London in the Middle Ages

By Tim Lambert

Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) built a wooden palace at Westminster. Later Parliament met here. Because of this Westminster became the seat of government not the city of London itself. Edward also built Westminster Abbey, which was consecrated a few weeks before his death.

After the battle of Hastings, an advance guard of Normans approached London Bridge from the South but was beaten off. The Norman army then marched in a loop to the west of London to cut it off from the rest of England. William the Conqueror occupied the royal palace at Westminster and then won over the Londoners by making various promises. William was crowned king of England at Westminster on 25 December 1066.

William gave London a charter, a document confirming certain rights. Nevertheless, he built a wooden tower to stand guard over London. It was replaced by a stone tower in 1078-1100. That was the beginning of the Tower of London.

The population of London at this time was perhaps 18,000, which seems very small to us but was very large by the standards of the time. London grew in size through the 12th century and some people began to build houses outside the walls. In 1176 the wooden bridge across the Thames was replaced with a stone one.

A writer described London in about the year 1180: ‘London is happy in its clean air, in the Christian religion, in the strength of its fortifications, in its natural situation, in the honor of its citizens. The Cathedral is St Pauls but there is also in London and its suburbs 13 large monasteries, beside 126 parish churches. On the east side lies the tower, very large and strong with 4 gates and turrets at intervals, and runs around the northern side of the city. To the north lie fields and meadows with small rivers flowing through them, by these water mills are driven with a pleasant murmur. To this city come merchants from every nation under heaven rejoicing to bring merchandise in their ships’.

Someone else wrote about London: ‘Among the noble and celebrated cities of the world, that of London, the capital of the Kingdom of England is one of the most renowned, possessing above others, abundant wealth, extensive commerce, great grandeur, and significance.

Medieval London was a lively place. There was a horse market at Smithfield (originally smooth field) where horse racing took place. Smithfield was also the site of public executions, which always attracted large crowds. Londoners also loved dancing in the open spaces that surrounded the town. They liked archery and wrestling and men fought mock battles with wooden swords and shields. In Winter people went ice skating on frozen marshes at Moorfield using skates made of animal bones.

In the 12th or 13th century, London was often spelled Lunden or Lundon. By the time of Chaucer in the late 14th century, it was spelled London.

In the 13th century, the friars came to London. Friars were like monks but instead of living lives separate from the world, they went out to preach. There were different orders of friars each with a different color of their costume. Dominican friars were called black friars because of their black costumes and the place where they lived in London is still called Blackfriars. There were also grey friars (Franciscans), white friars (Carmelites), and crutched friars. The word crutched is a corruption of crouche, the old English word for cross. Their proper name was Friars of the Holy Cross.

The Jews suffered from persecution during the Middle Ages. The first Jews came to England after the Norman Conquest. Jews in London lived in a ghetto in Old Jewry. They were some of the first people since Roman times to live in stone houses. They had to as wooden houses were not safe enough! In 1189 a wave of persecution resulted in the deaths of about 30 Jews. In 1264 rioters killed about 500 Jews in London. Then in 1290, all Jews were expelled from England.

In Medieval London, streets were sometimes named after the trades carried on there. Bakers lived in Bread Street and Poultry was sold in that street. Cows were kept in Milk Street for milking.

In 1381 the Peasants Revolt broke out. On 13 July the rebels marched on London and sympathizers opened the gates to them. The king and his ministers took refuge in the Tower of London while the rebels opened the prisons and looted the house of John of Gaunt, an unpopular noble. On 14 July the king met the rebels at Moorfield and made them various promises, none of which he kept.

The next day the king went to mass at Westminster while he was away the rebels broke into the Tower of London and killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and several royal officials who had taken refuge there. They confronted the king on his way back from mass. The mayor of London stabbed the leader of the rebels, fearing he was going to attack the king. Afterward, the king managed to calm the rebels and persuaded them to go home.

The population of London may have reached 50,000 by the middle of the 14th century making it far larger than any other town in England. However, at least a third of the population died when the Black Death struck in 1348-49 but London soon recovered. Its population may have reached 70,000 by the end of the Middle Ages.

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