A corner of medieval London


Yesterday, I was in the City of London and standing outside Bank tube station, I took three photos to examine the Templar-era medieval history of one small corner of the great city that I live in and adore.

Without moving an inch – I first snapped the street sign for Lombard Street.  Why is this called Lombard Street? This was a grant of land from Edward I (remember him? The king who fought Braveheart) to the Lombards – merchants from northern Italy. The modern day party representing the north of Italy in the Italian parliament is called the Lombardy League. So who who were the Lombards?

Back in the Middle Ages, these commercially minded people were the descendants of a Germanic tribe that invaded Italy in the sixth century. They had come to London in good faith but things went badly wrong in the 14th century.  During the peasant revolt of 1382, an army of disgruntled serfs stormed London and went on the rampage – they took a particular dislike to well-heeled foreigners.

Their leaders John Ball, Jack Straw and- Wat Tyler, with more than thirty thousand men, went straight through London to the Palace of the Savoy, a very fine building on the Thames as you go towards the King’s Palace of Westminster, and belonging to the Duke of Lancaster. They quickly got inside and killed the guards, and then sent it up in flames. Haying committed this outrage, they went on to the palace of the Hospitallers of Rhodes, known as St John of Clerkenwell, and burnt it down, house, church, hospital and everything. Besides this, they went from street to street, killing all the Flemings they found in churches, chapels and houses. None was spared. They broke into many houses belonging to Lombards and robbed them openly, no one daring to resist them. In the town they killed a wealthy man called Richard Lyon, whose servant Wat Tyler had once been during the wars in France. On one occasion Richard Lyon had beaten his servant and Wat Tyler remembered it. He led his men to him, had his head cut off in front of him, and then had it stuck on a lance and carried through the streets. So those wicked men went raging about in wild frenzy, committing many excesses on that Thursday throughout London.

Behind me yesterday, I found a small covered alley – still existent – nestled between two banks: Pope’s Head Alley.  It doesn’t look particularly interesting now but according to the diariest Pepys in the 17th century, it was a centre for the sale of cutlery, turnery and toys.

And finally a blue plaque to a Lord Mayor of London called Gregory de Rokesley who held the position an astonishing eight times during the 13th century. He was a wealthy goldsmith – like many of the nearby Lombards – and took his name from a town in Kent. He was also a mighty wool merchant.

Not only was he mayor, but also a chamberlain to King Edward I – and master of the Royal Mint. It was his job to put a stop to the fraudulent practice of coin clipping, where bits of coin were shaved off by criminals. His coat of arms appeared in the stained glass windows of old St Paul’s cathedral, burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Lombard Street Pope's Head Alley Gregory de Rokesley

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