Wednesday 27 March 2013

A Northern Lord in London: The City Richard III Knew.

                                     Panorama of C16th London from the south bank.
Richard III is well known for having been a northerner. The current debate raging over the reburial of his bones indicates the strength of feeling about him in his home county. Yet he was a man of two halves; one foot amid the rolling dales and another firmly rooted in the teeming lanes of the medieval capital. Pleasure may have drawn him to the north but business made him return to London throughout his life and reign.

Born at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, in 1452, Richard spent much of his adult life at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, or the nearby Sheriff Hutton, home to his influential Council in the North. He was a son of York by name and inclination, choosing it as the location for the investiture of his young son as Prince of Wales.
Just weeks after his 1483 coronation, he left London behind and headed north on progress, taking his southern Lords along for the ride, in order to display to them the extent of his support in his homelands. After his death at Bosworth Field, it was the York city’s chronicler who lamented his demise, recording how the King was “piteously slain” through treason, to the “great loss” of his subjects.

Over the centuries, Richard has been accused of many things but being a Londoner is not one of them. Yet throughout his life, he was frequently in the capital, attending sessions of Parliament and ceremonial occasions at court. London was the heart of Government; his presence there was unavoidable. It was a city whose churches, streets and palaces would have been familiar to Richard as a boy and would have proved a cosmopolitan and exciting capital for its future King.

                             This Elizabeth map shows a city comparable in size to Richard's.
The London of the 1460s was much smaller than the present city. It was also greener, with a higher proportion of private gardens and open spaces. Early medieval maps show that most people lived between the Tower in the East and Fleet Street to the West. There was not much development to the north beyond Bishopsgate and Cripplegate, although several large monastic establishments, like St Bartholomew’s, St Mary Spital and St Catherine’s lay outside the walls. Richard would have found London dominated by the estates of the wealthy, whose grand stone townhouses were built around courtyards backing onto the river, with their own gardens and orchards. The high gates of their properties would have been locked and guarded at night by men in brightly coloured livery. Often there would be a swarm of poorer citizens waiting outside at nightfall, for the leftovers from that day’s meals to be distributed by the almoner.

Extremes of poverty and affluence sat side by side. Disease, illness and dirt were everywhere but the city did take steps to clean the streets, regulating the disposal of waste and the wild animals that had historically been a problem. One fourteenth century baby girl was killed in her cradle after being bitten by one of the pigs that roamed loose, scavenging for food. Inquest records also report a large number of drownings, particularly of women and children, who had travelled to one of the many ditches or tributaries of the Thames in order to gather water. There were accidents with runaway horses, heavy carts, collapsing walls, fires, fatal brawls between retainers, drunks and rioting apprentices. Death and violence must have never been very far away.

In contrast with the poverty and danger, the second half of the fifteenth century also saw a surge of upward social mobility. City merchants had got wealthy trading in wool and London was a major international port, with ships arriving from the continent and beyond, bringing and exporting luxury goods. This was one of the reasons they had largely remained loyal to Richard’s brother, Edward IV, whose pro-Burgundian policies had encouraged such trade and the glut of luxury items available. Roads were named after the goods they sold, with signs for the illiterate. Italian diplomat Mancini described three principal streets: Thames Street with cranes and warehouses for the loading and unloading of ships, Candlewick Street with its cloth merchants and Cheapside, where luxury goods such as tapestries, gold and silver, jewellery and silks were on sale.

The Scottish poet William Dunbar, who visited the “sovereign” city of London in 1501-2, compared it with the city of Troy. His pleasant beryl-coloured Thames throngs with swans and sailing barges, running under bridges with white pillars. In the streets, merchants and knights appear dressed in velvet gowns with chains of gold; it was a beautiful city full of wise, attractive inhabitants: the merchants’ wives were fair and “lovesom, white and small” while the girls were “clear” which suggests good health, “but lusty.” The merchants’ modern dwellings spread upwards rather than outwards, several storeys high, with their glazed windows, painted mortar and timber.

Shortly before he became King, Richard would acquire one of these houses himself; one of the grandest and newest of them all. Some time between 1475 and 1483, he rented Crosby Place in Bishopsgate, which was described by Elizabethan antiquarian, John Stow, as a “great house of stone and timber,” with rear gardens, courtyard, great chamber, chapel, solar, great hall with marble floors, carved ceiling, minstrels’ gallery and an oriel window. According to Thomas More, it was here that Richard would hold informal council meetings during the tempestuous summer of 1483 and where, with Buckingham, he would plan his coup. When Shakespeare included references to Richard’s ownership of Crosby Place during the funeral procession of Henry VI, he was out by at least five years!
                             Nineteenth Century Engraving of the Great Hall of Crosby Place

After Edward’s succession, the nine-year-old Richard lived for a while at the Palace of Placentia, at Greenwich. It was a luxurious residence which had previously been used by his family’s adversaries Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Greenwich itself was barely a village, surrounded by countryside. As late as 1554, Wyngaerde’s illustration shows a only scattering of small houses on either side of the waterfront Palace with its enclosed gardens. It had been built in the 1440s by Henry VI’s ill-fated uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, which was fitting as the same title had just been bestowed upon the young boy. Richard was provided for in the King’s household accounts of 1461, during his stay at the Palace and for the transportation of his goods between there and his childhood home of Fotheringhay. It was amid the tranquil green surrounding of Greenwich, that his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, began his chivalric training as a “henxman,” although Richard would leave the city in order undergo his own military education under his future father-in-law, Warwick, at his northern home, Middleham Castle.

The young Richard also spent time in the London household of Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor. Bourchier was also related to the Yorks through marriage and was himself a grandson of Edward III. Having recently crowned Richard’s elder brother, he extended his hospitality to the boy, receiving compensation for supporting the King’s brothers “for a long time and at great charges” so Richard may well have been resident in his household for a period of time. His main residence was at Knole, in Kent, but during Richard’s youth, his title brought with it the use of Lambeth Palace, across the water from Westminster. The present red-brick gateway post-dates Richard, being built by Morton, Bourchier’s successor; the boy would have known a simpler gateway housing the Palace archives, where beggars would gather for alms or “Lambeth Dole.” Richard may even have watched from a window as they were issued with their weekly allowance of fifteen loaves and cuts of beef. Richard would have dined with Bourchier in the Great Hall, recently modernised by Archbishop Chichele, with kitchens to the north and pantry and buttery to the west. An impressive four thousand people could be fed there. Richard would also have known the cloister with its newly build galleries on the first floor and the thirteenth century presence chamber and chapel. By the time he was a guest there, the moated gardens and orchard were flanked by a river walk, allowing the boy to glimpse the comings and goings across the Thames.

Westminster was the heart of the court, set outside the central residential area of the city, connected to it by river and a single long road leading to Charing Cross. Charing was still recognisable as the hamlet it had once been, located on the bend of the Thames, where Edward I had erected a cross in tribute to his wife Eleanor. The Palace grounds were a self-contained little community catering for the court. Shops and workshops catered to the royal family’s physical needs, while the Abbey provided spiritual comforts and printer William Caxton set up his first English press there in 1476, under the patronage of Edward IV’s in-laws, the Wydevilles. The prosperity and bustle of Westminster is captured in London Lickpenny, a poem composed during the reign of Henry VI, once thought to be by John Lydgate. He describes tradesmen callingMaster, what will you copen or buy? Fine felt hats or spectacles to read?” and cooks offering “bread, with ale and wine, Ribs of beef, both fat and full fine; A faire cloth they gan forth to spread…”

                                    Engraving of Westminster Palace as it appeared in 1647

Beyond the confines of Westminster, the narrator is offered strawberries, cherries, pepper and spices, hot sheep’s feet, mackerel, rushes, pies and peasecods as well as fine velvet, silk, lawn and Paris thread. What could be seen of the Palace in the 1470s was mixture of medieval architectural styles, building on the foundations laid by Edward the Confessor. Closely connected with the Abbey, much of the ceremonial business took place in the Great Hall and painted chamber, while the royal apartments formed a right angle overlooking the river and gardens. It was a peaceful location, as the opposite bank was marshy and undeveloped, save for the view of Lambeth Palace. From the steps, Richard could take a barge downstream into the city itself, past the backs of aristocratic homes, along to the imposing white bastion of the Tower. 

The Thames was the city’s main thoroughfare, wider than it is today and bobbing with vessels of all types but there was only one way across on foot.  Already hundreds of years old, London Bridge had played witness to a series of important moments in the history of the city. When Margaret of Anjou had arrived in 1445, Humphrey, the previous Duke of Gloucester had met her on the bridge amid much civic pageantry with men dressed in gilt badges and the blue and scarlet gowns of office.  Only five years later it was the scene of rebellion as Jack Cade’s men advanced across the bridge, slashing its supporting ropes to prevent the royal troops from following. After Cade had been hunted down and killed, his head adorned the bridge as a deterrent to other would-be traitors. More recently, Edward IV had passed over it in triumph on his way to his coronation and a decade later, attacks on the capital designed to free the Lancastrian Henry VI saw the bridge engulfed in flames. Thirteen houses had burned before the citizens had seen the rebels off. By the time of Richard’s succession, the bridge was in poor repair, with houses regularly falling down and drowning the residents.
               London Bridge from an Elizabethan image, showing the impaled heads of traitors

Richard would have been familiar with much of the Tower of London as it stands today. It had long stood as an inviolable fortress, representing the power of the crown, as opposed to the sinister reputation it would later attract. In the 1470 though, while Richard was in exile, it had been attacked by rebels and witnessed the readeption of the unstable Henry VI. Rumours of Richard’s involvement in Henry’s murder the following year are unsubstantiated but persist through popular literature. It was also the site where the volatile Clarence finally met his end, in the legendary butt of Malmsey, in 1478.

Such portrayals are responsible for many of the overriding negative associations between Richard and the Tower, also attributing to him the deaths of his nephews incarcerated there. Yet it was within those thick walls that he passed the day before his coronation, as tradition dictated. It was a multi-functional complex, containing the royal apartments where Elizabeth Wydeville had planned to give birth to Edward V before being evicted by the rebels, chapels, spaces for recreation, offices where coins were minted, the Great Wardrobe, the Crown Jewels and a menagerie, as well as being a prison. He also made some improvements to one of the towers during his reign.
                                                The Tower of London, from a C15th MS

Several great houses of London were also known to Richard through his family connections. His brother George, Duke of Clarence lived at Coldharbour House in Thames Street, in the parish of All-Hallows-the-Less, or perhaps All-Hallows-in-the-Hay, named after an adjoining hay wharf, near where the London Brewery now stands. It was an ancient and important “right fair and stately” house, according to John Stowe, originally two fortified buildings on the river front, which had been home to Henry IV in 1400 and to Henry V during his tenure as Prince of Wales. Following the attainder of Anne of York’s husband, Henry Holland, the property came into the possession of the crown and was used by various members of the York family. It is mentioned in a mid-seventeeth century play, by Heywood and Rowley, as having twenty chimneys, and was reputed to have a number of turrets built around a courtyard and believed to be impregnable. In the 1460s it had been owned by the Lancastrian Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, but was confiscated after his involvement in the Battle of Barnet.

On a more personal note, Richard’s future wife, Anne Neville, was sent to Coldharbour House after being widowed at the battle of Tewkesbury. Aged only fifteen, she was under her married sister’s guardianship. Richard visited them there at Christmas 1471, which was when he may have wooed her and planned their elopement the following spring. The rumours that Clarence concealed her in his kitchens, disguised as a kitchen maid stem from this period. Richard’s sister Margaret of York, wife of Charles the Bold, stayed at the house when visiting the city in 1480, where new beds with red and green hangings were prepared for her comfort, along with fine bed linens, curtains, screens and tapestries, one depicting Paris and Helen of Troy. Richard would give the house to the city Heralds for their support of his succession but after the battle of Bosworth, it passed into the hands of Margaret Beaufort.
                                      Nineteenth century illustration of Coldharbour House

After the death of his brother Clarence, the house named the Erber came into Richard’s possession. It had been owned by his mentor the Earl of Warwick, Anne’s father, but had originally been passed on to Anne’s elder sister, Clarence’s wife Isabel. After 1478, the Gloucesters again had the use of it. It had been used to lodge Yorkist troops during the late 1450s and the kitchens were reputed to be able to feed 2,000 a day, with six oxen needed for breakfast alone. Richard carried out some repairs to it and renamed it, briefly, the “King’s Palace.” In his absences, the property was looked after by a Ralph Darnel, a yeoman of the crown and it reverted to Clarence’s son, Edward, after Bosworth. Anne may well have stayed here in 1475, while she waited for Richard to return from accompanying the King on his campaign to France; they were reunited in London that December, making payments to city merchants on the third and sixth of the month.

Then there was Baynard’s Castle at Blackfriars, residence of the Duke of York, Richard’s father since 1457. It was an impressive waterfront mansion, fortified with turrets and thick walls enclosing a courtyard, originally built in Norman times for a supporter of William the Conqueror. Rebuilt on the water’s edge following a fire in 1428, its huge river frontage was set with narrow turrets flanked by hexagonal towers at each end, enclosing a private courtyard; improvements in the 1440s had created four wings in a trapezoid shape and by the early 1500s it was considered “beautiful and commodious” as well as strong. Supposedly inviolable, the family had recourse to it on many occasions when they, or the city, were under attack. Edward and his Queen, Elizabeth Wydeville stayed there between his return from exile and the Battle of Barnet. Richard would have spent time here during his childhood and after his father’s death, his mother continued to use the property. It was in the hall there, in 1461, that Edward IV summoned a council and declared himself King.

Riding out of the city and heading north, Richard would have passed through the green fields that lay beyond the walls. Much of this land was undeveloped, dotted with hamlets. The sixteenth century historian Stow described the area known as Moorfields as a “waste and unprofitable ground.” It was often marshy and when it froze over in winter, was used for sliding on; the monk Fitzstephen, writing in the twelfth century described the “London youth” tying the leg bones of animals to their shoes to make primate skates. In the early fifteenth century, a new gate had been built allowing access out onto the fields. Another open space was Spitalfields, or the Hospital Fields of St Mary; Richard may have known it as Spittellond, as it appeared in records of 1399. In the shadow of the Tower, it is depicted on maps, with women laying out their washing flat on the ground to dry. There was also Smithfield, a large grassy space or “smoothfield,” long used for livestock markets, public gatherings, executions and drying laundry. It was situated on the Eastern side of the Tower, accessible by the Postern Gate and used for tournaments. In 1467, the teenaged Richard may have witnessed the jousting there between Anthony Wydeville and Anthony, Comte de la Roche, the “Grand Bastard of Burgundy, who was heading a party of Burgundians negotiating Margaret’s marriage. Ten years later, he returned to attend another significant occasion, a feast hosted by his seven-year old nephew, Edward V, with whose fate he would become irrevocably linked. On that occasion, Richard was the first to kiss his hand and swear loyalty.

Old St Paul's, before the fire of London.

Richard was a northerner by birth and by choice. There is no doubt though, that the capital city was of great importance to him. It was where many of the significant events of his life took place: his wooing of Anne, their marriage, the events that led to his succession in 1483, his wife’s death and the important political decisions of his reign. However, Yorkshire was his home; it was here that he established his marital home and where his son was born and died. Perhaps the two locations may suggest the dichotomic struggle between the personal and political which underpinned his downfall.



  1. Amy

    I don't know much you know about the City's history but I'v known the City since I was born - still live only 30 mins away only 15 mins walk from the site of the battle of Barnet and surrounded by the medieval - and there's not a street the history of whose name I don't know, for example Cannon Street has nothing to do with artillery but candles. My favourites are Passing Alley - originally spelt with a Y - Mincing Lane after the old English word minchen - nun and Crutched Friars - the Friars of the Cross.

    The Corporation has some wonderful history documents including the London Metropolitan Archives. I've got both pics of 15th century City and Westminster Abbey/Palace ca 1530 with all the various bits numbered and named so you know what's what

    You've beaten me on EOY - sulk -sigh. In the meantime Happy Easter

  2. Hi Trish,
    I have to confess I'm an Essex girl, so only about half an hour away by train. I did my BA at Royal Holloway, so I lived in Staines as a student and was always popping up to town. I don't know it half as well as I'd like to and nowhere near as well as you- I do love the old names! Thanks for the tip about the London Met archives- I had a look at the website and it looks great. I'm in Canterbury now, still not too far away but with two babies so I don't get out much!

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