A Guide to Medieval London

November 24, 2016

Though the start of the Middle Ages in Europe is generally considered to coincide with the fall of Rome around 500 AD, in many ways the medieval era in London truly began some time later: on Christmas Day in 1066, to be precise.

On that famous day the Duke of Normandy, aka William the Conquerer, defeated the Anglo-Saxon king in the Norman invasion and was crowned king of a newly unified England. William I’s coronation at Westminster Abbey—at the time, shiny and new—marked the beginning of a new period in the City of London. In the years that followed some of the city’s most iconic medieval landmarks were built, among them the Tower of London, the most famous incarnation of London Bridge, and Westminster Palace, which became the center of the feudal system of government.

Though much of Roman and Anglo-Saxon London has been lost, these medieval structures still attract tourists millennia later. And if you look closely, there are other, lesser-known remnants of this darker period in history that can be found throughout the city. Here are eight hidden places are must-see stops on a history lover’s tour of medieval London.

1. The Lost River Fleet


The River Fleet was a part of London life before London was even London. The largest of the city’s mysterious subterranean rivers, this tributary of the Thames predates even the Anglo-Saxons, and was a major river used by the Romans.

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As London grew in industry and population during the Middle Ages, the river became increasingly choked and polluted. Despite attempts to fix this, the canal-cum-open-sewer became an embarrassment and was finally bricked over in the 18th and 19th centuries. It lay buried and forgotten for 250 years until it was recently rediscovered, but the river has never stopped running, rushing unseen, just beneath the sidewalks of London.

2. Cross Bones Graveyard

Post-medieval London was a place of decency, civility, and strong religious beliefs. But the post-medieval suburbs of London were another story, rife with prostitution, disease and mass burials in Cross Bones Graveyard. This south London graveyard became known as the “single-woman’s” cemetery because of its high concentration of sex worker graves. Since women of ill-repute could not be given a Christian burial, Cross Bones became an unofficial dumping ground for them and other poor people living in squalor outside of London.

Today, the horrors of the cemetery are recognized and remembered. The red fence outside the graveyard is densely decorated with tributes in the form of flowers and ribbons and the names of those buried without ceremony.

3. Temple Church

A few facts can be confirmed about the Knights of Templar. We know that a group of pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem in 1119, and some of them were armed and followed a strict, religiously inspired code. Over time the Knights grew in number and prestige. In 1185 the Temple Church in central London was consecrated, characterized by its distinct round nave. But by the late 1200s, the Crusades weren’t going so well and King Philip IV of France had turned against the order, causing their clout to wane. The group was forcibly disbanded by the Pope in 1312, their land seized by the Crown. King Edward II used the land and buildings for law colleges that developed into the present-day Inns of Court.

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