Category Archives: Medieval



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”.

The consecration of Westminster Abbey (1065)

Edward the Confessor's body being brought to the abbey for burial in 1066

Westminster Abbey was consecrated on this day  in 1065 …

A monk of St Bertin’s Abbey wrote of its construction:

“Outside the walls of London … stood a monastery [founded by Bishop Dunstan under King Edgar the Peaceable and] 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 on January 5th, 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; so that, after the transient journey of this life, God would look kindly upon him, both for the sake of his goodness and because of the gift of lands and ornaments with which he intended to ennoble the place.  And … there was no weighing of the costs, … so long as it proved  worthy of … God and St Peter”.

The  coronation of William the Conqueror  (Orderic Vitalis, 1066)

1 - The coronation of William the Conqueror, Westminster Abbey, as depicted by Matthew Paris

On this day in 1066, William I was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey.  One Orderic Vitalis wrote 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 if such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge”.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul (Westminster Abbey)

On this day in 1540, the Abbey Church of St Peter Westminster was made a Cathedral with its own See.   Not long afterwards, it was incorporated into the Diocese of London, and much of its estate was sold off to pay for repairs to St Paul’s – hence the expression, “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.  It is now a “Royal Peculiar”.

The abbey was originally founded, as the Benedictine monastery of St Peter, by the Bishop of London, Dunstan, under the Saxon King Edgar, in 960, on what was then Thorney Island – according to legend, on the site of a church founded by Sebert in around 604 (the same year that St Paul’s was founded).  It was rebuilt under Edward, “The Confessor”, in the years up to 1065, rebuilt again,  in the Early Gothic style, under Henry III, in the mid thirteenth century, and extended, in the Late Gothic style, under a succession of kings, including Henry VII, in the late fourteenth to early sixteenth (in part by the master mason Henry Yevele).

1 - Henry III's thirteenth-century north entrance with Rose Window

3 - Henry III's thirteenth-century Chapter House (left) and Henry VII's early sixteenth-century Lady Chapel (right).JPG

4 - Henry VII's early sixteenth-century Lady Chapel

5 - Wonderful grotesques on Henry VII's early sixteenth-century Lady Chapel  .JPG

The present structure is essentially surviving thirteenth- to sixteenth- century,


6 - Hawksmoor's eighteenth-century west towers.jpg

7 - Twentieth-century martyrs' memorial

although with some eighteenth-century additions in the form of  the west towers,  by Hawksmoor, and some twentieth-century  additions and restorations.

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 in the abbey, including all of the Coronations since that of the first Norman King, William I, the Conqueror, in 1066.  The fore-runner of Parliament, the “Great Council”, first met in the Chapter House here in 1257, only later moving to nearby Westminster Hall.

5 - Wonderful grotesques on Henry VII's early sixteenth-century Lady Chapel  .JPG

The execution of John Oldcastle (1417)


On this day in 1417, John Oldcastle was executed – by hanging in chains over a slow fire – at St Giles in the Fields for his role in the earlier so-called Lollard rebellion.  The Lollardy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries sought to restrict the secular wealth and power of the established church, and to return to apostolic poverty and mission,  and has been described as the “Morning Star of the Reformation” of the sixteenth.

London’s “Little Ice Age” and the Great “Frost Fairs”

The Frozen Thames in 1677

On this day in 1434 a severe frost set in in London that was to last until the February of the following year, and the Thames froze over.

Further records indicate that in all the river froze  over  nearly forty  times between 1142 and 1895, and that it became the site of impromptu “Frost Fairs” in 1564-65, 1683-84, 1715-16, 1739-40, 1788-89 and 1813-14.

Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Steps (1684).jpg

In 1683-84 an entire street of stalls was set up on the frozen river, together with a press printing souvenir papers, one of which, entitled “A Winter Wonder of the Thames Frozen Over with Remarks on the Resort thereon” asked “ … [W]ho’d believe to see revived there in January, Bartholomew Fair?”.  The ice was evidently so thick that it was even possible to roast an ox on it!    In 1788-89, there was, according to the all-knowing Encyclopaedia of London, “one continual scene of merriment and jollity” on the frozen river from Redriff to  as far up as  Putney.

Frost Fair in 1814.jpg

And in 1813-14, thousands  attended the greatest fair of the nineteenth  century, although only after navigating a gap in the ice created by temporarily unemployed watermen, who demanded a fee of twopence for their assistance!  Then, in 1831, the  demolition of the Old London Bridge, which had  nineteen arches, and the construction of the new one, which only had five, allowed  the rate of flow of the river  to increase to the extent that it became  much less susceptible to freezing  over.

Readers interested in further details are referred to The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (Union Books, 2007), and Frost Fairs on the Frozen Thames by Nicholas Reed (Lilburne Press, 2002).

Henry V’s triumphal return to London after Agincourt (1415)

The Look and Learn version of events.jpg

Image courtesy of “Look and Learn” (

On this day in 1415 took place Henry V’s triumphal return to  London after his famous  victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th.  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 20000 … . 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 the conduit at the exit to Cheapside 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, he rode away to his palace of Westminster, escorted by his citizens”.