Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Wards of Old London: Walbrook - City Governance and Popular Protest

Leaving Cheap Ward, the main road running through London from west to east briefly passes through Walbrook Ward, dominated today by Bank Junction, a chaotic intersection of eight main roads that sits in the middle of the contemporary city like the body of an enormous spider, pointedly ignoring the regular pattern of the underlying Roman streets. Walbrook Ward takes its name from the stream (today entirely hidden beneath the city streets) which flows through London from north to south, carving a channel for itself between Ludgate Hill to the west and Cornhill to the east.

The centre of London's governance has long been located in this area: the palace of Britannia's Roman governors is thought by some experts to lie immediately to the south, in Dowgate Ward (on the site of the modern Cannon Street Station). In Cannon Street (formerly Candlewick Street) is found a mysterious monument known as "The London Stone," possibly a fragment of a Roman milestone or tombstone, traditionally taken as the "centre" of the city, although, as John Stow pointed out in 1598, it is much closer to the Thames than it is to the city's northern wall.

Bank Junction, on a Sunday in April, 1961. Photo: Ben Brooksbank (licensed under CCA).

Stow recorded a mention of the stone in a "faire written Gospell booke given unto Christ's Church in Canterburie, by Ethelstane, King of the West Saxons" (925-940 AD). In the late 12th Century, Henry Fitz-Ailwin de Londonstone owned a house close-by. A wealthy and prominent city merchant, he negotiated loans from the city on behalf of King Richard I, but attached the condition that the city would, henceforth, be self-governed, independent of royal officials. Henry himself became the city's first elected mayor in 1189.

The London Stone. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

Both the Mansion House (the official residence of the City's Lord Mayors since 1752) and the Bank of England lie within Walbrook Ward. The current Bank of England building was erected in the early 20th Century by Sir Herbert Baker, who demolished most of Sir John Soanes's earlier Neo-Classical building (an act described by Nikolaus Pevsner as "the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the 20th Century").

The Mansion House in 1837, by J. Woods (image is in the Public Domain).
The Bank of England in 1872, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

As the centre of city governance, Walbrook Ward has also frequently been a focus for popular protest, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing down to our own times. In 1450, a rebellion took root in Kent and Sussex, directed against the unpopular government of King Henry VI. Though a pious man (a saint in the eyes of some), and a great patron of learning (he established Eton College, King's College Cambridge and All Souls Oxford), Henry was nothing like his popular, warrior father, and was regarded as a weak king, subject to the malign influences of his wife and advisers. Leading the rebels across London Bridge into the City, the self-styled "Captain of Kent," Jack Cade, marched to the London Stone, where several records agree that he ennobled himself as "Lord Mortimer."

"Now is Mortimer Lord of this City," Shakespeare has him say, "And here, sitting upon London Stone, I charge and command that, at the City's cost, the Pissing Conduit run nothing but claret wine the first year of our reign. And now, henceforward, it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer."

Cade arrested the Lord High Treasurer, James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, one of the king's hated advisers, and had him beheaded in Cheapside. His "reign," however, was to be short-lived. Later that day, drunk on wine stolen from the London vintners, his men began to loot and pillage. Londoners armed themselves and chased the rebels back across London Bridge into Southwark. When they tried to re-enter the city the following morning, a pitched battle ensued on London Bridge, claiming the lives of forty Londoners and two hundred rebels. The rebel leaders, including Cade, were subsequently rounded up and killed.

In 1780, Protestants angry at government proposals to end official discrimination against Catholics attacked the City. They burned down Newgate prison and released all the prisoners, leaving graffiti behind them to declare that this had been done "on the authority of His Majesty, King Mob." The mob then surged along Cheapside and Poultry to attack the Bank of England. In a piece of irony that few novelists would have the audacity to invent, the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot, which successfully defended the bank against the rebels, was commanded by one Thomas Twisleton, the 13th Baron Saye & Sele (one wonders if he even knew of his ancestor's fate at the hands of a similar mob more than three centuries earlier).

The "Gordon Riots" of 1780 (so-called after Lord George Gordon, who whipped up hatred against Catholics), by John Seymour Lucas (image is in the Public Domain).

The tradition of protest continues today, most recently in the "Stop the City" mass action in 1983, and the G20 mass action of 2009 (the latter, tragically, claiming the life of an innocent bystander, a newsagent trying to make his way home at the end of the working day).

The G20 Protests, 2009. Photo: Kashfi Halford (licensed under CCA).

These various protests, spanning more than five centuries have, at least on the surface, focussed on very different issues (the supposed corruption of the Lord High Treasurer and his associates in 1450; religious sectarianism in 1780; climate change in 2009), but all have arisen in times of recession and austerity, in which more fundamental underlying concerns about social inequality have bubbled to the surface. Like the Walbrook stream, which thousands of Londoners cross, unaware, every day, "King Mob" is never so very distant, and the historic ceremonial centre of the City of London presents an irresistible stage for the playing out of his rambunctious, and sometimes deadly, masques.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment