Category Archives: Medieval

“London is drowning and I live by the river” (Matthew Paris, 1241)

Horse in water

On this day, the Feast of St Edmund, in 1241, began  a great rain-storm.   Matthew Paris wrote:

“[D]istinct thunder attended by lightning, a sad presage of the approach of a lengthened tempest, alarmed the hearts and ears of mortals; nor was the warning false, for it was followed by continued unseasonable weather, and by an unpleasant and disturbed state of the air, which continued for several days.  Such deluges of rain fell, that the river Thames, overflowing its usual bounds and its ancient banks, spread itself over the country towards Lambeth … and took possession, far and wide, of the houses and fields in that part.  Owing to the inundation of the water, people rode into the great hall at Westminster on horseback.  … Thus the year passed away, … generating epidemics and quartan agues [outbreaks of a strain of malaria characterised by a fever every fourth day, caused by the parasitic protozoan Plasmodium malariae, in turn transmitted by the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito]”.

Matthew Paris was a Benedictine monk, scribe, illuminator of manuscripts and chronicler, based at St Albans Abbey. He was of French origin.

Hever Castle, Kent

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2 - Courtyard.JPG

Hever Castle, which is situated near Edenbridge in Kent, some thirty miles south-east of London,  was originally built by the de Hever(e) family in the thirteenth century.   In 1462, it entered the possession of the sometime Lord Mayor of London, Sir Geoffrey Bullen, and was converted by him into a moated manor-house.  It remained in the Bullen, or Boleyn, family, until 1540, and became the  childhood home of Anne Boleyn, who went on to become the second wife of Henry VIII, after her father Thomas inherited it in 1505 (Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife, also lived here, from 1540-57).  In 1557, it came to be owned by Sir Edward Waldegrave, and it remained in his family until 1715.  It was later owned in turn by the Humphreys family, from 1715-49; by the Waldo family, from 1749-1903; and by the Astor family, who undertook extensive repair and renovation works on it, from 1903-83.  Since 1983, it has been owned and managed by a private company, Broadland Properties.

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The oldest surviving part of the building is the gate-house, which dates to the Medieval period.

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Post-Medieval features of note include the Inner Hall,

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the Dining Hall,

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Anne Boleyn’s Bedroom and “Book of Hours” Room,

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the Staircase and Long Galleries,

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and, most evocatively of all, the Morning Room, with its priest-hole,

10 - Oratory Chapel.JPG

and the Waldegrave Room, with its private Oratory Chapel (the  Waldegraves had remained practising Catholics even after the Protestant Reformation).

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The Drawing Room,

12 - Library.JPG

Library,

13 - Astor Suite.JPG

Astor Suite,

14 - Loggia, Italian Gardens.JPG

and Italian Gardens are chiefly the later works of the Astors.

The beginning  of the Black Death in London (Robert of Avesbury, 1349)

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In 1349, Robert of Avesbury wrote:

“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 … in the year of the Lord 1348, 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 about the Feast of All Saints [November 1st, 1348], 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 … ”.

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.

The 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.

 

 

 

 

 

The expulsion of London’s Jews (1290)

 

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A minority community of Jews became  established in England, including in London, in the reign of the Norman king William I, “the Conqueror”,  in the late eleventh century, many of its members originating from Rouen in Normandy and  involved in money-lending (Christians being barred from the practice at the time).  Tragically, the Jews became subject in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to a series of what in later times would be referred to as pogroms or purges, the most infamous of which took place in York on March 16th,  1190.   They  were  eventually ordered, under the Edict of Expulsion issued by  Edward I on the day of the Fast of Tisha B’Av,  July 18th, in 1290, to be expelled by November 1st of that year.  On the actual day of the expulsion, one ship’s captain had his Jewish passengers from London disembark on a sandbank at Queenborough in the Thames estuary, and then left them there to drown on the rising tide – for which terrible crime, he was later hanged.   After the expulsion, the only Jews remaining in England were either converts or coverts.  Finally, nearly four hundred years after the expulsion, Jews  were permitted  to re-settle in England in 1656, under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, and following a personal approach to Cromwell by  one Menasseh ben Israel.  The first to arrive were Sephardim, escaping religious persecution in Portugal, Spain and elsewhere in western Europe.  Slightly later came the Ashkenazim, from central and eastern Europe.

1 - Site of (First) Great Synagogue, Old Jewry (-1272)

A number of synagogues were built in London in the Medieval period, on or around  Old Jewry in the heart of the City; and ritual baths or mikva’ot in the precinct of the Guildhall and  in Milk Street.

 

The execution of  Margery Jordemaine, the “Witch of Eye” (1441)

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“There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey

Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name

Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye.

Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay

And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere.

Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere”.

On this day in 1441, Margery Jordemaine, the so-called “Witch of Eye” was burnt at the stake at Smithfield for alleged treason – specifically, for her part in a conspiracy  to kill the then King, Henry VI,  through witchcraft.  The event went on to be immortalised by Shakespeare in his play about the king.

Contrary to popular belief, the burning of witches was evidently  a comparatively rare event in Medieval England.  Malcolm Gaskill, in his book Witchfinders, published in 2005, records  that only 3 witches were burned in England between 1440-1650 (although also that a further 200 were hanged).

Geoffrey Chaucer (1342?-1400)

Chaucer depicted as a pilgrim in the Ellesmere Manuscript

The  courtier, diplomat, bureaucrat, poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer died on this day in 1400.  In life, he had been  variously employed as Chaucer was variously employed as a  “Varlet de Chambre” by Edward III,  between 1367-74; as the “Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides” by  Edward III and Richard II, between  1374-86; and as “Clerk of the King’s Works” by Richard II, between  1389-91 (he is also thought  to have studied Law at the Inner Temple, in c. 1366).  In the course of his employment, in 1373, he is thought to have come into contact with Petrarch and Bocaccio, and to have been introduced to Italian poetry, in Italy.  Between 1374-86, he would undoubtedly have met travellers from all over the country and continent at his then place of work at the Custom House on the river-front in Billingsgate, including those making the pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, some of them perhaps providing inspiration for the colourful characters he wrote about in the “Canterbury Tales”.  He would appear to have written “The House of Fame”, “The Legend of Good Women”, “Parlement of Foules”, and “Troilus and Criseyde”, and also at least to have begun to write  “The Canterbury Tales”, at this time, at his lodgings in Aldgate.  Earlier, in 1369, he had written   “The Book of the Duchess” in honour of his mentor John of Gaunt’s wife Blanche of Lancaster (who died of the plague that year).

The wrong kind of tornado, the church of St Mary-le-Bow, and “Citizen Smith”

londontornado

On this day in 1091, a tornado hit London, killing two persons and destroying 600 houses and the church of St Mary-le-Bow, also known as Bow Church, on Cheapside.  The church was virtually  levelled by the tornado, the force of which drove four 26’  rafters vertically into the ground (*).

2- Flying dragon weather-vane

1-St Mary-le-Bow

It was rebuilt, only to be substantially burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, with only the crypt surviving, and subsequently rebuilt again by Christopher Wren.

3-Statue of John Smith

There is a statue of Citizen and Cordwainer Captain John Smith (1580-1631) in Bow Churchyard, adjoining St Mary’s.  Smith sailed on the “Susan Constant” from Blackwall to found the first permanent English settlement in America, in  Jamestown, Virginia, in 1606, “from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking peoples” (a plaque on what is now Virginia Quay in Blackwall commemorates the event).    He is buried in the church of St Sepulchre, Newgate Street.  Incidentally, the  Algonquin  princess Pocahontas, who famously saved Smith’s life in America in 1607, visited London in  1616-17, with her by-then husband the tobacco planter John Rolfe, staying at the Bell Savage Inn off Ludgate Hill.  She died in Gravesend in 1617.

(*) From accounts of the damage, meteorologists estimate that the  tornado would have rated T8 on the T scale, which runs from T1 to T10, with winds in excess of  200 mph.