Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 4 - "Now is the Time," by Melvyn Bragg

The Black Death, which swept through Europe between 1346 and 1353, was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history, killing between 30% and 60% of the continent's population. In crowded cities, such as London, the figure may well have been higher. The shortage of labour pushed wages up, both in the cities and in the countryside, and the attempts of governments, including that of King Edward III in England, to use legislation to keep wages low, and keep peasants tied to the land, unsurprisingly failed (unsurprising, that is, for anyone who has a modern understanding of economics). Of those who survived, many did well, taking over land that had belonged to their dead relatives (and, sometimes, land that had belonged to other people's dead relatives). Families in the countryside sent their sons to the cities, apprenticing them into trades that their own parents could never have afforded for them. The children of peasants became City goldsmiths and vintners: some of their grandchildren would become university-trained lawyers, working in the City whilst their wives managed their estates. 

When the young Richard II succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, as King, he inherited a kingdom in economic turmoil. Decades of war with France, brought to an abrupt curtailment by the pestilence that had scythed down thousands of fighting men on both sides, had left, in their wake, a mountain of debts. Richard's government responded by imposing poll taxes: four pence for everyone over fourteen years of age in 1377; three pence for everyone over the age of sixteen in 1379; an average of twelve pence per person in 1381, supposedly linked to the individual's ability to pay, but this qualification was often ignored. When high-handed royal officials attempted to collect the taxes by force, they met resistance, not, for the most part, from "peasants," but from literate community leaders and small-scale landowners, men cut from the same mould as Geoffrey Chaucer's Reeve and Franklin.

The "Peasants' Revolt" of 1381 is thus miss-named: its leaders were not peasants (even if their grandparents had been) but yeomen and artisans. The men of Kent, led by Walter ("Wat") Tyler (who probably was a tiler by trade), and the men of Essex, led by the priest, John Ball, converged at Rochester, and marched on London in June of that year, determined to gain redress from the King. They seem to have had at least some support from Londoners, who joined them in burning the palaces of the King's hated advisers. Xenophobia also played its part, the homes and workshops of Flemish weavers targeted by London apprentices.

The meeting of John Ball (mounted, at right) and Wat Tyler (in red, at left) at Rochester, from the Chroniques of John Froissart, 1470, British Library Royal MS 18E I f165 v (image is in the Public Domain).


Melvyn Bragg's novel, Now is the Time, follows the course of the revolt as the rebels march towards, and into London, and afterwards, as they are hunted down, and their leaders executed. It is a novel of multiple viewpoints, including those of Tyler and Ball, and that of the King's mother, Princess Joan.



"After Tyler and the men had gone to the Thames, John Ball stood on a mound sufficiently high above the crowd ... The priest's stillness brought a responding quiet among the massed congregation. The spot was some distance from the Corpus Christi Fair, which had begun in innocent gaiety as if nothing at all unusual was happening, He began: 'When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?' His words sang across the heath, reaching many of the gathered multitude. It was a couplet he had used before, a simple couplet easily remembered, Inside its simplicity was the promise of a new life. In those few words his congregation were back with the firstborn of God, in the Garden of Eden ... In their rebel state of hope, apprehension, hunger, longing and frustration, they were ready to be captured by the spell of this man. Then the words, repeated with all his strength, rang like the peals of a bell and they were taken up and chanted back to him by the eager thousands ... "


Richard II addressing a deputation of the rebels from a ship at Greenwich on 12th June, 1381, from the Chroniques of Jean Froissart, 1401-1500, Bibliotheque Nationale de France (image is in the Public Domain). 


"Tyler looked over to the city, smitten by its grandeur. It shimmered in the heat of the June day, he thought. It glowed, like, he imagined, the Holy City of Jerusalem. Such a Tower, so many steeples, such a number of boats on the snaking Thames, and the bridge across it crammed with workshops, merchants, taverns, butchers, bakeries ... Walter Tyler had told the rebels, 'This will be ours.' And John Ball, unmoved by the romance of the place that had captivated Tyler, had said, 'There is the city of all wickedness, which must be brought down."

The Chapel of the White Tower, where Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer, two of Richard II's most detested advisers, were seized by the rebels on 14th June, 1381, and led to execution. Photo: Crux (licensed under CCA).


"Late on that hot June afternoon, on Corpus Christi Day, the Savoy Palace was to be erased. Fire and the axe were the chief weapons. Some of the rebels, once over the bridge, fed and plied with unaccustomed wine - peeled off down Fleet Street. They broke open the Fleet Prison. By now some of the most vicious gangs in London, those who had just escaped hanging, were reassembling and they saw heaven in the anarchy on the streets. Man of the people of London who were on the side of the rebellion had scores to settle and now was the time. Moneylenders could be threatened, grievances addressed, bad neighbours attacked. Robbery could seem like sympathy with the rebellion. The law began to crumble."

The meeting of Richard II with the rebels at Smithfield, on 15th June, 1381. On the left, the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth slays Wat Tyler. On the right, the King leads the rebels towards Clerkenwell Priory, allowing Walworth to secure the gates of the City of London. British Library, Royal MS 18E i-ii, f.175 (image is in the Public Domain).

Saint John's Gate, Clerkenwell Priory, 1880. Photo: Henry Dixon, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).


The rebellion was suppressed, its leaders executed. Peasants, the King insisted, would remain peasants. Yet no more poll taxes were levied, and, for all the words of the King and his advisers, the age of Feudalism was over. The "True Commons of England," in whose name the rebellion had been undertaken, were coming into their own, whether in the City, the market towns, or the countryside.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: An Interlude

As the Roman administration of Britain collapsed, during the course of the Fifth Century AD, London was progressively abandoned. Urban life becomes impossible in a land without reliable infrastructure: some Londoners probably took refuge on the continent, still, at least nominally, under Roman rule; others melted away into the countryside, where they could, at least, produce their own food, and where they were less obvious targets for increasing numbers of Saxon pirates.

The Pagan Saxons from northern Germany, who had, at first, come to Britain as mercenaries, and then as raiders, now came as settlers, but the walled city of Londinium, with its high wharves, had little interest for them. They established their city, Lundenwic, to the west, in the area that is now Covent Garden, running parallel with what we call "The Strand," then literally a strand (or beach), on which they could haul up their shallow-draft open ships, with their cargoes of Baltic amber; Russian furs; and Irish & Scottish slaves.

Earl Medieval brooch (650-670 AD), found with a woman's burial at Covent Garden. PAS/British Museum ID 257458 (licensed under CCA).


In the Ninth Century, new Pagan raiders, the Vikings, began attacking the now Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. During the winter of 871 AD, they camped within the ruins of the old Roman city, fortifying it against the possibility of an Anglo-Saxon counter-attack. Having expelled the invaders, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, took the decision to resettle the walled city, beginning in its south-western corner. Lundenwic was abandoned, and Lundenburh was born.


London Wall outside the Museum of London. Photo: www.mikepeel.net (licensed under CCA).


In the decades and centuries following the Norman invasion of 1066, the military and spiritual defences of the city were developed and enhanced. William the Conqueror built the White Tower, the first element of the Tower of London, in the city's south-eastern corner; he licensed his knights to build other fortifications, Chastel Baynard and Montfiquet Tower, to the west; and he began the construction of Saint Paul's Cathedral. Within a few centuries, these constructions were joined by around a hundred parish churches (many of them tiny, but built in stone, unlike most of the houses, which were of wood and thatch), and dozens of monasteries and priories.

The White Tower. Photo: IncMan (licensed under CCA).

The Norman St Paul's Cathedral digital reconstruction based on a model of 1908. Photo: Bob Castle (licensed under CCA).

The Medieval London Bridge, as depicted by Claus Visscher in 1616 (image is in the Public Domain).


Perhaps surprisingly, I struggled to find novels to reflect this period of almost a thousand years in London's emergence as a city and port. There are, doubtless, plenty of novels set in this period, in which at least some of the action happens to take place in London (if only because many of the leading royal and religious figures of the time spent much of their time here): but, for this series, I was seeking something more than this; novels in which the city itself is, at least to some extent, a character in its own right. If such novels exist for this period, I have not read them.

I therefore return to the first novel that I explored here, Edward Rutherfurd's "London," who covers the period in a series of interlinked stories: "The Rood" (604 AD); "The Conqueror" (1066); "The Tower" (1078-97); "The Saint" (1170-72); "The Mayor" (1189-1224); and "The Whorehouse" (1295); in all of which fictional characters mingle and interact with historical figures of the time.



The Rood.

"Above the wooden jetty, a small group of buildings included a barn, a cattle-pen, two storehouses, and the homestead of Cerdic and his household, surrounded by a stout wattle fence. All these buildings, large or small, were single-storey and mostly rectangular. Their walls, made of post and plank, were low, only four or five feet high, and strengthened on the outside by a sloping earth bank, turfed over. Their steep thatched roofs, however, rose to a height of nearly twenty feet ... The floor of Cerdic's hall was slightly sunken, so that one stepped down onto the wooden floorboards covered in rushes. The space inside was warm and commodious but rather dark, since when the door was shut the only light came from the vents in the thatch, made to let out the smoke from the fire in the stone hearth near the centre of the floor. Here the entire household gathered to eat."

The Tower.

"The two men sat facing each other across a table. For a while neither of them spoke as they considered their dangerous work, though either could have said, 'If we get caught, they'll kill us.' It was Barnikel who had called he meeting in his house by the little church of All Hallows, which now overlooked the rising Tower, and he had done so for a simple reason. For the first time in the ten years of their criminal activities, he had jut confessed: 'I'm worried.' And he had outlined his problem. To which Alfred had just offered a solution. When Alfred the armourer looked back, it often amazed him how easily he had been drawn into the business ... It had all started ten years ago, the summer that Barnikel's wife had suddenly died. All Barnikel's family and friends had rallied round, taking turns to keep him company. His children had encouraged the young apprentice to go too. Then, one evening, just as he was leaving, the Dane had put his huge arm around Alfred's shoulders and muttered into his ear: 'Would you like to do a little job for me? It could be dangerous.'"

The Mayor.

"A long-nosed man on a piebald palfrey was leading an elegantly mounted lady and two packhorses over the quiet waters of the Thames and into the city of London. The man was Pentecost Silversleeves. The lady was Ida, the widow of a knight, and despite herself she had just started to weep ... As she looked at the city before her, it seemed to Ida that the world had turned to stone. The great walled enclosure of London seemed like a vast prison. On the left she could see the thickset stone fort by Ludgate. On the right, down by the waterside, the grey, square mass of the Tower, surly even in repose. All stone. Over the two low hills of London covered by houses loomed the dark, high, narrow line of Norman St Paul's, dreary and forbidding ... as the horses' hooves clip-clopped softly on the wooden bridge in the morning quiet, the sound of a striking bell came over the water with a solemn, sullen sound, as though it, too, were made of stone, to summon stony hearts to stony prayer."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Memories of the Festival of Britain

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having arrived at Waterloo Station, can exit via the Victory Gate, crossing the busy York Road to the South Bank Centre, an arts complex that today includes the Royal Festival Hall; the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room; and the Hayward Gallery (the National Theatre and National Film Theatre are not, technically, part of the centre, but are in close proximity, and broadly share its modernist, concrete architecture).

The land between Waterloo Station and the River Thames had been an industrial area up to the time of the Second World War, when it was badly damaged by bombing (Waterloo Bridge itself was damaged, and had to be hastily repaired, some have claimed by a largely female workforce, although historians have found this difficult to verify).

The Festival of Britain was conceived by the Labour Government, elected in the aftermath of the war, as "one united act of national reassessment, and one corporate affirmation of faith in the nation's future." The previous and future Conservative Prime Minster, Winston Churchill, saw it as "three-dimensional Socialist propaganda," although strenuous efforts had, in fact, been made to avoid the politicisation of the exhibitions. Perhaps Churchill, who was determined to preserve the integrity of the British Empire, objected to its exclusive focus on the contribution of the islands of Britain themselves to science, technology, design, architecture, and the arts (taking place over the summer of 1951, it consciously looked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, but lacked its international focus).

The Festival of Britain South Bank site, as viewed from the north bank of the Thames. Photo: Peter Benton (licensed under CCA).

The Festival emblem, designed by Abram Games (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols).


The festival site on the South Bank received 8.5 million visitors (from a UK population of 49 million at the time). Not everybody was able to visit (my late mother recalled that, although her school in Sussex organised a visit, parents had to pay for their children's admission, which hers could not afford), but many who could not do so participated in linked events held around the country. There were few foreign visitors: a bomb-shattered London was, as yet, in no condition to receive large numbers of tourists. Two short video clips of the festival can be seen here and here.

Visitors sitting outside the "Dome of Discovery" in 1951. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

The Skylon was a sculpture, 300 feet (90 metres) high. It was demolished when the festival ended. Photo: Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). 


The Royal Festival Hall is the most tangible remnant of the festival: built on the site of the former Lion brewery, its foundation stone was laid by the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Its inaugural concerts were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult. It continues to host prestigious concerts and literary events, but also remains one of London's most authentically democratic cultural spaces, accessible to everyone, with food and drink to suit all budgets, and plenty of room in which informal meetings of book groups and discussion circles can take place, and students can work together on projects.

The South Bank Centre today, with the Royal Festival Hall to the left of the Hungerford Bridge. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

Fountains outside the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Sandpiper (image is in the Public Domain). 


Other buildings, including the "Dome of Discovery," were demolished when the festival ended, but the "Telekina" became the National Film Theatre, and the area has been a cultural quarter ever since, subsequently expanded to include Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe to the east. Architecturally, the festival had pointed towards the ways in which a wrecked city could be rebuilt relatively swiftly and cheaply, sing modern materials.

An indirect legacy of the festival is the Thames Path, conceived in 1948, but not actually opened until 1996: it now extends over 184 miles (296 kilometres), from the Thames Barrier in the east to the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire. It is to the west, along this path, that we will take our next steps in exploring the Borough of Lambeth.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: November

For the people of the Middle Ages, November was the last month of "ordinary time," in which the affairs of the secular world were allowed to take precedence over spiritual concerns. Advent, a time of fasting and penitence, was approaching; a period during which blood ought not to be shed. November was, therefore, the month in which animals, especially pigs, were fattened (often on acorns, as they still are in some parts of Iberia) and slaughtered; the meat salted and smoked; products such as sausages, salami, pate, and black and white puddings made. These were skilled tasks, in many cases performed by women, and getting them right could, over the course of a harsh winter, make the difference between plenty and hardship, or even starvation. Fish, too, was salted, smoked, and pickled: together with cheese, it would be the staple diet throughout Advent, with its religious restrictions on the consumption of meat.

November, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1485-6; Musee Conde, MS 65, F.11 v (image is in the Public Domain). The swineherd uses a stick to bring acorns down from the trees, in order to fatten the pigs.

Pigs in an oak wood in November, Strasbourg,c 1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

The slaughter of a pig (image is in the Public Domain).

The butchery of a pig (image is in the Public Domain).


There were also, in many cases, non-food crops to be processed: retted flax to be "swingled" (beaten with wooden paddles, to separate the fibres used to produce linen from the waste products of the crop; coppices (for the production of basketry, fencing, bows and arrows), maintained.

The swingling of retted flax (image is in the Public Domain).


With these tasks completed, and firewood gathered in, a Medieval community was ready to face the rigours of winter.

Calendar page for November, Morgan Library & Museum, M618, Fol.6r (image is in the Public Domain).

November and Sagittarius (image is in the Public Domain).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.




Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 3 - "Cast Not the Day," by Paul Waters

Between 235 and 284 AD, the Roman Empire was convulsed by a series of crises: plagues, civil wars, and barbarian invasions. When, in 330 AD, the Emperor Constantine, who had himself spent time in Britain, made the newly founded city of Constantinople the capital of his Empire, in place of Rome, he was signifying, perhaps consciously, that it would not be possible for his successors to hold the Empire together; and indicating his preference for the Eastern, rather than the Western Empire. This decision was a religious, as well as a political one: Constantine had, by this stage, embraced the Christian religion, and, in stark contrast to Rome, his new capital would be unencumbered by Pagan temples and amphitheatres.

London did not escape these convulsions. From the mid-Third Century onward, its population seems to have been in decline, some of the city's homes and warehouses abandoned, and filled up with "dark earth," probably compost, allowing ruined buildings to be pressed into new service as allotments for growing vegetables or keeping animals. The construction of a new wall along the Thames waterfront suggests a greater concern with defence than with trade: it may have been prompted by the appearance of slave-hunting Saxon pirates; or by one of the many coup attempts staged by military commanders in the provinces. Families that were wealthy enough to own country villas, as well as city houses, increasingly retired to their estates.


Coin of the usurper, Magnentius, whose rebellion lasted from 350 to 353 AD. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CCA).

The divisions of the Roman Empire in c 271 AD. Image: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under GNU). 


Whilst the Empire was now, officially, Christian, many people in the west held fast to their older, Pagan, customs. Although there was, until recently, little direct evidence for late Roman Christianity in London, excavations on Tower Hill have revealed the remains of a large and ornate "basilica," very possibly a church or cathedral, built with marble and other stones re-used from earlier buildings, perhaps including Pagan temples. It seems to have been built between 350 and 400 AD, but London clearly had a Christian community before this, as its Bishop, Restitutus, is recorded as having attended the Council of Arles in 314 AD.


The Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan: London's first basilica, on Tower Hill, may have been built to a similar design. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CCA).



Paul Waters's novel, Cast Not the Day, is set in a London riven by religious divisions. A rebellion by the army commander, Magnentius, against the Emperor Constans, has been defeated. Although personally a Christian, many Pagans have supported Magnentius on the basis that he appeared to offer greater tolerance of religious diversity. Now the new Emperor, Constantius II, has dispatched a ruthless administrator, and Christian fundamentalist, Paulus Catena, to the city to root out his former supporters, and to exterminate Paganism in London. Two young Pagan men, Drusus and Marcellus, struggle to survive the conflict.

Head of the god, Serapis, from the Temple of Mithras, London, established by a military veteran, Ulpius Silvanus, in 307-310 AD; Museum of London. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU).

Fourth Century figure of the god, Bacchus, from the Temple of Mithras, London (the temple seems to have been re-dedicated to him following Silvanus's death); Museum of London. Photo: Zde (licensed under CCA). 


"We came to London through the open suburb of farmsteads and villas to the south, halting at the watering place by the bridge, where the carters and litter-bearers gather. The house of Balbus lay in the heart of the merchants' quarter, off the Street of the Carpenters, close by the Grove of Isis. Everywhere was crowded. The hot air smelled of dust and unwashed bodies. Behind the street the workshops sounded with the noise of hammers and saws and engravers' chisels ... "

"At first I could not believe what I saw. I had expected, I suppose, some sort of tavern brawl. But instead I saw the crowd had with one mind set upon a building, a small antique temple with fine delicate columns and steps at the front, which I had often passed on my errands to the city dock. It was, I knew, a shrine to Mercury, of the sort one saw all about this part of town, Mercury being the god of traders and merchants ... The crowd broke out in a sudden cheer as a great slab of marble facing came crashing down from the side of the temple and shattered on the flagstones. 'But why are they doing this?' I cried, shouting into Ambitus's ear over the din ... who are these people?' He turned to me. 'Do you really not know? Why, they are Christians, of course. Who else?'"


Wall-painting from Lullingstone Villa in Kent, showing the Christian Chi-Rho symbol; British Museum; the villa also had a Pagan shrine, suggesting that the household included both Pagans and Christians. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). 

Wall-painting from Lullingstone, showing Christians praying; British Museum. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). 


"One day, a train of mules appeared in the street in daytime, led by a band of the bishop's supporters. They took the creatures up to the temple of Concord by the Wallbrook, tethered ropes around the slender columns, and brought the stone-roofed portico crashing down into the street. Then they set torches to what remained and danced all night around the fire. I could see the glow even from my window at the fort."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Waterloo Station

A visitor to London, having explored Rotherhithe, in the Borough of Southwark, can travel by London Overground and the Jubilee Line to Waterloo Station, which is in the adjacent Borough of Lambeth. Waterloo (formally named after the bridge, rather than directly after the battle) was one of London's earliest major rail terminuses, after Euston and Paddington. It was opened by the London and South-Western Railway Company in 1848, replacing an earlier temporary station at Nine Elms, near Battersea, and connecting London to Weymouth, Southampton, Salisbury, and Portsmouth.

Waterloo Bridge Station in 1848 (image is in the Public Domain).

Waterloo Station today. Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrissen (licensed under CCA).

The LSWR network in 1922. Image: Afterbrunel (Public Domain).


It was a significant departure and arrival point for soldiers and sailors of both the First and Second World Wars. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it became the busiest station complex in Europe, and is depicted in John Schlesingers (1961) film, "Terminus", supposedly a "fly on the wall" documentary, although it is known that some of the scenes were set up, and that some of the people who appear in it were actors: it is, nonetheless, a poignant evocation of the last years of the Age of Steam.

The suffragettes, Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst, at Waterloo Station in 1911 (Emmeline was embarking on a lecture tour of Canada and the USA).  Photo: Imperial War Museum Q81490 (non-commercial license).

Troops at Waterloo Station in 1914 (image is in the Public Domain).

Crowd gathered at Waterloo Station to welcome Charlie Chaplin in 1921. Photo: Photoplay (image is in the Public Domain).

Waterloo Station in 1940, with troops arriving, and evacuees departing. Photo: US Defense Department (image is in the Public Domain).


One of the station's most unusual roles was as the embarkation point for the London Necropolis Railway Company, established in the wake of the Burials Act (1851), prohibiting the burial of the dead within central London (the overcrowding of city cemeteries and crypts had become a scandalous problem, and a serious health-hazard, in the first half of the Nineteenth Century). The railway carried coffins and mourners to Brookwood Cemetery, twenty-three miles away in Surrey. The company's London station was badly damaged by German bombing in 1941, and the railway of the dead never re-opened.

The London Necropolis Railway. Image: Iridescent (licensed under GNU).

The former entrance to the London Necropolis Station, built in 1902. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under GNU).

A one-way coffin ticket (image is in the Public Domain).

The bombed station in 1941. Photo: Southern Railway Photographic Unit (image is in the Public Domain).


Leaving via the Victory Arch, opened in 1922 to commemorate the station's role in the First World War, we can walk down towards the Thames to begin our exploration of the Borough of Lambeth.


Waterloo Station's Victory Arch. Photo: Prioryman (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.