Sunday 23 June 2013


 Mattew Paris manuscript, British Library

This is the first known view of London, a section from a road map (from London to Rome) drawn by the monk, Matthew Paris, in about 1252. The view shows three recognisable monuments: on the left, The Tower, St. Paul’s in the centre, and to the right, Westminster Abbey. The wall, with its gates, is visible in the foreground.

As happens in the rest of Europe, barbarians invade the country. By the end of the 5th century, most of the East of Britain was under Anglo-Saxon control. They  began to divide Britain up into several kingdoms.  London fell within the Kingdom of the East Saxons and the city was often taken under direct control of the Essex overlords: variously Kings of Kent, Mercia or Wessex. London no longer functioned as an urban centre. The Anglo-saxon settlers, self-sufficient farmers, had no use for towns. By this time, Christian missionaries arrived in England and established the first major churches in old roman towns: Canterbury, Rochester and London. Ethelbert of Kent was the first English king to convert to Christianity. He erected a wooden church within the roman city wall, dedicated to St. Paul as the Cathedral of  bishop Mellitus for the East Saxon people.

For Anglo-Saxons, Londinium became Lundewic. This place did not lie within the old roman city walls, but to the west, along the Strand. Probably they used the mouth of the River Fleet as a trading ship and fishing boat harbour. The saxon word 'wic' probably comes from latin word, 'vicus', and meant port or trading town, so Lundewic was ' London trading town'.  Churches like St. Martin-in-the-fields, may have been founded at this time, and the name Aldwych, ‘the old port’, preserves the memory of the settlement.

At the end of the 8th century Vikings from Scandinavia began to raid the towns and Monasteries of northern Europe. In 865 a great army of Danes gathered in East Anglia and destroyed the power of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, they made London their winter quarters. The only Anglo-saxon kingdom to survive was the Wessex of king Alfred. In 886 Alfred re-established London (probably a town in ruins), the walled Roman city, as a fortified town, a burgh. The anglo-saxon site on the Strand was abandoned and reverted to fields.

King Edward the Confessor, Bayeux Tapestry, France. Wikipedia

After Danish wars, London flourished during the 11th century. King Edward, The Confessor, built a new monastery dedicated to St. Peter in the west of the city (in the area later known as ‘the west minster’) with a fine church of Norman style, the first in England; and more importantly, he established a new royal palace alongside Thorney (‘thorn island’), where the river Tyburn flowed into the Thames.

The Vikings, had created a powerful kingdom in France, called Normannorum, the land of the men of the north (the Normans). William of Normandy, later called the Conqueror, became King of this country. In England, Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey on January, 1066, but his kingdom was brief; William had already  decided  to conquer England and he did it after defeating Harold’s army in the battle of Hastings, where Harold was killed, in October, 1066.

The Bayeux Tapestry (French: Tapisserie de Bayeux) is a 50 cm tall by 70 m (20 in by 230 ft) long embroidered cloth, which explains the events leading up to the 1066 Norman invasion of England as well as the events of the invasion itself. The Tapestry is annotated in Latin. It is presently exhibited in a special museum in Bayeux, Normandy, France, with a Victorian replica in Reading, Berkshire, England. Image above shows the Battle of Hastings. Wikipedia

See the whole tapestry in this link of Wikipedia commons: 

And you can also watch  an animation of Bayeux tapestry:


One of the first acts of the new Norman king, William, was to establish castles to control London. One of them was built in the east, by the river, to protect the entry to London and the port. It was the core of the Tower of London.

View of The Tower of London and Tower Brigde from Swiss-Re building, Wikipedia. The White Tower, that stands in the centre was built by King William in romanesque style, the other buildings were constructed later.

 Plan of London c.1300. Wikimedia Commons

 Between the 12th century and the end of the 15th, London expanded in size and population, while continuing to increase in political and economic importance. At the end of the period, as at the beginning, it was still shaped by Roman walls spread far beyond the City itself, except in the two distinct settlements of Westminster and Southwark. It seems probable that the city reached its maximum size, with a population of perhaps 80,000, in the early years of the 14th century. Many foreign settlers in London came from nothern France; the area round the street still known as Old Jewry was the physical centre of the Jewish settlement and foreign merchants, from Flanders and Italy especially. London’s exceptional size and wealth in the middle ages were due to a number of factors: its convenient location at the centre of land and water routes, with easy access to the Continent; the City’s role as a port, the growth of Westminster as the focus of government, and the growth of government itself.

  Illustration of the Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible. Wikipedia

The Black Death, a devastating pandemic, swept Europe and arrived  in England in 1348, By 1350, it is possible that half the population of the capital had died.

Population decline did not mean economic collapse for London. Although England’s involvement in war with France, the financing of warfare and the marshalling of supplies and troops may well have given Londoners some opportunities for profit.

London’s self-government was achieved in the 12th and 13th centuries as a result of strong pressure from the City on the Crown, forcing or buying concessions in times of weakness. Even before the Conquest, London had its own laws, courts and customs. During the reign of John (1199-1216) they established a commune, a collectivity to which all Londoners swore allegiance, with a leader or mayor, an achievement that was confirmed in Magna Carta. The City’s 24 wards were clearly established by 1127. The divisions may originally have been intended to allocate responsibility for the defence of the City, but they also became units of local government. Each was headed by an alderman, always a man of wealth and importance, and in the 13th century and later the major and aldermen together formed the principal administrative council of the City. Then, the government of the city was clearly an oligarchy, not a democracy.

One of the most important institutions of middle age were The Guilds, in essence, they were voluntary associations for mutual support, with a strong emphasis on brotherhood and friendliness; some appear to have been no more than burial clubs and communal chantries, while others evolved into institutions wielding considerable political power. In 1180 there were at least 19 guilds, and over 100 in the early 15th century. 

 The Guildhall, a center of urban government, engravement c. 1805, Wikipedia

Savoy Taylor's Guild, The Strand, London

In 1300 the street pattern of central London was predominantly influenced by the Roman city wall and the skeleton network of streets laid down from late Saxon and early Norman times.

London Brigde was rebuilt in stone in the late 12th and early 13th century. The Wallbrook stream had disappeared. Westcheap (cheap=market) becoming Cheap-side (while the name Eastcheap survived), and Candlewick Street (the street where candles were made) being simplified to Cannon Street. Many medieval street and area names (still recognisable today) commemorate trades and activities, although the names sometimes stayed while the trades moved on: Ironmonger Lane, Billiter Lane (the lane of the ‘bell-yetteres’ or bell-founders)…

Map of London nowadays. Medieval London remains in the name of many streets: London Wall is on the place where the old wall stood and also the main gates of the wall: Bishopsgate, Newgate, Moorgate, Aldgate... Cheapside and Eastcheap remember what cheap meant in middle ages: 'market'. Old Jewry, the Jews borough and in Ironmonger Lane, Cannon st. and Billiter st. were the workshops of  ironmongers, candle and bell makers.

'The City' within medieval walls was the centre of London but Westminster was separate from the City, with its own government and distinct character, and the small settlement that grew up there, was dominated by the Abbey and the Royal Palace. The Tower was the private citadel of royal power, Westminster Abbey became the ceremonial face of monarchy, the place of coronation and burial.  Westminster and the City were linked by the Strand and the river  provided direct and rapid communication. Southwark laid outside the jurisdiction of the City until 1556 and partly because of that, developed a freewheeling character of its own. It will become the place where noisy public entertainments, such us the bear-baiting pit and the theatre could flourish without disturbing the peace of the City.


The City of London and The City of Westminster had different governments and rules. Some of those remain today in administrative organization.


 The Church played an important role in shaping the appearance and character of medieval London. The City was the seat of an important bishopric and great cathedral, St. Paul’s, rebuilt in stone in Norman times and renovated in gothic style between the 12th and 13th century.

Covent Garden was originally the walled enclosure and garden belonging to the monks of Westminster Abbey, recorded in 1491 as Covent Garden (from old french couvent). After the dissolution of the monasteries (with Henry VIII) the site was claimed by the crown and sold to the Earl of Bedford in 1552. Covent Garden was famous for its fruit market established in 1661 and for its Royal Opera House, the third and present one on this site being built in 1858, both appear in the American film ‘My Fair Lady’.

The site of the Law Courts and London lawyers stands on land once owned by the Knights Templars, members of a military and religious Order founded in Jerusalem in about 1118. Their task was to protect the holy places and their name derives from the place where they had their quarters, near the site of Solomon’s Temple. The name Temple was also given to their quarters in London and Paris. The Pope dissolved the order in 1312 and the buildings have been used by the legal profession from the 14th century.

There were over a hundred parish churches in and near the City. St. Paul’s must have been one of the finest and largest Gothic cathedrals. St. Paul was regarded as the city’s patron saint until the 13th century, when he had to share that position with the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket (died in 1170), whose cult developed at that time.

 Model of Gothic Cathedral of St Paul exhibited at the Museum of London