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   Chapter 22 No.22

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 4945

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

When you think of a great city of the thirteenth or fourteenth century you must remember two things. First, that the streets were mostly very narrow-if you walk down Thames Street and note the streets running north and south you will be able to understand how narrow the City streets were. Second, that the great houses of the nobles and the rich merchants stood in these narrow streets, shut in on all sides though they often contained spacious courts and gardens. No attempt was made to group the houses or to arrange them with any view to picturesque effect.

It has been the fashion to speak of medi?val London as if it were a city of hovels grouped together along dark and foul lanes. This was by no means the case. On the contrary, it was a city of splendid palaces and houses nearly all of which were destroyed by the Great Fire. You have seen how the City was covered with magnificent buildings of monasteries and churches. Do not believe that the nobles and rich merchants who endowed and built these places would be content to live in hovels.


The nobles indeed wanted barracks. A great Lord never moved anywhere without his following. The Earl of Warwick, called the King Maker, when he rode into London was followed by five hundred men, wearing his colours: all of these had to find accommodation in his town house. This was always built in the form of a court or quadrangle. The modern Somerset House, which is built on the foundations of the old house, shows us what a great man's house was like: and the College of Heralds in Queen Victoria Street, is another illustration, for this was Lord Derby's town house. Hampton Court and St. James's, are illustrations of a great house with more than one court. Any one who knows the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge will understand the arrangement of the great noble's town house in the reign of Richard II. On one side was the hall in which the banquets took place and all affairs of importance were discussed. The kitchen, butteries and cellars stood opposite the doors of the hall; at the back of the hall with a private entrance were the rooms of the owner and his family: the rest of the rooms on the quadrangle were given up to the use of his followers.

Baynard's Castle-the name yet survives-stood on the river bank not far from Blackfriars. It was a huge house with towers and turrets and a water gate with stairs. It contained two courts. It was at last,

after standing for six hundred years, destroyed in the Great Fire, and was one of the most lamentable of the losses caused by that disaster. The house had been twice before burned down, and that which finally perished was built in 1428. Here Edward IV. assumed the Crown: here he placed his wife and children for safety before going forth to the Battle of Barnet. Here Buckingham offered the Crown to Richard. Here Henry VIII. lived. Here Charles II. was entertained.

Eastward, also on the river bank and near the old Swan Stairs, stood another great house called Cold Harbour. It belonged to Holland, Dukes of Exeter, to Richard III. and to Margaret, Countess of Richmond.

North of Thames Street near College Hill was the Erber, another great house which belonged successively to the Scropes and the Nevilles. Here lived the King-maker Earl of Warwick. His following was so numerous that every day six oxen were consumed for breakfast alone. His son-in-law, who had the house afterwards, was the Duke of Clarence-'false, fleeting, perjured Clarence.'

If you would know how a great merchant of the fifteenth century loved to be housed, go visit Crosby Hall. It is the only specimen left of the ancient wealth and splendour of a City merchant. But as one man lived so did many. We cannot believe that Crosby was singular in his building a palace for himself.

London with its narrow streets, its crowded courts, and the corners where the huts and hovels of wood and daub and thatch stood among their foul surroundings, a constant danger to the great houses of fire and plague, was a city of great houses and palaces, with which no other city in Europe could compare. Venice and Genoa had their Crosby Halls-their merchants' palaces; but London had in addition, the town houses of all the nobles of the land. In the City alone, without counting the Strand and Westminster, there were houses of the Earls of Arundel, Northumberland, Worcester, Berkeley, Oxford, Essex, Thanet, Suffolk, Richmond, Pembroke, Abergavenny, Warwick, Leicester, Westmoreland. Then there were the houses of the Bishops and the Abbots. All these before we come to the houses of the rich merchants. Let your vision of London under the Plantagenets be that of a city all spires and towers, great churches and stately convents, with noble houses as great and splendid as Crosby Hall scattered all about the City within the walls and lining the river bank from Ludgate to Westminster.

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