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Medieval London:
A City of Palaces
By Walter Besant

Medieval London is well known for having been full of rich monasteries, nunneries, colleges, and parish churches. So much so that it might be compared to the 'Ile Sonnante 'of Rabelais. If it could be called a 'City of Churches', it was, in fact, much more a 'City of Palaces'. For there were, in London, more palaces than in Verona and Florence and Venice and Genoa all put together. There was not, it is true, a line of marble 'palazzi 'along the banks of a Grande Canale; there was no Piazza della Signoria, no Piazza della Erbe to show these buildings. They were scattered about all over the City. They were built without regard to general effect and with no idea of decoration or picturesqueness. They lay hidden in narrow winding labyrinthine streets. The warehouses stood beside and between them. The common people dwelt in narrow courts around them. They faced each other on opposite sides of the lanes.

These palaces belonged to the great nobles and were their town houses. They were capacious enough to accommodate the whole of a baron's retinue, consisting sometimes of four, six, or even eight hundred men. The continual presence of these lords and their following did much more for the City than merely to add to its splendour by the erecting of great houses. By their residence they prevented the place from becoming merely a trading centre or an aggregate of merchants. They kept the citizens in touch with the rest of the kingdom. They made the people of London understand that they belonged to the Realm of England. When Warwick, 'the Kingmaker', rode through the streets to his town house, followed by five hundred retainers in his livery; when King Edward the Fourth brought wife and children to the City and left them there under the protection of the Londoners while he rode out to fight for his crown; when a royal tournament was held in 'Chepe' - the Queen and her ladies looking on - then the very schoolboys learned and understood that there was more in the world than mere buying and selling, importing and exporting. Everything must not be measured by profit. They were traders indeed, and yet subjects of an ancient crown. Their own prosperity stood or fell with the well-doing of the country. It was this which made the Londoners ardent politicians from very early times. They knew the party leaders who had lived among them; the City was compelled to take a side, and the citizens quickly perceived that their own side always won - a thing which gratified their pride. In a word, the presence in their midst of king and nobles made them look beyond their walls. London was never a Ghent; nor was it a Venice. It was never London for itself against the world, but always London for England first, and for its own interests next.

Staple Inn (Holborn): the entrance to the courtyards can be seen behind the first automobileAgain the City palaces, the town houses of the nobles, were at no time, it must be remembered, fortresses. The only fortresses of the City were the Tower of London, the short-lived Montfichet Tower and the original Baynard's Castle. Though even the latter was rebuilt as a palace of the nobility. The nobles' homes were neither castellated nor fortified nor garrisoned. They were entered by a gate, but there was neither ditch nor portcullis. The gate - only a pair of wooden doors - led into an open court round which the buildings stood. Examples of this way of building may still be seen in London. For instance, Staple Inn or Barnard's Inn, afford an excellent illustration of a medieval mansion. There are in each two square courts with a gateway leading from the road into the Inn. Between the courts is a hall with its kitchen and buttery. Gray's Inn and Old Square, Lincoln's Inn are also good examples. Sion College, before it was destroyed, showed the hall and the court. Hampton Court is a late example, the position of the Hall having been changed. Gresham House was built about a court; so was the Mansion House. Until the late nineteenth century, Northumberland House at Charing Cross illustrated the disposition of such mansions.

Those who walk down Queen Victoria Street in the City pass on the north side a red brick house standing round three sides of a quadrangle. This is the College of Arms. In the late nineteenth century, it preserved its fourth side with a gateway. Five hundred years ago this was the town-house of the Earls of Derby. Restore the front and you have the size of a great noble's town palace, yet not one of the largest. If you wish to understand the disposition of such a building as a nobleman's town house, compare it with the Quadrangle of Clare or that of Queens', The College of Arms: rebuilt in 1671 on the site of the medieval Derby HouseCambridge. Derby House was burned down in the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt, largely as we see it today, without its hall, kitchen, and butteries, for which there was no longer any use. Before the Fire, a broad and noble arch with a low tower, but showing no appearance of fortification, opened into the square court which was used as an exercising ground for the men at arms. In the rooms around the court was their sleeping accommodation. At the side or opposite the entrance stood the hall where the whole household took meals. Opposite the hall was the kitchen with its butteries. Over the butteries was the room called the Solar, where the Earl and Countess slept. Beyond the hall was another room called the Lady's Bower, where the ladies could retire from the rough talk of their followers. The houses beside the river were provided with stairs, at the foot of which was kept the state barge in which my Lord and Lady took the air on fine days and were rowed to and from the Court at Westminster.

There remains nothing of these houses. They are, with one exception, all swept away. Yet the description of one or two, the site of others, and the actual remains of one sufficiently prove their magnificence.

Edited by David Nash Ford, from Walter Besant's 'London '(1892).

Part 2: Palatial Examples

Britannia's London




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