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Muck, Murder & Mayhem on a Thursday night!

Published on: 19 May 2021

On Thursday May 13th, we enjoyed another Fellowship evening, this time a virtual tour of Medieval London by Simon Whitehouse, a Blue Badge Tourist Guide who took us on a pub crawl recently. Liveryman Bill Jermey reports on how 61 Zoom callers tuned in to embark on a journey through Muck, Murder and Mayhem!

The tales of Muck, Murder and Mayhem begins...

Simon defined the period as starting with the Norman invasion of 1066, and ending with the Battle of Bosworth when Richard III was defeated, and the Tudor dynasty was founded. He gave a thoroughly informative guide to London in the period and answered every question without being stumped!

He showed a map of about 1300, when London was what we know of as the square mile – a thriving mercantile centre. A walled city with 7 gates as well as a gate on the only bridge. The four corners were defined by The Tower in the SE, then Aldgate, Aldersgate (with Smithfield outside) and Blackfriars back on the river with the river fleet marking the Western boundary. At the southern end of London Bridge was Southwark, which was outside the control of The Mayor and somewhat lawless and licentious, despite being owned by the Bishop of Winchester who collected the rents of the brothels. West of Blackfriars The Strand was a road lined by places leading to the City of Westminster.

Starting his tour at The Tower, which is virtually unchanged since 1300, he described its development as well as the influence of the Norman French Norman invaders which meant that London was tri-lingual with Anglo-saxon, Latin and French. I am sure you are well aware that this gave us the names we use today for our meat – Beef (Bouef), Pork (Porc) and Mutton (Mouton).

On to London Bridge which had tall stone houses, shops and a chapel in the middle. It was one of the wonders of Mediaeval London. There is a model in St Magnus the Martyr church close to the Northern end of the bridge. This was when the river was about 300 yards across. This chapel was dedicated to Thomas a Beckett, so was the first point of departure for Canterbury pilgrims as told in the Canterbury Tales. Above the gate were heads of executed criminals – one of whom was William Wallace who was hung drawn and quartered in a certain Smithfield.

London Bridge

Within the walled city were many monasteries (Black, White and Grey Friars etc) and the church owned 60% of the area of the city by 1530. Though this is beyond our period Henry VIII’s reformation took that land which became owned by wealthy merchants and Livery Companies.

St Pauls was built by 1310, and was much larger than what we have today, with a 489 foot spire, until it was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666.

Returning to the Grey Friars at Aldersgate, we Butchers upset them considerably by our habit of discarding offal and ordure in the street next to the Friary, which caused them great inconvenience. Their official complaint in 1343 led to Lord Mayor John Hammond granting butchers a parcel of land in Settle Street adjacent to the Fleet River. The cost of this was a boar value £1 4s 0p and is the earliest transaction of this type recorded, and is the origin of our annual Boar’s Head ceremony. I have proudly marched our Boar's Head through the City streets to pay this 'debt' and we still continue to pay our dues to this day!

Bill carries the Boar's Head at the annual ceremony to pay our debt to The Rt Hon the Lord Mayor.

The main shopping street was Cheapside with many livery companies leading off, and in the centre St. Mary le Bow, whose bells called Dick Whittington back, and also defines the area that Cockneys like me were born.

By 1500 we had about 100 Livery companies in the City, with Guildhall in the centre. The stone walls of the Guildhall are mediaeval, built by the Lord Mayor. Henry Fitz Eylwin was the first who served for 20 years.

The Smythefeld has been the site of a meat market for over 1000 years, where cattle were driven from all over the country. The first description of it was “a smooth field, with easy access for water of the river fleet, where every Friday to be sold were” fine horses, vendibles of the peasants and swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk”. In 1344 we have records of bullocks being sold for 16 shillings. Cattle from as far afield as the Isle of Skye were driven to the market.

The sale of a wife in Smithfield

The last day of the livestock market was in 1855, due to the unpleasant conditions in Smithfield. It was moved North to Islington for slaughter and the meat sold in Smithfield, with the modern market as we know starting in 1860.

One other interesting aspect of Smithfield was that wives could be sold. In 1553 a priest sold his wife to a butcher! (With the new law of celibacy for priests).

Whilst in Smithfield we turned to St Bartholomew’s church, with its Tudor entrance and a statue in a niche high above of the Saint himself holding a dagger. A certain person compared the likeness to yours truly, and I accept the compliment of that Saintly image. That Tudor frontage had been plastered over, and only revealed by a zeppelin bomb landing nearby!

That entrance originally led into the nave of the much larger church built in the 1100’s. The church was funded by the monk Rahere who was cured of malaria by prayers to St Bartholomew. He had sworn to pay for a church and hospital if cured. Henry I gave him the land and he fulfilled his promise.Behind Smithfield is The Charterhouse. Under the square are buried about 10,000 bodies from the Black Death as the churchyards were overwhelmed.

Damien Hirst's 'Saint Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain' 2006

In 1381 workers rebelled against the poll tax. 60,000 farm workers from Kent and Essex marched and the apprentices opened the gates of London for them. This is when Wat Tyler was killed by the Lord Mayor William Walworth (a Fishmonger) at Smithfield who was protecting the king.

Finally Simon turned to Dick Whittington who was a mercers apprentice and became very wealthy. He served as Lord Mayor four times. He became a financier to kings amongst other things. He built the first public lavatory on the North bank with comfortable seating for 60 people .

Henry VI was murdered in The Tower in 1471 whilst at prayer. Succeeded by Edward IV until 1483 leaving two young sons Edward and Richard – the princes in the tower, whose disappearance is unsolved. Richard, Duke of Gloucester succeeds to the throne as Richard III. The Battle of Bosworth saw him off and the mediaeval period ended.

Liveryman Bill Jermey