Welcome to London, 1450 A.D. The city has recovered from the sack of Boudicca’s rebellion, the post-Roman abandonment and the scourge of the Black Death in more recent times. It is a thriving metropolis, by medieval standards.
We enter the city from the north and are welcomed by an image of fortified piety. A series of priories and monasteries stand just beyond and within London’s curtain wall.
The wall itself is a relic of times past, built under the Romans. It has been damaged by fire and left to dereliction by the first Saxon settlers.
If you approach the walls with dark intentions, do not be surprised if you are met with iron. Watchmen stand sentry at the gates and armoured men can be called from the Tower.
We pass St Martin’s Le Grand and Greyfriars, priory of the Franciscans, and see something spectacular emerge through the trees, buildings and towers. It is the bastion of Londoners’ faith, playing as important a role in defending them from the forces of evil as the Tower.
St Paul’s Cathedral rose above the rest of London, visible from all quarters of the city. But the above view is quite different from what we see walking through medieval London. The city has always been vulnerable to the ravages of fires which spread from house to house to become vast infernos. One such fire destroyed the old cathedral.
Here is the St Paul’s of our journey. It is a masterpiece of Early English Gothic architecture, with an incredibly long nave and tall spire. In later times, Protestant ministers would harangue the London crowd from an open-air pulpit in the cathedral precinct.
We carry on walking down Watling Street. Our first impression of the Thames is the stench of sewage running on its surface. The bleak channel draws out the city’s refuse and carries it out towards the sea.
London Bridge, where the fire which destroyed St Paul’s began. It is hard to imagine a blaze erupting on the bare, sweeping concrete bridge today. This monument looked much different in the Middle Ages.
For pedestrians and traders driving their wares on carts into London from the south, the bridge would have appeared to be more of a tunnel. Even where the houses and shops did not span the bridge’s width on wide arches, they leaned in towards the middle (their roofs almost touching overhead). We leave the city in darkness.
But London is not quite finished. A small enclave of the city rests on the southern bank, at the end of London Bridge.
Southwark Priory is a testament to the faith of those who dwelt on the southern bank, but not every inhabitant of Southwark was pious. Inns lined the high street along which tradesmen would pass. They offered drink, prostitution and a chance to have your purse lifted in a dark alleyway.
We should be wary, unless our journey ends on the point of a cutthroat’s dagger. This is not the only threat to be found in the shadows of Southwark. The year is 1450 A.D. and a rebel army marches north from Kent. They are led by a man with two names: John Mortimer, Jack Cade.