Real Story Of Medieval Capital Told At The Museum of London

By Graham Spicer | 23 November 2005
Shows a photo of an ornate round brooch with a star shaped pattern in gold and red

Saxon brooch from the 600s, found in a grave unearthed in Covent Garden. © Museum of London

Pulling on his winkle-pickers and re-filling his tankard, Graham Spicer stepped back into the medieval age at the Museum of London.

From the decline of Rome to the Protestant Reformation, the medieval period lasted more than a millennia and saw London transformed from ruins to a flourishing capital city, ready to take on the world.

The Museum of London’s new Medieval Gallery, which opens on November 25 2005, is tackling this huge subject, with an ambitious and intelligently displayed selection of some 1,200 objects, from miniature toy soldiers to an entire section of riverfront.

“What this gallery does is make up for lost time,” said Hedley Swain, Head of Early London Development at the museum. “In the last 30 years there has been a huge amount of archaeology work in London.”

Shows a photo of a museum display case containing several large battle axes and arrowheads with two small children looking at it

The Vikings sailed up the Thames and attacked Saxon Lundenwic in the 800s, leading to its abandonment. © Museum of London

“The very first thing we did was speak to audience,” he added. “What we realised was that what people thought of as medieval was an incredibly moveable feast.”

With this in mind, the gallery identifies key moments in London’s medieval history to show how the period progressed and covers the end of Roman occupation in AD410 to the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558.

“We’ve identified the big traumatic moments in this history – things that changed the lives of everyone – and we make those our focus points and then look at the processes that took place between those traumatic points,” explained Hedley.

Shows a photo of a silver coin with a king's head on it and the words Elfred Rex written on it

Alfred the Great, pictured on this coin, recaptured London and settled within the original Roman walls. © Museum of London

The first ‘traumatic point’ was the leaving of the Romans: “When the Romans went in AD410, in effect anarchy took over Britain and they left a completely deserted city,” Hedley explained.

By AD600, however, a new London was founded by the native Britons and the incoming Saxons. This was called Lundenwic, built to the west of the Roman city underneath modern Covent Garden.

Items like an ornate Saxon brooch, made of copper and decorated with gold wire and a mosaic of polished garnets, illustrate these early years.

Shows a photo of a medieval pewter model of a knight on horseback

A child's toy knight from about 1300, made of pewter and one of the earliest examples of a mass produced toy. © Museum of London

Lundenwic became a successful trading port, but in the mid-800s the Vikings invaded and the city was abandoned. In 886 the West Saxon king, Alfred the Great, captured the London area and after making peace with the Vikings founded Lundenburg within the old Roman walls.

Displays of vicious looking Viking axes and arrowheads are testament to the Scandinavian influence on the city, along with King Alfred silver pennies, signs of the stability he subsequently imposed.

“So the original Roman London has a second chance, it gets re-founded and that’s our second big event,” remarked Hedley. “Almost immediately it becomes a very successful trading town again and from that point on it goes on to grow - it becomes the national capital, it becomes an international trading port and becomes the centre of England.”

Shows a photo of a pewter badge of a masted boat with a priest and several other men in it

Many people visited holy shrines bringing back badges as souvenirs. This one shows Thomas Becket sailing to England shortly before his death in 1170. © Museum of London

A wealth of exhibits chronicle these years, including a pewter toy soldier, ‘pilgrim badges’ from trips to holy shrines and finds from a Jewish home of around 1276 with a hanging lamp, delicately fashioned in bronze. It was not long before all Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

London’s next traumatic event was the Black Death, or bubonic plague, which arrived from Asia, striking London in 1348, and killed half the city’s population in under two years – around 40,000 from a population of 80,000.

“We thought can we make modern analogies, can we make links with things like Aids or SARs or bird flu?” said Hedley. “The simple fact is none of those match up to the Black Death.”

Shows a photo of a bronze hanging lamp

A Jewish hanging lamp, similar to the Sabbath lamps still lit in Jewish homes on Friday evenings and on the eve of festivals. © Museum of London

“You can’t turn on the news every night and have 50 experts in smart suits on a couch telling you what’s going to happen next – nobody knows what’s going on. It meant that everyone who survived completely re-evaluated their lives and their place in the world.”

Although London took time to recover, the Black Death would also change the economy and help put an end to the feudal system, as working people were more in demand and wielded more power.

“What it also shows is that London, whatever you kick at it, gets up and gets on with things, and London has always done that,” added Hedley.

Shows a photo of a medieval leather highly pointed shoe next to a modern ladies pointed shoe

Fashions always seem to come round again...A 'poulaine' style pointed shoe from the late 1300s next to its modern equivalent. © Museum of London

“By the end of our period London is by far the biggest city in Britain and it’s beginning to compete with those great European cities in the Netherlands and Italy and is on its way to being the greatest city in the world.”

Examples of London’s growing culture include ‘Poumaines’ – pointed leather shoes worn by men and women. These were fashionable from the late 1300s and again in the late 1400s. Knitting was also developed and poor people would make their own clothes – a child’s woollen glove and vest are displayed.

Extraordinarily well-preserved pieces like these, and even an over-sized woollen codpiece, have been found in waterlogged areas along the riverfront where oxygen was unable to rot them.

Shows a photo of a woolen codpiece

Don't snigger - codpieces really did exist - this one is made of wool. © Museum of London

In 1476 William Caxton set up London’s first printing press near Westminster Abbey. Other printers set up in Fleet Street closer to their customers in the city and the British media was born. The exhibition shows original pages from Caxton’s print of Chaucer’s A Canterbury Tales with the typeface reproducing a contemporary writing style.

“Our gallery ends with the Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII closing the monasteries,” continued Hedley. “So you have this period where again like with the Black Death everybody has to completely re-evaluate their life.”

The pope had refused the king a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so Henry broke free from the Roman Church and proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534.

Shows a page from a woodcut printed book which shows a frieze of medieval London buildings

William Caxton introduced the printing press in 1476. This woodcut is of London, from Caxton's Chronicles of England, and printed in 1497 by Caxton's successor. © Museum of London

He went on to dissolve the monasteries in 1539 and, with about two thirds of central London owned by the church, as their lands were sold off there was a profound impact on the city’s economy and culture.

Here, at the end of the medieval period, the city had changed once more, the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant churches was born, and the time was ripe for a growing English nationalism and self-confidence.

The exhibition includes computer terminals with useful timelines, games and sections exploring the different themes of the exhibition like the Thames, religion, government and the guilds that were the commercial lifeblood of the city.

Shows a painting of medieval London with the Thames, the Tower of London and the spire of St Paul's Cathedral visible

How London would have looked in 1400, with its skyline dominated by the 120 metre spire of St Paul's. Painted by Amedee Forestier, 1912. © Museum of London

Children’s captions highlight the odd, fascinating or truly distasteful aspects of history that kids’ love, like doctors diagnosing illnesses based on the colour of a patient’s urine.

Located in the heart of the city, the Museum of London sits next to the remains of London’s walls, a testament to this fascinating age. Its new gallery is a must-see for anyone interested in the development of the capital and the impact of the medieval period as a whole.

The Museum of London's new Medieval Gallery opens on Friday November 25 2005.

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