London and Westminster during the Norman period

The charter of reassurance issued to the people of London by King William after his coronation, probably in early 1067. It has been held in the records of the City of London since that time. It is written on vellum and the slits in the lower half were to tie the King’s seal. © City of London, London Metropolitan Archives, used by permission.

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066 London continued much as before, except with a new French ruling class. It was still not the most important town in the kingdom but was important enough that the King granted the town’s commune important rights. The nearby Palace of Westminster was starting to be the base of the king’s civil servants.

There was no need for a capital during William’s the Conqueror’s reign since government took place and laws decided by the King and his courtiers wherever they went. William and his successors were not based in one place and travelled around the various towns and palaces of their lands in England and Normandy. Yet London, with its sea-route to the Continent, was a town conveniently situated for a leader with an Anglo-Norman empire to rule. William generally held court at Westminster for the great feast of Whitsun when he would entertain the leading barons and clergy of his lands. However, he also had equally important palaces at Gloucester and Winchester, the latter being where the royal treasury was kept.

During the years after the conquest William rewarded his Norman noblemen with land around England. Almost all bishops were brought from Normandy, although the sitting Bishop of London was already a Norman even before the Conquest.

In case of uprising from London’s population, three stockades were constructed around the edge of the city. Two, on the west side, were built and occupied by Norman knights. The third, outside the south-east side was constructed on William’s orders as a royal castle and that became the Tower of London.

But London was both powerful and wealthy and William needed its income from taxes. It was necessary for him to guard himself against uprising but also gain the allegiance of the town’s population. As a result of negotiation by William, Bishop of London the King issued a charter of reassurance soon after his coronation, which reads:

“William king greets William the bishop and Geoffrey the portreeve and all the citizens in London, French and English, in friendly fashion; and I inform you that it is my will that your laws and customs be preserved as they were in King Edward’s day, that every son be his father’s heir after his father’s death; and that I will not that any man do wrong to you. God yield you.”¹

In other words: French and English people should live together in London in peace; that the city may continue to use the laws under which it had previously been governed; that the king would not dispute the inheritance of property; and that he would undertake to protect it from attack. Although a Norman, Bishop William had been appointed by Edward the Confessor prior to the conquest. Geoffrey the portreeve (tax collector) was a newly-arrived Norman. The document was written in English by a native scribe and contains William’s seal. Centuries later, during the Middle Ages, it became a tradition for the mayor and aldermen of London to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral to pray for the soul of Bishop William for his efforts in obtaining the charter from the King.

Despite the conquest, life in the city continued more or less uninterrupted as before, except that plots of land were given over to Norman noblemen. Ships continued to unload at Billingsgate, Dowgate and Garlickhythe and the markets at Eastcheape and Westcheape remained busy and noisy. The oldest-surviving record of the names of London’s aldermen was written in around 1127 and shows that sixty years after the conquest the majority had English names. Although most of the town’s population of between ten and fifteen thousand were Saxon, it was a very cosmopolitan place where Normans, French, Norwegians, Danes, Germans and Flemings mingled.

William knew of the importance to finance of the Jews of Rouen in Normandy and invited them to London. A Jewish Quarter began to grow to the south-east of the Guildhall where it remained for the next two centuries.

As part of the Norman empire, with royal links to Flanders, and without serious threat of attack from Vikings, London’s overseas trade flourished. New wharves were created along London’s riverbank, as well as a new parallel road, the modern-day Upper and Lower Thames Streets.

Inhabitants often left their fires burning all night to keep warm and to save the work of re-kindling in the morning, resulting in many disasters in a town constructed of wood. After an extensive blaze had destroyed many buildings in 1077, including the original Tower of London, William issued an unpopular decree that all fires must be extinguished at night, described as a “cuevrefeu”, the origin of the English word ‘curfew’. Nevertheless, only ten years later “the holy church of St. Paul…was burnt down, as well as many other churches and the largest and fairest part of the whole city” according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

Following its destruction in 1087 it was decided to build St. Paul’s on the same site but on a much grander scale. It was so large that it took over 130 years to complete, dwarfed all other structures in the city and could be seen from miles around. The Norman building was designed in the Romanesque style.

After the death of William in 1087 the English throne passed to his second son, William Rufus, bypassing the eldest son Robert. After ten years on the throne William II ordered the construction of a great new hall as an extension to the Palace of Westminster and it was completed in time for him to hold court there at Whitsuntide 1099. By the standards of the day the great Westminster Hall was a vast building, certainly the largest hall in England and possibly the whole of Europe. Its size was such that the King could hold court, as well as the largest state banquets and ceremonial occasions.

Even by the late Norman period Westminster was considered one of the most important of the royal palaces. Over time the business of ruling England became more complex and the King devolved duties to a growing bureaucracy. It was less convenient for his officials to be continually travelling with the royal court and permanent offices began to be established for them. During the time of William II the Court of Exchequer, responsible for the accounts of the Treasury, began to conduct its business from the Great Hall at Westminster, with its clerks housed close by. The head of the Exchequer, the Chancellor, was also responsible for the creation and maintenance of laws.

In the first half of the 12th century a new charter was granted to London by the king, marking an important early step in the city gaining self-government and other freedoms. Among other things it gave Londoners certain rights: to appoint their own sheriffs; for citizens to be tried exclusively by the courts of London; that members of the royal court would not have to be accommodated; to be free of tolls throughout England and its ports; that the king will everywhere uphold Londoner’s rights; and to reconfirm London’s hunting rights in the Chilterns, Middlesex and Surrey. Furthermore, the annual tax (the ‘farm’) that was paid collectively by London to the king was reduced to three hundred pounds and the citizens exempt from several other forms of tax.

There is debate as to exactly when the charter was granted and by which king. The original document that would have contained the royal seal is no longer in existence and the text comes from copies of 14th century origin.  During the reign of Henry I, successor to William II, London’s ‘farm’ – the total amount of annual tax to be collected from the town – was over five hundred pounds and it seems remarkably generous of Henry, a king not noted for his generosity, to reduce it to a mere three hundred pounds. However, in 1133 there was a devastating fire in London and it seems likely that revenue was falling short of previous expectations, with perhaps some arrears owing. Possibly this document accepts the reality of the situation, or perhaps the London citizens were winning the right to appoint their own sheriff – the tax collector – due to some earlier confrontations. Another theory is that Henry was seeking support from London in the campaign for his daughter Matilda to succeed him. A counter-argument is that the charter was really granted by King Stephen, a weaker king who was in greater need of London’s support.

Henry I died without an uncontested heir, leading to civil war known as ‘the Anarchy’ as his daughter Matilda and nephew Stephen fought over the crown. London backed the latter, who most needed the city’s power and wealth in his struggle to gain the throne. However, Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141 and Matilda moved on London with her army. Without any alternative, leading citizens of London rode out to meet her at St. Albans to negotiate terms before escorting her to Westminster.

To strengthen her position against any further disloyalty from Londoners Matilda granted rights and lands to the powerful Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. He was appointed Sheriff of London, Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire, with control of the Tower of London. To further punish London for their allegiance to Stephen she demanded payment from the wealthiest amongst them. It was too much for Londoners. Stephen’s wife marched on the city with an army and was allowed through the gates. The people rioted, church bells rang out and Matilda and her retinue fled to Oxford. The end of Matilda’s claim to the English throne came when her forces were defeated at the Battle of Faringdon in Oxfordshire in 1145, at which Londoners also played a part. In 1148, with Stephen firmly on the throne, his son Eustace died unexpectedly and by 1153, the year of his death, Stephen acknowledged Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet as his heir.

By the middle of the 12th century London, abandoned after the Roman occupation and re-established by Alfred the Great, was once again one of England’s major towns and ports, dominated by the Tower of London in its south-east and the vast St. Paul’s Cathedral in its west. The rebuilding of the bridge by the Saxons had formed a barrier past which the largest sea-going ships could not easily pass, creating an additional need to unload at London. As the only dry crossing point of the Thames in the south-east travellers found it more convenient to pass through the city than elsewhere. The creation of new wharves by the Norman riverside landowners, as well as the ever-increasing size of ships arriving to unload, was turning London into a major port. The separation of England and Normandy during the reign of King Stephen was only a short-term setback to London’s trade, soon to be reversed when Henry II took the throne in 1154. Foreign merchants had established riverside bases for the importing and exporting of goods and London merchants had obtained charters from the monarchy that put them in a favourable position relative to other ports in England. Westminster, still a separate community to the west of London, was already established as a major royal palace, with the country’s largest ceremonial hall and a leading religious centre. However, London and Westminster combined, with a population of around eighteen thousand, could still not be considered as important as other towns in the king’s territories. Winchester, established as his main town by Alfred the Great in Saxon times and still home of the royal treasury in the early Middle Ages, could be argued to be the ‘capital’ of England and Boston was at that time still a larger port.

¹  Translation: A.J.Robertson, Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I, 1925

Sources include: Christopher Brooke ‘London 800-1216’; John Schofield ‘London 1100-1600′; Gustav Milne ‘The Port of Medieval London’; John Richardson ‘The Annals of London’. With thanks to Ursula Jeffries for help with proof-reading.

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