Tower-of-London1OK, so not really a battle although it must have felt something like that to those involved (and the ‘battlefield’ turned out to be much of the City itself), the uprising known as Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 saw two great armies march upon London – one from Kent led by Wat Tyler and another from Essex which is said to have been under the command of Jack Straw.

The armies had risen in response to a series of events which they saw as unjust and which trace their origins back to the Black Death. Killing about a third of the population when it struck some 30 years earlier, this had resulted in a growing demand for labourers to work the fields raising, as one might expect, hopes of increased wages and greater freedom of movement among the peasant class.

But to ensure the social order was maintained, authorities had not only put limits on how much farm workers could be paid but ensured long-standing but increasingly unpopular practices – such as serfs being forced to work some time for free for their landlords – were maintained. On top of this came the imposition and enforcement of a series of poll taxes to fund England’s wars with France.

The poll taxes – and the harsh way in which they were enforced – were a step too far and when a tax collector visited the village of Fobbing in Essex in May, 1381, he was shown short shrift and thrown out. The unrest soon spread and by June, the rebels, having rampaged through the countryside were marching on London.

By 12th June, the men from Essex were camped at Mile End while Tyler and his army from Kent were at Blackheath. The next day, after being denied a meeting with the king, the rebels headed into the City where sympathetic Londoners opened the gates. Once inside, they targeted the property of those they deemed responsible for their misfortune, opening prisons and destroying any legal records they could find.

Foremost among the sites attacked and looted was the Palace of Savoy (see our earlier post here), home of the King’s uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and, as the power behind the throne, the man many deemed as the ultimate source of the ills besetting them (John himself had a lucky escape – he was away from the city when the palace was attacked.).

King Richard met with the leaders of the men from Essex on 14th June at their camp at Mile End and, after they pledged their allegiance, agreed to their petitions to abolish serfdom and allow them to sell their labour. But the attacks, meanwhile, were continuing in the City with a group of rebels led by Tyler storming the Tower of London (pictured above) the same day and seizing and beheading the Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, along with the Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer and Prior of St John’s in Clerkenwell – both key figures in the government of the king (you can read more about Simon of Sudbury here).

The following day – 15th June – King Richard again met with the rebel leaders – this time with Wat Tyler, leader of the Kentish band, at Smithfield. It was then that things went awry for the rebels. Apparently enraged by Tyler’s insolence (already stories differ as to exactly why he did so), the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth (see our earlier post here), stabbed Tyler in the neck. King Richard managed to keep the situation under control until armed troops arrived and after the king declared a general pardon, the rebels dispersed.

Tyler, meanwhile, was taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital but on the orders of the Lord Mayor was dragged from his bed and beheaded (his head was displayed atop a pole positioned in a field). He was among dozens of the rebels who were subsequently executed for their role in the uprising (leaders Jack Straw and another, John Ball, were among them).

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Now the largest wholesale meat market in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe, the connections between the site of Smithfield Market, officially known as the London Central Markets, and livestock go back to at least 800 years.

Since the 12th century animals were routinely traded here thanks to the site’s position on what was then the northern edge of the city. Smithfield was also known for being an area for jousting and tournaments and was the location of the (in)famous St Barthlomew Fair (this closed in 1855) as well as an execution ground – among those executed here were Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, and ‘Braveheart’, Sir William Wallace (1305).

Skip ahead several hundred years and, by the the mid-1800s, traffic congestion led to the livestock trade being relocated to a new site north of Islington. Plans were soon launched to locate a cut meat market on the Smithfield site.

Following the passing of an Act of Parliament, work on the new market began in 1866 with Sir Horace Jones (he of Tower Bridge fame), the City Architect, overseeing the design. Constructed of ornamental cast iron, stone, Welsh slate and glass, the initial market buildings were completed in 1868 with the result being two vast buildings, separated by a grand central avenue, but linked under a single roof. The new market was opened amid much pomp by the Lord Mayor of London on 24th November, 1868.

Four further buildings were soon added – only one, the Poultry Market, which opened in 1875, is still in use – and in the 1870s the market began to see the arrival of frozen meat imported from as far afield as Australia and South America.

Closed briefly during World War II – when the site was used for storage and an army butcher’s school – it reopened afterwards. The main poultry building was destroyed in a fire in 1958 and a replacement featuring a domed roof – the largest clear spanning dome roof in Europe at the time – was completed by 1963.

More recently, the market underwent a major upgrade in the 1990s. Queen Elizabeth II opened the refurbished East Market Building in June, 1997.

WHERE: London Central Markets, Charterhouse Street and West Smithfield (nearest Tube Stations are Barbican, St Paul’s and Moorgate); WHEN: From 3am Monday to Friday (visitors are told to arrive by 7am to see the market in full swing) (There are walking tours available – see www.cityoflondontouristguides.com for details); COST: Free entry; WEBSITE: www.smithfieldmarket.com.

PICTURE: Rossella De Berti/www.istockphoto.com

And so we come to the last entry in our special series on Lost London looking at some of London’s gates – this time the only gate located on the south side of the Thames.

Located at the south end of London Bridge, this gate guarded the bridge entry in medieval times. When the first gate was built here remains something of a mystery but it is known that the first stone bridge, built in the late 1100s under the direction of priest Peter de Colechurch (it opened in 1209), certainly included a gatehouse known as the Stone Gateway (referred to by some as Bridge Gate) at the southern end.

The practice of parboiling the heads of traitors and the dipping them in tar before putting them on pikes above the gate apparently dates from 1305 when Scottish rebel William Wallace’s head was displayed there. The practice apparently continued until 1678 when goldsmith William Stayley’s head was the last to be displayed there.

As we mentioned in our earlier post on London Bridge, famous heads to adorn the gateway over the years included Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, rebel Jack Cade in 1450, the former chancellor Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, Thomas Cromwell in 1540 and Guy Fawkes in 1606.

Pictured above is an enlarged detail of a 1616 print showing London Bridge by Claes Van Visscher – the heads are clearly visible on top. One German visitor famously counted 30 heads on top when he visited in 1598.

The gate (and it should be mentioned there was also another gate on the bridge with a drawbridge which was replaced by Nonsuch House in 1577) was presumably removed sometime after 1756 when an Act of Parliament authorised the removal of shops and houses on the bridge.

Of course, there are many other gates in London – some of them smaller gates in the city walls – which have been lost to time. We’ll be looking at some more of these in future posts…

PICTURE: Wikipedia

Recently making news headlines thanks to the work of Adrienne Barker of the University of Dundee in reconstructing his face, Simon of Sudbury wasn’t born in London and, in fact, spent much of his early life elsewhere. But, as Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, he was a key figure in the 14th century city and it was in London that he eventually met his grisly death during the Peasant’s Revolt.

Simon Theobold was born around 1316 – the son of a wealthy Norfolk merchant – and, while details of his early life are scant, it has been suggested he studied at Cambridge before eventually entering the service of William Bateman, the Bishop of Norwich. He apparently became caught in the middle of a dispute between the bishop and the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds (the details of which we don’t have time to get into here) and it was this which is said to have led to the issuing of a royal order for his arrest, a move which forced him to flee England for the papal court at Avignon.

He quickly came to the attention of the popes and took on an official role, the reward for which was the income from various positions in the English church including Chancellor of Salisbury. In 1356, Pope Innocent VI sent him on a peace mission to King Edward III and it was during this mission that he came to the attention of the king. Having never been formally outlawed, he was apparently forgiven his earlier crimes and was soon acting on behalf of the king including at the Papal court.

In 1361, Simon was made Bishop of London and spent the next 10 years in the role, as well as continuing to act for the king, notably as a diplomat.

In 1375 following the death of incumbent William Whittelsey, he was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. His time as archbishop was somewhat troubled – as well as facing accusations of being too close to the king, he also faced criticism over his treatment of Bible translator John Wycliffe – but it was his role in secular politics which led to his demise.

Following the accession of King Richard II in 1377, in 1380 Simon was appointed chancellor, a position which meant he bore the ultimate responsibility for the imposition of an extremely unpopular new poll tax. In 1381, there were calls for his death at the outbreak of rebellion in Kent, notably when the rebels entered Canterbury Cathedral. But as the crisis now known as the Peasant’s Revolt gained momentum, Sudbury remained with the king in the Tower of London where he apparently counselled a hard line.

King Richard II when to parley with the traitors at Mile End on 14th June and there apparently indicated that action would be taken against traitors around him (Wat Tyler was killed when the king again met the rebels, this time at Smithfield, the following day). A group of rebels subsequently stormed the tower and dragged out Sudbury and the treasurer, Sir Robert Hales. Taken to Tower Hill, they were there beheaded. Sudbury’s head, which apparently had a skullcap nailed to his skull, was impaled on a lance and put on display over London Bridge. His body was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

The skull, meanwhile, was apparently taken down by a Sudbury man and taken back to his home town where it was kept at St Gregory’s Church. Some 630 years later, following an approach by Sudbury locals, forensic artist Adrienne Barker from the University of Dundee was asked to recontruct Simon’s head.

Following some CT scans of the skull, Barker – who carried out the work as part of her MSc Forensic Art studies under the tutelage of renowned facial reconstruction expert Professor Caroline Wilkinson – used state-of-the-art reconstruction techniques to recreate Sudbury’s facial features and complete a series of 3-D bronze-resin casts of his head. The models, one of which will be on permanent display at St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury alongside Simon’s skull, were unveiled in September.

PICTURE: University of Dundee

Twice Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth is best remembered as the man who killed the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, Wat Tyler.

Believed to have been born in the first half of the 14th century to a couple in Durham, Walworth at some point moved to London where he was apprenticed to the leading fishmonger John Lovekyn (he was also one of London’s biggest exporters of wool).

In 1368, following Lovekyn’s death, Walworth replaced Lovekyn as the alderman of Bridge Ward. Two years later, in 1370, he was elected sheriff and the following year he became an MP (by this stage, he was also already a major lender of money to the crown). Walworth was first elected as mayor in 1374, elected again as an MP in 1377, and again as mayor in 1380.

It was on 13th June, 1381, Walworth, still London’s mayor, led the defence of London Bridge against Wat Tyler and the rebels. He was later with the king, Richard II, when he subsequently met with Tyler and others at Smithfield. During that encounter Walworth stabbed Tyler and killed him, either outright or as a result his wounds. The reason for the killing remains unclear.

Walworth was knighted on the field for his efforts in defending the king during the rebellion and was later involved in restoring the peace in London and in the counties of Kent and Middlesex.

Sir William did marry but he and his wife Margaret, who died in 1394, had no children. Following his death in 1386 at his house in Thames Street (later the Fishmonger’s Hall), he was buried at the church of St Michael, Crooked Lane, to which he had already made some substantial donations.

He subsequently became a hero in popular story-telling and in 1592 was included in Richard Johnson’s book Nine Worthies of London. A wooden statue of him was placed at the Fishmonger’s Hall in 1685. There is a much later statue of Sir William on the Holborn Viaduct (pictured).

Lost London – London Bridge

December 14, 2010

In the first of a new regular series looking at “lost” London, Exploring London takes a look at London Bridge.

It’s a commonly confused fact that many first-time visitors to London think Tower Bridge and London Bridge are the same. As Londoners know, London Bridge (pictured right with St Paul’s and the city in the background) lies west of Tower Bridge. It’s not a particularly inspiring bridge having been built in the early Seventies. But there’s been a bridge spanning the Thames here for almost 2,000 years. So what happened to Old London Bridge?

The first bridge built across the River Thames on or close to the current site of London Bridge is thought to have been a wooden pontoon bridge constructed by the Romans around 50 AD. It was quickly followed by a more permanent bridge (rebuilt after it was destroyed by Boudicca and her marauding army in 60 AD).

Following the end of the Roman era, the bridge fell into disrepair although it’s known that there was a wooden Saxon bridge on the site by around the year 1,000. A succession of Norman bridges followed the Conquest and in 1176, during the reign of Henry II, construction of a new stone bridge began under the supervision of the priest Peter de Colechurch to service to growing numbers of pilgrims travelling from London to Thomas a Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. The new bridge, which had a chapel dedicated to St Thomas at the centre, wasn’t finished until 1209.

The bridge had 19 arches sitting on piers surrounding by protective wooden ‘starlings’ and a drawbridge and defensive gatehouse. The design of the bridge meant the water shot rapidly through the arches, leading boatmen to describe the practice of taking a vessel between the starlings as “shooting the bridge”.

King John, in whose reign the bridge was completed, licensed the building of houses on the bridge and it soon became a place of business with some 200 shops built upon its length, many of them projecting over the sides and reducing the space for traffic to just four metres. Many of the buildings actually connected at the top, creating a tunnel-like effect.

One of the more remarkable buildings on the bridge was Nonsuch House, built in 1577. A prefabricated building, it had been assembled in the Netherlands before being taken apart, shipped to London, and then reassembled. No nails were used in its construction, just timber pegs.

The practice of putting the heads of traitors on pikes above the southern gatehouse (see picture right, dating from 1660) started in 1305 with Scottish rebel William Wallace’s head and continued until it was stopped after 1678 when goldsmith William Stayley’s head was the last to be displayed there. Famous heads to adorn the gateway over the years included Peasant’s Revolt leader Wat Tyler in 1381, rebel Jack Cade in 1450, the former chancellor Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher in 1535, Thomas Cromwell in 1540 and Guy Fawkes in 1606.

Some of the bridge’s arches collapsed over the years and had to be restored and there were several fires which destroyed houses upon it, including those which occurred during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450.

Congestion reached such a state by the 18th century that in 1756 Parliament passed an act which allowed for the demolition of all the shops and houses upon it (it had remained the only bridge spanning the Thames east of Kingston until Westminster Bridge was completed in 1750). This was carried out in 1758-62 along with the removal of two central arches which were replaced with a single wider span.

With traffic only increasing – by 1896, 8,000 people and 900 vehicles were reportedly crossing the bridge every hour – it was clear a new bridge was needed and work on a new stone bridge with five arches – following a design competition won by John Rennie – began in 1824. The old bridge, located about 30 metres east of the new one, remained in use until the new one was opened in 1831. Widening work carried out the early 20th century, however, was too much for the bridge’s foundations and it began to sink.

What followed was one of the strangest episodes in the bridge’s history when in 1967 the Common Council of the City of London decided to sell the bridge. It was sold the following year to Missourian entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for $US2.5 million.

Carefully taken apart piece by piece, the bridge was then transported to the desert resort of Lake Havasu City in Arizona in the US and rededicated in 1971.

The current London bridge, designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, was built from 1967 to 1972 and opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1973. It stands on the same site as the previous bridge.

As for the song, “London Bridge is falling down”? There’s several stories to explain its origins – one being that it came about as the result of an attack by a joint force of Saxons and Vikings on Danish held London in 1014 during which they pulled the bridge down, and another being that it became popular after Henry III’s wife, Queen Eleanor, was granted the tolls from the bridge by her husband but instead of spending them on maintenance, used it for her own personal use. Hence, “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady”.

PICTURES: Top: © Steven Allan (istockphoto.com); Bottom – London Bridge (1616) by Claes Van Visscher. SOURCE: Wikipedia.