Another in the series of posts taken from my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …
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. It was a time of conquest and oppression; of crusade and pilgrimage; of pestilence and penitence; of fanfare and plainsong. It was also a time of rebellion and 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. The defining spirit of the age may be said to have been one of ebullient confidence, undercut in the dead of night by dread. The attitude toward death, 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 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”.