Chapter Two

The Medieval Port

Alfred was already a battle-hardened young man when he succeeded his father to the throne of Wessex in 871 at the age of 21, having spent much of his teenage years fighting the Vikings on land and sea. Following his victory at the Battle of Edington in 878, the Viking forces, under their leader Guthrum, retreated eastwards. King Alfred began a policy of creating defensive ‘burghs’ (fortified towns) in the areas he controlled, which is the origin of the word ‘borough’ and of town names ending ‘bury’. The following year Alfred and Guthrum reached an agreement that created a border between Wessex (in the south and south-west) and the Viking territory (to the north, north-east and east). It formally recognized the area west of the River Lea as belonging to Alfred and to the east as Guthrum’s territory of Danelaw. Alfred re-founded the former Roman capital as ‘Lundenburg’, now a strategic border town. In constant danger of attack, it needed to be more defensible than the early-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic so the old walls and riverside quays of the former Londinium were rebuilt and repaired and, despite occasional Viking attacks during the following century, it once again began to thrive as a port.

The early-medieval Port

In order to revitalize London, Alfred granted sections of land – yokes – to important allies. Two charters dated 889 and 898 provided a yoke each to two of his closest advisors, Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury and Waerferth, Bishop of Worcester:

Alfred, king, and others to Plegmund, archbishop, and to Christ Church, and to Wærferth, bishop, and the church of Worcester; grant of 2 yokes of land at Ætheredes hyd on the Thames. One to each.

The purpose was to create a point on the river within Lundenburg where vessels could land and a market could be held for goods to be bought and sold. The King collected tolls for boats arriving on the ‘ripa emptoralis’ (trading shore). By the time the Saxons once again began to populate the old walled city in the ninth century the former Roman timber quays and jetties would have long ago rotted away and they reverted to berthing their boats on sloping beaches. The location of Aethelredshithe (named after Alfred’s sonin-law) was probably dictated by the lie of the Roman wall at that point and provided a convenient foreshore up onto which vessels could be pulled. Thus Aethelredshithe (renamed Queenhithe in later times) became the first part of the late-Saxon port of London.

By the tenth century two more ‘common quays’ had joined Aethelredshithe on the waterfront. The newly rebuilt London Bridge formed a barrier through which larger vessels coming upriver had difficulty passing and the response was the creation of new landing places at St Botolph’s Wharf and Billingsgate. They probably each began as small, prepared beaches on which a boat could be berthed.

To travel downriver to the sea in the late ninth and early tenth centuries involved passing Viking Danelaw territory so trade tended to be with villages upriver rather than the east coast or overseas, but international trade gradually increased. The fourth law code of Ethelred II (‘the Unready’), issued around 1000 AD, details the various berthing tolls at Billingsgate due to the monarch. A small boat was to pay a half penny and a larger ‘keel’ four pence. Tolls were payable on certain days of the week for those carrying cloth; a ship carrying planks paid one plank and tolls were set for boats arriving with fish. By then ships were arriving from the Continent and they are dealt with in the law code. Those from Rouen, Flanders, Ponthieu in Normandy, Huy, Liège and Nivelles in Flanders had specified tolls, whereas men of the Emperor – Germans – were to be treated as locals, except to additionally supply specified provisions to the king.

The town’s importance as an international port continued to grow because of its proximity to the Continent and, in particular, being directly opposite the mouth of the Rhine, the gateway to the heart of Europe. Pottery, jewellery and other items of the late-Saxon period from the Continent have been found in London. There is further evidence in the form of coins of that period from Belgium, Normandy and Norway found along the Thames. In 1016 the Danish leader Cnut inherited the throne, uniting Wessex and Mercia as well as bringing an end to Viking hostility. During his reign England became part of a kingdom that included Denmark and Norway, thus stimulating trade with Scandinavia and the Baltic. English coins unearthed in Continental towns during the eleventh and twelfth centuries indicate the spread of London’s trade during those times. Many from the early part of that period have been found in Scandinavia. Later coins have been discovered throughout the Baltic coast, Germany, Normandy and Flanders.

The Walbrook stream flowed southwards through the centre of the city and in London’s early history was possibly navigable for a short distance upstream from its confluence with the Thames. On the eastern side of that junction, a short distance above the bridge, foreign merchants set up their base, perhaps as early as the reign of King Edgar in the mid-tenth century. A landing place was created some time before the mid-eleventh century when the ‘port of Duuegate’ was referred to in a charter from Edward the Confessor. (In the late sixteenth century John Stow names it as ‘Downgate’ and in more recent times it has become known as ‘Dowgate’).

There is archaeological evidence, dating from the late tenth or early eleventh century, of a jetty extending into the river slightly downriver of London Bridge (the modern-day New Fresh Wharf). This would indicate the earliest example in medieval London of the development away from hauling vessels up onto a beach.

The Normans could be more confident in their safety and the ancient Roman riverside wall was not replaced as it was gradually undermined by the river. For them the greater priority was trade along the waterfront and the wall was an obstacle to the construction of warehouses and wharves. Where the wall had previously stood, a new street was created running parallel with the river, known today as Upper and Lower Thames Street. The sloping beaches used by the Saxons were gradually replaced by timber jetties and wharves at which ships could berth. The stretch downriver of the bridge where larger ships moored was already then known as ‘the Pool of London’.

Roads throughout Europe deteriorated throughout the Middle Ages whereas water transport gradually developed. Former established major towns such as St Albans and Colchester, without a major river, would never again compete in importance with London. By the middle of the twelfth century the city, abandoned after the Roman occupation and re-established by Alfred the Great, was once again one of England’s major towns, although not yet its capital. The rebuilt bridge formed a barrier past which the largest seagoing ships could not easily pass, creating an additional need to unload at London. The creation of new wharves by the Norman riverside landowners, as well as the ever-increasing size of ships arriving to unload, was turning London into a major port. Foreign merchants had established riverside bases for the importing and exporting of goods and London merchants had obtained charters from the monarchy that put them in a favourable position relative to other ports in England.

London Bridge

London Bridge, which was the only crossing over the Thames in the immediate London area until the construction of Westminster Bridge in 1750, was, and remains, the limit of navigation for larger vessels. At some point in time the last Roman bridge must have collapsed and for around 600 years thereafter the river could only be traversed by boat. It was during the late tenth century that a new wooden structure was built. Its purpose was probably as much to do with creating a barrier preventing the passage of invading Vikings as to provide a crossing. Perhaps it had a drawbridge to allow boats to pass upstream to the dock at Aethelredshithe.

The tenth century bridge was severely damaged by a flood in 1097, and again in the great fire of 1136, and was probably repaired enough that it could continue to be used. Between 1176 and 1209 a replacement was built slightly upstream to the west, in line with Fish Street Hill, in the position it occupied for the following 700 years. It was built under the supervision of a parish priest, Peter of St Mary Colechurch.

The foundations of the new stone bridge were constructed by ramming wooden stakes into the river bed and infilling with rubble. With 19 broadpointed arches, ranging from 14 feet to 32 feet in width, it was for many years the longest stone bridge in England. It was 926 feet in length, 40 feet in width, and stood 60 feet above the water level. London Bridge became an impressive sight, the most magnificent such structure in Britain.

The bridge was erected on piers that in turn stood on starlings that protected the piers from the flow of the water. Set close together, the starlings formed a barrier to the incoming and outgoing tides, creating a weir effect that was a continuous force against the fabric of the bridge. Taking a boat through while the tide was flowing was described as ‘shooting the bridge’ and could be very dangerous. In his Chronicle of London, William Gregory describes an incident in about 1428:

The vij [7th] day of Novembyr the Duke of Northefolke wolde have rowed thoroughe the brygge of London, and hys barge was rentte agayne the arche of the sayde brygge, and there were drowned many men, the nombyr of xxx [30] personys and moo of gentylmen and goode yemen [yeomen].

A drawbridge between the sixth and seventh piers from the southern end could be raised twice each day, when the tide was high, to allow for the passage of ships. It was operated from a stone tower on its northern side, variously known as the ‘Great Gate’ or ‘Traitor’s Gate’. The drawbridge could also be raised as a defensive measure on the occasions that London came under attack by road from the south.

In the centre of the bridge was a chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket, a twelfth century parishioner of St Mary Colechurch, who had been canonized only three years before construction began. It was soon joined by shops with accommodation, something that was not unusual across medieval Europe. The bridge became an extension of the city and a busy and colourful commercial street as much as a river crossing. In 1460 the bridge wardens were receiving rents from around 130 properties. Over the centuries these structures were rebuilt as they decayed.

Since the Norman period, London Bridge (and then later other public bridges connecting to the City) has been maintained on behalf of the Corporation of London by the Bridge House Trust, which throughout the Middle Ages was located adjacent to the Southwark end of the bridge. Bridge House was headed by wardens who were initially appointed by the king, but later chosen annually by the City’s Common Council. They were citizens of substance, often with interests in waterborne trade or riverside parishes. The Trust employed a full staff to maintain the bridge and collect rents and tolls and the senior officers comprised the Clerk of Works, Renter and (from 1496) the Comptroller. Others included the clerk of the drawbridge, numerous carpenters, masons and various labourers and servants. The bridge also owned several ‘shoutes’ (barges) in order to transport materials, with ‘shutemen’ to operate them. A substantial part of the income for maintaining the bridge came in the form of rents derived from numerous properties in the City and elsewhere, as well as the City’s Stocks market.

In 1460 the toll for a ship to pass through the drawbridge was between one and two pennies. Three years later it had increased substantially to six pence. Fewer vessels therefore passed through to dock there and the drawbridge seems to have been raised less frequently. It began to fall into decay and after 1476 no income was being received for the passage of boats because it was in such a poor state and dangerous to lift. In 1500 workmen were required to work night and day for the repairing of the ‘full rynous drawbridge and thereof making sure to be drawen alle redye for the Kinges berkis [barques] to have hadde passage’. That seems to have been an exceptional occasion however, and thereafter any contemplation of raising the bridge was for defence rather than the passage of ships.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries

In the eleventh century the size of seagoing ships increased so that boats were too large to beach, with loads too big to sell directly from the riverside. By the end of the twelfth century merchants in Northern Europe operated ‘cogs’, a high-sided, flat-bottomed vessel of around eighty-five tons. Thus wharves and warehouses began to be constructed on the riverside, owned and operated by land-based shipowners or middlemen. Many rules were introduced during the early twelfth century to regulate trade, merchants and ships’ captains.

In Saxon times London’s riverbank was a beach along which the town’s population could access the water but during the Middle Ages it became a series of private wharves. The old Saxon streets continued to slope down to the river between each property, or were truncated by riverside steps or jetties, allowing the population to reach the water for their animals to drink, to draw water, make use of the public latrines, or hire a ferry.

Aethelredshithe was renamed ‘Queenhithe’ during the early twelfth century in honour of Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, the name it still retains today. Later in the century King John gave it to his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who made herself unpopular with those using it by the way she collected tolls. The Constable of the Tower was commanded by Henry III in 1224 to arrest ships from the Cinque Ports and compel them to land their corn only at Queenhithe. Two years later the constable was to confiscate all fish not landed there. Richard, Earl of Cornwall, leased it to the City Corporation in 1246 and they developed a market selling salt, fish and corn, collecting tolls from ships docking there. Other quays handled wine, hay, oysters, coal and wool.

The main docks and wharves were on the north bank of the river either side of the Walbrook, at Queenhithe, Vintry and from Dowgate downstream to Billingsgate. During the thirteenth century the axis of the port moved to below the bridge as Queenhithe diminished in importance. New wharves were constructed at Billingsgate, with large undercrofts for storage. The wharves and their successors on the north bank of the Pool of London below the bridge would continue as the heart of the port for the next 500 years, until the end of the eighteenth century. Imports were unloaded and exports loaded there and, when it became too congested, ships would moor in the middle of the river, with cargoes ferried to and from the shore by barge or lighter.

Tides and the general river level had begun to increase from around 700, and still continue to do so in modern times. River walls of the thirteenth century were about a metre higher than those of the Roman period. As early as the tenth century wharf owners began to expand their properties into the Thames by constructing new embankments. During the twelfth century the technology of revetments developed. Stout vertical planks were slotted into a timber baseplate with internal and external braces to form a vertical wall of between two and three metres high, infilled behind with stable muck and materials from London’s rubbish dumps. Sections found in modern times by archaeologists show that it was common to reuse timber from broken-up ships to construct revetments and mooring posts.

As loads increased, ships were required to have higher sides, round bottoms and greater depth of water for berthing and therefore quays were built ever further into the river. Encroachment by individual property owners continued step by step, particularly between the twelfth century and the end of the fifteenth century, until a strip of land measuring between 25 and 150 metres had been reclaimed, greatly enlarging the size of the city. This reclamation, with lack of uniformity or alignment between properties, often had the effect of elongating properties southwards. Upstream of the bridge some were industrial operations, with one example at Swan Lane being a large dye-house, a factory for colouring textiles, which was possibly one of a group of clothfinishing establishments.

During the reign of King Stephen, Robert FitzRichard, constable of the riverside Baynard’s Castle and guardian of the City of London, claimed overlordship of the Thames from London to Staines. A council of all England was held in St Paul’s Cathedral to settle the matter. Navigation of the river and the estuary, with its strong tides and numerous sandbanks and other hazards, held considerable danger for shipping and required a degree of supervision. There was the threat of piracy and the possibility of smuggling to avoid tolls and duties. In 1197 the City authorities made an agreement with Richard I whereby, in return for a cash payment (which he desperately needed to fund his Crusade), they gained authority over the Thames from Staines to the River Medway, allowing them to introduce unified policies. Their responsibility for the river down to Yantlet Creek at the mouth of the Medway, including part of the Medway itself, was reconfirmed in 1606 during the reign of James I and continued until the nineteenth century.

Regulations stipulated that ships were obliged to sell their cargoes at the legallyapproved markets in London. This was to prevent ‘regrating’, whereby a merchant could buy in one market and sell at higher price in another nearby market, or ‘forestalling’ when an entire cargo was purchased by a trader thereby creating a monopoly in a product. These were considered ‘unjust’ practices, what we would call in modern terms ‘anti-competitive’ or ‘price-fixing’. It was something that was frowned on by both the authorities and the Church, with the earliest such laws dating from the second half of the thirteenth century. For a ship’s captain however, it was more convenient to sell the entire contents to one ‘engrosser’, so illegal transactions continued to take place. When caught, offenders could expect to have their goods seized by officials and given a fine or even banished from trading. A charter to London from Henry III laid down the law:

No merchant or other person shall meet merchants coming, by land or by water, with their merchandise and provisions towards such city, for the purpose of buying or selling again, until the same shall have been duly exposed for sale, under forfeiture of the thing bought and pain of imprisonment.

As merchants bought and sold from each other they needed a way to keep track of how much money was owed. From the thirteenth century a system was introduced using tally sticks. Each stick, made from alder or hazelwood, recorded a particular transaction. Notches of varying sizes were cut to indicate amounts of money, with the largest notches having the greatest values and small nicks for the smallest denominations. The stick was then cut along its length into two parts of different widths. The thicker part, known as the ‘stock’ was retained by the party to whom money was owed and the narrower section, called the ‘foil’, by the debtor. The longer the stick the more complex the transaction, with the longest on record measuring almost forty centimetres. When the debt was settled the stick was destroyed and discarded.

As with all of London, the various wards were responsible for the security, good order and maintenance of the public areas along the riverbank. The bridge came under the jurisdiction of Bridge and Candlewickstreet wards; upstream were Vintry, Queenhithe and Castle Baynard; and downstream Billingsgate and Dowgate.

Having been re-established by Alfred in the late ninth century, London had grown into one of the major towns of England. By 1203 one eighth of the entire national revenue was being collected in London and its merchants had become powerful enough to ensure their interests were represented in Magna Carta, sealed by King John twelve years later. As medieval sailors approached London from the Thames estuary they must have been faced by a wondrous sight which we can only imagine today. First they passed the formidable Tower of London. Beyond that was London Bridge, filled with houses and its church, teeming with activity and stretching across the river. The city itself – large by the standards of the day – was a mass of church spires and dominated by the vast St Paul’s Cathedral in the west.

Imports and exports through the medieval Port

When King Cnut ascended the thrones of Denmark, England and Norway, hostilities between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings had ended, providing an opportunity for trade to take place between the parts of Cnut’s kingdom. Thirty years after his death England had become part of the Anglo-Norman Empire, with little hindrance or threat to cross-Channel shipping. Furthermore, from 1154 the country was part of the Angevin Empire that included south-west France.

Almost all the ruling class in England were by this time French and they expected the same domestic luxuries as they enjoyed at home in France. As many of the country’s royalty, nobles, and clergy grew in wealth (creating houses and palaces around London, Westminster and Southwark) they looked for supplies of wine from Bordeaux and Poitou, fine cloth, jewellery, exotic furs, furniture and other materials and there were a number of merchants on hand to import them. By the end of the thirteenth century London had established itself as the principal supplier of such goods within England, all of which passed through the capital’s port. In the late twelfth century, William FitzStephen had already written about the exotic merchandise arriving at the Port of London:


The Angevin Empire in the latter decades of the twelfth century following the marriage of King Henry II of England, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The Arab proffers gold, the Sabaean spice and incense … Thy rich soil, O Babylon, gives oil from the fertile palm trees, and the Nile precious stones; the Chinese send garments of purple silk, the French their wines; the Norse and Russians vair, gris and sable.

Sabaeans were people who lived in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Babylon was then often used to refer to Cairo. Vair and gris are furs from different types of squirrel and sable is from weasels. These were only a selection of the more luxurious items then being imported by ship.

Most cargoes from up- or downriver, around the coast, or from overseas were of a more everyday nature. The greatest export was wool, with the major import being wine from France. Other imports included salt, grain and bulk cargoes such as firewood, timber for construction, chalk, coal and millstones.

There was also a great increase in internal trade during the early medieval period and this brought better standards of living to many as could be seen by the new fashions and quality of clothing, pottery, metalwork, and timberframed buildings of the city. London was supplied by boat from around the south-east with bulk goods like grain that were too cumbersome to be moved by road. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries smaller inland ports such as Henley and Maidenhead came into being on the Thames, on the River Lea at Ware, and downriver at Maidstone and Faversham. Coastal boats brought goods from around the rivers of the Essex coast while distribution centres grew at Kingston and Ham to supply the city with firewood from around Middlesex and Surrey. Coal was shipped around the coast from Newcastle by the early thirteenth century and a Sea Coal Lane existed in London in the 1220s.

Large amounts of grain such as rye, barley and oats were needed in London for the baking of bread, brewing of beer and feeding of horses and other animals. These were transported into the city from distances of up to 20 miles by cart but as far away as 60 miles by water. London was supplied by markets upriver at Henley, the coastal towns of Rye, Sandwich, New Romney and even as far as Great Yarmouth, as well as Maidstone and Faversham. By the latter thirteenth century there were four grain markets in London: at Cheapside, Gracechurch Street, Billingsgate and Queenhithe. Authorized merchants at Queenhithe held a monopoly on the landing of salt that extended as far downstream as the River Medway, for which they were each required to pay the Bailiff of Queenhithe five shillings.

During the twelfth century London also became a leading international financial centre from where the royal mint was organized. Despite the Christian rule that forbade usury, a number of the town’s more prosperous citizens were involved in providing finance in one form or another. These included William Cade, a Flemish cloth-merchant who became the leading Christian financier during the early years of the reign of Henry II. He provided funds for a broad spectrum of individuals and institutions, including the king, barons, monasteries, clergy and sheriffs as well as other traders. There was also a small population of Jews who lent money; and a further source of finance were the Knights Templar. After the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and the Knights Templar supressed at the start of the fourteenth century, their places in the London finance market were taken by Italians and merchants of Cahors.

Despite wars and plagues, overall trade in and out of London gradually increased and spread over a wider geographical area. During the mid-fourteenth century the greatest traffic was with the Low Countries and the Rhineland but goods manufactured in London were finding their way as far as sub-Saharan Africa, probably via Portuguese traders. From the late thirteenth century merchant ships known as ‘carracks’ from the Mediterranean ports of Venice and Genoa were arriving in England. By the early fourteenth century they were regularly carrying goods to and from London, including the importing of alum, used in dying cloth. The Mediterranean trade continued until the 1530s.

During the third period of mayoralty of Richard Whittington, London’s regulations of the time were, in 1419, recorded by John Carpenter, common clerk of London, in the Libor Albus (the White Book). Amongst many others, contemporary and past, were included those regarding fees due on imports into London, including ‘pesage’, ‘scavage’ and ‘tronage’.

Pesage was a tax on imported bulk goods:

Unto Pesage it pertaineth, that all articles of merchandise that are sold by weight, when brought into the City by merchant-strangers, and sold in gross by the hundredweight or half hundredweight, ought to be weighed by the King’s beam; in which case, the buyer shall pay unto the Sheriffs [followed by various weights and costs]. And be it known, that the buyer at his own cost cause the King’s beam and weights to be brought to the house where the vendor is staying; so that the vendor shall pay nothing to any one by reason thereof.

Two hundred years earlier, Magna Carta had standardized weights and measures throughout the kingdom according to those used in London. During the reign of Henry III it was established that imported goods be weighed at the ‘King’s beam’, a set of scales controlled by a London citizen who was usually a grocer. In 1319 a royal charter gave control of the beam to the City Corporation and it was thereafter administered by Livery Companies. A ‘great beam’ was used for heavy goods and a ‘small beam’ for lighter goods. A set of standard weights and measurements was kept at the Guildhall.

Scavage was a fee paid to officials and hosts:

Here is set forth of what merchandise coming into London Scavage ought to be taken on behalf of his lordship the King; and how much ought to be taken for each kind. Of which custom one half belongs to the Sheriffs, and the other half to the hosts in whose houses the merchants are harboured, who bring the merchandise from which such Scavage arises; provided always that such hosts be of the freedom of the city.

In the regulations there followed a long list of goods varying from sugar and pepper to turpentine, glass, whalebone and the exotic-sounding ‘pyoine’, on which twelve pence per kark (probably a variable amount meaning simply ‘load’) was due. Other goods listed were squirrel-skins, silk, felt, canvas and other types of materials. Pesage at the rate of a half-penny per hundredweight was due on all merchandise brought into the city. On other goods taken out of the city, such as wool or woad, tronage was due at a rate of eleven pence per sack, and two pence per tun of wine.

With the establishment of a major cloth-making industry in the country, large amounts of dye were required. The main component of dye throughout the Middle Ages was woad, producing anything from a mid-blue, to a deeper blue or black. It had been grown in England during Saxon times but by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries seems to have only been imported. It was arriving in London from Picardy by the end of the twelfth century, brought by merchants from Amiens and Flanders, and (after wine) was the second most important import from France throughout the Middle Ages. Sources other than Picardy were Normandy, Gascony, Spain and Lombardy. Liber Albus records:

It should also be known, that in ancient times no woad used to be harboured in the city, but all was sold in the vessel. In times that are [lately] past, the merchants harboured their woad, renting the warehouses by leave of the Sheriffs. After this, in the time when Andrew Bokerelle was Mayor, by assent of the greatest persons in the City, the merchants of Amias, of Nele, and of Corby, obtained a letter sealed with the Common Seal of the City, by which it was granted unto them that they might at all times, and whenever they might please, harbour their woad.

The French woad trade was regularly interrupted during the Hundred Years’ War, allowing other merchants, such as the German Hanse, to encroach on the business. It was able to resume uninterrupted again following the signing of the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475, although by then the primary source in France was Toulouse rather than Picardy.

Christians abstained from eating meat on Fridays and certain holy days and therefore fish was an important part of the medieval diet. A variety of fish and shellfish caught at sea or in rivers was landed in London according to the seasons. Preserved seafood known as ‘stockfish’ was brought from Scandinavia. Fees were to be paid to London Bridge for fish being brought into London:

For every boat that brings sprats, if the boat is not of the franchise of London, the bailiff [of the bridge] shall have one tandel [a basket measurement] of sprats, and for the boat one farthing. The vessel that brings dabs [similar to plaice], shall give six-and-twenty dabs for each hundred; and if it brings less, it shall give nothing, and if it brings more it shall give no more than one hundred dabs. A porpoise owes one penny, and if it is cut up for selling at retail, the bailiff shall have the chawdron [entrails] and the tail, and the three fins.

Until the early part of the fifteenth century there was a great variety of manufactured items being exported but by its end the situation had reversed and the only goods leaving in significant quantities, other than cloth, were tin and lead, pewter pots and brassware, and rabbit-skins. As a result of standards set by Livery Companies, products manufactured in London were of a high standard but expensive to produce. A large range of cheaper products ranging from metal goods to spectacles were imported, as were raw materials such as iron, steel, copper, resin, wax and dyestuffs. In order to protect local manufacturers, laws were passed in 1464 and again in 1484 banning the import of a range of goods by denizens (those foreign-born but with English rights) or aliens, probably with little effect. William Caxton set up the first printing press in England at Westminster in 1476 but books were also arriving from the Continent, for sale by two London booksellers. Portuguese ships brought oranges, sugar and cork, Venetians carried luxury cloths, carpets and spices.

The wool and cloth trade

England’s greatest exports by far throughout the Middle Ages were wool and woollen cloth. So important were these goods that they were often the subject of political and trade wars between the English and Continental monarchs. In the earlier part of the period it was almost entirely wool that was sold overseas but England gradually became Europe’s leading supplier of woollen cloth.

A flourishing weaving industry was established in Flanders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, producing cloth that the Flemish sold in their local fairs. As the industry expanded and began to produce high-quality cloth for export, Flemish merchants, along with others from France, came to England seeking supplies of wool. Such was the demand for English wool that buyers were willing to pay long in advance, effectively lending money to the suppliers. The finished Flemish cloth was reimported, named after their individual towns of origin, such as ‘Arras cloth’, ‘Ypres cloth’ and so on, and sold at England’s fairs. This trade was no doubt increased after a grant of safe conduct between Henry III and Flemish merchants in 1236 and followed in subsequent years by charters of privilege for individual Flemish towns.

London was far from the major producing regions yet by the later thirteenth century it was the most pre-eminent port for wool, handling around forty per cent of the country’s trade, mostly brought to the city by middlemen or shipped by provincial suppliers. During wars between England, Flanders and France in the 1270s and 1290s a large part of the trade was captured by German merchants, mostly from Lübeck and Dortmund, who were neutral in the conflicts. Flemish merchants largely withdrew from trading with England, buying English wool from others and concentrating their energies instead on cloth production.

From at least the twelfth century much of the wool that was exported was produced by English monasteries, notably of the Cistercian order. Such was their selling-power they also acted as middlemen for local lay manors and the estates of the senior clergy. Italians, mostly from Florence, Lucca and Piacenza, were touring the country, collecting taxes due to the Pope from religious houses, and as they did so they began to also buy wool to be sold in both Flanders and for their own cloth industry in Italy. Italian ships rarely ventured up the Thames however, and those merchants shipping from London tended to send their wool by barge down to Sandwich where it was transferred to galleys.

Following violent disagreements between English and Flemish merchants that made it dangerous for either side to trade, Edward II agreed in 1313 to the creation of a staple through which all exports of wool to the Low Countries should pass and where customs duty was to be paid. English merchants fixed the location in the neutral town of St Omer in the province of Artois, but in subsequent years the staple transferred variously to Antwerp and Bruges. The Hundred Years’ War began in the latter part of the 1330s. To finance the conflict Edward III attempted, with mixed results, to nationalize the export of wool. It was collected on behalf of the Crown, shipped to the staple at either Antwerp or Bruges, and sold on the King’s behalf by English merchants. Towards the end of Edward’s reign Parliament demanded that it should henceforth regulate and control the taxes on wool.

Between 1326 and 1335 the staple moved away from the Continent to various locations in London and other English, Welsh and Irish ports but this caused inconvenience and additional cost to wool producers who were no longer able to ship from their closest harbour. This created issues that ultimately increased the cost of wool arriving in Flanders. Cloth produced by the Flemish became more expensive, giving English weavers a price advantage.

Production of long, heavy English broadcloth was stimulated during the thirteenth century by new methods that allowed manufacturing on an industrial scale. Fulling by foot was gradually replaced by a mechanical waterdriven method powered by fast-running water. Production moved from urban homes to mills located in rural valleys in areas such as Yorkshire and the Lake District. Further impetus was provided from the time when war closed the English market for Flemish cloth and the Flemish market for English wool during the 1270s. Trade embargoes were followed by a burdensome customs duty on the export of wool, while English weavers enjoyed the advantage of cheap, plentiful and high-quality local supplies. Thus in the 1330s imports of Flemish cloth virtually ceased. Annual export of English cloth increased steadily, from less than 5,000 cloths in the 1350s to 40,000 each year by the end of the century. The main market was then Gascony, the reason for which we will understand when we later look at the wine trade. English cloth had taken so much of the European market that by the 1360s the Flemish industry was in a state of crisis, as was that of Florence in the following decade. The Flemish industry was dealt a further blow by civil war between 1379 and 1385 and that of Florence by their war against the Pope that began in 1375 resulting in a wide ban on Florentine cloth across Europe.

For the following century English wool was woven into unfinished cloth before being exported to the Low Countries to be made into clothing. It was however at the finishing stage where the highest profit was made. Henry VII, during exile in his teens before taking the throne, had witnessed for himself the Flemish cloth-finishing industry and the prosperity it created. Like Edward III before him, he encouraged skilled Flemish cloth-workers to migrate to England and in 1486 banned the export of most types of unfinished English cloth. As the Flemish and Florentine weaving industries declined and English cloth increased, exports of English wool steadily decreased, from an annual peak of almost 40,000 sacks in the first decade of the fourteenth century to less than 20,000 a century later and under 5,000 by the sixteenth century.

It was largely English merchants who developed the export of cloth and they initially controlled about eighty per cent of the business in the early fourteenth century when volume was low. By the end of the century German Hanse merchants were also buying cloth, much of it destined for the Baltic, and Italians were shipping it to Mediterranean countries. Yet alien merchants only ever controlled about half of the cloth export trade. In the thirty-year period from the 1360s shipments from London rose ten-fold, mainly to the Baltic, North Sea and Low Countries with most cloth destined for the Mediterranean leaving from Southampton. In the mid-sixteenth century London’s share of a still growing market had risen to eighty-five per cent.

In the middle of the fourteenth century the staple for wool finally settled at Calais, an English possession from 1346, and the merchants formed themselves into a fellowship. It remained there until the town was lost to France in 1558 during the reign of Queen Mary. The Calais staplers, dominated by an increasingly restricted number of London capitalists, were primarily members of the Grocers’, Fishmongers’ and Mercers’ companies but dealt in a wide range of goods at wholesale. In the fifteenth century the majority of large shipments were sent from London, with smaller amounts from Hull, Boston and other ports. Most wool destined for areas north of the Alps was obliged to pass through Calais, with Italians sending their goods to the Mediterranean being the main exception. This ensured a near-monopoly for English staplers. The inconvenience of the staple to the German Hanseatics led them to virtually abandon the trade in favour of English cloth and the diminishing export of wool was thereafter left to English and Italian merchants. Customs duties effectively funded Calais’s garrison and were therefore of benefit to the Crown. As trade declined however, funding the garrison became increasingly difficult and on several occasions its standing army mutinied, seizing the wool stock in lieu of unpaid wages.

So strong had been the demand for English wool that during the fourteenth century Edward III had regularly withheld supply to Flanders for political leverage. By the end of the fifteenth century sales had dwindled to the point where it had become a buyer’s market. In 1493 Henry VII, in a dispute with the Duke of Burgundy, ruler of Flanders, was able to impose a boycott on sales of cloth and other goods but not for wool. In the early sixteenth century the numbers of Calais staplers dwindled, many being simply small investors who traded through agents. Buyers were no longer paying in advance, becoming more selective and choosing only the best wools. By then the finest quality supplies were produced in the Cotswolds and thus most likely to be exported from London or Southampton.

In the mid-fourteenth century only four per cent of England’s wool exports left as cloth but by the mid-sixteenth century that had risen to around eightysix per cent. The total volume, raw or manufactured, had not greatly changed but the value had doubled due to the change from wool to cloth.

The wine trade

During the Middle Ages wine was the largest foreign import into England. It made up between a quarter and a third of all imports by value in the first half of the fourteenth century when trade reached its peak, with the business increasingly concentrated on London, Bristol, Southampton and Hull.

Wine was transported in casks, the largest of which was a ‘tun’ (containing 252 gallons), the equivalent of 1,500 modern bottles, which became the standard measurement for cargo-carrying during the thirteenth century. The commodity was difficult and expensive to transport by road – a tun-sized cask requiring a cart pulled by six horses – and was therefore primarily shipped by sea and along rivers. Ships were measured according to the number of tuns they could carry, or ‘tonnage’, and the word (but not the same measurement) continues into modern times. More typically wine was sold by the half-tun, a cask known as a ‘pipe’ or ‘butt’.

In the early medieval period wine mainly arrived from the Seine basin and Burgundy via the port of Rouen in Northern France and from along the Moselle and Rhine. During the mid-twelfth century England had strong links with central and southern France; Henry II was also Duke of Anjou, which included the Loire wine-growing area. Furthermore, his marriage to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, brought with it the red wine region of Gascony around Bordeaux. After King John’s loss of territory in northern France, including Anjou and its popular white wines, the privileges of the men of Rouen were abolished. Gascony then became the primary source for England’s wine supplies and for the following 300 years the overseas trade of England and that region became interdependent upon each other. German merchants continued to bring ‘Rhenish’ wine from around the Rhine area; it would arrive in small quantities on ships together with general merchandise, but it was never as popular as the French varieties. Loire wines arrived from La Rochelle but only in limited quantities, shipped by Hanseatics, Italians and other aliens. From further south came a small volume of sweet wines from the Mediterranean, ‘sack’ (or what today we call sherry) from Spain, and port from Portugal.

The main purchasers of wine were the kings and barons and their households and the great religious houses, all of which consumed considerable amounts. They also had the resources to be able to buy in bulk, either at the port of arrival or even directly from Bordeaux, and store the wine. Until the late fifteenth century, at which time the monarchs began buying directly from France, royal purchases were mostly made in London and stored in the cellars at Westminster. The common people drank their wine in taverns, of which there were already over 350 in London by the start of the fourteenth century.

Kings enjoyed the privilege of ‘prise’ (or ‘butlerage’), by which they were allowed wine as a form of tax, and to purchase some casks at below the market rate. It was a task managed by the king’s butler, a high-ranking official, who sourced wine for not only the royal family but also the various royal households, parliament and military expeditions. The regulation as recorded during the reign of Henry V stated:

If nine tuns of wine, or less than nine, come in a ship or boat, the King’s Chamberlain ought to take nothing, as of right for the King’s Prisage. And if ten tuns come, he shall take one tun; and if there are nineteen tuns he ought to take nothing on account of Prisage beyond one tun; and upon twenty tuns he shall take two. And if one hundred or two hundred tuns come together in one ship, the Chamberlain shall take for the King’s Prisage only two tuns.

It was in the interest of the English kings to stimulate the economy of their lands in Gascony. To maintain the allegiance of the Gascons, particularly during times of war when their large ships could be requisitioned into the navy, they were given favourable terms. They were, however, resented by the citizens of London who attempted to enforce long-standing restraints on aliens. Edward I, who was no friend of Londoners, settled in favour of the Gascons in 1302. In return for a custom of two shillings per tun of wine he granted them, amongst other privileges, relief from their previous obligation to lodge with London citizens, the right to sell at wholesale to anyone they pleased, and dispensation from the royal prise. The rights of the Gascons continued to be contested by Londoners so Edward merely extended the privileges. The city levied a tax on every cask of wine passing under London Bridge, with the revenue used for its upkeep, which created further friction between the King and the native citizens. London vintners were prominent amongst seventeen ordered to be arrested by Edward II in 1309. In 1327, during the reign of Edward III, London’s citizens finally joined the Gascons in gaining exemption from prise.

The Gascons formed the Merchant Wine-Tonners confederation to look after their mutual interests. A number of them had permanent dwellings in London, with twenty-four living in Vintry ward in the first decade of the fourteenth century. Citizenship of both Bordeaux and London provided them with valuable privileges of the two towns in the form of exemptions from customs. Permanent premises in London also made it unnecessary to hire cellars in which to store wine after it had been unloaded.

From early medieval times wine merchants – ‘lawful merchants of London’ as they were described in regulations during the reign of Henry II – were associated with the churches of St Martin and St James Garlickhithe adjacent to the wharves where wine was landed. The area, around what is now the northern approach to Southwark Bridge, became known as ‘Vintry’, ‘so called of vintners … a part of the river of Thames, where the merchants of Bordeaux craned their wines out of lighters and other vessels and there landed and made sale of them’. By the early thirteenth century the London vintners, many of them with French ancestry, had organized themselves into an influential body. In 1363 they received from Edward III their first royal charter, formalizing in law what was already happening in practice, which was a monopoly on buying and selling wines from Gascony (but not sweet wines) at retail. Gascons and others were only allowed to sell it at wholesale, with the obligation to land it at Vintry. The Vintners’ Company was formally incorporated in 1437 and held a monopoly on landing wine in London until the creation of the docks in the early nineteenth century.

Trading in wine was a complex and risky business, requiring trusted connections and partnerships at the source, and a good network of customers in London and beyond. It helped to be wealthy and have wine expertise. London’s vintners were some of the richest and most powerful of the city’s citizens. Several held the position of mayor and in the early- to mid-thirteenth century at least a third of aldermen were dealing in wine. London’s merchants sent supplies far and wide, along the Thames in both directions and all the way up the east coast as far as Newcastle. Yet, with only two arrivals per year, it was a seasonal affair and few dealt with wine as their sole business. The Gascons had given over their forests and fields to the planting of vines for wine production and therefore relied on grain and dairy-produce from England for their needs, as well as becoming the main importer of English cloth in the fourteenth century. English vintners therefore spent much of their time sourcing all types of merchandise from England and beyond, to be sent to Bordeaux on ships that returned with the wine.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries some of the merchants were also owners or part-owners of the ships that carried the wine. During the Hundred Years’ War many were sunk or requisitioned by the Crown, so much of the carrying then passed into the hands of foreign shipowners, increasing the landed cost of wine in England. In the mid-fourteenth century, when around half of England’s Gascon wine imports came through London, between 150 and 200 ships were arriving annually laden with Gascon wine. It was shipped from Bordeaux twice each year: the season’s new vintage was sold and drunk by Christmas, followed after Candlemas in February by the mature ‘reek’ wine that was sold until the end of April when its quality began to deteriorate.

Mariners bound from London to Bordeaux had largely to sail against the prevailing south-westerly wind, making it a difficult journey. They tended to hug the south coast of England in order to be near a safe haven and able to revictual if the weather deteriorated. It was not unknown for them to wait for up to a month for a favourable wind and on occasions have to turn back. Assembling into groups at the Isle of Wight, they waited until weather conditions appeared suitable before striking out across the open sea to France and the port of St Mathieu at the western tip of Brittany. From there they stayed close to the western French coast down to Bordeaux.


The typical wine route from Bordeaux to London. The outward journey often varied depending from where outbound cargoes were collected en-route.

Wine was landed by the wine porters – or ‘tackle porters’ – employed by the Vintners’ Company. Master porters were identified by wearing the company insignia in silver, and junior porters (‘servants’) in brass. The movement of casks from ship to quayside storage was labour intensive. Ships normally anchored in mid-stream, so casks had to be hoisted overboard into smaller boats that ferried them to the quayside and from there to wherever they were to be stored. At least twelve porters were employed, with a charge levied depending on the distance that the cask had to be moved from the quayside. In 1301 the charge was three pence from ship to Thames Street or four pence to the lanes north of Thames Street. There are records from 1500 of wine porters operating from both Vintry Wharf and Botolph Wharf.

The wine harvest in Gascony was affected by intermittent setbacks such as the Black Death of 1348 and 1373, famine, as well as occasional pestilence and adverse weather. For much of a period of 130 years, from the start of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, there was sporadic disruption to the wine trade between Gascony and England. During times of conflict ships were forced to sail in escorted convoy to England in order to avoid capture.

In the 1440s three million gallons of wine was being brought into England each year, nearly one-third of all imports, of which up to ninety per cent was from Gascony. The final loss of the duchy of Gascony to France in 1453, and the effective suspension of trade with England, forced the merchants of Bordeaux to seek new markets elsewhere. That stimulated imports of wines from other regions, such as Spain, Portugal, Crete and the Canary Islands. At around the same time beer made with hops, which was stronger and longerlasting than English ale, was introduced into the country from Holland and it became an alternative to wine. Nevertheless, imports of wine continued to increase, reaching a peak in the mid-sixteenth century.

Foreign merchants in medieval London

London’s position as the leading town of England, with its many wealthy citizens and institutions, created a desire for imported luxury goods, foods and wine. At the same time English wool and other goods were required around Europe and these trades attracted foreign merchants and ships to London.

The existence and rights of foreign traders in London depended on various factors such as territories held by English monarchs, international wars and alliances, local politics between the citizens of London, and the need of royal finance as much as commercial opportunity. They were encouraged by the monarchs, who needed their support in the territorial disputes in France and elsewhere, as well as the goods, finance and services they could provide. To a large extent the Angevin monarchs – Henry II, Richard I and John – were more suspicious of their English subjects than of aliens. The foreign merchants, meanwhile, were resented by Londoners who saw them as a threat to their rights and livelihoods and continually pressed for restrictions to be placed on their activities. Privileges were given to or taken away from both the foreigners and local citizens in a number of charters throughout the Middle Ages.

The favoured location for foreign traders was Dowgate, where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames. One of the earliest solid pieces of evidence of French merchants in London is the confirmation in 1150 of the earlier privileges granted by Duke Henry of Normandy (later Henry II of England) to the members of the Rouen merchant guild. They were given freedom from all duties in London, except on wine and porpoises, the right to attend markets throughout England, and the possession of Dowgate wharf ‘as they have had from the time of King Edward’. The privileges were confirmed again in 1174 and by both Kings Richard I and John. The early twelfth century historian William of Malmesbury wrote in 1125 that London’s wharves were filled with goods from merchants coming from all countries, especially from Germany. Merchants from Cologne had a hall in Upper Thames Street from 1157.

The historian E.M. Carus-Wilson has described the latter thirteenth century as the golden age of free trade, when alien merchants were encouraged to do business in England. Various groups from areas of northern Europe had negotiated trade agreements in England and a charter of 1237 states

All these things we have granted unto the merchants aforesaid, that they may the more willingly and the more often come into the city with their merchandise, for the advantage of the kingdom and of the city …

In that year Henry III granted safe-conduct and privileges to traders of Gotland, and the City of London granted privileges to the merchants of Amiens, Corbie and Nesle, three towns in close proximity within Picardy. The latter group were permitted to sell their goods from the quayside shortly after landing but only to citizens of London. They could store goods, except wine and corn, and sell woad, garlic and onions to anyone free of duties and tax. After the start of the Anglo-French War that began in 1294 however, French people in England (excluding subjects of the king, such as Gascons) were declared enemy aliens, arrested and their goods confiscated.

Two of the largest groups of foreign merchants in London were the Flemings who exported wool, and the wine-importers of Gascony. Henry II issued a writ to the sheriffs and bailiffs of London not to molest the men of Cologne and to allow them to sell wine on the same terms as those from France. Spaniards were also active traders in the thirteenth century, importing furs, skins and leather, but their activities were ended until the fifteenth century by the French alliance with Castille against England from 1337. Italians from Florence, Lucca, Siena, Piacenza, Pistoia and Genoa (and later also from Milan, Padua, Pisa, Asti and Venice) became ever more prominent as merchants and then also as bankers to the king after Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290. During the Middle Ages they each formed into firms known as a ‘compagnia’ (from the Latin phrase ‘cum panis’, meaning to share bread), usually comprised of relatives. In the early Middle Ages silks, spices and other commodities from the Far East had arrived in London via Persia, Russia and Germany but the Italians began to transport them from the Mediterranean. They gradually took over much of the wool export trade from the Flemish. Normans in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries mainly dealt in hemp cloth. German merchants, who formed the Hanse trading fellowship, monopolized trade between England, northern Europe and the Baltic region.

Particular berthing tolls were payable to the monarch by aliens – and in some cases they also paid dues to the king at Christmas and Easter – in return for the same protection of their possessions as were enjoyed by natives. Tolls for them differed depending on whether their goods were sold directly from their ship or taken and sold in the town. The surviving document The law of the merchants of Lower Lotharingia (traders from Germany) from the early twelfth century details the regulations governing alien merchants arriving in London. It tells of how they should approach London Bridge, the crew singing Kyrie eleison (and thus giving evidence they were not pagan pirates); that they must wait for two ebb tides before commencing business, during which time the king’s chamberlain and sheriff should take from them a toll of wine and other luxury items; who they could sell to and in what order; the procedures for unloading goods; and how long they may stay in London.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries London’s artisans and tradesmen formed themselves into guilds, known later as ‘Livery Companies’, gaining the rights to monopolies. During the turbulent reign of King John London gained certain privileges and right of self-government – a ‘commune’ – in return for its support of the monarch. The local administration evolved into a ‘Court of Aldermen’, headed by a mayor, consisting of the city’s leading tradesmen. They, naturally, created regulations to protect their business interests, including control of outsiders doing business within London.

In 1285 attacks on foreigners led Edward I to suspend London’s charter and privileges for a period of thirteen years, during which time the city was governed by a sheriff appointed by the King. In 1303, following negotiations with foreign traders such as the German Hanse, Edward published the Carta Mercatoria (merchants’ charter), the most important piece of legislation up to that time regarding foreign merchants. It gave aliens trading throughout the kingdom extensive privileges but they were to pay additional customs duties. Edward II confirmed the Carta Mercatoria when he inherited the throne in 1307 but he came under pressure from English merchants. In 1311 he published a set of ordinances that cancelled the charter. Edward III was in his minority when he succeeded his father and made no pronouncement on foreigners, so individual groups of alien merchants were obliged to renew their liberties. Royal charters continued to be in conflict with local privileges however, so in 1335 Parliament, assembled in York, passed a statute that declared that all local charters conflicting with Magna Carta were null and void. Aliens could trade in all commodities and sell at both retail and wholesale, although wine continued to require a royal licence.

The situation changed dramatically following the death of Edward III. London introduced a number of severe restrictions on aliens. Thereafter strangers were only allowed to board with freemen, the Exchequer imposed new duties on cloth exports, and they were henceforth forbidden to trade amongst themselves. A charter to London from Richard II stated:

No merchant foreign to the freedom [of London] shall sell or buy of another stranger within the liberties of the said city any merchandise under forefeiture, etc.

The first parliament of Henry IV’s reign in 1399 confirmed the right to sell victuals at retail but subsequent parliaments were hostile to aliens. Bullion laws, first introduced in the 1340s, requiring aliens and denizens to import certain amounts of coin or plate to pay for exports, were more forcibly enacted. All proceeds from importing goods were required henceforth to be used to buy English goods. Later laws stipulated that imports must be sold within forty days, restricted even further from 1425.

In the fifteenth century Londoners tended to disapprove and be suspicious of Italians. They were considered profiteers and parasites for selling expensive luxury goods and illegally circumventing laws regarding the export of wool and cloth. The Hanse, in comparison, traded in everyday merchandise. Despite efforts by the mayor, anti-Italian violence broke out on several occasions in 1456 and 1457, orchestrated it would seem by mercers. Venetians, Florentines, Lucchese and Genoese resided openly on Lombard Street and Bread Street but the Hanse largely kept themselves protected by the high walls of their base at the Steelyard. The latter were also safe in the knowledge that any harm caused to them would result in reprisals on English merchants trading in their towns, whereas few Englishmen were doing business in Italy during that period. For a time all Mediterranean merchants decamped to Southampton.

London was an important international port by the beginning of the thirteenth century, yet in the early medieval period, when England was primarily an exporter of raw materials, a third or less of the importing and exporting was handled by English traders. The tide began to turn in the 1330s at the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War and by the end of that century the wool and cloth business was largely in the hands of English, and particularly London-based merchants.

The German Hanse and the Steelyard

The ability to trade internationally in medieval Europe was highly dependent on politics, customs duties and local privileges. It was therefore not unusual for merchants from a particular town to form a fellowship or ‘hanse’ in order to negotiate with foreign monarchs and ports and to provide mutual protection in times of danger.

The largest trading confederation in northern Europe was the German Hanse, often referred to as the ‘Hanseatic League’. It began as an association of individual merchants trading overseas. During the second half of the fourteenth century membership became restricted to merchants of particular towns and it was the towns themselves that were thereafter the members. The emphasis of their interest remained solely commercial; it was never a sovereign or political body, and the individual towns owed allegiance to different kingdoms. There were generally about seventy member towns, and at its height ninety, mostly, but not restricted to, German-speaking areas. It had no permanent officials but matters were debated by a central ‘diet’ or assembly of members that met when necessary, usually at the inland port of Lübeck close to the modern border of Germany and Denmark.

Regulations dating from around 1000 state the berthing tolls and payments in kind that Germanic merchants should pay in order to trade in London. Such an arrangement indicates that some form of mutual organization already existed amongst the merchants and in 1157 they purchased a hall at Dowgate. Henry II gave protection to men of Cologne, Richard I granted them a charter of privileges and King John issued letters of protection. During the famines of the mid-thirteenth century the Cologners were able to import grain and this led to additional privileges being granted by Henry III. He renewed their charter in 1235, possibly at the request of the Cologners due to aggressive behaviour towards them by Londoners.

Groups of merchants from Lübeck and Hamburg were also trading with east coast ports in the first half of the thirteenth century and in the 1260s Henry III confirmed privileges to match those of the Cologners. During the second half of the century all three groups, plus merchants of Gotland, merged into one community in London, probably based at the Cologne guildhall. It was perhaps demands by Londoners in return for liberties that united the different groups. A disagreement that lasted several years was settled by the Exchequer in July 1282, whereby the Hanse were required to pay 210 marks to maintain Bishopsgate, the entrance to London from the north, for then and into the future, and contribute to the cost of its watch (in the sense of policing). A legal case brought by a London merchant led the Hanse to seek further protection for themselves. In December 1317 they paid the large sum of £1,000 to purchase a confirmation from Edward II of previous rights granted, immunity from arrest, and that neither he nor future monarchs could place impositions on them without their consent. Thus a solid legal foundation was created for the Hanse in England, although political and commercial circumstances would often lead to it being disregarded by monarchs and Parliament in later times.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century some members of the Hanse had been permanent residents in London for enough time for them to gain the rights of denizens. Their proximity to the seat of government at Westminster led them to represent the interests of the Hanse throughout England despite greater trade with the east coast ports. An increasingly hostile Parliament during the reign of Edward III prompted them to ensure their privileges were renewed by each succeeding monarch.

In the early part of the fifteenth century over ninety per cent of Hanse exports from England were of cloth. Their incoming ships brought a great variety of goods from across the Continent and beyond, including Skania herrings from the Baltic, Russian squirrel skins, Baltic fur, copper, iron, laton (a mixed metal resembling brass), wax, timber from southern Sweden, stockfish, corn, tar, quernstones, glass, mirrors, linen, silk, thread, north German beer and much more.

Individual Hanse towns and merchants, who had previously traded with a variety of individual ports in England, were by the end of the fourteenth century restricting themselves exclusively to one destination, such as Lübeckers at Boston and Prussians at Hull. London, at which a number of Hanse towns were trading, was the exception. It had by then overtaken Boston as the leading Hanse ‘Kontor’ (or base) in England, with at least twenty-eight merchants permanently based at their London guildhall in 1381.

The Hanse guildhall was located upriver of London Bridge, where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames. From the latter part of the fourteenth century it was being referred to as the ‘Steelyard’. The nineteenth century German historian J.M. Lappenberg considered it an anglicization of the German or Dutch word Stalhof, meaning an emporium of imported goods. Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries the Steelyard expanded considerably in size, growing to three acres. The historian John Stow, writing at the end of the sixteenth century, described it as:

… large, built of stone, with three arched gates towards the street, the middlemost whereof is far bigger than the other, and is seldom opened, the other two be mured [closed] up. The same is now called the old hall. In the 6th [year] of Richard II they hired one house next adjoining to their old hall, which sometime belonged to Richard Lions, a famous lapidary [gem-cutter], one of the sheriffs of London in the 49th [year] of Edward III … This was also a great house with a large wharf on the Thames, and the way thereunto … which is now called Windgoose Alley, for that the same alley is for the most part built on by the steelyard merchants.

The Steelyard was a walled community with its own warehouses, accommodation and offices, currency and system of measurements. Women were forbidden from entering and the 20 or 30 merchants living there led an almost monastic life, avoiding as much as possible contact with the local population and the pleasures of London and Southwark. Any members breaking the rules were required to pay a fine in the form of candlewax at the neighbouring All Hallows the Great church. It was there on Upper Thames Street that the Hanse merchants worshiped and during the fourteenth century they endowed it with a chapel, altars and a stained-glass window. The church, rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire, was finally demolished in 1895.

Henry IV confirmed the Hanse franchise in England in October 1399 after he succeeded Richard II but it was by then dependent upon reciprocal rights for English merchants in Hanse towns. That stipulation became an increasingly problematic issue in the following century and a half. The fifteenth century was a difficult time for the Hanse merchants, with various wars and trade disputes as obstacles to their business. There were prolonged disputes with England and instability on the Continent, causing a fall in demand for the cloth that made up the bulk of their business with England. Their trade with the east coast ports declined dramatically, in some cases ceasing altogether. At the beginning of the century around half of all Hanse trade with England took place in London but by the end of the 1430s London’s share had risen to over eighty per cent, despite not actually increasing in volume. While exports declined, imports fared even worse.

There were poor harvests across Western Europe for three successive seasons starting from 1437. In December 1437 Henry VI wrote to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order in Prussia requesting up to twenty shiploads of grain, with a further request the following year. Naturally, the Grand Master and the German Hanse at the Steelyard in London took political and financial advantage of England’s needs.

By the fifteenth century English cloth merchants had formed their own trade alliance, known as the ‘Merchant Adventurers’, who competed with the Hanse in the Baltic and at Antwerp. At every opportunity they put pressure on Parliament to limit the Hanse privileges or revoke them entirely. Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State William Cecil and the Privy Council worked in close cooperation with the Merchant Adventurers and at the beginning of her reign the Hanse were reduced to the status of aliens. Failing to agree reciprocal rights between the Merchant Adventurers and the Hanse, in 1580 the Privy Council notified the Steelyard that their privileges in England were terminated. In 1598 the Lord Mayor of London was instructed to repossess the Steelyard, although it was given back to German merchants in 1606.


The area of the Port along the riverside as it was throughout much of the Middle Ages. The individual quays (not marked) lay between Queenhithe and the Tower of London on the north bank.

There was no one single event that finally brought the German Hanse to an end; it simply disintegrated in stages. Other groups of European merchants grew in strength, particularly in England, often supported by their own nations, and rulers became reluctant to provide aliens with greater privileges than their own subjects. Individual Hanse towns or regions with their own interests began to make separate treaties, to the detriment of the other parts of the fellowship. Finally, the Hanse could not survive the conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War that raged throughout central and northern Europe in the early decades of the seventeenth century.

Ships in the medieval Port

A variety of vessels came and went from the medieval port, ranging from the smallest river and estuary boats bringing produce from nearby farms, to freshwater and sea fishing boats, up to the largest long-distance ocean-going vessels.

Archaeology has provided information regarding the types of boats that would have been arriving at London from abroad during the tenth century. All ships throughout Europe during the Middle Ages were clinker-built, constructed of planks that overlapped each other. Most were similar to the late-ninth century Anglo-Saxon cargo vessel found in 1970 on the north coast of Kent at Graveney, near Faversham. Its size was 14 by 4 metres, with hull planking held together by iron fastenings. It was capable of carrying loads of around seven tons and contained traces of Kentish hops and millstones from the Rhine, indicating that it worked in the Thames Estuary and across the North Sea. At that time these types of vessel were simply beached on London’s waterfront.

Remains of early-medieval boats uncovered from the river in modern times were locally built in a very similar style to those around northern Europe, using either iron rivet fastenings, hooked nails or wooden pegs, and caulking of moss and hair. They were likely to have a sharp fore-end and stern, similar to those associated with Viking boats. It seems that ships of the late-Saxon and Norman period were of shallow draught and flat-bottomed for berthing in shallow water.

By the start of the twelfth century the largest cargoes had risen to sixty tons and such boats needed to be unloaded against a wharf, jetty or onto a smaller barge. The greater loads created a difference in methods of trading. It was no longer possible for merchants to sell directly from their vessel. Medieval captains became bulk-carrying wholesale merchants who needed to unload their goods into warehouses for retail sale by others.

Fragments of what appears to be a locally-built, flat-bottomed, broad-beamed boat were found at Custom House in 1973. Its design is in the Scandinavian Saxon or Viking style, with pointed fore-end and stern and it has been dated from the late twelfth century. It probably had a single square sail, with steering from a side-rudder, and worked along the river. Locally-constructed vessels of that period were made of oak, whereas those from Scandinavia were primarily of pine.

In the reign of Edward I in the thirteenth century the loads of ships carrying wine to London varied from 10 tons to 200 tons, the latter being quite a large vessel. In the early fifteenth century two-masted ships were sailing in the seas of northern Europe. As ships grew even bigger it became more common for them to moor in midstream, loading and unloading their cargoes onto smaller craft that ferried back and forth to the shore.

From surviving records we know that by the late thirteenth century a wide range of size and types of boat were landing at London: ‘great vessels’ and ‘vessels with bulwarks’ (both seagoing ships); ‘coasters with bails’; and vessels with ‘oarports’ (large boats powered by a number of oars). All those types were recorded above or below the bridge but there were several classes recorded only upstream of the bridge: vessels powered by ‘tholes’ (a rowing boat); ‘shouts’ (broad, flat-bottomed inland boats suitable for shallow water) and a ‘waterman’s boat’ (such as a smaller ferry). There was a type of seagoing ship referred to as a ‘hulk’ and another was a ‘barge’. German traders from Lübeck gained an advantage when they developed ‘cogs’, a superior vessel to the older Scandinavian and Slav style and they became the most common type of vessel in international trade around northern Europe. A thirteenth century version of this was shown on the seal of the Priory of St Bartholomew. Other descriptions in the records of the Corporation of London and Bridge House are of a ‘bark’, ‘flune’, ‘galley’, ‘keel’ and various others, some of which will have been fishing boats, but their shape or usage is now unknown.

During Saxon and Norman times small ships and boats were constructed and repaired on the London riverfront, mainly in the Queenhithe and Vintry area. After the new bridge was constructed in the tenth century that activity began to move further downstream to the eastern end of the port, along Thames Street in the adjoining parishes of All Hallows and St Dunstan in the East, close to the Tower of London. There are records of fifty shipwrights constructing two warships there for the Crown in 1295. They were probably quite small enterprises because references to them in the accounts of London Bridge indicate that the shipwrights were also employed in more general carpentry work. Perhaps boat-building yards were first established at St Dunstan’s when it was still an underdeveloped area with a gently-sloping foreshore and vessels were small. By the late fourteenth century some of them occupied premises on both the north and south of Thames Street.

Although it was necessary for major construction and repairs to be undertaken on the water side there were no doubt several workshops within the city producing ships’ equipment. Certainly a rope-making industry grew during the second half of the thirteenth century just to the north of the riverfront in the west of the city. Long lengths of hemp were laid out and turned into rope along what is now Upper Thames Street but known as Roper Street until at least 1456. No doubt over time London became too congested for that activity and it moved out to the east, probably in the fifteenth century.

A shipbuilding and repair industry had grown around the villages of Ratcliff, Wapping, Shadwell, Limehouse, Poplar and Blackwall by the mid-fourteenth century, on the bend of the Thames as it suddenly sweeps south around the Isle of Dogs to the east of the Tower of London. Boats could be pulled on to mud berths there along the river. Work on naval vessels was supervised by the Clerk of the King’s Ships who was based close by at the Tower of London. A Company of Shipwrights was established by the fifteenth century with their own meeting hall at Ratcliff. During the Hundred Years’ War between 1337 and 1453 ships were required to transport troops, military stores and weapons between England and France and in 1340 a large naval fleet was fitted out at Rotherhithe, on the south bank downstream of Southwark. The shipbuilding industry was further stimulated when Richard II passed laws obliging merchants to carry goods on English ships.

As ships increased in size, better maintenance facilities were required. Maritime industries started to relocate to, and grow in, small riverside towns and villages downstream of London where there was more space. In the sixteenth century Deptford, Woolwich and Chatham became major shipbuilding, repairing and chandlery centres.

The Port during the later Middle Ages

Following the introduction of two-masted ships in the fifteenth century, trade was restricted to ports such as London that could be reached by these larger, deeper vessels. Other formerly busy harbours such as Bruges, York and Boston became less significant. Not all vessels found it convenient to progress up the Thames however, and the town of Sandwich on the Kent coast and its harbour at Dover were used as an outport and transhipment point, primarily by Italians, for goods arriving on large ships. Customs duty was paid there before loading onto smaller vessels to be brought up the river to the London markets. For goods going in the opposite direction customs duty was paid in London rather than Sandwich in order to prevent smuggling.

Water-borne trade in and out of London was not only by seagoing ships. Small barges carried goods up and down the Thames to the riverside towns of Kingston-upon-Thames, Staines, Windsor, Maidenhead, Marlow, and Henley-upon-Thames. They had previously travelled as far as Oxford but the river became obstructed by locks and dams by the fourteenth century and it was by then quicker to travel by road between Henley and Oxford. As a result, Henley grew into an important transhipment point during that period.

Wharves in London continued to be expanded into the river by their owners, either to extend their properties or to repair the former riverbank. Most river walls were constructed of wood, made with increasingly sophisticated joints, but more expensive masonry embankments such as at the Tower of London became more common from the late fourteenth century. They were more durable and needed repair or replacement less often. That had the effect of halting the previous property expansion, which had largely come to an end by the sixteenth century.

As adjacent properties moved forward into the river, Queenhithe and Billingsgate remained where they were and became basins. In the thirteenth century Queenhithe became a public wharf and in 1400 the city also acquired Billingsgate, which, being downriver of the bridge, was more convenient for seagoing ships. A regulation stated:

That no ship or boat shall anchor at night, or moor, between sunset and sunrise, except at Queen-Hythe and Byllynggesgate; nor shall at night remain upon the bank-side of Suthewerk, under pain of loss of vessel and imprisonment of body.

In the middle of the fifteenth century the City purchased land adjacent to Billingsgate to extend the wharf.

Since Saxon times many small lanes had led down to the Thames, giving access to the river to fetch water, allow animals to drink, or to catch a ferry. As the waterfront moved ever forwards some lanes continued to slope down to the river as inlets and those became known as ‘watergates’. Others were built up on the same level as the new wharves, ending in stairs and perhaps a jetty at water level, no longer allowing the possibility of animals being able to drink there. Until the middle of the fourteenth century certain bulk goods were landed at particular points and gave rise to the naming of adjacent streets. Rothersgate (where cattle were landed) was named by the early twelfth century; Oystergate was so-called from the mid-thirteenth century. Another was Seacoal Lane. As time moved on the many small buildings along the waterfront were amalgamated into larger properties by new owners, particularly following the Black Death, giving the riverfront a more uniform look than in the previous centuries. Entry points to the river became fewer. Complaints and disputes about access to the river being blocked by building work, goods or rubbish and lack of maintenance of stairs and jetties were common by the fifteenth century.

The increasing level of trade from the twelfth through to the fourteenth century drastically changed the economy and social make-up of both London and England in general. In the eleventh century power was in the hands of barons who held and gained their income from farming lands. By the fourteenth century merchants in London and other ports were often equals of the aristocracy, sometimes exceeding them in wealth and influence. Likewise, whereas the Crown had previously received its incomes from nobles it was by the latter period obtaining the major portion of its revenue from commercial taxes and tolls. The cost of the various wars of the fourteenth century required the monarchy to borrow money from London merchants and it was those businessmen, rather than civil servants, who were often authorized to oversee the collection of customs duties as repayment of the loans. For the kings this had the advantage of ensuring they were collected efficiently by men with a vested interest in their payment. In 1377, for example, the regents of the young Richard II borrowed £10,000 from two London businessmen. They were authorized to reclaim the debt by collecting taxes on wool, exports that were by then producing an income of £18,000 each year.

An increasing share of the nation’s imports and exports were passing through London’s port. It reached over sixty per cent of volume measured in taxes by the latter fifteenth century, more than the next fourteen ports combined. In most ports two people were employed to collect taxes. Such was the scope, volume and complexity of London’s trade that there were no less than fortytwo officials working in three completely separate groups: firstly the ‘Wool Custom’ for wool and hide exports; secondly the ‘Petty Custom’ for goods imported and exported by aliens and ‘Cloth Custom’ for imports and exports of cloth; and lastly the ‘Tonnage’ for wine imports and ‘Poundage’ for all other goods.

The main focus of overseas imports and exports was by then through Zeeland and the Duchy of Brabant (roughly speaking, the modern southern Netherlands and Belgium). Antwerp and Bergen-op-Zoom had opened up as inland ports for large ships, following tidal surges along the River Scheldt. They eclipsed Bruges after access to the latter town from the sea was cut off by the silting up of the Zwin waterway. Trade mainly took place at the great fairs held twice annually at each of Antwerp and Bergen, where English cloth was exchanged for local products and goods from across Europe.

The fifteenth century saw periods of boom and bust, primarily influenced by wars and harvests. As the political situation changed, recession gave way to a period of boom in around 1440 that lasted for a decade and between 1420 and 1460 there was a trade surplus in England – that is to say, more was exported than imported. That was in turn followed by another slump, with various causes including disputes with the Hanse and hostilities with Denmark. Business rose once again with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474 that ended the conflict with the Hanse. The following year the Treaty of Picquigny between Edward IV and Louis XI created a free-trade agreement that abolished certain duties paid by English merchants trading with France, stimulating the wine trade. There were poor harvests in England, and famine in Flanders and Brabant, supressing trade in the mid- to late-1480s, followed by civil unrest in Flanders that prevented merchants trading at Antwerp and Bergen. European dynastic rivalries in which Henry VII and Philip IV, Duke of Burgundy, ruler of Brabant and Flanders, were embroiled led to trade embargoes in the 1490s. That forced the English merchants to relocate from Antwerp to Calais. With continuing harm to the economy on both sides, the embargo was ended by conclusion of the Intercursus Magnus treaty in 1496, with favourable terms for England’s Merchant Adventurers. Thereafter, into the sixteenth century, London’s overseas commerce began to rise again.

The Merchant Adventurers

It was a new class of English trader who exported cloth. Wool exporters were legally bound to be members of the Company of the Staple and in the late fourteenth century to channel their goods through the newly-conquered port of Calais under protection of the English garrison. Cloth merchants on the other hand were bound by no such restrictions. They boldly sought new markets wherever they could sell English cloth and other goods, competing against foreign merchants and risking all. By the mid-fifteenth century the cloth exporters at various ports around England were known as ‘Merchant Adventurers’ of which there were about 150 at any one time. The spectacular growth in their business made them some of the most substantial men of affairs in the country.

English cloth was sold by the exporters at the great international fairs of Holland, Zeeland, Brabant, Flanders and particularly Antwerp, much of it eventually finding its way to Cologne. The most numerous and influential of the traders at those markets were those of London who each belonged to one of the City’s guilds such as the Grocers’, Haberdashers’ or Skinners’ Companies. The majority however were of the Mercers’ Company. Thus, it was they who in 1462 procured a patent from Edward IV allowing the Merchant Adventurers to appoint their own Governor in the Low Countries. (The first elected Governor was William Caxton who is better remembered for introducing printing into England). It was a Mercers’ clerk who generally dealt with administrative matters on behalf of the Adventurers and it was in their hall in London that the fellowship met for assemblies. In 1486 the Common Council of the City passed an Act that formally recognized the Merchant Adventurers of London. The ordinances of the fellowship were thereafter subject to the approval of the mayor, but whose support they would receive, as with the Livery Companies. The Act stipulated that every year the mayor and aldermen would choose from amongst the Adventurers two lieutenants to the overseas governor, one of whom should be a Mercer and the other from another Livery Company. By then the Merchant Adventurers had for some time already been managing their affairs by way of a general council. As the Low Countries became the predominant market for English cloth, London merchants were increasingly joined there by the Adventurers of other ports around England. Henry VII no doubt preferred to have just one body with which to discuss matters and he decreed that the newcomers should join with the London merchants into one body. Letters Patent of 1505 brought Merchant Adventurers from all parts of England together as one company.

Although individual Merchant Adventurers may have also been members of Livery Companies and investors in Joint Stock Companies, as a body they differed from both the latter. Merchant Adventurers not only regulated their trade and negotiated collectively for favourable conditions but were also concerned with carrying out business, such as chartering ships, determining where and when ships sailed, and levying a charge on shipments, known as ‘conduit money’, to finance expenditure. Yet, as members traded individually, they were a fellowship or regulated company rather than a Joint Stock Company.

The greatest rivals of the Merchant Adventurers were the Staplers and the German Hanse. The more the Adventurers expanded their cloth business the smaller became the market for the Staplers’ wool. In the early sixteenth century between 40 and 50 per cent of cloth was handled by alien merchants, particularly the Hanse, but Henry VII imposed restrictions on the latter group. During the reigns of the profligate Henry VIII, and his son Edward VI, the English currency was debased, making English cloth less competitive in Continental markets. Merchant Adventurers were forced to adapt, exporting cheaper, lightweight kersey instead of the more luxurious long and short cloths, as well as diversifying away from cloth.

As part of moves to persuade Elizabeth to marry King Phillip II of Spain, his government banned the import of English wool and cloth into the Spanish Netherlands in 1563. The Merchant Adventurers were thereby excluded from their main market at Antwerp and they persuaded the government to ban the export of those goods to ensure their rivals could not gain an advantage. The town of Hamburg, gateway to German markets via the River Elbe, was at that time in a poor financial state and they, along with the other members of the Hanse, suffered from the English ban. They therefore wrote to the Queen in 1564 proposing that the Merchant Adventurers create a new staple at Hamburg through which cloth exports should pass. The Queen gave practical support to the shipments there from England but the staple at Hamburg created a decade-long division within the Hanse. Finally, under pressure, Hamburg refused to renew its ten-year agreement with the English, which expired in 1577, informing Elizabeth that continuation of trade was conditional upon the Hanse regaining its full privileges in England. As we have already seen, this created a stalemate, leading to the termination of the Hanse’s rights in England in 1580.

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