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   Chapter 23 No.23

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 4683

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

We have heard so much of the religious Houses, Companies, Hospitals, quarrels and struggles that we may have forgotten a very important element in the life of the City-the amusements and pastimes of the citizens. Never was there a time when the City had more amusements than in these centuries. You have seen that it was always a rich town: its craftsmen were well paid: food was abundant: the people were well fed always, except in times of famine, which were rare. There were taverns with music and singing: there were pageants, wonderful processions representing all kinds of marvels, devised by the citizens to please the King or to please themselves: there were plays representing scenes from the Bible and from the Lives of the Saints: there were tournaments to look at. Then there were the Festivals of the year, Christmas Day, Twelfth Day, Easter, the Day of St. John the Baptist, Shrove Tuesday, the Day of the Company, May Day, at all of which feasting and merriment were the rule. The young men, in winter, played at football, hockey, quarterstaff, and single stick. They had cock fighting, boar fights, and the baiting of bulls and bears. On May Day they erected a May-pole in every parish: they chose a May Queen: and they had morris-dancing with the lads dressed up as Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Little John, Tom the Piper, and other famous characters.


(From the Luttrell Psalter.)

Then they shot with the bow and the cross-bow for prizes: they had wrestlings and they had foot races.

The two great festivals of the year were the Eve of St. John the Baptist and the Day of the Company.


On the former there took place the March of the Watch. Bonfires were lit in the streets, not for warmth but in order to purge and cleanse the air of the narrow streets: at the open doors stood tables with meat and drink, neighbour inviting neighbour to hospitality. Then the doors were wreathed with green branches, leaves, and flowers: lamps of glass were hanging over them with oil burning all the night: some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought with hundreds of hanging lights. And everywhere the cheerful sounds of music and singing and the dancing of the prentice lads and girls in the open street. Through the midst of this joyousness filed the Watch. Four t

housand men took part in this procession which was certainly the finest thing that Medi?val London had to show. To light the procession on its way the City found two hundred cressets or lanterns, the Companies found five hundred and the constables of London, two hundred and fifty in number, each carried one. The number of men who carried and attended to the cressets was two thousand. Then followed the Watch itself, consisting of two thousand captains, lieutenants, sergeants, drummers and fifers, standard bearers, trumpeters, demilances on great horses, bowmen, pikemen, with morris-dancers and minstrels-their armour all polished bright and some even gilded. No painter has ever painted this March: yet of all things, medi?val, it was the most beautiful and the most medi?val.

On the day of the Company, i.e. the Company's Saint's Day, all the members assembled in the Hall, every man in a new livery, in the morning. First they formed in procession and marched to church, headed by priests and singing boys, in surplices: after these walked the servants, clerks, assistants, the chaplain, the Mayor's sergeants, often the Lord Mayor himself. Lastly came the Court with the Master and Wardens followed by the Livery, i.e. the members.

After church they returned in like manner to the Hall, where a great banquet awaited them, music played in the gallery: the banners of the Company were hung over their heads: they burned scented wood: they sat in order, Master and Wardens and illustrious guests at the high table: and the freemen below, every man with his wife or some maiden if he were unmarried. After dinner the loving cup went round: the minstrels led in the players: and they had dramatic shows, songs, dances and 'mummeries' for the rest of the day.

Do not think of medi?val London as a dull place-it was full of life and of brightness: the streets were narrow perhaps, but they were full of colour from the bright dresses of all-the liveries of the Companies-the liveries of the great nobles-the splendid costume of the knights and richer class. The craftsman worked from daylight till curfew in the winter: from five or six in the summer: he had a long day: but he had three holidays: he had his evenings: and his Sundays. A dull time was going to fall upon the Londoners, but not yet for two hundred years.

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