Wednesday, September 30, 2015

John Stow - Chronicler of London in the Tudor Age

by Mark Patton

Previously on this blog-site I explored London through the eyes of a 12th Century chronicler, William FitzStephen. The city would have to wait for more than three hundred years before another writer appeared on the scene to document its fortunes with similar care and attention to detail.

John Stow was born in London in 1525, the son of a tailor. Growing up in Threadneedle Street (now synonymous with high finance but, in Stow's time, with his father's trade, as the name suggests), he would walk along Leadenhall Street to fetch half-penny jugs of milk from the farm at the Franciscan nunnery that lay just outside Aldgate. His father suffered the indignity of having half of his garden appropriated by Thomas Cromwell (no legal process was involved, Cromwell's workmen simply removed the fence and erected a brick wall twenty-two feet further south): Stow's father, however, continued to pay rent on the whole property, "because no man durst go to argue the matter."

Like Cromwell, however, and like Cromwell's mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, Stow seems, somehow, to have received an education enjoyed by few boys of his social status. Literate in both English and Latin, he served his apprenticeship as a tailor without enthusiasm. At the age of forty, despite having few financial resources to fall back upon, he gave up the trade altogether in favour of a scholarly life. He built up a substantial private library, including the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (a version of which he edited) & Geoffrey of Monmouth,  and the Latin texts of Julius Caesar & Tacitus. He travelled the length and breadth of England, always on foot, since he could not afford a horse.

He published his Annals (a history of Britain, drawing both on the work of earlier historians and on his own observations) in 1580. Only at the very end of his life, as his health declined, did he devote himself specifically to the history of his native city. His Survey of London (1598) is an important document, not least because many of the archives he consulted would subsequently be lost to the Great Fire of 1666. He gives both a vivid account of the London of his own day and a historical commentary, drawing on the archives of the Guildhall, the Livery Companies and the Churches.

Stow was among the first English historians to recognise the unreliability of his Medieval predecessors. Writing of the Tower of London, he has this to say:
... it hath been the common opinion - and some have written - but of none assured ground, that Julius Caesar, the first conqueror of the Britons, was the original author and founder, as well thereof as also many other towers, castles, and great buildings within this realm; but ... Caesar remained not here so long, nor had he in his head any such matter, but only to despatch a conquest of this barbarous country, and to proceed to greater matters.

London Bridge he describes as
... a work very rare, having with the draw-bridge twenty arches made of squared stone, of height sixty feet, and in breadth thirty feet ... compact and joined together with vaults and cellars; upon both sides be houses built, so that it seemeth rather a continual street than a bridge; for the fortifying thereof against the incessant assaults of the river, it hath overseers and officers, viz, wardens as aforesaid, and others.

London Bridge in 1483, British Library
Royal Manuscript 16, Folio 73

He also documents the various tributaries of the Thames, now largely hidden, and the ways in which these had been engineered, even in his time, to provide fresh water for the population of the city (then numbering around a quarter of a million people):
The first cistern of lead, castellated with stone, in the City of London was called the great Conduit in West Cheap, which was begun to be built in the year 1285, Henry Wales being then mayor ... Bosses of water at Belinsgate, by Paul's Wharf, and by Saint Giles's Church without Cripplegate, made about 1423. Water conveyed to the gaols of Newgate and Ludgate, 1432.

London's rivers, most of them now underground.
The Open Guide to London (licensed under CCA).

Like William FitzStephen before him, he also describess the enjoyments of Londoners (skating, sports, theatres), and the many festivities that took place at particular times of the year.

Perhaps most significantly, he provides a detailed account of each of the city's Wards. Over the coming months, as I research a series of historical novels based in London, I will be walking the streets that Stow walked and exploring each of the Wards in turn, both here and on my own blog-site.

The wards of the City of London, as recorded in 1870.
Image: Doc77can (licensed under CCA).

John Stow lived much of his life in poverty and his later years in poor health but was nonetheless described as a "merry old man." On his death he was buried at the church where he had worshipped, Saint Andrew Undershaft (coincidentally, one of the few city churches to have survived largely intact from his time).

The Church of Saint Andrew Undershaft,
built in 1532, over an earlier Medieval church.
Photo: Elissa.rolle (licensed under CCA).

The monument to John Stow.
Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I love stow and lived with it whilst writing my first novel Nicholas Cooke . Fascinating post!

  2. Great post, Mark. I love Stow, too.

  3. Check out They have taken the Agas Map of London (1561) and cross-referenced it with the locations Stow has described in his Survey. It is a terrific resource

  4. I find old maps fascinating. Thanks for including so many in your post, Mark. And for our input, Dean.

  5. Very much enjoyed your post! Thank you!


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