Tag Archives: Magna Carta

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.

Administration and Governance

Under the Normans, and indeed the Plantagenets, the  City of London remained outwardly little changed, at least initially, still largely confined within the Roman walls and laid out according to the Saxon street plan.   There were, though, sweeping changes to the way the City, and indeed the country, was run, at least initially, under  the autocratic Feudal System.  Under the Feudal System, the King and his place-men, the barons and knights,  essentially owned all the land; and granted the peasantry, that is to say, in descending order of status,  the manorial serfs, villeins, and bordars, access to it only in exchange for rent, labour, produce or services, or for some combination thereof.  At the time of the the “Domesday” survey in 1086, the population of England was 2,000,000, of which, considerably less than 1% belonged to the royal, noble and ecclesiastical elite, and 20% were classified as semi-free serfs, 40% as villeins, and 30% as bordars, also known as cottars (all numbers are approximate).  Also at this time, 10% of the population were unfree slaves, owned and sold like chattels.   However, shortly afterwards, in 1102, the Church Council of London, convened by, issued a decree ordering “Let no man dare hereafter to engage in the infamous business, prevalent in England, of selling men like animals”.  And by the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, slavery appears to have been effectively eliminated (most former slaves by this time having been granted small-holdings, and become bordars). Under the Normans and Plantagenets, the  ruling elite, though powerful, was small, and more than a little  wary of the large and potentially rebellious population now nominally under its control.  In consequence, successive Kings  made a series of placatory  political moves to maintain  and even extend  the rights and privileges that the City  had enjoyed under the Saxon King Edward “The Confessor”.

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But lest the City go getting ideas above its station, there were everywhere within it and without reminders of the Royal presence, and of where the real power lay: the Tower of London, and the gallows and scaffold on Tower Hill, in the east; and Baynard’s Castle, Montfichet’s Tower, and the Royal Wardrobe, in the west.

As noted in the section on “History” above, the  City of London  became in essence at least in part self-governing in Medieval  times, under the Corporation and its officials, namely the Mayor, Sheriffs (Shire-Reeves), Aldermen and Common Councilmen, who were initially appointed and subsequently elected, albeit elected by,  and from within, a wealthy and influential elite, including representatives of the trades guilds or Livery Companies.

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Perhaps the most famous of London’s Mayors was Richard or Dick Whittington (c. 1354-1423).  Whittington, a Mercer, was  appointed Mayor in 1397, on the death of the incumbent, and elected to the post on a further three occasions, later in 1397, in 1406 and in 1419.  Among the many public works undertaken by Whittington, in or out of public office, were the reconstruction of the Guildhall; the conversion into a Market and Garner of the Leaden Hall; the establishment of the College of St Spirit and St Mary, on what is now College Hill, where he lived; the  reconstruction of the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, also on College Hill; the reconstruction of Newgate Prison, which had been damaged during the “Peasants’ Revolt”; and the bequest of a library valued at £400 to Christ Church Newgate Street.  Not to mention the construction of a 128-seater public lavatory, popularly known as “Whittington’s Longhouse”, in the parish of St Martin Vintry!  The Magna Carta of 1215 had granted the City “all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water”.

In exchange, the Crown required that, each year, the newly elected   Mayor present himself or herself at court to ceremonially “show” his or her allegiance.  This  event eventually became the Lord Mayor’s Show we know today.  Interestingly, the  associated parade of the mayor and his or her entourage, from the City to  Westminster, used to take place  on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude at the end of October, whereas now it takes place on the second Saturday in November.  The parade also used to take place on the water, whereas now it takes place  on land – although the mobile stages are referred to as “floats”.  It travels, accompanied by much pomp, from the Lord Mayor’s official residence, Mansion House,  past St Paul’s Cathedral, to the Royal Courts of Justice, where the Cities of London and Westminster meet.

The Corporation became responsible for the infrastructure of the City and the health and welfare of its Citizens, including the maintainence of the City walls, and communal buildings and gardens; the oversight of  industrial activity within the walls; street-cleaning; the provision of   water-supply and sewage systems; and the implementation of measures to prevent or control  disease – at least insofar as this was possible.  It also became at least partially responsible for the more general prosperity and orderliness of the City, including  the education of the populace, and the maintenance, if not the establishment, of the law.

The Corporation and its benefactors, many of them associated with burgeoning  trades guilds or Livery Companies, with vested interests in vocational training, were responsible for founding a number of educational establishments from the twelfth century onwards, some of which are still running (although none on their original sites).

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The City of London School was founded through  the benefaction of the Town Clerk, John Carpenter,  in 1442, on  a site adjacent to the Guildhall; and the  school attached to St Paul’s Cathedral  was re-founded by Dean John Colet in  1511. And St Peter’s College, or Westminster School, attached to Westminster Abbey, was founded in the twelfth century.  Literacy rates have been estimated to have  been of the order of 50% by the end of the Medieval period or beginning of  the post-Medieval.  Functional literacy rates would have been even higher.

The law of the land was established centrally, by Parliament.  It was essentially maintained locally, through  the fore-runners of the police, namely, the sergeants, and constables or  night-watchmen; and through the courts.  As the then  Mayor, Henry Galeys, put it, in his “Provision for the Safe-Keeping of the City”, in 1282: “As to the safe-keeping of the City:- All the gates of the City are to be open by day; and at each gate there are to be two serjeants to open the same, skilful men, and fluent of speech, who are to keep a good watch upon persons coming in and going out that so no evil may befall the City.  At every parish church, curfew is to be rung at the same hour as at St Martin’s le Grand; so that they begin together, and end together; and then all the gates are to be shut, as well as taverns for wine or for ale; and no one is then to go about by the alleys or ways.  Six persons are to watch in each ward by night, of the most competent men of the ward thereto; and the two serjeants who guard the gates by day, are to lie at night either within the gates, on near thereto”.  There were only a few tens  of sergeants (including one for each of the twenty-five wards, and a comparable total based at the Guildhall), and a few scores of constables or  night-watchmen, to police a population of a few tens of thousands.  They had to deal with every type of crime, from petty theft, through adulteration or false weighing of foodstuffs (or other breaches of manufacturing and retail regulations), to counterfeiting currency, and   assault and murder.

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The right of every Englishman accused of a crime  to a trial by jury in a court of law was first codified in the Magna Carta of 1215, the great charter that ultimately gave rise  to our modern legal and – democratic – parliamentary systems: two of the four surviving copies of which are  now in the British Library in London.  This and some of the other  provisions of the Magna Carta that have resonated  down the centuries read – rather wonderfully – as follows: “39 – No man shall be taken or imprisoned … or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers … .  40 – To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny right or justice. … 52 – If anyone has been … deprived by us without lawful judgement of his peers of lands, castles, liberties or … rights, we will restore them to him at once … . … 61  [“The Security Clause”] – … We give and grant … the following security: namely, that the barons shall choose any twenty-five barons of the realm that they wich, who with all their might are to observe … and cause to be observed the peace and liberties which we have granted and confirmed to them by this our present charter … . … 62 – Wherefore we wish and firmly command that the English church shall be free, and the men in our realm shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions well and peacefully, freely and quietly, fully and completely, … in all things and places for ever, as is aforesaid … .  Given under our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign”.

The right to legal counsel and representation, by attorneys (solicitors) and pleaders-before-court (barristers), became established in the later thirteenth century; formal training of pleaders-before-court, in so-called Inns of Court,  strategically situated between the Cities of London to the east and Westminster to the west,  at Temple  in the early fourteenth, at Gray’s Inn in the late fourteenth, and at Lincoln’s Inn, in its present location, in the fifteenth.  John Fortescue, a sometime Governor of Lincoln’s Inn, wrote of the Inns of Court in 1470:  “In England, laws are learned in three languages, namely English [which was in fact the everyday language of the court from the late fourteenth century onwards], French and Latin [and] not in universities, but in a certain public academy situated near the King’s courts [in Westminster].  That academy is not situated in the city, where the tumult could disturb the student’s quiet, but in a suburb.  There are in this academy ten lesser Inns of Chancery to each of [which] at least a hundred belong.  These students are for the most part young men learning the elements of the law, who, becoming proficient as they mature, are absorbed into the greater Inns of Court, of which there are four in number, and to the least of which belong 200 students or more. … [I]n these greater inns there can no student be maintained for less expenses by the year than 20 marks.  And if he have a servant to wait upon him, as most of them have, then so much the greater will his charges be.  Now by reason of these charges the children only of noble men do study the laws … .  For the poor and common sort of the people are not able to bear so great charges … and merchant men can seldom find in their hearts to hinder their merchandise with so great yearly expenses.  And thus it falleth out that there is scant any man found within the … laws, except he be a gentleman born … . Wherefore they more than any other kind of men have a special regard to their nobility and to the preservation of their honour and fame.  And to speak uprightly there is in these greater  inns, yea and in the lesser too, beside the study of the laws, as it were an university or school of all commendable qualities requisite for noble men.  There they learn to sing, and to exercise themselves in all kinds of harmony.  There also they practise dancing, and other noble men’s pastimes, as they do which are brought up in the King’s house”. 

The  law was upheld through a judicial system that placed particular emphasis on punishment as a deterrent to crime, although in its defence it also at least attempted to make the punishment fit the crime, with  the  least serious or petty crimes punishable by fines or corporal punishment, and only the perceived most serious – of which it has to be admitted there were scores – by capital punishment.    Corporal punishment included the use of the pillories and stocks, which restrained convicted criminals and allowed them to be harangued or to have missiles thrown at them by the general public.   In 1327: “John Brid, baker, was … put upon the pillory, with … dough hung from [his neck]; … until vespers at St Paul’s … be ended”, for “falsehood, malice and deceit, by him committed, to the nuisance of the common people”, for stealing dough from persons using his premises to bake their bread.  Capital punishment took one of a number of forms, for example, hanging, for murderers, and also for common thieves – of any article valued at over 1s – and other felons; boiling, for poisoners; burning, for religious dissenters of unfortunately unfashionable persuasions; peine forte e dure (pressing, under increasingly heavy weights), for those accused who refused to confess; beheading, for those of noble birth; and, most gruesomely, hanging, drawing (disembowelling) and quartering, with or without the refinement of castrating, for traitors, that is, those found guilty of high treason.  Executions were  carried out not only in prison but also in public,  in various parts of the city, most famously on  Tower Hill and in West Smithfield, or  at Tyburn, at the western end of Oxford Street, near the modern Marble Arch.  Among those executed at West Smithfield were William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter, who was hanged, drawn and quartered here in 1305, for high treason; and one Margery Jordemaine, the “Witch of Eye”, who was burned at the stake here in 1441 for allegedly plotting to  kill the then King, Henry VI,  by means of  witchcraft.   Contrary to popular belief, comparatively few women were burned for withcraft in  Medieval England  (although many more were hanged).

Interestingly, imprisonment was originally only of those awaiting trial, sentencing, or sentence of execution,  and not intended as a punishment in its own right, although in actual practice it was such, on account partly of the inhumane conditions under which prisoners were kept, and partly of the brutal treatment meted out to them.   Most of London’s many prisons were deliberately located outside the walls – and jurisdiction – of the City, so as not to sully its gilded streets (the same also being true, incidentally, of other undesirable buildings, industries and activities, not to mention persons).    Some of the more famous – or infamous – ones were on the south side of the river in Southwark, including at one time or another the Borough Compter, Clink, King’s Bench, Horsemonger Lane, first and second Marshalsea, and White Lion.

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The surviving part of the wall of the second, nineteenth-century, Marshalsea Prison, where Dickens’s father was incarcerated for debt, may still be seen, adjacent to the church of St George the Martyr.  There were also the Bridewell and Fleet to the west, and the Tothill Bridewell in Westminster (one  of the surviving gates of the Tothill Bridewell  may still be seen, in Little Sanctuary, a short distance from its original location).   Perhaps the most infamous prison of all, Newgate, on the western edge of the City, was originally built in 1188, and subsequently rebuilt in 1236,  and  again,  at the behest of Dick Whittington,  in 1422, after having been destroyed  during the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381.  Newgate became a byword for everything bad about the prison system, with Dick Whittington writing in 1419 “by reason of the foetid …  atmosphere …  in the heinous gaol … many persons are now dead who would be alive” (many more would die here yet, of “Gaol Fever”, or  Typhus).  Throughout the Medieval period, condemned prisoners  were dragged on a pallet all the way from Newgate, past baying crowds, to Tyburn to be executed, some of them  being allowed to stop at a tavern on the way to drink themselves into a merciful early oblivion.

MEDIEVAL LONDON  contd.

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

Plantagenet History

The  Angevin or Plantagenet Henry, son of Geoffrey V of Anjou and Matilda, was crowned King Henry II when Stephen died in 1154.

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The elder of Henry’s surviving sons was crowned King Richard I in 1189.  According to one account, which now  resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the coronation ceremony was accompanied by “evil omens”, including the presence of a  bat fluttering around the King’s head during the crowning, and the mysterious pealing of bells.  Shortly afterwards, representatives  of the Jewish community, who had been barred from the ceremony, arrived at the abbey to present gifts and their respects to the newly-crowned King, only to beaten and stripped by the King’s men, and thrown out onto the street.  Tragically, this came to be taken as a licence to attack the entire – sizeable – Jewish  population of London.  According to Roger of Howden, in his “Gesta Regis Ricardi”, the “jealous and bigoted” citizens went on to kill many, including Jacob of Orleans, a respected scholar, to burn  the houses of many others, and to force  the remainder to seek sanctuary in the Tower of London, or to flee the city altogether, until it was safe to return.  And according to Richard of Devizes, “On the very day of the coronation, about that solemn hour in which the Son was immolated to the Father, a sacrifice of the Jews … was commenced in the city of London, and so long was the duration … that the holocaust could scarcely be accomplished the ensuing day … ”.  A horrified Richard was forced  to issue a writ ordering the cessation of the  persecution of the Jews (he also  allowed those who had been forcibly converted to Christianity to  revert to Judaism).  He also ordered the execution of those  guilty of the most egregious offences against them.

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Later in 1189, Richard  appointed the  first (Lord) Mayor of London, Henry FitzAilwyn de Londonestone, in effect to run the City.

Later in Richard’s reign, in 1196, according to an  account given by Roger of Wendover:  “About this time there arose a dispute in the city of London between the poor and the  rich on account of the tallage, which was exacted by the King’s agents for the benefit of the exchequer: for the principal men of the city, whom we call mayors and aldermen, having held a deliberation at their hustings, wished to preserve themselves from the burden, and to oppress the poorer classes.  Wherefore William FitzRobert [also rendered as FitzOsbert], surnamed ‘with the beard’ [William Longbeard] … called the mayors of the city traitors to our lord the King for the cause above mentioned; and the disturbances were so great in the city that recourse was had to arms.  … [T]he King, his ministers, and the chief men of the city charged the whole crime on William.  As the King’s party were about to arrest him, he … escaped, defending himself with nothing but a knife, and flying into the church of St Mary of the Arches [St Mary-le-Bow], demanded the protection of our Lord, St Mary, and her church, saying that he had resisted an unjust decree for no other purpose than that all might bear an equal share of the public burden, and contribute according to their means.  His expostulations, however, were not listened to, … and the archbishop [Walter] … ordered that he should be dragged from the church to take a trial, because he had created a sedition … among the people of the city.  When this was told to William, he took refuge in the tower of the church, for he knew that the mayors … sought to take away his life.  In their obstinacy they applied fire, and sacreligiously burned down a great part of the church.  Thus William was forced to leave … , … seized, … and … conveyed away to the Tower of London.  Soon after, … he was … dragged, tied to a horse’s tail, through the middle of  London to Ulmet [Tyburn] … : after which he was  hung in chains on a gallows.   … With him were also hanged nine of his neighbours or of his family, who espoused his cause”.  According to other contemporary sources, William Longbeard was “in origin one of the most noble citizens of London”, but nonetheless became “the champion of the poor, it being his wish that every person, both rich and poor, should give according to his property and means, for all the necessities of the state”.  In one remarkable and radical speech that provoked outrage and fear throughout the Establishment, he proclaimed: “I am the saviour of the poor.  Oh poor, who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and … do this joyfully, for the time of your visitation is at hand.  For I will divide … the humble and faithful people from the haughty and treacherous … , as light from darkness”.

John   was crowned King in 1199.  In 1215, he   granted the City of London the right to elect its own Mayor: the “Mayoral Charter” is now in the Guildhall.

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The prestige of the position was such that the by-then Mayor, William Hardel(l),  was invited by John to be  a witness to the sealing of, and indeed an Enforcer or Surety of, the Magna Carta, at Runnymede in Surrey, later in 1215.  This was after rebel barons had entered London to force John’s hand.  Ralph of Coggeshall wrote: “With alliances sworn with the citizens of London via go-betweens, … the barons came to London and seized it without opposition, the citizens being busy at Mass. Having entered, the barons captured all of the King’s supporters whom they found, depriving them of their goods. They broke into the houses of the Jews, rifling store-houses and strong boxes, and having spent much time in this holy work, abundantly restuffed their own empty purses. Robert FitzWalter, Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex and Gloucester, vigilantly and daily reinforced the City walls with stones taken from the houses of the Jews. They could not, however, take the Tower of London, defended against them by a small but brave garrison. As soon as it became known, far and wide, that the barons had seized the royal metropolis, all, save only the earls of Warenne, Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Ferrers and Salisbury, and amongst the barons only William Brewer … defected to the baronial party; … so that …  the King was seized with such terror that he now dared travel no further than Windsor”.

The First Barons’ War broke out still later in  1215, when it became clear that when John  had no intention of abiding  by the terms of the Magna Carta.   When John died in 1216, the barons refused to recognise his son Henry III as King, and instead supported  the rival claim to the title of the French King Philippe II’s son Louis, also known as the Dauphin.  The Dauphin and barons suffered a heavy military defeat at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, after which they were forced to retreat to their power-base in London, there  to await reinforcements from France, which in the event never arrived, the transporting  fleet  being intercepted en route.  Incidentally, two prominent Londoners were captured at the battle, namely  the aforementioned Robert FitzWalter, formerly of Baynard’s Castle, and Richard de Montfichet, of Montfichet’s Tower, both of which  had been demolished on John’s orders after the baronial conspiracy of 1212, in which FitzWalter had been implicated.  The Dauphin then agreed to  relinquish  his claim to England and end the war, by signing the so-called Treaty of Lambeth, brokered by William Marshall, later in 1217 (there is a famous alabaster effigy of Marshall in Temple Church).  In exchange, the barons and people were given back the liberties that had been taken away under John’s unjust rule.  The Second Barons’ War broke out in 1264.   As in the case of the First Baron’s War, London remained a barons’ stronghold essentially throughout.  Following his victory at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, during which the King, Henry III was captured, the barons’ leader, Simon de Montfort convened what is widely regarded as England’s first representative Parliament in Westminster Hall in 1265 (before this date,  Parliament, or its precursor, had met in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey;  and after 1548, it met in the then-secularised Royal Chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster).  De Montfort was killed, and Henry freed from captivity, at the Battle of Evesham later in 1265, which left the royalists holding the upper hand until the eventual cessation of hostilities, according to  the terms of the Dictum of Kenilworth,  in 1267.

The  third Horseman  of the Apocalypse, Famine,  visited during the reign of Henry III in 1257/8,  and again during the reign of Edward II in 1314-7.  The City of London was subject to a famine of Biblical proportions in  1257/8, as indeed were the entire country and continent.  The “Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs” for 1257/8 record that: “In this year, there was a failure of the crops; upon which … a famine ensued, to such a degree that the people from the villages resorted to the City for food; and there, upon the famine waxing still greater, many thousand people perished … ”.

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It is likely that many of the many thousands of individuals buried in the crypt-cum-charnel house of St Mary Spital, which have recently been shown to date to the middle of the thirteenth century, died during this famine.  As to the underlying cause, it has been speculated to have been brought about by a “volcanic winter” following the explosive  eruption of Mount Samalas on the island of Lombok in Indonesia in 1257.  Another famine, albeit less well documented in London, affected  the country and continent between 1314-7.  It, too, appears to have been associated with – prolonged – bad weather, even in supposed summer months, and associated harvest failure, and to have been compounded by livestock disease and death (“murrain”).  Initially, it was the poor who were  particularly badly affected, being unable to afford to pay a premium for increasingly scarce  foodstuffs, and indeed even for the staple, bread, especially after attempts to restrict its price ultimately proved unsuccessful.   But, by the summer  of 1315, there was essentially nothing for anyone rich or poor to eat anywhere in St Albans, even the King, Edward II, and his court, who visited the town in  August.  As to the underlying cause in this case,  it has been speculated to have been brought about by either a short-term cooling spike caused by another volcanic eruption, perhaps of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand, or a long-term climatic cooling trend at the transition from the “Medieval Warm Period” into the “Little Ice Age”, or or a superposition of the two.  The balance between sufficiency and deficiency of food supply  was always extremely precarious, and easily tipped.

The First War of Scottish Independence began with the English conquest of Scotland during the reign of Edward I in 1296, and lasted until the restoration of independence, either  de facto after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, or de jure after the  Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton during the reign of Edward II in 1328.

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One of the principal Scottish leaders, William Wallace (“Braveheart”), was captured  by the English at Robroyson near Glasgow in 1305.  He was then taken to London, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason in West Smithfield.

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The  fourth and final  Horseman of the Apocalypse, Plague, visited during the reign of Edward III in 1348-9, and again  in 1361 (the so-called “Pestis Secunda”, or “Second Plague”), 1368  (the “Third Plague”), 1375 (the “Fourth Plague”), and during the reign of the Lancastrian King Henry VI in 1433-5.  And death followed.  It is estimated that around half of the population of the City of London, or 40,000 people, died in the 1348-9 outbreak that came to be known as the “Black Death”.  Twenty-six out of the fifty monks of Westminster Abbey died, and were buried in the  cloister (the abbot, Simon Bircheston, also died, and was buried separately, near the Chapter House door, alongside earlier abbots of the late eleventh to twelfth centuries, his epitaph reading in part: “May this blessed father now flourish with the kind Fathers in the presence of God”).  The contemporary chronicler 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 … ”.  He also wrote: “In that same year of 1349, about Michaelmas, over six hundred [flagellants]  came to London from Flanders … .  Sometimes at St Paul’s and sometimes at other points in the city they made two daily public appearances … .  …   Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails. Each tail had a knot and through the middle of it there were sometimes sharp nails fixed. They marched naked in a file one behind the other and whipped themselves with these scourges on their naked and bleeding bodies.  Four of them would chant in their native tongue and, another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross”.  The horror of the Black Death can only be imagined.  The many thousands of dead were buried, with more or less ceremony, in “plague pits” in East Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, founded in 1350; and at West Smithfield, in what were to become the grounds of the Carthusian monastery of Charterhouse, founded in 1371 (as Stow put it, “A great pestilence … overspread all England, so wasting the people that scarce the tenth person of all sorts was left alive, and churchyards were not sufficient to receive the dead, but men were forced to choose out certain fields for burial”).    Some have recently been unearthed in archaeological excavations, and on analysis have been found to contain traces of the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis.

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In the immediate aftermath of the “Black Death” of 1348-9, the demand for labour came to greatly exceed the supply, City- and country- wide.  At the same time, the work-force had its wages frozen,  under the “Ordinance of Labourers” of 1349; and then became subject to understandably even more unpopular, and extremely unjustly enforced,  Poll Taxes,  in  1377, 1379 and 1381.  Civil unrest followed in the “Peasants’ Revolt” of 1381.  This came to a head in a confrontation, at West Smithfield, between on the one side  a thousands-strong peasant mob, and on the other, heavily-armed knights and henchmen, officers of the City, and the  then boy-King Richard II.  By this time, the  mob had already slaked its blood-thirst by sacking some Establishment buildings in the City, including the Tower of London and John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, and killing many  of their occupants, together with many other innocent by-standers – especially foreigners.  Among  the dead were Robert Hales, the Lord High Treasurer, who had introduced the Poll Tax, and Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury; both unceremoniously beheaded on Tower Hill.  As well as being the Treasurer, Hales was also the Prior of the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell.  Its  buildings, too, were  deliberately targeted during the revolt.  It is significant that no attempt was made to harm the King, whose perceived status from birth was not only royal but also essentially divine and sacrosanct, as indicated by the symbology of the Wilton Diptych (in the National Gallery).  The  French chronicler Jean  Froissart (c.1337-c.1405) wrote, in the second of his “Chroniques”, completed in 1388:  “This day all the rabble … assembled under Wat Tyler, John Straw and John Ball, at a place called Smithfield … . There were present about 20,000, … breakfasting, and drinking Rhenish wine and Malmsey Madeira … without paying for anything … . [W]hen the King, attended by sixty horses, … arrived before the Abbey of St Bartholomew, … and saw the crowd of people, he stopped, saying that he would …  endeavour to appease them. Wat Tyler … was only desirous of a riot … .   … The Mayor of London [the fishmonger William Walworth], with about twelve men, rode forward, armed under their robes, …  seeing Tyler’s manner of behaving, … .  [T]he Mayor, … supported by the King, … then drew a kind of scimitar [now in the Fishmongers’ Hall], and struck Tyler such a blow on the head as felled him to his horse’s feet.  As soon as the rebel was down, he was surrounded on all sides, in order that his own men might not see him; and one of the King’s squires, by name John Standwich, immediately leaped from his horse, and drawing his sword, thrust it into his belly, so that he died.  When the rebels found that their leader was dead, they drew up in a sort of battle array, each man having his bow bent before him.  The King at this time … hazarded much, though it turned out most fortunately for him; for … he left his attendants, giving orders that no one should follow him, and riding up to the rebels, … said ‘Gentlemen,   … I am your King, remain peaceable’.  The greater part, on hearing these words, were quite ashamed, and those among them who were inclined for peace began to slip away …  ”.

Two further crises followed the “Peasants’ Revolt” during the course of Richard II’s reign, as chronicled by Froissart.  The first was a series of  power-struggles with Parliament, and with his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of  Gloucester, and the other Lords Appellant, in 1386-8.  At this time, the King, and his Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, sought an unprecedentedly high  rise in taxes to continue to fund the war against France that had begun in 1337 (and that would only end in 1453, which is why it is now known as the “Hundred Years War”).  Parliament – the “Wonderful Parliament” – refused to give its consent unless the  unpopular Chancellor was removed from power, whereupon the King famously responded that he would not dismiss as much as a scullion from his kitchen at the request of Parliament, and only eventually acceded to the request when threatened with deposition.  Richard  was so incensed by this curbing of his prerogative powers that he sought, and secured,  a legal ruling from Chief Justice Robert Tresilian to the effect that Parliament’s conduct in the matter had been unlawful and treasonable.  He also went on a “gyration” of the country to garner support for his cause, and began to establish a military power-base in the north, at  Chester.  On his return to London, he found himself  confronted by the Dukes of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick, and that they had in turn brought an appeal of treason against de la Pole, Tresiilan and two other loyalists, Nicholas Brembre, the Mayor of London, and Alexander Neville, the Archbishop of York.  According to Froissart, the King had earlier been advised by Brembre that “many Londoners” supported him,  encouraging him march on the capital, “to test the temper of the citizens”, with “fifteen thousand men …  under … [his] ….  banners”, whereas in the event, Londoners resisted his advance, and Brembre  fled to Wales, but was  “found and captured”, and subsequently  “beheaded in the capital”, on February 20th, 1388.  The King attempted to delay the trial proceedings in anticipation of the arrival of supporting troops from Chester, whereupon Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick joined forces with the Earl of Derby (Henry Bolingbroke), and the Earl of Nottingham, to form the Lords Appellant, and intercepted, and routed, the King’s troops at Radcot Bridge.  At this, Richard no longer had any choice but to comply with the appellants’ demands.  Tresilian and Brembre were executed, and de la Pole, who had fled the country, was sentenced to death in absentia, by the “Merciless Parliament” of 1388.  The King’s  circle of favourites was broken.

The second crisis of the latter part of Richard’s reign witnessed  the King’s eventual decline and deposition, between  1397-9.  It began with his attempt to re-assert his authority after the first crisis, in the so-called “Tyranny”.  In 1397, he had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested on charges of treason: Gloucester either died or was killed on the King’s instructions, while awaiting trial;   Arundel was tried,  convicted  and   executed; and Warwick tried, convicted and sentenced to death, although his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.  The King then set about the systematic persecution of the appellants’ supporters, fining them, and at the same time distributing largesse to his own followers.  And in 1398, he convened a packed “Parliament of Shrewsbury”, which  overturned all the earlier rulings of the “Merciless Parliament”, and essentially made the King once more an absolute monarch. However, the House of Lancaster, personified by John of Gaunt and his son Henry Bolingbroke, now Earl of Hereford, remained a formidable opponent to the King.  Richard attempted to resolve this outstanding issue by ordering   Bolingbroke into exile in France, initially   for ten years, and eventually  for life.   But in 1399, Bolingbroke returned from exile,  to mount a challenge to the King, landing in the north of England, and there forging an important strategic  alliance with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.  He, Bolingbroke, then marched south with a strong and ever-growing force, encountering little Royalist resistance along the way, the King and much of the  nobility being in  Ireland.  When the King eventually returned to England, he found himself facing overwhelming odds, and was forced to surrender himself to Bolingbroke, who had him imprisoned in the Tower of London, and eventually deposed, after hearings before  by an assembly of Lords and Commons at Westminster Hall, on October 1st,  1399.  He, Richard, is thought to have been allowed to starve to death in captivity in Pontefract Castle on or around February 14th, 1400.

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Rebel Barons capture London (1215)

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On this day in 1215, rebel barons captured London, going  on to force the king, John to set his seal to Magna Carta on the tenth of the following month (*).

Ralph of Coggeshall wrote:

“With alliances sworn with the citizens of London via go-betweens, … the barons came to London and seized it without opposition, the citizens being busy at Mass. Having entered, the barons captured all of the King’s supporters whom they found, depriving them of their goods. They broke into the houses of the Jews, rifling store-houses and strong boxes, and having spent much time in this holy work, abundantly restuffed their own empty purses. Robert fitz Walter, Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex and Gloucester, vigilantly and daily reinforced the city walls with stones taken from the houses of the Jews. They could not, however, take the Tower of London, defended against them by a small but brave garrison. As soon as it became known, far and wide, that the barons had seized the royal metropolis, all, save only the earls of Warenne, Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Ferrers and Salisbury, and amongst the barons only William Brewer … defected to the baronial party; … so that …  the King was seized with such terror that he now dared travel no further than Windsor”.

(*) The First Barons’ War broke out in late  1215, when it became clear that when John  had no intention of abiding  by the terms of the charter.   At this time, the  barons sought to have Philippe II’s son Prince Louis of France replace John as king, and indeed welcomed him to London as king in early 1216.  However, when the war ended, by the Treaty of Lambeth, brokered by William Marshall, in 1217, they agreed to accept John’s son Henry III as king (John himself having died in late  1216).

The Lord Mayor’s Show

Today, Saturday 14th November 2015, is the day of the annual Lord Mayor (of the City of London)’s Show.

Statue of Henry FitzAlywn, first Lord Mayor of London

Richard I appointed the  first (Lord) Mayor of London, Henry Fitz-Ailwyn de Londonestone, in effect to run the City,  in 1189; and John granted the City the right to elect its own Mayor in 1215 (the “Mayoral Charter” is now in the Guildhall Heritage Gallery).  The prestige of the position was such that the by-then Mayor, William Hardell,  was invited by John to be  a witness to the sealing of, and an Enforcer or Surety of, the Magna Carta, later in 1215.  Magna Carta granted the City of London “all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water”.  In exchange, the Crown required that, each year, the newly elected  Lord Mayor present himself or herself at court to ceremonially “show” his or her allegiance.  This  event eventually became the Lord Mayor’s Show we know today.  Interestingly, the  associated parade of the mayor and his or her entourage, from the City to  Westminster, used to take place  on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, on October 28th, whereas now it takes place on the second Saturday in November.  The parade also used to take place on the water, whereas now it takes place  on land – although we still call the mobile stages “floats”.  It travels, accompanied by much pomp, from the Lord Mayor’s official residence, Mansion House,  past St Paul’s Cathedral, to the Royal Courts of Justice, where the Cities of London and Westminster meet.

Statue of Henry FitzAlywn, first Lord Mayor of London

Statue of the first Lord Mayor, Henry FitzAlywn de Londonestone – looking down at us from Holborn Viaduct

The Lord Mayor’s Show

Yesterday, Saturday 8th November, was the day of the annual Lord Mayor (of the City of London)’s Show.

Statue of Henry FitzAlywn, first Lord Mayor of London

The first Lord Mayor, Henry FitzAlywn de Londonestone, was appointed by Richard I as long ago as 1189.  The prestige of the position was such that John invited a later, and by then elected,  Lord Mayor, William Hardel, to be a signatory to the Magna Carta in 1215.  Magna Carta granted the City of London “all its ancient liberties and free customs, both by land and by water”.  In exchange, the Crown required that, each year, the newly elected  Lord Mayor present himself or herself at court to ceremonially “show” his or her allegiance (last year’s mayor was a woman, for only the second time).  This  event eventually became the Lord Mayor’s Show we know today.

Interestingly, the  associated parade of the mayor and his or her entourage, from the City to  Westminster, used to take place on the Feast of St Simon and St Jude, on October 28th, whereas now it takes place on the second Saturday in November.  The parade also used to take place on the water, whereas now it takes place  on land – although we still call the mobile stages “floats”.  It travels, accompanied by much pomp, from the Lord Mayor’s official residence, Mansion House,  past St Paul’s Cathedral, to the Royal Courts of Justice, where the Cities of London and Westminster meet.

Statue of Henry FitzAlywn, first Lord Mayor of London

Statue of the first Lord Mayor, Henry FitzAlywn de Londonestone – looking down at us from Holborn Viaduct