London is ablaze with rioting at the time I’m writing this blog post from Tottenham to Brixton (this blog post written during the 2011 London riots). I live in south London so I’m very engaged with what’s happening.
But when I read people on Twitter talking about London riots as if this is something new and terrible, I shrug my shoulders. In my own lifetime, I witnessed terrible riots in London in 1981 and 1985 – very similar in many respects to what is happening now and in the same boroughs.
London poll tax riots in the 14th and 20th centuries
Then in 1990 we had a massive riot in Trafalgar Square against the Poll Tax – and I was there and saw the incredibly violent scenes unfold.
However – the period that interests this blog also saw London gripped by urban violence. I mentioned the Poll Tax there, an unpopular measure introduced by the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. A measure that led to her being toppled by members of her own party. But this wasn’t the first Poll Tax or the first Poll Tax riot in London.
King Richard II in the fourteenth century rather unwisely introduced…..a Poll Tax. The main hate figures for the mob became Richard Sudbury (who held down two jobs as Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury) and Sir Robert Hales (Lord Treasurer and also head of the Knights Hospitaller). The king was a teenager at the time and rather beholden to these men and the regent, the all-powerful John of Gaunt.
Kent and Essex – neighbouring counties to the south and north of London – rose up in revolt and the peasants broke in to the city across London Bridge. They seized Sudbury and Hales at the Tower of London, then a royal palace as well as a dungeon and major fortification, and executed them.
Apparently in a rather haphazard way involving an axe and a tree log. As I said above, Hales was head of the rival military order to the Templars – the Hospitallers. By this time, the Templars had been crushed and the Hospitallers had acquired much of their property.
The young king was forced to meet with Wat Tyler, the leader of the revolt, at Smithfield. This is now home to a meat market but was then a ‘smooth field’. It’s also where William Wallace – ‘Braveheart’ – was executed in a particularly brutal manner following the failure of his revolt in Scotland against Edward I.
Tyler was allegedly drunk (take anti-Tyler stuff in the chronicles with a pinch of salt) and on some pretext, the Mayor of London drew his dagger and stabbed Tyler to death. A killing no doubt welcomed by John of Gaunt whose Savoy palace, near to today’s Savoy Hotel, had been left a smouldering ruin by the rebels.
London riots against its queens
But this is one of many disturbances that hit London in the Middle Ages. During the ‘Great Anarchy’ of the twelfth century when the ‘Empress’ Matilda claimed the throne from King Stephen, London initially welcomed her in to the city. But she soon annoyed the citizens with her haughty attitude and lack of deference to their rights so they kicked her out in some style.
And she wasn’t the only royal lady to be given rough treatment by Londoners. In 1263, Queen Eleanor of Provence – the wife of Henry III – was attacked by Londoners while her barge was sailing down the Thames. They resented paying a tax to her coffers with the unfortunate name of ‘Queen Gold’.
If you go to the Tower of London, it details there how she was pelted with rocks and stones and anything Londoners could get their hands on and had to take refuge in very genuine fear for her life. Eleanor’s son – the future Edward I – never forgave London for this treatment of his mother and put down a disturbance afterwards with significant bloodshed.
Not for nothing did royal rulers of England in the past prefer to have their palaces well outside of London. The London mob was viewed as being feral and mean-spirited and no respecter of royal position.
London riots turn bigoted and nasty
Londoners did also turn on minorities in their midst. It’s unfortunately true but the Peasants Revolt was accompanied by violence and even murder directed against Flemish merchants who were seen as overly rich and privileged. Lombards from Northern Italy – note Lombard Street in the City of London – also got a bit of rough treatment on occasion. But it was the city’s Jewish population in the Middle Ages that had the rawest deal with the sporadic pogroms during the crusade period that led to deaths of entire families.
Even the Templar preceptory near Chancery Lane was subject to attack though this was at the hands of the king himself – the aforementioned Edward I – who entered the Templar headquarters and ransacked the treasury for his own use.
This doesn’t even touch on the rioting that gripped London over and over again in the centuries after the Middle Ages. The city has always been a seething metropolis where crime and attack against the person has been part of daily life. Anybody who wants to paint a pretty picture of London in times gone by needs a reality check. It’s a city that has never given total regard to the dignity of the person and their property.