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Was mediaeval London a den of quacks, magicians, thieves and beggars?

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, Historical articles, History, London, Politics, Royalty on Thursday, 9 August 2012

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This edited article about London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 762 published on 21st August 1976.

The White Tower, picture, image, illustration

The White Tower was started by a monk under instructions from William the Conqueror by Harry Green

Ansgar the Staller had to be carried in a litter around London’s wall because of the wounds he got at Hastings. He stared at the invaders as they burned Southwark. It must have been a depressing sight for a man they charged with defending England’s greatest city. London seemed about to go the same way. The city’s leaders had backed Harold Godwinson against Duke William of Normandy, but Harold had died on the battle-field of Hastings. Now the victor of 1066 was at Westminster, uttering gruesome threats against London.

Though his ancestors were Vikings, William was not like previous invaders, and he certainly did not intend to burn down the richest city in his new-won realm if he could avoid it. After his victory at Hastings, William sent advance troops hurrying up to the Thames. Their first attack on London Bridge was beaten back, but when the bulk of the Norman army arrived, the suburb of Southwark was put to the torch. Then William and his disciplined knights turned west and marched around London, destroying everything in sight.

London now sent emissaries to the new master of England, who replied: “I decree that all those who enjoyed the law’s protection in King Edward’s day shall continue to do so, and that every child shall be his father’s heir, for I will not tolerate any wrong being done to you. God keep you.”

London was powerful, but William, crowned King in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, was now ruler. The city and king had come to terms.

London is not included in the Domesday Book. We have information about the most obscure villages in the late 11th century, yet we know nothing about the greatest city in the land. The recorders who made up the Domesday Book probably meant to compile a separate volume for London. Sadly, they never got round to it. On the other hand there is a lot more known about London after the Norman Conquest than about London before William the Conqueror made his appearance.

One of the first things that William did made quite an impact on London’s skyline, for he began to build the White Tower at the centre of London’s existing complex of fortifications.

It gave English Londoners a practical example of Norman military might, and at the same time protected the city from any attackers sailing up the Thames. Later, other castles were built in London. Among them were Baynard’s Castle and the Tower of Mountfitchet in the west of the city, though both of them have now disappeared.

An era of peace, more or less, lay ahead for London. Beautiful civil buildings like Westminster Hall started to appear, and the next few centuries saw an almost uninterrupted economic boom. In 1066, London was already trading with Rouen for wine and fish, with Scandinavia for fish, skins and fur in exchange for wheat, honey and wool.

England’s new rulers had more sophisticated tastes, however. They demanded foreign luxuries – and they got them via Norman or Flemish merchants, for at this time the English were outclassed when it came to long-distance trade.

The Thames came to be a very crowded bit of water, crammed with fat cargo “cogs” that replaced the sleek but lightly-loaded Viking-style ships. London was always an international city, but now it attracted even more foreigners. Vikings soon disappeared, to be replaced by Germans, French, Jews and, later on, by a large Italian community of cloth-merchants and bankers.

England became a sort of Angevin “empire” under Henry II, and London was at the heart of a realm spreading from Scotland to the Pyrenees. It was a businessman’s paradise, so no wonder England’s greatest city started to burst at the seams. Beyond the river was bustling, if notorious, Southwark, while along the Thames lay the classy Strand area. Westminster was already, of course, England’s capital, with a splendid abbey, a fine hall and a palace attended by the grandest lords and ladies of the Court.

The greatest threats to London were natural. Fire was only to be expected in a city of thatched wooden houses. The years 1077, 1086-7, 1092, 1098, 1100, 1132, 1135-6, all saw serious outbreaks, but there were terrific storms as well. Six hundred houses were flattened, together with London’s wooden bridge and the roof of St. Mary-le-Bow on 17th October 1091. London’s authorities tried to cut down the fire risk by banning thatched roofs.

The city was getting grander as well. Finest of all was a new bridge, built of stone, begun in 1176, the first such bridge in Western Christendom since Roman times. During the 13th century, this bridge got a bit cluttered when houses were built on it.

London was growing crowded; houses got taller and the gardens inside the walls were built over. Plenty of open ground existed beyond the walls. There must also have been some space around St. Paul’s in the 12th century. This area was plagued by wild dogs. These were “as short in the body as they are both quarrelsome and fierce by nature,” according to one terrified visitor, Abbot Hugh of Flavigny.

Apart from providing homes for hounds, the Church in London also set up schools and hospitals. These schools were strange places by modern standards. Boys were taught Latin. They aimed to get their “Trivium”, a three-part qualification in grammar, rhetoric and logic.

And when not working, these schoolboys, together with apprentices and others, could join in various games outside the city wall, if they didn’t mind risking their necks. Games included a ruthless sort of football, and horse-races at Smithfield where spurs and whips were freely used on horses and rivals alike.

London was a hectic sort of place, even on work days. Apart from the wharfs down by the river, markets would have been the busiest places. These centred around East Cheap and West Cheap, now remembered as Cheapside, on either side of the Walbrook stream. The names of nearby streets showed what could be bought there – Milk Street, Bread Street, the Poultry, and so on.

In such hives of activity, the roads got into a bit of a mess, especially as there were no regular corporation dustmen to clear them up. Travellers did not often comment on such problems, which were expected in the Middle Ages, but they often remarked on the sort of accommodation they found in London. There were not many inns, and it was more usual to stay in a private house or at a monastery. Some people, like William Fitz Stephen who was himself a Londoner of the 12th century, regarded the citizens as open-handed and hospitable. Others, like Richard of Devizes, a West Country monk, listed the human parasites who preyed on unwary travellers.

It was all a matter of opinion. Fitz Stephen believed that London’s weather was neither soft enough to make men decadent, nor harsh enough to brutalize them. On the other hand, an elderly Jew of France, advising a youngster soon to visit England, urged him to avoid London at all costs, calling it a den full of quacks, magicians, thieves and beggars. In fact, the roughest area was Southwark, outside the boundary of the City of London, and hence outside its control.

Certainly, medieval London was a violent place for various reasons, including local politics. The city’s wealth enabled it to win privileges from England’s kings, for crowned heads always seemed short of cash. Londoners also hated outside interference, and were quite prepared to fight, desert or swindle those who were themselves squabbling to control England. As the centuries rolled by, London squeezed more and more concessions out of the government. The year 1193 was a particularly good one.

“Come what may, Londoners shall have no king but their mayor.” Those defiant words came at a time when Richard I was imprisoned in Austria. Only eighteen months earlier Prince John, the regent, had agreed to preserve the Commune of London. This was a horrifying precedent for the powers-that-be in those days. It was revolutionary, in fact. As it turned out, the Commune proved to be a damp squib, but London kept on trying, and in 1319 the city won a great victory.

England was in a state of confusion, with Edward II struggling to escape the stifling power of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the mightiest baron of the realm. Now here was a chance for London!

The mayor, Alderman Wengrave, was a Lancaster-man, but Lancaster had lost the support of the Londoners. On 24th March they offered the king 2,000 marks, a fortune, whereupon the Earl of Pembroke, one of Edward’s supporters, summoned Mayor Wengrave to the Chapter House of St. Paul’s.

Meanwhile the citizens deluged Pembroke with petitions and complaints. Caught between these two fires, Wengrave resigned and, for another 1,000 marks, King Edward II gave London a fine new Charter confirming all its ancient liberties and privileges.

Local government can be fairly dull, though it was less so in the swashbuckling Middle Ages. But this charter of 1319 remained the summit of success for “democracy” in medieval London. Much was to be lost later and many hard times were to come, but 1319 was never to be forgotten in the City.

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