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Norman London

By Margaret Johnson

After his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror 's army ravaged much of the country in order to beat the English into submission. Though he burnt Southwark, he strategically avoided London and waited at Berkhamsted for the city's officials to recognise him as King. The Londoners quickly acquiesced and their swift action led the new monarch to grant their city the first formal charter of his reign. This slight parchment document is undated but it would appear that it was made at Berkhamsted and only ratified later in London itself. In the late 1920s, A.H. Thomas, then Clerk of the Records at Guildhall, successfully identified a wax seal from the document as having been the second Great Seal used by King William. The charter shows remarkable generosity:

William, King, greets William, Bishop, and Gosfregdh, Portreeve, and all the burgesses within London, French and English, friendly. And I give you to know that I will that ye be all those laws worthy that ye were in King Edward's day. And I will that every child be his father's heir after his father's day, and I will not suffer that any man offer you any wrong. God help you.

This exceptional status of London, which was answerable only to the King and enjoyed his full protection, was a strong influence in making it the outstanding commercial centre of the time. Its government was both secular, under the portreeve, and ecclesiastical, under the bishop. There were no new powers granted and the freedoms of the citizens, which had been enjoyed in previous years, were now enshrined in law.

These laws were based upon the older Anglo-Saxon laws and made London equal to the shires, having rights beyond its physical boundaries. The assembly, or folkmoot, had very early roots and had long decided matters of importance to the community. There is evidence that a sheriff oversaw the Hustings of London, not unlike a shire court. It would have dealt with work which was beyond the scope of the folkmoot and has left traces in the English legal system of today. The sheriff himself was the natural Norman development of the Saxon portreeve and was a very powerful man.

The King built the Tower of London at the watergate on the western edge of the city wall, not only to observe and intimidate the most important city in his new realm, but also to protect it. A second castle, Baynard's Castle, was erected by Ralph Baynard in the east, with a moated keep, Monfichet Tower, nearby. Though London is not mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, we know that its population of both Normans and Saxons was growing fast. The charter and the new-found stability served to increase both trade and numbers as livelihoods became secure once more. This happy situation remained to the end of William's reign.

His successor, William Rufus , showed less regard for the people of London. He is notable for his building works: the great hall at Westminster, reinforcement of the Tower of London and rebuilding the Thames bridge which had been seriously damaged by flooding. In 1087, the city was devastated by a great fire and St. Paul's was burnt to the ground (though it was soon rebuilt).

The election of Henry I was very popular in London and he was later to grant the city folk an exceptional charter of liberties. This was fully implemented under King John who, being overcome by civil unrest, was obliged to appease his citizens by introducing these new civil rights. The county of Middlesex was given to London, with the right to appoint a sheriff (shire-reeve). The other shires were overseen by a royal officer, chosen directly by the King, who would ensure that all fiscal and military matters were efficiently managed within his region. London's relative freedom was unique within the country.

This pre-eminence was to be tested further when, in 1135, on the death of the king, Stephen made a claim on the English throne. The Londoners claimed the right to elect their new king and decided to support him. When, later, Stephen was held prisoner following the Battle of Lincoln, the people of London demanded the return of their monarch and its forces were eventually instrumental in banishing his rival, Matilda , from the kingdom.

Next: Medieval London



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