Another in the series of posts taken from my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …
The Angevin or Plantagenet Henry, son of Geoffrey V of Anjou and Matilda, was crowned King Henry II when Stephen died in 1154.
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.
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.
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 … ”.
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.
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.
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.
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.