Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 1 - "London," by Edward Rutherfurd

Although English Medieval historians, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, liked to believe that London was founded by refugees from the fall of Troy, modern historians and archaeologists are, for the most part, in agreement, that, as a city, it owes its existence to the Romans. Even in prehistoric times, however, the River Thames formed a natural frontier between the often warring tribes of Iron Age Britain: the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes to the north; the Atrebates and Regnenses to the south. When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 54 BC, he seems to have been using a well established stratagem of playing one tribe against another (backing the Trinovantes against the Catuvellauni); and, when the Emperor Claudius invaded in 43 AD, he probably took a similar approach (in this case supporting the Atrebates and Regnenses against the more powerful Catuvellauni).

This helmet, found in the Thames at Waterloo, may date to the time of Julius Caesar's invasion, but would have been of little use in battle, and was probably parade armour. British Museum. Photo: Ealdgyth (licensed under CCA).

The Meyrick Helmet, probably from northern England, is of a type more likely to have been worn by British Warriors in battle. British Museum. Photo: Geni (GFDL CC-BY-SA).


Claudius and his General, Aulus Plautius, almost certainly established at least a temporary bridge across the Thames, somewhere between the current London Bridge and Westminster Bridge, and merchants, whether Roman, Gaullish, or British (of various tribes) soon took advantage of this to establish a thriving port.

London (or Londinium) was, along with Colchester (Camulodunum) and Saint Alban's (Verulamium), destroyed in the Boudiccan Revolt of 60/61 AD (Boudicca's tribe, the Iceni of Norfolk, were in alliance with the Trinovantes of Essex against the more Romanised Catuvellauni, whose cities were burned). Southwark, however, was already a flourishing suburb before the revolt, and, although there is some evidence of fire-damage there, most of it seems to have survived.


Roman mural, from a house in Southwark, Museum of London. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). Elaborate decorations on walls and floors testify to the prosperity of Roman London's mercantile community.  


At London itself (what is today the City), there is evidence for renewed Roman military, and perhaps also mercantile) activity as early as 64 AD, probably under the supervision of the newly appointed Procurator (finance minister) of Britannia, Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, a man who seems to have done much to assuage the divisions and hostilities that had prompted the revolt. By around 80 AD, the cities that had been burned by Boudicca had been fully re-established, and London had replaced Colchester as the capital of the Roman province.


The tomb of Procurator Classicianus, who must have died in office, was found to the east of London. British Museum (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Wooden tablet, with the inscription "To Mogontius at London," c 64 AD. Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). It probably accompanied a consignment of goods. Mogontius is a Celtic name, so he was, perhaps, a Catuvellanian working as a contractor for Classicianus. 

Model of London, 80-95 AD, Museum of London. Photo: Steven G. Johnson (licensed under CCA).

Reconstruction of a kitchen in Roman London, Museum of London. Photo: Carole Raddato (licensed under CCA). City-dwellers in Roman Britain soon developed a taste for imported produce, including wine, olive oil, fish sauce, cumin, coriander, pepper, dates, and figs. 

Londoners also developed a taste for Roman blood-sports. The amphitheatre, where gladiatorial contests would have been staged, is preserved beneath London's Guildhall. Photo: Charles T. Clarke (licensed under CCA). 


Edward Rutherfurd's novel, London, is a work of epic scope, beginning in 54 BC, and continuing on to 1997 (the year in which the novel itself was published). Written in the tradition of the American novelist, James A. Michener, it follows the fortunes of a handful of inter-related families from earliest times down to the present day. The novel comprises twenty-one individual stories, but, as it is my intention to tell the story of London chronologically, I will focus on the first, "The River," whose hero, a young man named Segovax, a Catuvellaunian warrior who finds himself facing the legions of Julius Caesar across the Thames.



"Even now, in the dawning light, the shape of the ancient places could be seen clearly across the water: two low gravel hills with levelled tops rising side by side about eighty feet above the waterfront. Between the two hills ran a little brook. To the left, on the western flank, a larger stream descended to a broad inlet that interrupted the northern bank ... "

"The senior druid was out in midstream, the two men with their long poles keeping the raft steady in the current. On the northern bank, the two low hills were bathed in the sun's reddish light. And now, like some ancient grey-bearded sea god rising up out of the waters, the tall druid on the raft raised the metal object over his head so that it caught the sunbeams and flashed. It was a shield, made of bronze, sent with one of his most trusted nobles by the great chief Cassivelaunus himself ... It was the most important gift the island people could make to the gods ... "


"Celtic" shields, such as this one, found in the Thames at Battersea, were probably thrown into the river as offerings to the gods. British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).


"Segovax had never seen a battle before ... Suddenly everywhere men were running, whilst chariots wheeled about at such speed that it seemed as though in a matter of seconds they might bear down across the meadows upon him. The Romans' armour seemed to glint and flash like some terrible, fiery creature ... Amidst the din, he heard men, grown men, screaming with cries of agony dreadful to hear ... When a Roman cavalryman suddenly appeared and cantered across the meadow a hundred yards from him, he was like a giant. The boy, clutching his spear, felt completely puny ... "  

" ... he had not noticed the approach of the riders. There were half a dozen of them, and they were now staring down at the little scene curiously. In the middle of them was a tall figure with a bald head and a hard, intelligent face ... He said something to the centurion, and everyone laughed with him ... Some cruel joke perhaps. No doubt, he supposed, they proposed to watch him die ... But to his surprise the centurion had sheathed his own sword. The Romans were moving away. They were leaving him alone, with his father's body."

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


Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels

Back in May, 2014, I began a blog series on "A History of the World in 50 Novels." It was inspired by Neil MacGregor's radio series and book, A History of the World in 100 Objects; opened with William Golding's historical novel, "The Inheritors," set more than thirty thousand years ago; and concluded, almost exactly three years after I began, with Sebastian Faulks's contemporary novel, "A Week in December," written against the background of concerns about terrorism, addiction, and global financial crisis. The series included some of the most popular posts that I have ever published here: Number 27, which considers the novel, "Manituana," by the Italian writers' collective, Wu Ming, is actually my second most popular, with 3035 individual page-views, as of today.

Having published three historical novels, Undreamed Shores, set in the Channel Islands, southern England and northern France at around 2400 BC; An Accidental King, set in southern England in the First Century AD; and Omphalos, with inter-related stories set in 2013, the Second World War, the Eighteenth, Sixteenth, and Twelfth Centuries, and 4000 BC, and inspired by one of my own archaeological excavations on Jersey; I announced, at the beginning of 2015, that my next novel would be set in London, where I have now spent more than half of my life. My blog-posts, since then, have reflected this new focus.

I also said, at the beginning of 2015, that this new novel might take some time, which indeed it has, partly because it has become a trilogy (working title, The Cheapside Tales, with the first novel being The Freedwoman's Tale), but also because I have been dividing my time between writing and teaching. It is still very much work in progress, but the orientation towards London is clear, and, on that basis, I am beginning a new blog-series, "The Story of London in 50 Novels." I am interested to look at the various ways in which novelists, from Daniel Defoe down to China Mieville and Neil Gaiman, have explored the changing character of the city in which I have chosen to live.

Here, then, are my selections.




1. London, by Edward Rutherfurd.
2. The Emperor's Babe, by Bernardine Evaristo.
3. Cast Not The Day, by Paul Waters.
4. Now is the Time, by Melvyn Bragg.
5. A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger.
6. The Woman in the Shadows, by Carol McGrath.
7. The Marlowe Papers, by Ros Barber.
8. The House of Doctor Dee, by Peter Ackroyd.
9. Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess.




10. Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe.
11. The Fatal Tree, by Jake Arnott.
12. The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth.
13. The Giant O'Brien, by Hilary Mantel.
14. Mistress of my Fate, by Hallie Rubenhold.
15. Burning Bright, by Tracy Chevalier.
16. Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.
17. The Walworth Beauty, by Michelle Roberts.
18. Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot.
19. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens.
20. Mrs Engels, by Gavin McCrea.
21. Affinity, by Sarah Waters.
22. The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad.
23. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome.
24. A Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.
25. A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison.
26. Children of the Ghetto, by Israel Zangwill.
27. London Lies Beneath, by Stella Duffy.
28. The Hourglass Factory, by Lucy Ribchester.




29. Life Class, by Pat Barker.
30. Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.
31. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.
32. The Clocks in This House Are All Telling Different Times, by Xan Brooks.
33. Murphy, by Samuel Beckett.
34. The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters
35. The Lonely Londoners, by Samuel Selvon.
36. The Longest Fight, by Emily Bullock.
37. The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant.
38. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark.
39. Metroland, by Julian Barnes.
40. East of Acre Lane, by Alex Wheatle.
41. Brick Lane, by Monica Ali.
42. The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride.
43. There But For The, by Ali Smith.
44. Saturday, by Ian McEwan.
45. Ten Days, by Gillian Slovo.
46. NW, by Zadie Smith.
47. Serious Sweet, by A.L. Kennedy.
48. The Bricks That Built The Houses, by Kate Tempest.
49. Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville.
50. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman.




I look forward to exploring these books with anyone who cares to join me. As with my earlier series, "A History of the World in 50 Novels" (#HW50Novels), I will be using a Twitter hash-tag (#SL50Novels) to make it easier for readers of one post to find others in the same series.

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


Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Rotherhithe - "The Eighth Wonder of the World."

A visitor to London, exploring the Borough of Southwark, and having visited Bermondsey, can continue following the Thames eastwards into Rotherhithe. The area takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon Hryder-hyd, meaning a landing place for cattle, and was, for centuries, dominated by docks and shipyards, going back at least to the Sixteenth Century. The shipyards closed in the early Nineteenth Century, as steel replaced timber, and sail gave way to steam (a transition depicted on Turner's famous painting, "The Fighting Temeraire"); but the docks remained in active use until after the Second World War.


"The Fighting Temeraire," by J.M.W. Turner, 1839, National Gallery, NG524 (image is in the Public Domain). The view-point is from Rotherhithe.


Each of London's dockland areas had connections to different parts of the world: in the case of Rotherhithe, Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea; Russia; Greenland; and Canada. There is little to show for this today, apart from place-names (Canada Water, Greenland Dock, Russia Dock Woodland), and the churches that once ministered to Norwegian, Finnish, and Russian seamen.


Map of Rotherhithe, Ordnance Survey (Open Data License).


Prior to the construction of Tower Bridge, communication between London's northern and southern docks was a major problem for the managers of the port. Both labour and goods needed to be moved, but there was no crossing point east of an increasingly congested London Bridge. The Thames Watermen had an effective monopoly, but moving cargoes and people around by boat added both costs and time. London, as a port, was becoming less efficient each year.

A solution was proposed by one of the greatest engineers ever to have worked in Britain, the Frenchman, Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), a refugee from the French Revolution. His scheme was for a tunnel beneath the Thames, connecting Rotherhithe with Wapping. Thirteen hundred feet in length, thirty-five in width, and seventy-five feet beneath the Thames, it would be the first tunnel ever built beneath a navigable river, and would be able to accommodate carts and carriages. Early investors included the Duke of Wellington, and work commenced in 1825.


Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, by James Northcote, 1812-13, National Portrait Gallery, NPG978 (image is in the Public Domain). 


Brunel had worked with another engineer, Thomas Cochrane, to develop an innovative "tunneling shield," built of iron and wood, a movable platform on which miners could dig through the silt and clay, whilst, behind them, bricklayers constructed the vault that would support the overlying weight.

Work did not always go smoothly: there was a serious flood in 1827; and a second in 1828; the latter claiming the lives of six men. Marc's son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), who had joined the project as an engineer, was lucky to escape the 1828 flood with his life. Costs were mounting, and work stopped altogether between 1828 and 1834.

The construction of the Thames Tunnel, c 1830 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Thames Tunnel "shield" (image is in the Public Domain). 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlett, 1857 (image is in the Public Domain).


When the project was completed in 1843, it was a triumph of engineering, but a commercial failure. It opened as a pedestrian tunnel, and it became a major tourist destination, attracting two million visitors per year. The American travel-writer, William Allen Drew, described it as "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Costermongers set up their stalls in the tunnel, and buskers performed; homeless people even paid to sleep there; but no carriages or goods ever passed through the tunnel, and investors saw little, if any, return.

The Thames Tunnel shaft in 1843 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Thames Tunnel in the mid-19th Century (image is in the Public Domain).


The Thames Tunnel was purchased by the East London Railway in 1865, and is still in use today: most passengers traveling on the London Overground service (formerly the East London Line) between Rotherhithe and Wapping are probably unaware that they are using the tunnel built by the Brunels.

The Thames Tunnel from Wapping. Photo: Andrew Rendle (licensed under CCA).


At the Rotherhithe end, just around the corner from the railway station, a former engine-house, staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, stands as a museum to one of London's most ambitious engineering projects.


The Brunel Museum at Rotherhithe. Photo: Bryan Jones (licensed under CCA).


We have now completed our exploration of the Borough of Southwark. From Rotherhithe, we can take the London Overground to Canada Water, changing onto the Jubilee Line, and alighting at Waterloo, to begin our exploration of the neighbouring Borough of Lambeth.


The London Borough of Southwark (image is in the Public Domain).


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

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Year in Medieval Art: September

With the summer's cereal harvest safely gathered in, and stored in granaries, September was, in many cases, the time to bring out harrows and ploughs to prepare the ground for the sowing of the next crop, often winter vegetables, such as cabbages or turnips.

Harrowing, c 1490, Pierpoint Morgan Library Manuscript 5.7 f D09v.

Harrowing (foreground) and ploughing (background), from the Golf Book, Bruges, 1520-30, British Library, Add.MS. 24098, f26v (licensed under CCA). The men in the lower panel are playing a game with marbles.


There does appear to have been at least some time for recreation, for the early Sixteenth Century "Golf Book" takes its name from a marginal scene in one of the pages for September, depicting a game that, at least superficially, resembles golf.

Calendar page for September, from the Golf Book (details as above). The men in the lower panel play a game resembling golf, whilst the zodiacal symbol for Scorpio appears in the right-hand margin. 


In wine producing areas, September was often the month in which the grapes were harvested. Scenes in books of hours, on stained glass, and even, sometimes, on stone fountains, show the cutting, treading, and pressing of the grapes.


The grape harvest, from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-86, Musee Conde, MS.65, f9v. The castle in the background is the Chateau de Saumur: both castle and vineyard are still in existence, the former containing an excellent restaurant, in which the wines from the latter may be sampled!  

The grape harvest, c 1480, Victoria and Albert Museum C133-1931 (image is in the Public Domain).

The grape harvest (image is in the Public Domain).

Scene from the Fontana Maggiore of Perugia, c 1275, depicting the harvesting and treading of grapes. Photo: Giovanni dall'Orto (licensed under CCA).

Grape treading (image is in the Public Domain).

Grape treading (image is in the Public Domain).


Secular, rather than religious, concerns remain to the fore in September, but each milestone in the agricultural calendar of the Middle Ages also had its spiritual significance: if August's cereal harvest provided the "bread of life" for the Eucharistic feast, September 's grape harvest would fill "the cup of the new and everlasting covenant."

Calendar pages for September and October, from the Rothschild Prayer-Book (image is in the Public Domain).


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