Friday, March 6, 2020

A View of London in 1190

by Mark Patton

A visitor to the city of London today has little sense of the Medieval city, even though he or she walks along streets that would have been familiar to Geoffrey Chaucer. The street-names give some clues (Chaucer or his servants would have bought milk in Milk Street, bread in Bread Street and chicken or eggs in Poultry), and many of the churches occupy the same positions, but little of the Medieval fabric is visible because of the Great Fire of 1666 which destroyed almost everything. All that remains, at least above ground, is the Tower of London and some fragments of the wall that once surrounded the city, itself built on Roman foundations.

The Tower of London, late 15th Century image,
depicting the imprisonment  of Charles, Duc d'Orleans.
British Library, MS Royal 16, Fol. 73

We are fortunate, therefore, in having a written description of the city, dating to 1190, its author, William FitzStephen, a clerk who had been in service to Thomas Becket. FitzStephen was a witness to Becket's murder and afterwards wrote a biography of him, to which his account of London serves as a preface. It seems that FitzStephen, like his master, was a Londoner, so it is likely that his description of the city is informed by his personal memories of growing up there.

"Among the splendid cities of the world that have achieved celebrity," he tells us (I am quoting from the 1860 translation by H.T. Riley), "the city of London - seat of the English monarchy - is one whose renown is more widespread, whose money and merchandise go further afield, and which stands head and shoulders above the others."

Part of London's surviving wall.
Photo: Ollios (licensed under CCA).

Emphasising London's Christian identity, he refers to Saint Paul's Cathedral, to "thirteen conventual churchs and one hundred and twenty-six lesser, parish churches." He also mentions London's defences, its walls and seven gates, and its fortifications: not only the Tower of London, on the east side of the city, but also the now long-vanished Baynard's Castle and Montfichet's Tower in the west.

Perhaps more significant, however, are his descriptions of the life of the city. "There are, in the northern suburbs of London, springs of high quality, with water that is sweet, wholesome, clear, and whose runnels ripple among pebbles bright. Among which Holywell, Clerkenwell and Saint Clement's Well have a particular reputation; they receive throngs of visitors, and are especially frequented by students and young men of the city, who head out on summer evenings to take the air."

It is a popular myth that Medieval Londoners drank only beer, because the water was unwholesome: certainly they knew better than to draw their drinking water from the filthy Thames, but the water from these springs and wells was clearly drinkable. That said, breweries also drew water from those springs, and many had taverns attached, so the consumption of beer probably was an element of student life, then as now.

"The three principle churches of London - Saint Paul's ... Holy Trinity and Saint Martin's, possess schools by ancient right and privilege. But, thanks to the support of a number of those scholarly men who have won renown and distinction in the study of philosophy, there are other schools licensed there."

London seems not to have had a university, as Paris and Bologna did, but the reference to students suggests that some, at least, of these schools were preparing men for the priesthood. FitzStephen even mentions these students hurling "abuse and jibes" at one another "with Socratic wit," although we should not imagine that they were actually reading Plato (almost nobody in Western Europe in the 12th Century could read Greek): whatever they knew of classical philosophy came from the Latin of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy - essential reading for all seminarians.

Cooks roasting chickens on a spit.
Bodleian MS 264, Fol.170v

"Nor should I forget to mention that there is, in London, on the river bank amidst the ships, the wine for sale, and the storerooms for wine, a public cookshop. On a daily basis there, depending on the season, can be found fried or boiled foods and dishes, fish large and small, meat - lower quality for the poor, finer cuts for the wealthy - game and fowl (large and small) ... Hence, as we read in Plato's Gorgias, cookery is a flattery and imitation of medicine, the fourth of the arts of civic life."

That's not quite what is said in Plato's Gorgias, but it's an understandable error from someone who has read only Boethius. Scholars of the Middle Ages were probably acutely aware of the knowledge they did not possess: nobody had actually read Plato, but every scholar hoped to meet someone who had, and any number may have pretended to have done so.

FitzStephen goes on to describe a weekly horse-market at Smithfield (beyond the northern city wall), horse races so energetic that "you start to believe that 'all things are in motion,' as Heraclitus put it, and lose faith in Zeno's theory that motion is impossible - so that no-one could ever reach the end of a racetrack!" His source, again, is Boethius, but I think there is more to this than intellectual boasting and self-promotion. FitzStephen is, above all, a lover of his native city, and here, I suspect, he is doing his utmost to put it on the map for scholars travelling between Oxford, Paris and Bologna. Perhaps he even hoped that one of the "schools" he mentions would develop into one of the great universities of Europe as an essentially similar institution at Saint Andrews in Scotland subsequently did.

He well understood, however, that London life was not only the life of the mind. He describes the passion plays that clerks staged annually at Clerkenwell (perhaps he had acted in one of these himself), the war-games held at Smithfield in preparation for the real warfare in which so many Londoners would be caught up, and winter days spent skating on the marshes to the north of the city.

Medieval skates, Museum of London.
Photo: Steven G. Johnson (licensed under CCA).

Smithfield in 1561, Agas Map.
The etymology is from "smooth field" -
it was flat ground on which horses could be raced, ball-games played
or soldiers mustered, and it served all of these purposes,
as well as that of a horse-market from the 11th to the 17th Century.
Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).

He even gives us what may be the earliest description of a football match, although no referee is mentioned:

"After lunch, all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own lives vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents."

This post is an Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally posted September 1, 2015.


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at Mark's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are  available on Amazon.


  1. I absolutely loved this post, Mark and now am going to read your novel. Fabulous post.

  2. I am wondering if a lady, the wife of a duke for example, wished to go to market, would that have been possible? If so, by what means in the 15th century - on horse or in some kind of carriage? If a carriage what type?
    What would she buy in the market as it seems that servants did the daily, mundane buying? Would she buy spices, herbs, fabrcs, feathers . . . ?

  3. Thanks, Carol & Suey! I've seen one illustration of a carriage, c1455, pulled by a single horse, but the city streets were narrow and crowded, and probably difficult to negotiate with any sort of carriage whilst business was actually being transacted. Her easiest option would be to invite the Master of the Spiciers Company, the Mercers Company etc. to supper and ask them to bring samples of there wares. If, however, she was keen to escape the gilded cage, she might come in on horseback, perhaps accompanied by the wives or daughters of the Company Masters, and a couple of liveried outriders to clear the way.

  4. Thanks so much for the detailed information! I'm knee deep in research about all the guilds, as I've got my character, the daughter of an impoverished merchant in 1470, who's been roped in by a different merchant to infiltrate some of the upper class salons (through the friendships and acquaintances she's managed to retain), in order to find out which items are popular, so that the merchant can speculate on them. It's fun to see what might have been a new and exotic trading good back then!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.