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Medieval London  —  £ 3.99

Go to the eBook Shop This is one of the beautifully produced 'Portfolio Artistic Monograph' series of books. Written by two Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries with access to drawings from their own, and the British Museum collections.

The history, and what little remained of Medieval London when this book was written, is faithfully recorded without resorting to the usual 'blood and gore' accounts. They have found so much of interest, and describe it so well, that the authors have not needed to spice up this account.

Please see the extract below for lists of the contents & illustrations and part of the chapter on Civic Rule.

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Although spelled throughout the book as it is on the cover (a scan of the original), here I have avoided the use of the ligature æ in Medieval, and for file names, as it can confuse some software.

All the illustrations are included in this eBook, as they are in the actual book, rotated to suit their proportions. Rather than put some in the extract the wrong way round, please click on the thumbs below to see some of them at their best.

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Chapter I
    A Comprehensive Survey
Chapter II
    Civic Rule
Chapter III
    The Thames
Chapter IV
    Religious Life
Chapter V
    The Fortress, Palaces, and Mansions
Chapter VI
    The Passing of Mediæval London


List of Illustrations

In monochrome

London Bridge and the Tower.
  From a Manuscript of the Poems of Charles, duke of Orleans.

In colour

A Tournament.
  From a Manuscript of the Romance of the Sire Jehan de Saintre.
Richard II. Riding out of London to the War in Ireland.
  From a Manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles.
Richard II. Delivered by Bolingbroke to the Citizens of London.
  From a Manuscript of the Metrical History of Richard II.
The Funeral of Richard II.
  From a Manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles.

The Principal Parts of a Pen Drawing of London from Westminster To Greenwich, by Antonie van den Wyngaerde.

Of this Flemish artist very little is known. There exists a rescript of Philip II. addressed to Margaret of Parma, regent of the Low Countries, giving him permission to remove with his goods and to settle in Spain, from which it is supposed that he was in the King's service. The drawing was made, probably for Philip, before the fall of the spire of St. Paul's in 1561. It is unfinished, blank spaces being left for Whitehall, Bridewell, and some other buildings. There are also memoranda on the drawing which show that the artist intended to colour it, leaden roofs, for instance, being marked "blau." The Bodleian Library possesses forty-seven other drawings of his, two of which are here reproduced: one of Whitehall, intended no doubt to fill the blank space in the large view, and one of Greenwich Palace from the Observatory Hill, which is coloured in a simple manner. It is not improbable that Wyngaerde left England on the death of Queen Mary. A copy of the drawing of London, much altered and embellished, was made and engraved by N. Whittock in 1849.

Westminster to Charing Cross.
The Strand.
St. Paul's Cathedral.
London Bridge.
Billingsgate and St. Mary Spital.
The Tower.
Greenwich Palace, from the Thames.
Greenwich Palace, from the Observatory Hill.
The Palace of Whitehall.

Drawings by John Wykeham Archer.

John Wykeham Archer (b. 1808, d. 1864), a water-colour painter, engraver, and antiquary, was employed by another antiquary, Mr. W. Twopeny, more than half a century ago, to make twenty drawings yearly of London antiquities, a work which he carried on until his death. Many of the buildings which he drew have since been destroyed, or have undergone restoration. The whole collection was acquired for the British Museum, and fills seventeen portfolios. A very few of the drawings were etched by Archer for his book entitled Vestiges of Old London.

Roman Bath in the Strand. 1841.
Bastion of the City Wall in the Churchyard of St. Giles's, Cripplegate. 1841.
The Crypt of Guildhall. 1842.
The Crypt of St. Michael's, Aldgate. 1841.
The Crypt of Merchant Taylors' Hall.
Garden House, Canonbury, Built by the last Prior of St. Bartholomew's, Smithfield. 1841.
Austin Friars. 1842.
A Cell in the Lollards' Tower, Lambeth. 1841.
Entrance to the Lollards' Tower. 1841.
The Guard Room, Lambeth Palace. 1841.
The Crypt of St. Stephen's, Westminster. 1842.
Gateway of the Bloody Tower. 1847.
Machinery for raising the Portcullis, Tower of London. 1850.
Warders' Lodgings, Tower of London. 1847.

Civic Rule

Guildhall – Its Porch and Crypt – Other Ancient Crypts – Royal Control – Civic Government – Punishment for Trade Offences – The City Prisons – The Mayoralty – “Ridings and Pageants” – The Marching Watch – The Common Council – Office of Sheriff – Historic Scenes at Guildhall – Guildhall Chapel and Library – The Livery Companies.

     In the very centre of the old city, and only just removed from the noise and bustle of its great thoroughfare, the Chepe, lay the Guildhall, the seat of civic government. The name itself is eloquent of mediæval feeling, when the citizens were all enrolled under their various guilds, each owing strict obedience to the master and wardens of his guild seated at their hall; and the guilds themselves, close upon one hundred in number, being in their turn under the jurisdiction of the Mayor and Aldermen, sitting in their Court at the Guildhall. These were not the times of social liberty; the oppressive rule of the great feudal lords had been exchanged for the close personal supervision of the ward, the guild, and the church.
     The site of the old Guildhall corresponded with that of the present structure, but the original entrance was from Aldermanbury. An enlargement of the ancient building appears to have taken place in the year 1326, during the Mayoralty of Richard le Breton, and further extensive repairs were carried out in the years 1341-3.
     The old hall, which Stow describes as “a little cottage,” was replaced by “a large and great house as now it standeth,” in 1411. The building occupied ten years, the funds being procured from gifts of the livery guilds, fees, fines, and money payments in discharge of offences. The porch and crypt have survived in much of their original beauty. The former consists of two vaulted bays richly groined, with moulded principal and secondary ribs, the intersections being adorned with sculptured bosses, the two principal of which bear the arms of Edward the Confessor and Henry VI.
     The porch was known as the Guildhall Gate, and there was a lower gate which was probably situated in a line with the Church of St. Lawrence Jewry, in Gresham Street.
     The crypt is one of the best of the few mediæval examples remaining in London. It forms the eastern portion of the sub-strucrure of the hall, and is 76 feet by 45¼, with an average height of 13 feet 7 inches. It is divided into three equal portions by clustered columns of Purbeck marble, from which spring the stone-ribbed groins of the vaulting. The bosses at the intersections are all carved with devices of the usual mediæval character, and include the arms assigned to the Confessor and those of the See and City of London.
     Of these crypts – a beautiful feature of ancient architecture in which London formerly abounded – the great part have disappeared. There are those of the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield; Bow Church, Cheapside (used for burial purposes); Etheldreda’s Chapel, Ely Place; the Priory Church of St. John, Clerkenwell; Lambeth Palace; Merchant Taylors’ Hall; and St. Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster. Several fine examples have been destroyed within quite recent times, including the crypt or Lower Chapel of Old London Bridge, Gerard’s Hall crypt in Basing Lane, and that under the Manor of the Rose in Lawrence Pountney Hill, the two latter buildings being fine examples of the houses of distinguished citizens. To this tale of destruction must be added the crypts of Lamb’s Chapel in Monkwell Street, Leathersellers’ Hall, St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and St. Michael, Aldgate.
     The Guildhall was, in a very real sense, the centre of civic government. In early times the Mayor, Aldermen, and Sheriffs were practically the King’s servants, and responsible to him at their personal peril for the good and quiet government of the city. For this purpose an adequate authority was conferred upon the civic magnates over the life and liberty of each individual citizen. The city was divided into twenty-five wards, over each of which an Alderman presided, who was responsible for its good government to the Mayor. Severe was the punishment for an insult offered to one of these dignitaries. In 1388, Richard Bole, a butcher, for insulting William Wotton, alderman of Dowgate, was, by order of the Mayor, imprisoned in Newgate, and ordered, as a penance, to carry a lighted torch, with head uncovered and bare legs and feet, from his stall in St. Nicholas’ Shambles to the Chapel of the Guildhall. Rough-and-ready justice was administered by the Mayor and his brethren, the Aldermen. In 1319, William Spertyng, who was found guilty of exposing for sale at the shambles two putrid carcases, was sentenced to be put in the pillory, and to have the carcases burnt beneath him. A vintner named John Penrose, convicted in 1364 of selling bad wine, was ordered to drink a draught of the “same wine which he sold to the people,” the remainder to be poured on his head, and he to forswear the calling of a vintner in the City of London for ever. For giving short weight, in 1377, two charcoal dealers were set in the stocks on Cornhill, whilst six of their badly filled sacks were burnt beside them. A baker, for selling bread of light weight, was dragged through the city on a hurdle with the offending loaf hung about his neck. An illustration of this punishment is given in an ancient book belonging to the city records, known as the “Liber de assisa panis.” Another punishment which must have been sufficiently deterrent was that of whipping at the cart’s tail for petty larceny and other minor offences.
     One of the most ancient prisons of the city was the Tun, in Cornhill the site of which is still marked by the Cornhill pump. The prison, consisted of a wooden cage, with a pillory and pair of stocks attached. Below it was the conduit built by Henry Wallis, Mayor, in 1282.
     The City Gates were also used for the confinement of prisoners, chiefly Ludgate and Newgate; the former was devoted to prisoners for debt, and the latter to those charged with criminal offences. The scanty accommodation afforded by these structures caused grievous suffering to the unhappy offenders, gaol-fever frequently breaking out, and raging not only amongst the prisoners themselves, but also among the judges, and other officials of the neighbouring Courts of Justice.
     Close by, on the east side of Farringdon Street, near Ludgate Circus of to-day, was the Fleet Prison, which, like that of Ludgate, had a grate, behind which the prisoners used to beg for relief from the passers by. Its early history can be traced back to the period of the Conquest; it formed part of the ancient possessions of the See of Canterbury, and was. held in conjunction with the Manor of Leveland, in Kent, and with the “King’s Houses” at Westminster, The wardenship or sergeancy was anciently held by eminent personages, who also had custody of the King’s Palace at Westminster. This, with other city prisons, was burnt down by the followers of Wat Tyler in Richard the Second’s reign.
     Besides the King’s prisons were the Compters, or city prisons, two in number – one belonging to each of the Sheriffs. They were used for the confinement of debtors, for remands and committals for trial, and for the custody of minor offenders.
     The great prosperity of the City of London brought its citizens a large measure of wealth and influence. They were thus enabled, by gifts and loans to the various English sovereigns, who had constantly to contend with financial difficulties, to secure for themselves franchises and liberties far exceeding those of any other city or town. In several of their early charters they are addressed by the King as his Barons of the City of London. These privileges, or some of them, were frequently revoked by the early kings for real or alleged offences on the part of the citizens, but were always re-granted on the payment of a sufficient fine.
     William the Conqueror’s charter, as we have seen, is still preserved in the Guildhall. King John granted the Londoners the right of electing their Mayor, and in the following reign they were permitted to present their newly elected Mayor for the King’s approval to the Barons of the Exchequer whenever the King was absent from Westminster. Previous to the election of a new Mayor, a religious service, consisting of the Mass of the Holy Ghost, was held in the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalen, adjoining the Guildhall, The ceremony of swearing in the new Mayor on the day before his assumption of office still takes place annually at the Guildhall, and has probably but little altered during the last four centuries. Besides presiding over the Court of Aldermen and the Courts of Common Council, Common Hall, and Husting, it was the duty of the Mayor, assisted by the Recorder and Common Serjeant, to administer justice in the Mayor’s Court, as well as at the Newgate Sessions. He also attended St. Paul’s Cathedral in state on several occasions in the year, as well as minor religious services at the Guildhall Chapel and elsewhere. The religious processions on these occasions, and. the secular pageantry which was still more frequent, were ardently looked forward to by the citizens and their apprentices as an excuse for a holiday. Chaucer, speaking of the city apprentice of his day, says that:-

“When there any riding was in Chepe
Out of the shoppe thider wold he lepe.
And till that he had all the sight ysene
And danced well, he would not come agen.”

     The great City Fairs were opened by the Mayor with much state, the proceedings displaying a curious mixture of religious and secular ceremonial. To open the Fair of Our Lady in Southwark, the Mayor and Sheriffs rode to St. Magnus’ Church, after dinner, at two o’clock in the afternoon. They were attended by the Sword-bearer and other officials, and were met by the Aldermen in their scarlet gowns. After evening prayer, the whole of the company rode over the bridge in procession, and, after passing through the fair, returned to the Bridge House, where a banquet was provided for them. With equal solemnity, the well-known Fair of St. Bartholomew in Smithfield was opened by the civic fathers. Here a Court of Piepowder† was held for settling disputes without delay, this Court being described by Blackstone as being the most expeditious court of justice known to the law of England.

[† “Piepoudre, so called from the dusty feet of the suitors; or, according to Sir Edward Coke, because justice is there done as speedily as dust can fall from the foot.” – Blackstone’s Comment., vol. iii., chap. 2.]

     The chief pageant of the year was that prepared for the Mayor of London upon his installation into office. The origin of these “ridings,” as they were termed, dates back to King John’s charter of 1215, already mentioned, which stipulated that, after his election by the citizens, the new Mayor should be submitted to the King for approval.
     From this originated the procession to Westminster, when the Mayor was accompanied by the Aldermen and chief citizens on horseback, with minstrels and other attendants. For nearly two centuries the procession retained much of its original simplicity. The first recorded instance of a pageant approaching the character of the spectacles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries occurs in the year 1415. John Wells, Grocer, was Mayor, and three wells running with wine were exhibited at the conduit in Cheapside, attended by three virgins to personate Mercy, Grace, and Pity, who gave of the wine to all comers. These wells were surrounded with trees laden with oranges, almonds, lemons, dates, &c., in allusion to the Mayor’s trade and Company.
     The greatest of these spectacular efforts were reserved for Royal visits to the City. On the return of Edward I. from his Scottish victory in 1298, Stow tells us “every citizen, according to their severall trades, made their several shew, but specially the fishmongers, which in a solempne procession passed through the citie, having amongst other pageants and shews foure sturgeons gilt, carried on foure horses; then foure salmons of silver on foure horses, and after them sixe and fortie armed knights riding on horses, made like sluces of the sea; and then one representing St. Magnus (because it was on St. Magnus’s day) with a thousand horsemen,” &c. At the Coronation procession of Henry IV., in 1399, there were seven fountains in Cheapside running with red and white wine. The King was escorted by a large number of gentlemen with their servants in liveries and hoods; and the City Companies attended, clothed in their proper liveries, and bearing banners of their trade. When Henry V, arrived at Dover from France in 1415, the Mayor, Aldermen, and “craftsmen” rode to Blackheath to meet the King on his road to Eltham with his prisoners. They were attended by three hundred of the chief citizens, uniformly clad, well mounted, and wearing rich collars and chains of gold.
     Another picturesque ceremony was the Marching Watch, on the Eve of St. John the Baptist and St. Peter’s Eve, which developed at a later period into a costly and sumptuous pageant. Elaborate dresses were worn both by the citizens who attended in the procession and by the men who carried cressets and other lights. The Mayor’s household, from small beginnings, came eventually to consist of nearly forty officers under the control of the four esquires, who were the Sword-bearer, the Common Hunt, the Common Crier, and the Water Bailiff. To these must be added the Lord Mayor’s Jester or Fool; the name of one who held this office. Kit Largosse, has come down to us.
     The office of Common Hunt recalls the hunting privileges of the Mayor and citizens. Under the charter of Henry I., dated 1101, the citizens received a grant and confirmation of their “chaces” to hunt “as well and fully as their ancestors had” in the forests of Middlesex and Surrey, and on the Chiltern Hills. This much-valued right has long since been commuted by the grant of venison warrants, under which the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs, with the Recorder and other officers still receive deer from the Royal forests to the total number of twelve bucks and twelve does annually.
     The city sceptre is undoubtedly of Anglo-Saxon date, but the rest of the civic insignia – city purse, mace, and swords of state – belong to Tudor or later times. There are two city seals: one, the corporate seal, with an ancient obverse of St. Paul, bearing a sword and banner surrounded by the inscription, “Sigillum Baronum Londoniarum;” the reverse originally bore the effigy of St. Thomas à Becket, for which, in 1530, the city arms were substituted. The other seal, that of the mayoralty, was made in 1381 to replace an older seal. It bears the images of St. Peter and St. Paul with the arms of the city beneath, supported by two lions; the encircling legend is, “Sigillum Officii Majoratus Civitatis Londini.”
     The Court of Common Council had an origin subsequent to that of the Court of Mayor and Aldermen. In 1273, divers men whose names are recorded in the city books were elected by the whole community to consult with the Mayor and Aldermen on the affairs of the city. This method of election gave way, in 1347, to the selection of representatives from each ward. Under a precept of Edward III., in 1376, the representation of the commonalty was transferred from the men of the wards to the men of the guilds, each of the latter nominating from two to six of their number as members of the Common Council. This lasted until 1383 when the right of election was restored to the wards, and a proportionate number of representatives assigned to each. Both the Lord Mayor and Aldermen formed then, as now, constituent parts of the Court of Common Council.
     The office of Sheriff of London dates back to a period before the Norman Conquest, and its origin cannot be traced. King Henry I., soon after his accession in 1100, granted to the citizens of London the revenues of the county of Middlesex to farm, on their paying an annual rent of 300l., and gave them liberty also to appoint from among themselves a sheriff to receive the demesne dues. The Sheriff of Middlesex therefore represented the whole body of citizens acting in their corporate capacity, the duties of the office being performed by the two sheriffs. jointly. The election of sheriffs took place annually at Guildhall on Midsummer Day, the liverymen of the various Companies being there assembled in Common Hall for that purpose. In civic ceremonials the sheriffs ranked below the aldermen, being, in fact, the Mayor’s deputies as they are styled by John Carpenter, Common Clerk in the time of Sir Richard Whittington. Each sheriff had a Court, in which he sat as judge; and, besides other obligations to the Sovereign and the Mayor, they were responsible for the safe keeping of the prisoners in the city prisons, as well as for the carrying out of sentence on those capitally condemned. They also had their “ridings” when they attended to be sworn into office, and were accompanied by the members of their guild with drummers and minstrels.
     Before leaving the subject of the Corporation, we may pause for a moment to recall some of the more striking scenes which have taken place at the Guildhall. The fine building, when at length completed at the close of the reign of Henry IV., was a beautiful and conspicuous object with its high-pitched roof and two handsome louvres. Among the principal contributors to this great work were the King himself, all the aldermen, who between them glazed the windows, and Sir Richard Whittington, who, by his executors, paved the hall with Purbeck stone. In January, 1308, Queen Isabella, the wife of Edward II., wrote from Windsor to the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of London to inform them of the birth of her son. The whole of the week following was given up to solemn thanksgivings mingled with festivities, the latter including a sumptuous repast at the Guildhall, “which was excellently well tapestried and dressed out.” Another sumptuous entertainment took place in May, 1357, in honour of Edward the Black Prince and his prisoner, John, king of France. One of the last public acts of Sir Richard Whittington as Mayor was to entertain in princely fashion Henry V. and his Queen at the Guildhall. This was one of the earliest occasions of the use of the new building for such a purpose. At this banquet Whittington is reported, with what truth it is impossible now to determine, to have thrown into the fire bonds under which the King was indebted to him to the extent of some 60,000l.


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