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Walter Besant

Walter Besant

Walter Besant



In the following chapters it has been my endeavor to present pictures of the City of London – instantaneous photographs, showing the streets, the buildings, and the citizens at work and at play. Above all, the citizens: with their daily life in the streets, in the shops, in the churches, and in the houses; the merchant in the quays and on 'Change; the shopkeeper of Cheapside; the priests and the monks and the friars; the shouting of those who sell; the laughter and singing of those who feast and drink; the ringing of the bells; the dragging of the criminal to the pillory; the Riding of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen; the river with its boats and barges; the cheerful sound of pipe and tabor; the stage with its tumblers and its rope-dancers; the 'prentices with their clubs; the evening dance in the streets. I want my pictures to show all these things. The history of London has been undertaken by many writers; the presentment of the city and the people from age to age has never yet, I believe, been attempted.

The sources whence one derives the materials for such an attempt are, in the earlier stages, perfectly well known and accessible to all. Chaucer, Froissart, Lydgate, certain volumes of the "Early English Text Society," occur to everybody. But the richest mine, for him who digs after the daily life of the London citizen during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is certainly Riley's great book of Extracts from the City Records. If there is any life or any reality in the three chapters of this book which treat of the Plantagenet period, it is certainly due to Riley.

As regards the Tudor period, the wealth of illustration is astonishing. One might as well be writing of the city life of this day, so copious are the materials. But it is not to Shakespeare and the dramatists that we must look for the details so much as to the minor writers, the moralists and satirists, of whom the ordinary world knows nothing.

The reign of Charles II. directs one to the Plague and to the Fire. I was fortunate in finding two tracts, one dealing with the plague of 1603, and the other with that of 1625. These, though they are earlier than Charles II., were invaluable, as illustrating the effect of the pestilence in causing an exodus of all who could get away, which took place as much in these earlier years as in 1666. Contemporary tracts on the state of London after the Fire, also happily discovered, proved useful. And when the Plague and the Fire had been dismissed, another extraordinary piece of good fortune put me in possession of certain household accounts which enabled me to present a bourgeois family of the period at home.

Where there is so much to speak about, one must exercise care in selection. I have endeavored to avoid as much as possible those points which have already been presented. For instance, the growth of the municipality, the rise of the Guilds and the Companies, the laws of London, the relations of the City to the Sovereign and the State – these things belong to the continuous historian, not to him who draws a picture of a given time. In the latter case it is the effect of law, not its growth, which is important. Thus I have spoken of the pilgrimizing in the time of Henry II.; of the Mysteries of that time; things that belonged to the daily life; rather than to matters of policy, the stubborn tenacity of the City, or the changes that were coming over the conditions of existence and of trade. Again, in Plantagenet London one might have dwelt at length upon the action taken by London in successive civil wars. That, again, belongs to the historian. I have contented myself with sketching the churches and the monasteries, the palaces and the men-at-arms, the merchants and the workmen.

Again, in the time of George II., the increase of trade, which then advanced by leaps and bounds, the widening of the world to London enterprise, the part which London took in the conquest of India and the ejection of France from North America belong to history. For my own part I have preferred to show the position, the influence, and the work of the Church at a time generally believed to be the deadest period in the whole history of the Church of England. This done, I have gone on to illustrate the day-by-day life of the citizens, with the prices of things, the management, and the appearance of the City.

One thing remains to be said. Mr. Loftie, in his History of London (Stadford), first gave the world a reconstruction of the ground – the terrain – of London and its environs before ever a house was erected or an acre cleared. The first chapter of this book – that on Roman London and After – is chiefly due to a study of this map, and to realizing what that map means when applied to the scanty records of Augusta. This map enabled me to recover the years which followed the retreat of the Romans. I cannot allow this chapter to be called a Theory. It is, I venture to claim for it, nothing less than a Recovery.

    United University Club:



The only real authorities for the events which took place in Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries are Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are other writers – Ethelwerd, for instance, who copied the Chronicle, and adds nothing; and Nennius, whose work, edited by one Mark the Hermit in the tenth century, was found in the Vatican. The first edition was published in London in the year 1819, in the original Latin, by the Rev. William Gunn. Nennius gives a brief account of King Arthur and his exploits, but he affords little or no information that is of use to us. The work of Richard of Cirencester is extremely valuable on account of its topography; it is also interesting as the work of the first English antiquary. But he belonged to the fourteenth century, and has added nothing to the history, of which he knew no more – less, indeed – than we ourselves can discover. The book named after Geoffrey of Monmouth is not worth a moment's serious consideration. In Bede's Ecclesiastical History passages may be found which throw side lights on this period, but they are few.

Gildas, called Badonicus, is supposed to have been born in or about the year 520, in Wales. A great mass of legend has collected about the name of Gildas. He was the son of a British kinglet; his three-and-twenty brothers fought under King Arthur. He himself preached, taught, and in the matter of miracles was greatly blessed. He wrote – if he did write – about the year 560, and is therefore contemporary with the events of which he speaks. His book contains a vast quantity of rhetoric to a very small amount of history. Unfortunately for him, he was called by his admiring fellow-monks, in his lifetime, Sapiens – the Wise. Perhaps, in order to live up to this designation, he was fain to assume the garb and language of a prophet, and, with what he thought prophetic force, which we now perceive to be ecclesiastical inflation, he proceeded to admonish princes and people of their sins. Every age, to the ecclesiastical prophet as to the secular satirist, is an age of unbounded profligacy; of vice such as the world has never before witnessed; of luxury advanced to heights hitherto untrodden; of license, wantonness, riot unbridled and unparalleled, insomuch that the city of Jerusalem, even when under the soft influences of Ahola and Aholibah, were really righteous and pure in comparison. No doubt Gildas lived in a most trying and most disappointing time. Things went wrong, and things went steadily from bad to worse. His people were defeated and driven continually westward; they could not even hold together and fight side by side against the common enemy; religion was forgotten in the fierce struggles for life, and in the fiercer civil dissensions. As for the enemy, Saxon, Angle, or Jute, all were alike, in that none had the least reverence for priest or for Church; everywhere fighting, defeat, and massacre. Yet one cannot but think that a lower note might have been struck with greater advantage; and now that it is impossible to learn how far the prophet's admonitions brought repentance to his kings, one regrets that a simple statement of the events in chronological order as they occurred was not thought useful or desirable in a historical work. Would you hear how the Sapient addresses kings? Listen. He is admonishing for his good the King of North Wales – Cuneglass by name:

"Thou, too, Cuneglass, why art thou fallen into the filth of thy former naughtiness? Yea, since the first spring of thy tender youth, thou Bear, thou Rider and Ruler of many and Guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the Bear, thou Contemner of God and Vilifier of his order! Thou tawny Butcher! Why, besides thine other innumerable backslidings, having thrown out of doors thy wife, dost thou, against the apostle's express prohibition, esteem her detestable sister, who has vowed unto God everlasting continency, as the very flower of the celestial nymphs?"

In similar gentle strains he approaches, and delicately touches upon, the sins of other kings.

This kind of language is difficult to sustain, and sometimes leads to contradictions. Thus, in one sentence, the Sapient speaks of his countrymen as wholly ignorant of the art of war, and in another he tells how the flower of the British youth went off to fight for Maximus.

As regards the alleged luxury of the time, this poor monk wrote from a dismal cell, very likely of wattle and daub, certainly draughty and cold; his food was poor and scanty; his bed was hard; life to him was a long endurance. The roasted meats, the soft pillows and cushions, the heated rooms of the better sort, seemed to him detestable and wicked luxury, especially when he thought of the Saxons and Jutes overrunning the ruined country. Of course, in every age the wealthy will surround themselves with whatever comforts can be procured. We are in these days, for instance, advanced to what our ancestors would have called an inconceivable height of luxury. One would like to invite the luxurious Cuneglass to spend a day or two with a young man of the present day. Those who were neither rich nor free lived hardly, as they do to this day, but more hardly; those who were young and strong, even though they were not perhaps trained to the use of arms, easily learned how to use them, and when it came to victory or death, they soon recovered the old British spirit. This is not the place, otherwise it would be interesting to show what a long and gallant stand was made by these people whom it is customary to call cowardly and luxurious – these ancestors of the gallant Welsh.[1 - See The Two Lost Centuries of Britain, by W. H. Babcock. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1890; an excellent little work on this subject.] It is manifest that a period of two hundred years and more of peace, almost profound, their frontiers and their coasts guarded for them by the legions of Rome, must have lowered the British spirit. But the people quickly recovered it. The Arthurian epic, it is certain, has plenty of foundation in fact, and perhaps poor King Cuneglass himself, the Bear and Butcher, wielded a valiant sword in spite of his family troubles. The Britons were, it is quite certain, prone to internal dissensions, which greatly assisted their defeat and conquest. But they had one bond of union. Their enemies were pagan; they were Christian. Gildas addresses a nation of Christians, not a church planted among idolaters. Christian symbols and emblems have been found everywhere on the site of Roman towns, not, it is true, in large quantities, but they are found; while, though altars have also been found, and pagan emblems and statuettes of gods, there are no ruins anywhere in Britain, except at Bath, of Roman temples. Their faith, like the Catholicism of the Irish, was their national symbol. It separated them broadly from their enemies; it gave them contempt for barbarians. The faith therefore flourished with great strength and vigor. But the popular Christianity seems to have been in Britannia, as everywhere, a very mixed kind of creed. As in Southern Italy among the peasants there linger to this day traditions, customs, and superstitions of paganism which the people call the Old Faith, so in Britain there lingered among the people ceremonies and beliefs which the Church vainly tried to suppress, or craftily changed into Christian observances. Such things linger still in Wales, though the traveller regards them not. In the same way the folk-lore of our own time in our own villages is still largely composed of the beliefs and superstitions inherited from our old English – not British – ancestors. What happens is always the same, and must be the same. In times of religious revolution the common folk change the name of their God, but not his nature or his attributes. Apollo becomes the Christ, but in the minds of the Italian peasants he remains the old Apollo. The great Sun-God, worshipped under so many names and with so many attributes, remains in the hearts of rustics long, long centuries after mass has been said and the Host has been elevated. Nay, it has even been said that the mass itself is an adaptation of pagan ritual to Christian worship. But the people, whatever their old beliefs, called themselves Christian, and that one fact enabled them to forget their jealousies and quarrels in times of emergency, and sometimes to act together. They were Christian; their enemies were pagan. It is significant that in one passage Gildas – who is quoted by Bede – reproaches them for not converting their conquerors, among whom they lived. This proves, if the fact wanted proof, (1) that the Britons were not exterminated by their conquerors; (2) that they were allowed to continue unmolested in their own religion; and (3) that they kept it to themselves as a possession of their own, a consolation in disaster, and a mark of superiority and dignity.

One thing is quite clear, that when the Roman legions finally withdrew, the Britons were left thoroughly awakened to the fact that if they could not fight they must perish. They understood once more the great law of humanity in all ages, that those who would enjoy in peace must be prepared to fight in war. They fought, therefore, valiantly; yet not so valiantly as the stronger race which came to drive them out.

In particular, however, we have to deal with the fate of London, which was then Augusta. Let us first endeavor to lay down the facts. They are to be drawn from two sources: the first from the meagre notes of the historians, the second from certain topographical and geographical considerations. The latter have never yet been fully presented, and I believe that the conclusion to be drawn by comparing the double set of facts will be accepted as irresistible.

The following are the facts related by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

A.D. 443. – This year the Britons sent over the sea to Rome, and begged for help against the Picts; but they had none, because they were themselves warring against Attila, King of the Huns. And then they sent to the Angles, and entreated the like of the Ethelings of the Angles.

A.D. 449. – Hengist and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, King of the Britons, landed in Britain on the shore called Wippidsfleet (Ebbsfleet?), at first in aid of the Britons, but afterwards they fought against them. King Vortigern gave them land in the south-east of this county on condition that they should fight against the Picts. They then fought against the Picts, and had the victory wheresoever they came. Then they sent to the Angles, desired a larger force to be sent, and caused them to be told the worthlessness of the Britons and the excellence of the land. Then they soon sent thither a larger force in aid of the others. At that time came men from three tribes in Germany – from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, and from the Jutes. From the Jutes came the Kentish men and the Wightwarians – that is, the tribe which now dwells in Wight, and that race among the West Saxons which is still called the race of Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the men of Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste, betwixt the Jutes and Saxons, came the men of East Anglia, Middle Anglia, Mercia, and of Northumbria.

A.D. 455. – This year Hengist and Horsa fought against King Vortigern at the place called Ægelsthrop (Aylesford), and his brother Horsa was slain, and after that Hengist obtained the kingdom, and Æsc, his son.

A.D. 456. – This year Hengist and Æsc slew four troops of Britons with the edge of the sword in the place which is named Crecganford (Crayford).

A.D. 457. – This year Hengist and Æsc, his son, fought against the Britons at a place called Crecganford, and then slew 4000 men. And the Britons then forsook Kent, and in great terror fled to London.

A.D. 465. – This year Hengist and Æsc fought against the Welsh near Wippidsfleet (Ebbsfleet), and there slew twelve Welsh ealdormen, and one of their own Thanes was slain there whose name was Wippid.

A.D. 473. – This year Hengist and Æsc fought against the Welsh, and took spoils innumerable; and the Welsh fled from the Angles like fire.

A.D. 477. – This year Ælla and his three sons came to the land of Britain with their ships at a place called Cymensrova, and there slew many Welsh, and some they drove in flight into the wood that is named Andredes-lea. (Probably the landing was on the coast of Sussex.)

A.D. 485. – This year Ælla fought against the Welsh near the Bank of Mearcriediburn.

A.D. 491. – This year Ælla and Cissa besieged Andredacester (Pevensey), and slew all that dwelt therein, so that not a single Briton was left.

A.D. 495. – This year two ealdormen came to Britain, Cerdic, and Cynric his son, with five ships, at the place which is called Cerdicsore (probably Calshot Castle on Southampton water), and Stuf and Whitgen fought against the Britons and put them to flight.

A.D. 519. – This year Cerdic and Cynric obtained the kingdom of the West Saxons; and the same year they fought against the Britons where it is now named Cerdisford (Charford on the Avon near Fordingbridge).

A.D. 527. – This year Cerdic and Cynric fought against the Britons at the place called Ardicslea.

A.D. 530. – This year Cerdic and Cynric conquered the Island of Wight, and slew many men at Whit-garan-byrg (Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight).

A.D. 547. – This year Ida began to reign, from whom came the royal race of Northumberland.

The conquest of England was now virtually completed. There was fighting at Old Sarum in 552; at Banbury in 556; at Bedford, at Aylesbury, and at Benson, in the year 571. One would judge this to be a last sortie made by the Welsh who had been driven into the fens. In the year 577 three important places in the west are taken – Gloucester, Bath, and Cirencester. In 584 there was fighting at Fethan-lea (Frethern), when the victor took many towns and spoils innumerable; "and wrathful he thence returned to his own." As late as 596 we hear that the king of the West Saxons fought, and contended incessantly against either the Angles (his own cousins), or the Welsh, or the Picts, or the Scots; and in 607 was fought the great battle of Chester, in which "numberless" Welsh were slain, including two hundred priests who had come to pray for victory.

It is therefore evident that the conquest of the country took a long time to effect – not less, indeed, than two hundred years. First, Kent, with Surrey, fell; next, Sussex; both before the end of the fifth century. Early in the sixth century the West Saxons conquered the country covered by Hampshire, a part of Surrey, and Dorsetshire; next, Essex fell, and there was stubborn fighting for many years in the country about and beyond the great Middlesex forest. The conquest of the North concerns us little, save that it drew off some of those who were fighting in what afterwards became the Kingdom of Mercia. I desire to note here only the surroundings of London, and to mark how, by successive steps of the invaders' march, it was gradually cut off, bit by bit, from the surrounding country. Thus, when Kent was overrun, the bridge gate was closed, the roads south, south-west, and south-east were blocked, and the whole of that country cut off from London; at the fall of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, the eastern gate was closed, and that great district was cut off. When Wessex was an established kingdom, the river highway was closed; there then remained only the western gate, and that, during the whole of the sixth century, led out into a country perpetually desolated and destroyed by war, so that, by the middle of the sixth century, no more communication whatever was possible between London and the rest of the country, unless the people made a sortie and cut their way through the enemy.

Observe, however, that no mention whatever is made of London in the Chronicle. Other and less important towns are mentioned. Anderida or Pevensey, Aquæ Solis or Bath, Gloucester, Chester, and many others; but of London there is no mention. Consider: London, though not much greater than other cities in the country – York, Verulam, Lincoln, Colchester, for instance – was undoubtedly the chief port of the country. We must not bring modern ideas to bear when we read of the vast trade, the immense concourse of merchants, and so forth. We need not picture miles of docks and countless masts. Roman London was not modern Liverpool. Its bulk of trade was perfectly insignificant compared with that of the present. When we begin to consider the mediæval trade of London this will become apparent. Still, it was, up to the coming of the Saxons, a vigorous and flourishing place, and the chief port of the country. Why, therefore, does the Chronicle absolutely pass over so great an event as the taking of London?

Such is the evidence of history. Let us consider next the evidence of topography. We shall understand what happened in London when we understand the exceptional position of London and the dangers to which the city in time of civil war was necessarily exposed.

We will go back to the beginning of all things – to the lie of the land on which London was planted. The reader, if he will consult that very admirable book, Loftie's History of London, will find in it a most instructive map. It shows the terrain before the city was built at all. The river Thames, between Mortlake on the west and Blackwall on the east, pursued a serpentine way, in the midst of marshes stretching north and south. There were marshes all the way. At spring tides, and at all tides a little above the common, these marshes were under water; they were always swampy and covered with ponds; half a dozen tributary brooks flowed into them and were lost in them. They varied greatly in breadth, being generally much broader on the south side than on the north. On this side the higher land rose up abruptly in a cliff or steep hill from twenty to five-and-thirty feet in height. The cliff, as we follow it from the east, approached the river, touched it at one point, and then receded again as it went westward. This point, where the cliff overhung the river, was the only possible place where the city could have been founded.

I call it a point, but it consisted of two hillocks, both about thirty-five feet high, standing on either side the little stream of Walbrook, where it flows into the Thames. On one of these hills, probably that on the west, was a small fortress of the Britons, constructed after the well-known fashion of hill forts, numberless examples of which remain scattered about the country. On the other hillock the Roman city, later on, was first commenced.

Here, at the beginning of the city, was instituted very early a ferry over the river. On the eastern hill the Romans built their forum and basilica, with the offices and official houses and quarters. When foreign trade began to increase, the merchants were obliged to spread themselves along the bank. They built quays and river-walls to keep out the water, and the city extended laterally to east and west, just as far as was convenient for the purposes of trade – that is, not farther than Fleet River on the west, and the present site of the Tower on the east. It then began to spread northward, but very slowly, because a mile of river front can accommodate a great working population with a very narrow backing of houses. When the city wall was built, somewhere about the year 360, the town had already run out in villas and gardens as far north as that wall. Outside the wall there was nothing at all, unless one may count a few scattered villas on the south side of the river. There was as yet no Westminster, but in its place a broad and marshy heath spread over the whole area now covered by the City of Westminster, Millbank, St. James's Park, Chelsea, and as far west as Fulham. Beyond the wall on the north lay dreary, uncultivated plains, covered with fens and swamps, stretching from the walls to the lower slopes of the northern hills, and to the foot of an immense forest, as yet wholly untouched, afterwards called the Middlesex Forest. Fragments of this forest yet remain at Hampstead, Highgate, Epping, and Hainault. All through this period, therefore, and for long after, the City of London had a broad marsh lying on the south, another on the west, a third on the east, while on the north there stretched a barren, swampy moorland, followed by an immense impenetrable forest. Later on a portion of the land lying on the north-west, where is now Holborn, was cleared and cultivated. But this was later, when the Roman roads which led out of London ran high and broad over the marshes and the moors and through the forest primeval. The point to be remembered as connected with the marshes is this: Around most great towns there is found a broad belt of cultivated ground protected by the wall and the garrison. Here the people grow for their own use their grain and their fruit, and pasture their beasts and their swine. London, alone among great cities, never had any such home farm until the marsh was reclaimed. The cattle, which were driven daily along the roads into the city, grazed on pastures in Essex farms, beyond the forest and the River Lea. The corn which filled her markets came down the river in barges from the inland country. All the supplies necessary for the daily food of the city were brought in from the country round. Should these supplies be cut off, London would be starved.

These supplies were very large indeed. As said above, we may set aside as extravagant the talk of a vast and multitudinous throng of people, as if the place was already a kind of Liverpool. Augusta never, certainly, approached the importance of Massilia, of Bordeaux, of Antioch, of Ephesus. Nor was Augusta greater than other English towns. The walls of York enclose as large an area as those of Roman London. The wall of Uriconium encloses an area nearly equal to that of Roman London. The area of Calleva (Silchester), a country town of no great importance, is nearly half as great as that of Roman London. But it was a large and populous city. How populous we cannot even approximately guess. Considering the extent of the wall, if that affords any help, we find, counting the river front, that the wall was two miles and three-quarters in length. This is a great length to defend. It is, however, certain that the town when walled must have contained a population strong enough to defend their wall. The Romans knew how to build in accordance with their wants and their resources. If the wall was built three miles long, there were certainly defenders in proportion. Now, could so great a length be intrusted to a force less than 20,000? The defenders of the walls of Jerusalem, which, after the taking of the third wall, were very much less than two miles in extent, demanded at least 25,000 men, as Titus very well knew. Now, if every able-bodied man in London under the age of five-and-fifty were called out to fight, the population, on the assumption of 20,000 suitable men, would be about 70,000. If, on the other hand, the London citizens after the departure of the Romans could man their walls with only 10,000 men, they would have a population of about 35,000. Now, the daily needs of a population of only 35,000 are very considerable. We have, it is true, to supply food for 5,000,000, but the brain is incapable of comprehending figures and estimates of such vastness. One can better understand those which have to do with a population of 30,000 or 40,000. So much bread, so much meat, so much wine, beer, and fruit. Where did all these things come from? Nothing, as I have said, from the immediate neighborhood; chiefly from Surrey and from Kent; a great deal from Essex; and the rest from the west country by means of the river.

London, therefore, with a population of not less than 35,000, and perhaps upwards of 70,000, stood in the midst of marshes – marshes everywhere – marshes all around except in the north; and there impenetrable forest. It depended wholly for its supplies, for its daily bread, for its existence, upon the country around.

In order to buy these supplies it depended upon its trade of import and export. It was the only port in the kingdom; it received the hides, the iron, and the slaves from inland and embarked them in the foreign keels; it received from abroad the silks, the spices, the wines, the ecclesiastical vestments, and all the articles of foreign luxury, and sent them about the country.

But this important place changed hands, somehow, without so much as a mention from the contemporary records; and while places like Bath, Gloucester, Cirencester, are recorded as being besieged and taken, no word is said of London, a place of far greater importance.

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