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Walter Besant

Among the clergy of London was then living one Peter, chaplain of a small church in the Poultry – where Thomas à Becket was baptized – called Colechurch. This man was above all others skilled in the craft and mystery of bridge-building. He was perhaps a member of the fraternity called the Pontific (or Bridge-building) Brothers, who about this time built the famous bridges at Avignon, Pont St. Esprit, Cahors, Saintes, and La Rochelle. He proposed to build a stone bridge over the river. In order to raise money for this great enterprise, offerings were asked and contributed by king, citizens, and even the country at large. The list of contributors was written out on a table for posterity, and preserved in the Bridge Chapel.

This bridge, which was to last for six hundred and fifty years, took as long to build as King Solomon's Temple, namely, three-and-thirty years. Before it was finished the architect lay in his grave. When it was completed, the bridge was 926 feet long, and 40 feet wide – Stow says 30 feet; it stood 60 feet above high water; it contained a drawbridge and 19 pointed arches, with massive piers, varying from 25 to 34 feet in solidity, raised upon strong elm piles, covered with thick planks. The bridge was curiously irregular; there was no uniformity in the breadth of the arches; they varied from 10 feet to 32 feet. Over the tenth and longest pier was erected a chapel, dedicated to the youngest saint in the calendar, St. Thomas of Canterbury. The erection of a chapel on a bridge was by no means uncommon. Everybody, for instance, who has been in the South of France remembers the double chapel on the broken bridge at Avignon. Again, a chapel was built on the bridge at Droitwich, in Cheshire, and one on the bridge at Wakefield, in Yorkshire. Like the chapel at Avignon, that of London Bridge contained an upper and a lower chapel; the latter was built in the pier with stairs, making it accessible from the river. The bridge gate at the southern end was fortified by a double tower, and there was also a tower at the northern end. The wall, or parapet of the bridge, followed the line of the piers, so as to give at every pier additional room. The same arrangement used to be seen on the old bridge at Putney. The maintenance of this important edifice was in the hands of the Brethren of St. Thomas of the Bridge.

To build a bridge was ever accounted a good work. Witness the lines engraved on the bridge of Culham:

Off alle werkys in this world that ever were wrought
Holy Churche is chefe —

Another blessid besines is brigges to make,
When that the pepul may not passe after greet showers,
Dole it is to drawe a dead body out of a lake,
That was fulled in a fount ston and a felow of oures.

The citizens have always regarded London Bridge with peculiar pride and affection. There was no other bridge like it in the whole country, nor any which could compare with it for strength or for size. I think, indeed, that there was not in the whole of Europe any bridge that could compare with it; for it was built not only over a broad river, but a tidal river, up which the flood rose and ebbed with great vehemence twice a day. Later on they built houses on either side, but at first the way was clear. The bridge was endowed with broad lands; certain monks, called Brethren of St. Thomas on the Bridge, were charged with the services in the chapel, and with administering the revenues for the maintenance of the fabric.

The children made songs about it. One of their songs to which they danced taking hands has been preserved. It is modernized, and one knows not how old it is. The author of Chronicles of London Bridge gives it at full length, with the music. Here are two or three verses:

London Bridge is broken down,
Dance over my Lady Lee;
London Bridge is broken down,
With a gay ladee.

How shall we build it up again?
Dance over my Lady Lee;
How shall we build it up again?
With a gay ladee.

Build it up with stone so strong,
Dance over my Lady Lee;
Huzza! 'twill last for ages long,
With a gay ladee.

The City wall, repaired by Alfred, was not allowed to fall into decay again for the next seven hundred years. A recent discovery proves that the ditch was more ancient than had been thought. But by the time of King John it was greatly decayed and stopped up; in his reign a grand restoration of the ditch was made by the citizens. Many fragments of the wall have been discovered dotted along its course, which is now accurately known, and can be traced. One of the City churches has a piece of the wall itself under its north wall. In the church-yard of St. Alphege there remains a fragment; in the church-yard of St. Giles there is a bastion. To repair the wall they seem to have used any materials that offered. Witness the collection of capitals and pilasters found in a piece of the City wall, and preserved in the Guildhall. Witness, also, the story of King John, who, when he wanted stones for repairing the gates, broke down the stone-houses of the Jews, robbed their coffers, and used the stones for his repairs. When Lud Gate was pulled down some of these stones, with Hebrew inscriptions, were found, but I believe were all thrown into the Thames at London Bridge.

The Tower of London, until William Longchamp, A.D. 1190, enclosed it with a wall and a deep ditch, consisted of nothing but the great White Tower, with its halls and its chapel of St. John. At the western end of the wall, where is now Ludgate Hill Railway Station, stood a smaller tower called Montfichet. On the opposite bank of the Fleet stood a stronghold, which afterwards became Bridewell Palace, and covered the whole site of the broad street which now follows the approach to Blackfriars Bridge. The site of Tower Royal is preserved in the street of that name. King Stephen lodged there. It was afterwards given to the Crown, and called the Queen's Wardrobe. And there was another tower in Bucklersbury called Sernes Tower, of which no trace remains.

Of great houses there were as yet but few – Blackwell Hall, if it then stood, would be called Bassing Hall – Aldermanbury, the predecessor of Guildhall, was built by this time; and we hear of certain great men having houses in the City – Earl Ferrars in Lombard Street next to Allhallows and Pont de l'Arche in Elbow Lane, Dowgate Ward, what time Henry the First was King.

The water supply of the City until the later years of the thirteenth century was furnished by the Walbrook, the Wells or Fleet rivers, and the springs or fountains outside the walls, of which Stow enumerates a great many. I suppose that the two streams very early became choked and fouled and unfit for drinking. But the conduits and "Bosses" of water were not commenced till nearly the end of the thirteenth century. Water-carts carried round fresh water, bringing it into the town from the springs and wells on the north. One does not find, however, any period in the history of London when the citizens desired plain cold water as a beverage. Beer was always the national drink; they drank small ale for breakfast, dinner, and supper; when they could get it they drank strong ale. Of water for washing there was not at this period so great a demand as at present. At the same time it is not true to say, as was said a few years ago in the House of Commons, that for eight hundred years our people did not wash themselves. All through the Middle Ages the use of the hot bath was not only common, but frequent, and in the case of the better classes was almost a necessity of life.

The population of this busy city is tolerably easy to calculate. The astounding statement of the good Fitz Stephen that London could turn out an army of 20,000 horse and 60,000 foot, must of course, be dismissed without argument. Some minds are wholly incapable of understanding numbers. Perhaps Fitz Stephen had such a mind. Perhaps in writing the numerals the numbers got multiplied by ten – Roman numerals are hard to manage. If we assume an average of 400 for each parish church, which, considering that the church was used daily by the people, seems not too little, we get a population of about 50,000. In the time of Richard's poll tax, 300 years later, the population was about 40,000. But then the City had been ravaged by a succession of plagues.

The strength of the town and the power of the citizens is abundantly proved by the chronicles. In the year 994, Aulaf and Swegen came to fight against London with ninety-four ships; but "they there sustained more harm and evil than they ever imagined that any townsmen would be able to do unto them." Early in the eleventh century the Londoners beat off the Danes again and again. Nor did the citizens abandon their king until he abandoned them. Later on, Edmund Etheling had to abandon his enterprise against Cnut, because the Londoners would not join him. Then there is the story about the body of the murdered Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury. This had been deposited in St. Paul's Cathedral. Agelnoth, successor to Alphege, begged the body of Cnut for Canterbury. Cnut granted the request, but was afraid – timebat civium interruptiones – to take away the body except by stealth. He therefore caused his huscarles, or household soldiers, to disperse themselves, and to raise tumults at the gates and elsewhere. While the citizens were running everywhere to enjoy a share in the fight, the body was carried to the river and placed in a boat, which was rowed in all haste down the river. The townsmen sent out a party in pursuit. And, as everybody knows, William the Norman found it politic or necessary to confirm the liberties and laws of London.

The house, either in Saxon and Norman time, presented no kind of resemblance to the Roman villa. It had no cloisters, no hypocaust, no suite or sequence of rooms. This unlikeness is another proof, if any were wanting, that the continuity of tenure had been wholly broken. If the Saxons went into London, as has been suggested, peaceably, and left the people to carry on their old life and their trade in their own way, the Roman and British architecture, no new thing, but a style grown up in course of years and found fitted to the climate, would certainly have remained. That, however, was not the case. The Englishman developed his house from the patriarchal idea. First, there was the common hall; in this the household lived, fed, transacted business, and made their cheer in the evenings. It was built of timber, and to keep out the cold draughts it was afterwards lined with tapestry. At first they used simple cloths, which in great houses were embroidered and painted; perches of various kinds were affixed to the walls whereon the weapons, the musical instruments, the cloaks, etc., were hung up. The lord and lady sat on a high seat: not, I am inclined to think, on a dais at the end of the hall, which would have been cold for them, but on a great chair near the fire, which was burning in the middle of the hall. This fashion long continued. I have myself seen a college hall warmed by a fire in a brazier burning under the lantern of the hall. The furniture consisted of benches; the table was laid on trestles, spread with a white cloth, and removed after dinner; the hall was open to all who came, on condition that the guest should leave his weapons at the door. The floor was covered with reeds, which made a clean, soft, and warm carpet, on which the company could, if they pleased, lie round the fire. They had carpets or rugs also, but reeds were commonly used. The traveller who chances to find himself at the ancient and most interesting town of Kingston-on-Hull, which very few English people, and still fewer Americans, have the curiosity to explore, should visit the Trinity House. There, among many interesting things, he will find a hall where reeds are still spread, but no longer so thickly as to form a complete carpet. I believe this to be the last survival of the reed carpet. The times of meals were: the breakfast at about nine; the "noon-meat," or dinner, at twelve; and the "even-meat," or supper, probably at a movable time, depending on the length of the day. When lighting was costly and candles were scarce, the hours of sleep would be naturally longer in winter than in the summer. In their manner of living the Saxons were fond of vegetables, especially of the leek, onion, and garlic. Beans they also had (these were introduced probably at the time when they commenced intercourse with the outer world), pease, radishes, turnips, parsley, mint, sage, cress, rue, and other herbs. They had nearly all our modern fruits, though many show by their names, which are Latin or Norman, a later introduction. They made use of butter, honey, and cheese. They drank ale and mead. The latter is still made, but in small quantities, in Somerset and Hereford shires. The Normans brought over the custom of drinking wine.

In the earliest times the whole family slept in the common hall. The first improvement was the erection of the solar, or upper, chamber. This was above the hall, or a portion of it, or over the kitchen and buttery attached to the hall. The arrangement may be still observed in many of the old colleges of Oxford or Cambridge. The solar was first the sleeping-room of the lord and lady: though afterwards it served not only this purpose, but also for an ante-chamber to the dormitory of the daughters and the maid-servants. The men of the household still slept in the hall below. Later on, bed recesses were contrived in the wall, as one may find in Northumberland at the present day. The bed was commonly, but not for the ladies of the house, merely a big bag stuffed with straw. A sheet wrapped round the body formed the only night-dress. But there were also pillows, blankets, and coverlets. The early English bed was quite as luxurious as any that followed after, until the invention of the spring-mattress gave a new and hitherto unhoped-for joy to the hours of night.

The second step in advance was the ladies' bower, a room or suite of rooms set apart for the ladies of the house and their women. For the first time, as soon as this room was added, the women could follow their own avocations of embroidery, spinning, and needle-work of all kinds apart from the rough and noisy talk of the men.

The main features, therefore, of every great house, whether in town or country, from the seventh to the twelfth century, were the hall, the solar, built over the kitchen and buttery, and the ladies' bower.

There was also the garden. In all times the English have been fond of gardens. Bacon thought it not beneath his dignity to order the arrangement of a garden. Long before Bacon, a writer of the twelfth century describes a garden as it should be. "It should be adorned on this side with roses, lilies, and the marigold; on that side with parsley, cost, fennel, southernwood, coriander, sage, savery, hyssop, mint, vine, dettany, pellitory, lettuce, cresses, and the peony. Let there be beds enriched with onions, leeks, garlic, mellons, and scallions. The garden is also enriched by the cucumber, the soporiferous poppy, and the daffodil, and the acanthus. Nor let pot herbs be wanting, as beet-root, sorrel, and mallow. It is useful also to the gardener to have anice, mustard, and wormwood… A noble garden will give you medlars, quinces, the pear main, peaches, pears of St. Regle, pomegranates, citrons, oranges, almonds, dates, and figs." The latter fruits were perhaps attempted, but no one doubts their arriving at ripeness. Perhaps the writer sets down what he hoped would be some day achieved.

The in-door amusements of the time were very much like our own. We have a little music in the evening; so did our forefathers; we sometimes have a little dancing; so did they, but the dancing was done for them; we go to the theatres to see the mime; in their days the mime made his theatre in the great man's hall. He played the fiddle and the harp; he sang songs; he brought his daughter, who walked on her hands and executed astonishing capers; the gleeman, minstrels, or jongleur was already as disreputable as when we find him later on with his ribauderie. Again, we play chess; so did our ancestors; we gamble with dice; so did they; we feast and drink together; so did they; we pass the time in talk; so did they. In a word, as Alphonse Karr put it, the more we change, the more we remain the same.

Out-of-doors, as Fitz Stephen shows, the young men skated, wrestled, played ball, practised archery, held water tournaments, baited bull and bear, fought cocks, and rode races. They were also mustered sometimes for service in the field, and went forth cheerfully, being specially upheld by the reassuring consciousness that London was always on the winning side.

The growth of the city government belongs to the history of London. Suffice it here to say that the people in all times enjoyed a freedom far above that possessed by any other city of Europe. The history of municipal London is a history of continual struggle to maintain this freedom against all attacks, and to extend it and to make it impregnable. Already the people are proud, turbulent, and confident in their own strength. They refuse to own any over lord but the King himself; there is no Earl of London. They freely hold their free and open meetings – their Folk's mote – in the open space outside the north-west corner of St. Paul's Church-yard. That they lived roughly, enduring cold, sleeping in small houses in narrow courts; that they suffered much from the long darkness of winter; that they were always in danger of fevers, agues, "putrid" throats, plagues, fires by night, and civil wars; that they were ignorant of letters – three schools only for the whole of London – all this may very well be understood. But these things do not make men and women wretched. They were not always suffering from preventable disease; they were not always hauling their goods out of the flames; they were not always fighting. The first and most simple elements of human happiness are three, to wit: that a man should be in bodily health, that he should be free, that he should enjoy the produce of his own labor. All these things the Londoner possessed under the Norman kings nearly as much as in these days they can be possessed. His city has always been one of the healthiest in the world. Whatever freedom could be attained he enjoyed, and in that rich trading town all men who worked lived in plenty.

The households, the way of living, the occupations of the women, can be clearly made out in every detail from the Anglo-Saxon literature. The women in the country made the garments, carded the wool, sheared the sheep, washed the things, beat the flax, ground the corn, sat at the spinning-wheel, and prepared the food. In the towns they had no shearing to do, but all the rest of their duty fell to their province. The English women excelled in embroidery. "English" work meant the best kind of work. They worked church vestments with gold and pearls and precious stones. "Orfrey," or embroidery in gold, was a special art. Of course they are accused by the ecclesiastics of an overweening desire to wear finery; they certainly curled their hair, and, one is sorry to read, they painted, and thereby spoiled their pretty cheeks. If the man was the hlaf-ord – the owner or winner of the loaf – the wife was the hlaf-dig, its distributor; the servants and the retainers were hlaf-oetas, or eaters of it. When nunneries began to be founded, the Saxon ladies in great numbers forsook the world for the cloister. And here they began to learn Latin, and became able at least to carry on correspondence – specimens of which still exist – in that language. Every nunnery possessed a school for girls. They were taught to read and to write their own language and Latin, perhaps also rhetoric and embroidery. As the pious Sisters were fond of putting on violet chemises, tunics, and vests of delicate tissue, embroidered with silver and gold, and scarlet shoes, there was probably not much mortification of the flesh in the nunneries of the later Saxon times.

This for the better class. We cannot suppose that the daughters of the craftsmen became scholars of the Nunnery. Theirs were the lower walks – to spin the linen and to make the bread and carry on the house-work.

Let us walk into the narrow streets and see something more closely of the townfolk. We will take the close net-work of streets south of Paul's and the Cheapside, where the lanes slope down to the river. North of Chepe there are broad open spaces never yet built upon; south, every inch of ground is valuable. The narrow winding lanes are lined with houses on either side; they are for the most part houses with wooden fronts and roofs of timber. Here and there is a stone house; here and there the great house of a noble, or of a City baron, or a great merchant, as greatness is counted. But as yet the trade of London goes not farther than Antwerp, or Sluys, or Bordeaux at the farthest. Some of the houses stand in gardens, but in this part, where the population is densest, most of the gardens have become courts; and in the courts where the poorest live, those who are the porters and carriers, and lightermen and watermen – the servants of the Port – the houses are huts, not much better than those whose ruins may still be seen on Dartmoor; of four uprights, with wattle and clay for walls, and a thatched roof, and a fire burning on the floor in the middle. At the corners of the streets are laystalls, where everything is flung to rot and putrefy; the streets are like our country lanes, narrow and muddy; public opinion is against shooting rubbish into the street, but it is done; the people walk gingerly among the heaps of offal and refuse. In the wooden houses, standing with shutters and doors wide open all the year round, sit the men at work, each in his own trade, working for his own master; every man belongs to his guild, which is as yet religious. Here is a church, the Church of St. George, Botolph Lane; the doors are open; the bells are ringing; the people are crowding in. Let us enter. It is a Mystery that they are going to play – nothing less than the Raising of Lazarus according to Holy Scripture. The church within is dark and gloomy, but there is light enough to see the platform, or low stage, under the nave covered with red cloth, which has been erected for the Play. The actors are young priests and choristers. All round the stage stand the people, the men in leather jerkins – they do not remove their caps – the women in woollen frocks, the children with eyes wide open. When the Play begins they all weep without restraint at the moving passages. In the first scene Lazarus lies on his bed, at the point of death – weak, faint, speechless. He is attended by his friends – four Jews, attired in realistic fashion, no mistake about their nationality – infidels, mécréants – and by his sisters twain, marvellously like two nuns of the period. They send a messenger to the new Great Physician and Worker of Miracles, who is reported to be preaching and healing not far off. But He delays; Lazarus dies. His sister goes to reproach the Physician with the delay, wailing and lamenting her brother's death. At length He comes. Lazarus is already buried. The tomb is on the stage, with the dead man inside. Jesus calls. Oh, miracle! we saw him die; we saw him buried. Lo! he rises and comes forth from the grave. To the people it is as if the Lord Jesus himself stood before them; they have seen Him with their own eyes; henceforth the name of the Lord recalls a familiar form; experienced persons of dull imagination say that this is not Jesus at all, but Stephen the Deacon – he with the heavenly voice and the golden locks. No, no; it is not Stephen they have seen, but Another. So, also, some will have it that the man who died and was buried, and rose again, and stood before them all in white cerements, was John of Hoggesdon, Chantry Priest. Not so; it was Lazarus – none other. Lazarus, now no doubt a blessed saint, with his two sisters, Martha and Mary. Why! it must have been Lazarus, because, after the miracle, he called upon the people to mark the wondrous works of the Lord, and sang the Magnificat so that the psalm echoed in the roof and rolled above the pillars. He sang that psalm out of pure gratitude; you could see the tears rolling down his cheeks; and in worship and adoration, Lazarus himself, he who had been dead and had come to life again.

The Mystery is over; the people have all gone away; the stage is removed, and the church is empty again. Two priests are left, and their talk is like a jarring note after sweet music. "Brother," says one, "were it not for such shows as these, if we did not present to the people the things which belong to religion in such a way that the dullest can understand, the Church would be in a parlous way. All folk cry out upon the profligacy of the monks, and their luxury, and the greed of the priests. What sayeth Walter Map, that good archdeacon?

"'Omnis a clericis fluit enormitas,
Cum Deo debeant mentes sollicitas,
Tractant negotia mercesque vetitas
Et rerum turpium vices indebitas.'"

"I hear," said the other, "that two Cistercians have lately become apostate to the Jews."

"Rather," replied the first, "they should have become Christians, so to separate themselves the better from that accursed body."

These are the distant rumblings of the gathering storm. But the Church will become much richer, much more powerful, the monks will become much more profligate, the priests will become far more greedy before things grow to be intolerable.

It is an evening in May. What means this procession? Here comes a sturdy rogue marching along valiantly, blowing pipe and beating tabor. After him, a rabble rout of lads and young men, wearing flowers in their caps, and bearing branches and singing lustily. This is what they sing, not quite in these words, but very nearly:

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med,
And springth the wde nu.
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lamb,
Llouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, buck verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!

Cuccu, cuccu, well singeth thu cuccu,
Ne swik thu navu nu;
Sing cuccu, cuccu, nu sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!

The workman jumps up and shouts as they go past; the priest and the friar laugh and shout; the girls, gathering together as is the maidens' way, laugh and clap their hands. The young men sing as they go and dance as they sing. Spring has come back again – sing cuckoo; the days of light and warmth – sing cuckoo; the time of feasting and of love – sing cuckoo. The proud abbot, with his following, draws rein to let them pass, and laughs to see them; he is, you see, a man first and a monk afterwards. In the gateway of his great house stands the Norman earl with his livery. He waits to let the London youth go by. The earl scorns the English youth no longer; he knows their lustihood. He can even understand their speech. He sends out largesse to the lads to be spent in the good wines of Gascony and of Spain; he joins in the singing; he waves his hand, a brotherly hand, as the floral greenery passes along; he sings with them at the top of his voice:

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