outside Aldgate, Bishopsgate, or Newgate, or beside the Walbrook in Moorfields, or on the south side of the Thames in Southwark. 

Reconstruction of Spitalfields Roman Woman, Museum of London

One particular fourth-century pagan Roman woman was buried in Spitalfields, just outside Bishopsgate, in a decorated lead coffin inside a plain stone sarcophagus, resting on a bed of laurel leaves, shrouded in damask silk interwoven with gold thread, covered in an Imperial Purple robe.  She was accompanied by further high-status grave goods, including delicately wrought  glass vials that once contained oil, perfume, and possibly wine,  and a carved jet box and hair-pins.  Isotopic evidence  from her teeth indicates that she may actually have come from the imperial capital of Rome itself.  A facial reconstruction of her can be seen in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London.  Interestingly, at least one woman buried in the southern cemetery in Southwark has been determined on morphometric and isotopic evidence to have been  of Black African origin.  And a further two individuals  buried in  Southwark have been determined to have  come from  Asia, possibly from India, or from the Han Empire in what is now China.  The site of the burial of a young girl discovered during the building of 30 St Mary Axe is marked by a plaque bearing the inscription “Dis Manibus Puella Incognita Londiniensis Hic Sepulta Est” (to the spirit of an unknown  girl of Roman London, who is buried here).  

Finds from the Temple of Mithras, Museum of London
Close-up of Tauroctony

Mithraism, the practice and mystery cult of worship of the god Mithras, was one of the many forms of paganism evidently  in existence  in Roman London, where there was  a  dedicated Temple of Mithras, or Mithraeum.   It originated in Persia, where Mithras was one of many gods in the Zoroastrian pantheon, arrived in Rome in the first century BC/BCE, and spread throughout much of the Roman Empire by the first century AD/CE, becoming most widespread in the third.  According to the Roman version of the MIthraean creation-myth, Mithras was ordered by the god of the Sun, Apollo, to slay the bull of the Moon, to release its vital-force, in order to bring life to the Earth (carved reliefs of the bull-slaying – or “tauroctony” – are  characteristic  features of Mithraean iconography).  He   eventually came to be identified with the Sol Invictus, or Unconquered Sun, and to epitomise the moral virtues of fidelity, loyalty and obedience (whence, presumably, his supposed popularity with Roman soldiers).  As intimated above, Mithraism was practised in so-called  Mithraea,  each representing the heavens, with stars and zodiacal symbols painted on the ceilings.  Many Mithraea, including that in London, were at least partly underground, because Mithras slew the  bull underground (in a cave).

Christianity spread throughout  the Roman Empire in the fourth century, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312, and the passage of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of Christianity,  in 313, and at least one representative from Londinium, named Restitutus, attended the Christian Council of Arles in 314.  Note,  though,  that – Nicene – Christianity  did not become the official religion of the Roman Empire until after the passage of the Edict of Thessalonica under Theodosius I in 380.   There is little surviving evidence of Christian worship in Roman London, and less of the existence of Christian places of worship (see under “Building Works” below).  However, a metal bowl inscribed with the Christian “Chi-Rho” symbol has been found in Copthall Close in the City, and another in the River Walbrook; and a number of ingots also inscribed with the “Chi-Rho” symbol,  together with the words “Spes in Deo” (Hope in God), in the River Thames near Battersea Bridge.  Note in this context that at least some Christian worship in Roman London may have taken place around shrines in private homes, as in the documented case of Lullingstone Villa in the Darent Valley in Kent.

Food and Drink

The diet of the average citizen of Roman London would appear to have been a surprisingly healthy one.  There were evidently numerous shops both within the Forum and lining the roads leading to and from it, where all manner of imported as well as locally produced foodstuffs could be bought, including olives, olive oil, wine, grape juice, dates, figs, salted fish and fish sauce, from all around the Empire.  The remains of a   bakery and hot food shop  have been unearthed on Poultry; those of further bakeries on Pudding Lane and Fenchurch Street; and those of a    mill on Princes Street.   The remains of two  “water-lifting machines”, one of 63 and the other of 110, have been unearthed on Gresham Street; and those of a system of water pipes on Poultry.

Sanitary conditions were also conducive to good public health.  There were numerous bath-houses intended for daily use, for example, public  ones on Cheapside and Huggin Hill, dating to the late first or early second century; and a private one in Billingsgate, dating to the late second to third.  There was even a rudimentary drainage and sewerage system.


The population of Roman London is estimated to have been at most a few tens of thousands, essentially the same as that of Pompeii, a provincial town in Italy.  In contrast, that of the coeval imperial capital, Rome itself, was of the order of one million.

Administration and Governance

The province of Britannia was governed centrally  from Rome, and neither it nor its provincial capitals, including London, had much in the way of locally devolved power.  Nonetheless, Londinium  had become a comparatively important administrative centre by the turn of the first and second centuries.  Its principal public building, possibly the largest north of the Alps, was the Basilica.  Also here was the “Governor’s Palace”.

Trade and Commerce

Roman London  was more important as a  commercial and trading centre, with the port at its heart.  Tiles stamped CLBR have been found in London, suggesting at least some link between the port and the  Classis Britannica or “British fleet”, which was the part of the  Roman imperial navy  responsible for  supplying the Province of Britannia with personnel and materiel.  Foodstuffs  were brought into the port-city  by boat from all around the Empire, in pottery “amphorae”.  Pottery, notably “Samian Ware” was also brought in from what is now France (and was then Gaul); brooches from Belgium; amber from the Baltic; millstones from the Rhineland; decorative marble, bronze table-ware and lamps from Italy; marble also from Greece  and Turkey; glassware from Syria; and emeralds from Egypt.  Slaves were also brought into London, to be sold at markets like those known to have existed on the water-front, and then put  to work (in the worst cases, either effectively as draught-animals, for example, turning water-wheels; or else as concubines or prostitutes).  A recently-discovered writing tablet of c. 80 records the sale of a Gaulish slave-girl called Fortunata – “warranted healthy and not liable too run away” – to a senior imperial slave called Vegetus  for 600 denarii.  This was a substantial sum, approximately equivalent to two year’s wages for a skilled labourer.

There is abundant archaeological and other evidence of a wide range of industrial and commercial activity,  including metal-working, wood-working, pottery manufacture, glass manufacture, coin-minting, gem-cutting, butchery (and presumably also tannery and chandlery), garum production, milling and baking, in Roman London, both within and without the walls.  Some of the more anti-social industrial activities appear to have been deliberately re-located from within to without the walls over the course of the Roman occupation.  An early form of “zoning” may have been present.

Prehistoric London

The first in a 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) …

Stone Age London

There is – albeit sparse  – archaeological evidence from Stratford to the east of London, Southwark to the south, Hounslow and Uxbridge to the west, and Hampstead to the north, for hunting and gathering activity in the Late Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age); and for woodland clearance and farming in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age), between the eighth and fourth centuries BC/BCE.  There are also the remains of a Mesolithic flint-tool manufactory at North Woolwich, and a Mesolithic timber structure of as yet undetermined function  at Vauxhall.  And of a Neolithic henge at Hackney Wells, and a reportedly Neolithic barrow-burial at  what is now known as “King Henry’s Mound” in Richmond Park.

Bronze and Iron Age London

There is  archaeological evidence from a number of localities around London for at least transient settlement and associated activity, by Ancient Britons or Celts, in  the Bronze Age, in the  third and second millennia BC/BCE, and in  the Iron Age, in  the first millennium BC/BCE. 

Boudicca’s Grave
Shrewsbury Tumulus

Bronze Age timbers still survive at Plumstead, together with a number of Bronze Age burial mounds, including  the so-called “Boudicca’s Grave” on Parliament Hill, and the “Shrewsbury Tumulus” on Shooters Hill. 

Caesar’s Camp
Ambresbury Banks

And a number of   hill-forts or  enclosures survive from the Iron Age, including “Caesar’s Camp” on Wimbledon Common, and Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, both in the timeless wilds of   Epping Forest. 

Grim’s Dyke

“Grim’s Dyke”, an intermittently-preserved bank-and-ditch earthwork running  for a distance  of some miles through North-West London, from Pinner Green, or possibly Ruislip, to Harrow Weald Common, or possibly Stanmore, also survives from the Iron Age (Colour Figure 5). It is thought to have been built  by a tribe of Ancient Britons or Celts known as the  Catuvellauni, which had its heartland on the north side of the Thames, in and around London and the northern Home Counties, and its capital at Verlamion (modern St Albans in Hertfordshire).   The  tribal territory of the Catuvellauni was bordered to the east by that of the Trinovantes, to the north by those of the Corieltauvi and  Iceni, to the west by that of the Dobunii, and to the south by those of the Cantiaci and Atrebates.  Incidentally, it is not known for certain what the Ancient Britons called London.  Coates (1998) has suggested “Lowonidonjon”, meaning something like “settlement on the Thames”, and deriving in part from a pre-Celtic name for the  London section of the Thames, “Plowonida” (“river too wide to ford”).

According to the antiquarian John Stow, in his magisterial “Survay of London, written in the Year 1598”: “ …   Geoffrey of Monmouth … reporteth that Brute [Brutus of Troy], lineally descended from the demi-god Aeneas, the son of Venus, daughter of Jupiter, about the year of the world 2855, and 1108 before the nativity of Christ, built this city near unto the river now called Thames, and named it Troynovant [New Troy] … ”.   And: “King Lud … afterwards … increased the same with fair buildings, towers and walls, and after his own name  called it Caire-Lud … .  This Lud has issue two sons, Androgeus and Theomantius, who being not of an age to govern at the death of their father, their uncle  Cassibelan took upon him the crown:  about the eighth year of whose reign, Julius Caesar arrived in this land with a great power of Romans to conquer it … ”. 

Sadly, Geoffrey of Monmouth has since been thoroughly discredited, not least for “interlacing divine matters with human, to make the first foundation …  more  … sacred … ”.  Cassibelan, or Cassivelaunus, though, was an actual historical figure, and most likely belonged to the Catuvellauni (see above).  He  is  recorded as having resisted the Roman invasion under Caesar in 55-4BC/BCE – at the head of 4000 horse-drawn war-chariots, if one colourful account is to be believed!  He  is  speculated to have engaged the Romans  in battle at  Brentford as they attempted to cross the Thames from south to north. 

Equally sadly, the only actual archaeological features  from the Bronze or Iron Ages still surviving  in Central London are  some  enigmatic pits and post-holes interpreted as representing the sites of former homesteads or farmsteads,  in Leicester Square in the West End, near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and south of the Thames in Southwark, and the remains of a bridge or jetty at Vauxhall.   Note in this context, though,  that an Iron Age settlement with an enclosure ditch has  recently been discovered in Whitechapel, and is still in the process of being excavated.  There are no features  at all  in the City of London, perhaps at least in part because, again as Stow put it, “ … the Britons call that a town … when they have fortified a cumbersome wood with a ditch and rampart … ”.  This period of the city’s history remains shrouded in mist and mystery.

Part of the “Havering Hoard” exhibition in the Museum of London Docklands

Important archaeological finds  from the Bronze or Iron Ages include much equipment associated with horses and chariots, a horned helmet recovered from the Thames at Waterloo, an ornate shield recovered from the Thames at Battersea (possibly  offered as a plea to the gods of the river at the time of the Roman invasion),  a “hoard” of approximately 500 axe-heads and other artefacts recovered from a site overooking  the Thames near  Rainham in the Borough of Havering, and  the so-called “Dowgate Plaque” from the City of London.  That is not to mention  more or less everyday items such as worked flints, pot-sherds, and coins, some of them from Cannon Street in the City.

The Olde Cheshire Cheese

The last in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

Fleet Street, first recorded in 1188, is named after the River Fleet, which used to debouch into the  Thames south of Ludgate Circus (but which was culverted and built over in the eighteenth century),  and thus ultimately from the  Old English “fleot”, meaning, in this context, a tidal? inlet navigable by boat.  The first printing press was set up in Fleet Street  in 1500, by the wonderfully named Wynkyn de Worde, and a plaque on the wall of the Stationers’ Hall commemorates the event.  The street was also the home of a number of legendary drinking establishments, haunted by Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and, a little later, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens.   These included the “Olde Cheshire Cheese”, dating back to 1584, the “Mitre”, dating back to at least 1603, and the “Devil”, or “Devil and St Dunstan”, dating back to at  least 1608, all of which burned down in the Great Fire and were later rebuilt. 

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The “Olde Cheshire Cheese”, rebuilt in 1667, survives to this day, and retains much of its late seventeenth-century character. What are purported to be parts of the Medieval Whitefriars Priory can be seen in the cellar.

The “Chop Room” in the “Cheese” is famed the world over for its “marvellous rump-steak pudding”, and “the alactrity with which … edibles are supplied … is unmatched in the metropolis”.

Apothecaries’ Hall

Another in the series on historic secular buildings of London …

London’s 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.  And they may, or may not,  have exerted control over commodity prices. 

Of the total of 77 Livery Companies   in existence in London at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, 13 (17%) were involved in the cloth and clothing sectors of the economy; 12 (16%) in food and drink; 10 (13%) in construction and interior design; 10 (13%) in metal-working; 5 (7%) in wood-working (including shipwrighting); 4 (5%) in leather-working; 3 (4%) in arms manufacture; 3 (4%) in equestrian accoutrement manufacture;  3 (4%) in the medical profession; 2  (3%) in chandlery; 2 (3%) in the clerical profession; 2 (3%) in entertainment;  2 (3%) in transport; and the remaining 6 (8%) in sundry trades.  London’s economy was evidently still dominated by the manufacture of goods, rather than by services, at this time.

Almost all of the Livery Companies’ Halls were burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, with only parts of the Apothecaries’ and Merchant Taylors’ surviving.

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1617, and the Apothecaries’ Hall on Blackfriars Lane was originally built in 1633, on part of the site of the former Blackfriars Priory, which had been dissolved in 1538.  The hall was substantially burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, and subsequently rebuilt by Thomas Lock in 1668.  Only parts of the walls of the original building survive.

Apothecaries in Medieval and post-Medieval London were essentially purveyors of herbs and herbal medicines (the word derives from the Latin apotheca, meaning a storehouse where wines, spices and herbs were kept). Sad to say, the medicines were entirely ineffectual against the principal killer diseases of the time, Plague and Sweating Sickness.

One notable apothecary of the time was John Parkinson (1567-1650), who grew his own medicinal plants in a garden in Long Acre in Covent Garden, and sold his own medicines in a shop on Ludgate Hill, a short walk from the Apothecaries’ Hall.   He  was one of the founder-members of the Apothecaries’ Company, and also the apothecary to James I, and Royal Botanist to Charles I.   He also wrote  “A Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers” in 1629, and  “The Theatre of Plants” in 1640. 

Another notable was Gideon de Laune (1565-1659), the son of a Huguenot who had fled to London to escape religious persecution in his native France. He was another of the co-founders of the Apothecaries’ Company, and the apothecary to James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark. There is a fine marble bust of him in the Company’s Hall