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Mediaeval London was grandified under the Tudors and the Stuarts

Posted in Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London, Politics, Rivers, Royalty, Uncategorized on Friday, 5 October 2012

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This edited article about London originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 764 published on 4th September 1976.

Apprentices' riot, picture, image, illustration

The riot of the Apprentices in 1517, after which Catherine of Aragon interceded with King Henry on their behalf (inset). Pictures by Clive Uptton

“London, thou art the flower of cities all!” The poet William Dunbar was clearly impressed. He had come down from Scotland with his master, the Scottish Ambassador, for a Christmas Day feast at the Lord Mayor of London’s palace in 1501.

Other foreigners were not quite so sure. Only four years earlier, an Italian business man had got a poor reception. “Londoners have such fierce tempers and wicked dispositions that they not only despise the way in which Italians live, but actually pursue them with uncontrolled hatred. They look askance at us by day, and at night they sometimes drive us off with kicks and blows of the truncheon.”

Unfortunately it was true that Londoners did go in for a lot of anti-foreign riots, insults and sometimes murder. Sometimes things really got out of hand, as on the ‘Evil May Day’ of 1517. Young apprentices of London had been bullying foreigners for months. The city aldermen decided to have a curfew on May Day night. But the youngsters had been looking forward to letting of steam on May Day, and they simply refused to go indoors when the bells tolled. Instead they attacked one of the city fathers. A riot started, windows were broken and King Henry VIII decided that the Mayor and Corporation had lost control. In his opinion, these rioters were committing treason by assaulting foreigners who were under the King’s personal protection.

Cannonballs were fired from the Tower of London into the city and some apprentices were arrested. On May 4th, thirteen of these “poor younglings” were executed, much to the horror of all London. As the Venetian Ambassador put it: “This has been a great commotion, but the terror was greater than the harm.”

London’s urban government was breaking down in the face of problems that would daunt even the modern Greater London Council. Things really got bad when huge areas of England were fenced off for sheep pastures, forcing peasants to go to the cities in search of a new life. Their numbers were later swollen by refugees from religious persecution in Europe, and London’s population soon rose to 200,000. Most had to live outside the city wall. This meant that they were generally outside the city’s control as well, and ghastly slums started to appear. Homeless, starving people became a threat to those lucky enough to have work. These included redundant soldiers, peasants driven from the land and, after King Henry VIII had got rid of the monasteries, hundreds of monks and nuns, who had been left to beg in the streets.

The King had not been too sure that his Dissolution of the Monasteries would work, so in 1532, he gave it a trial run in England’s biggest city. Christchurch Priory in Aldgate was the chosen victim and when the Londoners made no fuss, Henry’s whole plan went ahead. Some monastic property, like St. Mary Graces, became government offices and stores. The Greyfriars buildings became Christ’s Hospital, the Charterhouse was eventually turned into a school, and Covent Garden, originally owned by Westminster Abbey, was sold to the Earl of Bedford.

The city was a maze of tiny, twisting lanes with only a few main streets. It got so cluttered that when Elizabeth I became Queen, and had to travel from Hatfield House to the Tower of London, she chose a very odd route. Her party came direct down to Aldersgate, then turned eastwards along the wall to enter the city at Cripplegate.

On another occasion, Elizabeth was cruising up the Thames with the French Ambassador in her Royal Barge, the smartest form of travel in those days. Suddenly an oarsman, barely six feet from the Queen, collapsed with a bullet through both arms. Elizabeth threw him her scarf as a bandage and told him that the bullet must have been aimed at her, not him. She was wrong, as a matter of fact. That near-fatal shot was fired by a choirboy named Thomas Appletree who had been fooling around with a gun not far off. They set up the hangman’s gibbet for young Thomas, but at the very last moment, the Queen’s pardon arrived.

Guns were getting to be a menace in London. In the Middle Ages, every man was supposed to practise archery in his spare time, but in Tudor days, bows and arrows were virtually out of date. It was now the age of gunpowder, and lots of people went “roving” in places like Finsbury Court and Spitalfields, shooting at targets or even at nothing in particular, quite ignoring the people and cattle wandering about.

Other London pastimes were purely for fun, like the theatres set up in Southwark because such “disgraceful” playhouses were not allowed inside the city itself. The most famous of these open-air theatres was the Globe, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed. Even more popular were fairs. The biggest and best of these was the annual St. Bartholomew Fair, “the booths of old St. Bartle”, as the locals called it. Its reputation was awful. People were swindled and robbed, particularly foreign visitors and those up from the country.

There were ballad-sellers, freak shows, and pickpockets. At the nearby Turk’s Head Music Booth in Smithfield, Thomas Dale kept customers happy with – “a glass of good wine, rum, cider, beer, ale, and all other sorts of liquor to be sold; while you may likewise be entertained with good music, singing and dancing”. Dale’s place was famous for one young lady who danced while juggling with fourteen wine-glasses.

It would be wrong to think of Elizabethan London as all fun and games. People still had to work. Many new industries were set up in Tudor times, manufacturing things that previously had to be imported. Most famous, perhaps, was the Royal Armoury at Greenwich established by Henry VIII to produce top-quality armour for the King and his aristocracy. Fine Dutch pottery was imitated at Aldgate, so-called Venetian glass at Crutched Friars, while a certain Richard Mathews of Fleet Bridge became “the first Englishman that attained perfection of making fine knives”. In Queen Mary’s reign, an African living in Cheapside used to make excellent steel needles, though he would not show anyone how he did it.

Above all, London took over from Antwerp as the financial capital of the world, which the City still is. As if to symbolize the city’s new importance, Sir Thomas Gresham, economic advisor to the Crown, built a magnificent Royal Exchange in the very heart of London. For a century, this building was the centre of the world’s money business.

Another addition to the scenery which dates from those years still exists. This is the New River. London’s drinking water previously came from springs or from the Thames, which were either inadequate or unhealthy. So in 1609, Sir Hugh Myddelton MP, a Welsh mining engineer, won a contract from the Corporation of London to bring fresh water from Amwell in Hertfordshire. To do this, he had the New River dug, and a clean reservoir excavated at Finsbury. The scheme involved about 200 wooden aqueducts, numerous windmill pumps, and a distribution system of elm pipes throughout the city.

Almost as ambitious was Inigo Jones’ upper-class estate built at Covent Garden in the 1630s. This was the first real town-planning London had seen since Roman times. Inigo Jones’ church is still there, but a similar development started at Lincoln’s Inn Fields came up against an unexpected problem, a problem that was to test all of London’s courage and determination. This was the English Civil War between King and Parliament.

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