In and Out of London Or, the Half-holidays of a Town Clerk

Loftie, W. J.




IT is difficult now-a-days to arrive at any very distinct idea of the condition of our forefathers a few centuries ago. The progress of antiquarian research within the last fifteen or twenty years has, however, been so great, that it is easier for us to form some


conception of their mode of life, especially in large towns, than it would have been before so many volumes of research had been made public. This is particularly the case with respect to London. We have very full accounts before us of the architecture, the laws, the customs, the dress, the language, and even the food of the people of the Metropolis in the Middle Ages; and from them we should be able to approximate to those of other parts of England at the same period, always allowing a few years for the higher civilisation of places near to, than of places more remote from, the great centre of progress and activity.

Still, with all the help these archeological investigations afford, it is hard to conceive the state of people who lived without what to us are such ordinary things as glass windows, or oil paint, or writing paper, or printed books. Yet in London, in the year , such things were almost, some of them quite, unknown. Street lamps were introduced by Sir Henry Barton, Lord Mayor in . Chimneys were often made of wood before , when it was ordered that any henceforth constructed except of stone, tiles, or plaster, should be pulled down. Glass was very dear, and only made in small pieces, so that few completely glazed windows were to be seen except in churches; and the poorer citizens were obliged to content themselves with lattices, of with very small windows almost filled up with stone or wooden tracery. In the houses of some of the


wealthy nobility, sets of glass windows were removable, and were taken from place to place, as their owner changed his residence. Crockery was almost unknown, except as a great rarity from Italy; and a glass or majolica basin or drinking cup was worth more than its weight in gold. The common people used horn, or perhaps in some cases iron cups and drinking-vessels, and the richer sort silver, silvergilt, and even gold.

Crosby Hall, which still remains, and is now very appropriately turned into an eating-house, gives us a fair idea of what the houses of the upper class in London were like in the time of Richard III.; but this is an extremely magnificent example, and the houses of people in an inferior rank were very different. Not, indeed, that such a house as Crosby Hall would be considered comfortable now- a-days. The vast rooms, the thorough draughts, the badly fitting doors, the smoky chimneys, and the very imperfect drainage and ventilation must have more than made up for the beauty of the carving, and the magnificence of the hangings on the walls-or for the general splendour of the furniture, and richness of the stained glass. The town house of the Earls of Warwick in Newgate- street; Baynard's Castle, in which the Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV., lived; Pembroke Place, on the site of which stands Stationers' Hall; and Arundel House, in the Strand, were all very similar; varying more in size than in general arrangement.

In these fine mansions a visitor would have found a strange mixture of luxury and barbarism. He would have seen the great hall used as a sleeping place by the servants of the family-the bare floor being their bed, and for a pillow a sheaf of rushes or straw; while in the chambers of the master and his equals he would have seen the most elaborate and sumptuous couches, ornamented with heraldic devices of the richest kind, hung with velvet or silk, and constructed of the softest down. Linen sheets would not be so common, and in many instances he would only find the bed arranged for lying upon, not in; but in others he would see counterpanes of damask or satin, and sheets of the finest cloth of Cambray, or cambric. The word counterpane is derived from the practice of or striping various rich stuffs one with another. Our words panel and pane are from the same source. The walls would be hung with tapestry, generally ornamented with heraldic badges, but sometimes embroidered with representations of scenes from the romances and ballads which were popular at the time.

For furniture he would probably see in each chamber a chair or two-generally what we should call arm-chairs-or stools without any back; also a seat in the thickness of the wall under the window; and a wardrobe, sometimes of great magnificence, but often a mere curtained recess, in which to hang clothes. A more important article


of furniture would be the chest, or cabinet, which would also serve for a table, and would be richly ornamented with hinges, and perhaps painted or carved with shields of arms. The visitor would probably see no looking-glass, or else only a small hand-mirror of metal; he would not find any washhand-stand-though there might be a bath- and he would miss a fireplace, though he might see a brazier with charcoal. The door would be protected with heavy curtains, and the window would not be made to open and shut; nevertheless he would find a plentiful supply of the outer air circulating in the room, some coming through the imperfectly leaded window panes, some under the ill-fitting door, and a great deal through the boards of the floor, from whatever room chanced to be beneath, as ceilings were seldom plastered, and floors seldom carpeted. Carpets were more commonly used for wall hangings, though we read of their use for the floors in the king's palace as early as the reign of Edward III. There would be no hair brushes, though combs were in common use; and no pins, though brooches like skewers, but ornamented with jewels, would be found; metal pins were first made about the reign of Edward IV. A smaller bed would probably be found at the foot of the great one, for a servant or a guard; and a little oratory would probably occur in one corner, fitted with an image, a little reliquary, containing perhaps a piece of the and a


or rosary of beads. In a few cases you might also find a volume of prayers, or the containing the seven penitential psalms; and in another part of the room, a volume of the Romaunt of Sir Lancelot du Lac, or a Chronicle of the Wars.

Descending to the reception rooms of the house, you would be struck by the general want of furniture everywhere apparent. In the great hall there would be forms at either side of a long table, which itself would consist of boards laid upon trestles, and removed after each meal. The forms would then be set back against the wall, or taken away altogether. A cross table at the upper end of the hall would be provided for the lord of the mansion, who, with his wife and the principal guests, would sit under a canopy, which would be not so much a matter of state as of necessity, for protection from the draughts. The servants, and indeed all the family, high or low, except those actually engaged in cooking or waiting, would dine together; and dinner would be the principal meal of the day, a slight breakfast and a slighter supper preceding and following it. The Duchess of York dined at eleven in the forenoon, and supped at five. These early hours were general: the Judges at Westminster sat only from eight in the morning until eleven, when they adjourned for the day. No doubt the difficulty of performing any labour, literary or manual, except by daylight, led to these arrangements.


Candle-light was bad, and candles dear; the only light always available during the short days of winter being that of the fire which burnt in the middle of the hall-the smoke escaping by the louvre in the roof. The hall of Westminster School was warmed in this way until the year , if not later; and the same old method may still be seen in occasional use at Penshurst Place, in Kent. Crosby Hall gives us the earliest example of a great hall with a fireplace. It was almost impossible, without a chimney or any certain exit for the smoke, to burn coal; and we have already seen that the smoke of coal was considered so unwholesome that its use was prohibited in London by the severest enactments until the middle of the fourteenth century, and was by no means common for a hundred years later.

Westminster Hall was completed by Richard II. in . Accounts of the which he gave in celebration of this event have come down to us, and give us a lively picture of the table arrangements of the period. The prices of provisions may also be easily ascertained by a reference to the market regulations made at different times. These prices were always much affected by the visitations of the plague, which were so common in Old London. For example, after the plague of the year , in which 100,000 persons are said to have died, a fat ox might have been bought for 4s., and a fat wether for 4d. A lamb was 2d., and


a pig 5d. Even if we allow that money is now fifteen times more valuable, these are exceedingly low rates. The usual prices were much higher. One schedule gives us these particulars: between Easter and Whit-Sunday a fat goose was to be had for 5d., at other times for 4d., or even 3d. Three pigeons came to a penny; which is not very cheap if we calculate a penny as worth between 1s. 3d. and 1s. 8d. of our money. The swan was much esteemed at the great City feasts, and cost the prodigious sum of 3s., equal to nearly £2 10s. in modern currency. There were many swans on the Thames; the King's birds and those belonging to the citizens being distinguished by markings annually made on their bills. The common tavern sign, a swan with Two Necks, properly nicks, has its rise from this circumstance. Salmon were from 3s. to 5s. each, which multiplied by 15, answers pretty nearly to the present price; whilst oysters were at 2d. a gallon, which, on the same calculation, is certainly cheap. A prominent feature at all great entertainments was a peacock served

in his pride,

with the feathers and train; as we still see pheasants at table, with the tail-feathers by way of garnishing.

When Richard II. gave the feast at Westminster Hall of which I have spoken, he employed, we read, 2,000 cooks, and is said to have feasted at one time above 10,000 persons. Many particulars have come down to us of this and other extravagant


banquets of the unfortunate Richard, but none seems to have exceeded the magnificent pageant displayed by the City of London at the time of his coronation; when, among other things, we read of the following or device which was exhibited in the street at Cheapside.

At the upper end of Chepe,

says the chronicler,

was a certaine castell made with foure towers, out of the which castell, on two sides of it, there ran foorth wine abundantlie. In the towers were placed foure beautifull virgins, of stature and age like to the King, apparelled in white vestures, in every tower one, the which blew in the King's face, at his approaching neere to them, leaves of gold .... When he was come before the castell, they took cups of gold, and, filling them with wine at the spouts of the castell, presented the same to the King and to his nobles. On the top of the castell, betwixt the foure towers, stood a golden angell, holding a crowne in his hands, which was so contrived that when the King came, he bowed downe and offered him the crowne.

This was a


on a very large scale, but similar devices were common at table; heraldry being called in to help, and great pains, if not great taste, being shown in their composition. Thus at the coronation feast of Queen Katherine, wife of Henry V., we read that there was

a sotylty called a pellycan, sytting on his nest, with her byrdes and an image of Seynt Katheryne holdyng a booke, and

disputynge with the doctours, holdyng a reason in her right hande.

This feast, which was held in Lent, was remarkable. It consisted entirely of fish, dressed in various ways; and included, besides many kinds of salt and fresh water fish, the names of which it is not very easy to identify,

porpies rostyd,


mennys fryed

-porpoises and minnows. At a feast given a few years before, there were served at table, besides wild boar and venison dressed in several ways, peacocks, cranes, bitterns, egrets, curlews, partridges, quails, snipes, and

smal byrdys

-perhaps sparrows.

After this account of the high feeding of the period, it may not be amiss to say something of the state of medicine. The monks were the chief physicians, and seem to have been but moderately successful. Henry V. was, probably, killed by the unskilfulness of his medical advisers. Their prescriptions are of inordinate length, and seem to be compounded in a sort of wild hope that if one drug fails, another may succeed. During visitations of the plague, or any epidemic sickness, they appear to have been utterly powerless; although they did guess at the real cause of these disorders, as we see from the many ordinances for the better cleansing of the City, and for the abating of nuisances. It was unlawful, for instance, to keep pigs within certain boundaries. But, no doubt, the stagnant moat which surrounded the City walls, to say nothing of that which protected the Tower, was enough to


account for the awful visitations of pestilence to which the people were so frequently subjected.

The names of two or three of the eminent physicians of those days have come down to us. Master Lawrence was Queen Isabella's medical adviser; but we cannot say much for his skill when we read that his royal patient's death was occasioned by a too powerful dose of some medicine which, although at her desire, he had administered to her. We find that he was paid £2 for a whole month's attendance. Another eminent practitioner was Master Gun, or Quin, a monk at Bermondsey Abbey, to which many royal and noble personages resorted for the benefit of his advice. During one such visit Queen Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV., died.

Surgery was no further advanced than medicine, and a very slight wound was sure to be fatal. Amputations were seldom attempted, and when attempted were almost always unsuccessful. We cannot wonder at this when we read that it was customary, after a man's leg or arm had been lopped off with an axe, to plunge the stump in boiling pitch, in order to stop the bleeding. No doubt this object was effectually accomplished! There were some surgeons, nevertheless, not unskilful in reducing fractures and dislocations. A magnificently illuminated MS. in the National Library of Paris contains the English translation of the treatise of Guy de Chauliac, an eminent


French surgeon, on the "Restorynge of Broken Bones."

The overcrowding of the poor in miserable hovels in the City; and the want of pure water, are quite sufficient to account for the fearful mortality caused by the plague in various years. The worst visitation seems to have been that of , in which 100,000 are said to have died, as I mentioned above; and it was rendered further memorable by the munificence of Sir Walter Manny, who purchased a piece of ground outside the City walls, and had it dedicated as a cemetery for those who died of the plague. Fifty thousand corpses are said to have been interred here during the prevalence of the visitation; but this number is probably inaccurate and exaggerated. Sir Walter, who was one of the first Knights of the Garter, and a famous hero in the wars of Edward III., died in , and was buried in this cemetery. He had given it into the charge of a society of monks, of the Chartreuse or Carthusian Order, who were afterwards violently suppressed by Henry VIII. Their last prior was hanged, drawn, and quartered at , in ; and the site of the priory and burial-ground, by a new foundation, became the famous Charterhouse School, at which so many eminent men were educated in after years.

Mention of Henry VIII. and his cruelty to the Carthusians reminds me to say a few words about what was a much more prominent feature in the


every-day life of London four hundred years ago than it is now. Executions were at all times very frequent. The English laws were very sanguinary, and they seem to have been carried out with the utmost rigour. There was hardly any punishment for crime of all shades except death, the cruelty of the mode of execution alone marking the heinousness of the crime. For ordinary offences hanging was the usual punishment; but for heresy burning alive at the stake, and for treason drawing and quartering, were the regular formule. By an excess of barbarity, women guilty of capital crimes were usually burnt alive; and burning the body after strangling continued to obtain in England until the end of the eighteenth century. On this subject I shall have more to say in the next paper.

The continual shedding of blood by the English law seems to our modern ideas very horrible; but, in reality, there was in those days little choice between death and imprisonment. The City prisons were in so shocking a state of unwholesomeness and filth, that pestilence was constantly raging within their walls. In the year of the accession of Henry V. sixty-four prisoners at Newgate, together with all the turnkeys and the chief jailor, were carried off by one such fever. After Whittington's death his executors rebuilt Newgate Prison, as an act of charity, under the provisions of his will. But the condition of poor prisoners was not much ameliorated, and pestilence and misery reigned


supreme for more than two centuries longer. Besides Newgate, there were two smaller prisons, under the control of the sheriffs. One of them was in Cheapside, and the other, which remained until a few years ago, in Giltspur-street. There was also the King's Bench Prison, which was situated in Southwark. To it Chief Justice Gascoigne is said to have committed Henry V. when Prince of Wales. Notwithstanding the general opinion to the contrary which has so long prevailed, it is perfectly certain that one of Henry's first acts at his accession was to deprive Gascoigne of his elevated office. Nearly adjoining the King's Bench was the Marshalsea, so called from its being under the control of the Marshal of the King's Household. Prisoners for debt, and along with them, by a curious though not unaccountable regulation, pirates, were confined here until the time of its final discontinuance, in .

But the most remarkable as well as the largest of the old debtors' prisons-the Fleet-stood close to the spot at which the railway bridge now crosses Ludgate-hill. The misery and misgovernment for which this prison was notorious began almost at its first institution; and many efforts to improve the condition of the prisoners and the aspect of the prison were made by charitably disposed persons from time to time. The most remarkable during the period of which we have been speaking was that of Sir Stephen Foster and Dame Agnes, his


wife. Foster, who had been a small tradesman in the City, was imprisoned in the Fleet for debt; and it happened that one day, when he was begging at the grated opening through which the unfortunate debtors were permitted to behold the outer world and to excite the compassion of the charitable, a certain widow, who possessed wealth and was willing to do good, asked him what sum would set him at liberty.

Twenty pounds,

he replied. The money was paid, and Foster became the servant of his benefactress; and in due time, having by his diligence and integrity greatly advanced her interests, he married her, and became a wealthy citizen, serving the office of Lord Mayor in . But in his prosperity he did not forget his sufferings in the Fleet: he and his wife, having purchased the adjoining houses, pulled them down, and enlarged the prison by the addition of a chapel, and many other buildings, for the benefit of his former companions, in order that, from the time of this benefaction, they should not be obliged to pay out of their scanty means for additional accommodation. He also left a foundation for the office of chaplain, and so wisely and carefully framed his regulations that, notwithstanding the continual extortions of the officials, this continued until the last century to be esteemed the best and least oppressive prison for debtors in England.

The endowment by Sir Stephen Foster of the Fleet Chapel reminds me to speak of the London


churches of that day. Within the walls they were very numerous. The parishes, owing to the large number of inhabitants in each, and their crowded dwellings, were small in area, but enormously large in population; and two or more of the churches often closely adjoined one another. Thus St. Paul's, though not itself a parish church, had the church of the parish of St. Faith in its crypt, and the church of St. Gregory built against its walls: St. Swithin's, in Cannon-street, stood almost touching Abchurch; St. John's, Watling- street, was close to St. Antholin's, and both were just opposite St. Augustine's.

But all these churches, and many more, were destroyed in the Great Fire of , and very few specimens of the older buildings have come down to our time. The most remarkable are to be seen in St. Bartholomew, , and St. Giles, Cripplegate; and there is still a very beautiful porch adjoining St. Sepulchre's, in Giltspur-street. All these, however, were outside the City walls: inside them there are but few remains of any importance. The church of All Hallows Barking, in Tower-street, has some examples in different parts of the building of the architecture of the fourteenth century. Part of the crypt, too, of the old church of St. Michael still exists under the houses at the junction of Cornhill with Gracechurch-street; but St. Andrew's Undershaft-that is, under the Maypole, which used to stand at the end of Cornhill-


although entirely in the old Pointed or Gothic style, was not built as we now see it until a full century after the period of which we are speaking.

In addition to the number of parish churches, the buildings of the monasteries were very numerous. There were two principal orders of monks in London. They were all spoken of as the regular clergy, in contradistinction to the secular, or priests-that is, they lived according to certain rules or regulations; and the different orders of monks were distinguished among themselves by the system of rules to which they adhered. The Cistercians, the Carthusians, and the Augustinians might all be classed as reformed Benedictines; and to the same order almost all the abbeys and cathedrals in England belonged. But in the thirteenth century these societies had become corrupted. They had all yielded more or less to the enervating influence of wealth and prosperity; and although each new sect, or denomination of monk, at its first settlement in England endeavoured to fulfil the rules of its founder, and by visiting the poor and needy in their distress, and relieving their wants, to do the work which in our days is so differently performed, yet the corrupting influence of luxury soon began to tell upon each in succession: and no matter how carefully the earlier members of a fraternity framed its rules, their successors eventually yielded to the temptations of wealth and power, and departed from their


primitive simplicity, and then the orders became one after another, in their turn, luxurious, proud, tyrannical, and superstitious. As true piety died out among them, the worship of relics, of images, and of a daily increasing host of saints supplied its place. In the thirteenth century these things had come to such a pitch that the monks were everywhere dreaded or despised, and only kept their hold on the minds of the people by the superstitions which they fostered.

In London and its neighbourhood the various divisions of the Benedictine Order were especially powerful. To them belonged the magnificent and wealthy abbey of Westminster; Canterbury and Rochester were also under their dominion, as well as the stately foundation of St. Albans; and to various denominations of the same Rule were assigned almost all the monasteries in London. St. Bartholomew's, and St. Mary Overies at the foot of London Bridge, were Augustinian, the monks of which Order were generally known as Austin Friars, but sometimes as White Friars. The Cluniac Order held Bermondsey Abbey, of which we have already spoken; and the Carthusians the magnificent foundation of the Charter House. There were also monasteries of Carmelites and Cistercians, who, however, preferred the country; and besides all these, the semi-military orders of Templars and Hospitallers. The Templars were originally lodged in , and afterwards in Fleet-street; whilst


the Knights of St. John had their head-quarters at Clerkenwell, in a noble building, the interesting old gate of which is still to be seen, as well as the crypt underneath their church.

In addition to all these monks of the older orders, the thirteenth century saw the rise of a new and in many respects very different monastic system. The Franciscans and Dominicans-both founded by men who, as far as their light went, were sincere and good, and who, when we consider the age in which they lived, are entitled to our admiration-had their origin within a few years of each other, and rapidly spread throughout all the countries of Europe. In England the Franciscans were especially successful, and thirty years from their first landing in had attained the large number of 1,242 members, and possessed forty-nine convents in different places throughout the kingdom. We look in vain among the remains of Franciscan monasteries for those glories of architecture so commonly found in the ruins of the abbeys of the older orders. They lived in hovels, and practised the strictest austerities. By their founder's precept, they were bound to consider themselves lower than the lowest: hence the name of or by which they were known. St. Francis had forbidden them to apply themselves to learning, by which term in those days the ancient philosophies and the more modern theologies were known: they therefore addicted


themselves to physical studies, and were the naturalists and mathematicians of the age. Roger Bacon was a member of their order. Bishop Grosteste was their chief patron. But it was for their charities that they were best known-or rather for their labours in distributing the charity of others; for they themselves professed, and even to the time of their dissolution under Henry VIII. maintained, an austerity of manners which forbade the acquisition of riches. Their chief church in London was on the site of the chancel or choir of Christ Church, Newgate-street; its ornaments, and especially the stained glass windows for which it was remarkable, were the gift of those who had benefited from the preaching or ministrations of members of the order, but the dwellings of the brethren were not in accordance with the magnificence of their church.

Besides their chief and oldest convent within Newgate, they had a branch establishment near the Tower: of this building, which has left its name to the no remains exist; and of the older house in Newgate-street we have only the memories still attached to the Blue Coat School, which now occupies the ground once covered with the low-roofed dormitories, bleak cloisters, and meagrely furnished refectories of the brotherhood. They were, especially at first, loved and honoured by the immense population which partook of their benevolence; and seem really to have


deserved such feelings by their devotion in times of pestilence, and by the eloquence with which they enforced from the pulpit the practical piety of their lives.

How different our great city must have looked to the every-day observer at that period from anything we are now acquainted with! Cheapside a long and narrow market-place, more like an Oriental bazaar than the busy and gloomy street now standing on its site; the houses projecting above, so as almost to meet in their upper storeys, and so as completely to shelter the open-air stall upon which goods were displayed below; no sound of wheels in the streets, or at most the slow, lumbering waggon in which a great lady in bad health might choose to travel to or from her town residence; the absence of the dense smoke to which modern Londoners are accustomed, and consequently the much gayer dresses of all ranks of people.

Here, a knight in plate armour, and with his horse almost concealed under iron trappings, jogs heavily and noisily over the pavement; a page running by his side, a squire carrying his helmet behind him, and a long train of ferocious-looking soldiers, some on foot, some on horseback, but all clad in their lord's colours, following behind in single file on account of the narrowness of the streets; there, a procession of white-robed monks, each with his face concealed in a black hood, lead the way to the burial of some eminent citizen, or


convey the sacrament to some dying penitent; here, perhaps, the Lord Mayor or a leading alderman, clad in a marone-coloured velvet robe, lined throughout with fur, and wearing a scarlet silk suit underneath, goes, attended by mace and sword bearers, whose office was no sinecure among the turbulent populace, to hold his court at Guildhall or at Newgate; there, the shop of a herbseller in Bucklersbury is besieged by a howling mob; while its unhappy owner, suspected, perhaps, of complicity in witchcraft with the Lollards, Lord Cobham, and Queen Joanna, is led away to undergo that fatal ordeal which leaves no hope of escape: if he is innocent, he drowns; if guilty, he floats, and is despatched by the stones and bludgeons of the crowd.