Monday, 20 February 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Precincts of St Mary Overie

A visitor to London, walking south across London Bridge, will notice several landmarks competing for his or her attention. The highest construction in sight (unsurprisingly, since it is currently the tallest building in Europe) is Renzo Piano's recently completed "Shard," but, as its architect explained to a group of us at the London Architecture Biennale a few years ago, its glass walls were always intended to reflect images of one of the oldest buildings on the south side of the Thames, now known to Londoners as Southwark Cathedral (although it only became a cathedral in 1905).

The Shard and Southwark Cathedral. Photo: Dmitry Tonkonog (licensed under CCA).

Southwark itself has a claim to be London's oldest suburb, having been established by the Romans in the First Century AD. It may even have served, briefly, as the capital of Britannia, following Boudicca's destruction of Colchester and London in 60/61 AD. "Suthriganaweorc" (the fort of the men of Surrey) was subsequently fortified by King Alfred the Great against the Danes, and, in 1066, was defended against the forces of William the Conqueror, forcing him to take a longer route to the west, encircling London from the north.

The Borough and Bankside, 1658 (image is in the Public Domain). The curve to the west of the priory may reflect the line of the Anglo-Saxon defences.

The building we currently know as "Southwark Cathedral" stands on the site of a "minster," recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as being held by the conqueror's half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, and subsequently re-founded in 1106 as the Augustinian Priory of Saint Mary Overie. The footprint of the current building probably reflects that of the priory church of 1106, although it was substantially rebuilt following fire damage in 1212 and 1420. The Elizabethan chronicler, John Stow, interviewed Bartholomew Linsted, the last Augustinian prior, who told him of a tradition that a nunnery had existed on the site since the Seventh Century, although there is no archaeological or documentary evidence to support this.

Southwark Priory and London Bridge, by Claes Van Visscher (1616 - image is in the Public Domain).

Southwark Cathedral from The Shard. Photo: Kevin Danks (licensed under CCA).
The nave of Southwark Cathedral. Photo: Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone), licensed under CCA.
Wooden effigy of a knight (possibly a member of the de Warenne family, 1280-1300), Southwark Cathedral. Photo: Amandajm (licensed under CCA).

The Fourteenth Century poet, John Gower, a contemporary and friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, had a house within the precincts of the priory, and is buried within. He served as poet laureate under both Richard II and Henry IV, and was remunerated, like the current incumbent, in wine.

John Gower, shown loosing an arrow into the world (a sphere consisting of land, air and water). University of Glasgow, MS Hunter 59 (T.2 17,folio 6v - image is in the Public Domain).
Wenceslas Hollar's "Long View of London," from a sketch drawn from the tower (image is in the Public Domain). Gower's house is likely to have been close to the river. 
The tomb of John Gower in Southwark Cathedral - the preservation of colour is rare in the context of English churches. Photo: Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) - image is in the Public Domain.

With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the priory church became the Parish Church of Saint Saviour (within the Diocese of Winchester), serving the growing population of Southwark, a district of theatres, bear-pits, and brothels. Those buried here included Edmund Shakespeare, William's younger brother, an actor who died of the plague; the Jacobean dramatists John Fletcher and Philip Massinger; and a chief of the American Mohegan tribe, Mahomet Weyonoman, who traveled to London in 1735, to petition George II for the rights of his people, but who succumbed to smallpox.

By the early Nineteenth Century, the church had fallen into disrepair. Restoration works were carried out by George Gwilt Jun (1818-30) and Sir Arthur Blomfield (1889-97), but were strongly criticised at the time for failing to respect the Medieval fabric of the building.

Southwark Cathedral, showing Nineteenth Century restorations. Photo: Paul Gillett (licensed under CCA). 

The "cathedral," as it stands today, may be something of a hybrid, but its tower, at least, is a landmark that Chaucer, Gower, and Shakespeare would recognise, one of the few fixed points in the shifting landscape of London's oldest suburb.

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

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

From City to Metropolis: The Historic Boroughs of London

Over the past fifteen months, I have been exploring, with any who choose to follow me, the Wards of Old London: beginning at Newgate Street, in the Ward of Farringdon Within, back in November 2015; and ending at Fleet Street, in the Ward of Farringdon Without, in January 2017. This journey has taken us through all of the intramural and extramural wards of the City of London. There is, however, more to London than just "The City," and it is now time to begin a broader exploration of the Boroughs that make up the modern metropolis.

When Geoffrey Chaucer thought of "London," he would doubtless have had in mind "The City," an entity defined by already ancient walls and gates, with a Lord Mayor, a Guildhall, and a well-developed system of civic governance. From the window of his lodgings in Aldgate, he might have observed friars, knights and merchants leaving the City on their way to Colchester or Ipswich; and men of law, physicians and clerks entering the City, having journeyed from Norwich or Thetford. When he placed his pilgrims in Southwark's Tabard Inn, he would have understood that they had already set out on the road to Canterbury, the gates of the City shut behind them after the ringing of the curfew bell.

When William Shakespeare walked the same streets, the "London" of his imagination would have been an altogether bigger place. Whilst he may have lodged, worshiped, shopped, and had his shoes repaired in the City, most of his working life was spent beyond its limits, in the theatre districts of Southwark and Shoreditch. Samuel Pepys's London extended from Greenwich to Whitehall and Covent Garden; and for many modern Londoners, the metropolis is bounded by an orbital motorway, the M25, completed during my lifetime.

London from Space (the M25 is the outermost band of light. Photo: NASA/Cmdr Chris Hadfield (image is in the Public Domain).

The greatest expansion of the metropolis took place during the Nineteenth Century, and was observed by Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:

"The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre ... Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood ... Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height ... fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing ... "

He was writing of the construction of the London to Birmingham Railway through Camden in the 1830s, but the "March of Bricks and Mortar" had begun before the railway age had been conceived, which is by no means to deny the role that the railways had in accelerating the process in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

"The March of Bricks and Mortar," by George Cruikshank, 1829 (image is in the Public Domain).

Throughout and beyond Dickens's lifetime, new metropolitan boroughs were established until, by the 1880s, it was clear that a new overarching system of governance was required. The London County Council was established in 1889, and functioned until 1965, when it was replaced by the Greater London Council. Abolished by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986, the demise of the GLC left "Greater London" (an entity, the reality of which was, by then, recognised by virtually all Londoners) without a political framework, until the current Greater London Authority was established in 2000, under a directly elected Mayor (not to be confused with the Lord Mayor, whose writ runs, as in Chaucer's day, only within The City).

Spring Gardens, close to The Embankment was the headquarters of the London County Council from 1889 until 1921 (image is in the Public Domain).  
Old County Hall, headquarters of the London County Council from 1921 until 1964, and of the Greater London Council from 1965 until 1986. Photo: gailf548 (licensed under CCA). 
City Hall, headquarters of the Greater London Authority. Photo: Carlos Delgado (CC-BY-SA).
The Boroughs of London. Image: LondonMapper.

There are currently thirty-two London Boroughs (not including The City), so where to begin our exploration of them? For me, there can be only one answer to that question: let us begin by retracing our footsteps through The City to the junction I described as the "Crossroads of England", and heading south from there, across London Bridge, into London's oldest suburb: Southwark.

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

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: February

In the calendar of the Medieval Christian year, the feasts of Christmas, the New Year, and the Epiphany, are followed by the far more austere, and, in many cases, even colder, weeks of February. There is just one last element of the story of Christ's birth to be marked, and, interestingly, it is one which frankly recognises the original Jewish context of the story. Candlemas, celebrated on the second day of the month, recalls the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, by Ambrosio Lorenzetti (1342), Uffizi Gallery, Florence (image is in the Public Domain).

Secular imagery associated with this time of the year often depicts the gathering and transport of firewood, and shows people struggling to stay warm indoors. People were heavily reliant on food stored during the autumn: whether grain & flour; cheeses & butter; smoked meats; salted fish; or orchard fruits & root vegetables stored in barrels. Many a family may have been spared from starvation by a supply of cheap and unappetising "red herrings" (smoked and salted for double preservative effect).

The Canterbury Calendar page for February: the man warms his feet and socks by the fire, whilst above him hang smoked sausages and meat (image is in the Public Domain).
Page from the Tripartite Mahzor, a German Jewish manuscript of c 1349 (image is in the Pubic Domain). The fishes represent the passage of the sun into Pisces: Hellenistic and Roman astrological ideas survived in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. 
February, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-1416, Musee Conde (image is in the Public Domain). The lady of the house warms herself by the fire, whilst a man outside, probably her husband, cuts wood. A peasant drives his ass or mule towards a nearby town, laden with firewood. The sheep are corralled in the yard, presumably fed on hay, and the ewes heavily pregnant. 
Landscape with bird-trap, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (image is in the Public Domain). Hunting and trapping birds and small mammals was among the few means that most people had of accessing fresh food in the depths of winter.

Saint Valentine's Day, celebrated on the fourteenth of the month, became associated, in the late Middle Ages, with courtly love, not because the saint himself had any great credentials as a lover (if he existed at all, which many doubt, he was, as Bishop of Narnia, presumably celibate), but because of a story that wild birds begin their courtship in the middle of February. The earliest record of this tradition (and of any association of Saint Valentine's Day with romantic love) is in Geoffrey Chaucer's (1382) Parlement of Foules, although it is possible that he was drawing on earlier folk-beliefs.

" ... this was on seynt Valentine's day,
Whan every foule cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make;
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was all the place."

The psalter of Bonne of Luxembourg, c 1349, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image is in the Public Domain). Bonne was the mother of Jean, Duc de Berry who commissioned and owned Les Tres Riches Heures. Birds were already a popular subject in art before Chaucer's time, their depiction often based on close observation. Those depicted above are (clockwise from top-left) the green woodpecker; hoopoe; great tit; goldfinch; and wood pigeon (that at bottom left is unclear - possibly a nuthatch). The artists are Jean Le Noir and his daughter, Bourgot, who worked first for Bonne and her husband, Jean, and later for their son, the Duc de Berry.

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