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Medieval London

By David Nash Ford

The corporation of the City of London predates even England's parliament and is based on the French model, with the ''maire'' at its head. This form of organisation was already an established principle at the time of King Stephen 's imprisonment, when the people successfully demanded his release. There is no evidence of the London citizenry of the time being recognised as a corporate entity but there were strong examples to be followed in the great merchant cities of France and Flanders.

The strength of the Mayoralty in London was confirmed under Richard the Lionheart and even more during his absence on crusade, under the future King John 's regency. The mayor's authority, supported by his aldermen and councilmen was given such a firm basis that it still continues in much the same form. London was made the first municipal corporation in England, later emulated by 28 medieval towns in their own charters.

Londoners were always willing to take the opportunities presented by power struggles within the national government. John, brother of Richard I, was able to win unaccustomed support in his opposition to Longchamp, Richard's ruthless representative, by accepting the ''commune'' of London. This was ultimately to lead, in 1191, to the meeting of the English Barons with the Citizens of London and their removing Longchamp in order to bring John to power. At this point John kept his word and publicly recognised the commune, agreeing to respect the rights of all those involved. It is not entirely clear what led to this exceptional event, but civil unrest is widely suspected. At this time many individual territories, or sokes, with their own jurisdiction would have existed within the area and the transition for these would have been particularly problematic.

The first record of a London mayor, Henry FitzAilwyn, is not until 1193. His term of office was to last until his death in 1212. Some aldermen, particularly those with major land holdings, were especially powerful and held great influence in the choice of the mayor. It is clear that from Edward I's reign, the aldermen formed the prime decision-making group and from this group the mayor has always been chosen.

The Lord Mayor's Show, a popular annual spectacle, derives from the original 'ridings' to Westminster, to obtain approval from the monarch or his minister for the people's choice of mayor. This election had been instituted as a result of King John's charter in 1215, which gave Londoners the right to choose their own leader.

London's mayor was amongst the treasurers of Richard the Lionheart's ransom. During the troubles of King John's reign, London supported the Rebel Barons. The City even allowed them within the city walls and provided them with troops and money. These barons were led by Robert FitzWalter, 'Castellan' of the city's western riverside fortress of Baynard's Castle. The Magna Carta gave responsibility to both the Mayor of London and FitzWalter for upholding the terms of the charter and thus protecting the liberties of the city.

The reigns of Henry III and Edward I mark a period of unrest in London, during which more than one mayor was removed from power and replaced by a royal warden. This tendency for London to be 'taken into the king's hands' may reflect the inclination of the people to oppose the harsher monarchs. Indeed a band of Londoners supported Simon de Montfort against Henry III at the Battle of Lewes in 1264. Both kings were obliged for a period to rule London through their 'custos', Henry from 1265 to 1270 and Edward from 1285 to 1298.

Our documentation for the 13th century, in London, is much more complete, particularly towards the end of the century. To supplement the chroniclers' narratives, we have the contemporary archives of the City, including the Letter Books begun under Edward I, rolls from the mayor's court and the 'Hustings' court and citizens' wills. From these, we can learn a great deal about the social and professional lives of Londoners, as well as the structure of the city. The crowded city clustered along the riverbank, with a small settlement across the river in Southwark.

Being so cramped, the city was regularly devastated by fire. To limit the dangers that this posed, FitzAilwyn, the first mayor, introduced the first Building Act. Stone was to be used for partitioning walls and thatched roofs were prohibited. However, it was some time before these principles were widely put into practice. We can gain a good picture of the buildings of the time from plans which have survived to this day.

To the west of the city walls lay the western liberty, a site of many town hostels for religious groups. By 1189 the Knights Templar had moved from Holborn and constructed their Round Church near the Thames. However, in 1312, their order was suppressed and their successors, the Hospitallers, leased many of their buildings to London lawyers. These were the beginnings of the Inns of Court and Chancery: hostels for barristers and students which took on the role of a University in the city. The four most ancient are the Inner (1312) and Middle Temple (1320), Lincoln's (c.1348) and Gray's (1370) Inn. They taught history, music and dancing, as well as the law, to medieval and later students and still retain today the exclusive right to provide barristers for the English Courts. The London legal system would have sent criminals to prisons such as Newgate established by the 12th century, adjoining one of the eight medieval gateways into the City. Executions took place at Smithfield and, from 1388, at Tyburn.

The Medieval London Bridge

Perhaps the most significant construction work of the medieval period was the replacement of the early wooden bridges by 'Old London Bridge', built entirely of stone and normally dated from King John's reign. Having taken 30 years to complete, it was to last until 1832, when it was finally taken down. Some of its more interesting features were its drawbridge and houses along its length.

From at least the time of Canute , London had been the main city and commercial centre of England but never the political capital. Winchester was the capital under the Anglo-Saxon rulers and later Edward the Confessor built his palace at Westminster. During the 12th century, Westminster increased in importance, culminating in the building of the great Norman palace there, of which the magnificent Westminster Hall still remains today. Westminster also became the home of the royal courts of justice and the exchequer. Later, the parliaments were to meet regularly in the chapter house of the Abbey and then in St Stephen's Chapel at the palace. Occasionally they gathered at the popular Royal Palace of Eltham, not far away in the countryside south of the river. The medieval Kings of England also held the Palace of Sheen, first erected in Richmond in the reign of Edward III . It was the favourite home of King Richard II and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, died there. Edward IV and his brother Richard III are known to have lodged at Baynard's Castle and, though Henry VII later made a permanent home there, subsequent monarchs always lived outside the city walls.

Old St. Paul's Cathedral from Cheapside: St. Mary-le-Bow in the foreground (Brewer) The Church held great influence in the Medieval City of London, as evidenced by its architecture. The Guildhall, the only great civic building, built in its present form in the early 15th century, was surrounded by outstandingly beautiful church buildings. Old St. Paul's, with its vast wooden steeple (destroyed by lightning in 1561), was believed to be the greatest cathedral in Europe, a Wonder of the World. Paul's Preaching Cross in the churchyard was an important medieval meeting place, while the church itself was a great centre for pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Eorcenwald, though this was not nearly as popular as St. Edward the Confessor's Shrine at Westminster. Londoners themselves often travelled to the Shrine of London-born St. Thomas A'Becket at Canterbury, as described in Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'. Other medieval churches in the city of London include the once-vast Priory and hospital of St Bartholomew, Smithfield (1123) of which, sadly, only the Norman chancel, transepts and restored Lady chapel remain. The Priory of the Holy Trinity within Aldgate is completely lost. Other buildings such as the nunnery church of St Helen's, Bishopsgate survive as part of existing places of worship on their sites. South of the river, the greatest reminder of monastic London is Southwark Cathedral (see photo below), originally the priory of St Mary Overy (''Over the Ferry'').

The arrival of the Dominican Friars , to care for the poor and destitute in England in 1221, was to mark the beginning of a new era for London and the ecclesiastical influence was to contribute many magnificent buildings to the city. In 1276, they moved from Holborn to the Thameside area named Blackfriars after them. This had required authority from Edward I to remove the city wall between the river and Ludgate and rebuild it around their precinct. The Franciscans, arriving in 1224, settled within Newgate; the Carmelites (1241), in Fleet Street. Finally the Austin Friars came over in 1253. The only one to survive of all these buildings, the nave of Austin Friars Church, was finally destroyed in World War II. For over three hundred years it was, and its replacement still is, the city's Dutch Protestant Church.

Southwark Cathedral: Priory Church of St. Mary OveryIt was not long before the Friars accumulated significant resources and used these to erect churches which were the greatest in London, second only to the cathedral. Their opulence was not without criticism, as Piers Plowman's description of Blackfriars' Church with "gay glittering glass glowing as the sun" demonstrates. The Greyfriars' ( Franciscan ) Christ Church was larger still. Work started on it in 1306, with Royal support, and it was later to become the burial place of Queen Margaret, second wife of Edward I, and Isabella, wife of his successor. Edward's first queen, Eleanor of Castile, had been buried at Westminster Abbey. Since this was conveniently situated beside the usual Royal residence, it became the resting-place of most subsequent medieval English Monarchs; but Eleanor also had memorials elsewhere. The King's devotion to her led him to have preaching crosses erected at every place where the Queen's body rested on its journey south from Lincoln where she died. Cheapside and Charing Cross were the last of these.

The church also had great Episcopal Palaces, both within and without the city, that rivaled Westminster. Ely Place (1290) was the residence of the Bishops of the town and their chapel of St. Etheldreda survives to this day. The Bishop of Winchester had a great estate south of the river, covering much of modern day Southwark. The Bishops of London lived out at Fulham (until 1973). The most fashionable area for such mansions, however, was the Strand which emerged between the City and the village of Charing as early as the 12th century. Here stood Durham House, Carlisle House, Norwich Place and the residence of the Bishop of Bath & Wells. The Savoy Palace also fronted the Strand, on the site of the present hotel, and there were many other noble palaces within the city walls. Henry III had granted the Savoy lands to his wife's uncle, Count Peter of Savoy, in 1246. The mansion built there later became the home of Prince Edmund, the Earl of Lancaster, and his descendants, the Dukes of the same town, lived there throughout the next century. It was John of Gaunt's London residence, but was destroyed by rioters in during Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Normally a peaceful place, London was twice shaken by popular uprisings. The second was Jack Cade's Rebellion in 1450.

Another elegant town house was that of the Neville family from Essex. Their 'Leaden-Hall' (named from its roof) was erected on the site of the old Roman basilica as early as 1195. By 1321, they were allowing non-Londoners to sell poultry and dairy produce in its courtyard. You can still buy these today at Leadenhall Market, though the present building is late 19th century. Smithfield Market, north of the City, was established as a horse fair by 1173 and two hundred years later was selling pigs and sheep as well. Trade like this was booming in Medieval London. The city's population was far greater than that of any rival in England. This led to London becoming a major centre for the importing, as well as distributing, of goods to other parts of the country. The early Saxon Thames ports continued at Queenhithe and Billingsgate, but the high levels of goods from the Continent requiring unloading and storage soon led to the creation of many other wharves. By 1157, the German 'Hansa' merchants had a base in London. From the late 14th century onwards, the city became more important commercially, with the decline of the traditional fairs in the country. Great fortunes were made by merchants such as the mayors, Richard Whittington, John Pounteney and John Philpot.

In order to improve their industries, trades and craftsmen of the city organised themselves into a complex system of guilds. These were a major influence in the Middle Ages. Their successors today are the City Livery Companies, which keep up traditions, but hold little power. With membership of a guild came the highly prized 'freedom of the city', which became very widespread. Royal permission was required to establish a guild and harsh fines could be levied against those set-up without license. Indeed, in 1160 under King Henry II , 18 guilds were fined for this reason. By the 15th century, cloth production was England's biggest industry and large amounts were being exported from London. The City, thus strengthened, was able to finance the attempts by Edward III and Henry V to conquer France.

The ongoing feuds of the Wars of the Roses left London relatively unscathed. The city, unhappy with the lavish ways of Henry VI , chose to support Edward IV of York. In 1471, the decisive Battle of Barnet took place just north of the city in modern suburbia. Here the great 'Warwick the Kingmaker' was killed. Soon afterward, the Vice-Admiral of his Lancastrian Fleet, having been denied access into London, laid siege to the City. The 'Bombardment of London' continued for several days until the Lancastrian troops, meeting with little success, decided to withdraw to Kingston. In the reign of Edward's brother, Richard III, Westminster Abbey was the scene of Queen Elizabeth Woodville's claim for sanctuary with her youngest son. He was persuaded to leave for 'safety' in the Tower of London; but he and his brother , the ''Princes in the Tower',' were never seen alive again.

Next: Tudor London

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