Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Wards of Old London: Portsoken - Wargames and Wayfarers

We have now completed our tour of the intramural wards of the City of London, and should now turn our attention to the extramural wards. We begin at Aldgate, the main eastward-facing gate of the city, and we will follow, once again, the course of the Roman and Medieval walls, but this time in a northerly and westerly direction, and on the outside, rather than the inside of the walls. Some of these wards will merit more than one post, being larger than many of the intramural wards, and having more complex histories. Portsoken Ward lies immediately beyond Aldgate.

1870 map of London Wards. Image: Doc77can (licensed under CCA).


The Elizabethan chronicler, John Stow, who had access to documents that no longer exist, including records destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, tells us that:

"This Portsoken, which soundeth the franchise at the gate, was sometime a guild, and had beginning in the days of King Edgar, more than six hundred years since. There were thirteen knights or soldiers, well-beloved to the king and realm, for service by them done, which requested to have a certain portion of land on the east part of the city, left desolate and forsaken by the inhabitants ... They besought the king to have this land, with the liberty of a guild for ever. The king granted to their request, with conditions following: that is that each of them should victoriously accomplish three combats, one above the ground, one under ground, and the third in the water; and after this, at a certain day in East Smithfield, they should run with spears against all comers; all of which was gloriously performed; and the same day the king named it Knighten Guild, and so bounded it, from Aldgate to the place where the bars now are, toward the east, on both sides of the street, and extended it towards Bishopsgate in the north ... "

The King Edgar referred to must surely be Edgar the Peaceable, who reigned from 959 to 975 AD. Smithfield was frequently used for jousting and tournaments in the High Middle Ages, but this was a tradition that emerged only after the Norman Conquest. For clues as to what may have been involved here, we must look, on the one hand, to archaeological evidence beyond London; and, on the other hand, to literary sources.

King Edgar the Peaceable, from the New Minster Charter (image is in the Public Domain).


The equipment of elite Anglo-Saxon warriors has been recovered from excavations on a number of sites, including Sutton Hoo, the City of York, Abingdon, and, most recently, the Staffordshire Hoard. The latter is, perhaps, the most surprising discovery: it had previously been assumed that a heavily embellished sword such as those found at Sutton Hoo and Abingdon, would be wielded only by a king, but the Eighth Century hoard includes the decorated pommels of more than seventy of these weapons. The "combats" above ground may simply have been display fights or non-lethal contests between these elite warriors, or they may have involved wrestling, and similar trials of strength.

The 9th Century Abingdon Sword. Photo: Geni (licensed under GNU).
A re-enactor wearing armour based on that found at Sutton Hoo. Photo: Ziko-C (licensed under GNU) 
A 12th Century font at Eardisley, Herefordshire, depicts knights in single combat. Although post-Conquest, the art-work is clearly suggestive of an earlier tradition. Photo: Poliphilo (licensed under CCA).


"Underground combats" are a little more difficult to explain (London is unlikely to have had many underground spaces in which such combats might take place), but I am reminded of the passage in Beowulf in which the eponymous hero enters an ancient burial mound to confront a dragon:

"Then the bold warrior stood up beside his shield, resolute beneath his helm. Wearing his grim mail he strode up to the stony cliffs, trusting in the strength of one man alone - such is no craven's feat! Then he who, with manly virtue, had passed through many a host of battles and a clash of war, when the ranks of men smote together, saw now at the mound's side a stone-arch standing from whence a stream came hurrying from the hill. The boiling water of that hill was hot with deadly fires; no man could long while endure unscorched that deep place nigh the hoard by reason of the dragon's flame .. " (translation by J.R.R. Tolkien).

The Anglo-Saxon helmet from Coppergate, York, 700-820 AD. Photo: York Museums Trust Online Collection (licensed under CCA).


No such mounds are to be found in the immediate vicinity of London, but might such fights have been staged around monuments such as Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire, or Coldrum long-barrow in Kent?

Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire. Photo: Msemmett (licensed under CCA).


Beowulf may, similarly, provide us with a clue as to the "combat" in water. As a young man, the hero had competed in swimming competitions, sometimes wearing armour. Members of the re-enactment society, Regia Anglorum, have tried this out, even swimming in mail-shirts: "The effect is to place your body in a more legs-down position in the water. This makes for tiresome swimming, and we found that the breast-stroke was the only really viable way to swim." Might such contests have been held in the Thames at slack water?

The running with spears at "all comers" may have provided an opportunity, using non-lethal weapons, for young men to test and prove their prowess, perhaps, in time, gaining admission to the Guild itself, on the death or retirement of older members.

Stow tells us that, in 1115, the descendants of these "knights" gifted the land to the Priory of Holy Trinity Within Aldgate. Among those named are some whose origins must surely have been Anglo-Saxon (Edward Hupcornehill, Blackstanus, Alwin, Wiso, the sons of Leafstanus the goldsmith); and others whose names are unambiguously Norman (Radulphus Fitalgod, Wilmarde le Deuereshe, Orgare le Prude, Hugh Fitzvulgar, Algare Secusme), presumably the descendants of the daughters of Anglo-Saxon "knights" who married Norman ones.

Within the ward is also a church dedicated to Saint Botolph, a Seventh Century East Anglian abbott. Whilst the present church dates to the Eighteenth Century, its origins are likely to be pre-conquest. It is one of four London churches dedicated to him, all of which stand (or stood) outside city gates on major route-ways (the others being St Botolph Billingsgate, St Botolph Aldersgate and St Botolph Bishopsgate). Saint Botolph was the patron saint of wayfarers and travelers, so these were churches at which outgoing travelers could pray for a safe journey, and incomers give thanks for one. One has to wonder whether these churches replaced earlier Pagan shrines to Janus, who played a similar role.

The Church of Saint Botolph, Aldgate. Photo: Superbfc (licensed under GNU).


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Wards of Old London: Langbourn & Candlewick - Falstaff's Eastcheap

We have now completed three journeys through the Roman and Medieval walled city of London: the first following the main east-west road, from Farringdon Ward Within to Aldgate Ward; the second following the course of the Thames, from Tower Street Ward to Castle Baynard Ward; and the third following the line of the city walls, from Aldersgate Ward Within to Broad Street Ward. Whilst these journeys have taken us through most of the intramural wards, there are two in the south-eastern quadrant of the city that we have missed out: Langbourn and Candlewick.

Langbourn and Candlewick Wards, 18th Century map, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).


Much of what the visitor sees in these two wards today has been shaped by the planners and builders of the Victorian era, although a notable exception is the tower of All Hallows Staining Church, which has survived from the early Fourteenth Century.

The Medieval tower of All Hallows Staining. Photo: John Armagh (image is in the Public Domain).


Some flavour of the Medieval character of this part of the city may be had from John Lydgate's poem, "London Lickpenny," which tells of a countryman who comes to London to settle a property dispute in the courts, but finds that he can get nowhere without the funds to pay lawyers and bribe judges. Walking the streets of the city, he is assailed by many temptations, none of which he can afford. Eventually, he is robbed of his hood, but lacks the money even to buy it back, when he finds it for sale, not far from where he lost it.

"Then unto London I did me hie,
Of all the land it beareth the prize,
'Hot peascods!' one began to cry,
'Strawberry ripe!' and 'Cherries in the rise!'
One bade me come near and buy some spice,
Pepper and saffron they gan me bede,
But for lack of money I might not speed ...

Then went I forth by London Stone,
Throughout all Can'wick Street.
Drapers much cloth me offered anon;
Then comes me one cried 'Hot sheep's feet!'
One cried 'Mackerel!' 'Rushes green!' another gan greet;
One bade me buy a hood to cover my head,
But for want of money I might not be sped.

Then I hied me into East Cheap;
One cries 'Ribs of beef!' and many a pie;
Pewter pots they clattered on a heap,
There was harp, pipe and minstrelsie.
'Yea, by cock!' 'Nay, by cock!' some began to cry;
Some sang of Jenkin and Julian for their meed,
But for lack of money, I might not speed."

Lydgate (c1370-1451) was a Benedictine monk, but his religious duties seem not to have constrained his literary output, which was greater than those of Chaucer and Shakespeare combined. Few critics today would place him in the same league as Chaucer or Shakespeare in terms of quality, but his patrons at the time included Henry V; Henry VI; and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. As a young man, he met Chaucer, and subsequently befriended his son, Thomas. Remarkably, a graffito by Lydgate survives at Saint Mary's Church at Lydgate, in Suffolk.

Graffito from St Mary's, Lydgate, reading "John Lydgate - made on this Day of Saint Simon and Saint Jude (image is in the Public Domain).


Eastcheap itself functioned as a meat market throughout the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has his characters, Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Mistress Quickly, carousing in The Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap. This was a real tavern, which certainly existed in Shakespeare's time, but may or may not have existed during the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V.

Eastcheap Market in 1598, Hugh Alley (image is in the Public Domain).
The Boar's Head Tavern in 1829, shortly before its demolition (image is in the Public Domain).
The Neo-Gothic building that stands on the site of the tavern today was built as a warehouse in 1868. Photo: BH2008 (licensed under GNU). 


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


Saturday, 6 August 2016

New Windows into Prehistoric Life: Thoughts on "Britain's Pompeii"

A programme recently broadcast by the BBC (and still available, to UK viewers, at least, on I-Player until the end of August), provides a timely update on one of the most exciting archaeological excavations to have taken place on these islands during my lifetime. "Britain's Pompeii - A Village Lost in Time" charts the progress of excavations at Must Farm, Cambridgeshire, where a farmstead of the Late Bronze Age (c1000-800 BC) is being unearthed. The four circular buildings, built on a platform jutting out over a river, burned down (or may have been torched by an enemy), and collapsed directly into the water, allowing for unprecedented preservation of wood, fabric, and other organic materials. Progress can be followed on the project website.

Excavations at Must Farm. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).
Excavations at Must Farm. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).
Excavations at Must Farm. Photo: Dr Colleen Morgan (licensed under CCA).


In my novel, Undreamed Shores, the character of Arthmael (based on a real archaeological skeleton known as "the Amesbury Archer"), living at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, explains to my protagonist, Amzai, how he met his wife, Alaudina (the mother of Amzai's prospective bride, Nanti), in the fenlands of East Anglia:

" ... there are marshes that stretch for miles, and the people live on eels and duck, and strange plants that grow in the water, like reeds. It's easier to get around by boat than on foot in that place. That's where Nanti was born."

Later Arthmael speaks of his own, far more distant, homeland (analysis of the Amesbury Archer's teeth has shown that he grew up in central Europe):

"Arthmael told of his homeland, of the village where he had been born. It was built on wooden poles, set on the edge of a great lake, with two high mountains rising behind it, their summits covered by snow, even in the summer."

The place I had in mind was Lake Constance in Germany, where such settlements have indeed been found.

Reconstruction of a Bronze Age "pile-dwelling" on the shores of Lake Constance, Germany. Photo: Traveler100 (licensed under GNU).


The settlement at Must Farm is the first true "pile-dwelling" found in Britain, built in much the same way as the settlements around Lake Constance, and elsewhere in Germany, Switzerland and eastern France, but with circular, rather than rectangular, houses. The people who built it lived at least 1400 years after the Amesbury Archer (they might, perhaps, have been the 56-times-great-grandchildren of Alaudina's sister), yet, remarkably, they seem to have been enmeshed in a network of international contacts and exchange that had endured since his time. Artefacts found at Must Farm suggest that this network extended not only into central, but also into southern Europe: they include glass beads which may have been made in northern Italy.

It will be some considerable time before Must Farm reveals all of its secrets: excavation, which is still ongoing, is just the first stage in the research process. It will take much longer to analyse the food residues found in pottery bowls; the human and animal faeces discovered behind the houses; the carpentry techniques used to build the platform, and the houses themselves; the fragments of woven textiles that are emerging from the mud even as I write this post.

Already, however, there are some hints, which are changing the way in which we understand this period in Britain's history. The characters in Undreamed Shores neither ride horses nor use wheeled transport: the people who lived at Must Farm almost certainly did both (a wooden wheel is one of the most significant discoveries announced to date). Arthmael and Nanti wear clothes of fur, leather, and woven wool: the people of Must Farm seem to have been using another important resource - linen, made from flax - the earliest evidence for this on the British Isles. This is a subject on which I will have more to say in a later post, not least because this is an industry with which I have a tangible, and much more recent, familial connection.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.




Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Wards of Old London: Broad Street - Thomas Cromwell and his Neighbours

Following the course of the northern wall of the Roman and Medieval city in an easterly direction, a visitor to London passes from Coleman Street Ward into Broad Street Ward. Throughout the Middle Ages, this quarter of London was dominated by "Austin Friars," an Augustinian priory established in the Thirteenth Century by Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, on his return from the Seventh Crusade. Like other religious orders, the Augustinians were international in focus, and the sixty friars resident here included Germans and Italians, as well as Englishmen, who took the confessions of their countrymen living in, or visiting London.

Plan of Austin Friars (Prioryman, licensed under GNU). A North Cloister; B Main Cloister; 1 Library; 2 Infirmary; 3 Kitchen; 4 Porter's Lodge; 5 Refectory; 6 Chapter House; 7 Guest Hall; 8 Dormitory; 9 Prior's House; 10 Church of Saint Peter the Poor.


Like the Franciscan priory in Farringdon Ward Within, Austin Friars was a significant centre of learning, preparing young men for study at Oxford and Cambridge, and had an important library. The priory garden produced medicinal herbs used by physicians around the city. Like many religious houses, also, Austin Friars had property to let out to secular tenants. One resident in the early Sixteenth Century was the Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, one of the first men to teach Greek in England since the collapse of Roman rule (he left without having paid his bill).

Thomas Cromwell and his young family seem to have taken up residence in one of the buildings on the site in the 1520s. The son of a Putney blacksmith, brewer and petty criminal, Cromwell had spent time as a mercenary and administrator in Italy, returning to establish a legal and political career, and with the means to set up home in a fourteen-room property with a garden. His close neighbours included Giovanni Cavalcante, a wealthy Italian merchant; and, from 1529, Eustace Chapuys, the Ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor in London.

Eustace Chapuys, Ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire in London from 1529 to 1545. Portrait at Annecy (image is in the Public Domain).


As Cromwell grew in power and influence in the 1530s, he developed his property into one of the grandest private houses in London, with more than fifty rooms, and a much larger garden. This, he did, not at the expense of wealthy neighbours, such as Cavalcante or Chapuys, but rather at the expense of poorer ones, including a tailor, the father of the Elizabethan chronicler, John Stow.

"This house being finished," Stow writes, "and having some reasonable plot of ground left for a garden, [Cromwell] caused the pales of the gardens adjoining to the north part thereof on a sudden to be taken down; twenty-two feet to be measured forth right into the north of every man's ground; a line there to be drawn, a foundation laid, and a high brick wall to be built. My father had a garden there, and a house standing close to his south pale; this house they loosed from the ground, and bare upon rollers into my father's garden twenty-two feet, ere my father heard thereof. No warning was given him, nor other answer, when he spoke to the surveyors of that work but that their master Sir Thomas commanded them to do so; no man durst go to argue the matter, but each man lost his land, and my father paid his whole rent, which was 6s. 6d. the year, for that half which was left. Thus much of mine own knowledge have I thought good to note, that the sudden rising of some men causeth them in some matters to forget themselves."

The Augustinian priory itself was dissolved, on Cromwell's orders, in 1538. Some of the most memorable scenes in Hilary Mantel's novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, are set in Cromwell's home at Austin Friars. Whilst the scenes at court are, in many cases, based on well-attested historical accounts, the domestic setting allows free-rein to Mantel's literary imagination, showing Cromwell, the private man, grieving the loss of his wife and daughters; and exploring his uneasy relationship with his neighbour and political opponent, Chapuys.

Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532 or 1533, Frick Collection (image is in the Public Domain).

Austin Friars in c1550, Copperplate Map (image is in the Public Domain). Cromwell's former home is at 3.


With Cromwell's fall from grace and execution in 1540, his former mansion became the livery hall of the Worshipful Company of Drapers (it subsequently burned down in the Great Fire of 1666). Most of the Augustinian priory had already been demolished, but the nave of the priory church was granted to London's community of "Germans and other foreigners," becoming, in effect, London's first non-conformist chapel. By 1570, the Dutch were the largest group of expatriates in London (5000 out of a total population of 100,000 - around half of them Protestant refugees from the Spanish Netherlands). The "Dutch Church," as it became known, remained in use until its destruction during the Second World War (the church that stands on the site today was built in the 1950s). Apart from street-names (Austin Friars, Throgmorton Street, Old Broad Street), there is little on the ground today that Cromwell, Chapuys or Stow would recognise.

The Dutch Church in 1820, by Edward Wedlake Brayley, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


Sunday, 24 July 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 43 - "Vanishing," by Gerard Woodward

The first half of the Twentieth Century, punctuated as it was by two world wars, saw the collapse of many of the moral and ideological certainties on which the Victorian world view had been based. Optimistic notions of inevitable social progress based on technological innovations were blown apart by conflicts in which those very inventions had been pressed into service as terrifying instruments of destruction. "Horseless carriages" had become tanks; aircraft that had once been the toys of rich men and women had evolved into bombers, raining death and destruction on civilian populations; even the notion of the production line that, in the hands of an industrialist, promised cheap manufactured goods for all, could, in a regime driven by hatred, become the machinery of genocide. Many looked back, with nostalgia, to the past (real or imagined), fearful of whatever new horrors a technology-driven future might have in store.

Nostalgia for simpler modes of production, dominated by people and animals, rather than by machines; by artisans rather than by factories; for a life lived "in harmony with nature" (if such had ever been, or could ever be, a reality); did not necessarily go hand in hand with a nostalgia for Victorian moral norms. The writings of Sigmund Freud, in particular, had changed forever the ways in which people thought about, and talked about, sex. The authorities might try to suppress books by D.H. Lawrence, Radcliffe Hall, even James Joyce, but the genie was well and truly out of the bottle: within bohemian communities in which discretion was assumed, men and women were engaging in sexual experimentation in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few decades earlier.

1927 gathering of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a movement that looked to an imagined ancient past for ways of living in harmony with nature, and with all nations. Photo: Kibbo Kift Foundation (reproduced with permission). 


If the ideology of "Progress" lay in ruins, however, its reality was no less powerful. If peaceful technologies could be adapted for the most destructive military purposes, then the technologies developed for warfare could just as easily be commercialised in peacetime. By 1946, bombers were being adapted as airliners, and top-secret air-bases were transformed into airports for passenger and freight transport.

The Avro Lancastrian (a bomber adapted as an airliner), "Star Dust" (the aircraft crashed in the Andes in 1947). Image is in the Public Domain.

A Lockheed Constellation, another Second World War bomber adapted as an airliner. Photo: RuthAS (licensed under CCA).


Gerard Woodward's novel, Vanishing, is narrated in the first person by Kenneth Brill, a fictional artist who, at the beginning of the story, is in prison, on trial for possible espionage. He has been making sketches and paintings of the Middlesex landscape in which he has grown up, but the growing presence, in that landscape, of the military air-base that will ultimately become Heathrow Airport, makes this a suspicious act.



Over the course of his interrogation, three interwoven narratives gradually unfold: that of his upbringing at Heathrow, and his ambiguous response to the transformation of this landscape; that of his training at the Slade School of Art, and initiation into the bohemian artistic circles of pre-war London; and that of his service as a camouflage expert in the campaign leading up to the Battle of El Alamein.

"He came into my cell this morning. No knock, no announcement, just the approaching beat of nailed boots on a concrete floor, the oiled fuss of several keys in several locks, then the door swinging open, and Davies entering with a casual, off-hand saunter that contrasted with the military stiffness of the armed guards who preceded him ... Our eyes met each other's and locked themselves in a stare for several seconds ... 'So tell me again why you were out there in these godforsaken fields. In my humble opinion as someone who has had no artistic training the landscape you were painting has no aesthetic value whatsoever ...' His provocative dismissal of the landscape of my childhood couldn't help but arouse a passion of indignation in me. 'Those godforsaken fields, as you call them, happen to be very important to me.'"

The construction of Heathrow, 1939-45. Photo: Imperial War Museum, non-commercial license CHI 8206.
The Fairey Hendon K1695 night-bomber, a secret prototype flown from Heathrow in 1930 (image is in the Public Domain).
Heathrow in 1948. Image: Ordnance Survey (licensed under CCA).


 "Quite a picture, I could now see, was beginning to emerge from Davies's preliminary investigations. Over the next few days, more details were gleaned ... 'At the Slade you were expelled because, among other things, you and your mentor Mr Somarco were running a brothel for students at Old Compton Street. At Berryman's School in Somerset, where you were art-master, you were dismissed after an act of immoral conduct ... you spent a spell as what you call artist-in-residence at Hillmead Manor, run by the self-acknowledged Fascist sympathiser Rufus Quayle, and your friend Mr Somarco, we believe, has or had strong links with the Hitler Youth Movement in Germany ...'"

Life-class at the Slade, by Peter K.C. Oliver (image is in the Public Domain).
The Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic, an "art colony" founded by Eric Gill at Ditchling, Sussex. Though not a Fascist sympathiser, Gill may have been part of the inspiration for Rufus Quayle. Photo: Pricejb (licensed under CCA)


" ... Learmouth came to his main point for visiting ... 'We're expected to be making a move against Rommel in the next few weeks, and I've managed to persuade the authorities that camouflage could be of some use ...' It was Somarco who came up with the solution. If we couldn't conceal the railhead, then we should construct  dummy railhead, closer to the front line, and even bigger than the real one. If we could construct something that could fool a pilot a few thousand feet up in the air, then it could lure the bombers away to let their bombs blush unseen on the desert air ... So sweet was Somarco's idea that in the darkness of a tamarind grove, later that evening, I let him kiss me."

A dummy tank being constructed in the Western Desert. Photo: Captain Gerald Leat - Imperial War Museum 205018330 (image is in the Public Domain).  
Operation Bertram: dummy vehicles & filling station constructed in 1942, by the British Middle East Directorate of Camouflage (image is in the Public Domain).


The novel is, on each of these levels, a story of ambiguities: personal and political; moral and sexual; public and private; and these ambiguities are played out against the background of the vanishing of established realities, and the gradual and uncertain emergence of new ones.  

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Wards of Old London: Coleman Street - Tragedies Forgotten and Remembered

Following the course of the northern wall of the Roman and Medieval city in an easterly direction, a visitor to London passes from Bassishaw Ward into Coleman Street Ward. It originally consisted, like Bassishaw, of a single street - Coleman Street - running from north to south (in this case connecting Gresham Street to Moorgate), together with side-streets to the east and west. Moorgate itself may originally have been a postern (an unobtrusive gate intended to allow for escape or counter-attack in the event of a siege), but became a true gate in the Fifteenth Century. Coleman Street Ward today extends to the north of the long-since demolished walls, to include Finsbury Square, laid out in 1812, and a public park since the early Twentieth Century.

Lying between two branches of the Wallbrook Stream, archaeological evidence suggests that this was an industrial quarter in Roman times, with tanneries, glass and metal-working. It has sometimes been claimed that Coleman Street owes its name to the presence, in Medieval times, of charcoal-burners, but the Elizabethan chronicler, John Stow, says nothing about this (he does mention the "loathsome noise" made by metal-workers), and has an altogether more straightforward explanation, referring to a certain Robert Coleman, who "may be supposed the first builder or owner of Coleman Street," and whose son, Reginald, was buried in Saint Margaret's Church in 1483. Charcoal production, presenting a very considerable fire-risk, is unlikely to have been permitted within the city.

The Medieval Jewry of London extended across parts of several wards to the north of Gresham Street, but its centre seems to have been here, as Stow relates:

"On the south side of this street [Lothburie], amongst the founders [bronze-casters], by some fair houses and large for merchants, namely, one that of old time was the Jews' synagogue, which was defaced by the citizens of London, after that they had slain seven hundred Jews, and spoiled the residue of their goods, in the year 1262, the 47th of Henry III. And not long after, in the year 1291, King Edward I banished the remnant of the Jews out of England ..."

The persecution of English Jews, from the 13th Century Rochester Chronicle, British Library - Cotton Nero D.II, Folio 183v (image is in the Public Domain).


Seven years previously, two hundred and two Jews had been brought forcibly from Lincoln to Westminster, where eighteen of them were hanged, accused of crucifying a Christian boy named Hugh, a blood-libel that was far from unique at the time. Of the subsequent expulsion of the Jews under Edward I, Stow remarks that:

"The number of Jews then expulsed were fifteen thousand and sixty persons. The king made a mighty mass of money of their houses, which he sold, and yet the Commons of England had granted and gave him a fifteenth of all their goods to banish them. And thus much for the Jews."

"Aaron, son of the Devil," - doodle from the margins of an English court transcript. Image: Griska (Public Domain).


The history of anti-Semitism in Medieval Britain and Europe is closely tied up with that of the crusades. There is little evidence of it before the launch of the First Crusade in 1095. Many of the priests who whipped up support for the crusades seem to have inveighed against all non-Christians, making no distinction between Muslims and Jews, just as today's Islamic hate-preachers attack Jews, Christians and secular Humanists alike. The future Edward I had himself taken part in the Eighth and Ninth Crusades (1270-1272) during his father's reign, sailing from England with around a thousand men, including 225 knights. Most Londoners, however, were tradesmen with families to support: crusading in the Mediterranean was not an option for them, and the slaughter of their own Jewish neighbours offered an all-too convenient alternative.

Nothing of London's Medieval synagogue survives today. Edward I granted it to an order of Mendicant friars, and, by Stow's time, it had become a private house. If it was still standing in 1666, it will have been destroyed in the Great Fire. To gain any idea of what it may have looked like, we must look beyond British shores, to the Czech Republic and Hungary.

The Medieval synagogue of Prague. Built in around 1270, this may be the World's oldest synagogue in continuous use. Photo: Paljan 84 (licensed under CCA).
The interior of Prague's Medieval synagogue. The workmanship suggests that it was probably built by the same stonemasons who built the city's Christian churches. Photo: Peco (licensed under GNU).
The Medieval synagogue of Sopron, Hungary. Photo: Zyance (licensed under GNU).
Torah scrolls in the Medieval synagogue of Sopron. Photo: Emmanuel Dyan (licensed under CCA).
The Medieval synagogue of Budapest. The building dates to 1364. The graffiti, however, are 17th Century, and relate to a period in which Hungarian Jews were subject to persecution. The inscription associated with the bow and arrow is from the Prayer of Hannah, in the book of Samuel: "The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength." That associated with the Star of David reads "The Lord shall bless you, and hold you." Photo: Budapest History Museum (licensed under CCA). 


Coleman Street Ward today includes Moorgate tube station, opened by the Metropolitan Railway in 1865. A disastrous crash occurred in 1975, in which forty-three people were killed and seventy-four were seriously injured. All of us who travel on the London Underground today do so more safely as a result of the new automated braking system introduced in the wake of this disaster. There are three memorial plaques to the victims of this dreadful accident: one on the platform, one on the outside wall of the station, and one in nearby Finsbury Square. There is no memorial for the seven hundred Jews butchered by their fellow Londoners on Coleman Street, and in the alleys leading off from it. Perhaps now is the time to put that right?  

The memorial on the platform of the Moorgate Underground Station. Photo: Andy Mabbett (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


Thursday, 7 July 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 42 - "Ignorance," by Michele Roberts

Throughout the First World War, France had succeeded in defending most of her national territory against the German aggressor. Fundamental to this success was the fortress of Verdun, the garrison of which withstood a prolonged and bloody siege, initially under Colonel Philippe Petain. The story of France during the Second World War could hardly have been more different. By 1939, the German armed forces, equipped with some of the best aircraft (notably the "Stuka" dive-bomber), and some of the best tanks of their day, was able to pursue an entirely new form of warfare - the Blitzkrieg.

France capitulated within months, and Petain, who had retired from the French army with the rank of Marshal, emerged as a political leader willing to do business with the victorious Nazis. France was divided between an Occupied Zone, including Paris, in the north, and a "Free Zone" in the south, centred on Vichy, with Petain as Head of State. Quisling and traitor, or patriotic pragmatist, Petain's reputation remains contested within France today. What is beyond doubt, historically, is that his regime voluntarily rounded up and imprisoned "undesirables," including Spanish Republicans who had escaped across the Pyrenees (many of whom were later handed over as slave-workers to the Nazis); Jews, Romanis, and homosexuals (almost all of whom ended up being transported to the extermination camps of Germany and eastern Europe).

French (Vichy) Police registering Jewish and other detainees at a camp at Pithiviers. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-S69238 (licensed under CCA).
German soldiers in France (near Rouen). Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 101l-494-3383-06A (licensed under CCA).


Blockaded by the Allied navies, and with more than half of France's agricultural production requisitioned to feed the occupying troops, the civilian population suffered terribly. Rations were set at starvation levels - fewer than 1300 calories per day. Those who could afford to supplemented this with purchases on the black market. Many women resorted to prostitution, an occupation that received a boost when, in November 1942, abandoning any pretence of Vichy "independence," German troops extended their occupation into the "Southern Zone."

French civilians in occupied France. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 101l-494-3383-06A (licensed under CCA).
German soldiers with Resistance captives, July 1944. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-J27289 (licensed under CCA).


Michele Roberts's novel, Ignorance, is set between two provincial towns in rural France, Sainte Madeleine and Sainte-Marie-du-Ciel (both of them apparently fictional). The two main protagonists are both young women, educated in the local convent school: Marie-Angele is the daughter of a prosperous local grocer; Jeanne, the daughter of a poor mother, who has converted from Judaism to Catholicism.


A French convent school. Photo: City Archives of Toulouse (image is in the Public Domain).


Growing up in a deeply conservative, Catholic community, in which the Jewish minority had faced persecution even before the outbreak of war: both are ignorant of the political realities that have given rise to it; but also of sexuality; and of the economic rules that apply when law and civil society have broken down. Each must negotiate her way through a new and alien world, in which all moral and religious certainties have broken down: in which nobody knows who is to be trusted. Who is a protector of refugees, a hero of the Resistance; and who is a racketeer, an exploiter of human misery? It is a story that reflects the realities of occupied France (and would almost certainly have reflected the reality of an occupied Britain, if such had ever come to pass): one with few heroes and many victims.

A German-authorised driving permit from occupied France. Photo: Classiccardinal (licensed under CCA).
French ration tickets of the Second World War. Photo: Daniel*D (licensed under GNU).
A food queue at a bakery (this is actually a post-war image, from liberated Paris). Photo: Imperial War Museum, D24161 (image is in the Public Domain).


"Monsieur Fauchon, the cobbler, kept his door propped open winter and summer ... his chin jerked up as I went by. A thin man, with a long face, big dark eyes and a beard, like someone in the Bible. He was a Jew, like my mother had been before she converted and got baptised. Maman had told me the tale of Madame Baudry clasping her hand: I'll be your sponsor! She gripped her too tightly. Maman yelped in pain, which Madame Baudry took for delight."

Jewish women in occupied France (the yellow star badges were required by the German authorities in the north, and by Vichy administrators in the south). Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-N0619-506 (licensed under CCA).


"War fell out of the sky. Planes nosedived, dropping bombs. The local bakery blew up, rose in the air, collapsed. The baker and his wife and their two children vanished under a pyramid of beams and rubble. Hauled out by local men, the bodies were placed in the cobbler's shop along the street. Monsieur Fauchon was away fighting but his wife opened the door and took in the dead family. Maman was distressed: they should have been put in a Christian house. She and I dodged in, with other neighbours, to say a decade of the rosary. Waxy yellow faces; like shells ... The prayers made the corpses seem less frightening."

German JU-88 "Stuka" dive-bomber (image is in the Public Domain).


"Mid-June, in one way, was just like midsummer in other years. In the countryside all round the town the peasants got on with the haymaking, the cuckoo called from the woods. In another way, everything had changed: I had grown up. Maurice and I drove into Ste-Madeleine on business ... I spotted Jeanne in the bar, sitting in the far corner, with a German ... She'd painted her mouth dark red and rouged her cheeks. I pretended not to see her. My stomach burned with brandy but also with scorn. The make-up made her look so common ... Maurice said: my dear Marie-Angele, you don't know girls like that. They're nothing to do with you."

German soldiers swapping clothing with French mistresses or prostitutes (image is in the Public Domain).
Post-war retribution - women accused of collaboration humiliated in the streets. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 146-1971-041-10 (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. From the 7th to the 10th of July only, e-book editions of these, and other Crooked Cat books, are available at the reduced price of 99p/99c.