During the Middle Ages what we now call the East End of London was entirely rural, with a small scattering of cottages and several mansions. The largest part consisted of the Manor of Stepney, held by the Bishops of London.
From ancient times, before London existed, a chariot track ran east-west, through what would later become East London. It passed across the River Lea at Old Ford, the River Brent at Brentford, and continued to what we now call Colchester, the capital of the Trinovantes tribe. When the Romans arrived, they initially made Colchester the capital of their new territory of Britannia, naming it Camulodunum. The track became a major paved road from there back to their newly-established town of Londinium, following the line of the present Roman Road and Bethnal Green Road. The number of Roman artefacts discovered indicates there was a Roman settlement east of Londinium at Old Ford. A large piece of Roman-style herring-bone pavement has been found in the Lea indicating a paved ford.
In the early 3rd century the Romans built a protective wall around Londinium. East End historian Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith has convincingly argued that the route of the Roman road was then diverted southwards in order to pass through the wall’s eastern entrance of Aldgate, along what became known as Mile End Road.
To the south of Mile End Road the land suddenly descended down a steep bank, running parallel with the Thames, known as the Linches until the 12th century. This bluff was of a reddish colour, known as the ‘red cliff’ (the name later evolving to Ratcliff). A pathway at the top of the bank became the route of Ratcliff Highway. This more southerly east-west road possibly entered London through a gate that went out of use with the later creation of the Tower of London. The low land between the road and the Thames remained marshy and underwater at high tides until embankment of the river began in the Middle Ages. The surviving street names of Stepney Causeway and Limehouse Causeway hark back to the time when they were raised paths through marshy land.
On the higher, solid ground, between the marshes and the old road further north the Saxons established the settlement of Stebunhithe. The name evolved over many centuries: in around 1000 it was known as Stybbanhythe, later Stebunheath, and still later as Stepney.
In 597AD Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain to preach Christianity to the Saxons. Augustine appointed Mellitus as Bishop of London, and King Ethelbert endowed the bishop and his church of St. Paul’s in London with gifts of thirteen manors, including Stepney. At that time the area of the manor stretched eastwards to the River Lea, and from the Thames northwards to Stamford Hill, including the Isle of Dogs to the south. Keeping it divided from the City was a narrow strip of land called the Portsoken that would always remain separate from Stepney Manor and on which several religious houses, including St. Katharine’s, would be established.
In the second half of the 9th century control of the area around London alternated between Saxons and Vikings. In 878 King Alfred of Wessex made a peace treaty with the Viking leader Guthrun. The River Lea became the border between their two kingdoms, with Stepney inside the Saxon kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written during Alfred’s reign, talked of Londoners reaping their harvest under the protection of his army.
At some point, a small church dedicated to All Saints, built of wood and wattle, was established at Stepney and the main centre of population of the manor grew around the church. The rectors of Stepney parish were appointed by the Lords of the Manor, the Bishops of London. Between 959 and 961, during the reign of King Edgar, Dunstan served as Bishop of London and Lord of Stepney Manor, prior to his translation to Archbishop of Canterbury. In his time as bishop the church was rebuilt in stone. Dunstan was canonised in 1029 and the church rededicated to the new saint, becoming the church of St. Dunstan and All Saints, but often known simply as Stepney church. The parishioners of Stepney made an annual procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral to acknowledge the dependence of their church on the Bishop of London.
The Bishops of London tended to keep most of Stepney for themselves, with some parts held by various Canons of St. Paul’s, or others, as tenants of the bishop. Pieces of land were sub-let to various classes of peasant-cultivators in return for payment in services or kind. The daily management of Stepney manor was undertaken by the Bishop’s steward, the bailiff, and the reeve. In the Middle Ages there were two types of Court session: the Court Baron, which dealt with issues between individual tenants; and the Court Leet at which officials were appointed and government of the manor took place. The bishops held the manorial court of Stepney at Bethnal Green, at what was known as Bishop’s Hall. It was located to the south of what is now Victoria Park and still commemorated in the names Bishops Way and Bonner Road. (Edmund Bonner was the last episcopal Lord of the Manor of Stepney). Manorial business was conducted in the hall. Some of the bishops resided at the Bishop’s Hall, or spent much of their time there.
Stepney church was connected to the Bishop’s Hall by a track that ran north-south approximately along the route of the current Globe Road (formerly Theeving Lane), White Horse Lane, across Ratcliff Highway at Ratcliff Cross, and down to the Thames at Ratcliff Stairs. From there a ferry crossed the river to Globe Stairs at Rotherhithe. The track may also have continued north to form a pilgrim’s way to Waltham Abbey via the spring at Well Street, Hackney church, Upper Clapton Road, and Stamford Hill.
The Colchester road crossed the River Lea by ford, which in later times was replaced by Bow Bridge, and continued on to the important monastery of Stratford Langthorne. The Benedictine convent of Bromley that was founded on the west side of the ford perhaps also dated back to the time of King Edgar and Dunstan. The prioress exercised manorial rights in Bromley, so it was never part of Stepney Manor.
The small hamlet of Poplar grew across the northern edge of Stepney Marsh, with a main street running from east to west between what would later be Limehouse and Blackwall. At some time before the mid-14th century small parts of the area, including mills, houses and meadows, came into the possession of nobles. During the 14th century there are records of ownership variously by Sir John Pulteney and Sir Nicholas de Loveyn. In around 1350, during the reign of Edward III, the convent of St. Mary of Graces was founded near the Tower of London and the ‘Manor of Poplar’ was granted to that institution. The ‘manor’ appears to have consisted of various houses on Poplar High Street, several mills, as well as meadows and arable fields. There was an obligation to “preserve the marsh” from flooding, which would indicate that some of the meadows were on Stepney Marsh.