Thursday 23 November 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 4 - "Now is the Time," by Melvyn Bragg

The Black Death, which swept through Europe between 1346 and 1353, was one of the most devastating epidemics in human history, killing between 30% and 60% of the continent's population. In crowded cities, such as London, the figure may well have been higher. The shortage of labour pushed wages up, both in the cities and in the countryside, and the attempts of governments, including that of King Edward III in England, to use legislation to keep wages low, and keep peasants tied to the land, unsurprisingly failed (unsurprising, that is, for anyone who has a modern understanding of economics). Of those who survived, many did well, taking over land that had belonged to their dead relatives (and, sometimes, land that had belonged to other people's dead relatives). Families in the countryside sent their sons to the cities, apprenticing them into trades that their own parents could never have afforded for them. The children of peasants became City goldsmiths and vintners: some of their grandchildren would become university-trained lawyers, working in the City whilst their wives managed their estates. 

When the young Richard II succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, as King, he inherited a kingdom in economic turmoil. Decades of war with France, brought to an abrupt curtailment by the pestilence that had scythed down thousands of fighting men on both sides, had left, in their wake, a mountain of debts. Richard's government responded by imposing poll taxes: four pence for everyone over fourteen years of age in 1377; three pence for everyone over the age of sixteen in 1379; an average of twelve pence per person in 1381, supposedly linked to the individual's ability to pay, but this qualification was often ignored. When high-handed royal officials attempted to collect the taxes by force, they met resistance, not, for the most part, from "peasants," but from literate community leaders and small-scale landowners, men cut from the same mould as Geoffrey Chaucer's Reeve and Franklin.

The "Peasants' Revolt" of 1381 is thus miss-named: its leaders were not peasants (even if their grandparents had been) but yeomen and artisans. The men of Kent, led by Walter ("Wat") Tyler (who probably was a tiler by trade), and the men of Essex, led by the priest, John Ball, converged at Rochester, and marched on London in June of that year, determined to gain redress from the King. They seem to have had at least some support from Londoners, who joined them in burning the palaces of the King's hated advisers. Xenophobia also played its part, the homes and workshops of Flemish weavers targeted by London apprentices.

The meeting of John Ball (mounted, at right) and Wat Tyler (in red, at left) at Rochester, from the Chroniques of John Froissart, 1470, British Library Royal MS 18E I f165 v (image is in the Public Domain).

Melvyn Bragg's novel, Now is the Time, follows the course of the revolt as the rebels march towards, and into London, and afterwards, as they are hunted down, and their leaders executed. It is a novel of multiple viewpoints, including those of Tyler and Ball, and that of the King's mother, Princess Joan.

"After Tyler and the men had gone to the Thames, John Ball stood on a mound sufficiently high above the crowd ... The priest's stillness brought a responding quiet among the massed congregation. The spot was some distance from the Corpus Christi Fair, which had begun in innocent gaiety as if nothing at all unusual was happening, He began: 'When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?' His words sang across the heath, reaching many of the gathered multitude. It was a couplet he had used before, a simple couplet easily remembered, Inside its simplicity was the promise of a new life. In those few words his congregation were back with the firstborn of God, in the Garden of Eden ... In their rebel state of hope, apprehension, hunger, longing and frustration, they were ready to be captured by the spell of this man. Then the words, repeated with all his strength, rang like the peals of a bell and they were taken up and chanted back to him by the eager thousands ... "

Richard II addressing a deputation of the rebels from a ship at Greenwich on 12th June, 1381, from the Chroniques of Jean Froissart, 1401-1500, Bibliotheque Nationale de France (image is in the Public Domain). 

"Tyler looked over to the city, smitten by its grandeur. It shimmered in the heat of the June day, he thought. It glowed, like, he imagined, the Holy City of Jerusalem. Such a Tower, so many steeples, such a number of boats on the snaking Thames, and the bridge across it crammed with workshops, merchants, taverns, butchers, bakeries ... Walter Tyler had told the rebels, 'This will be ours.' And John Ball, unmoved by the romance of the place that had captivated Tyler, had said, 'There is the city of all wickedness, which must be brought down."

The Chapel of the White Tower, where Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer, two of Richard II's most detested advisers, were seized by the rebels on 14th June, 1381, and led to execution. Photo: Crux (licensed under CCA).

"Late on that hot June afternoon, on Corpus Christi Day, the Savoy Palace was to be erased. Fire and the axe were the chief weapons. Some of the rebels, once over the bridge, fed and plied with unaccustomed wine - peeled off down Fleet Street. They broke open the Fleet Prison. By now some of the most vicious gangs in London, those who had just escaped hanging, were reassembling and they saw heaven in the anarchy on the streets. Man of the people of London who were on the side of the rebellion had scores to settle and now was the time. Moneylenders could be threatened, grievances addressed, bad neighbours attacked. Robbery could seem like sympathy with the rebellion. The law began to crumble."

The meeting of Richard II with the rebels at Smithfield, on 15th June, 1381. On the left, the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth slays Wat Tyler. On the right, the King leads the rebels towards Clerkenwell Priory, allowing Walworth to secure the gates of the City of London. British Library, Royal MS 18E i-ii, f.175 (image is in the Public Domain).

Saint John's Gate, Clerkenwell Priory, 1880. Photo: Henry Dixon, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

The rebellion was suppressed, its leaders executed. Peasants, the King insisted, would remain peasants. Yet no more poll taxes were levied, and, for all the words of the King and his advisers, the age of Feudalism was over. The "True Commons of England," in whose name the rebellion had been undertaken, were coming into their own, whether in the City, the market towns, or the countryside.

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

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: (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.