Two significant life-changes (moving to York and starting a PhD) have kept me busy over the past month, but finally I welcome you to the second stop on our tour of medieval London! Last time we visited St Katharine’s by the Tower, a medieval hospital under queenly care. Now we turn our feet north, away from the river and the Tower, along the old Roman wall… to Aldgate.
Tracing the old London Wall as it weaves in and out of modern developments, we eventually arrive at Aldgate. Once the eastern-most entrance through the London Wall to the City of London, Aldgate was an important travelling route in and out of the city. A report from the Archaeology Data Service drawn from a survey that took place during a refurbishment of two sites in Aldgate in 1998 (87-89 Aldgate High Street and 37 Jewry Street) uncovered deposits from the Roman through to post-medieval periods, indicating that Aldgate was ‘one of the main thoroughfares leading out of the walled City of London…located on the eastern side of the City’s defensive circuit straddling the main Roman road to Colchester’ (p. 179).
Modern Aldgate, however, is probably best known for being the most western location of the Jack the Ripper murders. On 30 September 1888 the unfortunate Catherine Eddowes died a grisly death in the early hours of the morning in Mitre Square, right on the City of London’s doorstep.
But dark criminality is not new to this area – its grim pedigree extends back to the Middle Ages. Peter Ackroyd in his biography Chaucer points out that Aldgate’s very own poet-in-residence, Geoffrey Chaucer, lost his maternal grandfather there when he ‘was murdered in 1313 close to his house in Aldgate. The city records reveal that murder, abduction and rape were commonplace…’ (p. 2). In fact, a manuscript known as the Aldgate Cartulary gives further evidence of the dastardly nature of Aldgate (although admittedly it was probably no more or less terrible than other areas in London at the time). Compiled by Brother Thomas de Axbridge between 1425 and 1427, this document details the business of the Holy Trinity Priory in Aldgate, spanning a huge timescale. At the end, Thomas explains that one of the reasons he made the cartulary was in order to facilitate the collection of rents, for, he says, ‘the world has progressed to such evil and contradicts ancient facts unless copies of charters are everywhere produced in evidence’. It was to be hoped that such written evidence would settle any disputes over payment of rents.
Chaucer himself lived in apartments above Aldgate from 1374 to 1386 whilst he was a customs official. In 1381 a raging horde entered the city through Aldgate during the Peasants’ Revolt. If he was home that day, Chaucer would have witnessed the mob forcing its way through the gates. Although Aldgate was a neighbourhood with a very real potential for danger, living as he did with this front-row seat onto the full spectrum of life passing in and out of a busy urban chaos must have given Chaucer plenty of food for thought, perhaps even colouring his writing to some extent. Potentially the most tangible evidence of Chaucer’s experience of East Londoners might be in the Canterbury Tales – the prioress, Madam Eglantine, learned her French with a cockney accent: “And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe.” Chaucer came from a family of London vintners (albeit originally from Ipswich – they migrated long before Chaucer himself was born), and in his book Ackroyd emphasises Chaucer’s connections with London; the first chapter even being entitled ‘The Londoner’.
If Chaucer was to return today to the area in Aldgate in which he once lived he would find very little there to recognise. The gateway itself was rebuilt between 1108–47, and then again in 1215, which is presumably the incarnation Chaucer would have been familiar with, but it was reconstructed again before finally being removed in 1761. There was an affluent priory nearby – Holy Trinity Aldgate – the priory to which our aforementioned Thomas belonged. It was founded by Matilda, wife of Henry I, in 1108. However nothing remains of it today but a small section which can be seen through a window in a nearby office block.
One landmark from Chaucer’s time that still remains, albeit in a drastically altered form, is St Botolph’s Church. There has been a church on the site of the current building for over 1,000 years. The original Anglo-Saxon building was enlarged in 1418 and rebuilt almost entirely in the 1500s. The later building was then demolished in the eighteenth-century and rebuilt (above). As a point of interest, another famous writer, Daniel Defoe, was married in the church in 1683.
St Botolph’s church is aptly named – Botolph is the patron saint of travellers. Consequently four City of London churches were dedicated to him, all of which were close to gates in the City walls. These dedications were probably made because the churches provided places for incoming travellers to give thanks for their safe arrival and for outgoing travellers to pray for a safe journey.
For the Olympics in 2012 Aldgate looked back to its medieval past and its most famous historical resident with the erection of the ‘paleys upon pilars’ (palace on pillars), supposedly inspired by Chaucer’s dream vision poems, the Parliament of Foules, Book of the Duchess, and House of Fame. Its construction by the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects during the London Festival of Architecture marked the start of High Street 2012, the direct route from the City of London to the Olympic Park at Stratford –which might even be the same Stratford in which his prioress learned her ‘Frenssh’. In the image (above) you can see the new St Botolph’s church in the background. A mingling of the medieval and modern worlds, fitting for the man who has had such an extraordinary influence on both.