During the Middle Ages London was, as it is today, the vibrant, cosmopolitan capital of England. It dwarfed all other English urban centres. In 1377, the year Richard II became king, it had an estimated population of 40,000. The next largest urban centre, York, had only around 12,000.
It was not just the largest but also by far the richest city in the land. London’s great wealth was built on commerce. Trade from all over Europe came to England through London. Many foreign merchants, especially from wealthy Italian city states, established permanent offices in the city to take advantage of its thriving cosmopolitan culture.
London also boasted some of the most impressive buildings in the land. The magnificent Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the formidable Tower of London, and the city’s spectacular bridge. Anyone visiting London for the first time would have been in awe of the sheer scale and magnificence of the place.
Medieval London covered quite a small area by comparison to its vast modern urban sprawl.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century London existed only on the north side of the river Thames. The was no such thing as South London. You could access it from the south over London Bridge which, at the time, was THE bridge (it was literally the only one). It linked the bustling city with Southwark, the only significant settlement on the south bank. Step outside Southwark and there was nothing but countryside and marshland.
The city was bounded on the east by the formidable Tower of London and Aldgate. It extended north as far as Bishopsgate and Moorgate and west as far as Ludgate, Newgate, and Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Its boundary was defined by an impressive city wall. Beyond the walls were a handful of Priories, Abbeys and one or two other significant buildings along the banks of the Thames. Aside from this however, there was nothing but fields and countryside.
The city walls
The city was encircled by an impressive 18ft high stone wall. Anyone approaching from the north had to pass through one of seven imposing gatehouses to enter. Each gatehouse had a large set of sturdy oak doors, and these were left open during the day and closed at nightfall.
In times of war, London’s walls were a formidable defence. Given enough defenders to man its considerable perimeter, it could be defended just like a castle. It did however have one weakness. Its southern boundary had no wall and relied instead mainly on the Thames for protection. Its docks nevertheless had some protection in the form of water gates and the bridge had a strong stone gate and drawbridge.
London’s defences did not help it during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 or the Cade rebellion of 1450, when violent mobs gained access to the city via the bridge. On both occasions the rebels either had help from sympathisers in the city or were able to infiltrate the capital before the defences were secured.
London’s wall was of greater help in 1461. Margaret of Anjou’s Lancastrian army had defeated Warwick at Saint Albans and would certainly have taken Yorkist London had not the city militia closed the gates against her.
Cathedrals and Priories
Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral (not to be confused with the current one) was built during the C12th and extended in 1314. At 585ft long it was the third longest church in existence anywhere in the world. With a spire of nearly 500ft high, it was the second highest in the country and easily the tallest building in London.
It was an impressive manifestation of the power of the medieval church. Indeed, it was just one of several significant religious sites in London at the time. Blackfriars got its name from the black-robed friars of the Dominican order that resided at the priory there. This priory was grand enough to host meetings of parliament.
Other significant priories in the city included Greyfriars (home to the Franciscan order) which had the city’s second largest church. Austin Friars (home of the Augustine order) eventually covered nearly six acres of land. Then there was St Helen’s Priory near Bishopsgate, home to the Benedictine Nuns.
It was hardly possible to walk far in medieval London without encountering an important religious building of some kind. The cathedral and London’s numerous churches were all taller than London’s other buildings, with the exception for the Tower of London. As a result, London’s medieval skyline was dominated by church spires.
Trade was the lifeblood of London’s wealth and power. The city traded extensively not only with the rest of the country but with Europe. London docks were a busy place, servicing a constant stream of ships importing and exporting a wide variety of cargos.
Foreign merchants were attracted to London in large numbers, often setting up permanent offices there. This made the city a very cosmopolitan place. If you’d walked through its streets in the fourteenth or fifteenth century you would have heard a wide variety of different languages spoken. In addition to English and French, you’d commonly hear Italian, Flemish, German and Spanish.
In 1449 an increasingly desperate Lancastrian parliament was searching for ways to raise more money. One idea they came up with was to levy a poll tax on foreigners residing in England, most of whom would have lived in London. This legislation listed several nationalities, present in significant enough numbers to make a difference to the health of the exchequer. Citizens from the wealthy Italian states like Venice and Florence feature prominently. One Florentine merchant family, the Alberti, were doing so much business in London that they were singled out by name! Aside from Italians, members of the Hanseatic League, Prussians and Catalonians were also listed.
London’s merchants became increasingly powerful during the Middle Ages, banding together to form monopolistic trade guilds. The strongest of the guilds were able to win special rights and privileges from the crown.
One example was the Weavers’ Guild. As early as the C12th, it received a royal charter from Henry II confirming on it special trading privileges. These included the right to elect bailiffs, supervise all weaving work, punish defaulters, and collect tax. The guild established a monopoly on its trade in London and even formed its own court to regulate members. It was simply not possible to make a living from weaving in the city without being a member of the Guild.
The wool industry became the powerhouse of England’s medieval economy. As a result, guilds associated with the industry, especially the Drapers, became incredibly powerful.
However, you’d be wrong to assume that trades like weaving were dominated by men. A significant number of women earnt their living as weavers, including several women who owned and ran their own businesses. These female entrepreneurs were numerous enough to be specifically referenced in medieval records as ‘femme sole’ businesses.
The success of its merchants made London a potent economic and political force. The city became semi-autonomous, enjoying special privileges, rights, and liberties that gave its mayor and council immense power. An early map marks the city boundary with the words, “Here the king ends and the lord mayor begins”.
Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington is perhaps London’s most famous medieval mayor. He became incredibly wealthy from trading in luxury silks and velvets. Lord Mayor on three occasions in 1397, 1406 and 1419, he also served as a member of parliament. Using his considerable personal fortune, he financed the rebuilding of London’s Guildhall. In addition, he also paid for a ward at St. Thomas’ hospital, drainage systems in the Billingsgate area, the rebuilding of St Michael Paternoster Royal church, a 128-seat public toilet at St Martin Vintry and was the largest contributor to the cost of Greyfriars library.
By the time of his death in 1423 he was so wealthy that he was able to leave £7,000 to charity (the modern equivalent of £6.2 million).
It was a rags to riches story… except that… no, it wasn’t really.
Dick Whittington was the third son of Sir William Whittington, a wealthy member of parliament, from a long and highly respected line. Dick, as the third son, ‘technically’ stood to inherit nothing. However, his father provided him with the capital and contacts he needed to set up his business and join the highly prestigious London Mercers’ Guild.
The sheer size of London and the intensity of commercial activity within the city clearly created a lot of waste. However, London lacked any effective system of sewage or waste disposal. Waste had to be disposed of somewhere. Some was dumped in the Thames. A lot was taken out of the city by hand but much of it simply ended up in the streets. Everything from rotting vegetables to animal dung, offal, fish remains, broken crates, and sewage. This was especially true in poorer areas where the local citizens lacked servants to carry the rubbish away. As you might imagine, the stench became especially foul at the height of summer.
The rubbish attracted not only rats but stray dogs and even wild pigs. The city had to resort to employing ‘swine killers’ who were paid 4d (just under £8 today and the equivalent to a day’s wages for a skilled craftsman at the time) for every pig they killed.
Over the course of the fourteenth century, the city slowly took steps to clean up its act. In time, fines were introduced for leaving waste in the street or dumping it in ponds or streams. By the fifteenth century Dick Whittington funded the building of public latrines and drainage systems.
However, medieval London never developed an adequate network of sewers. There was no escaping the fact that it was a very unsanitary place.
Tower of London
The Tower of London was a royal palace situated in the south-eastern corner of the city. The original White Tower had been built by William the Conqueror and had been extended and added to ever since. It was a truly formidable fortification, looming over eastern London.
Whilst the Tower is probably best known as a place where famous people were imprisoned, this was not its primary function. Throughout the Middle Ages it served as a royal residence. It had a great hall, its own library, a royal mint and numerous chambers for the royal family and their guests. In Edward III’s time it even had a royal menagerie, housing his collection of big cats.
Smithfield was literally a field located to the northwest of the city, just outside the wall. Serving as a major livestock market from the tenth century, the market supplied the city with most of its meat. It was also an important gathering place where Londoners could meet and socialise. It became particularly famous for hosting the three-day St Bartholomew’s Day fair at the end of August each year.
Smithfield also regularly hosted jousting tournaments. These were often grand affairs, presided over by the king. Richard II held several tournaments here during the 1380s and 1390s while Edward IV hosted an especially famous tournament in 1467. People flocked from miles around to witness the contest between Anthony Woodville, the Queen’s brother, and Antoine, the Bastard of Burgundy (illegitimate son of the Duke). Antoine was a glamourous figure, famed for his exploits on crusade and jousting prowess. The event was so packed that people unable to gain access to the tournament enclosure climbed trees to get a view.
The Bastard vs Woodville
The contest spread over two days of challenges. On the first day saw two contests. The first was a joust, which ended in a draw (as both competitors missed each other at the tilt).
The second contest was tourney, where the two knights fought each other with swords on horseback. The horses bodychecked each other with the result that the Bastard ended up pinned to the ground under his fallen horse. This was declared an accident. However, there was some controversy as rumours spread that Woodville may have used an illegal iron spike mounted on his horse’s armour!
On the second day the two fought each other on foot. The combat was so violent that Edward IV called a halt to it before one of them was killed. The King diplomatically declared the contest a draw.
If you were a Londoner who wanted to see some world class jousting, Smithfield was the place to go!
The Great Hall of Westminster was originally built in the eleventh century, and by the late Middle Ages it had become the centre of royal power. Edward III made Westminster Palace his primary royal residence and permanently based his privy council here. Before this time the royal court travelled the country between various palaces. The government of England had been wherever the king had happened to be staying. However, from Edward’s time onwards, all this changed and thereafter Westminster became the favoured location for holding parliaments.
Perhaps surprisingly, Westminster was not in the city of London at the time. It was a small town, located about 3 miles to the west of the city, in leafy countryside. Westminster was connected to the capital by a long and quite grand road – the Strand. As time passed houses and palaces of the well to-do sprung up along this road, in time contributing to London’s future urban sprawl. The most magnificent of all was the Savoy Palace which served as a residence for John of Gaunt, the richest man of the fourteenth century. Unfortunately, the Savoy was targeted by angry mobs during the Peasants’ Revolt, who looted it before burning it to the ground.
Also outside the city, situated to the north of Westminster in the small village of Tyburn, was London’s infamous hanging tree. Here, criminals and traitors would be brought for execution. If someone especially famous was due to hang it would often attract a large crowd. The hanging of Roger Mortimer in 1330 proved particularly popular.
Peter de Colechurch
Up until the twelfth century London had been connected to Southwark by a wooden bridge. As far as we know a wooden bridge had been there at least since the late Anglo-Saxon times. Being wooden it was vulnerable to damage from the elements. At this point, the river was over 900 ft wide so, as you can imagine, keeping a wooden bridge of this size in good repair was a major ongoing commitment.
Towards the end of the twelfth century, Henry II decided that a stone bridge was required. The man he chose for the task of building one was a priest by the name of Peter de Colechurch. And what a task it was! Not only was it the first stone bridge to be built in England since Roman times, but it would also have to span a daunting 926ft.
Work began in 1176 and took three decades to complete. The result was a spectacular structure with nineteen arches that would last for six centuries. It was not only an engineering marvel in medieval England but in the whole of Europe.
Old London Bridge
Peter de Colechurch’s London Bridge must have been an incredible sight. In the early thirteenth century it was the only stone bridge in the country. A row of houses quickly sprang up along its span and, in the middle, Peter had built a chapel dedicated to Thomas à Becket.
The bridge was 28ft wide but since houses were built lining both sides of the bridge, the road passing between them was only around 14ft wide. The houses themselves protruded out on both sides of the bridge to leave as much room as possible for carts to pass across it.
It had a large stone gate (known as Stone Gate) at the Southwark end. From the early fourteenth century it became common practice to display the heads of traitors impaled above its entrance.
The bridge also had a drawbridge. This was built as an additional line of defence but, since it could be raised, it also provided a handy channel to allow taller ships to pass up and down the river.
By the mid-fourteenth century there were a total of 108 shops on the bridge. Since travellers entering or leaving the city to the south had no option but to pass over the bridge, the shopkeepers must have done a brisk trade.
On the south bank of the Thames, just the other side of the bridge, was Southwark. Since stabling was in scarce supply in the city, many visitors stabled their horses at one of the many inns lining Borough High Street. One of the most famous of these was the White Hart, which served as a base for Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450.
However, the main attraction was not the inns but the famous (or perhaps I should say infamous) Southwark Stews. These were a series of bathhouses (numbering as many as 18 by 1374). Here visitors could enjoy a scented bath, food, drink, and, of course, female company. It was a profession in which Flemish women particularly excelled, constituting, as they did, the madams of all 18 establishments.
You might be surprised to learn that there was little stigma associated with frequenting such establishments. Southwark was safely outside city jurisdiction and medieval marriage only really required women to be faithful. The prostitutes themselves were free to go about their business in public. However, they had to wear their distinctive striped hoods. That way women of good repute in the area could not be mistaken for them.
Of course, the Church was officially disapproving of such immorality but if you confessed your sins afterwards you could receive absolution. In any event the Church could ill afford to be too disapproving. Most of the bathhouses were rented out to their madams by the Bishop of Winchester after all.
A resilient city
London, like the rest of the country, suffered appallingly during the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century. Cramped, unsanitary conditions were an ideal breeding ground for disease. Overall, the city lost between one third and one half its population during the pandemic. The death toll was highest amongst the poor who lived in the most cramped conditions and were unable to flee the city as many of its wealthier residents had done.
Despite this, London’s population recovered faster than other parts of the country. The lure of London’s wealth quickly attracted people from the countryside. It was not long before London was thriving again. It was indeed a most resilient city.
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If you enjoyed this article you may wish to read some of my other features covering history from the medieval period:
Parliament and the Birth of Democracy
The Rise of the Medieval Church
Women in the 15th Century – A Tale of Three Margarets
References & further reading:
Florentine Merchants in England, 1346-1436, GA Homes, The Economic History Review, New Series , Vol 13, Number 2.
Manly jousting at Smithfield, Emma V Levitt, academia.edu
Medieval London guilds, Linda Alchin, 2017
Old London Bridge, Patricia Pierce, Review, 2002
Richard Whittington on Wikipedia
The time traveller’s guide to medieval England, Ian Mortimer, Vintage, 2021
The White Tower – photography by Alison Stones (copyright A Stones), may only be used for educational or not-for-profit purposes with accreditation.
Map of London, 1300. From William R. Shepherd. Historical atlas. (1911) Page 75. Copyright Alison Stones may only be used for educational or not-for-profit purposes with accreditation.
Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral – H W Brewer, 1891 (via Wiki Commons)
Dick Whittington, stained glass window –photograph from the Guildhall in London, Stephen C Dickson. 2014 (via Wiki Commons)
Tower of London – photograph. Pikous, April 2006 (via Wiki Commons)
Peasants Revolt – painting by Alfred Garth Jones, 1900 (via Wiki Commons)
Model of Old London Bridge c.1440 – photograph. Ben Sutherland 2012. (via Wiki Commons)