Category Archives: 15th century London

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use” (1478)


During “The Wars of the Roses”, between 1455-85, London was an important centre of political machination, and the Tower, at least according to legend, the scene of a series of chilling politically motivated murders, in forgotten dreadful cubicles behind great locked doors (*).


At least according to legend, on this day in 1478, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who later went on to become Richard III, ordered the death in the Tower of London of his brother George, Duke of Clarence – by drowning in  a butt of Malmsey wine.

(*) There was some actual action in the City as well. And there were pitched battles on the outskirts, at St Alban’s in 1455 and 1461, as well as at Barnet in 1471.


Lightning strikes “Old”  St Paul’s (1444)

Edward VI's coronation procession in 1547, with old St Paul's in the background

On this day in 1444, the spire of “old” St Paul’s Cathedral (*) was destroyed by lightning.  A replacement spire was completed in 1462, and itself destroyed by lightning in 1561.

“Old” St Paul’s was built in the Norman, or Romanesque, to Early Gothic styles in the years after  1087 by the  Bishop, Maurice and his successors; rebuilt and extended in the Gothic style in 1221-1240,  and in the “New Work” of 1269-1332; renovated in the Renaissance  style by Inigo Jones in 1633-1641, and again by Wren, after the Civil War, during which it had been occupied by  Parliamentary troops and horses, in 1660; and burnt down in  the Great Fire of 1666.  There is a model of “old” St Paul’s in the Museum of London.  It was clearly an impressive building, measuring some 600’ in length, and rising to a height of between 460-520’ (estimates vary),  inclusive of the spire.  As John Denham wrote 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 name is something of a misnomer, as by the time it was built, there had already been three cathedrals on the site, built in 604, 675 and 962.


The Battle of Barnet (1471), and the Wars of the Roses (1455-85)

1 - Depiction of Battle of Barnet in contemporary Ghent Manuscript.jpg

On this day in 1471 took place, in “The Wars of the Roses”, the Battle of Barnet, between Yorkists under Edward IV and Lancastrians under Henry VI, with the Yorkists winning (and the Lancastrian Richard Neville, otherwise known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”, losing his life).

During “The Wars of the Roses”, between 1455-85, London was an important centre of political machination, and the Tower, at least according to legend, the scene of a series of chilling politically motivated murders, in forgotten dreadful cubicles behind great locked doors. There was some actual action in the City as well: in 1460, when the Lancastrian garrison under Lord Scales used a primitive – and unreliable – type of chemical weapon called “wildfire” in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Yorkist army from entering; and again in 1471, when the by then Yorkist garrison was bombarded by the Lancastrian navy and army under the Bastard Fauconberg. And there were pitched battles on the outskirts, at St Alban’s in 1455 and 1461, as well as at Barnet in 1471.

Many of the barons killed in the Battle of Barnet were buried in Austin Friars Priory, which was originally built in around 1253. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, part of the priory church was given over to the local Dutch Protestant community to serve as their church, “notwithstanding that they do not conform with the rites and ceremonies used in our Kingdom” (and the remaining part reverted to being the parish church of St Peter-le-Poer). The Dutch Church survived the Great Fire, but was destroyed in another fire in 1862, rebuilt in 1863, destroyed again in an air raid in 1940, and rebuilt again in 1950-56.  Ancient buried bodies discovered in the church during the rebuilding after the Second World War were cremated, and the ashes interred in a new crypt.


Remembering Syon


The Monastery of St Saviour and St Bridget of Syon

On  this day in 1415, the “Monastery of St Saviour and St Bridget of Syon” was founded in Sheen (later, in 1431, moving to a nearby new location between Brentford and Isleworth).  The monastery-cum-nunnery was of the Bridgettine order, the richest and most powerful of  its time, named after its founder, the mystic and later saint Queen Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73).  One of the brothers, Richard Reynolds, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1535 for challenging King Henry VIII’s  supremacy over the Church; famously encouraging those who suffered alongside him by promising them that after their “sharp breakfast” they would have a banquet in heaven.  The monastery itself was dissolved in 1539, by Henry.  Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was confined here while awaiting her execution in 1542.  Five years later, in 1547, the coffin containing Henry’s body was accommodated overnight here on route from Westminster to Windsor.  According to one colourful account, the decomposing body burst open during the night, and in the morning dogs were discovered lapping up the liquid that had seeped from the coffin!

Syon House

Syon House was built on the site of the monastery by Edward Seymour, the First Duke of Somerset (and Lord  Protector), sometime between 1547-1552.    After Seymour’s execution in 1552, it came to be owned by John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, and it was here that his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey was offered the crown at the beginning of her short  and ill-fated reign.  After Dudley’s execution in 1553, it reverted to the monarch.  In 1594, the then Queen, Elizabeth I, granted the house to Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland, and it has remained in his family from that time to this.  In the late eighteenth century, Hugh Percy, the First Duke of Northumberland, commissioned Robert Adam to redesign the interior, and Capability Brown to landscape the gardens, thereby creating “one of the finest villas in Europe”.



The fourteenth-century  “Monastery Barn”  and seventeenth-century “Ninth Earl’s Arch” still stand in the grounds of the house.

Archaeological Excavations



In 2003, a  “Time Team” archaeological excavation in the grounds of the house unearthed the remains of the Bridgettine monastery church – which was evidently approximately twice as large as the broadly contemporary King’s College Chapel in Cambridge!  A number of burials were later unearthed within the church by a team from Birkbeck University of London. Surviving written records, including a “mortilage”, have enabled the buried individuals to be identified.  One was the order’s last recorded librarian, Thomas Betson, who died in 1517. Betson’s library catalogue shows that at one time the monastery possessed nearly 1750 books, many of them the only copies in Britain, but almost all now lost.  His notebook includes a herbal, that is to say, a list of healing plants, and a list of remedies.


Bohemian Medieval London (Wenzel Schaseck and Gabriel Tetzel, 1465)


Another in the occasional series on contemporary accounts and descriptions of the historic City of London,  this one written by Wenzel Schaseck from Birkov in what is now the Czech Republic, who visited London – as part of the  diplomatic delegation of Leo of Rozmital – in 1465 …

“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”.

… and this one by Gabriel Tetzel, from Grafenberg in what is now Germany,   who also visited London – as part of the same delegation –  in 1465 …

“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”.


Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Edmonton, situated just south of Enfield, was first recorded in the “Domesday Book” of 1086 as Adelmetone, from the  Old English personal name Eadhelm and tun, meaning farmstead or estate.  It remained essentially rural until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Upper and Lower Edmonton became linked by ribbon development along Fore Street.  (Sub)urbanisation took off after the arrival of the railway  in 1872.

Church of All Saints

The church of All Saints  was originally built here in the twelfth century (*), and subsequently rebuilt in Kentish Ragstone in the fifteenth to early sixteenth.  The north side was refaced in stock brick  in the eighteenth century, and the  south aisle was added in the nineteenth.

Some of the stonework from the twelfth-century church has been preserved in the present one.  There are also some fine post-Medieval and later memorials in the church.  Charles and Mary Lamb, the authors of “Tales from Shakespeare”, first published in 1807, are buried in the churchyard.

(*) There is a document dated between 1136-1142 recording it being given by the Lord of the Manor, Geoffrey de Mandeville, to Walden Abbey.


The church of St Mary, Barnes

Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Barnes was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as  Berne, from the Old English “bere-aern”, meaning barn.

The church of St Mary   was originally built in the early Medieval period, extended in the later Medieval to post-Medieval, and again in the nineteenth to  early twentieth centuries, and substantially rebuilt in the late twentieth, following a fire in 1978.  The tower dates to the fifteenth century.

A surviving Norman archway near the south door dates to  the early twelfth century …

7 - Blocked-up Norman door

… and three Early Gothic lancet windows in the chancel to the thirteenth.

4 - General view of interior

The oldest surviving brass memorial  dates to 1508.

8 - John Wylde memorial (d. 1508)

Faint traces of wall paintings from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries came to light after the fire of 1978.