Medieval London

In the first half of the 15th century murder was a regular threat to local residents - in this fascinating interactive map of medieval London Cambridge University have collated court and coroners records to identify the victims and criminals their locations and crimes

Eighth century Lundenwic

In the eighth century, the population of Lundenwic was small, probably around 8,000 people compared to around sixty thousand 500 years earlier in second-century Roman Londinium. But our first glimpse of living, breathing Anglo-Saxon Londoners come from this period. Tatberht scratched his name in runic letters on a sheep’s bone. Why he should want to claim ownership of the bone – whether it was important to him or whether the inscription was the work of a few idle moments, after a good mutton dinner – we shall never know. Whatever the reason, Tatberht’s name was uncovered in an excavation carried out beside the National Portrait Gallery. A similar runic-inscribed sheep’s bone was found near the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, this time bearing the name of Oethilward. This was the site of metalworking and woollen textile production. Perhaps Oethilward was a smith. He was less likely to have been a weaver because, in Anglo-Saxon society, women did the weaving. Although we know so little about these two Londoners, we do know they could write their names

Medieval Westminster

The site of Westminster Abbey today was then known as Thorney Island, cut off by the River Tyburn where it split in two before flowing into the Thames. The area was mostly marshland, but because the Thames was shallow here, there had been a ford, crossing to equally boggy Lambeth on the other side, since prehistoric times. Watling Street may have crossed the Thames here, before the Romans got around to building London Bridge, and a raised wooden causeway through the marshes linked Thorney Island to Cow Ford where travellers could cross the Tyburn. The source of this river, which today flows unseen, underground, was in the Hampstead Hills. The Tyburn cut deeply through the forest until it reached the marshland at Cow Ford. Here, wild animals came to drink where the banks were lower and they could reach the water: deer, wild boars, martens, and even bears and wolves. It was probably a good place for Londoners to hunt game and net wild birds for the cooking pot. Beavers may well have built dams and otters fished in the Tyburn and both were trapped for their fine, waterproof fur. Long before the monks’ Gregorian chant echoed across Thorney Island, the call of marsh birds, the boom of the bittern in the reeds, were the music of Westminster.

London Bridge

The foundations for the first pier of a new stone bridge over the Thames were begun as early as 1176. Much of the money for this incredible feat of engineering came from England’s thriving wool trade and a proverb of the time declared ‘London Bridge was built upon wool-packs’. Peter of Colechurch, Chaplain of St Mary Cheapside, was to oversee the construction of the new bridge of twenty piers and nineteen stone arches with a span of 906 feet.

When Peter Colechurch died in 1205 he had spent twenty-nine years on the job and the bridge wasn’t yet completed; It took another four years and three men’s supervision to see London Bridge finally finished in 1209. It was no easy matter to build a bridge across a fast-flowing, tidal river and as many as 200 lives were lost. The foundations for the piers could only be worked on at low tide and the more piers that were built the more restricted the river, and the faster and more furious the waters flowed.

Shops and houses crammed both sides of the bridge and even before it was finished, King John determined that the rents of the buildings would be used to repair and maintain it . They were so tightly packed their upper storeys jettying out, some even joining their opposite neighbour, closing in the road beneath and making it a gloomy tunnel. The buildings also extended behind to hang out over the river, ideal for the construction of latrines. Although the frontage for the individual shops was tiny – thirty-two shops on the upstream side and thirty-five on the downstream – there was keen competition to have a shop on the bridge where it seemed the whole world must pass by

Old St Paul's

(Early Christian Architecture 1913 by Francis Bond)

Old St Paul's, was the centre of the Stationer's trade in medieval London. This was where you went to have a book copied or repaired, stitched or bound. Many scribes and illuminators had stalls inside the cathedral and some stored their paper in the crypt.

St Paul's had a 480 foot spire, one of the tallest building in the medieval world.

After the reformation, St Paul's became Protestant, but after her coronation Mary Tudor had returned it to Catholicism. The Bishop of London returned St Paul's to protestantism in 1559 but less than two years later the spire was struck by lightening - clearly a sign from God - the spire crashed through the roof. Although the roof was replaced the cathedral never returned to it's former glory until it was destroyed by the great fire of 1666 and rebuilt by Christopher Wren


I. Tiny babies would be swaddled in long linen strips, wrapped in a warm woollen blanket and then more linen strips would bind the baby to a board. The board had a rope hanger which went over pegs high up on the wall and there the baby could hang, seeing everything that went on around it but safely out of harm’s way.

II. High chairs, dummies and baby-walkers were medieval inventions.

III. Godparents at a child’s christening were called ‘gossips’. The word was originally ‘God-sibs’ i.e. brothers and sisters (siblings) in God. When a mother-to-be went into labour, friends and relations would wait outside the bedroom door, to be on hand in case the baby was weak and unlikely to survive, to serve as godparents in an emergency. Sometimes, they had such a long wait, they ran out of good conversation and ‘gossiped’ instead.

IV. Godparents weren’t only required to see to the child’s religious education; they were to guard it from the twin perils of fire and water too. For little girls, the coroner’s records show that going to the well or river to fetch water was one of the most common causes of accidental death for female children, when they fell in and drowned.

V. For boys helping their fathers on the land, using sharp farming tools seems to have been especially hazardous.

VI. Discipline was thought to be very important and it was believed that only a good beating could teach a young child right from wrong and respect for their elders.

VII. One very good thing was that everyone: parents, godparents, family, servants, apprentices, neighbours and even passers-by, were all expected to take responsibility for a child’s wellbeing and safety. Life was hazardous but everybody looked out for the children.

VIII. At the age of seven, a noble lad was usually sent to serve as a page boy in some other lord’s household. He would be taught reading, riding, manners, dancing, music and, most importantly, begin training to be an esquire or henchman to the lord. After that, he would learn hunting, practise with weapons and learn to wear armour, ready to become a knight.

IX. Girls too would often leave home quite young to work as serving maids in a relative’s household to learn all they would need to know when they married.

X. Sometimes, around the age of fourteen, both boys and girls could be signed up to serve apprenticeships for about seven years although, for girls there was sometimes a clause in the indenture (contract) to allow them to ‘drop out’, if they received a good offer of marriage.

The church of St Mary-le-Bow

The church of St Mary-le-Bow dates from before 1090 and has been at the heart of life in the City of London, being situated in Cheapside, the old city’s main east-west thoroughfare. From the beginning, it was linked with the Archbishop of Canterbury and as the principal ‘London Peculiar’ was the archbishop’s London headquarters. But the first Norman church didn’t last long. In 1091, the roof blew off, landing in the street during a huge storm which hit the south of England that winter. Then, in 1196, a famous siege took place at St Mary’s and in 1271 the church tower collapsed.

In the eleventh century, St Mary-le-Bow was known as St Mary Newchurch because just two hundred yards away is its near neighbour St Mary Aldermary (Older Mary). In medieval times the ‘square mile’ of the city, still bounded by the Roman city wall, was the whole of London, stretching from Ludgate in the west to Aldgate in the east. This densely populated area where thousands of people lived in close proximity was divided into wards and parishes, each having its own church. Today the seat of government at Westminster was then a long walk from the city, through fields and pastureland, with villages like Holborn and Charing – with its famous Cross – along the way.

The world famous Bow bells are woven into the folklore of the City of London. In 1392, Dick Whittington supposedly heard Bow bells calling him back to London to become Lord Mayor. To be born within the sound of Bow bells is the sign of a true Londoner but my more recent research disputes the notion that this was the origin of the Cockney – which is a medieval and Tudor word to describe a spoilt child.

The Great Bell of Bow which ends the medieval nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons refers to the largest of St Mary’s bells. The first official record of Bow bells is in 1469 when the Common Council ordered that a curfew should be rung at 9 o’clock each evening. It also marked the end of an apprentice’s working day and the practice continued until 1876. Soon after the setting up of this curfew, John Donne, a mercer, gave property in Bow Lane to St Mary’s to help pay for the maintenance and regular ringing of the bells. By 1512, the tower had been fully rebuilt and William Copland, a churchwarden, gave a great bell to the church making a total of five. Sadly this bell was rung for the first time for Copland’s own funeral.

Richard (Dick) Whittington was born in Gloucestershire in the middle of the fourteenth century and found his way to London. The earliest mention of him in the city was in 1379 when he contributed 5 marks to a municipal loan. The famous nursery rhyme account of his life has him arriving in the capital as a poor orphan, having heard that the streets were paved with gold. Being the victim of beatings by the cook in the household of a rich merchant, he escaped on the morning of All Hallows Day and left the city. As he rested at Highgate some five miles to the north, he heard Bow bells ring ‘Turn again, Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London’.

In reality, at this date Whittington was already a successful mercer by trade and served as Lord Mayor on four occasions, firstly in 1396-97 and for the final time in 1419-20. As the son of a knight, Whittington was never very poor and there is no evidence that he kept a cat as a pet. However, since a ‘cat’ was also a medieval cargo ship, it is possible that he owned his own trading vessel, as many rich merchants did – a different kind of cat altogether. As well as serving as Lord Mayor, he was also a Member of Parliament and had been a Sheriff of London in 1393-94. He financed a number of public projects, such as drainage systems in poor areas and a hospital for unmarried mothers. His will left his fortune to form the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington that continues to assist people in need 600 years later.

Beneath the eleventh-century church of St Mary is the earliest known stone arched crypt found in any church in London. The ‘le-Bow’ in the church’s name refers to those arches, as does the Latin name Sancta Maria-de-Arcubus (arches), describing the unique design of the crypt. St Mary’s was the meeting place of the medieval ‘Court of Arches’ – a church court which heard cases involving marriage, whether broken betrothals, unfulfilled promises of marriage, bigamy, annulments or the separation of spouses. [In a later adventure, Seb Foxley’s brother, Jude, is threatened with an enforced appearance at the Court of Arches to resolve an important case against him.]

Though at one time the court moved to Westminster, that relocation was temporary and subsequently reversed so the Court of Arches today still meets at St Mary-le-Bow. This ecclesiastical court of the Church of England covers the Province of Canterbury and every new bishop in the south of England still receives confirmation of their election at St Mary-le-Bow. Here, they also take the Oath of Allegiance in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, prior to their enthronement.

In September 1666, when the Great Fire raged through London, the whole of the medieval St Mary’s church, apart from the crypt beneath, was utterly destroyed

Scenes of modern London, where Seb would have lived and worked in 1480

Paternoster Row

St Mary le Bow, Cheapside

St Paul's Cathedral

Christchurch, Greyfriars