Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Wards of Old London: Castle Baynard - The Defence of Body and Soul

A visitor to London walking along the Thames from the Tower of London towards Blackfriars finally passes from Queenhithe into Castle Baynard Ward. Of Castle Baynard itself, there remains not a trace visible above ground: not, I might add, in either case, since the place-name refers to two quite separate buildings, which did not even stand in the same place.

Shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066, work began on the construction of what would eventually become the Tower of London, William the Conqueror's citadel in the south-eastern corner of the city (it was, initially, a timber fortress, the stone-built White Tower coming some twenty years later). William had few reasons to expect loyalty from the people of London, most of whom probably thought of him as "the Bastard," rather than "the Conqueror," so his rule would have to be imposed, if not by force, then certainly by the threat of it. To his knight, Ralph Baynard, he entrusted the building of a second fortification in the south-western corner of the City, just inside the Roman wall, beside the outfall of the River Fleet. William charged another retainer, whose name was Montfichet, or Montfiquet, with the construction of a third fortification, immediately to the south of Ludgate.

The original Chastel Baynard may have been a hastily thrown up timber palisade on an earth motte, such as this one at Hastings, shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, built in the days following the establishment of a beach-head by William the Conqueror (image is in the Public Domain).

Within twenty years of the conquest, Chastel Baynard (as I shall refer to it, to avoid confusion with a later building) and Montfichet Tower were (like the White Tower), substantial stone fortifications of a sort that no English man or woman had ever seen before (unless, perhaps, he or she had travelled within the Muslim world). Neither, incidentally, was located within the old Castle Baynard Ward: both were in Farringdon Within.

Building fortifications was a hazardous business  for invading dynasties. By the early 13th Century, William's great-great-grandson, King John, was at war with the descendants of the very Norman knights to whom the Conqueror had entrusted the defence of London and other English cities. Chastel Baynard was held by Robert Fitzwalter, who was ranged against John in the Barons' Revolt. Robert was, perhaps, defending more than his political rights and privileges: it was said that the King desired his daughter, Matilda the Fair (believed to be the inspiration for "Maid Marian" in the Robin Hood stories). Fitzwalter found an ally in Robert Montfichet, and they probably enjoyed the support of many in the City, resentful of the increasingly onerous taxation imposed by the King.

Having suppressed, for the time, the revolt, and banished both Fitzwalter and Montfichet, King John set about the demolition of both fortifications. No illustration of either exists, but archaeologists have found traces of them in excavations to the east of the River Fleet.

In 1276, the Earl of Kent, Hubert de Berg, pulled down whatever remained of Montfichet Tower, and gave much of the land on which it, together with Chastel Baynard, had stood, to friars of the Dominican Order, whose establishment had outgrown its previous priory in Holborn. Their priory, dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, gave "Blackfriars" its name.

Reconstruction of the plan of Blackfriars Priory. Image: Wellcome Trust, L0001718 (licensed under CCA).

Enjoying royal patronage, the priory was frequently at odds with the City authorities, sometimes siding with the King against the Lord Mayor, and often espousing unpopular causes. In 1255, the Dominican Prior had intervened on behalf of Jews unjustly accused of murdering a child in Lincoln, standing against a tide of anti-Semitism that swept through the City as it swept through other urban communities in England. A subsequent Prior tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene in securing the rescue of Edward II, a King whose unpopularity within the City may have rivalled that of his great-grandfather, John.

Across Christendom, the Dominicans were best known for their vigorous, and often brutal, defence of Catholic orthodoxy against "heresies" of every kind. In Fifteenth Century England the challenge came from the Lollards, Protestants avant la lettre, who wanted to see the Bible translated into English, were hostile to Catholic ideas of Penance (most significantly confession to a priest), and despised the "idolatry" of images. These ideas found favour among some of the wealthier merchant classes (men who were too busy making money to take the time to learn Latin, but who could afford to contemplate the purchase of a handwritten Bible, written out on the skins of forty or more cattle).

The opening of Saint John's Gospel, from John Wycliffe's 14th Century (Lollard) English Bible (image is in the Public Domain).

Many prominent Lollards were tried and condemned in Ecclesiastical Courts within the Priory of Blackfriars, few of them more notable than Sir John Oldcastle (thought to have inspired Shakespeare's character, Falstaff). Convicted by the Dominicans of heresy, and imprisoned in the Tower of London, Oldcastle escaped, with the assistance of a Smithfield parchment-maker, and went on to organise a rebellion against his former friend, King Henry V, for which he was subsequently executed.

What then, of the Baynard's Castle that gave its name to the ward, and actually took up much of the land within it? It was not a castle in any military sense, but rather a palace, occupying a waterfront position to the west of the earlier Chastel Baynard. It was built by the Earl of Clare in 1338, and subsequently rebuilt by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, following a fire. It became a royal palace under King Henry VII, and was granted to the Earls of Pembroke by Queen Elizabeth I. It was gutted by the Great Fire of 1666, but its facade was patched up, and survived through the 18th Century. Not a trace of it remains visible today, its position taken by Baynard House, the Brutalist building designed by William Holford, and now home to British Telecommunications.
Baynard's Castle and the outfall of the River Fleet. Image: Wellcome Trust, L0006919 (licensed under CCA).

Baynard's Castle in the 1540s, with Blackfriars Priory to the west and Saint Paul's to the north (image: Museum of London).

Baynard's Castle in 1790. Image: British Library HMNTS 01349.I.1 (Public Domain).
Baynard House

We have come half-circle in our tour of the City of London, walking through the city, first from west to east, along the main road from Newgate to Aldgate, and then back along the Thames to the banks of the River Fleet, where we began. Over the coming weeks, we will walk first north, and then east, following the course of the Roman and Medieval walls that formed the northern limits of the City, completing our circuit when we arrive back at Aldgate, once home to Geoffrey Chaucer.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. That 1790 view of the castle is imposing, impressive, frightening. Probably as it was meant to be!
    I've been enjoying these walks through old London.

  2. Very interesting. Thank you. Whenever I go home to England, I always take one of the London Walks to refresh myself! Last time it was Westminster Abbey, the time before that was the law courts. I'll be there later this month. I wonder which walk to choose this time.