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The early port

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Medieval London

William's London

Ships of William the Conqueror
View full size imageShips of William the Conqueror. © NMM
After defeating the English in 1066, William the Conqueror saw how important London was strategically and economically. As a sign of his authority, he started building the White Tower in 1078. His sons William Rufus and Henry I carried on with the project and it later became part of the Tower of London.

Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
View full size imageThe White Tower. © NMM
During this time merchants from Normandy, France, Flanders and other European lands arrived in London. As one merchant said at the time, they found London 'fitted for their trading and better stored with merchandise in which they were wont to traffic'.

The Hanseatic League

Among the foreign traders were men from the Baltic known as 'Easterlings'. They eventually founded the Hanseatic League during the 12th century. It brought together several German cities, including Lubeck and Hamburg, for protection and commerce.

The League traded mostly in grain, timber, furs and flax from Russia and Poland to Flanders and England. In turn, they sent cloth and other manufactured goods eastward.

Medieval cogs

Woodcut of early German ships
View full size imageA woodcut of an early German cog. © NMM
The League had huge influence throughout Europe. Their ships called 'cogs' were the common merchant ships in North European waters for nearly 200 years.

Cogs were better than the earlier Saxon and Viking vessels because they were cheaper to build and they could carry more cargo.

Wine traders

Charter party from 8 May 1322 between Walter Giffard, the Master of the cog Our Lady of Lyme and Sir Hugh de Berham for a cargo of wine.
View full size image Charter party between Walter Giffard and Sir Hugh de Berham for a cargo of wine. © NMM
The document shown here is an agreement from 1322 between Walter Giffard, the Master of the cog Our Lady of Lyme, and Sir Hugh de Berham, constable of a castle at Bordeaux, for a cargo of 93 tuns of wine (more than 100,000 litres).

London merchants dominated the wine trade for most of the 13th and 14th centuries. They often exported English or Baltic grain to Gascony and Bordeaux, the source of most of the capital's wine. Master Giffard was paid £7 2 shillings for his work.

The Steelyard

Edward I halfpenny.
View full size image Half-penny issued during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). © NMM
The Hanseatic League's British headquarters were in London at Thames Street, in the Steelyard near Ironbridge Wharf. Cannon Street Railway Station now occupies the site.

The Steelyard was a walled community with its own warehouses, weighing house, church, offices and residential quarters.

Edward's concessions

The Hanseatic merchants had tax and customs concessions granted by Edward I's Carta Mercatoria of 1303. This was in return for their financial support.

The League often threatened to monopolise London's foreign trade. Their prosperity made the English traders jealous and they begged Elizabeth I to take away their privileges. She finally abolished the League's concessions in 1597.

Medal commemorating The Mercers.
View full size imageMedal commemorating the Mercers, 1588. © NMM

Competition with the mercers

The Hanseatic traders were not the only merchants in medieval London. They competed with English traders known as 'mercers'.

The term 'mercer' comes from the French for merchant, and from the Latin 'merx', meaning merchandise.

Medieval mercers were involved in exporting woollen materials and importing luxury fabrics such as silk, linen and cloth of gold.

London's mercers were at the centre of the commercial life of the port and the development of its overseas trade.

Vera Effigies Preclarmi Domini Richardi Whitington Equi Aurat
View full size imageRichard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London. © NMM

Dick Whittington, celebrity mercer

The most famous medieval mercer was Richard Whittington, better known as 'Dick Whittington'.

Everybody knows the story of Whittington's 'rags to riches' tale of a boy and his cat going to London to seek his fortune.

Court favourite

The real Whittington was apprenticed to the Mercers' Company. He became a successful mercer, dealing in valuable imports such as silks and velvets.

The major market for such goods was the Royal Court. In 1389 Whittington sold two cloths of gold to Richard II for £11.

This was followed by luxury fabrics for the Royal Wardrobe. The king owed Whittington £1000 when he was deposed ten years later.

Whittington was three times Master of the Mercers' Livery Company Company. He was eventually appointed Mayor of London on four separate occasions.

Ships of Edward IV
View full size imageWarships from the reign of Edward IV (1461-70, 1471-83). © NMM

Shipbuilding centre

During 1337-1453 a large fleet was needed to move men and supplies across the Channel to continue the Hundred Years War against the French and maintain English rule at Calais.

The Thames from the Tower east to Blackwall became a centre of shipbuilding, repair and provisioning, serving merchant shipping and the Royal Fleet.

The main centre for shipbuilding and repair in the 14th and 15th centuries was Ratcliffe. Ships were pulled up on to mud berths at Ratcliffe and re-fitted by skilled craftsmen.

Most of the work was administered by the Clerk of the King's Ships, who was based at the Tower of London between 1344 and 1420.

King Richard and his Council go down the Thames in a Barge to confer with the Rebels
View full size imageRichard II travels down the Thames to confer with the rebels of 1381. © NMM

War and conflict

During the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries England was rocked by internal struggles such as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the Wars of the Roses (1455-85).

Despite this, trade was encouraged to provide the means of waging war. The first Navigation Law was passed by Richard II in 1390.

It said that all imported and exported goods were to be carried in English ships. This was good for the shipbuilding industry, which centred on the Thames. It also made ship owning more attractive.

Important port

London was England's most important port during the 14th century because of:

Royal patronage

The large sailing ship in the reign of Richard II.
View full size imageA sailing ship from the reign of Richard II. © NMM
By 1500 London's share of England's overseas trade had risen to almost two-thirds. This dominance increased as Westminster became the centre of church and state administration.

The presence of the Royal Court in London from the Middle Ages onwards was a further stimulus to the capital's merchants. Mercers used ships like the one shown here from Richard II's reign (1377-99).

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