Thames Street is a narrow river-side street in Vintry which, during the reign of Henry VIII, contained the grand residences of many courtiers and merchants. Wool exporter and Lord Mayor of London John Lovekyn had a grand mansion in Thames Street overlooking the river. Sir William Walworth also lived here. The street represented money, authority and power. Historically, the area gained fame for the two greatest benefits to mankind, wine and printing – and for the unfortunate legacy of mob violence. These riots have gone down into history. They are represented in a remarkable set of early London cityscapes.
Vintry is one of the twenty-five wards of the City of London and owes its name to its former status as a site for the wine merchants of Bordeaux who stored and sold their products there. The ‘Worshipful Company of Vintners’ is one of the Livery Companies which probably existed as early as the twelfth century. It received a Royal Charter in 1364. Chronologically, these merchants were preceded by cooks as has been recorded in Fritz-Stephen’s (who was clerk to Thomas à Beckett) lively Description of London of 1170. In this, the first general description of the metropolis, the author lists in great detail the cook shops on the banks of the River Thames which he thought the acme off civilization, ‘at any time of day or night, any number could be fed to suit all palates and all purses’.
There is a theory that the word ‘Cockney’ is derived from the Latin ‘coquina’ (cookery) at the time that London was widely praised for its cook shops. Later in the thirteenth century the river banks were taken over by vintners and their wine vaults. The cooks packed their pots and pans and moved elsewhere, to Eastcheap and Bread Street. Connected to all this is the name of Geoffrey Chaucer. He was born in the parish of St Martin Vintry into a prosperous Suffolk merchant family which had been engaged in the export of wool to the Low Countries and the import of wine. His great-grandfather Andrew of Dynyngton was also known as Andrew the Taverner, and most likely kept a tavern there. The move to London was made by Geoffrey’s grandfather Robert Dynyngton, known as Robert Malyn le Chaucer (that name, meaning ‘maker of shoes’, may well have been adopted by Robert on the death of his employer, the mercer John le Chaucer). Robert’s son John Chaucer became a prominent London wine merchant and an influential freeman of the city. Young Geoffrey Chaucer was much aware of the link between tavern and creativity. 04 Before the fourteenth century, popular uprisings tended to operate on a local scale. This changed when downward pressures on the poor resulted in mass manifestations of resistance across Europe. In the 1320s, beginning as a series of scattered rural riots, the peasant insurrection in Flanders escalated into a full-scale rebellion that dominated public affairs for nearly five years. Between May and August 1381 England experienced a popular uproar of dramatic severity. 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.
The spirit of rebellion lasted all summer and was recorded with horror by contemporaries, including Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Jean Froissart. That the rebels marched from country to capital was a new phenomenon. This was the first manifestation of urban mob violence in England. A specific target of the crowd was London’s immigrant population. The Peasant’s Revolt had begun in the Essex village of Fobbing in May of that year. It started with the arrival of a Royal commissioner, John Bampton, enquiring into tax evasion. Unrest spread quickly through the county and into Kent. In early June Wat Tyler joined the uprising in Maidstone and assumed leadership of the Kentish rebels. He marched his men into London who left a trail of destruction behind them. They burned down the Palace of Savoy, home of the hated John of Gaunt. The latter was the fourth son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault and 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. The rebellion soon appeared to be out of control. A horde of drunken men went in search of immigrants.
The massacre of Flemish citizens took place in the neighbourhood of St Martin’s Vintry. The area was a known haunt of Continental merchants and was located one block down Thames Street from the house of John Chaucer, father of the author. Dozens of Flemings were dragged from the sanctuary of the city churches, beheaded, and their bodies left to rot. Nobody was spared during that violent outburst, except those who could plainly pronounce ‘bread and cheese’, for if their speech sounded anything like ‘brot’ or ‘cawse’, off went their heads, as a sure mark they were Flemish. One of the victims was merchant and financier Richard Lyons. Most likely of Flemish descent, he was killed in Cheapside on 14 June 1381. 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. Lyons had been engaged in the exercise of the sweet wine monopoly. One of the leaders of the London riots, afterwards executed for his involvement, was Jack Straw. Geoffrey Chaucer refers to the massacre of Flemings by Straw and his gang in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.
Jean Froissart’s Chronicle is a crucial source for students of the first half of the Hundred Years’ War. The author originated from Valenciennes and had started his working life as a merchant. Having become a clerk, his skills were soon recognized and he was employed by Philippa of Hainault, Queen Consort of Edward III of England, as court poet and historian. The Chronicle depicts the rebellion – Froissart describes Wat Tyler as a ‘tiler of houses, an ungracious patron’ – and illustrates the latter’s demise. Having been summoned to speak with King Richard II at Smithfield on 15 June 1381, Tyler outlined the rebels’ demands, which included the abolition of serfdom. A fracas then ensued, allegedly because Tyler kept his head covered in the King’s presence, leading the Mayor of London, William Walworth, to try to arrest him. In the struggle between the two men, Tyler was wounded. The other rebels quickly dispersed, having been granted a royal pardon. Tyler was dragged from the nearby hospital of St Bartholomew, and summarily executed at Smithfield.
A lavishly illustrated edition of the Chronicles in four volumes was commissioned by Louis of Gruuthuuse, a nobleman and bibliophile from Bruges. The four volumes are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale and contain 112 miniatures of various sizes painted by some of the best Brugeois artists of the day including splendid images of the meeting between Richard II and 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. It may be coincidence or it may be a distant reminder of disturbances in the area, but towards the end of the fifteenth century Thames Street became a centre of legal printing and documentation. The very first book printed in London was Antonius Andreae’s Quaestiones super XII libros Metaphysicae Aristotelis. Dating from 1480, it is a Latin commentary on the metaphysics of Aristotle. Its publication was financed by the draper William Wilcock. The printer of this work went by the name of Johannes Lettou. He may be the same Johannes who worked in the previous years in Rome, mainly for the papal Curia. Apart from the colophons in his books, Lettou’s name is known from a register of aliens in which he is recorded as head of a household of German printers living in what is now Lower Thames Street. A member of this household was William de Machlinia [Maclyn], with whom Lettou formed a partnership in about 1481/2. Their first publication was the Abbreviamentum statutorum, a handbook for lawyers that contained summaries of the laws of the land, alphabetically arranged by subject. The partners published in the following years at least five books of common law. They include two editions of Sir Thomas Littleton, Tenores novelli, in 1482/3 and 1484. Their final joint publication was a full edition of the parliamentary statutes from the reign of Edward II, Nova statuta, during the printing of which Lettou is thought to have died. William de Machlinia continued the business alone for another few years in which he published an edition of the statutes promulgated by the only parliament of Richard III in 1484/5 – one of the earliest examples of an official publication. In March 1486 De Machlinia printed the bull in which Pope Innocent III granted dispensation for the marriage of Henry VIII and Elizabeth of York. There was an old tradition for legal books, manuscript and print, to be richly decorated. Lettou and De Machlinia made a gesture for honouring this tradition, for many copies of their books are decorated with red and blue initials.
The presence of printers in Thames Street was continued by the eminent Henry Bynneman who, using his familiar sign of the Mermaid, had premises here. Motto to the press was ‘Omnia tempus habent’, which is the opening phrase of a passage in Ecclesiastes III and translates as ‘To every thing there is a season [and a time to every purpose under the heaven]’. Thames Street has certainly served a variety of aims and purposes over is long history. Elizabeth’s reign was a period of a great expansion of Italian culture in England in spite of Puritan suspicions. In the 1560s a number of Boccaccio’s vernacular works appeared in English translation and Bynneman’s press was active in publishing those.
Giovanni Boccaccio was a sophisticated Florentine who performed various diplomatic services for the city government. He was above all a talented urban writer. The background for his Decameron is the Florentine plague epidemic of 1348 (in a sense this is the first urban disaster story). Throughout the narrative urban values of quick wit and intelligence are treasured, while stupidity and dullness are punished. This city orientation was an emerging feature of Europe fiction and Boccaccio strongly influenced its development. Geoffrey Chaucer was intrigued and inspired by Boccaccio’s work. His Canterbury Tales also uses the concept of a large story as the framework which includes all other tales allowing the author to explore a wide range of experiences, perspectives, themes and opinions. Fluent in French, conversant in Italian and widely read, he was open to assimilate the rich domain of Continental literature. Chaucer masterfully adapted Boccaccio’s urban passion. The city was about to take centre-stage in European literature.