Episode 61: Medieval London at the Museum of London
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.
Today we are going to be covering the permanent exhibition at the Museum of London of medieval London which compliments our medieval walk quite beautifully. Joining me is city of London tour guide Ian McDiarmid.
Ian McDiarmid: Hello
Hazel Baker: Ian, would you like to set the scene and explain medieval London?
Ian McDiarmid: Okay. Well, I’ll begin if I may with Roman London which comes to an end in the beginning of the fifth century. Where Roman London became pretty much totally empty by about the middle of the fifth century. It’s a very rapid decline from about 410AD to about 450 AD. When the Anglo-Saxons settled, they decided to put their major settlement a bit further west and they built Lundenwic as it was called around where Aldwych and Covent Garden are now.
And when you go round the, into the medieval section of the Museum of London, it begins with the Anglo-Saxons logically and it ends about 1500 or so.
Hazel Baker: The museum of London has this permanent exhibition, which we spent quite a considerable amount of time in, and we’re going to be sharing our favourite bits today.
What I did like is that they’re using maps on the floor to guide you on a set one way route, which was very nice. And also the hand sanitiser machines, you didn’t have to touch them in order for you to get a hand sanitiser, which I think is brilliant. In Episode 25, we shared with you our experience of the British museum.
Ian McDiarmid: What was nice about the Museum of London is that you could access all parts of the museum. It was just a one way route. So you don’t feel that you’re missing out on anything and they just roped off a couple of enclosed spaces, which you probably wouldn’t want to go into any way at this time, things like the Victorian pub, is that right?
Hazel Baker: And the black death of video stuff where you sit down and watch it.
Ian McDiarmid: I’m sure most people will agree with this. When you go around the museums, it’s all a bit much to take in. And although this has happened to me in the past when I’ve gone around the Museum of London and I’ve been around several times, I tend to do it all in one go. I don’t know if you’ve done that as well? And what’s nice about the past two times that we’ve been, we’ve just concentrated on one section and it’s been more than enough, hasn’t it?
The first time we went around the Roman section and last week we went around the Medieval and the way the medieval set out, it’s very clear. Isn’t it? I like that. I mean you’re saying about the arrows on the floor in general. When you get in, when you enter the medieval section, they’ve got a map of London which kind of lights up and it shows the growth of London from, and where London actually was in terms of its position from Anglo-Saxon times through to about 1600. I think that that was very useful. So Hazel, you went round, was there anything particular that caught your eye in the medieval section?
Hazel Baker: Yeah. I’ve got three things really, two of them are shiny, no surprise there. So the first one is a fantastic brooch. It just caught my eye and it’s about seven centimetres in diameter and it has all these wonderful polished garnet decorations in it in the shape of a star, and then also some circles around the star.
I didn’t know this, this was brand new information for me, but in August, 2000, they did an excavation in Floral Street in Covent Garden, which was just round the corner from where I lived, this is where they found the grave of an Anglo-Saxon woman. And in that grave were some silver rings, glass beads, and then this fine brooch, and it really is beautiful.
The brooch itself is made of copper with gold plates and gold wire, and then these polished garnets. They believe that the brooch and the jewellery, actually in a bag around her neck at time of burial, which I thought was interesting. And what they get very excited about this because not very many brooches of this kind have been found before.
And also were very fashionable among aristocratic Anglo-Saxon women in Kent, in the 600s. So that seems to suggest that the grave of this woman was of noble birth or pushing the boat, royalty. I was very pleased to find something from an area that I know very well and don’t forget Floral Street would have been in the very heart of Lundowic, the Anglo Saxon town of London,
Ian McDiarmid: Floral street. Is that near the opera house?
Hazel Baker: Yeah, that’s right. Floral Street once was known as Hart Lane and it runs parallel to Long Acre.
Ian McDiarmid: When they did the excavations, it must be about that time that they did the excavations at the Opera House when they were building the new bit and that was very important for London because they established that. Well, looking at the ground plan, they thought that London was a lot bigger than they’d previously thought and a lot more diverse. And the street plan was a lot bigger than they had previously anticipated.
Hazel Baker: Well, it’s funny. You should mention the Opera House actually. Because when I was looking at the brooch online, they only had this brooch mentioned in their online collections for you to have a look at. And the second one wasn’t a brooch, it was actually a mould to make brooches and it was made out of red deer antler and it’s design is engraved in the surface. It shows a bird with its claws splayed and a tail feather. Antler can’t withstand very high temperatures so they think that the brooches were made out of lead or pewter, which melt at a lower temperature. And that was found at the Royal Opera House.
Ian McDiarmid: Very interesting. Things to do with pewter are always interesting I think, mainly because they don’t survive, they get mould melted down and reused. So you’re not going to find the actual brooches, but to see that mould was great. Now the other thing that you chose, or one of the other things you chose was a coin, wasn’t it?
Hazel Baker: Yeah, a shiny coin. So these coins are displayed at the very beginning of the medieval section of the Museum of London. And they’re displayed, standing up in a glass case so you can see the front and the back, and that’s quite important for these ones. And about 80AD King Alfred issued some special silver coins to commemorate his recapturing of the London area from the Danes. What I loved about this coin is that you’ve got the King’s head, as you’d expect, on one side, but on the other side is a monogram of the letters London. And that’s the medieval Latin for London. I thought these were really quite lovely.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. That lettering was spectacular, wasn’t it? I mean, it’s very, very clear and it’s very clear to see the way they’ve done the name of London.
Hazel Baker: It would make a nice logo for London now. What I liked is that because you’ve got five of these coins, some of them are really worn, so some of them have been in use in someone’s pocket and then some others are well, they look fantastic, so perhaps they were someone’s savings?
Ian McDiarmid: And so what about your third choice Hazel?
Hazel Baker: Well, the third one is a badge, so you can still wear it, but it’s not shiny because it’s made out of pewter. This is an Italian housewife Saint Zita, made in about 1400 and it shows St. Zita who was the patron Saint of housework. So I’m not quite sure why I love her so much, but I love the movement captured in the badge.
In the badge and she’s got this wavy hair, she’s got this pretty head dress on and the head dress dots seem to match her buttons on her outfit. Her waist is tiny, her boobs are humongous. So, you know, it’s been designed by a man, but I love the way that the skirt is moving. And so it looks like she’s waking.
Ian McDiarmid: It’s in an S shape as well. Isn’t she?
Hazel Baker: Yeah, I think that’s really quite beautiful. And unfortunately, I can’t find any more information about it online to share with the listeners either. When you go to the Museum of London, sometimes they have a little mouse sign with the artefacts and that means you can go online for more information.
Sometimes you just find exactly the same information as you have on the next to the artefact anyway. And so this one, unfortunately doesn’t have any more information, but I do know that Zita was a servant in Lucca Italy, and she died in 1272 and merchants from Lucca brought stories of her holiness to London and one London church, Saint Bennet’s became known as St. Zita’s.
Ian McDiarmid: Hmm. I wonder how the patron Saint of Housework works.
Hazel Baker: I think it’s all a con..
Ian McDiarmid: Well maybe if you pray to her, the house work gets done and you don’t have to do anything.
Hazel Baker: I’ll try anything once! So they’re my top three, even though I had lots of artefacts I really did love. Do you have any medieval artefacts found in London that you want to share?
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. The first one is there’s a series of four statues that they’ve got of the virtues, and these are very badly worn. These dates were about 1430. They’re interesting, partly because of them turning up in a garden in north Wales in 1972, which perhaps helps to explain why they’re so badly weather, but they’re really important because these four virtues used to be on the front of Guildhall.
Guildhall itself was built around this time around 1415, and it originally had a porch on the front. And one of the two main inspirations for Guildhall, one was the town hall was being built in the low countries, like in Ghent, and the other big inspiration for it was Westminster Hall.
Westminster hall had a series of statues above its gates. And in this sense, in this respect, Westminster hall represented cathedrals, which also had these and then the Guildhall. Although it was obscured in the 18th century, by the port that you can see today by Hawksmoor. And then these statues were removed, I think a bit later on finally.
And the four ladies represented are prudence and temperance and justice and fortitude, and they’ve paired them up. So they knew that two of them either prudence or temperance and they know the other two or either fortitude or justice, but they can’t quite determine, which is which, and all of these figures were originally tramping on a figure representing vice and vice survives in two or three of the ministers, rather.
There are these little grotesque heads peering out at the bottom and a bit like your pure pewter badge. Although they’re badly weathered, they’ve got a graceful shape to them. And you can imagine them all figured together above the arch and things to do with the Guildhall was the most important secular building in Medieval London.
So anything surviving from there I think is great and is really interesting.
Hazel Baker: And they’ve got a shield of the Royal arms as well there. I thought that was a copy but it’s actually an original. That’s huge. Isn’t it? That was from the 1300s as well. And it said about the arms after 1340, when Edward III claimed the throne of France and included the fluidly of France alongside the three lions of England. So this is the first time we get to see it.
Ian McDiarmid: And Guildhall is generally open to the public. In theory, it’s open pretty much every day though. Sometimes it’s closed because they’ve got some ceremony on. In the Middle Ages its interior was absolutely covered in tracery and every now and then you can spot a ton, tiny little remnants of that tracery.
So, I mean, it must have been, yeah, well, fantastic. Outside and inside. And of course it still is very impressive today, but I think with a kind of medieval porch on it, it would have looked truly magnificent.
Hazel Baker: All right, so that’s number one. What else have you got?
Ian McDiarmid: Well, on our medieval walk, I like to talk a little bit about the Jews of London, whose history is unpleasant and interesting. Unfortunately not much remains. And that is probably a bit of an exaggeration really.
There’s a plaque in Old Jewry to where the main synagogue was. And in this section of the medieval museum of London, they’ve got reference to two archaeological digs that they made on Milk Street and Gresham Street, where they found the remains of Jewish ritual bar mitzvahs.
Apart from that the Jews just appear in the records in rather unpleasant circumstances. So there were a couple of occasions when there were riots in London and the London is murder a few Jews for good measure. And apart from that, they just appear in, in records in sort of odd moments, but odd moments, which tell a rather dark history.
So there’s one from that I remember from the 13th century, when the body of a boy is found in a churchyard and the Jews are associated by Christians with ritual murder of children. And so what do they do to solve the crime? They say the whole Jewish community is responsible and they are given a very heavy fine.
And finally the Jews have kicked out under Edward I and in the Museum of London, they’ve got what is probably a Jewish lantern. So this is a lantern that would have been lit on the Eve of the Sabbath. And they speculate the Gitmo. Then subsequently used by Christians after the Jews were got rid of but it’s a rather nice bronze lamp and it’s nice to have something tangible to connect with this community that is so ephemeral in the historical record.
Hazel Baker: And they said that that one was from the 1100s and that was founded at St. Martin LeGrand.
Ian McDiarmid: Yes. And then my final one. An object of everyday significance. This is a timber revetment.
Hazel Baker: I thought you’re going to say wine gloves.
Ian McDiarmid: No, no, no, no. This is a timber revetment dating to about 1220. This is a wall made of Oak and there are four surviving planks knit with the vertical supports to it. And this would have been used for lining the river Thames. And so the significance of that is that the Thames is. Constantly being newly embanked. They’re constantly making new embankments out of timber at this period.
And as a result of this constant process of land reclamation. So what they do is they build a timber revetment and they’d fill in the intervening space, mainly with rubbish. And then you’ve got a new, a new bank to the river Thames, and of course, timber roads after a while. So this process goes on and on and on until in the 14th century, when there’ll be banks, the temps.
Stabilize and then become stabilized because they start using stone for this process. So obviously it’s, it’s rather interesting to see timber surviving from this period and ones that are of such importance for the history of our river. Yeah. Fantastic.
Hazel Baker: So there’s plenty to see in a couple of hours, just in the medieval London section alone.
Ian McDiarmid: It was two hours of intensive museum watching and reading, wasn’t it?
Hazel Baker: Yeah. And you can join us on a medieval London walk and see how London has made their livings, how religion permeated their lives and how they had to put up with some pretty strong smells, private tours and guided walks are available on our website, London guided walks.co.uk.
And if you just can’t wait to hear more about medieval London, then we have five other episodes for you to enjoy:
- Episode 32 is about medieval guilds in the city of London
- Episode 38 is a blowout, the black death London’s first plague
- Episode 41 is about medieval friaries
- Episode 48 covers leper hospitals in London
- Episode 50, the history of Shoreditch, covering medieval and Tudor
We once again, open for recommendations or requests for themes for our episodes. So please do let us know. You can message us via our website. If you go to londonguidedwalks.co.uk, you can actually click a voice message and leave us one there and we’ll get onto the list of things to research.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Don’t forget you can visit our website. We’ve got hundreds of blog articles, including ones about medieval London, and I’ll include some of them in the show notes. That’s all for now. See you next time.