London's Story

London and the Normans

When Edward the Confessor died in AD 1065, he left a huge gap in the natural succession. His cousin Duke William of Normandy in Northern France claimed that King Edward had “promised” the kingdom to him. The English were alarmed at the thought of a Norman monarch and offered the throne to Edward the Confessor’s brother in law, King Harold, who was a Saxon. The famous Battle of Hastings followed in October 1066 – just about the only date in history that most British people can remember, and William and his hated Norman followers killed Harold and conquered the country. They subjugated the locals with a savage iron will, imposing taxes and the feudal system on the people. William the Conqueror marched on the City of London, and the City aldermen knew that they had no option but to offer him the throne. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in AD 1066. 

Westminster Abbey West Front SW June 06.jpg

Westminster Abbey west front - photo by SW

Although he was ruthless in dominating the Saxon peasants, King William was shrewd enough to realise that he needed to win over the prosperous City traders and merchants by negotiation rather than by force. He met with the aldermen and burgesses and granted them a Charter that acknowledged their independence and certain rights, in return for the payment of heavy taxes. A copy of this Charter is still kept in the Guildhall Library. King William was wise enough to recognize that laws on paper alone might not be enough to enforce his will, so he begun the building of the Tower of London at the eastern end of the Roman city wall where it joined with the Thames. What we now know as “The White Tower” dominated the skyline of London in the 11th Century and left no-one in doubt as to who was in change: it ws packed with heavily armed soldiers ready to do King William’s bidding at short notice. William also ordered the construction of Baynard’s Castle by the Thames at Blackfriars – the western end of the city wall.

The White Tower built in Norman times

White Tower Tower of London.jpg 

Medieval London

After nearly 100 years of rule under Norman kings, King Henry Plantagenet became king in AD 1154 and his sons and descendents would rule over London for the next 250 years. He and his successors were always in need of money to finance their many wars and rebuilding projects, and kept in league with the City merchants, so that they would continue to lend them money. King Richard I needed money to spend on the Crusades, so he was persuaded to recognise the City of London as a self-governing body with its own elected Mayor, drawn from the City merchants. The Mayor and the Corporation of London were among the lords who managed to coerce King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, which granted and guaranteed many privileges of the City.

Old London Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral were rebuilt in stone during the next 100 years and the   city flourished. It gained valuable fishing rights in the River Thames. The merchants of London grew rich on the wine trade, and furs and woollen cloth, and they and the barons of Runnymede built themselves great houses on the banks of the Thames along “the Strand” – the road between the City of London and Westminster, where the King and his courtiers still remained in his Palace of Westminster by the Thames.

By 1295 a Parliament (a place where people met to talk - from the French word “parler” - about governing the kingdom) met in Westminster Hall. Its main function was to raise taxes, on City merchants and Jewish moneylenders. The Jews had been  expelled by King Edward I in 1215. (They had been allowed to practice “ursury” (to lend money for interest) which Christians were not allowed to do at the time.) Without them the King needed another source of raising revenue and in order to raise the necessary revenues the King invited Italian bankers from Lombardy Italy to settle in the City – they built houses in what is today known as Lombard Street and began a banking and finance industry which still operates today. The merchants of the City grouped themselves into trade and craft guilds, the City Livery Companies, in order to protect their interests. The wharves near the Thames became crowded with imports of spices, precious metals, furs, cloth and silks, and Port dues and taxes were paid to Customs officials appointed by the Crown. One Customs official was the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose “day job” was collecting taxes on shipments of wine through the Vintner’s Company. He wrote the first great work of English literature “The Canterbury Tales” in his spare time, while living in the City near Queenhithe.

During the Medieval period the City of London’s great markets were established: Billingsgate fish market in the east near the Tower of London, Smithfield meat market near the northern wall of the City and chickens and other poultry at Leadenhall market near London Bridge. The street markets in Cheapside and Eastcheap held tons of produce, and the present-day names of the City streets bear witness to their former activites: you can find Bread Street and Milk Street near to the Guildhall. Although the population of London grew to about 50,000 in 1340 demographic changes were about to occur. In 1348 the terrible disease of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague reached London. It was spread by infected fleas borne on the backs of rats and more than a third of the population died. This caused grave labour shortages, and the peasants who were made to work for their Lords under the feudal system finally held a revolt in 1381. Parliament had that year imposed a “Poll Tax” on everyone left in the Kingdom in order to raise money. The poll tax took no account of anyone’s ability to pay and the peasants had enough – it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The Peasants’ Revolt was eventually crushed with the usual heavy-handed violence.

 

 

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