ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 45, June 1999


When London became a European capital

By 1300, the character of England's principal city was established, writes John Schofield

A recent upward revision of the size of London's population around 1300 to 80,000 or more has fundamentally changed our understanding of the size and importance of the medieval city within England and in Europe.

The city had grown from its rebirth under King Alfred in the late 9th century. Archaeologists are beginning to fill in the details of the picture of its development, especially from the early 11th century when several designated waterfront docking places were laid out near the markets. From the opening of the 12th century (if not before) stone houses, prominent public buildings and a new cathedral were built. London bridge was rebuilt in 1176-1209 and Guildhall was probably established during the 12th century.

Historians at the Centre for Metropolitan History at the University of London have recently shown that by 1300, also, London began to dominate the agricultural practices of a large and growing hinterland as a result of its demand for basic foodstuffs and fuel.

The intramural city grew by as much as one sixth at the expense of the river, through a process of reclamation, between about 1100 and about 1450. This process has been recorded on many sites since the 1970s. A succession of wooden revetments has been found, surviving up to 2m high, and dated by dendrochronology to the period 1140-1480. The joints are comparable to other examples of medieval carpentry, and so detailed is the evidence that it allows us to reconstruct much of the history of timber framing in this period.

The dumps behind these revetments are tightly dated by dendrochronology and coins, and provide a long series of accuratelydated artefacts of every kind. The waterfront sites have therefore formed the basis of a ceramic typology, with the result that excavated strata anywhere in the City can now be dated to within 30 years in many cases. The discovery of thousands of metal, bone and leather objects enables many aspects of ordinary town life to be reconstructed.

Religion was pervasive, and medieval London's greatest public building was St Paul's Cathedral. It was rebuilt from 1087. Recent work in the crypt of the Wren building has produced Romanesque moulded stones originally quarried at Taynton in Oxfordshire. Study of these fragments will, for the first time, enable us to recreate in three dimensions portions of the cathedral destroyed in 1666.

A research project is also under way at the Museum of London Archaeology Service to publish excavations of seven major monasteries which have been comprehensively investigated in the last two decades - at Aldgate, Bishopsgate, two in Clerkenwell, Bermondsey, Merton and near the Tower. The arrival of the main monasteries in the 12th century, reinforced by the friaries in the 13th century, was the largest topographical and probably social development in the city away from the waterfront. These massive stone complexes both attracted large numbers of monks and lay workers from London's population, but also had a massive effect on London's economy as centres of consumption and of industrial and cultural production.

Shops lined London streets throughout the medieval period, but they have rarely been excavated because of later street widening. Documentary study shows that in the 13th century, on principal streets, there were hundreds of tiny shops or booths. Running back from major streets such as Cheapside were selds, bazaar-like enclosures often with stone walls which had stalls within them. From their names, it appears that some (eg, Tanners' Seld) specialised in particular commodities. The recent large excavation at Number 1, Poultry has explored a large area at the east end of Cheapside. Here rows of buildings which preceded the 13th century shops, and which may also have had commercial functions, were erected in the 10th century.

London was also a manufacturing centre. Early medieval industries were local in scope and apparently not zoned. Around Cheapside there is evidence of bone-working and possibly dyeing on a small scale. Crucibles for metalworking are found all over the city, as are loom-weights from an early form of vertical loom. A 13th-century dyeworks has been excavated at Swan Lane on the river.

By 1300 London appears for the first time to be a centre for innovation in the manufacture of high-quality products. The city was a national centre of production of fine clothes, jewellery, brasses, and numerous other kinds of luxuries. We know from records of the powerful London goldsmiths that many luxury objects were made in the city itself, or finished or repaired there (for example some fragments of enamelled Venetian glasses of about 1300 from Foster Lane near St Paul's). Church brasses and monuments throughout south-eastern England have now been linked to workshops in London. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Westminster Palace was on its way to becoming the permanent location of the royal court, and thus the political capital of the country. Government offices were established in the Palace shortly after 1200, and in the 1240s Henry III instigated a major building phase at Westminster Abbey as a statement of his royal power in Europe.

London merchants and the workshops under their control played an important part in supplying the court and its circle. We know from records that the court went to London for its finery, and occasionally examples of luxury goods intended for the court are found in excavations - such as, for example, scraps of fine textile which were found recently near one of the royal `wardrobes' or store-houses in the City.

At the same time bishops, priors and courtiers began to establish town houses in the area between Westminster and the City in what is now the Strand, as well as elsewhere in London. Some of their houses, such as that of the Bishop of Winchester in Southwark, have been excavated recently. It was one of the largest stone halls anywhere in Britain - its magnificent rose window survives - and shows that some houses in London were bigger than churches.

And what of the houses of other prominent Londoners? In the 12th century, stone buildings may have formed the centres of compounds, surrounded by timber buildings, as excavated at Watling Court in Cannon Street in 1978. Such compounds, often with a tower as their focus, are also found in other North European towns. Wooden fragments of 10th-12th century buildings, some of impressive size, have been recovered from waterfront excavations such as at Billingsgate and Queenhithe.

Both archaeological and documentary evidence suggest that the urban fabric of London had attained a relatively stable and durable form by the early 13th century, and that over the 13th century a form of timber building was adopted - in which the timber frame was placed on a low stone wall, removing the need for post-holes - that was more lasting and capable of supporting higher structures than before.

London lay within trading and cultural zones which were European in scale - not English. During the late Middle Ages, it was often easier to make a sea crossing from London to northern Europe than it was to make an overland journey to Wales or the north of England. The economic and cultural links between eastern England and the coasts of northern Europe rendered the area a coherent region, particularly after 1300.

After the Black Death of 1348-49, many of the tiny shops disappeared from Cheapside. After the losses of the plague, London may however have bounced back quicker than other towns because of its size and diversified economy. During the 15th century Guildhall was rebuilt to rival Westminster Hall at the heart of the Palace, which had been rebuilt some 40 years earlier, reflecting a vigorous rivalry between town and court. There were also many additions and embellishments to parish churches.

In many ways, however, the character of London was established by 1300. By 1066 it was England's gateway to Europe and the richest city in Britain; for William the Conqueror, it was better left unscathed than ravaged. By 1135 it was powerful enough to make its support essential for the new monarch Stephen - without London he could not have won the kingdom. By 1250, the city was a centre for cultural production, and merchants in royal service became very rich. By 1300, London was creating one of its legacies to later centuries: the beginnings of a consumer society.

Dr John Schofield works in the Department of Early London History and Collections at the Museum of London. A new edition of his book The Building of London from the Conquest to the Great Fire has just been published by Sutton.

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