Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Wards of Old London: Cordwainer Street - Shoemakers, and a Church of Many Stories

Immediately to the east of Bread Street Ward lies Cordwainer Street Ward, so-named for the cordwainers who worked here throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Cordwainers were workers in leather and, more specifically, makers of shoes and boots from new leather (thus distinguishing them from cobblers, who repaired used shoes, or made new ones from recycled leather). The finest shoes of all were made from white goat-skin leather imported from Cordoba in Spain, and the word "cordwainer" is derived from "Cordovan," although the cordwainers of London are likely to have worked both with this luxury material and with cheaper leather produced within England.

A modern cordwainer at work on the island of Capri. Photo: Jorge Royar (licensed under CCA).

This particular quarter of London was designated for the use of cordwainers by a statute of Henry VI in 1431. At various times during the Middle Ages, fashions in footwear seem to have got out of hand, and orders were sent out by monarchs, charging the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers to restrict the length of the "pikes" on the shoes being made and sold.

A Medieval shoe with a prominent "pike" (pointed toe). Photo: Marieke Kuijjer (licensed under CCA).

Shoe-making in London began to decline during the English Civil War (or the War of the Three Kingdoms, depending on one's point of view), when Oliver Cromwell placed a bulk order with shoe-makers in Northampton, for shoes and boots to equip the New Model Army. With more physical space for expansion, and easy access to raw materials (Northamptonshire had been a centre of the leather industry since Roman times), the shoe-makers of Northampton flourished at the expense of the London cordwainers.

There were, at the time of John Stow's Survey of London (1598), seven ecclesiastical parishes within the ward, but only two churches survive. Both have their origins in Saxon times, but both were remodelled in the Middle Ages, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, and damaged in the Blitz. Saint Mary Aldermary, where Geoffrey Chaucer's father, Richard (a wine-merchant), lies buried, is one of the few churches that Wren chose to rebuild in a Gothic, rather than a Neo-Classical style, and is thus one of the very earliest expressions of an architectural tradition that reached its height with Barry and Pugin's Palace of Westminster.

The church of Saint Mary Aldermary. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

The more famous church, however, is Saint Mary-le-Bow, the bells of which can apparently be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes (traditionally, Londoners can only consider themselves "Cockneys" if they were born within hearing distance of them). The bells were used, at various times, to give notice of a curfew within the city, after which the gates would be closed.

The church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, as designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

John Stow has more stories to tell about Saint Mary-le-Bow than about any other London church. Here are just a couple of them:

"First, we read that, in the year 1090 ... by tempest of wind, the roof of the church was overturned, wherewith some persons were slain, and four of the rafters, of twenty-six feet in length, with such violence were pitched in the ground of the high street, that scantly four feet of them remained above ground, which they fain to be cut even with the ground, because they could not be plucked out, for the city of London was not then paved, and a marish ground."

The church of Saint-Mary-le-Bow, as it appears on the Agas Map of 1561. Image: Stephencdickson (licensed under CCA).

"In the year 1196, William Fitz Osbert, a seditious tailor, took the steeple of Bow, and fortified it with munitions and victuals, but it was assaulted, and William, with his accomplices were taken, though not without bloodshed, for he was forced by fire and smoke to forsake the church; and then, by the judges condemned, he was by the heels drawn to the Elms of Smithfield, and there hanged with nine of his fellows; where, because his favourers came not to deliver him, he forsook 'Mary's son,' as he termed Christ our Saviour, and called upon the Devil to help and deliver him. Such was the end of this deceiver, a man of evil life, a secret murderer, a filthy fornicator, a polluter of concubines, and, among his other detestable facts, a false accuser of his elder brother, who had in his youth brought him up in learning, and done many things for his preferment."

The crypt of Saint-Mary-le-Bow, where some of the Medieval masonry is preserved. Photo: John Salmon (licensed under CCA).

The interior of Saint Mary-le-Bowe, as designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Photo: David Iliff (License CC-BY-SA3.0).

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.


  1. There is always such interesting research on your blog. I love reading you posts. I don't read every single one because of time constraints, but when I do, I always learn a lot.

  2. Fascinating stuff. Sir Chris may share my name, but unfortunately, as far as I can tell, we are not related!

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