Above: Map showing the main places of interest near the Thames in medieval Westminster (Click image to enlarge to 1280×800).
Westminster’s Oldest Areas
The parts of Westminster that lie beside the River Thames are some of the oldest sites in the City of Westminster. There are three main areas. Firstly, there are the sites of Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (which form part of the ‘area of study’ known as ‘Westminster’). Secondly, to the north is the old site of Whitehall Palace which occupied much the land between today’s St James’s Park and the Thames (which forms part of the ‘area of study’ called ‘Whitehall’). Thirdly, there is the land both sides of the Strand, including today’s Trafalgar Square (which is part of the ‘area of study’ called ‘Strand’). All these pieces of land beside the Thames developed throughout medieval times and they are still in use today.
So, what were medieval times? The medieval period in the history of England simply means the ‘middle period’. It was the years after the occupation of the Romans through to the dynasty of the Tudors. Often called the ‘Middle Ages’, it spans the 5th century through to the Renaissance (a date taken to be 1453, the year of the siege and fall of Constantinople). These are arbitrary dates as far as London’s history is concerned. Since, for London, we also have the ’Saxon period’ and the ‘Norman period’, a ‘practical medieval period’ would be from 1066 through to the Tudors (which starts in 1485 with Henry VII).
The map is intended to highlight the key buildings throughout medieval times. Features like important thoroughfares are shown. They are among the oldest streets in Westminster and the City of London. The Strand was probably part of a longer road formed by the Romans. It was almost certainly used by the early Saxons and, of course, it was named by the Vikings. In Danish ‘Strand’ is a word used to describe a path beside water – sometimes beside a river but also beside the sea. Both St Martin’s Lane and Drury Lane probably have their origins in Saxon times but they may be even older.
There were small river and streams flowing into the Thames at the time. Their approximate courses have been added. At the time, the River Thames was much wider than it is today.
Key Buildings on the Map
The ‘key’ buildings shown on the map are described below in chronological order. A very few are inside today’s boundary of the City of London. Most of them, as you might expect, are within the boundary of the City of Westminster.
604 • St Paul’s Cathedral • It was founded in AD 604 – the earliest date for any named building on the map. Londinium – the Roman settlement on the site of the City of London – existed from AD 43 until about AD 410. Quite how many people continued to live in the City after that time is not known but the land within the Roman Wall must have been considered significant otherwise the cathedral would not have been founded there.
Until about 1985 historians and archaeologists had little idea of what happened next in the history of Central London. Over the last 30 years, the understanding of how the Strand developed has grown so much that, today, it hardly seems possible that the Saxon history was virtually unknown only 30 years ago. Around AD 600 we know that there was a Saxon settlement in the Strand – known today as Lundenwic. In AD 886, Alfred the Great re-established the City of London – usually known today as Lundenburgh – and drove out the occupying Vikings.
1050 • Westminster Abbey • It is generally believed that the earliest building in the Westminster area was a small church, founded in the 7th century, on a site now occupied by what we know as Westminster Abbey. It was Edward the Confessor who, in 1050, decided to establish a new palace – the Palace of Westminster – on a new site in what became Westminster. That was to become the site of today’s Houses of Parliament. Along with the palace, Edward also founded a monastery – the Convent of St Peter – better known today as Westminster Abbey. Without Edward the Confessor starting those two buildings, most of the history of Westminster as we know it today just would not have happened.
1050 • The Palace of Westminster • See the above paragraph for details.
1161 • Knights Templar • In early times The Temple was not part of the City. Its site is now within the boundary of the City of London. The Knight’s Templar – who called their churches ‘Temples’ – were founded between Fleet Street and the Thames in 1161.
1197 • Lambeth House • The ancient manor house of the Manor of Lambeth was obtained by the Archbishops of Canterbury in exchange for land held by the Bishops of Rochester. The house was conveniently situated, being across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster and a little to the south. Although many alterations and additions have been made to the property over about 800 years, it is still in use by the present Archbishop of Canterbury to this day.
1222 • Temple Bar • By this date it had become one of the boundary points for the ancient Manor of Westminster. The earliest mention occurred in 1292. It was at one time used for a prison and a barrier at which tolls were collected
1246 • York Place • The land to the north of the abbey became the London house of the Archbishops of York and became known as York Place. It was essential for all the bishops – the ‘Lords Spiritual’ – to attend the monarch at Court when affairs of state were discussed. For this reason, all they all had a London residence in which to stay for several months at a time. In the case of the Archbishops of York, their London house was conveniently close to the Palace of Westminster.
1529 • Whitehall Palace • Henry VIII acquired York Place and it became known as Whitehall Palace. It remained in use as a palace for nearly 300 years, until it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1698. It was the largest palace in Europe – eclipsing even the Vatican and Versailles.
The River Thames
With these ‘key dates’ in mind, we need to take a look at the River Thames. Its shape on the north bank was quite different from the one we know today. The line of the river turned through 90 degrees at this point and, as with any stream or river, the water current gradually eroded the bank as it turned, making the Thames much wider than it is today. In very simple terms, all the grassed areas on today’s north bank – including all of Victoria Embankment Gardens – were once part of the Thames and its shoreline. It was not until the mid-19th century that the Victorian engineers reclaimed the land and formed the Victoria Embankment and laid out the dual-carriageway with the same name. Notice also the River Fleet which was visible above ground until the middle of the 18th century. After that time it was covered over and the land used for the thoroughfares known as New Bridge Street and Farringdon Street. Notice also that the River Tyburn flowed across the land in Westminster and split into two parts just before reaching the Thames. This approximate ‘triangle of land’ was known as Thorney Island. The River Tyburn now flows below ground level and its course is no longer visible.
It also needs to be pointed out that people – both rich and poor – travelled on London’s streets. However, for the upper levels of society, the streets were narrow, overcrowded with traffic and filled with those working in the streets. Modes of transport – by horse or by carriage – was slow and subject to hold-ups due to too many people using the roadway for whatever reason. For those who could afford it, transport by the river was usually faster even though the mode of conveyance was to be rowed in a small boat called a wherry. In medieval times there were landing stages at the Palace of Westminster, Whitehall Palace and various places near the Strand. In today’s Victoria Gardens there remains the York Water Gate as evidence of this. The Temple had its own landing stage and water stairs gave access to numerous other points in the City.
The Outline Map
The outline map shown above is not only useful to help us understand Westminster (which includes Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament) but also the medieval setting of Whitehall (which includes Whitehall Palace). The map ‘sheds light’ on the medieval history of the Strand. More detailed maps will be used for the various areas of study but this map ‘lays out the basic’ locations relevant to the Thames between Westminster and the City.
For a better understanding of the meaning of Westminster as a name, there is a specially written article describing its history and how it came into being. It is called ‘Westminster – The Three Names’.
See also: Westminster – The Three Names – SHOW_THE_WEBPAGE