Category Archives: 14th Century London

The Black Death (Robert of Avesbury, 1349)

Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts of events in the history of London, this one written by the Lambeth Palace clerk Robert of Avesbury in 1349 …

Victims of the Black Death, as depicted in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411“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 … , 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 …  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 … ”.

Victims of the Black Death, as depicted in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411

Victims of the Black Death, as depicted in the Toggenburg Bible of 1411

There were emergency burial sites, or “plague pits”, at East Smithfield, in the grounds of the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary Graces, and at West Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Carthusian Monastery of Charterhouse, founded in 1371.

A Black Death skeleton being analysed by an osteoarchaeologist, CharterhouseThe Charterhouse site,  which only came to light during  work preparatory to the ongoing construction of the “Crossrail” station at Farringdon, has recently been partially archaeologically excavated.  A small number of skeletons have been unearthed here that have been dated to the time of the Black Death, and indeed  that still contain traces of the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis.  Many thousands more are thought to lie buried here still.  Archaeologists and epidemiologists suspect that so many deaths in evidently such a short space of time must have been caused a particularly contagious and virulent pneumonic or septicaemic strain of the plague, and not  by the bubonic strain (the pneumonic and septicaemic strains are capable of being transmitted directly from infected person to person, and are characterised by mortality rates of 90-100%, whereas  the vector-borne bubonic strain is transmitted by rat flea from infected black or brown rat to person, and is characterised by mortality rates of approximately 50%).  Another argument against the Black Death having been bubonic plague is that it began to spike  in London in the winter of 1348-9, when the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) that transmits this strain of the disease would have been inactive, as it is  everywhere  today at temperatures of less than 10degC.

A Black Death skeleton being analysed by an osteoarchaeologist, Charterhouse

A Black Death skeleton being analysed by an osteoarchaeologist, Charterhouse

 

Tricks of the trades (City of London letter-book, 1327)

Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts of events in the history of London, this one from the City of London letter-book of 1327 …

“A congregation of alderman and … sheriffs of London [was] holden at the Guildhall  …

John Brid, baker, was attached to make answer as to certain falsehood, malice and deceit, by him committed, to the nuisance of the common people; as to which … the same John, for … obtaining his own private advantage, did skilfully and artfully cause a certain hole to be made in a table of his, … [a]nd when his neighbours and others, who were wont to bake their bread at his oven, came with their dough …, the said John used to put such … over the hole before-mentioned  … ; and … piecemeal and bit by bit craftily [withdraw] some …

And the same John, … being asked how he will acquit himself of the fraud, malice and deceit aforesaid, personally in court says … he is in no way guilty …

And after counsel … had been held … as to passing judgment  … it was … ordained, that … [John] … should be put upon the pillory, with … dough hung from [his neck]; … and … so remain upon the pillory until vespers at St Paul’s … be ended”.

Medieval whipping-post and stocks, St Leonard Shoreditch

Medieval whipping-post and stocks, St Leonard Shoreditch

Bow

Bow was first recorded in 1177 as Stratford, and in 1279 as Stratford atte Bowe, to distinguish it from Stratford proper, on the opposite, east side of the Lea.  It takes its name from the Old English “boga”, meaning bow, and referring to the arched bridge there over the Lea.    The bridge was originally built by Henry I’s wife Maud in the twelfth century, to replace the crossing at Old Ford, first established by the Romans.

Bow Church was originally built as a chapel in 1311, and became a parish church, independent of St  Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney, in  1719.  It still stands to this day, the only surviving relic of a medieval village and centre of cottage industry (founded on  milling).

Bow Church from the east

Bow Church from the east

Bow Church from the north

Bow Church from the north

Bow Church from the west

Bow Church from the west

Bow Church plaque

Bow Church plaque

Bow Church window

Bow Church window

Bow Fair Field plaque

Bow Fair Field plaque

Mrs Coborn's Charity School plaque

Mrs Coborn’s Charity School plaque

Annie Besant plaque

Annie Besant plaque

And now for something completely different….with surprising relevance

Today I received the advance copies of my latest book, published by Cambridge University Press, and entitled Foraminifera and their Applications. (When not treading the streets of London earlier this year, I was busily scribbling away with my other academic and scientific hat on). Although seemingly a completely different field of study, Foraminifera have helped to reveal aspects of London’s past.

Foraminifera and their applications

The front cover of my new book

What are Foraminifera?

This is a question I am often asked.  I tend to try to keep my answer simple, so as to be as comprehensible as possible to the layman.  I say that they are microscopic single-celled organisms similar to Amoebae, but differing in possessing shells.

Why should I care?

This is another question I am often asked in one form or another (such as “So what?”), usually immediately after I have given my answer to the previous one.  I say: on account of the numerical importance of living ones in modern aquatic environments and of fossil ones in the ancient rock record; and of their practical importance to Science and to Humankind, in developing an understanding of modern environments and the ancient rock record.

Applications of Foraminifera

Foraminifera have wide ranges of academic and economic applications, for example in environmental science and archaeology, and in petroleum, mining and engineering geology.  In environmental science and archaeology, their principal application is in the interpretation of environmental conditions, including  salinity (e.g., fresh-water, brackish or marine), hydrography  (e.g., supra-tidal, inter-tidal or sub-tidal), sedimentology (e.g., estuarine, deltaic or reefal), and  depth (e.g., marginal, shallow or deep marine).

The Environmental Archaeology of the Medieval Deposits of the River Fleet in the City of London

The Medieval deposits of the River Fleet in the City of London were subject to an environmental archaeological study in the 1970s.  Over 140 species of aquatic organisms were found to be present in the deposits, including Foraminifera such as Nonion germanicus  (pictured above, on the front cover of my book).  Most proved to be fresh-water to slightly brackish.  Associated rare, non-aquatic parasitic nematodes were interpreted as having been introduced into the deposits in dung dumped into the river by humans, alongside food waste and  what might be thought of as industrial waste, including  hide (waste from butchery or tannery) and horn cores (waste from glass manufacture).  The dumping of organic pollutants into the river evidently resulted initially in fertilisation, and in the proliferation of some opportunistic species such as Horned and Opposite-Leaved Pondweed.  However, it also resulted subsequently in poisoning and in the effective elimination of all species, as also indicated in the archive records for 1343.  In consequence, it was ordered in 1357 that “no man shall take … any manner of rubbish … or dung … to throw … into the rivers of the Thames and Fleet … .  And if any one should be found doing the contrary thereof, let him have the prison for his body, and other heavy punishment as well, at the discretion of the Mayor and the Aldermen”.

Turn again, Whittington

Stained glass window of Whittington and his non-existent cat, St Michael Paternoster Royal

Stained glass window of Whittington and his non-existent cat, St Michael Paternoster Royal

October 30th –   On this day in 1397 Dick Whittington became Lord Mayor of London for the first time (of three).  Among the many public works undertaken by Whittington, in or out of public office, were the acquisition and conversion into a Market of the old Leaden  Hall, on Leadenhall Street; the establishment of the College of St Spirit and St Mary, on what is now College Street, where he lived; the reconstruction of the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, also on College Street; the reconstruction of the Guildhall; the reconstruction of Newgate Gaol at the junction of Newgate Street and Old Bailey, which had been damaged during the Peasants’ Revolt (and of which he had written “by reason of the foetid and corrupt atmosphere that is in the heinous gaol … many persons are dead who would have been alive”); and the bequest of a library valued at £400 to Christ Church Newgate Street.  Not to mention the construction of a 128-seater public lavatory!

Unfortunately, most of the sites associated with Whittington were destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666.  However, he is commemorated by a Corporation “Blue Plaque” on the site of his house on College Street, by another outside the church of  St Michael Paternoster Royal,  and  by a stained glass window inside the church, depicting him and the non-existent cat that is nonetheless forever associated with him, through the fable and pantomime.  The cat  is commemorated by a statue on Highgate Hill, looking back over it’s shoulder toward the City paved with gold.

Probably the world's only statue of a non-existent cat,  Highgate Hill

Probably the world’s only statue of a non-existent cat, Highgate Hill

Probably the world's only piece of topiary in the form of a non-existent cat (looking a bit bedraggled), Whittington Park, Upper Holloway

Probably the world’s only piece of topiary in the form of a non-existent cat (looking a bit bedraggled), Whittington Park, Upper Holloway

Whittington plaque, St Michael Paternoster Royal

Whittington plaque, St Michael Paternoster RoyalWhittington HouseWhittington House

The Mother of Parliaments

The Ship of State
Forever teatime

Today (3rd October) I went on a tour of the Houses of Parliament,  also known as The Palace of Westminster (*).  I found it a strangely moving experience, simply being in the space where so much history has been made.  And felt a particularly strong  surge of emotion on being reminded by the guide of Charles I’s  attempted unconstitutional arrest of five Members of Parliament here in 1642 – essentially the last in the series of events that led to the Civil War.  One of the said “Five  Members” was my distant relative John Hampden, who went on to fight on the Parliamentarian side in the War, and was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chalgrove Field. 

The Old Palace was purportedly originally built for Cnut in around 1016, and subsequently rebuilt by Edward, “the Confessor” in 1042-65, and extended by succeeding kings, with Westminster Hall eventually becoming the seat of Parliament, to be succeeded, in 1548, by the then-secularised Royal Chapel of St. Stephen.

Westminster Hall exterior
Westminster Hall interior
Some of  the palace complex was  destroyed in a fire in 1512; and most of what remained, in another, in 1834, with essentially only Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower surviving to this day, together with parts of the Royal Chapel of St. Stephen, including the St Mary Undercroft.
Jewel Tower exterior
Jewel Tower interior
Westminster Hall was originally built as a royal residence cum banqueting house by William II, Rufus,  in 1097-9; and rebuilt, with a spectacular hammerbeam roof, by Henry Yevele, for Richard II, in 1394-1401.  The Jewel Tower was originally built by Henry Yevele, for Edward III, in 1365-6.
The New Palace was built by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin, in the Victorian Gothic style, in 1837-58.
Victoran Gothic extravagance
Victorian Gothic aspiration

(*) For those wanting to see inside the Palace of Westminster – here is a link to the official website with details of how to book …
http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/