Category Archives: Maritime London

MEDIEVAL LONDON contd.

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Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Norman History

The first of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Conquest, visited in 1066.

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The Norman William the Bastard, the Conqueror,  was crowned King William I 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”.

City of London’s William Charter - the London Charter of Liberties, 1066

The following year, William   granted the City of London a  Charter, which read, in translation (from Old English rather than 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’s sons  went on to be  crowned King: William II , in 1087; and Henry I, in 1100.

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.   London then turned its support to Stephen’s wife Maud, and back to the man himself once he was released from captivity.

Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-94)

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The merchant-adventurer, privateer and naval commander Sir Martin Frobisher died on this day in 1594, of wounds sustained in a naval action against the Spanish (he was  knighted for his service in seeing off the Spanish Armada in 1588).

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His organs were buried in the church of St Andrew in Plymouth, and the rest of his body  in the church of St Giles Cripplegate in London, where there is a memorial to him.

Frobisher had previously set sail on board the “Gabriel” from Ratcliff in 1576 on the second of three ultimately unsuccessful voyages in search of the North-West Passage to China, returning from Canada with a cargo of what turned out to be worthless “fool’s  gold”.

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The site in Ratcliff is marked by a “London County Council” plaque of 1922 in King Edward Memorial Park.

 

The Mock-Battle of Deptford (Edward VI, 1549)

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On this day in 1549, the boy-King, Edward VI wrote in his journal:

“I went to Deptford, being bidden to supper by the lord Clinton … .   After … was there a fort made upon a great lighter on the Thames …, of which Mr. Winter was captain, with forty or fifty other soldiers … .  To the fort also appertained a galley … , …  for defence … .  Wherefore there came 4 pinnaces … , which … with clods, squibs, canes of fire, darts … and bombards, assaulted the castle; and at length … burst the outer walls of the castle, beating them of the castle into the second ward, who after issued out and drove away the pinnaces, sinking one of them, out of which all the men in it … leaped out, and swam in the Thames.  Then came th’ admiral of the navy and three pinnaces, and won the castle by assault, and burst the top of it down, and took  the captain … ”.

Whales and whaling in London (John Evelyn, 1658)

2 - Skeleton of North Atlantic Right Whale believed to be that described by Evelyn, discovered at Bay Wharf in Greenwich in 2010

On this day in 1658 John Evelyn wrote in his diary:

“A large whale has been taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it … .  … [A]fter  a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood … by two tunnels, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.  Its length was fifty-eight foote, height sixteen, black skin’d like coach-leather, very small eyes, great taile, and onely two small finns, a picked snout, and a mouth so wide that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but suck’d the slime onely as thro’ a grate of … whale-bone, the throate yet so narrow as would not have admitted the least of fishes … ”.

Throughout history, whales have not infrequently ended up accidentally stranded in London  as Evelyn describes, the most recent case being in 2006.

From the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards, whales were also deliberately hunted out at sea, and brought back to ports such as London, Yarmouth, Hull and York   to be sold, their oil for lighting and for  lubrication (and their bones for the manufacture of corsets).  The London whaling industry was dominated initially by the Muscovy Company, and subsequently  by its semi-independent subsidiary, the Greenland Company.  By the turn of the  seventeenth and  eighteenth centuries, its fortunes had begun to decline as it found itself for the most part out-competed by a Dutch whaling industry better equipped with specially strengthened ships capable not only of “bay whaling” but also of  “ice whaling” far out at sea, on the edge of the Arctic ice fields.  Nonetheless, whaling expeditions continued to be conducted out of London until the early nineteenth century.  The last was  in 1835.

Sir Francis Drake and the “Golden Hind(e)”

The Golden Hinde in Deptford in 1581

On this day in 1581, Elizabeth I visited Francis Drake’s ship, the “Golden Hind(e)” (*), which had been “drawn into a creek … at Deptford as a perpetual memorial for having circuited round about the whole earth”, and “consecrated it with great ceremonie, pompe and magnificence eternally to be remembered”; and knighted Drake.  The ship  remained at Deptford for about 100 years, until it started to disintegrate and had to be broken up.  A  plaque on the water-front there marks the site and commemorates the event.

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(*) Originally named the “Pelican”, the ship was re-named the “Golden Hind(e)” in honour of one of Drake’s patrons,  Sir Christopher Hatton, whose coat-of-arms featured the device of a golden hind.

Erith

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

Erith was first recorded in Saxon times, in 677, as Earhyth, from the Old English ear, meaning muddy, and hyth, meaning landing-place (although it is thought to have been first settled in prehistory).

The Manor of Erith was held by the Norman Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086.  The Lord of the Manor during the reign of the first Plantagenet King, Henry II, was Richard de Luci, Justiciar of England, who, as an act of penance for his complicity in the murder of Thomas Becket, founded Lesnes Abbey nearby in 1178.  The first leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, which took place during the reign of Richard II in 1381, was one Abel Ker, from Erith.

Erith grew further in size and significance in the post-Medieval period.  The  Tudor  King  Henry VIII founded  a naval dockyard here, where warships built at Woolwich, notably the Great Harry,  were fitted out.   And it was here that the Gunpowder Plotters gathered to plot the overthrow of the Stuart King James I in 1605.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed still further expansion, with the  Wheatley family as Lords of the Manor.  The North  Kent Railway arrived in 1849, and with it urbanisation and industrialisation.

Historically part of Kent, since 1965 Erith has been part of the London Borough of Bexley.

Church of St John the Baptist

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The church of St John the Baptist was originally built  in Saxo-Norman times.  It was subsequently rebuilt in the post-Medieval period, in part out of materials salvaged from Lesnes Abbey after it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1525 (the abbey would have been but  a short cart-ride away to the north-west).  It was substantially rebuilt again in 1877.

 

Woolwich

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

Woolwich was first recorded in 918 as Uuluuich, from the Old English wull, meaning wool, and wic, probably in this context referring to a riverside trading settlement (note, though, that there is also evidence of habitation here  in the earlier – late seventh- or early eighth- century – Anglo-Saxon, Roman and even prehistoric periods).  From the tenth century to the twelfth, it was ruled by the Abbots of St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent, who were given it by Alfred the Great’s daughter Aelfryth.  Woolwich remained a comparatively small rural settlement throughout the remainder of the Medieval period, but burgeoned into an important naval and military base and industrial town in the post-Medieval. Its fortunes began to decline in the twentieth century, after the naval and military bases ceased operations, although it has been undergoing something of  a regeneration in recent years.  Nominally part of Kent throughout much of its history, it is now part of the London Borough of Greenwich.

Woolwich Dockyard

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Woolwich Dockyard was originally founded here by Henry VIII in 1512, and remained operational  for nearly four centuries, during which time a  number of historically important ships were built here, including the “Henry Grace a Dieu” or “Great Harry” (in 1514), the “Prince Royal” (in 1610),  the “Sovereign of the Seas” (in 1637), the “Royal Charles” (in 1655), the “Dolphin” (in 1756), and the “Beagle” (in 1820).  It  was finally decommissioned  in 1869.  The oldest surviving building is the Dockyard Office, dating to 1783-4 (which it is now known as the Clock House).  Some associated structures also survive, both in Woolwich and in  the Woolwich Dockyard Estate in North Woolwich (i.e., on the north bank of the Thames).

Woolwich Arsenal

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Woolwich Arsenal was originally founded here in 1671, and remained operational for nearly three centuries (i.e., throughout  the most important period of the growth of the British Empire, and both World Wars).  It was finally decommissioned in 1967.   The oldest surviving buildings are the Royal Brass Foundry, dating to 1716-17, and the Beresford Gate, the entrance to the Gun Machining Factory, dating to 1717-20.

The football club now known as the Arsenal was originally founded here – as   Dial Square – in 1886.  It changed its name in 1904, and relocated north of the river to Highbury in 1913.

Church of St Mary Magdalene

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The church of St Mary Magdalene was built in 1727-39, on or near  the site of an earlier   church, as one of the “fifty new churches” commissioned by Act of Parliament in 1711.  The interior contains a stained-glass window commemorating the seven hundred souls lost in the sinking of the paddle steamer “Princess Alice” in a collision at Tripcock Point in nearby Thamesmead in 1878.