Finding The French In Medieval London: A Museum Of London Gallery Tour

| 07 March 2007
photo shows another museum of london curator holding pewter head of becket

One of the many images of Thomas Becket - an English Bishop of French parentage, held here by another Museum of London curator. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

We searched the Medieval galleries of the Museum of London for the story of the French in the early city. Many thanks to curator John Clark for showing us around.

Explore the Museum of London's Medieval Gallery online

If you go back to the prehistoric period, England and France were joined until around 7000BC. A film at the entrance to the museum allows you to sit and watch as the landmass is unzipped into two by streams of water that created the North Sea at the end of the Ice Age.

Eight thousand years later, and the two countries are still strongly intertwined by trade and culture. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the King of England was also Duke of Normandy and controlled other parts of France for 150 years. Under Henry II two thirds of what is now France was ruled by the king of England - albeit a French-speaking King born in France.

Large number of immigrants came from Norman cities like Caen and Rouen. St Thomas Becket was son of Gilbert Becket, a merchant from Rouen who settled in London. There are over 200 badges depicting St Thomas in the museum's collections - most dug up from the surrounding streets of London. Some are quite elaborate, showing the saint in ships or riding a horse. You can see a few of them in case 13.2.

photo shows pewter image of ship with people on board

A badge showing Thomas Becket aboard a ship. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

There was a traffic in both directions as the French visited English shrines like Canterbury and Walsingham, whilst the English also travelled to holy places in France.

London's system of government depends on French influence - the idea of a 'mayor' was imported from the Norman merchant cities that had long had the right to choose their own chief magistrate. London got its first mayor in about 1189

photo show a brown seal

Courtesy of the Museum of London. The seal of Ingelram de Préaux. The French and English branches of his family were divided by the upheavals of 1204.

Finally King John lost Normandy in 1204. Many of his Norman nobles who had lands both in France and England had to decide on which side of the Channel their loyalties lay. Many declared their allegiance to the king of France in order to retain their French properties. Here's the brass seal of Ingelram de Préaux (case 10.1) whose family split into English and French branches.

photo shows jug with green decoration

A Saintonge jug, brought to London with the wine trade from France. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

However, English kings retained control of South West France (Bordeaux/Aquitaine) - inherited through Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II. So most French wine imported to England came from Bordeaux.

Here's one example of the Saintonge pottery that came with the wine trade. It was excavated from Fish Street Hill in the City of London. This type of jug was brought over from the late 1200s to the early 1300s. Tall jugs with 'parrot beak' spouts like this one were the most popular type.

photo shows gold ring with mauve stone on the front

A finger ring with a French inscription from the 1400s. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

At various times during the 100 Years War (1337 - 1453), northern France was more or less in English control.

French remained the language of the English royal court and legal system until at least the late 14th century, although during the 100 Years War English kings stressed their Englishness by speaking English. French was the 'lingua franca' of merchants; any English merchant who dealt with foreign trade would use French.

It was also the language of courtly love. This gold 'posy' finger ring has a love message inscribed around the outside. It says 'pour amor … say douc', meaning 'for love … so sweet'. This ring was discovered on the Thames foreshore at Bankside. You can see it, and other rings inscribed in French in case 26.1.

You can hear a poem being read in Anglo-Norman French on the gallery's listening post - just one of the languages of London during the period.

photo shows brown round pot with narrow tapering neck

A plainer French wine bottle - a common sight in Medieval London. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

This later and plainer Normandy flask (1475 - 1550) came from Martincamp near Dieppe - it would have been a common sight in London, held in a wicker basket. Whether or not England ruled part of France, contacts and trade continued.

England lost its last English possession, Calais, in 1558 - the last year of the reign of Queen Mary. This is also appropriately the last year dealt with in the museum's Medieval Gallery - the moment when the two nations finally divided.

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