From River Crossing to World City: A Potted History of London – Part 1 (up to 1660)

What do I mean by a potted history? At one end of the spectrum, there are very brief histories on the Internet of perhaps a couple of pages of A4. At the other end, there are comprehensive papers and books that have been written by academics and professional, or sometimes amateur, historians. My potted histories sit somewhere in between the two extremes.

I regard them as tasters, for want of a better word. They vary in size from 5-6K words at the bottom end up to 20k+ at the top end. I hope that they provide a solid core of information, along with some context. And of course, I hope that they are readable.

For readers who want more information, I provide a modest bibliography and a reasonable set of links to information on the Internet. Anybody who is really keen will naturally progress beyond my simple offerings, no doubt being eminently capable of finding their own material.

Questions and feedback are welcome via the Contact Me page.


If you propose to read the full article then you may wish to bypass this abstract.

London’s success was originally attributable to its geographical position on the Thames, a river which had been gradually formed over many millennia. It had initially been sited further north, running through the Vale of St. Albans and Harwich, and in the time when Britain was connected to Europe it formed a tributary of the ancestor to the Rhine. Ice helped to push the river southwards to its current position, while Britain eventually became an island.

Evidence of human presence in pre-history has been found in the Greater London area from the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic era, the early farmers from the  Neolithic age and from the Bronze Age. Coming forward to the century before the arrival of the Romans, various tribes occupied the area around London, some of them related to the Belgae who originally hailed from Northern Gaul.

It was the Romans who established Londinium, their primary objective being to build a bridge across the Thames and to make this place a hub for their road network across the south of England, although Colchester was their initial administrative capital. By the second century, Londinium had superseded Colchester as the capital and it had grown significantly as a trading centre. That century proved to be its peak, as the Roman empire ceased to expand and internal power struggles encouraged raids by tribes from the east, all eventually leading to the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410CE.

Angles and Saxons from North Germany, along with the Jutes from Denmark, then took advantage of the void left by the Romans to migrate to Britain. In the London area they eventually chose to settle just west of Londinium in the area of the present-day Strand, Leicester Square and Aldwych, which became known as Lundenwic.

In the 9th century, Viking raids and attempts at conquest included Lundenwic. It was Alfred the Great’s victory over them at the battle of Edington in 878CE which managed to stem the tide. Alfred, king of Wessex and eventually to be known as king of the Anglo-Saxons, reclaimed Londinium in 886CE, and concentrated on repairing the dilapidated town as part of his general plan to build burhs across southern England. Burhs were fortified settlements that would make it difficult for any future aggressors. Londinium now became known as Lundenburh.

Moving forward to the Norman period, the Corporation of the City of London received its first royal charter from William the Conqueror in 1067. The City was effectively the area inside the Roman wall, roughly the Square Mile as we would know it today. The wall itself was now subject to some additional fortification work. The City was composed of 24 wards initially, gradually spreading beyond the wall in succeeding centuries.

Dating back to late Anglo-Saxon times, two sheriffs, appointed by the king, had been responsible in the City of London for justice and for collection of taxes that were due to the monarch. They were replaced at the top of the hierarchy in 1191 by a mayor who was elected by the aldermen, individuals who effectively headed up each of the wards. The City came to be governed by the mayor and aldermen, and it was the late 14th century before ordinary citizens were represented when the Common Council came into existence, although its powers were very limited until the 18th century.

Business in the City was largely shaped by the Guilds, formal organisations of merchants and artisans that were created from the 12th century onwards, and a number of which came to be known as livery companies. The economy grew with the City being responsible for an ever-increasing amount of trade both within the country and with the Continent.

Exports and imports naturally saw the appearance of foreign merchants in the capital. There was a generally uneasy relationship between them and the locals, although they were a prerequisite to increasing trade with the Continent.

As both trade and the population increased, the City became too small. While some wards spread outside the wall, population and business growth was mainly concentrated to the east of the City. Although the Privy Council, the monarch’s advisory group, offered to give the City jurisdiction over these suburban areas in the 1630s, the offer was declined.

Meanwhile, two miles to the west of the City lay Westminster. It grew from a small monastic community when Edward the Confessor, deciding that he wanted a church to be buried in, paid for a new church to be built. He also built a royal palace nearby. Westminster Hall, a later addition to the palace, became a meeting place for royal justice, the king’s council and eventually Parliament.

The road between Westminster and the City came to attract the greater nobles and clerics who found it a convenient place to build London residences close to the seats of power and commerce. Lawyers were also later drawn to this area, as it put them near to their various clients in both places. They are still to be found in this area at the present-day.

Other members of the nobility and well-to-do were eventually attracted to London during the winters from the 17th century onwards when the area known as the West End began to be developed.

London’s location, adjacent to Westminster, along with its eventual position as the capital of England, meant that it was naturally involved, to a greater or lesser degree, in national events, including: the Anarchy of the 12th century; the Barons’ Revolt in the following century; and the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

More significant national events in the 16th and 17th centuries were the English Reformation and the English Civil War in the 1640s. The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the aftermath of the Reformation led to the sale of considerable monastic land and properties in London, which in turn affected hospitals and education which had both previously relied on the work of religious orders.

In the Civil War, London effectively sided with Parliament. Although the pragmatic wanted a treaty with Charles I after he had been captured, it was a desire that failed to materialise. His execution in 1649 heralded the Interregnum, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. His death in 1658 eventually led to the return of monarchy when Charles II was offered the Crown in 1660.   



Pre-history and up to 1066

The formation of the River Thames
Other Rivers
Pre-Roman History
The Roman Period
Early Anglo-Saxon Period
Vikings and Alfred the Great
Athelstan and the late Anglo-Saxon Period

1067 to 1660

The City of London

Church Lands and Properties
London Bridge

Surrounding Areas

Legal Quarter
West End


City of London Guilds
The Port
Trading Companies

National Conflicts and Dealings with the Crown (12th-15th Centuries)

The City’s Relations with the Crown


Law and Order


Surgeons and Barbers

Education and Literacy


Food, Water Supplies, Sanitation and Housing

Water Supplies




The English Reformation and its Aftermath

Anti-clerical Feeling
The English Reformation
The Dissolution of the Monasteries
The Effects of the Dissolution
The Growth of Protestantism

The English Civil War (1642-1651)

Point of No Return
The War and London
The Interregnum

End of Part 1

Odds and Sods

Monastic Orders
Richard Whittington

Bibliography and Further Reading


Version History


This potted history of London covers the period from pre-history up to the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. The narrative falls into the following main sections:

  • The period before London existed
  • The establishment of Londinium by the Romans
  • The arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the 5th century onward, and their setting up of a separate settlement that was called Lundenwic
  • The re-establishment of Londinium, now called Lundenburh, through the endeavours of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxons, and his grandson Athelstan, the first king of England
  • The growth of the City of London and the surrounding districts from the time of the Norman Conquest down to the accession of Charles II in 1660 after the English Civil War.

City (with a capital C) is used in this document to denote the City of London, which was originally the Roman town of Londinium, or what we might loosely refer to as the Square Mile.

With respect to dates, BCE and CE are used instead of BC and AD. And CE is dropped when we reach the 11th century.

Part 2 of London’s potted history, when it appears, will continue on from the Restoration of the Monarchy and take the account up to modern times.

From Pre-history to 1066

The Formation of the River Thames

London’s success has historically been based on its close proximity to Continental Europe and on the river Thames which provided transport links to it, as well as into the heart of southern England.

A chalk-based trough had formed between the Chilterns and the North Downs. Subsequently, around 50 million years ago, the sea deposited what is known as London Clay which varies in depth from 150 metres in the London basin to 4 metres in Wiltshire. As parts of the London Clay eroded, sand and gravel terraces were formed.

During the last glacial period which started around 25,000 years ago, Britain was physically connected to the Continent, and the proto-Thames flowed across the Vale of St. Albans and on to Harwich, where it became a small tributary of the ancestor to the river Rhine.

The ice began to melt around 14,000 years ago, leading to the sea encompassing low-lying land to the east, what would become the North Sea, and by 6,500BCE the sea had also broken through the ridge of land between Kent and northern France, creating the Straits of Dover and turning Britain into an island. During this period the Thames was gradually pushed southwards, partly by the ice, into roughly its current position.

The official source of the current river is Thames Head, near Kemble in Gloucestershire, although a small faction considers that it is actually 11 miles further north at Seven Springs, Gloucestershire. It meanders through parts of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Kent before flowing out of the Thames Estuary and into the North Sea.

What of the name of the river? It is considered that its original Brittonic Celtic name in pre-Roman times was Temese, meaning the dark one, and that the Roman equivalent was Tamesis. In Old English, the Anglo-Saxons called it Tamsye, while Thames has been in use from around 1600. The river, from the source to Dorchester upon Thames, is sometimes known as the Isis, particularly where it flows through Oxford.

Other Rivers

Various rivers and brooks acted as tributaries of the river Thames. The principal rivers that traverse through central London are now subterranean. They include:

  • The River Fleet which is the largest. It rises on Hampstead Heath, flowing on the surface nowadays as Hampstead Ponds and Highgate Ponds. It carries on through Kentish Town, Camden Town, St. Pancras and Holborn before entering the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge
  • The Walbrook which had many small tributaries of its own. It is thought that they go as far north as Islington. The Walbrook itself effectively divided the eventual City of London into two, with Ludgate Hill to the west of the river and Cornhill to the east. It entered the Thames at Dowgate
  • And the River Tyburn which rises in Hampstead. It split into two rivulets at Green Park, forming Thorney Island where Westminster, the future home of the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, was eventually settled.

Further east lies the River Lea. It originates in the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire and flows through the likes of Tottenham, Stratford and Canning Town before entering the Thames at Bow’s Creek. It has traditionally formed the boundary between Middlesex and Essex.

Any finally, towards the west lies the River Brent. It rises in Hendon and generally travels in a south-westerly direction before joining the Thames at Brentford.

Pre-Roman History

Six timber piles from the Mesolithic period (c. 9,000BCE to 4,000BCE) have been found on the foreshore of the Thames, close to the MI6 building on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge, which may possibly have formed the base for a jetty. Flint and other material from this period of the hunter-gatherers have been found in various other places such as Yiewsley (Hillingdon) and Uxbridge.

The Neolithic age (c. 4,000BCE to 1,700BCE) denoted the arrival in Britain of the first farmers whose ancestors had originally hailed from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. Evidence of Neolithic farming has been found in several places around London, including Shoreditch and Brentford. In both cases they were close to fresh water, viz. the Walbrook and the River Brent.

Moving forward to the Bronze Age (c. 1,700BCE to 600BCE), remains of another jetty, possibly even a bridge, have been found 600 metres to the west of the Mesolithic find in Vauxhall, also on the south side of the river, while one of the highlights from this period is the large find which is known as the Havering Hoard (late Bronze Age c. 900BCE to 600BCE).

By the first century BCE, just prior to the time of the Roman invasion, the area around London was populated by various tribes:

  • The Atrebates, a tribe of the Belgae, occupied the area to the west of London
  • The Regnenses, probably related to the Belgae, to the south
  • The Cantiaci, an Iron Age Celtic people, to the south east
  • The Trinovantes, a Celtic tribe, to the north-east
  • And the Catuvellauni, a Belgic tribe, to the north of London.

The Belgae was a confederation of tribes who were principally located in Northern Gaul. It is thought that some of them arrived in Britain in the first century BCE.

The Roman Period

It is speculated, though not proven, that Julius Caesar crossed the Thames at Brentford in 54BCE during one of his two brief sorties into Britain. The conjecture arises because of evidence of Roman presence in this area, plus the fact that the river was probably fordable at this point.

The actual Roman invasion of Britain began almost a century later, in 43CE under the leadership of the Emperor Claudius. Once again, there is no agreement on their initial crossing point of the Thames. It is possible that the section of river close to the Houses of Parliament may have been fordable. Around 50CE they constructed a bridge across the Thames where Londinium, as they called it, would come to be situated. It may have been a military pontoon bridge initially, being replaced by a timber bridge around 55CE.

Situated around 30 metres downstream from the present-day London Bridge, it was a simple crossing point, but it soon attracted private traders who saw the business opportunities that would be presented by the military and other travellers. The tidal range at this period was a modest 1.5 metres, presenting a relatively benign environment for the vessels and port facilities of the age. Within a couple of years, the foreshore near the bridge had been protected by wooden revetments (retaining walls).

The area by the river was generally marshy and hence unsuitable for a settlement. However, two flat-topped gravel hills, now Ludgate Hill and Cornhill, rose 15 metres above the marshes and provided a site for Londinium, which became the central hub of the Roman road network in southern England. Initially, the Romans chose Camulodunum (Colchester) as its administrative capital.

Progress was halted when Londinium, and its bridge, was razed to the ground by Boudicca in 60 or 61CE. The normal Roman modus operandi had been to let conquered indigenous peoples get on with their lives, within limits: civitates peregrinae were self-governing communities of non-Roman citizens. However, the Emperor Nero unfortunately decided that he preferred direct rule, and the subsequent insensitive treatment of locals during his rule almost inevitably led to unrest. When Boudicca’s husband died, his will was ignored, leading her to start an uprising which resulted in the destruction of Camulodunum and Londinium.

After the uprising had been quelled, Londinium and its bridge was rebuilt. While the original site has been described as being akin to a frontier town, the new town had the appearance of being planned, with a forum, a civic assembly hall and a timber amphitheatre. A stone amphitheatre, the remains of which have been found in the Guildhall Yard, replaced the timber version early in the second century. Londinium superseded Camulodunum as the administrative capital around this time.

Other buildings in the late first and early second century included a large 12-acre fort in the north west corner of the town which possibly housed up to 1,500 soldiers and a large public bathhouse at the corner of Upper Thames Street and Huggin Hill. There were no deep water facilities, and it is thought that vessels which used the port were therefore probably on the small side. Evidence of quays and warehouses has been found in Billingsgate.

It is considered that Londinium’s fortunes peaked in the second century when the population may possibly have grown to fifty thousand, but it then went into a decline with a loss of population and a general downturn in the condition of the buildings according to archaeological evidence. It could be that the end of the Roman empire’s expansion resulted in general stagnation and an eventual reduction in trade. A defensive wall was built around 200CE, an indication of the perceived dangers which might be posed by barbarian tribes. The wall survived, largely intact, until the 18th century.

Subsequently, internal squabbles among Roman dynastic families led to the empire’s inexorable decline and the inevitable dangers that the raids of various barbarian tribes brought to its stability. A riverside defensive wall which stretched from Blackfriars to the Tower of London was added in the late fourth century.

By the early fifth century there were continual struggles for control of the Roman empire. Magnus Maximus and Constantine, both generals who were based in Britain around this period, were among those who vied for power. They led troops into Europe as they fought for control. Both ultimately failed in their attempts, and Britain, without any troops for protection and suffering several Saxon raids, took the decision to exile Constantine’s magistrates.

A cry for help to the Emperor Honorius in 410CE was met with a flat rejection, known as the Rescript of Honorius, which effectively told them that they were on their own, as he did not have the necessary military forces to assist them. This was true, as he had his own troubles, being trapped in Ravenna at the time and unable to prevent the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome in the same year. 410CE is the date which is usually given to signify the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.

The Early Anglo-Saxon Period

Anglo-Saxon kingdoms c.800CE

The void which was left by the departure of the Romans encouraged various tribes to migrate to Britain, viz. the Jutes from Jutland (modern day Denmark) along with the Angles and Saxons from Northern Germany. They gradually drove the incumbent Britons westwards and northwards. Over time a number of discrete Anglo-Saxon kingdoms came into existence, collectively known as the Heptarchy. Their boundaries were prone to change as the result of conflicts. The accompanying diagram gives a snapshot of the approximate position around 800CE.

The Anglo-Saxons, as they generally became known, chose not to live in the Roman-walled town of Londinium, possibly because of its dilapidated state. Instead, they developed a settlement just to the west in an area which is covered by the present-day Strand, Leicester Square and Aldwych that became known as Lundenwic (London trading town). It is probable that they used the mouth of the river Fleet as a harbour. Trade gradually picked up again with the 8th century historian, the Venerable Bede, describing the town as “an emporium for many nations”.

Meanwhile, Christianity had arrived in southern England around the turn of the 7th century, although its progress was to prove faltering for 60-70 years, as it depended on converting local rulers, and importantly, their successors. Abbot Mellitus was established as the first bishop of London in 604CE, but he was driven out as the religion struggled to establish itself. It was to be 675CE before St. Eorconweald became the first stable bishop when he was appointed by Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Thames formed a natural border between various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that had come into existence: between Mercia and Wessex for periods during the 7th and 8th centuries; and between Wessex and the Danelaw from the late 9th century. Mercia, Kent and Wessex each exerted control over Lundenwic at various times, principally Mercia, the predominant power between 670CE and 870CE.

The Vikings and Alfred the Great

The Thames, and indeed other rivers in Britain, proved to be something of a motorway for the Danish Vikings who began their raids in the early 9th century. Their longships with shallow draughts could quite easily get as far up the river as Oxford, possibly further. Their initial raids included the sacking of the abbeys at Chertsey and Abingdon.

It was in the 860s that their opportunistic raiding turned into conquest when the “Heathen Army”, a force of around 5,000, arrived in Northumbria. After overcoming that area, it went on to subdue East Anglia and Mercia before reaching Wessex in January 871CE, where it set up a base at Reading. This conformed to their usual mode of operation, which was to carry out a surprise attack and then build a base which could be defended. They tended to avoid pitched battles, if possible. Lundenwic was raided on a number of occasions, while they overwintered in Londinium in 871-872CE.

Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex, had been on the edge of total defeat, but he eventually managed to turn the tables with a significant triumph at the battle of Edington in 878CE. After his victory, Alfred put in place various measures to make any future invasions much more difficult for the aggressors. Part of his military strategy was to create thirty plus burhs (or burgs). A burh was part fort and part urban settlement, making use of any Roman remains or Iron Age hillforts. Along the Thames, there were burhs at Southwark, Sashes (Cookham), Wallingford, Oxford and Cricklade. One objective was that no burh should be more than one day’s march from another.

Alfred, now known as king of the Anglo-Saxons, reclaimed Londinium around 886CE, fortifying the old Roman-walled town, which now became known as Lundenburh, and rebuilding the bridge which the Vikings had torn down. Trading quays were (re)built at Queenhithe, Billingsgate and Dowgate, while Cheapside and Eastcheap became the main market streets. Note – ceap was the Old English word for market. Lundenwic was gradually abandoned, as people moved inside the walled town, and it became known as Ealdwic (the old settlement), better known to us as Aldwych.

Athelstan and the late Anglo-Saxon Period

Coins, which had ceased to be used after the Romans left, had come back into use by the early 9th century, and 25% of English coins were being minted in Lundenburh in the 10th century.

Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great and recognised by many historians as the first king of England, agreed to the creation of a peace guild whose objective was to enforce the king’s law in and around Lundenburh. It was based on social duty and self-interest. There was a leader, and under him were 10 senior members, each representing a group. It is claimed by some to have formed a template for the organisation of the future craft guilds.

The Folkmoot and Husting also date back to the late Anglo-Saxon period. Folkmoot was a general outdoor meeting of the people which had judicial and legislative functions. However, as a general meeting place which was open to all, it was not prone to encourage orderly democratic discussion. The Husting which was held indoors with a limited attendance was more likely to result in productive debates. It was arguably a predecessor of the shire court.

By 1000CE there were a handful of churches both within the walled city and in the old settlement. Mellitus, the first bishop of London had been responsible for establishing St. Paul’s in 604CE. However, the building was prone to damage by fire or destruction by pagans such as the Vikings. The first edifice to enjoy a reasonably long existence was not erected until 1087.

1066 to 1660

The relative lack of detailed information in the periods which have been covered so far has resulted in a narrative which has been predominantly time-based. However, there is significantly more information on the period from the Norman Conquest through to the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, and this has allowed what follows to be more theme-based rather than strictly time-based.

The City of London, as we shall now call it rather than Lundenburh, was initially the area inside the Roman walls. It formed the original core of today’s metropolis. As it grew, the City began to expand outside the walls. Westminster, two miles to the west, became the seat of royal power, leading to the road between it and the City being dotted with the grand houses of nobles and bishops, followed almost inevitably in the 17th century by the development of the West End where more nobles and courtiers set up their London homes. Those craftsmen, their families and their apprentices who were eventually unable to afford to live in the City of London were forced to seek accommodation and business premises to the east of the City.

The City of London


After his victory at the battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror had to deal with a significant number of uprisings across the country during the first years of his reign. To help combat these threats, he ordered numerous castles to be built, many of the motte and bailey design.

In the south-west corner of the City of London, the pre-Norman Baynard’s Castle was rebuilt and the Montfichet Tower was added, both situated within the City walls. In addition, the White Tower, phase one of what would become the more extensive Tower of London, was built on the east side of the City, in this case just outside the wall.

The aim of these measures was as much to do with subduing any possible threats from Londoners themselves, as it was with defending against any external dangers. The custodians of these fortifications were powerful feudal magnates. For example, the guardian at Baynard’s Castle owned the fishing rights on rivers to the west of London, as far as Staines.

Substantial work was also carried out on the Roman wall with the addition of further towers, bastions and gates, notably water-gates next to the Thames which allowed for the movement of goods.


A hundred (or wapentake in the Danelaw) can be crudely described as a division of a shire for military and judicial purposes. The origins of the term are obscure with some definitions saying that it related to an area of land, such as 100 hides (a hide is the equivalent of 30 acres), while others consider that it related to the availability of 100 men-at-arms.

From ancient medieval times the City of London was divided into wards, each of which can be regarded as being the equivalent of a hundred. There were twenty-four initially. Wards that included one of the City’s gates were responsible for the defence of that gate.

As the City began to expand, areas outside the wall were given the suffix “Without”. There were two Farringdon wards – Farringdon Within and Farringdon Without. In other cases, a single ward, such as Cripplegate, might cover an area on both sides of the wall, although it would be shown on maps as Cripplegate Within and Cripplegate Without.  

Wards were sub-divided into parishes, each typically comprising no more than a few streets. By the end of our period there were close to one hundred parishes in the City, each with a church.

Church Lands and Properties

The Church was a very large landholder in feudal England, and its bishops were considered to be on a par with the major barons. The area in and around London reflected this situation. St. Paul’s has already been briefly mentioned while Westminster and its abbey will be dealt with in a later section.

At the time of the Conquest roughly 50% of the clergy were members of religious houses, while the other 50% lived among the community. Monastic orders within the City wall, or just outside of it, included: St. Martin Le Grand, which while it may possibly date back to the 7th or 8th century, was certainly built (or rebuilt) around 1060; the Augustinian Priory of Holy Trinity within Aldgate, founded by Matilda, the wife of Henry I (1107); the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St. Katharine by the Tower (1148); the Priory of Bermondsey (1082); Blackfriars, originally west of the City wall (c. 1201); Greyfriars, north of Newgate Shambles (1225); Whitefriars (1241), roughly the area from Temple to Whitecross Street; and Charterhouse, a Carthusian Priory in Smithfield (1371).

There were also various nunneries, including: Holywell Priory (before 1158); St. Mary Clerkenwell (c.1130); St. Helen’s Priory near Bishopsgate (before 1216); and the Minoresses of St. Clare, east of the wall near the present-day Minories (1293).

In 1312 the mayor and aldermen complained that the Church, which owned 1/3rd of rental income, paid nothing towards the maintenance of the walls or general defences. One estimate says that 2/3rds of London was in the hands of the Church by the time of the English Reformation.


A Liberty was an area where the king’s rights were revoked. They could be found in diverse hundreds and boroughs across the country. In our context, a liberty is an area, either inside or outside the walls, where the City’s jurisdiction did not apply. Monastic land was an obvious case of a liberty. Examples in London included the Tower, Blackfriars, Whitefriars, Middle Temple, Inner Temple and Clink (part of Southwark).

In 1608 the City managed to gain limited law enforcement powers over several liberties, including Blackfriars, Whitefriars, plus Little and Great St. Bartholomew’s.

London Bridge

Henry II took the decision in 1176 to replace the timber-based London Bridge with one made of stone. It took 33 years to complete, with the costs being offset by selling building plots on the bridge itself – there were 200 by the end of the Middle Ages – and by charging tolls. London Bridge and its buildings became part of the Bridge ward.

Drawing of London Bridge (1682)

The bridge also included a chapel, dedicated to St. Thomas Becket and completed in 1209, which was primarily for the spiritual use of travellers. Bridge chapels, as they were known, were commonly established across Europe in the Middle Ages, although they were more usually sited next to the bridge.


The Corporation of the City of London received its first recorded royal charter in 1067 when William the Conqueror confirmed the rights and privileges that it had enjoyed during Edward the Confessor’s reign. There is no record of a charter before this date, although the City is regarded in law as “incorporated by prescription”, meaning that it had previously been regarded as such for a considerable period of time. Numerous royal charters over succeeding centuries have confirmed and extended its rights and privileges.

The position of sheriff (shire-reeve) dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period. An appointee of the king, he was responsible for justice and for the collection of taxes in his county. Because of its population size, the City of London had two sheriffs.

Around 1130, Henry I allowed London to appoint its own sheriff. The charter also gave the City jurisdiction over the county of Middlesex, and the two came to be treated as a single administrative area. The degree of self-governance which the City enjoyed was heightened during periods of weak monarchy, such as during the 12th century civil war which is better known as the Anarchy.

Towards the end of the 12th century, William de Longchamp, the Lord Chancellor, ruled England while Richard the Lionheart was away on Crusade. John, the monarch’s brother who was eventually to become king, challenged Longchamp’s authority, and to get London on his side he granted the City commune status in 1191. This allowed it to appoint its own mayor (or chief magistrate) along with a ruling group of aldermen. Henry FitzAilwin became the first mayor, ruling until his death in 1212.

The mayor was the leader, higher in rank than a sheriff, and it eventually became traditional for a person to serve as sheriff before he could become mayor. No mayor ruled for life after FitzAilwin, although some held the reins for between three and eight years until tenure was finally limited to one year during the reign of Edward II. Richard Whittington, fondly remembered in pantomimes, was elected mayor on a total of four separate occasions. The title was changed to the Lord Mayor of the City of London after 1354.

The mayor was elected by aldermen, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning elders. There were twenty-four of them, one for each ward. Having been elected by probi homines (respectable men), they usually retained their positions for life. Unsurprisingly, they came from the richest section of society. In the period from 1200 to 1340 approximately half of them were enriched by royal appointments or contracts.

In general, the London elite had worked their way up; they had not simply inherited their wealth. Therefore, they understood the society that they were governing. Their policies typically did enough (just) to avert famine and revolt.

The ordinary citizens, who had been catered for by the Folkmoot from Anglo-Saxon times, came to be represented from the late 14th century by what is nowadays known as the Court of Common Council. However, it had very limited powers until the 18th century when it became the main governing body.

City administration was mostly carried out at the ward and parish levels. Wards were run on a participatory rather than on a democratic basis, that is individuals were expected to do their bit. The key figure in a ward for handling day-to-day business was usually the alderman’s deputy.

Citizens probably felt a greater loyalty to their parish. Parish committees dealt with local issues. Initially, they were informal and unregulated, but from the 16th century they became known as vestries, because they met in the vestry of a church, and their duties eventually came to include the collection and dispensing of poor relief.

Livery companies, which we will meet shortly, became involved in the government of the City. They were relied upon to maintain emergency food stores, assess and collect taxes, provide loans to the Crown, control prices and markets, and to raise and arm the Trained Bands (citizen militia).

Surrounding Areas


Southwark, on the south side of London Bridge, was made a burh in 886 by Alfred the Great, primarily to protect the bridge. After 1066, it was a small trading and fishing settlement. It sent two burgesses to Edward I’s Model Parliament of 1295, and it received its first royal charter in 1327 when its tax farm was £10, compared to £300 in the City of London.

There were four outlying manors which were held by ecclesiastic and monastic landlords. The Archbishop of Canterbury held a manor to the east from 1131, and sixty years later he acquired Lambeth. The Cluniacs were given land to the west of the bridge, while land nearer to the bridge was held by the bishop of Winchester, including the Clink Liberty, a future home of theatre.

Southwark became notorious as a sanctuary for scoundrels and, from the 12th to 17th century, for prostitution. It had a number of prisons, the most notable of which being the Clink, Marshalsea and the King’s Bench.

The City of London sought power over Southwark but it had to wait until 1550 after Henry VIII had obtained most of the Church estates in the wake of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The City then bought it for £980, and it became the 26th and last ward – Bridge Without.


Westminster stood two miles west of the City of London. As the River Tyburn approached the Thames from the north it split into two rivulets, with the land between them being called Thorney Island. It is thought that the Thames may have been fordable at this point. Offa, king of Mercia, had given permission for a small church to be built on Thorney Island around 780CE, and a modest monastic community was in residence there by 960CE.

In the following century, Edward the Confessor, who wanted a church to be buried in, paid for it to be rebuilt in the Romanesque style, and it subsequently became the coronation site for English kings, commencing with William the Conqueror.

Edward also built a royal residence nearby at around the same time, and Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving part of that palace, was added around 1097-1099. This is where the Royal Courts of Justice came to be situated, while the various forms of the king’s council and of Parliament also met there. These initial forms of specialisation and increasing complexity, necessary to cope with the country’s growth, led to Westminster becoming the effective capital of England in the 12th century.

The Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster, better known to us as Westminster Abbey, was rebuilt again by Henry III in the Anglo-French Gothic style. Work started in 1245, and Henry became the first king since Edward the Confessor to be buried there.

Westminster’s population had grown to approximately 3,000 by the time of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century, falling back to 2,000 in its aftermath, before slowly rising back to 3,000 by 1520. Economically, it was fairly self-contained, concentrating on meeting local needs. The abbey tended to be the main employer, particularly when construction work was in progress.

In 1512 the royal apartments were burned down. Although the Bridewell Palace had been built in the City for Henry VIII, he eventually decided that he preferred York Place, the home of the Archbishop of York. Ejecting the Archbishop in 1530, these new royal apartments became known as the Palace of Whitehall.

The road between the City of London and Westminster became dotted with mansions belonging to nobles and clerics. It is estimated that there were seventy-five residences by 1500. One of the most notable properties was the Savoy Palace which became the home in the 14th century of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, who was one of Edward III’s sons.

The Strand was popular with the elite, not only because it was handily situated between Westminster and the City, but also because the properties bordered the Thames and thus gave them immediate access to river transport.

Legal Quarter

By the 14th century there was a growing demand for lawyers. Apart from the City, legal business was to be found in Westminster, now the seat of royal justice, and among the clerks of the Chancery who were located in Chancery Lane.

It therefore made sense for lawyers to site their offices between these various clients, and they began to make their home in an area stretching from the north of Holborn, down Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane, and on to the Temple. They were quiet, relatively secluded districts at the time.

The Temple Church, which was consecrated in 1185, had been built by the Order of the Knights Templar. The Order was dissolved by pope Clement V in 1312 and the Temple, and its church, was passed on to the Knights Hospitaller, another military religious order.

The lawyers began to form individual societies, and the term “Inns of Court” began to appear in the 15th century. Two of the societies occupied land and buildings in the Temple area, becoming known as the Inner and Middle Temple respectively. The other societies formed Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn.

Legal training was given to students in these Inns and a collegiate atmosphere began to develop. The Inns of Court and Chancery were sometimes known as the “third university of England”.


The City’s growth led to expansion outside the wall from the north west corner round towards the east, starting with Aldersgate and Cripplegate in the late 13th century. Grub Street, the eventual home of hack-writers, aspiring poets and low-end publishers, was created, as was Whitecross Street, where the Fortune Theatre was to be built. Both were in the Cripplegate ward.

Moorfields (now Finsbury Circus) had been an uninhabitable marsh, possibly due to the north wall acting as a dam and diverting water from the Walbrook. The area was drained in the 16th century. Moorgate, the seventh and final City gate was created in 1415, allowing Londoners to walk out over a causeway to the hamlets of Isledon (Islington) and Hoxton.

To the east of the City lay the manor of Stepney, the only east London district to appear in the Domesday book when it was held by the bishop of London. It was an agricultural area which became a favourite place of residence for seamen and retired naval officers from the Tudor period, while nearby Shadwell and Wapping was a home for shipbuilding and ship repairs.

Whitechapel was originally part of Stepney. Its parish church dates back to the 14th century, and by the 16th century it had become home to businesses such as foundries, breweries and tanneries.

Hackney, also part of Stepney in earlier times, was held by religious orders until the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was principally used to produce food. The land was sold off to nobles and courtiers after the Dissolution, and it became something of a rural retreat.

Stratford, once again religious land before the Dissolution, was known for baking, while the presence of many watermills in the Lea Valley area was attributable to the ready water supply from the river.

The eastern suburbs had a largely working-class complexion by 1650 with much poor housing, some little better than shacks. Many of the occupants were too poor to pay the Hearth Tax of 1662, sometimes called the Chimney Tax.

In 1633 the Privy Council proposed to extend the City’s powers over the suburbs but the Corporation rejected the opportunity, possibly being worried about losing their dominant position in an extended urban government? This led to the Privy Council creating a separate suburban corporation in 1636. However, it was short-lived, being abandoned during the political crisis of the early 1640s which ultimately led the English Civil War.

West End

The introduction of the first spring-suspension coach to England in 1564 by Guilliam Boonen, which made travel along poor roads tolerable, helped to attract nobles and the well-to-do to London for “the season” which ran from October to June, as dreary winters at home were considered boring.  This was not a view that was shared by James I who thought that they should indeed remain at home, attending to matters on their estates. From time to time, they were ordered back home. In 1632, 37 nobles, 147 baronets and knights and 130 gentlemen appeared before the Star Chamber court for defying such an order. Note – Star Chamber existed from the late 15th century until c. 1641. Its purpose was to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against powerful individuals.

The West End, the area to the west of the Legal Quarter and north of the Strand, was largely rural up until 1625 when the development of fashionable residences began. By 1640, Queen Street, Long Acre, St. Martin’s Lane and Leicester Square were in existence, along with the Covent Garden estate and houses around Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

The availability of goods and services helped to attract the well-off, which of course led to the need for yet more goods and services. It was in the 16th / 17th century that retailing came of age with new shopping areas along the Strand and in Fleet Street.


London’s population, which had been reduced by the Black Death and the Tudor sweating sickness, grew rapidly from (say) 50-60,000 around 1530. If the suburbs and distant parishes such as Westminster, Stepney, Hackney, Islington, Rotherhithe, Hewington and Lambeth are included, an area which was ten times larger than the City itself, then the total estimated population was 550,000 in 1665, of which around 80,000 resided in the City.

London’s population grew at twice the rate as the rest of the country. Southwark with an estimated population of 19,000 in 1603 was larger than Norwich, the biggest provincial town in England at that time.

London’s growing economy relied on migrant workers with the most distinctive group coming from France and the Low Countries. Persecution and religious conflict led to an influx of Walloon and Huguenot refugees from the 1560s onwards. Britons were also attracted to the capital, with reasonable numbers coming from the North, although relatively few from the South West.

An inability to find work could lead to vagrancy and an increase in crime. In 1585 William Fleetwood, Recorder of London, reported to Lord Burghley that he had discovered a school near Billingsgate where boys were being taught how to pick pockets.


City of London Guilds

Control of wholesale trade and political life was in the hands of a few hundred men. Below them were craftsmen and retailers. While informal trade organisations almost certainly date back to the late Anglo-Saxon period, formal bodies, to be known as guilds, began to arrive in the 12th century, including the Weavers (1130), Bakers (1155), Drapers (1180) and Pepperers (1180). Some guilds in this early period appeared and either quickly disappeared or were subsumed by others.

Edward I’s reign in the late 13th century was a decisive period in the formalisation of craft and trade associations, possibly because population growth meant that informal arrangements and assumptions were no longer feasible. Selected dates when various guilds received their first royal charters include: Fishmongers (1272), Goldsmiths (1327), Merchant Tailors (1327), Skinners (1327), Drapers (1364) and Mercers (1394).

Regulations were drawn up by the individual guilds, approved by the mayor and aldermen, and enforced by six wardens. They included; restrictions on the numbers of masters and retailers; control over the lives of apprentices and labourers; prevention of competition by controlling materials and working hours; certainty that products from outside London met quality standards and were retailed by craft members; the exclusion of interlopers; and the facilitation of price-fixing.

Guild members tended to live in close proximity to one another, that is in the same ward or parish, as borne witness by names such as Bread Street, a ward as well as a street. This made regulations easier to enforce.

As guilds grew, they tended to set up their own headquarters where they could meet and settle any trade and domestic disputes. Some guilds began to establish their own distinctive clothing and regalia, becoming known as livery companies.

Local fraternities (guilds and crafts) were as much religious associations as they were social or economic ones.

Some of the problems that were faced by the guilds included: the ability of a freeman to practice any trade, regardless of which guild he belonged to; controlling activity in the suburbs where increasing numbers of craftsmen and producers moved; and a decline in the number of apprentices as a proportion of the population – from 15% in 1600 to less than 5% by 1700.


England exported a great deal of wool, considered to be the best in Europe, mainly to Flanders, and it imported the cloth that the Flemish made. By adding 1/3rd to the price of exported wool, cloth producers in England were encouraged to compete, and by the 1420s cloth had overtaken wool in the value of exports, a position which was maintained until the arrival of the cotton trade in the late 18th century.

Other major imports included: a variety of goods from the Baltic area which was dominated by the Hanseatic League; and wine from Gascony, although this was disrupted during the Hundred Years War.

In terms of competition with other towns in England, London was helped by its location, its ability to influence commercial policy, and by having royalty as a customer. It had 1/3rd of overseas trade in the 14th century; 2/3rds by 1500; and 85% by the 1540s.

The Port

Up to and including medieval times, ships tended to dock at small quays or to moor in the river in an area known as the Pool of London. Lighters, small flat-bottomed barges, were used to transfer goods from those vessels that were moored in the river. Lightermen, as they were known, merged with the Watermen, essentially river taximen, in 1700 to form the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Shipbuilding and repair facilities were to be found in the Shadwell Basin.


While our modern interpretation of the word generally relates to extra-terrestrial beings, the people in our period used it to describe strangers or foreigners. Alien is an Old French word which comes from the Latin alienus.

Aliens in this context were typically merchants that Londoners needed to do business with to ensure that the City maintained its position as the main conduit in England for imports and exports. The right for aliens to travel and trade in England was included in Magna Carta.

Given the emphasis on the wool trade, it is unsurprising to find that Flemish merchants were particularly successful in London. However, a dispute between England and Flanders in the 1270s provided opportunities for Italians and the Hanseatic League. Trade with the Italians included the selling of sugars and spices in this country by pepperers and the export of wool to them. Note: a pepperer was a spice merchant and the Company of Grocers was at one time known as the Company of Pepperers. The Italians also became important as bankers who could provide loans, particularly after the Jews were expelled from England by Edward I in 1290.

The fortunes of alien merchants tended to seesaw. To a degree, their success depended on the king and his need for their money, as the following examples demonstrate.

Edward II’s troubles led him to exploit anti-alien feeling when he ordered that no man who followed any craft be admitted to the freedom of the city except on the security of six men of that craft. However, his eventual need for alien money to fund the struggle with his wife Isabella and her lover Mortimer in the 1320s drove Londoners to side with them, the ultimate winners in the struggle.

Edward III was a strong king who brought stability which was good for London. However, his need for alien money to help finance the Hundred Years War led to them having a freer rein again, which naturally upset Londoners.

By the 15th century, aliens made up 2-4% of London’s population. They comprised mainly Flemish and other Lowlanders, plus Germans and Italians, with a high concentration of them residing in Southwark.

Londoners’ resentment, with respect to their presence and to any concessions that they may be granted, led to periodic violence against aliens. Hanse, the trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, erected a fortified enclosure called the Steelyard, located in Dowgate, which remained in existence until 1852.

Despite the uneasy relationship with aliens, records show that when they were favoured, London had a higher share of trade of England’s trade with the Continent, circa. 70% in the 1350s and 1360s.

Trading Companies

The Company of Merchant Adventurers received its royal charter in 1407. It was an association of merchants whose original aim was to sell cloth abroad and to receive foreign goods in return. Antwerp was the centre of Northern European trade at the time, and London was geographically well-positioned to benefit. Unfortunately, Antwerp’s fortunes began to decline from the 1560s, which was bad news for the Merchant Adventurers.

This forced them to establish direct links with merchants in more distant lands. Those English merchants with an interest in trading in a particular area joined forces and established successful joint-stock companies to minimise the risk to each of them. Examples included the Muscovy Company (1555), the Venice Company (1583), the East India Company (1600) and the Virginia Company (1606).

National Conflicts and Dealings with the Crown (12th-15th Centuries)

Let us summarise incidents from the 12th to the 15 centuries, leaving the major topics of the English Reformation and the English Civil War until later.


As the capital of England, London almost inevitably became involved in national conflicts.

The 12th century civil war, better known as the Anarchy, saw a struggle for the Crown between Stephen, the grandson of William the Conqueror who had seized it, and Matilda, the daughter of Henry I. Matilda’s forces achieved a major victory over Stephen at Lincoln in 1141, and she came south to be crowned at Westminster. However, Londoners remained faithful to Stephen and drove her out.

The next major conflict was the Baron’s Revolt in the 13th century, led by Simon de Montfort. Londoners backed him, trapping Henry III in the Tower in the process. Unfortunately for London, the subsequent victory of Henry’s forces at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 ultimately dictated that they ended up on the losing side on this occasion, and their role was not forgotten by Henry or by his son, Edward I. Sixty Londoners were dispossessed of their property, although some were later returned, a fine of two thousand marks was imposed, and the City lost its rights and privileges for two years.

Finally, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was mainly attributable to the after-effects of the Black Death on the economy and the imposition of the poll tax which was levied on everybody over the age of fourteen to help pay for the Hundred Years War. The rebels entered London from Kent. They executed the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer, burned down John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace,  destroyed the Fleet Prison, and attacked lawyers, taxmen and alien merchants. After three days, a meeting was arranged at Smithfield with the king, Richard II, where London’s lord mayor, Richard Walworth, mortally wounded Wat Tyler, their leader. He then called out the City militia who surrounded the rebels on St. John’s Fields in Clerkenwell, ending the uprising.

The City’s Relations with the Crown

Relations between the two parties were generally productive, punctuated by occasional periods when they fell out.

An outbreak of disorder and feuding in 1284, when a leading goldsmith was lynched by the henchmen of one of the aldermen, prompted Edward I to instigate a judicial commission to investigate the events. When the City elders objected, Edward replaced the mayor and the aldermen in 1285 with a royal warden, Ralph of Sandwich. Changes which resulted from the commission included: tougher punishments; bringing the Court of Husting into line with national common law principles; making the administration more professional; giving alien merchants full trading rights, as well as the commercial and retailing privileges enjoyed by London’s citizens; and the installation of a royal treasurer to administer finances. The mayor and London’s charter were restored in 1298.

Relations with Richard II were generally poor in the 1390s, leading to the king moving the Exchequer, Chancery and Court of Common Pleas to York, and dismissing the mayor and sheriffs, replacing them with a royal warden and new sheriffs. A fine of 100,000 marks was also imposed, although it was subsequently cut to 10,000. This state of affairs probably influenced the City to tacitly recognise Henry Bolingbroke as king (Henry IV) after he overthrew Richard in 1399.

Conversely, Henry V had good relations with London, which was happy to support his military ventures, especially as he was successful. However, his son Henry VI was a weak king who was not generally liked by Londoners, especially as he seemed to desert the City whenever problems arose. London gradually began to favour the Yorkists, eventually acclaiming Edward IV in 1461 when Henry was overthrown.


Law and Order

All monarchs, up to and including Henry V, were itinerant, that is they processed round the country, only staying for short periods in any one place. The king’s court, known as the lesser curia regis, travelled with him. It included a number of justices. While the king was the ultimate source of justice, some of these judges were sent round the country to hear specific cases.

In 1178, Henry II established the Court of Common Pleas to hear civil cases which did not involve the king. While this court initially travelled with the king, it came to be based in Westminster Hall after Magna Carta. This was to become the home of the Royal Courts of Justice until the late 19th century when the current building was constructed on the Strand.

In the City of London, the mayor, aldermen and sheriffs heard most cases of robbery and assault. The City’s various courts (Husting, mayoral and ward) and its assemblies met in the original Guildhall, roughly on the site of the current building. More serious cases, such as murder and manslaughter, were heard by itinerant judges, usually in the Tower.

Each ward was responsible for its own policing, being fined if it failed in its duty. Indeed, the City, as a whole, could be fined if law enforcement was not considered to be up to standard, as it was by Edward I. It was in Londoners’ own interests to join any Hue and Cry, a common law process which was still operating as late as the 18th century whereby bystanders were summoned to help apprehend a criminal.

Apart from fines and imprisonment, petty offenders could be subject to pillory, shameful processing through the streets, or similar, e.g. a taverner might be made to drink his own sour wine.

The Old Bailey, attached to Newgate prison, is first mentioned in 1585 and was akin to the Courts of Assize that had been developed in other parts of the country. Its jurisdiction was limited to the City and Middlesex, until it became the Central Criminal Court of England in 1834.

Persons who were being sought by the Law could seek sanctuary in a church or monastery for up to 40 days. Sanctuary was recognised in both canon law and secular common law until the 17th century, Westminster Abbey and St. Martin le Grand actually offered permanent sanctuary if you could pay for your keep. One of the most notable examples was Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV, who sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey after her two sons were imprisoned (the Princes in the Tower) by Richard III. She remained there from April 1483 until Henry VII’s victory over Richard at Bosworth Field in August 1485. Thomas More, among others, objected to permanent sanctuary. It should be noted that the pursuers generally, though not always, observed sanctuary.


The Tower of London has been put to various uses, including a royal residence, a mint and a prison. In the latter role it was used, most notably during the 16th and 17th centuries, to hold individuals of high rank who were often housed in relative luxury, as far as prisons go. Walter Raleigh was even allowed to have his family reside with him. Other “guests” included the Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth I before she became queen, Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. The phrase “thrown into the Tower” came into common parlance.

Before getting carried away with the idea that it was a very civilised place, until your head was chopped off of course, the Tower also acted as a place of torture for individuals such as Guy Fawkes.

Clink lays claim to being the oldest prison in England. There were originally two prisons in the palace grounds of the bishop of Winchester, one for men and one for women. They date back to 1151 and were sited in the Clink Liberty, modern-day Bankside in Southwark. And, as you will have surmised, clink came to be used as a generic term for prisons in England.

The Fleet prison, on the eastern bank of the river of that name, dates back to the late 12th century. It was used for various purposes, often as a debtor’s prison. It was rebuilt on a number of occasions, including after Wat Tyler’s men destroyed it during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. It remained in use until 1844.

The Marshalsea and King’s Bench prisons in Southwark date from the 1370s. Although the Marshalsea housed common criminals, it is principally known as a debtor’s prison where much of the action takes place in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit.

A short explanation of debtor’s prisons is pertinent at this point. Until the 19th century, prisons were run for profit. The Fleet and Marshalsea are examples of prisons that were split into two parts. Inmates who had sufficient funds could pay to reside in the master’s side where living conditions were tolerable and where they were let out during the day. In fact, at the Fleet a prisoner who could compensate the keeper for loss of earnings was able to take lodgings nearby in the “Liberty of the Fleet”. However, less well-off inmates were confined to the much more arduous and crowded common side where it was quite possible to die of starvation if they were unable to pay for their board and lodgings.

Newgate prison was established in 1188 and was principally used to keep the accused on remand, pending their trial. Courts were added to the building, becoming known as the Old Bailey. The current Old Bailey largely occupies the site of the original prison. Hangings were moved from Tyburn to Newgate in the late 18th century, where they were initially carried out on the public street in front of the prison.

The Gatehouse prison in Westminster dates back to the 1370s. It was deployed by the abbot of the abbey initially. Raleigh was held there on the night before his beheading, and Pepys resided there for a short period when he was falsely accused on several counts, including that of being a secret Catholic.

Finally, the Bridewell Palace, briefly one of Henry VIII’s residences, was opened in the middle of the 16th century as a workhouse for the poor and infirm, but it quickly degenerated into little more than a prison which could accommodate up to 150 individuals. The workhouse model was subsequently deployed elsewhere in the country, while town lock-ups in various parts of the country commonly came to be known as bridewells.  



Hospitals in our period could be founded by royalty, the Church or military religious orders, among others. However, the running of these establishments was mainly in the hands of religious orders, principally Augustinians, and spiritual care was at their core.

There were various types of hospital, including: leper, of which there were a significant number in the country; asylum; and care for the aged and infirm, although this tended to focus mainly on providing shelter and comfort more than medical care. Many hospitals also provided hospitality for pilgrims and other travellers, that is people who were not necessarily sick. Hence the name.

The first London hospitals appeared in the 12th century, starting with a leper’s hospital at St. Giles-in-the Fields (Holborn) which Matilda, the wife of Henry I, founded around 1108. This was followed in 1123 by the Priory and Hospital of St. Bartholomew’s alongside Smithfield horse market, established by Rahere, an Anglo-Norman priest and monk who was a favourite of Henry I. By the end of the century, St. Thomas’s, originally in Southwark, and the Priory of St. Mary Spital in Bishopsgate Without had appeared.

A study of wills from the 15th century has shown that up to 25% of bequests benefited hospitals. There was a view that such bequests would speed a person’s way through Purgatory, although the best way, if you could afford it, was to endow a chantry chapel and get a chaplain to sing a daily mass for your soul.

Surgeons and Barbers

This sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to my ear. The Barbers’ Guild is first mentioned in 1308. Monks’ tonsures would necessitate the services of a barber. Papal decrees had banned members of religious orders from spilling blood, which led to barbers, with their sharp knives, extending their services to the likes of bloodletting, leeching, cupping, giving enemas and extracting teeth.

Surgeons, with little expertise in hairstyling, began to join the Guild, eventually being allowed to form their own Fellowship in 1368, albeit they were overseen by the Barbers. Surgeons and Barbers merged by Act of Parliament in 1540 to form the Company of Surgeons and Barbers. No surgeon was henceforth allowed to cut hair or shave another, while no barber could practice surgery. The only common activity was the extraction of teeth. 


The second bubonic plague pandemic, eventually to become known as the Black Death, arrived in England in 1348. The Plague of Justinian in the 6th and 7th centuries had been the first.

The lack of data in the Middle Ages on births and deaths makes it extremely difficult for historians to accurately assess the impact of the Black Death. Estimates of worldwide mortality vary from 75 million to 200 million. In England, the figures typically vary from 35-40% of the population at the lower end of the scale up to 60%+. A second wave of the plague occurred in 1363 when it is thought that a further 20% of Londoners may have succumbed.

Almost inevitably, wages rose in the aftermath of the plague because of the scarcity of labour, even though attempts were made to resist it, such as threats of imprisonment in the Statute of Labourers (1351). Prices also rose and of course prices were higher in London than elsewhere in the country. It is said that the 15th century was the best period for labourers.

The Tudor sweating sickness was another disease which affected the country. Between 1485 and the late 1550s, it killed two of London’s mayors and four of its aldermen. Even in good years London was an unhealthy place to live with tuberculosis, typhus, smallpox, measles, flu and infant mortality.

The plague continued to be endemic, reappearing in various years between 1563 and 1665, the year of London’s Great Plague. There were nine years when it reached epidemic proportions. For example, in 1563 there were 20,000 recorded burials (eight times the normal level) out of a population of (say) 85,000.

Education and Literacy


Education was initially very limited, with the Church providing what there was. Latin was the primary syllabus, usually the only syllabus. It was a prerequisite for careers in the Church or in government administration. Schools tended to be attached to cathedrals or monasteries, and they only catered for boys. The cathedral school of St. Paul’s, founded around 1103, was pre-eminent in the City. Indeed, it controlled teaching in London for a period. With the exception of St. Mary le Bow and St. Martin le Grand, anyone who taught without the permission of the Master of the Schools at St. Paul’s was to be excommunicated.

The arrival of the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the late 12th century gradually heralded a move away from Church schools. Winchester College in Hampshire (1382) and Oswestry School in Shropshire (1407) were the first establishments which were independent of the Church. They were followed in London by St. Antony’s school in Threadneedle Street, founded in 1440, where Thomas More and Archbishop Whitgift were both educated. Meanwhile, St. Paul’s cathedral school went into decline, and it was replaced by a new school which was built on nearby land in 1509. This is the St. Paul’s School that we would recognise today.


In terms of literacy, a study of male witnesses who appeared before diocesan courts in 1470 showed that 48 were literate and 68 were not. Some crafts, such as drapers, grocers, mercers and merchants, were better educated than others.

Before the arrival of the printing press there were probably a limited number of books in circulation, due to a number of factors: the costs of parchment and of manuscript production; plus the relatively small reading population, which was typically limited to the elite. There were a couple of libraries in the early 15th century. A bequest in Richard Whittington’s will was used to establish a library which was situated next to the Guildhall, the ancestor of the modern Guildhall library. The original was destroyed by Protector Somerset in 1549. In addition, John Shirley, a scribe and bookseller, is said to have run a lending library.

The development of paper-making in Europe from the 14th century and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 led to change. William Caxton, one-time governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, is considered to have been the person who was responsible for introducing the first printing press to England in 1478.  His premises were to be found in Westminster, although his successor, Wynken de Worde, moved the shop to St. Paul’s churchyard and the press to Fleet Street where other printers and booksellers had already begun to become established.

Food, Water Supply, Sanitation and Housing


There were food controls within the City, covering weights and measures, food standards and prices, while there were concerns over illicit evening markets, evechepynges, which might be considered to be the car-boot sales of their day.

The original street markets in the City were Eastcheap and Westcheap (both constituting present-day Cheapside) which date back to Anglo-Saxon times, while the Borough Market in Southwark followed in the 11th century. Other markets, primarily but not exclusively for wholesalers, included: the Smithfield Meat Market (probably 12th century); the Leadenhall Food Market (14th century); and Billingsgate wharf which became the centre for the fish trade in the 16th and 17th centuries.

While there were food sources close to the City in places such as Whitechapel, Stepney, Hackney, Bromley and the Lea Valley, London’s growth meant that it had to go further afield to obtain food with the most important suppliers being found in Kent, the other Home Counties and East Anglia.

Increasing demand led local growers to adopt more intensive means of cultivating fruit and vegetables, and market gardens, as they became known, began to appear. The Worshipful Company of Gardeners, a guild for those market gardeners who were operating within 6 miles of the City of London, received its royal charter in 1605. By 1649, a total of 1500 labourers and 400 apprentices were employed within the guild, the average member of the company employing around 6 labourers plus 1 or 2 apprentices. The City of London was surrounded by market gardens in the 17th century: in the west the alluvial soil around Chelsea, Fulham and Kensington was excellent for growing crops; while in the east, Hackney, Houndsditch and Mile End were established growing areas.

There were periodic food shortages, notably in the 1590s when there was a series of harvest failures. Emergency food plans were put to the test in 1595 when food shortages led to riots and martial powers being invoked. By September the grain stores were practically empty, leading to the importation of wheat and rye from the Baltic region, while corn was stolen from Spanish vessels.

Water Supplies

According to the writings of FitzStephen and Stow, water supplies in London were not an issue in the 11th and 12th centuries, being drawn from Holywell, Clerkenwell and St. Clement’s Well, just north of the City wall. It is also possible that water from the Thames, Fleet and Walbrook was still drinkable around that time.

However, increasing demand and pollution, the latter notably caused by butchers dumping their waste in the Fleet, changed the picture in the 13th century and in 1236 fresh water was taken from Tyburn Springs near to today’s Bond Street tube station via a lead pipe to a public conduit in Cheapside.

By the 1540s, further supplies were being extracted from Hampstead, Muswell Hill, Hackney and Marylebone. Larger projects were tried later in that century, but they were dwarfed by the New River project which came on stream in 1613. This was an artificial waterway, ten feet wide and four feet deep, which started near Ware, deep in the Hertfordshire countryside, some 20+ miles north of the capital, taking water from various springs and from the River Lea on its journey into the capital. It originally terminated in Clerkenwell / Islington, near to Sadlers Wells.


As previously mentioned, there had been a large Roman bathhouse in the City. It is claimed that there were 18 of them in medieval London.

With respect to waste, the Romans had built an underground sewage system, but it had fallen into disuse. There were public conveniences in medieval London. While there is evidence of thirteen, including one at London Bridge, it is thought that there must have been significantly more.

Private waste facilities varied; the well-off would have their own privies; the less well-off might share a cesspit; while others will simply have dumped it outside their front door. There were various attempts, ultimately doomed, to keep waste out of the rivers.

Muck rakers, well-paid individuals, were employed to remove waste from the streets, while gong farmers cleaned out cesspits. The idea was that waste would be deposited in laystalls at the edge of the city, from where it could be transported by river to farms and market gardens for use as manure.


Early houses in the City, often made of wood, coupled with the use of straw and stubble, were obvious fire hazards, particularly in the narrow streets. There were various fires of note in the 11th and 12th centuries, including the destruction of St. Paul’s in 1087.

The Assize of Buildings (c. 1139) encouraged the construction of strong party walls, the use of stone, et cetera, while the subsequent Assize of Nuisance dealt with disputes between householders, principally concerning structures such as gutters, ditches, hedges and party walls.

In later centuries there were various attempts to control house building, although none was really successful. They were not helped by the willingness of monarchs such as James I and Charles I to accept fines for illicit building but to leave the structures standing.


The old Roman roads had decayed, and travelling by road was typically done on foot, on horseback or by the use of pack-horses for the transportation of goods. The relatively poor state of the roads began to affect England’s growing economy, but it was to be the early 18th century before any significant improvements were forthcoming when turnpike trusts were formed by individual Acts of Parliament. We will cover them in Part 2 of this Potted History of London.

Streets in the City of London were the responsibility of the individual parishes, but they generally did a poor job. They were often just a mixture of mud and stones with a sewer running down the middle. Examples of early pavements, such as existed, were likely to be made of wood.

Transport by river was obviously quicker, and hence the preferred method, particularly for goods. With respect to personal travel, while the elite were able to afford their own vessels and the men to run them, ferries and wherries (essentially water taxis) had been in business for many centuries to transport everybody else. They were helped by the fact that the nearest bridge upstream from London Bridge until 1729 was Kingston. Indeed, people in the ferry and wherry business petitioned “long and loud” in attempts to prevent any new bridges from being built, for fairly obvious reasons.



Drawing of Pilgrims outside the Tabard Inn
© The Trustees of the British Museum

According to Inwood, there were 354 City taverns in 1309. There is much debate surrounding the veracity of claims as to the oldest pubs in London. According to Hidden London, no pub in the City survived the Great Fire of 1666. The Seven Stars in Holborn, which avoided the flames, dates back to 1602. The original Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street opened earlier in 1598, succumbed to the fire, but was rebuilt in 1667.

Southwark High Street, the road on the south side of London Bridge which led to Canterbury and Dover, came to boast 25 inns / drink sellers. The Tabard Inn, established in 1307 on the east side of the High Street, is mentioned by Chaucer as the initial meeting place for his characters in The Canterbury Tales. It was burned down in a fire of 1676, rebuilt, renamed the Talbot and continued in business until it was closed down in the 19th century.

Coffee houses began to appear in the City during the 17th century. The first was in St. Michael’s Alley near the Royal Exchange in 1652. It proved instantly popular, and by 1662 there were 82 across the City.


Theatre came into particular prominence in the second half of the 16th century when courtiers, gentlemen and law students helped to make London a centre of commercial theatre.

James Burbage built the first permanent playhouse, a wooden structure called the Theatre, in Finsbury Fields in 1576. It was followed by the Rose Theatre (1587) in the Clink Liberty, the Swan Theatre in Southwark (1595), the Blackfriars Theatre (1597) and the Fortune (1600) which was built by Philip Henslowe near to the present-day Barbican. Burbage’s sons dismantled the Theatre when its lease expired and rebuilt it in the Clink Liberty in 1599, renaming it the Globe, near to the site of the modern replica which can be found alongside the Thames.

Actors (all men), or players as they were called, were vulnerable to vagrancy laws and needed noble or royal patronage to shield them and to find engagements for them. This led to the emergence of two dominant companies: the Chamberlain’s Men (which included Burbage and Shakespeare); and the Admiral’s Men (Henslowe and Alleyn). In the 1600s James I became an enthusiastic patron, and this led to the Chamberlain’s Men being renamed the King’s Men.

Permanent companies with regular theatregoers required a steady supply of new plays, a need which was met by Marlowe and Kyd in the 1580s, followed by the likes of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare from the 1590s onwards. Playwrights provide examples of individuals who have been drawn to London by the opportunities that it offered. William Shakespeare famously hailed from Stratford upon Avon, while Christopher Marlowe, who was born in Canterbury, is one of the many students from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge who found careers in London.

Who went to the theatre? Performances typically ran from 2pm to 5pm in the afternoons, meaning that the majority of the audience needed the time, to attend. Visits to the theatre by a journeyman might perforce be less regular. Prostitutes were attracted to the theatre, albeit to meet new clients.

Theatre was banned in 1642 by the Puritans, although it returned after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

While theatre was banned by the Puritans, music and opera continued, as did drinking. although May Day and Christmas Day, both seen as pagan festivals, were done away with.


There are only a couple of references to sport in early England. The Romans played Harpastum, a sort of rugby, while Historia Brittonum, probably an anonymous work, mentions “boys playing at ball” in the 9th century.

Arguably the first solid sporting reference comes to us from William FitzStephen. He was a cleric in the service of Thomas Becket who wrote a biography of Becket in which he explained the differences between his master and the king (Henry II). In the book’s preface FitzStephen expressed his love of the City in Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae. This included an oft-quoted description of London at play in the 12th century.

“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 youth 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”.

Mob Football

A somewhat chaotic and violent ball game, often called mob football, became commonplace in various parts of the country. It was typically played on festive days, notably Shrove Tuesday. Nicholas de Farndone, the mayor, issued a proclamation in 1314 banning football in the City, being concerned about maintaining law and order. This is believed to have been the first occasion that the word “football” appeared in a document. Edward III and Henry V also banned the game, although they were more concerned that individuals should dedicate their free time to archery practice in preparation for forthcoming battles, viz. Crecy and Agincourt. So, archery was both a compulsory activity from time to time, as well as a sporting pastime.

Real tennis, an indoor game, and golf were pastimes for the nobility and the affluent. Real tennis is thought to have originated in a French monastery in the 12th century. Meanwhile, the common man played a game where an object was hit with the hand over a hedge or ditch. Golf, a Scottish invention, was brought to England by Henry, son of James I, who constructed a five-hole course at Blackheath where he played with courtiers.

“Creckett” was a game which appeared in counties to the south of London. The first mention occurred in a court case at Guildford which talked about boys playing it in the middle of the 16th century. The game had reached London by the early 17th century where early references include mention of Oliver Cromwell playing cricket in 1617 while he was training at the Inns of Court.

Other less savoury sporting activities included bull-baiting and bear-baiting, the former dating back to the 13th century. Both became very popular, particularly in the Elizabethan period when the queen was a notable attendee. Gambling was rife and purpose-built arenas were used, including the Bear Garden which was situated in Paris Garden in Southwark. Cock-fighting was also popular, once again providing opportunities to gamble.

The English Reformation and its Aftermath

Let us complete part 1 of this Potted History of London by returning to major national events which significantly impacted on the City, viz. the English Reformation and the English Civil War.

Anti-clerical Feeling

There had been a degree of criticism concerning clerics, their morals and general lifestyle, possibly dating back to the 14th century. There had also been some defiance, with barbers and other craftsmen opening on Sundays. However, it is important not to overstate the degree of ill-feeling. For example, London was not a major centre of the Lollard movement, a proto-Protestant religious faction.

However, the case of Richard Hunne, a merchant tailor who was found hanged in Lollard’s Tower in 1514, the prison of the bishop of London, helped to crystallise anti-clerical feeling in London. He had been in a legal dispute with the rector of Whitechapel over mortuary fees for his infant son. He had Lollard sympathies and an anti-clerical disposition. He was burned as a heretic, meaning that his family was left penniless. A Coroner’s jury found that he had been killed by the bishop’s gaolers.

Feelings were intensified in the 1520s by: the successful career of Cardinal Wolsey; lawyers who argued for the supremacy of common and statute law over canon law; and the growth of printing which led to the introduction of Lutheran ideas from the Continent, albeit book agents were imprisoned and heretical books burned, as indeed were their readers if they did not repent.

The English Reformation

These various factors helped Henry VIII when he attacked the Church in the 1530s, as part of his attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.

The 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome formally ended subordination of the English Church to the papacy, and the Act of Supremacy in the following year made Henry head of the English Church. Thomas More and bishop Fisher were both executed under the Treasons Act of 1534 for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, the formal method of accepting Henry’s position as head of the Church. The monks of Charterhouse made a particularly forthright denial of Henry’s supremacy, leading to six of them being executed, while a further ten were taken to Newgate prison in 1537 and left to starve. Although Henry’s marriage to Anne was not popular, Londoners kept their opinions to themselves.

Henry remained religiously conservative, generally adhering to the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. He appeared to resist Protestant ideas, which were initially only embraced by a minority. There were some changes. For example, the fashion for endowing chantries went into a steep decline.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries

The vast wealth of monastic houses made them an easy target for Henry in his role as head of the English Church. Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, set about discrediting them and seizing their assets in the period from 1537 to 1541. The Suppression of Religious Houses Act (1539) provided for the dissolution of 552 monasteries and religious houses across the country.

Between 1543 and 1547 twenty-three major religious houses occupying large sites in and around the City were sold off, some falling into the hands of the aristocracy, including the Duke of Norfolk (never mind the historical Catholic credentials of the family) who inherited the mansion on the site of Holy Trinity Priory and Charterhouse. Fifteen monastic churches managed to survive.

The large London houses (or inns as they were known) of abbots and priors in the Fleet Street, Holborn and Strand areas were also seized, some being turned into large inns for travellers. Somerset House, commissioned by Protector Somerset, replaced the residences of the bishops of Chester, Llandaff and Worcester.

The Effects of the Dissolution

Former monastic areas retained their immunity from City jurisdiction, taxation and trade regulations, which made them appealing to theatres, industry and to criminals. Some were much restricted after James I’s second charter of 1608 but others, such as St. Martin’s Le Grand, lasted in a modified form until 1815, while the Inner and Middle Temple both still claim to be Liberties at the present day.

The education system, such as it was, and hospital care, both of which had largely relied on religious communities, naturally suffered from the Dissolution. This led to the mayor and aldermen appealing to the Crown for assistance, albeit with limited success, certainly not sufficient for London’s needs: Greyfriars, St. Bartholomew’s and Bethlem were granted to the City; St. Thomas’s was eventually reopened; while Christ’s hospital was created in Greyfriars; and St. Katharine’s managed to survive; and Edward VI subsequently relinquished the Bridewell Palace for use as a workhouse / prison.

The Growth of Protestantism

Thomas Cromwell, who it could be argued had Protestant leanings, fell from the king’s favour, not helped by the fact that he had persuaded Henry VIII to agree to marry Anne of Cleves before the king had seen her. As we know, Henry was not at all impressed when she arrived in England, and he quickly pensioned her off. The king was also unhappy with moves towards Protestantism which Cromwell helped to engineer. His enemies within the king’s circle eventually triumphed, aided by the Duke of Norfolk arranging for Henry to meet his attractive niece Catherine Howard, and Cromwell was executed without a trial in 1540.

Cromwell’s protection of Protestants at an end, three preachers were burned within days of his death. However, there were now an increasing number of Protestants in London, and it was said that it had become difficult to find a jury that would convict on a heresy charge. Protestantism certainly blossomed after Henry’s death in 1547 with a stop-gap Prayer Book being published in 1549, followed by a fully Protestant version in 1552.

Queen Mary Tudor, who reigned from 1553 to 1558, tried to bring England back to the Roman Catholic faith. However, attempts to reintroduce the Mass immediately led to riots in London. Coupled with her unsuccessful marriage to Philip II of Spain, along with the burning of Protestant bishops and others as heretics, her actions led inexorably to her being despised in London and in the rest of the country. It could be argued that she merely succeeded in cementing Protestantism in England.

The English Civil War (1642-1651)

London was arguably centre stage during this conflict, although it never witnessed any actual fighting.


Factors behind the war were part power struggle between the king and Parliament, part financial and part religious. When it failed to give him the funds that he sought, Charles I dissolved Parliament and embarked on the Long Tyranny (1629-40). Measures which he invoked included: turning the Ship Tax from an emergency levy to combat piracy into a regular direct tax; and reviving various defunct feudal dues. On the religious side, the pursuit of an anti-Calvinist policy through Archbishop Laud, coupled with his marriage to the Roman Catholic Henrietta Maria, led to worries about a possible return to Catholic ways.

In general, the Crown and the City had always been largely tied together by mutual self-interest. However, by 1640, the City was largely Puritan and anti-Catholic, although more anti-popery than any concern over the finer points of theology. Recollections of Queen Mary Tudor’s persecutions and Catesby’s conspiracy (Guy Fawkes et al) were also still fresh in the mind. Those merchants who did not rely on royal charters were more likely to be anti-monarchy.

With the prevailing mood, Parliament saw the possibility of London’s support in its struggles with the king. The Short Parliament of 1640 was dissolved by Charles after only 3 weeks, leading to a riot by apprentices and others. In the elections of September 1640, the Common Hall elected four Puritan burgesses, and these MPs, along with four others from Southwark and Westminster, began to act as intermediaries between Londoners and Parliament.

The Point of No Return

Late 1641 and early 1642 saw a period of significant unrest as both sides vied for control. Pressure from the London mob helped to ensure that the Earl of Strafford, Charles’ chief adviser, was executed for treason. In December 1641, Charles appointed Colonel Lunsford as Lieutenant of the Tower with the intention, it is thought, of seizing military control of London as a prelude to moving his forces against his Parliamentary opponents. The House of Commons demanded Lunsford’s removal, while Lord Mayor Gurney warned the king that he could not control the apprentices. At the same time, the presence of soldiers, hanging around in London waiting to be paid, also worried Londoners about a possible royal coup. Further mob pressure against the bishops eventually led to twelve of them being arrested.

On January 3rd 1642, Charles charged six of the opposition leaders in Parliament with high treason, and he arrived the following day with 300-400 armed men to arrest them, but they managed to escape by barge to the City. The House of Commons promptly decamped to the Guildhall for a week. Charles went there to address the mayor, aldermen and the Common Council to ask for their support in bringing the six to trial.

As he left, his coach was surrounded by a large unfriendly crowd, leading him to decide that London was no longer safe, and so he moved out to Hampton Court and Windsor. The MPs returned to Westminster, and several county demonstrations subsequently took place in support of Parliament, including 5,000 men from Buckinghamshire,

In March 1642, the Common Council asserted its right to meet and make decisions without the approval of the mayor and aldermen. Gurney, the mayor, was eventually impeached, deposed, stripped of his property and sent to the Tower in July / August. On August 22nd, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, signalling the start of the Civil War.

The War and London

In the first two years of the war Parliament was heavily reliant on London for loans, taxes and men. Unsurprisingly, war taxes diminished Londoners’ appetite for conflict. There were 10,000 Londoners at the battle of Edgehill in October 1642 and 24,000 were present at the stand-off at Turnham Green in the following month when the royal forces threatened to march on London.

After a decision had been made to fortify London, it is estimated that 20,000 volunteers worked each day from October 1642 through to the following summer on its construction. It was 11 miles in length, comprising forts, ditches, and earth ramparts that were 18 feet high. However, the fortifications never saw any action and they were demolished in 1647.

The Trained Bands, as Parliament’s amateur fighting forces were known, could not be relied upon, witness the desertion of many of them during the siege of Basing House near Reading which had started in June 1644. This quickly resulted in Parliament being advised to raise a standing army of professional soldiers, the New Model Army as it became known.

The war was effectively won by July 1645, although skirmishes continued around the country. Charles was taken by the Scots and handed over in February 1647.

In 1648 many Londoners were keen to see a treaty with Charles and an end to military rule. However, Cromwell and his cohorts realised that a contrite and trustworthy Charles did not exist. The New Model Army marched into London in December 1648 and purged the House of Commons of its royalist majority, leaving the Rump Parliament. Occupation of the city led to a quick trial for Charles, followed by his execution on January 30th, 1649 on a platform alongside the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

The Interregnum

Attempts by the radicals to control the City were blocked and the appointment of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector in December 1653 led to a return to the old City status quo.

After Cromwell’s death in 1658, matters deteriorated. He was succeeded by his son Richard who was quickly found to be incapable of governing. The Rump Parliament tried to get General Monck, the soldier / politician, on their side by setting him against the City who were showing royalist sympathies. This attempt failed and the Rump Parliament was dissolved.

A Convention Parliament was summoned, and it proceeded, with Monck’s astute political guidance, to agree terms with Charles II, and on May 1st 1660 it formally invited him to be the king of England.

End of Part 1

We have reached 1660, the end of part 1 of this Potted History of London. We have briefly covered some of the underlying geology, and the establishment of Londinium by the Romans, along with its early, albeit relatively brief, success. The recovery of its fortunes during the later Anglo-Saxon period was not helped by the Viking raids of the 9th century, but it was forthcoming.

Alfred the Great’s military strategy in the wake of his victory over the Vikings included the construction of fortified settlements in places such as Lundenburh, as it was now called, and Southwark. They provided a stable base for trade across England to prosper.

The Normans managed not to disrupt London’s economy after they had conquered England in the 11th century, and the City was now able to enjoy uninterrupted growth despite the various trials and tribulations which periodically beset the country. By the end of our period, the population of the City of London and its surrounding areas had grown to around half a million.

Trade and transport both boomed after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, most notably in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Many other aspects of life were similarly affected by this growth, and all will be discussed in part 2.

Odds and Sods


Britain was invaded on various occasions, from the Romans, Angles, Saxons and the Vikings through to the Normans.

It is thought that Julius Caesar’s two brief forays into southern England were driven by the fact that the Northern Gauls who he was at war with (the Gallic Wars on which he wrote extensively) were receiving assistance from the Britons. They were almost certainly members of Belgae-related tribes who had settled here, helping their Belgae brothers in Northern Gaul.

The actual Roman invasion occurred some 90 years later under the Emperor Claudius. He was attracted by a number of factors, including land, the presence of metals such as tin, lead and iron, along with the requirement for slaves.

Historians consider that there were various reasons why tribes in Eurasia tended to migrate from the east to the west. They include climate change, growing conditions and population pressure. It is also thought that the construction of the Great Wall of China may have had a “domino effect”, effectively pushing tribes westwards.

It was claimed by the historians Gildas and Bede that Vortigern, variously known as a warlord, or even as King of the Britons, employed two Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa, to deal with the incursions of the Picts and Scotti. However, they betrayed him and took control of the land, inviting the Germanic Angles and Saxon tribes to move in. They were followed by the Jutes who hailed from modern-day Denmark. However, Vortigern’s existence is doubted by some scholars, as information about him is somewhat obscure. Notwithstanding the veracity of the claim, the superior growing conditions in England at the time almost certainly encouraged the general migration of Saxons and Angles to eastern and southern England.

The Vikings had limited land to cultivate, particularly in present-day Norway, and that constituted one reason for their raids and conquests in the 9th and 10th centuries. They journeyed far and wide across Europe and beyond, seeking plunder, trade arrangements and land to settle.

Finally, William, the Duke of Normandy and the last successful invader of England, said that Edward the Confessor had offered him a claim to the throne in return for help in restraining the power of the Godwin family. According to his account, Harold Godwinson agreed with his claim at a meeting in 1064. As we know, Harold was crowned king in 1066 after Edward’s death. Almost immediately, he had to fend off an invasion by Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, who also thought that he should be king of England, as other Vikings such as Cnut the Great had been. Harold Godwinson defeated Hardrada’s forces at Stamford Brook. However, William was in the process of crossing the Channel after being delayed by bad weather, and although Harold hurried south with a depleted force, he was defeated and killed by the Norman army at the battle of Hastings in October 1066.

Monastic Orders

We have seen that the Church, and particularly monastic orders, were powerful landholders in England up to the point when Henry VIII dissolved them in the 16th century.

The first monks in England, known simply as Celtic monks, were to be found in Northumbria. Ireland had been converted by Patrick in the 5th century, and Columba was subsequently sent over in the following century to convert Britain, establishing a monastery at Iona in 563CE which was used as a base for subsequent expansion. As part of that process, Aidan set up a see at Lindisfarne (635-651CE) to convert Northumbria.

The order of St. Benedict was founded in the 6th century. The monastic community in what was to become Westminster Abbey belonged to that order. Other monastic orders began to appear from the 10th century, including: the Cluniacs (founded in 910CE) – Bermondsey was an example; the Carthusians (1084) – Charterhouse was an example; and the Cistercians (1098) – St. Mary Graces.

Meanwhile, the Augustinians have a different history. Followers of St. Augustine date back to the 5th century. At the end of the 11th century they began to develop in two directions: the canons secular (friars essentially) conversed with the world while the canons regular principally lived as a closed religious order, although they also had dealings with the populace, notably running hospitals such as St. Bartholomew’s.

Early monks usually carried out all necessary physical tasks around their religious houses, such as cultivation, fishing et cetera. However, the arrival of individual monastic orders from the 10th century gradually saw the use of lay brothers to carry out many of these manual tasks.

Other mendicant orders (the friars) began to appear from the late 12th century. They were commonly known by the colour of their cappa (or cloaks): the Dominicans are the Black Friars, the Franciscans the Grey Friars; and the Carmelites the White Friars. All three were to be found in and around the City of London.

Finally, religious orders that were part military and part spiritual also began to appear from the 11th century. They included: The Knights Hospitaller, the Knights Templar (builders of the Temple Church in London) and the Teutonic Knights.

Richard Whittington

He was born in the 1350s into a wealthy family in Gloucestershire, the 3rd son of Sir William Whittington who was a Member of Parliament. As a younger son, he was unlikely to inherit his father’s estate according to the rules of primogeniture, and so he was sent to the City of London to learn the trade of mercer.

He developed into a successful merchant, dealing in silks, velvets and possibly cloth. In addition, he became a money lender in 1388, and was to lend money to Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. His political career started when he first became a Councilman, then an Alderman and a Sheriff. He first became Lord Mayor in 1397 when he negotiated a reduction in the cost of recovering the City’s Liberty from Richard II, who had originally set it at 100,000 marks. We spoke earlier of the king’s conflict with the City. The revised cost was 10,000 marks.

Whittington was Lord Mayor on four occasions, and became a Member of Parliament in 1416. He died childless in 1423 and, having donated much to charity during his lifetime, left the equivalent of a further £3m in his will to various causes. This is the reason for his subsequent fame and for the pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat, created in the Victorian era, which is very loosely based on his life.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Inwood, S., A History of London, 1998, Macmillan

Ackroyd, P., London The Autobiography, 2000, Chatto & Windus

Sargent, A., The Story of the Thames, 2009 and 2013, Amberley Publishing, Stroud

Wood, M., Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England, Book Club Associates, 1987

Internet Links


Peter Stone’s History of London
A New History of London – British History Online
Museum of London
Hidden London
History of London – Wikipedia
London – History – Britannica
Lost London 
Lambert’s short history of London
Layers of London

Pre-History to 1066

The Fertile Crescent
Subterranean rivers of London – wikipedia
Thorney Island (Westminster) – wikipedia
Vic Keegan’s lost-London – Mesolithic-Vauxhall
Vauxhall first bridge
London’s oldest foreshore structure at Vauxhall
Belgae in Britain
Londinium – Wikipedia
Early medieval London – c.770-950
Anglo-Saxon London – Wikipedia
St. Paul’s Cathedral – Wikipedia
Westminster Abbey – Wikipedia
History of London Wall


City of London – Wikipedia
Wards of the City of London
Westminster – Britannica
Southwark – Wikipedia
History of the manor of Stepney – British History Online
London Bridge – Wikipedia
Old London Bridge – Wikipedia

Livery company – Wikipedia
Craft Guilds – British History Online
Origins of the city guilds
Guilds – London Lives
Worshipful Company of Barbers – Wikipedia
Merchant Adventurers

William Caxton and the introduction of the printing press in England
London Lives – 1690-1800

Harvest Fluctuations (including 1590s)
Market Gardening
The New River bringing fresh water to London
London water infrastructure
Assize of Buildings and Nuisance – British History Online

Second plague pandemic – Wikipedia
Tudor sweating sickness – Wikipedia

Inns of Court, Chancery and their records
Prisons – London Lives

Oldest Pubs in London
London theatre history
Elizabethan Theatre
Emergence of Organised Sports in Britain
Elizabethan Bear and Bull baiting

Dissolution of the London Monasteries

English Civil Wars – Britannica
Uncovering London’s forgotten Civil War fortifications


I wish to thank the following individuals who agreed to read my initial draft and who each provided useful feedback, including the identification of several omissions on my part: Peter Jackson, Janet King and Helena Molyneux. All errors in this document are mine.

I have located the various images on the Internet. Captions typically contain links to information on the source / attribution of each image. Please contact me if you consider that I have infringed any copyright.

Please note that this website is not a commercial venture. There are no adverts, and all the content is freely available for readers to access.

Version History

V0.1 – January 10th, 2021 – initial draft
V0.2 – January 14th, 2021 – less drafty including feedback from JK
V0.3 – January 21st, 2021 – additional material plus feedback from HM
V0.4 – January 26th, 2021 – additional material plus feedback from PJ
V1.0 – January 29th, 2021.