Medieval Monday – London As It Was

The Olympics may be over, but I’m not ready to leave London.  As a Romance novelist I might never be ready to leave London.  So many novels in my genre take place, in whole or in part, in the great city of England.  Including my upcoming novel, the third in The Noble Hearts series, The Courageous Heart.  But if you’re looking for the London of the Regency world when you read The Courageous Heart you might be surprised.

So what was medieval London like? you ask.

Drawing of London in the 1550s
from Wikimedia Commons

If you were to see an aerial snapshot of London in the middle ages you would notice two things right off the bat.  First, you would notice that it was a lot smaller.  The boundaries of London were constantly growing in the middle ages, but on average it didn’t extend much further east than the Tower of London or west than the Fleet tributary of the Thames (which is now the A201, I believe).  A wall enclosed the city from the Tower north to Bishopsgate and across to Moorgate and Cripplegate (the modern A1211 which is called, surprise, surprise, London Wall at one point), and then zig-zagging down to the Fleet tributary.  This wall had first been built by the Romans around 200AD and was repaired and improved for more than a thousand years.  In other words, medieval London was more or less what is now known as The City, plus a little bit.

The other thing that you would notice is that what there was of London bore an uncanny resemblance to what’s there now.  Granted, the buildings have changed.  Well, some of them.  The Tower of London was a Norman construction, begun in 1066 right after the conquest.  The White Tower within was constructed in 1076, and while the Tower complex remained a key player in London history from that time forward, the complex as it existed in the middle ages doesn’t quite look or feel like the tourist site you can visit today.

The Tower of London today
© Stephen Finn | Dreamstime.com

You would also notice a massive church on the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  This church was known as … St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, that is.  In fact, a large church has existed on or near the site of St. Paul’s since 604.  This first St. Paul’s was destroyed by fire in 926 and rebuilt.  That structure was destroyed by fire again in 1087.  A great stone cathedral was started that year that would take 200 years to build.  Of course, that structure was partially destroyed by fire in 1136.  The St. Paul’s Cathedral that exists now was, of course, was built starting in the late 17th century after a design by Sir Christopher Wren.Another structure that you might be surprised to see already constructed in medieval London is London Bridge.  London Bridge wasn’t just any old way to cross a river.  A crossing of one sort or another had existed in more or less the same spot since Roman times.  “Old” London Bridge was begun in 1176 and finished in 1209.  It was about 26 feet wide and between 800-900 feet long, had a drawbridge in the middle and gatehouses on each side.  More impressively, it was packed with houses, businesses, and a church to honor the martyr St. Thomas Beckett.  It also contained a public latrine that hung out over the water.

Okay, so if parts of London looked fairly similar to what exists in the spot now but other bits were drastically different, what was life in medieval London actually like?

The simple answer is that it was busy.  Extremely busy.  London was founded by the Romans as a trading city.  The Thames made it perfectly situated for this duty.  It was the largest Roman city north of the Alps.  It was also abandoned by the Romans when they left, leaving the locals to struggle for centuries.  But London rose again as the fortunes of the island rose.  The seat of government might have been split between Winchester and the city of Westminster, just west of London (now completely a part of London) through the changes brought by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, and Normans, but London continued to be a major center of trade.

View from the Tower circa 1450
from Wikimedia Commons

As a result, London became a rich and independent city.  And the merchants, traders, and craftsmen who contributed to making it one of the largest trading ports in Europe were constantly butting heads with the government and the Church.  Unlike in many other cities throughout medieval Europe, because so much of the economy of England depended on the health and strength of the city, London could almost dictate its own terms.  In 1191, Prince John, who was in charge of England while his brother, King Richard, was fiddling around with a crusade, appointed the first Mayor of London.  The position quickly became one of the most powerful and influential in the kingdom.So if you were one of the 18,000 people living in London in 1100, chances are you were prosperous, industrious, and cosmopolitan.  And if you were one of the 100,000 people living in London in 1300, not only were you crammed into one of the most important and populous cities of medieval Europe, you probably had a greater exposure to people from a variety of countries and cultures.  You were more likely to be aware of and even at the center of royal and international politics.  In fact, you were likely to be more educated and sophisticated than your country counterparts.

The same can pretty much be said about London in the Regency and Victorian eras.  So as you read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and note the certain special something that Londoners in those works feel, just know that those feelings had been around for hundreds of years.  London, from its very beginnings, was a city with a unique character.  Medieval London pulsed with the fresh energy of being a European and world power long before England stretched its empire around the globe.

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6 thoughts on “Medieval Monday – London As It Was

    • Yeah, the thing with London is that there was some sort of fire every fifty years or so. Before and after The Great Fire. I guess it was inevitable when you had so many wooden buildings and so many people jammed so close together.

  1. Love this detailed post on this! I lived in UK for years and always remember seeing the crown jewels, Cant wait to take my husband and son there…and Madame Tussaud’s! Amazing these buildings are still here with us and hold such a haunting past

  2. My dad’s family are all ‘cockney’s, born within the sound of Bo Bells. My great grandfather,who survived the Somme, could name all the streets on a route through London without looking at a map,though that was the 1930’s and London changed a lot after that. I lived in London for a while,Wembley and Vauxhall, and went to look up the street in the East End where my dad grew up.I couldn’t find it and rang him. He said “You daft bugger, Hitler flattened the whole place it’s not there any more”. Dad took us into London on the train from St Albans,where we lived, when I was a boy and he took us to the Tower and along the Thames and to Greenwich. Now St Albans,which used to be a commuter town has been swallowed up by London growing. As a teenager I used to get the train into London playing truant from school. It used to be a great place, but for me it’s got no heart any more and a I dare say for my dad, granddad and great granddad, all dead now, it would be an alien place for each with increasing levels of strangeness with every generation going back.

    • Wow! I can just imagine the character that London would have had back in the day. Your story proves that! I kind of think all cities are bland these days except for tiny little pockets here and there.

      Thanks!

  3. Pingback: Medieval Monday – The Dark Ages « Keri Peardon, Once and Future Author

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