Tag Archives: Dowgate

MEDIEVAL LONDON contd.

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

Social History contd.

Trade and Commerce

Trade prospered alongside religiosity in the Medieval City of  London, as it always  had, always would and no doubt always will – although the relationship between the two was at times strained, like that between an errant child and its parents.  Throughout the Medieval and post-Medieval periods, only Freemen of the City were entitled to trade here (note also that from the early fourteenth century onwards, Freemen had to be members of one or other of the Livery Companies).  Freedom of the City was acquired by one of three means: servitude (apprenticeship); patrimony (inheritance); or redemption (purchase).

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The City had become an important port and trading centre, through which a significant proportion of the entire country’s imports and exports were channelled,  by Medieval times.    The waterfront, the Port of London, much of it then recently reclaimed, bristled with bustling wharves (some trade flowing to the downstream side of London Bridge after the drawbridge that allowed large vessels  to pass upstream became unusable in the fifteenth or sixteenth century).

A prodigious range of comestible and manufactured goods was imported in, from all over the known Old World, that is to say, closest to home, from the the lands bordering the English Channel, North Sea and Baltic; and further afield, from those  bordering the Mediterranean, or linked to the latter by the Silk or Spice Routes.    These included  fresh fish  from the Thames, imported to Queenhithe and Billingsgate, and shell-fish, to Oystergate (oysters were an important source of protein, especially for the poor, and discarded oyster shells are still common finds on the foreshore of the Thames); wine from Gascony, to Vintry; and “Baltic goods”, including timber, amber, “Stockholm Tar” and, as FitzStephen put it “sable, vair and miniver from the far lands where Russ and Norseman dwell”,  to Dowgate.  And, again as FitzStephen put it:  “Gold from Arabia; from Sabaea spice and incense; from the Scythians arms of steel well-tempered; oil from the rich groves of palm that spring from the fat lands of Babylon; fine gems from Nile; [and] from China crimson silks … ”.  Note also that significant numbers of fritware  containers for exotic goods,  known as albarelli (sing. albarello), likely to have been imported from  the Islamic World, have been found  in archaeological excavations at Plantation Place, off Fenchurch Street).    Fresh fish and shell-fish was traded at Billingsgate; “stock-fish” at the Stocks Market; meat at the “shambles” on Newgate Street; poultry on Poultry; grain at Cornhill; bread, milk and honey and a range of general and exotic goods in the shops and selds on Cheapside and Eastcheap; and general and exotic goods also  at the covered market on  Leadenhall Street, and at open-air fairs.

Wool and, later, finished woollen cloth were  the most important exports, chiefly to the Low Countries,  and the trade was enormously  lucrative.  Sheepskins and other animal hides,  food-stuffs, and Cornish tin were also exported.

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The trade with the ports on the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic came to be controlled by an alliance called the Hanseatic League, which was formally founded in 1241, and which had its London headquarters at the so-called Steelyard, which was essentially a semi-autonomous enclave of Germany.   The relationship between the Hanse and local merchants was sometimes strained.  In 1388, the following writ was issued in Westminster: “Whereas the merchants of … London … complained that the men of … Germany … arrested their servants and goods in … Stralsund, … the King commands the mayor and sheriffs of London to arrest all the men … of … Germany … in …   London  … , and to detain them until they … answer to such charges as may be made against them on behalf of the King …  ”.

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The Custom House was originally built at least as long ago as 1377, in Billingsgate, close to the centre of activity on the water-front, its purpose being to collect the duties payable on exports of wool, and subsequently rebuilt, following a fire, in 1559.   It was burned down in the Great Fire in 1666, and rebuilt yet again, by Christopher Wren, in 1668-71.  Wren’s building was destroyed in an explosion in 1714, and rebuilt by Thomas Ripley; and Ripley’s building in turn  burned down in another fire in 1814.   The present Custom House was built by David Laing in 1814-7; and rebuilt, following a partial collapse caused by the rotting of the beech-wood  foundation piles, by Robert Smirke in 1825.  Perhaps surprisingly, given its previous history, it survived the Blitz of the Second World War unscathed.  It is designed to be, and is, best viewed from the river than from the road. 

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Trades guilds, or Livery Companies,  began to be founded from the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries onwards,  possibly essentially as part of an attempt to control the freedom to trade at a time of comparative over-population and shortage of work.  The Livery Companies established working practices and standards.  In 1671, the Mayor’s Court in the  Guildhall ordered that defective spectacles discovered  in the possession of one Elizabeth Bagnall be “with a hammber broken all in pieces” by the Master of the Company of Spectacle-Makers “on the remaining parte of London Stone” (damaged  during the Great Fire five years earlier).  The Livery Companies also provided apprenticeships for members at the beginning of their working lives, and alms for those at the end of theirs.  The  twelve “Great” Livery Companies, whose coats-of-arms adorn the walls of the Great Hall of the Guildhall, are, in order of precedence, the Mercers’; Grocers’; Drapers’; Fishmongers’; Goldsmiths’; Skinners’; Merchant Taylors’; Haberdashers’; Salters’; Ironmongers’; Vintners’; and Clothworkers’.  The Skinners’ and Merchant Taylors’ each alternate between sixth and seventh in the order of precedence, in accordance with the “Billesdon Award”, a ruling made by the then-mayor, Robert Billesdon, in 1484,  to end their long-running dispute.  To this day, any such state of confusion is referred to as “sixes and sevens”.

Wealth and Poverty

As time went by, City traders grew rich, in some cases fabulously so.  In contrast, although some unskilled “working-class” people made money by supplying the demands of the burgeoning bourgeoisie for fancy goods and services, most remained steadfastly poor, and deprived of any real opportunity of social mobility.   There was never an equitable distribution or redistribution of wealth, although there was at least an informal  system of  charitable patronage and donation from the churches,  from other rich institutions such as the Livery Companies,  and from rich individuals, to the poor.  The rich burned wax candles; the poor, tallow (that is, rendered animal fat).  All would appear to have lived rather uneasily together.  Note, though, that there is a certain amount of evidence from tax records of concentrations of wealth in the wards in the centre of the  City, and of poverty in those around its margins, and without the walls, in both the Medieval and post-Medieval periods.