A look into the past with the Medieval London Map

Medieval London - Westminster AbbeyOur post about An Historical Map of York, published by The Historic Towns Trust, has been a consistently popular read here on the blog. Our latest project for the Trust is the Map of Medieval London: the City, Westminster & Southwark, 1270 – 1300.

700 years is a very long time ago, and most of us are probably a little hazy about that period in history. To put the map into context, here’s a brief summary of what was happening in England in the late 13th century.

Barbaric times

The Plantagenet kings were on the throne, and Henry III died in 1272. Prince Edward was abroad taking part in the last major Crusade and was proclaimed King Edward I in his absence.

Continuing his military exploits when he returned home, Edward defeated Llewellyn, the king of the Welsh, and annexed Wales to England. He made his young son the first ‘Prince of Wales’, a title still given to the eldest son of the monarch.

He also subdued the Scots by capturing Berwick, the largest and most important town in Scotland. As a sign of his domination he moved the Scottish crown jewels and stone of Scone, used for centuries in the coronation of Scottish kings, to Westminster Abbey.

These were barbaric times – to discourage the Welsh and Scots from uprising Edward introduced the punishment for treason of hanging, drawing and quartering.

London in Medieval times - The Tower

A familiar city

By 1300 the population of London was about 80,000, and it was by far the largest city in England. Looking at the map, at first sight what is surprising to modern eyes is the sheer expanse of green, showing gardens, open land and pasture. And then the realisation that all the pink areas, in many cases several on a street, are churches and chapels.

But perhaps even more surprising is that a time traveller, dropped down into medieval London, would not have too much difficulty orienting themselves. You see London Bridge crossing the Thames, with the Tower to the east, and to the west St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The Bishop of Lincoln’s Inn is shown on Holeburnstrete, and running parallel to the river are the familiar-sounding La Straunde and Fletestrete.

The reverse of the map – daily life in medieval London

The whole reverse side of the map is packed with colourful illustrations and information, including the development of Westminster, and of Lambeth and Southwark on the south bank.

Map of Medieval London - Smythefield and St Bartholomew's HospitalA medieval A-Z includes Billynggesgate and Smythefeld markets, and street names in 13th century vernacular, some of which are still understandable to us today, such as Fancherchestrate and Garscherch (Gracechurch) Street.

The life of Archbishop Thomas Becket, a Londoner born and bred, is outlined by one of the historians who have compiled the map. Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Even by the violent standards of the time this was a deeply shocking event, and he was declared a saint three years later.

William FitzStephen was present at the murder and wrote an account of Becket’s life. He prefaced this with observations on many aspects of life in the city, describing its daily routine, commerce, schools, Christian worship, summer and winter games, and much more. His vivid descriptions are featured on the reverse of the map, and add colour and life to the mapped streets and buildings of the capital.

A fascinating resource for all lovers of history, and a reminder of just how far back the city’s roots reach, the Medieval London map costs £9.99 and is available from bookshops and online book retailers.

For an alternative modern twist on a map of London see the London National Park City map.

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