Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: An Interlude

As the Roman administration of Britain collapsed, during the course of the Fifth Century AD, London was progressively abandoned. Urban life becomes impossible in a land without reliable infrastructure: some Londoners probably took refuge on the continent, still, at least nominally, under Roman rule; others melted away into the countryside, where they could, at least, produce their own food, and where they were less obvious targets for increasing numbers of Saxon pirates.

The Pagan Saxons from northern Germany, who had, at first, come to Britain as mercenaries, and then as raiders, now came as settlers, but the walled city of Londinium, with its high wharves, had little interest for them. They established their city, Lundenwic, to the west, in the area that is now Covent Garden, running parallel with what we call "The Strand," then literally a strand (or beach), on which they could haul up their shallow-draft open ships, with their cargoes of Baltic amber; Russian furs; and Irish & Scottish slaves.

Earl Medieval brooch (650-670 AD), found with a woman's burial at Covent Garden. PAS/British Museum ID 257458 (licensed under CCA).


In the Ninth Century, new Pagan raiders, the Vikings, began attacking the now Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. During the winter of 871 AD, they camped within the ruins of the old Roman city, fortifying it against the possibility of an Anglo-Saxon counter-attack. Having expelled the invaders, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, took the decision to resettle the walled city, beginning in its south-western corner. Lundenwic was abandoned, and Lundenburh was born.


London Wall outside the Museum of London. Photo: www.mikepeel.net (licensed under CCA).


In the decades and centuries following the Norman invasion of 1066, the military and spiritual defences of the city were developed and enhanced. William the Conqueror built the White Tower, the first element of the Tower of London, in the city's south-eastern corner; he licensed his knights to build other fortifications, Chastel Baynard and Montfiquet Tower, to the west; and he began the construction of Saint Paul's Cathedral. Within a few centuries, these constructions were joined by around a hundred parish churches (many of them tiny, but built in stone, unlike most of the houses, which were of wood and thatch), and dozens of monasteries and priories.

The White Tower. Photo: IncMan (licensed under CCA).

The Norman St Paul's Cathedral digital reconstruction based on a model of 1908. Photo: Bob Castle (licensed under CCA).

The Medieval London Bridge, as depicted by Claus Visscher in 1616 (image is in the Public Domain).


Perhaps surprisingly, I struggled to find novels to reflect this period of almost a thousand years in London's emergence as a city and port. There are, doubtless, plenty of novels set in this period, in which at least some of the action happens to take place in London (if only because many of the leading royal and religious figures of the time spent much of their time here): but, for this series, I was seeking something more than this; novels in which the city itself is, at least to some extent, a character in its own right. If such novels exist for this period, I have not read them.

I therefore return to the first novel that I explored here, Edward Rutherfurd's "London," who covers the period in a series of interlinked stories: "The Rood" (604 AD); "The Conqueror" (1066); "The Tower" (1078-97); "The Saint" (1170-72); "The Mayor" (1189-1224); and "The Whorehouse" (1295); in all of which fictional characters mingle and interact with historical figures of the time.



The Rood.

"Above the wooden jetty, a small group of buildings included a barn, a cattle-pen, two storehouses, and the homestead of Cerdic and his household, surrounded by a stout wattle fence. All these buildings, large or small, were single-storey and mostly rectangular. Their walls, made of post and plank, were low, only four or five feet high, and strengthened on the outside by a sloping earth bank, turfed over. Their steep thatched roofs, however, rose to a height of nearly twenty feet ... The floor of Cerdic's hall was slightly sunken, so that one stepped down onto the wooden floorboards covered in rushes. The space inside was warm and commodious but rather dark, since when the door was shut the only light came from the vents in the thatch, made to let out the smoke from the fire in the stone hearth near the centre of the floor. Here the entire household gathered to eat."

The Tower.

"The two men sat facing each other across a table. For a while neither of them spoke as they considered their dangerous work, though either could have said, 'If we get caught, they'll kill us.' It was Barnikel who had called he meeting in his house by the little church of All Hallows, which now overlooked the rising Tower, and he had done so for a simple reason. For the first time in the ten years of their criminal activities, he had jut confessed: 'I'm worried.' And he had outlined his problem. To which Alfred had just offered a solution. When Alfred the armourer looked back, it often amazed him how easily he had been drawn into the business ... It had all started ten years ago, the summer that Barnikel's wife had suddenly died. All Barnikel's family and friends had rallied round, taking turns to keep him company. His children had encouraged the young apprentice to go too. Then, one evening, just as he was leaving, the Dane had put his huge arm around Alfred's shoulders and muttered into his ear: 'Would you like to do a little job for me? It could be dangerous.'"

The Mayor.

"A long-nosed man on a piebald palfrey was leading an elegantly mounted lady and two packhorses over the quiet waters of the Thames and into the city of London. The man was Pentecost Silversleeves. The lady was Ida, the widow of a knight, and despite herself she had just started to weep ... As she looked at the city before her, it seemed to Ida that the world had turned to stone. The great walled enclosure of London seemed like a vast prison. On the left she could see the thickset stone fort by Ludgate. On the right, down by the waterside, the grey, square mass of the Tower, surly even in repose. All stone. Over the two low hills of London covered by houses loomed the dark, high, narrow line of Norman St Paul's, dreary and forbidding ... as the horses' hooves clip-clopped softly on the wooden bridge in the morning quiet, the sound of a striking bell came over the water with a solemn, sullen sound, as though it, too, were made of stone, to summon stony hearts to stony prayer."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Streets of Old Lambeth: Memories of the Festival of Britain

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Lambeth, and having arrived at Waterloo Station, can exit via the Victory Gate, crossing the busy York Road to the South Bank Centre, an arts complex that today includes the Royal Festival Hall; the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room; and the Hayward Gallery (the National Theatre and National Film Theatre are not, technically, part of the centre, but are in close proximity, and broadly share its modernist, concrete architecture).

The land between Waterloo Station and the River Thames had been an industrial area up to the time of the Second World War, when it was badly damaged by bombing (Waterloo Bridge itself was damaged, and had to be hastily repaired, some have claimed by a largely female workforce, although historians have found this difficult to verify).

The Festival of Britain was conceived by the Labour Government, elected in the aftermath of the war, as "one united act of national reassessment, and one corporate affirmation of faith in the nation's future." The previous and future Conservative Prime Minster, Winston Churchill, saw it as "three-dimensional Socialist propaganda," although strenuous efforts had, in fact, been made to avoid the politicisation of the exhibitions. Perhaps Churchill, who was determined to preserve the integrity of the British Empire, objected to its exclusive focus on the contribution of the islands of Britain themselves to science, technology, design, architecture, and the arts (taking place over the summer of 1951, it consciously looked back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, but lacked its international focus).

The Festival of Britain South Bank site, as viewed from the north bank of the Thames. Photo: Peter Benton (licensed under CCA).

The Festival emblem, designed by Abram Games (reproduced under Fair Usage Protocols).


The festival site on the South Bank received 8.5 million visitors (from a UK population of 49 million at the time). Not everybody was able to visit (my late mother recalled that, although her school in Sussex organised a visit, parents had to pay for their children's admission, which hers could not afford), but many who could not do so participated in linked events held around the country. There were few foreign visitors: a bomb-shattered London was, as yet, in no condition to receive large numbers of tourists. Two short video clips of the festival can be seen here and here.

Visitors sitting outside the "Dome of Discovery" in 1951. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

The Skylon was a sculpture, 300 feet (90 metres) high. It was demolished when the festival ended. Photo: Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). 


The Royal Festival Hall is the most tangible remnant of the festival: built on the site of the former Lion brewery, its foundation stone was laid by the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. Its inaugural concerts were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult. It continues to host prestigious concerts and literary events, but also remains one of London's most authentically democratic cultural spaces, accessible to everyone, with food and drink to suit all budgets, and plenty of room in which informal meetings of book groups and discussion circles can take place, and students can work together on projects.

The South Bank Centre today, with the Royal Festival Hall to the left of the Hungerford Bridge. Photo: Opringle (image is in the Public Domain).

Fountains outside the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Sandpiper (image is in the Public Domain). 


Other buildings, including the "Dome of Discovery," were demolished when the festival ended, but the "Telekina" became the National Film Theatre, and the area has been a cultural quarter ever since, subsequently expanded to include Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe to the east. Architecturally, the festival had pointed towards the ways in which a wrecked city could be rebuilt relatively swiftly and cheaply, sing modern materials.

An indirect legacy of the festival is the Thames Path, conceived in 1948, but not actually opened until 1996: it now extends over 184 miles (296 kilometres), from the Thames Barrier in the east to the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire. It is to the west, along this path, that we will take our next steps in exploring the Borough of Lambeth.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: November

For the people of the Middle Ages, November was the last month of "ordinary time," in which the affairs of the secular world were allowed to take precedence over spiritual concerns. Advent, a time of fasting and penitence, was approaching; a period during which blood ought not to be shed. November was, therefore, the month in which animals, especially pigs, were fattened (often on acorns, as they still are in some parts of Iberia) and slaughtered; the meat salted and smoked; products such as sausages, salami, pate, and black and white puddings made. These were skilled tasks, in many cases performed by women, and getting them right could, over the course of a harsh winter, make the difference between plenty and hardship, or even starvation. Fish, too, was salted, smoked, and pickled: together with cheese, it would be the staple diet throughout Advent, with its religious restrictions on the consumption of meat.

November, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1485-6; Musee Conde, MS 65, F.11 v (image is in the Public Domain). The swineherd uses a stick to bring acorns down from the trees, in order to fatten the pigs.

Pigs in an oak wood in November, Strasbourg,c 1580 (image is in the Public Domain).

The slaughter of a pig (image is in the Public Domain).

The butchery of a pig (image is in the Public Domain).


There were also, in many cases, non-food crops to be processed: retted flax to be "swingled" (beaten with wooden paddles, to separate the fibres used to produce linen from the waste products of the crop; coppices (for the production of basketry, fencing, bows and arrows), maintained.

The swingling of retted flax (image is in the Public Domain).


With these tasks completed, and firewood gathered in, a Medieval community was ready to face the rigours of winter.

Calendar page for November, Morgan Library & Museum, M618, Fol.6r (image is in the Public Domain).

November and Sagittarius (image is in the Public Domain).


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.