Chaucer's London

Old and New London: Volume 1. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Chaucer's London', Old and New London: Volume 1, (London, 1878), pp. 575-576. British History Online [accessed 23 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Chaucer's London", in Old and New London: Volume 1, (London, 1878) 575-576. British History Online, accessed June 23, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Chaucer's London", Old and New London: Volume 1, (London, 1878). 575-576. British History Online. Web. 23 June 2024,

In this section



London Denizens in the Reigns of Edward III. and Richard II.—The Knight—The Young Bachelor—The Yeoman—The Prioress—The Monk who goes a Hunting—The Merchant—The Poor Clerk—The Franklin—The Shipman—The Poor Parson.

The London of Chaucer's time (the reigns of Edward III. and Richard II.) was a scattered town, spotted as thick with gardens as a common meadow is with daisies. Hovels stood cheek by jowl with stately monasteries, and the fortified mansions in the narrow City lanes were surrounded by citizens' stalls and shops. Westminster Palace, out in the suburbs among fields and marshes, was joined to the City walls by that long straggling street of bishops' and nobles' palaces, called the Strand. The Tower and the Savoy were still royal residences. In all the West-end beyond Charing Cross, and in all the north of London beyond Clerkenwell and Holborn, cows and horses grazed, milkmaids sang, and ploughmen whistled. There was danger in St. John's Wood and Tyburn Fields, and robbers on Hampstead Heath. The heron could be found in Marylebone pastures, and moorhens in the brooks round Paddington. Priestly processions were to be seen in Cheapside, where the great cumbrous signs, blazoned with all known and many unknown animals, hung above the open stalls, where the staid merchants and saucy 'prentices shouted the praises of their goods. The countless church-bells rang ceaselessly, to summon the pious to prayers. Among the street crowds the monks and men-at-arms were numerous, and were conspicuous by their robes and by their armour.

With the manners and customs of those simple times our readers will now be pretty well familiar, for we have already written of the knights and priests of that age, and have described their good and evil doings. We have set down their epitaphs, detailed the history of their City companies, their mayors, aldermen, and turbulent citizens. We have shown their buildings, and spoken of their revolts against injustice. Yet, after all, Time has destroyed many pieces of that old puzzle, and who can dive into oblivion and recover them? The long rows of gable ends, the abbey archways, the old guild rooms, the knightly chambers, no magic can restore to us in perfect combination. While certain spots can be etched with exactitude by the pen, on vast tracts no image rises. A dimmed and imperfect picture it remains, we must confess, even to the most vivid imagination. How the small details of City life worked in those days we shall never know. We may reproduce Edward III.'s London on the stage, or in poems; but, after all, and at the best, it will be conjecture.

But of many of those people who paced in Watling Street, or who rode up Cornhill, we have imperishable pictures, true to the life, and richcoloured as Titian's, by Chaucer, in those "Canterbury Tales" he is supposed to have written about 1385 (Richard II.), in advanced life, and in his peaceful retirement at Woodstock. The pilgrims he paints in his immortal bundle of tales are no ideal creatures, but such real flesh and blood as Shakespeare drew and Hogarth engraved. He drew the people of his age as genius most delights to do; and the fame he gained arose chiefly from the fidelity of the figures with which he filled his wonderful portrait-gallery.

We, therefore, in Chaucer's knight, are introduced to just such old warriors as might any day, in the reign of Edward III., be met in Bow Lane or Friday Street, riding to pay his devoirs to some noble of Thames Street, to solicit a regiment, or to claim redress for a wrong by force of arms. The great bell of Bow may have struck the hour of noon as the man who rode into Pagan Alexandria, under the banner of the Christian King of Cyprus, and who had broken a spear against the Moors at the siege of Granada, rides by on his strong but not showy charger. He wears, you see, a fustian gipon, which is stained with the rust of his armour. There is no plume in his helmet, no gold upon his belt, for he is just come from Anatolia, where he has smitten off many a turbaned head, and to-morrow will start to thank God for his safe return at the shrine of St. Thomas in Kent. In sooth it needs only a glance at him to see that he is "a very perfect gentle knight," meek as a maid, and trusty as his own sword.

That trusty young bachelor who rides so gaily by the old knight's side, and who regards him with love and reverence, is his son, a brave young knight of twenty years of age, as we guess. He has borne him well in Flanders, Artois, and Picardy, and has watered many a French vineyard with French blood. See how smart he is in his short gown and long wide sleeves. He can joust, and dance, and sing, and write love verses, with any one between here and Paris. The citizens' daughters devour him with their eyes as he rides under their casements

There rides behind this worthy pair a stout yeoman, such as you can see a dozen of every morning, in this reign, in ten minutes' walk down Cheapside, for the nobles' houses in the City swarm with such retainers—sturdy, brown-faced country fellows, quick of quarrel, and not disposed to bear gibes. He wears a coat and hood of Lincoln green, and has a sword, dagger, horn, and buckler by his side. The sheaf of arrows at his girdle have peacock-feathers. Ten to one but that fellow let fly many a shaft at Cressy and Poictiers, for he is fond of saying, over his ale-bowl, that he carries "ten Frenchmen's lives under his belt."

The prioress Chaucer sketches so daintily might have been seen any day ambling through Bishopsgate from her country nunnery, on her way to shrine or altar, or on a visit to some noble patroness to whom she is akin. "By St. Eloy !" she cries to her mule, "if thou stumble again I will chide thee !" and she says it in the French of Stratford at Bow. Her wimple is trimly plaited, and how fashionable is her cloak ! She wears twisted round her arm a pair of coral beads, and from them hangs a gold ornament with the unecclesiastical motto of "Amor vincit omnia." Behind her rides a nun and three priests, and by the side of her mule run the little greyhounds whom she feeds, and on whom she doats.

The rich monk that loved hunting was a character that any monastery of Chaucer's London could furnish. Go early in the morning to Aldersgate or Cripplegate, and you will be sure to find such a one riding out with his greyhounds and falcon. His dress is rich, for he does not sneer at worldly pleasures. His sleeves are trimmed with fur, and the pin that fastens his hood is a gold love-knot. His brown palfrey is fat, like its master, who does not despise a roast Thames swan for dinner, and whose face shines with good humour and good living. It is such men as these that Wycliffe's followers deride, and point the finger at; but they forget that the Church uses strong arguments with perverse adversaries.

To find Chaucer's merchant you need not go further than a few yards from Milk Street. There you will see him at any stall, grave, and with forked beard; on his head a Flemish beaver hat, and his boots "full fetishly" clasped. He talks much of profits and exchanges, and the necessity of guarding the sea from the French between Middleburgh and the Essex ports.

Chaucer's poor lean Oxford clerk you will find in Paul's, peering about the tombs, as if looking for a benefice. All his riches, worthy man ! are some twenty books at his bed's head, and he is talking philosophy to a fellow-student lean and thin as himself, to the profound contempt of that stiff serjeant-at-law who is waiting for clients near the font, on which his fees are paid.

Any procession day in the age of Edward you can meet, in Westminster Abbey, near the royal shrines and tombs, Chaucer's franklin, or country gentleman, with his red face and white beard. His dagger hangs by his silk purse, and his girdle is as white as milk, for our friend has been a sheriff and knight of the shire, and is known all Buckinghamshire over for his open house and well-covered board. Aye, and many a fat partridge he has in his pen, and many a fat pike in his fish-pond.

Chaucer's shipman we shall be certain to discover near Billingsgate. He is from Dartmouth, and wears a short coat, and a knife hanging from his neck. A hardy good fellow he is, and shrewd, and his beard has shaken in many a tempest. Bless you ! the captain of the Magdalen knows all the havens from Gothland to Cape Finisterre, aye, and every creek in Brittany and Spain; and many a draught of Bordeaux wine he has tapped at night from his cargo.

Nor must we forget that favourite pilgrim of Chaucer—the poor parson of a town, who is also a learned clerk, and who is by many supposed to strongly resemble Wycliffe himself, whom Chaucer's patron, John of Gaunt, protects at the hazard of his life. He is no proud Pharisee, like the fat abbot who has just gone past the church door; but benign and wondrous diligent, and in adversity full patient. Rather than be cursed for the tithe he takes, he gives to the poor of his very subsistence. Come rain, come thunder, staff in hand, he visits the farthest end of his parish; he has no spiced conscience—
"For Christe's love, and his apostles twelve,
He taught, but first he followed it himselve."

You will find him, be sure, on his knees on the cold floor, before some humble City altar, heedless of all but prayer, or at the lazar-house on his knees, beside some poor leper, and pointing through the shadow of death to the shining gables of the New Jerusalem.

Such were the tenants of Chaucer's London. On these types at least we may dwell with certainty. As for the proud nobles and the toughskulled knights, we must look for them in the pages of Froissart. Of the age of Edward III. at least our patriarchal poet has shown us some vivid glimpses, and imagination finds pleasure in tracing home his pilgrims to their houses in St. Bartholomew's and Budge Row, the Blackfriars monastery, and the palace on the Thames shore.