Post-classical history





Probably during the calamitous year of 1450 a baby girl was born in the City of London and christened ‘Elizabeth’. Later she would be known as ‘Jane’ – perhaps a pet name or a name taken when beginning a new life. The birth must have been in some black-and-white timbered house, its eaves projecting over a narrow street not far from the Mercery in West Cheap. The Mercery was a long stone arcade divided into shops where her father plied his trade. Although the house was in no sense a shop, goods were stored in it and his apprentices ate and slept there. As he was a rich man, the house was furnished with what for the time was comfort, not to say luxury. London merchants and their wives drank from silver cups and had tall silver-salts standing on their tables, together with great pewter chargers and ewers; there were fine displays on their ‘cup boards’. Jane is unlikely to have been born in a four-poster bed, since these were still rare, but it would have had a canopy with hangings of painted cloth.

Jane’s father, Mr John Lambert, was a liveryman (or full member) of the Mercers’ Company, one of the rich merchant companies that controlled the City. When he went out on business or to church – the nearest being St Mary le Bow – he wore an expensive ‘livery’ or uniform, a costly, gold-braided blue robe and hood, lined and edged with fur. He had become a man of standing in London, entitled to style himself ‘Esquire’, and one of the elite who elected the mercers’ governing body, the wardens. Soon he himself would be one of the four wardens, who met at the Hospital of St Thomas of Acre to see that the company’s statutes were observed. The wealthiest of all the ‘mysteries’ (companies), the mercers dominated not only the cloth trade but the merchant adventurers.

Formerly mercers had specialized in woollens. Nowadays, while still dealing in worsteds, they preferred imported textiles, rare and luxurious fabrics that were not yet manufactured in England, such as silks and velvets, though they might also deal in any commodity from wine to precious metals. No one could become a mercer without serving a long apprenticeship, which required an expensive premium, and then showing that he had a proper stock of goods. In 1503 the mercers would demand stock worth at least £100, though John Lambert may have begun with much less than this, perhaps worth as little as £40. He was also a merchant adventurer, with many contacts in the Netherlands.

John had been apprenticed in 1436 to a mercer named Thomas Onehand. Since apprentices were not admitted until they had reached the age of fourteen, and generally at seventeen, it is likely that John was born about the year 1419. His master was bound by the company ordinances to ‘feed, clothe and teach [him] well and truly his art and craft.’ John would have paid the company the enrolment fee of two shillings in silver pence or groats. Apprenticeship involved not only trade and the ways of the City, but buying and selling on behalf of Onehand, acting as his agent and travelling to fairs in the Low Countries as well as all over England, so that John may have acquired a smattering of French and Flemish.

He completed his apprenticeship in 1444, after less than eight years instead of the normal ten, and started his own business. We do not know how he found the money to do so. One possibility is that he had saved money from his wages and had been trading for himself; this was against the mercers’ rules, so he would have had to hide his stock in a tavern or some other secret place. Another possibility is that he used the dowry from his marriage, for at some time during the 1440s he married Amy Marshall, his bride being the daughter of a rich London grocer who seems to have lived in Cripplegate parish. As a grocer, Robert Marshall belonged to another powerful livery company, controlling the lucrative spice trade in pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, which were indispensable for making rotten meat and salt-fish edible during the winter months. Membership did not restrict Mr Marshall to dealing in spices – he may have traded in silks, like the great grocer Sir John Crosby, bringing him into contact with mercers.

There is evidence that later John Lambert was on bad terms with his brother-in-law Alexander, a dissipated young man. When Mr Marshall died in 1446 he left his son his estate on condition he abstained from ‘riot and vices’ – though he also bequeathed him a velvet doublet and a silver-mounted sword. Alexander did not reform and his sisters tried to prevent him from inheriting anything at all, alleging in the courts that he had had a loose woman in his room and had stolen a valuable salt cellar.


Jane Shore’s father, John Lambert – ‘citizen, mercer and alderman of London’ – with her mother Amy, and their children. From a brass of 1487 at Hinxworth, Herts.

Both Jane’s parents, therefore, came from well-to-do, largely self-made backgrounds. They were to have six children who survived infancy, four sons and two daughters, Jane (Elizabeth) being the elder of the girls. All of them had excellent prospects since John Lambert was an enterprising and no doubt ruthless businessman.

The Scots poet William Dunbar, who visited London half a century later, described it as ‘Queen of cities all’. Its proud citizens had long known this to be beyond dispute. As England’s largest city and the country’s commercial and political capital, where the court resided – whether at the Tower or at the Palace of Westminster – its population may have been as high as 50,000. (That of York, its nearest rival, was only about 12,000; those of Bristol, Coventry and Norwich, accounted great cities, were as low as 5,000.) There were twenty-three monasteries and over a hundred churches within the walls, together with many imposing ‘inns’. These were vast, rambling, semi-fortified mansions of brick and timber, built in the style which today we call ‘black-and-white’, housing noblemen, bishops or rich merchants. The greatest mansion of all was the grim Tower of London, a monstrous combination of fortress, prison and palace, tall, black and menacing despite its royal apartments and pleasure gardens. (Neighbouring Westminster upriver remained a separate city.) The countryside was only a very short walk away, just outside the walls, flat green fields filled with sheep and cattle before one reached the hills of Harrow and Hampstead with all their windmills. Downriver there were straggling suburbs on the north bank, faced by vegetable gardens and then marshes across the water.

The Thames was the main thoroughfare, barges and wherries taking the place of buses and cabs. There was a single massive bridge over the river, built of stone on great clumps of elmwood piles, which was crowded with houses four storeys high; the road across it went under archways and through courtyards, the arches adorned by the rotting heads of men who had been executed for treason. On the banks, amid a myriad of tall cranes, stood countless warehouses stuffed with gemstones, precious metals, silks and velvets, furs, sugar and spices, rare wines, and exotic fruits. ‘The riches of England are greater than those in any other country in Europe’, wrote a Venetian. Although he came from a city generally considered the most luxurious in Christendom, he was staggered by what he saw. In Cheapside (the smart shopping street) ‘there are fifty-two goldsmiths’ shops, so rich and full of silver vessels great and small, that in all the shops in Milan, Rome, Venice and Florence put together, I don’t think there could be found so many as magnificent as those which are to be seen in London.’

Life in the bustling, opulent ‘City’ must have been pleasant for a prosperous young couple like the Lamberts, though the Venetian thought that Londoners had a peculiar way of enjoying themselves. ‘Few people keep wine in their own houses, but buy it, for the most part at a tavern; and when they mean to drink a good deal they go to the tavern, and this is done not only by the men but by ladies of distinction.’ However, Mr Lambert clearly spent more time at his shop in the Mercery than in the pubs.

Lit by rows of glass windows, and by a great fire in winter, his house would have been cheerful enough, with hangings of red, blue, green or tawny cloth, sometimes painted with saints or heraldic devices. There were also ‘cloths of Arras’ and tapestry, while coloured panelling was popular. Furniture was sparse – canopied beds, trestle tables, forms, stools and chests. Pewter services of plates, chargers and jugs, interspersed with silver cups and standing salts, stood on a ‘cupboard’. There were wrought-iron fire-backs, brass and copper pots and pans.

The family spent a lot on clothes, a key element of status. A merchant like John aped the gentry, wearing gowns of silk and velvet, trimmed with beaver or marten fur, set off by silk belts and gold chains. ‘A man would buy violet cloth for his wedding gown, with violet hose to match’, says Sylvia Thrupp in The Merchant Class of Medieval London.1 ‘Women seem to have had fewer gowns than their husbands, but their jewelry continued to be more elaborate. One widow had five gold rings, two “herts” of gold, a gold rose “powderid with perle”, gold and coral beads, and four girdles with gold and silver fastenings . . . Women also needed stock of kerchieves for their headdresses.’

Even so, it was an anxious time for English merchants. The loss of Normandy was bad enough, but nothing compared to that of Gascony. Most of the vast quantities of wine consumed in England had come from south-western France. Wine has been described as almost a form of currency at this time, and cloth merchants such as John Lambert would often accept it in lieu of coin when trading abroad. No doubt he imported his own supplies from Gascony on board the fleet that sailed twice a year between Southampton and Bordeaux. However, in 1449–50 the fleet brought back a mere 207 tons compared with over a thousand during the previous year, while in 1450 there was no wine fleet. The price of wine in the taverns soared. Although the wine trade soon began to revive, it now had to cope with a new French government at Bordeaux and would not recover properly for another thirty years.

Trade across the North Sea was also upset by English pirates, who preyed on fellow countrymen as well as on foreigners. In particular they jeopardized relations with the Hanseatic merchants of Germany, already sour enough. In the summer of 1450 over 50 Hanseatic ships were seized in the Channel and their cargoes of salt sold in London. The Hanse retaliated by seizing the goods of all Englishmen who were trading in their towns – such as Cologne or Dantzig.

The fall of English France in 1449–51 began a slump that would continue for decades, harming merchants such as Mr Lambert. Not only the mercantile community was outraged by news of defeats across the Channel. During June 1450, led by an Irishman called Jack Cade, a host of armed petitioners from Kent and Sussex (including several gentlemen) stormed into London.2 No doubt more than a few citizens like John Lambert agreed with the complaint in their petition to the king that ‘his merchandise is lost’, and much else too. What they did not want, however, was the sack of London. Cade’s men occupied the Guildhall, freed the prisoners in the King’s Bench and Marshalsea gaols, and looted private houses. A mob dragged the treasurer, Lord Saye, out of the Tower and beheaded him.

The angry Londoners rose to expel this ‘multitude of riffraff’ from the City. They spent an entire Sunday night ‘ever fighting upon London Bridge, and many a man was slain and cast in [the River] Thames, harness, body and all’. One surmises that Mr Lambert was among the combatants; most well-to-do citizens owned ‘harness’ or plate armour. Early in July Cade was tricked by a false pardon into withdrawing from the City, and then hunted to his death.

While John may have despised ‘riffraff’, he can have been no mourner for the murdered Lord Saye. All his class disliked great lords who rode arrogantly through the streets to their inns, escorted by a menacing retinue of armed retainers, arousing fear and envy. No London inn of this sort has survived from the fifteenth century, though Crosby Hall (built of stone in 1466 and moved from the City to Chelsea in modern times) is the dining hall of one; a magnate ate in such a room, seated upon a dais and waited on by a miniature court of carvers and ushers. His retainers fed at long trestles, going to the fire in the kitchen at the end of the hall where whole sheep and oxen were revolving on spits and bringing back as much meat, ‘sodden or roast’, as they could carry on a dagger.

It is hard to exaggerate the gulf between the classes. For a peer, even for one of the upper gentry, men like Lambert were no less commoners than the toilers in the fields. Although a Burgundian, Georges Chastellain spoke for the English gentry when he wrote that nothing admirable could be expected of ‘merchants and labourers’ because both were ‘servile’. There was little love between high and low. ‘There are no more untrustworthy people under the sun than the middle classes in England’, the snobbish Froissart had observed at the beginning of the century, adding that they would not let their betters have anything, even an egg or a chicken, without overcharging them.

Clearly, Mr Lambert must have had to meet both noblemen and gentlemen in the course of his business. They dressed according to their wealth – a great magnate might spend half a year’s income on a doublet. Rare and costly fabrics were in demand, not just for apparel but for bedclothes, hangings, horse-trappings and pavilions. Mercers brought velvets, satins, brocades and damasks, cloth of gold or silver, shot silks or spotted taffetas, for these august customers to inspect. However, such contacts did not make for familiarity.

On the other hand, John had his social ambitions. As will be seen, it is obvious that he hoped to enter the lesser gentry, as had many other prosperous London citizens. He intended to acquire an estate and a manor house and found a landed family.

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