The Early Middle Ages

A map of London, drawn by chronicler and illuminator Matthew Paris in 1252; it shows the Tower, St. Paul’s and Westminster.


You Be All Law Worthy

In the last month of 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, marched down St. Giles High Street before turning south to Westminster. He had already savaged Southwark and now intended to lay siege to London Wall by Ludgate, which was then the principal entrance to the city. It was commonly said at the time that London “neither fears enemies nor dreads being taken by storm” because of its defences but, in fact, after some form of secret treaty or negotiations, certain Saxon nobles opened the gate. William’s troops made their way to St. Paul’s and Cheapside but then “in platea urbis”—an open space or wide street—they were attacked by a group, or perhaps even an army, of citizens who refused to countenance the entry of the foreign leader. A late eleventh-century chronicler, William of Jumieges, records that the Norman forces at once “engaged them in battle, causing no little mourning to the City because of the very many deaths of her own sons and citizens.” Eventually the Londoners capitulated. But their action demonstrates that they considered themselves to dwell in an independent city which could withstand foreign invasion. On this occasion they were mistaken, but for the next three hundred years Londoners would assert their sovereignty as members of a city-state.

The Battle of London, however, was over. Eleven bodies have recently been recovered just south-west of Ludgate, with some suggestion that they had been dismembered, while a hoard of several thousand coins of that period was found by the Walbrook.

The new monarch’s primary task was to subjugate the city. Work began on three military stockades at various points on the perimeter wall—Montfichet Tower, Baynard’s Castle and against the south-east section of the Wall, a structure that has since become known as the “Tower of London.” But the Tower never belonged to London and was considered by the citizens to be an affront or threat to their liberty. In The Making of London, Sir Laurence Gomme contemplates their displeasure when “they heard the taunts of the people who said that these walls had been built as an insult to them, and that if any one of them should dare to contend for the liberty of the city he would be shut up in them and consigned to imprisonment.”

After a great fire in 1077 which, like its predecessors, seems to have devastated much of the city, a stone tower was built in place of the original fortification; it took more than twenty years to complete, and pressed labour from the neighbouring shires was used in its construction. It was called the White Tower, and rose some ninety feet in the air to emphasise its power over the city. Elaborate rituals were drawn up in order to formalise the presence of London’s leaders in the Tower for judicial or administrative purposes, but it remained outside their jurisdiction. Built of alien material, cream-coloured Caen stone from Normandy, it was a visible token of foreign rule.

William was also graciously pleased to grant a “Charter” to London, on a tiny parchment less than six inches in length. It is written in Anglo-Saxon and French. Addressed to “the chiefs of the city” it granted to London “rights” that the city already possessed and had had since the days of Roman domination. “I do you to know that I will that you be all law worthy that were in King Edward’s day,” runs the translation. “And I will that every child be his father’s heir after his father’s day. And I will not endure that any man offer any wrong to you. God keep you.”

It may seem innocuous but, as Gomme suggests in The Governance of London, it represents “an entirely new constitutional factor in the history of London.” Londoners were to be allowed to live under the rule of law that the city itself had established. The king was asserting his sovereignty over the ancient governance of London.

William had, however, recognised the one central fact—that this city was the key both to his own fortunes and to those of the country he had conquered. That is why he had inaugurated the transition of London from the status of an independent city-state to that nation’s capital. In 1086 the Domesday Survey left London uninspected, no doubt on the ground that the complex financial and commercial activity within the city could not usefully be considered as part of the king’s revenue. At the same time the Norman king and his successors initiated an inspired plan of public works in order to emphasise the central place of London in the new politics. The cathedral of St. Paul was rebuilt and William’s successor, his son William Rufus, began the construction of Westminster Hall; a number of monastic houses and nunneries, together with priories and hospitals, were also erected in this period so that London and its environs were the site of prolonged and continual construction. The building and rebuilding, have been maintained ever since. The area around the Roman amphitheatre, for example, was cleared in the early twelfth century. In the same area the first guildhall was completed by 1127, and a second built in the early fifteenth century.

The earliest form of public administration was the folkmoot, which met three times a year, in the Roman amphitheatre and then latterly by St. Paul’s Cross. There was also a more formal court, known as the hustings. These institutions were of the greatest antiquity, dating to Saxon and Danish times when the city was autonomous and self-governing. The territorial divisions of London, still in existence, were also of very early date. By the eleventh century the principal unit of territory had become the ward, which was led and represented by an alderman. The ward was more than a collection of citizens administering their own streets and shops; it was also a unit of defence and attack, with a midsummer inspection when, according to an official document dating from the reign of Henry VIII, “ev’y alderman by hymself musteryd hys owne warde yn the fields, vewyng theym in harnes and sawe that ev’y man had a sworde and a dagger and suche as were not meate to be archars were turnyd to pykes.” As late as the fourteenth century a clerk could term London a respublica, and in this account of a carefully marshalled citizen army it is possible to trace the force and antiquity of the republican ideal.

But if the ward boundaries were the most significant within the city, they were not necessarily the most distinctive. Beneath the ward were the precincts with their own assemblies, and below them the individual parishes with their self-governing vestries. The city embodied a series of intricately related authorities, and that network of affiliations and interests has materially affected its life. Throughout the nineteenth century, for example, there were continual complaints about the rigidity and stubbornness of the city authorities. This resistance to change was the legacy of a thousand years, affecting and obscuring the capital as powerfully as its coal-smoke and its fog. It is also the setting in which succeeding events are best understood.

William the Conqueror’s successor, William Rufus, was characterised by his attempt to impose ever more extortionate taxes and dues and tolls on the citizens. In his struggles with the Norman barons ensconced in England, it was also Rufus’s custom to send prisoners to be executed in London; it was a token of its role as capital, perhaps, but also of the king’s authority.

After the death of Rufus in 1100, his brother, Henry I, hastened to the city in order to be acclaimed as the new sovereign. The records of his reign include a list of aldermen, from 1127, which displays so comprehensive a mixture of English and French names that a thoroughly ordered and working association between citizens who were now properly “Londoners” can be assumed. In fact the study of the names of Londoners becomes of extreme interest and significance in this period, as Old English names are gradually supplanted by those of French origin. Surnames were by no means universal, but were attached to a person because of locality or occupation—Godwinus Baker was thus distinguished from Godwin Ladubur (moneyer) and Godwyn Turk (fishmonger) or Godwinne Worstede (mercer) and Godwynne Sall (hatter). Other citizens were identified by patronymics or, more commonly, by nicknames. Edwin Atter’s name meant Edwin of the sharp tongue while Robert Badding’s implied an effeminate man; Hugh Fleg was “wide awake,” Johannes Flocc had woolly hair, John Godale sold good ale while Thomas Gotsaul was honest.

Even as they associated with each other in trade and commerce, however, the relationship of the citizens with the king became more problematic. For him, the city was predominantly a place to be “farmed” for revenue; the reason why Henry rarely interfered in the life of London was simply that he needed it to prosper in order to benefit from its wealth.

After Henry’s death in 1135, the dynastic struggles of the various claimants to the throne were directly affected by the loyalties and allegiances of Londoners; Henry’s nephew Stephen, Count of Blois, claiming the right of succession, promptly “came to London, and the London folk received him … and hallowed him king on midwinter day.” So says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and another ancient source adds that the “Alderman and wise folk gathered together the folkmoot, and there providing at their own will for the good of the realm unanimously resolved to choose a king.” The citizens of London had, in other words, formally elected a king for the entire country. It is not clear what Stephen promised or granted the city, in return, but from this time forward it takes the first place in national affairs with a degree of independence which suggests that London is almost self-governing.

The coronation of Stephen, however, was not in itself enough. The landing in 1139 of his rival, Henry’s daughter the Empress Matilda, and his own capture at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, meant that London was forced to choose again. A great conference was held at Winchester in order to consider the royal claims of Matilda, and a speech in her favour by Stephen’s own brother was concluded with the following significant remarks: “We have despatched messengers for the Londoners, who, from the importance of their city in England, are almost nobles, as it were, to meet us on this business; and have sent them a safe-conduct.” They arrived on the following day, saying that they had been sent a communione quam vocant Londoniarum—“from the community, or commune, of London.” This testimony from William of Malmesbury is the clearest possible evidence of the city’s significance. As the nation divided in baronial wars, London had ceased to be a capital and had once again become a city-state. The events of Matilda’s short subsequent reign reinforce this impression. She tried to curb the power of London and unwisely demanded money from its richest citizens. That is why, when Stephen’s own queen, Maud, approached London, its inhabitants rushed into the streets, according to Gesta Stephani, with weapons “like thronging swarms from beehives” in order to support her. Matilda fled from the irate citizenry, and never regained the throne.

A proviso must be entered here, if only to dispel the impression of thorough independence. When the national policy was disrupted by dynastic struggle, then London naturally took the lead. But in a peaceful well-ordered kingdom the citizens, equally naturally, accepted the authority of the sovereign. So it was that the reign of Henry II, Matilda’s son and Stephen’s successor, marked a slight diminution of the city’s authority. In his charter the king granted to Londoners “all their liberties and free customs which they had in the time of Henry my grandfather,” but the royal sheriffs conducted much of the administration under the king’s direct control.

The murder of Thomas à Becket in the winter of 1170 at Canterbury, for example, ought to have been a matter for Londoners. The archbishop was known to his contemporaries as “Thomas of London” and for many centuries he was the only Londoner to be canonised; his theatricality and flamboyance were also characteristic of the city. But there is no evidence of any popular support for his cause among Londoners. Perhaps he is one of those striking figures in the city’s history who move beyond their immediate context into eternity.

Yet it was Becket’s own twelfth-century biographer, William Fitz-Stephen, who celebrated the more earthly values of the city in that period. His account is written in the new style of urban encomia, since the formation of flourishing cities and the conduct of their citizens were then at the centre of European debate, but Fitz-Stephen’s depiction is nevertheless remarkable for its enthusiasm. It is also highly significant as the first general description of London.

He describes the sound or “clatter” of the mills, turned by streams in the meadows of Finsbury and Moorgate, as well as the shouts and cries of the market vendors who “have each their separate station, which they take every morning.” There were many wine shops close by the Thames, to accommodate the local artisans as well as traders who came to the docks; there was also a large “public eating-house,” where servants could purchase bread and meat for their masters or where the local vendors could sit and eat. Fitz-Stephen also depicts the “high and thick wall” which surrounded and protected all this activity, with its seven double gates and northern towers; there was also a great fortress to the east, “the mortar used in the building being tempered with the blood of beasts,” and two “strongly fortified” castles on the western side. Beyond the walls were gardens and vineyards, the mansions of the noble and the powerful interspersed among them. These great houses were generally in the western suburbs, where Holborn is now situated, while to the north were meadows and pastures which bordered upon “an immense forest” of which Hampstead and Highgate are the only remnants. Just beyond the city wall, on the north-western side, was a “smooth-field” now known as Smithfield where horses were sold every Friday. In paddocks close by, oxen and pigs were also slaughtered and sold. The same activity had taken place in precisely the same area for almost a thousand years.

Fitz-Stephen’s account is distinctive for the emphasis he lays upon the energy, combativeness and vivacity of the citizens. There were games of football every evening in the fields outside the city, when the young men were watched and cheered by their teachers, parents or fellow apprentices; upon each Sunday, at the same time, there were games of combat when they rode against one another “with lances and shields.” Even in its sports London had a reputation as a violent city. At Easter a tree was fixed into the middle of the Thames with a target hung upon it; a boat was rowed hard against it, carrying a young man with a lance. If he missed the target he fell into the river, to the amusement of the spectators. In the coldest days of winter, when the marshland of Moorfields froze, the more sportive citizens would sit upon great blocks of ice, which were pulled along by their friends; others fashioned skates from the shin bones of animals. But again there was an element of competition and violence in their pursuit; they skated towards each other until “either one or both of them fall, not without some bodily hurt” and “very frequently the leg or arm of the falling party” was broken. Even the lessons and debates of schoolboys were characterised in combative terms, with a steady stream of “scoffs and sarcasms.” It was a world of bear-baiting and cock-fighting, somehow consonant with Fitz-Stephen’s report that London could raise an army of 80,000 men, a world of violence and laughter mingled with what Fitz-Stephen terms “abundant wealth, extensive commerce, great grandeur and magnificence.” His is a portrait of a city celebrating its destiny.

It was a time, therefore, of prosperity and growth. The docks were expanding, as the waterfront was continually reclaimed and extended in order to accommodate the Flemings and the French and the Hanseatics as well as the merchants from Brabant and Rouen and Ponthieu; there was trade in fur, wool, wine, cloth, grain, timber, iron, salt, wax, dried fish and a hundred other commodities to feed, clothe and support an ever increasing population. Most of this population was itself busily engaged in commerce: the furriers of Walbrook, the goldsmiths of Guthrun’s Lane, the butchers of East Cheap, the shoe-makers of Cordwainer Street, the mercers in West Chepe, the fishmongers in Thames Street, the woodmongers of Billingsgate, the candlestick-makers of Lothbury, the ironmongers of Old Jewry, the cutlers of Pope’s Head Alley, the prayer-bead-makers of Paternoster Row, the vintners of Vintry, all of them involved in perpetual trade.

The city was indeed a much noisier place than it is now, filled with continual cries of porters and water-bearers as well as the general uproar of wagons and bells, of blacksmiths and pewterers beating out their wares, of porters and apprentices, of carpenters and coopers working alongside each other in the same small area of lanes and alleys. There was of course the smell as well as the noise, concocted from tanneries and breweries, slaughter-houses and vinegar-makers, cook-houses and dung-heaps as well as the ever flowing tide of refuse and water which ran down the middle of the narrower streets. All this created a miasma of deep odours which could not be dispersed by even the most violent wind. It was further enriched by the increased use of coal by brewers and bakers and metal-forgers.

Throughout this period, too, there was a continual process of building and rebuilding; not one part of the city was untouched by this expansion as new shops and “sleds” or covered markets, churches and monasteries, houses of stone and timber were constructed. When these layers of the city were excavated there lay revealed foundations of chalk and ragstone, chalk cesspits, arches of Reigate stone, building rubble, beechwood piles, oak timbers and threshold beams as well as the various impressions of walls, drains, floors, vaults, wells, rubbish-pits and stake holes. They were evidence of protracted and productive activity.

There was also constant activity in the “suburbs,” or fields just outside the walls. In the twelfth century the great priories of Clerkenwell and Smithfield, St. John and St. Bartholomew, were established, while in the succeeding century the religious houses of Austin Friars, St. Helen, St. Clare and Our Lady of Bethlehem were also founded. The church of St. Paul’s was rebuilt, and the monastic hospital of St. Mary Spital erected. The white friars and the black friars completed their great religious houses within twenty years of each other in the west of the city. This was the part of London in which there was the most heavy investment, with vacant land being sold on the promise of immediate development while buildings and tenancies were continually being subdivided into more profitable units. Yet the grandest work in all the rebuilding was that of London Bridge. It rose in stone and became the great highway of commerce and communication which has remained upon the same site for almost nine hundred years.

On either side of the southern entrance to that bridge, there now rear two griffins daubed in red and silver. They are the totems of the city, raised at all its entrances and thresholds, and are singularly appropriate. The griffin was the monster which protected gold mines and buried treasure; it has now flown out of classical mythology in order to guard the city of London. The presiding deity of this place has always been money. Thus did John Lydgate write of London in the fifteenth century: “lacking money I might not spede.” Alexander Pope repeated his sentiments in the eighteenth, invoking, “There, London’s voice: ‘Get Money, Money still!’”

“The only inconveniences of London,” Fitz-Stephen wrote, “are, the immoderate drinking of foolish persons, and the frequent fires.” In this he was prophetic as well as descriptive. Other observers at a slightly later date in the twelfth century, however, were more critical. One Yorkshire writer, Roger of Howden, reported that the sons of the wealthier citizens would assemble at night “in large gangs” in order to threaten or assault anyone who passed by. A monk from Winchester, Richard of Devizes, was more colourful in his condemnation: for him London was a place of evil and wrong-doing, filled with the worst elements of every race as well as native pimps and braggarts. He referred to the crowded eating houses and taverns, where dicing and gambling were customary. It is perhaps significant that he also mentioned theatrum, “the theatre,” which suggests that the London appetite for drama was already being satisfied in forms other than those of the mystery or miracle plays staged at Clerkenwell. (The “first” theatres of 1576, the Theatre and the Curtain, may well descend from lost originals.) The monk also provided an interesting survey of the city’s population, comprising in part “pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts.” They are joined by “quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes” in a panoply of urban life that would be celebrated, rather than condemned, in other centuries by writers as diverse as Johnson and Fielding, Congreve and Smollett. It is, in other words, the permanent condition of London.

William Fitz-Stephen noted that “The city is delightful indeed, when it has a good governor.” The word itself might be construed as “leader” or “master,” and has generally been taken to refer to the king. Yet in the years immediately succeeding his chronicle, the term is susceptible to other interpretations. There came a moment, in the last decade of the twelfth century, when it was shouted abroad that “Londoners shall have no king but their mayor!” This short-lived revolution was the direct consequence of a king’s absence on crusade in Palestine and Europe. Richard I had come to London for his coronation and was anointed on the first Sunday in September 1189 “that was marked unlucky in the calendar”; indeed it proved “very much so to the Jews in London, who were destroyed that day.” These cryptic words describe a mass slaughter—called by Richard of Devizes a “holocaust”—which has generally been scantily treated by historians. It has often been said that the principal culprits were those who owed money to the Jews, but it is hard to overestimate the savagery of the London mob; it represented a violent and ruthless society where the metaphor for the native population was that of bees swarming in angry clusters. The multitude are “busie Bees,” according to the sixteenth-century author of The Singularities of the City of London; their clamour, according to Thomas More in the same period, was “neyther loude nor distincke but as it were the sounde of a swarme of bees.” On this occasion the mob of bees stung the Jews and their families to death.

In the absence of the king on his religious wars, the leaders of London once more became the ascendant voice of England. The animus and will of Londoners were materially strengthened by the fact that Richard’s representative, William Longchamp, established himself in the Tower and began to erect new fortifications around it. It was a symbol of authority which was unwelcome. When Richard’s brother, John, aspired to the crown in 1191, the citizens of London assembled at a folkmoot in order to pronounce upon his claims; at this significant moment they agreed to accept him as king as long as he in turn recognised the inalienable right of London to form its own commune as a self-governing and self-elected city-state. To this John agreed. It was not a new title but for the first time it was accepted by the reigning monarch as a public organisation “to which all the nobles of the kingdom, and even the very bishops of that province, are compelled to swear.” These are the words of Richard of Devizes, who considered the new arrangement to be nothing other than a “tumor” or swelling-up of the people which could have no good consequences.

The connotations of the word “commune” are, from the French example, generally considered to be radical or revolutionary, but this particular revolution was instigated by the richest and most powerful of the London citizens. It was in fact, and in effect, a civic oligarchy comprising the most influential families—the Basings and the Rokesleys, the Fitz-Thedmars and the Fitz-Reiners—who styled themselves aristocrats or “optimates.” They were a governing elite who took advantage of the political situation in order to reassert the power and independence of the city which had been curtailed by the Norman kings. So we read in the great chronicle of the city, Liber Albus, that “the barons of the city of London shall choose for themselves each year a mayor from among themselves … provided always that when so elected he shall be presented unto his lordship the king, or in the king’s absence unto his justiciar.” Thus the mayor and his governing council of probi homines, the “honest men” of aldermanic rank, attained formal rank and dignity. The honour of becoming the first mayor of London goes to Henry Fitz-Ailwin of Londenstone, who remained in office for twenty-five years until his death in 1212.

It was not long after the authority of the mayor and commune was established that a sense of tradition entered the affairs of London: it is almost as if it had reacquired its history at the same time that its old powers were restored. Communal archives and records were deposited in the Guildhall, together with wills, charters and guild documents; from this period, too, issues a great spate of laws and mandates and ordinances. London had thereby acquired an administrative identity which animated such later bodies as the Metropolitan Board of Works and the London County Council of the nineteenth century as well as the Greater London Council of the twentieth. Here is the evidence of organic development which has not faded in time.

The administration of the city also began to demand the full-time employment of clerks, notaries and lawyers. An extraordinarily detailed code of civic legislation was established, and courts were instituted to deal with various misdemeanours. These courts also exercised general supervision over the condition of the city, such as the state of London Bridge and the creation of a water supply, with the various wards supervising matters of local sanitation, paving and lighting. The wards were also responsible for public safety as well as health, with twenty-six separate forces of police who were classified as “unpaid constables … beadles or bellmen, street keepers, or watchmen.” Extant records show that this was by no means a sinecure: we may estimate the population of London in the late twelfth century at approximately forty thousand, many of whom were not disposed to obey the precepts of authority and good order imposed by the optimates.

When in 1193 the citizens of London were asked to provide money for the ransom of the absent king, his brother’s brief rebellion having been effectively suppressed, there were many who resented the imposition. When Richard himself returned to London in the following year he was greeted with great ceremony, but then proceeded to milk the revenues of the city with methods ever more exacting; he is once supposed to have stated that “he would sell London if he could find a buyer,” which scarcely endeared him to the already hard-pressed citizens. It seems likely that those artisans and merchants beneath the level of the optimates carried the heaviest burden, and in 1196 a revolt of these Londoners was led by William Fitz-Osbert “of the long beard.” The beard was long but the rebellion was short. He seems to have had the support of a large number of citizens, and has been variously described as a demagogue and a defender of the poor. These are not in fact incompatible descriptions; but his insurrection was put down in a ruthless and violent manner which was entirely characteristic of the city. Fitz-Osbert sought sanctuary in St. Mary-le-Bow, on Cheapside, but the city authorities summarily removed him and hanged him with eight others at Smithfield in the sight of his erstwhile supporters. But the significance of the brief tumult was in the fact that a group of citizens had refused to obey the royal officials and merchant princes who controlled the city. It was the harbinger of necessary and inevitable change, as the population began to assert its own place in the general polity.

Yet the central area of tension, and possible conflict, still lay between city and king. The death of Richard I in 1199, and the elevation of John, did nothing to alleviate what seems to have been an instinctively anti-monarchical trend in London politics. It was the familiar story of the citizens being forced to pay increasing taxes or “tallage” to cover the king’s expenditure. The mayor and the most powerful citizens attempted to maintain a spirit of co-operation, if only because many of them were involved with the king’s household and would not necessarily benefit from his eclipse. But there was a growing disaffection within the commune. It would seem that King John, despite earlier promises, had abrogated certain rights and properties to himself, which prompted the thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris to conclude that the citizens had almost turned into slaves. Yet the elective capacity of the folkmoot could still be asserted. In 1216 five wealthy Londoners gave 1,000 marks to the French prince, Louis, in order that he might travel to the city and be consecrated as king in place of John. The civic ritual of coronation proved unnecessary, however, when John died in the autumn of that year. London sent Louis home again, with more money, and welcomed the young Henry III, John’s nine-year-old son, as its rightful sovereign.

We may walk the streets of London during the long reign of Henry III (1216–72). There were great houses as well as hovels, fine stone churches against which were erected wooden stalls for passing trade. The contrast of fair and foul can be put in another context with the statistic that, out of forty thousand citizens, more than two thousand were forced to beg for alms. The richer merchants constructed halls and courtyards while the poorest shopkeepers might live and work in two rooms ten feet square; the more affluent citizens owned fine furniture and silver, while those of straiter means possessed only the simplest pottery and kitchen utensils together with the tools of their trade.

One examination of a murder, when a young man killed his wife with a knife, incidentally provides a household inventory of the “middling” sort. The unfortunate pair lived in a house of wooden construction with two rooms, one above the other, and a thatched roof. In the lower room which opened upon the street there were a folding table and two chairs, with the walls “hung about with kitchen utensils, tools and weapons.” Among them were a frying pan, an iron spit and eight brass pots. The upper room was reached by means of a ladder—here were a bed and mattress, with two pillows. A wooden chest held six blankets, eight linen sheets, nine tablecloths and a coverlet. Their clothes “which were laid in chests or hung upon the walls” consisted of three surcoats, one coat with a hood, two robes, another hood, a suit of leather armour and half a dozen aprons. There were a candlestick, two plates, some cushions, a green carpet, and curtains hung before the doors to keep out the draughts. There would also have been rushes on the floor, not included in any inventory. It was a small, but comfortable, residence.

Those in poorer situations lived in rooms built within tenements which could be found down the narrow alleys between wide thoroughfares. The upper floor of these small houses was known as the “solar,” which protruded into the street itself so that little of the sky could be seen between two overhanging solars. Many of the smaller houses had been built of wood with thatched roofs, still reflecting the appearance of Saxon or early Norman building; London retained in part the atmosphere of a much earlier city, with tribal or territorial connotations. Yet after the many fires that visited the city, particularly a great conflagration in 1212, ordinances compelled householders to build their walls of stone and their roofs of tiles. Broken tiles from this period have been found in cesspits, wells, cellars, rubbish dumps and the foundation stones of roads. So there was a general process of transition, not perfectly managed, in which new stone and old timber stood side by side.

The condition of the streets themselves can be ascertained from the extant documents of the period. In the pleas and memoranda of the Guildhall, for example, we read of the master of Ludgate putting dung into the Fleet to such an extent that the water was stopped in certain places; a common privy is “diffectif” and “the ordur therof rotith the stone wallys.” The taverners of St. Bride’s parish put their empty barrels, and slops, into the street “to nusauns of all folk ther passyng.” There were complaints about defective paving in Hosier Lane, while in Foster Lane the fourteen households had the habit of casting from their windows “ordure & vrine, the which annoyet alle the pepol of the warde.” The cooks of Bread Street were indicted for keeping “dung and garbage” under their stalls, while a great stream of “dong and water and other diverse filth” was known to pour down Trinity Lane and Cordwainer Street by Garlickhithe Street, and descend between the shops of John Hatherle and Richard Whitman before discharging itself into the Thames. A dung-hill in Watergate Street beside Bear Lane “is noyowse to all the commune people, kasting out in-to this lane ordour of Prevees and other orrible sightis.” There are reports of stinking fish and bad oysters, of common steps in disrepair and of thoroughfares being blocked up, of areas or “pryue places” where thieves and “money strumpettes” congregate.

But some of the best evidence for the condition of the streets comes in the many regulations which were, from the evidence of the courts, being continually flouted. Stallholders were supposed to set up their stands only in the middle of the street, between the two “kennels” or gutters on either side. In the narrower thoroughfares the kennel ran down the middle of the street, thus effectively forcing pedestrians to “take the wall.” The scavengers and rakers of each ward were ordered “to preserve, lower and raise the pavements, and to remove all nuisances of filth”; all such “filth” was taken by horse and cart down to the river where it was carried off in boats built for the purpose. Special arrangements were made for carting off the noisome stuff from the sites of butchery—the shambles, the Stocks Market and the market at East Cheap—but there were always complaints of foul odours. In More’s Utopia (1516) the killing of animals takes place outside the city walls; his pointed recommendation is evidence of the real disgust which many citizens felt about the proximity of this trade.

In the Liber Albus there are also instructions that pigs and dogs be not allowed to wander through the city; more curiously, perhaps, it was decreed that “barbers shall not place blood in their windows.” No citizen was allowed to carry a bow for firing stones, and no “courtesans” were permitted to dwell within the city walls. This last ordinance was persistently flouted. There were elaborate regulations about the building of houses and walls, with special provisions applied for neighbours’ disputes; once again the impression is of a close compacted town. In the same spirit of good order it was decreed that the owners of the larger houses should always possess a ladder and a barrel of water in case of fire; since it had been ordained that tile rather than thatch should be the standard material of the roofs, the aldermen of each ward had the power to come with a pole or hook in order to remove any offending straw.

It is indicative of the close watch kept upon all citizens that there were also regulations about private and social arrangements. Every aspect of life was covered by an elaborate network of law, ordinance and custom. No “stranger” was allowed to spend more than one day and a night in a citizen’s house, and no one might be harboured within a ward “unless he be of good repute.” No lepers were ever allowed within the city. No one was permitted to walk abroad “after forbidden hours”—that is, after the bells or curfew had been sounded—unless he or she wished to be arrested as a “night-walker.” It was also forbidden that “any person shall keep a tavern for wine or for ale after the curfew aforesaid … nor shall they have any persons therein, sleeping or sitting up; nor shall anyone receive persons into his house from out of a common tavern, by night or by day.”

The curfew itself was rung at nine o’clock in the summer months, earlier in the darkness of winter. When the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside rang curfew, followed by the bell of St. Martin’s, St. Laurence’s and St. Bride’s, the taverns were cleared, the apprentices left their work, the lights dimmed as rush or candle were put out, the gates of the city were locked and bolted. Some of these apprentices believed that the clerk of St. Mary-le-Bow kept them at work too long by ringing too late and, according to John Stow, a rhyme was issued against

Clerke of the Bow bell with the yellow lockes

For thy late ringing thy head shall have knocks.

To which the offending clerk responded:

Children of Cheape, hold you all still,

For you shall have the Bow bell rung at your will.

This exchange testifies to the close relationship between all the members of the city so that everyone, for example, knew the bell-ringer with yellow hair. But the most striking image is perhaps that of the dark and silent city, barricaded against the outer world.

That silence was sometimes punctuated by screams, shouts and cries. It was the citizens’ duty to “raise hue and cry” against any transgressor of the peace, for example, and any citizen “who comes not on such hue and cry raised” was heavily fined. London was a city where everyone was watching everyone else, for the sake of the spirit of the commune, and there are numerous reports of neighbours “crying shame” at the ill treatment of an apprentice or the abuse of a wife.

Yet it is to be expected that, in a mercantile culture, the greatest body of law should be concerned with commercial transactions. There are many hundreds of regulations in this period, controlling every aspect of trading life. It was ordered that the vendors of certain products like cheese and poultry “shall stand between the kennels in the market of Cornhulle so as to be a nuisance to no one” with other trades distributed in various sites in the city. No vendor could “buy any victuals for resale before prime rung at St. Paul’s.” From the twenty regulations applying to bakers alone, it might be noted that a baker of “tourte” or pan-baked bread was not permitted to sell white bread; every baker also was commanded to leave “the impression of his seal” upon each loaf of bread. It was decreed that “all kinds of fish brought into the City in closed baskets shall be as good at bottom of the basket as at the top,” and that “no stranger ought to buy of a stranger.”

Fishermen laboured under hundreds of regulations about what they could catch, how they could catch, and where they could catch; the size and mesh of their nets were carefully measured. There was also an elaborate system of tolls and taxes, so that “Every man who brings cheese or poultry if the same amounts to fourpence halfpenny shall pay one halfpenny. If a man on foot brings one hundred eggs or more he shall give five eggs. If a man or woman brings any manner of poultry by horse and lets it touch the ground” he or she will pay more. It was an intricate system but its purpose was simply to ensure that the inhabitants of the city were adequately fed and clothed. It attempted both to pre-empt the extortionate demands of those who bought and sold, and to protect the rights of the citizens to trade in the city at the expense of “aliens” or “strangers.” The regulations had a further primary purpose, in the efforts to systematise trading so that there was little possibility of false measures, adulterated food or shoddy manufactures.

It is in the context of this thriving, colourful and energetic city that we can trace specific events which reveal the dangerous condition of the streets. In court records of the period we read of unnamed beggar women collapsing and dying in the street, of occasional suicides and constant fatal accidents— “drowned in a ditch outside Aldersgate … fell into a tub of hot mash.” We learn that “A poor little woman named Alice was found drowned outside the City wall. No one is suspected … a certain Elias le Pourtour, who was carrying a load of cheese, fell dead in Bread Street … a girl of about eight years old was found dead in the churchyard of St. Mary Somerset. It was believed that she was thrown there by some prostitute. No one is suspected.” Suicide in this age of piety, was considered a token only of madness. Isabel de Pampesworth “hanged herself in a fit of insanity” in her house in Bread Street. Alice de Wanewyck “drowned herself in the port of Dowgate, being non compos mentis.” Drunkenness was general, and there are continual references to citizens falling from their solars to the ground, falling down steps into the Thames, falling off ladders. The reports of these, and other fatalities, are to be found in The London Eyre of 1244 edited by Chew and Weinbaum. Other incidents are redolent of the period. “A certain man named Turrock” was found dead but “it was found that three men were lying in the deceased’s bed when he died … and they are in mercy,” the last phrase denoting that they had been acquitted of any charge. In another instance “Roger struck Maud, Gilbert’s wife, with a hammer between the shoulders and Moses struck her in the face with the hilt of his sword, breaking many of her teeth. She lingered until the feast of St. Mary Magdalen, and then died.”

This litany of death and disaster highlights the crude violence of the city streets; tempers are short, and life is held very cheap. “Henry de Buk killed a certain Irishman, a tiler, with a knife in Fleet Bridge Street, and fled to the church of St. Mary Southwark. He acknowledged the deed, and … abjured the realm. He had no chattels.” The quarrel of three men in a tavern by Milk Street led to a fatality when one was attacked with an “Irish knife” and a “misericord,” a merciful knife which was meant to guarantee a quick exit from this life; the fatally wounded man reached the church of St. Peter in Cheapside, but none of the bystanders offered to assist him.

The various trade guilds openly fought against each other in the streets; a group of goldsmiths, for example, fell upon a saddler and proceeded to lay open his head with a sword, chop off his leg with an axe and generally belabour him with a staff; he died five days later. When apprentices of the law rioted by Aldersgate, a citizen “amused himself” by shooting into the crowd an arrow which killed an unfortunate bystander. A “love-day,” designed to reconcile the coppersmiths and ironsmiths, turned into a general and murderous riot. When a group of unruly men entered a tavern one of the customers enquired, “Who are these people?” and was promptly killed with a sword. There were continual fights in the street, ambushes and arguments over nothing—or over “goat’s wool” as it was known. Games of “dice” or “tables” frequently ended in drunken fights, while it is clear that some of the owners of dicing taverns were engaged in wholesale fraud. It is a curious but instructive fact that the officers of the ward or parish were quick to tend to the religious needs of the maimed or dying, but there were few attempts to administer any form of medical treatment by physician or barber-surgeon. The injured were generally left to recover, or die, as providence intended.

There were many assaults upon women; in the transcripts there are cases of female Londoners being beaten or kicked to death, or callously murdered in premeditated fashion. Lettice accused Richard of Norton, vintner, of “raping and deflowering her” but the case did not proceed to trial. Wife-beating was common and went largely unremarked; but the brutalised women themselves could then in turn become brutal. A drunken woman started howling out insults to certain builders who were working on the corner of Silver Street—she called them “tredekeiles,” which might be translated as “lousy slobs,” and promptly started a fight in which one man was stabbed in the heart. Women could also be exponents of justice, rough even by London standards: when a Breton murdered a widow in her bed, “women of the same parish come owte with stonys and canell dong, and there made an ende of hym in the hyghe strete.”

The aldermen and watch of each ward had other duties which cast an intriguing light upon the customs of medieval London. They were instructed, for example, to arrest anyone wearing a “visor or false face” in the streets; to be masked was to be considered a criminal. The Court Rolls suggest that they were also given power to remove the doors and windows from any house of dubious reputation; there is a record of their “entering the house of William Cok, butcher, in Cockes Lane and tearing away eleven doors and five windows with hammers and chisels.” It is significant that the name, trade and street of the offender are conflated in characteristic medieval manner; it is an indication of how one activity, in this case the slaughter of poultry, can imbue an entire area of the city. Other incidents may also be representative, although less violent. The watch arrested certain apprentices who had filled a barrel with stones and then rolled it downhill from Gracechurch Street to London Bridge “to the great terror of the neighbours.”

There were more salacious, or intimate, events noted in the judicial records of a slightly later date; in their striking immediacy we might almost be in the same chamber with these early Londoners. “Will’m Pegden saieth that one Morris Hore broughte one Cicell and the saide Colwell had the vse of the bodie of the saide Elizabeth and the saide Alice Daie burned [gave a venereal disease to] the saide Cicell … And then the saide Alice daie came vppe Imediatlie, and lepped vppon the bed & said Cicell with hir kissinge together, and laying hir legges so broade that a yoked sow might go betwene.”

The crimes could be egregious, but the punishments had a distinctively communal aspect. It has often been suggested that the officials of the medieval city were more lenient than their successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and there is a partial truth to this. Punishments such as amputation were often commuted. But the civic spirit could be violent indeed, at least when it was threatened, and there are many records of hanging or beheading for offences against the city’s peace. The fatal penalty was almost always imposed upon rebels and upon those offenders who had in some other way touched the king’s majesty; one man was hanged, for example, for tampering with the royal seal. The heads of rebels and traitors were boiled and placed upon London Bridge, sometimes adorned with a crown of ivy as a final theatrical touch in the drama of punishment. At times of tension or disorder within the city, also, the mayor and aldermen resorted to capital punishment as the most expeditious way of controlling the populace. Murder was always a hanging offence (except when committed by a woman who could prove herself to be pregnant) but, in more peaceful time, the prison and the pillory were the common remedies for crime. Walter Waldeskef was charged “with being addicted to playing knucklebones at night”; he was described in the report as “a night walker, well dressed and lavish of his money, though no one knew how he got his living.” In the year after his arrest he was stabbed in Lombard Street and died in the church of St. Swithin at Walbrook. Agnes de Bury was imprisoned “for selling old fur on Cornhill,” while Roger Wenlock was committed to prison “for selling beer at 2d a gallon.” John Mundy, baker, “was set vpon the pyllery in Cornhill for makyng and sellyng of false breed,” and in the same month Agnes Deynte was also put in the pillory for selling “false mengled buttur.” Many and various frauds were also detected and punished. One baker cut a hole upon his moulding board; when the customer brought in his dough to be cooked, part of it was removed by a member of the baker’s family crouched beneath the counter. In another instance a former servant of a law officer, dismissed, travelled to various taverns and pretended to confiscate ale; the good tavern wives paid him to leave them alone. Eventually he was caught, and placed in the pillory.

Some of the punishments were more exotic. Bawds and “whore-mongers” had their hair shaved, leaving a two-inch fringe upon the heads of men and a small clump upon the heads of women. They were taken to their respective pillories by minstrels, the female pillory being known as a “thew,” where they became the target of the honest citizens’ anger or high spirits. If a woman was found to be a prostitute “let her be taken from the prison unto Aldgate” while wearing a hood of striped cloth and carrying a white taper in her hand; the minstrels once more led her to the pillory and, after the ritual abuse, she was marched down Cheapside and through Newgate to take up guarded lodgings in Cock Lane by West Smithfield.

Those consigned to the pillory for fraudulent manufacture or for selling shoddy goods had the items of their trade burned before them. John Walter had sold false measures of coal; he was condemned to stand in the pillory for an hour “with his sakkis brent [burnt] under him.” The journey to this place of obloquy was accompanied by other diversions: the culprit sometimes was forced to ride backwards on a horse, the tail towards him, and crowned with a fool’s cap. When one priest was found in flagrante delictohe was paraded through the streets with his breeches down and his clerical robes carried before him. Sir Thomas de Turberville, traitor, was taken through the streets of London dressed in a striped coat and white shoes; he was tied to a horse while around him rode six officials dressed all in red as emblems of the devil. Punishment becomes a form of festivity; in a relatively small and enclosed city, it turns into a celebration of communal feeling.

Yet harshness—one might almost call it savagery—was never very far from the surface, and can best be exemplified by the destination for London criminals who were spared the pillory or the noose: Newgate. During the coroner’s inquests of 1315–16, sixty-two of the eighty-five corpses under investigation had been taken from Newgate Prison. That is why there were many desperate attempts to break out of what was, essentially, a house of death. On one occasion the prisoners forced their way on to the roof “and faught ageyn the Citizens and kept the gate a greate while,” reinforcing the point that it was Londoners themselves who were essentially their guards and captors. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that one of the first extant texts in London English, written in the middle of the thirteenth century, should be entitled “The Prisoner’s Prayer.”

There was essentially only one escape from the wrath of the citizens, and that was the plea of sanctuary. A felon who could avoid capture, and take refuge in one of the many churches, was safe there for forty days. A watch was always placed around the church, in case of a sudden escape, and a body of citizens would have been encamped there day and night. Other places of sanctuary were Southwark, south of the river, and the east side of the Tower; where the power of the city stopped, in other words, the criminal was free. This is another indication of the self-sufficiency of the city, even if on such occasions it might have preferred a wider jurisdiction. During the course of sanctuary the prisoner often made a confession to the officers of the law and, at the end of the forty days, he or she was forced to “abjure the realm” and flee into exile. The status of the outcast was then announced at the folkmoot.

So from ancient deeds and coroners’ inquests, chancery rolls and chancery warrants, calendars of inquisitions and court records, we can summon up the spirit of medieval London in the streets, lanes and alleys that survive even still. But if this urban society was often characterised by violent confrontation so, too, was its political culture.

For much of the thirteenth century the record is one of riots, and massacres, and street-fighting. During this period London was in almost perpetual conflict with the reigning monarch, Henry III, while the aspiring leadership of the city was divided between the optimates and the populares— the old commercial magnates who had comprised the oligarchical commune of the city, as against the representatives of the crafts and trades who were beginning to feel their power. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the magnates tended to be royalist in their sympathy while the populares, sometimes also known as the mediocres, instinctively supported the barons of the realm with whom the king was in open conflict. London, once more, was the key. Whoever controlled the city was close to controlling the kingdom. The periodic baronial wars had this further consequence; there were parties and families within the city who maintained different allegiances, so that the national struggle was played out in miniature within the streets of London. It was truly the epitome of all England.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!