Thames Street

01Thames Street (City of London) 01 A shibboleth is a linguistic identity marker. It is a phrase (or custom) that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. Its functions as a password and excludes those that do not ‘belong’. A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider. In ancient Hebrew dialects the word meant ear (of grain or corn).
The book of Judges (chapter xii: 1-15) describes the battle between two Semitic tribes in which the Ephraimites are defeated by the Gileadites. The victorious soldiers set up a blockade across the Jordan River to prevent fleeing enemies to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no sh sound in their language, pronounced the word with an s. They were thereby unmasked and killed. It is a way of ethnic cleansing that has become all too familiar. Time and again, during armed ethnic conflicts language is a tool for persecution and brutality. In the late 1970s during riots in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese forces at makeshift roadblocks stopped cars and forced passengers to say a phrase or two. Physically, they could not distinguish between Sinhalese and Tamils. But they could tell by word choice, accent, and intonation. Anyone who spoke in an identifiably Tamil manner was hauled out of the car and beaten up. Such examples are as numerous as they are disturbing.


The word ‘mob’ is derived from the Latin phrase mobile vulgus (the fickle crowd). It had its origin at the period of the Exclusion Crisis when the nation became divided into party and faction, Whig versus Tory. Elections for parliament, and other public meetings, resulted inevitably in riots, fights and other disturbances. Initially the word ‘the mobile’ circulated. It was soon shortened to ‘mob’. The term gradually entered the language that Londoners used to describe disorder over the next few decades. Many objected to the influx of new ‘slang’ abbreviations but most of such words took root relatively quickly. The protests of those who like Swift objected to the neologism and insisted on the older word ‘rabble’ were ignored. Justices of the peace did not use the term to refer to riots in their Court of Quarter Sessions records until the first decade of the eighteenth century.


The connotation of ‘party political’ unrest may be a relatively recent one, but rioting had long been a facet of urban life. Londoners were used to disorder in the metropolis. The first manifestation of mob violence in the capital was caused by the imposition of the poll tax in 1381. The revolt took place in the dark aftermath of the Black Death epidemic of the late 1340s which had devastating socio-economic consequences both in rural and urban parts of the country. Rioters rebelled against the landowning classes and the incompetent government of Richard II. They murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer of England, numerous lawyers and royal servants, and laid siege to the Tower of London. This, the Peasant’s Revolt, began in the Essex village of Fobbing in May 1381 with the arrival of a Royal tax commissioner, John Bampton, enquiring into evasion of the new tax. Unrest spread quickly through the county and then into Kent. On 7 June Wat Tyler joined the uprising in Maidstone and assumed leadership of the Kentish rebels. He marched his men into London. They left a trail of destruction behind them, including the burning of Savoy Palace, home of the hated, the fourth son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault who took his name from his godfather, John, Duke of Brabant, one of Edward’s allies in the Low Countries. Gaunt is a corrupted form of Ghent. Bringing the riot under control proved difficult and the rebellion soon appeared to be out of control. A horde of drunken men went in search of immigrants and a massacre took place in the neighbourhood of St Martin’s Vintry.


The revolt turned out to be a lynch party long before the word ‘lynching’ was entered into the dictionary. The spirit of rebellion lasted all summer. The violence in London was related by the anonymous author of the Anonimalle Chronicle 1333 to 1381 who has left the following record: ‘whoever could catch any Fleming or other aliens of any nation, might cut off their heads; and so they did accordingly … they went to the church of St Martin’s in the Vintry, and found therein thirty-five Flemings, whom they dragged outside and beheaded in the streets .On that day there were beheaded 140 or 160 persons. Then they took their way to the places of Lombards and other aliens, and broke into their houses, and robbed them of all their goods that they could discover’. Jack Straw was a leading figure in the London riots who was later executed for his involvement. In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale Geoffrey Chaucer (whose father lived locally) refers to the massacre of Flemings by Straw and his gang:

Jack Straw and all his followers in their brawl

Were never half so shrill, for all their noise,

When they were murdering those Flemish boys.


One of the victims was an illegitimate wine merchant, financier and royal advisor Richard Lyons who was of Flemish descent. He was beheaded in Cheapside on 14 June 1381. His head was carry round the city on a pole. At his death he held lands in Essex, Kent, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire, as well as London property which included a large house in Thames Street, a narrow riverside street in Vintry, which contained grand residences of courtiers and merchants. The street represented money, authority and foreign influence. Dozens of Flemings were dragged from their dwellings and the sanctuary of city churches, beheaded, and their bodies left to rot. Nobody was spared during that violent outburst, except those who could plainly pronounce the shibboleth ‘bread and cheese’. If their speech sounded anything like ‘brot and cawse’, off went their heads, as a sure mark they were Flemish. Language has been a controversial aspect of the immigration debate from the outset.


Another eye witness was an immigrant. Historian and poet Jean Froissart was born at Valenciennes, Hainault, towards the end of 1337. This county was then part of the Low Countries in the western tip of the Holy Roman Empire (now in France). Around 1360 he was employed by Philippa of Hainault, Queen Consort of Edward III, as court poet and historian. In his Chronicles he depicts the London rebellion describing Wat Tyler as a ‘tiler of houses, an ungracious patron’. A lavishly illustrated edition of the Chronicles was commissioned by Louis of Gruuthuuse, a nobleman within the Burgundian court and bibliophile from Bruges, who was awarded the title of Earl of Winchester by Edward IV in 1472. The four volumes contain 112 miniatures of various sizes painted by some of the best Brugeois artists of the day, including splendid images of Richard II meeting the rebels, and the murder of Wat Tyler, in the style of Flemish illuminator Loiset Liédet. The London cityscape figures splendidly in the background of both scenes. After the death of Queen Philippa at Windsor Castle in August 1369 Froissart returned to the Continent. It is a bitter irony that one of the bloodiest moments in London’s history helped to bring about what is arguably the most superbly illustrated book about the capital.

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