The City

The medieval core of London, usually known as the City, occupied an area of roughly one square mile, stretching along the River Thames from the Tower in the east to Temple Bar, which marked the boundary with Westminster. This area fell under the jurisdiction of the London Corporation, a chartered government headed by a Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen, with its headquarters at the Guildhall. Most of the City lay within a medieval wall originally built by the Romans that still existed in the seventeenth-century, but the Corporation's jurisdiction also extended over extra-mural districts, like Farringdon Without and Blackfriars in the west and Southwark on the south bank of the Thames.

The City was divided for administrative purposes into twenty-six wards, each under its own alderman. The wards were in turn subdivided into 242 precincts, creating a tightly knit structure of local self-government. Precinct offices rotated among householders, allowing for relatively broad participation in the routine tasks of policing neighborhood affairs. Each precinct maintained its own watch of householders who patrolled the streets after dark.  Together with the Provost Marshals appointed by the Crown, the constables and watches mustered an estimated 800 law enforcers each night, a number comparable to the contingent of policemen watching over the same area today.(1)  Each ward also elected a scavenger, to see that the neighborhood was kept free of accumulated garbage. Individual householders were responsible for maintaining a light in front of their house at night and for repairing the pavement on the adjacent section of street. They might also be held accountable for the behavior of servants and lodgers within their houses.

Two other structures reinforced this system of participation and control. One-hundred twelve parish churches not only contributed to a well developed religious culture but provided another forum for participation in civic affairs through vestries, lay boards responsible for overseeing the church fabric and assisting the parish minister in administering the affairs of the congregation. Each parish also appointed an Overseer of the Poor responsible for collecting a mandatory poor rate and distributing the proceeds among those deemed deserving of relief. Poor orphans had to be fed and housed by the parish and placed as apprentices or servants in suitable houses, while those deemed idle poor, including vagrants picked up on the streets, petty criminals and servant girls who had gotten pregnant, were often consigned to Bridewell, the City's workhouse, along with professional prostitutes, vagrants, "nightwalkers" and others the marshals and constables deemed suspicious or undesirable.  

London's many gilds or livery companies provided the second overarching structure. Gilds were made up of freemen who had earned the right to trade in the City, almost always by serving an apprenticeship lasting seven years.  Each gild elected a governing group of liverymen to supervise its affairs, which included regulation of the gild's trade. In London freemen were not restricted to the trade of their own gild, however, so that a member of the Haberdashers might, for example, open a tavern or milliner's shop. But the gilds still exercised considerable control over economic life in the early seventeenth century.  Membership in a gild also conferred the right to vote in London elections, while liverymen were entitled to participate in meetings of Common Hall, the most democratic of the City's central political institutions.  The Court of Aldermen, on the other hand, was by custom restricted to liverymen from twelve great companies.  During royal entries and mayoral pageants the liveries of the different gilds mustered, in special robes, at set points along the processional route, symbolizing their role as an extended civic elite.

While major gilds like the Merchant Taylors, which may have had over 2500 members even in the early seventeenth-century, were essentially oligarchic institutions, gild membership ultimately provided a relatively broad base of participation in City affairs.  In the mid seventeenth-century there were around 20,000 freemen and perhaps 5,000-6,000 liverymen, substantial minorities of the City's male population.  Conflicts between the Court of Alderman and Common Hall in the 1640s and the political excitement of the Civil War period gave rise to a radical political tradition among some freemen, often associated with religious Dissent.  This pattern contributed to the strength of the Whig Party in the City during the exclusion crisis. But it altered after 1688, as a Whig oligarchy consolidated its control over the City's great trading companies and its Court of Aldermenn, while high taxes and other measures alienated large numbers of freemen. Although the City remained a center of political activism, by the eighteenth century its radical freemen were increasingly likely to identify as Tories rather than Whigs, as the Saceverell Riots showed.

The City has always remained London's commercial and financial center, the home of its great trading companies, banks and insurance agencies.  Most residents of the City, however, supported themselves through retailing of goods obtained through trade or manufactured in small workshops, often directly attached to shops. The clothing trades (tailors, milliners, haberdashers) and leather goods (shoemakers, cobblers, glove makers) were especially important but London boasted numerous other industries, ranging from the manufacture of fine jewelery to clocks and printed books.  The number of London shops and variety of goods they sold expanded steadily throughout this period, with exotic groceries like tea, tobacco and coffee among the new products supplied by London's global trade.  By the eighteenth century it had become common for shopkeepers to print trade cards as cheap advertisements for their establishmets. Some goods were also sold by street vendors, the majority of them women, who traversed London's streets carrying their wares in large baskets.  A buoyant service sector included boatmen who rowed customers up and down the Thames and a large number of people engaged in the provision of food and drink, through inns, taverns alehouses and cookshops.

The St Paul's Cathedral and its close, in the western part of the City, was a center not only of religious but intellectual life.  Still further west, along the City's boundary with Westminster, lay the Inns of Court, the center of the legal profession.  

(1) Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons:Change, Crime and Control in the Capital City 1550-1660 (Cambridge, 2008), p. 304


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