In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval London

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Databases and Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Collections
  • The State: The Crown, Parliament, and the Law
  • Civic Culture

Medieval Studies Medieval London
Helen Bradley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0282


There is no beginning or end date for medieval London. Long-term changes transformed the post-Roman city into a 16th-century metropolis. Crown and church worked with city institutions to manage the outcome, but economic, social, geographic, and demographic factors beyond their control were the determinants of London’s evolution. Medieval London owed much to a well-chosen Roman site with double-facing connectivity, providing access to mainland Europe by sea and to the interior by river. London was the lynchpin. The Roman settlement had a defensive fort and walls, an amphitheater—recently rediscovered underneath the medieval Guildhall–and an impressive road network converging on the city. This defensible hub, combining economic prosperity with popular entertainment, was the basis for London’s perennial appeal to English and alien migrants. It quite literally provided the foundation for medieval London. The early extramural Anglo-Saxon settlement relocated behind the walls as an Alfredian burh, expanding trade with nearby parts of the Continent. The Norman construction of the Tower, overshadowing the eastern aspect, demonstrated that control of London was essential to government of the realm. An economic driving force, the city was not the administrative capital until the 12th century. London generated trade revenues and ensured urban stability, in return for which the Crown granted self-government and privileges for its merchants and markets. The city’s own records survive from the later 13th century, although its institutions have earlier origins. Regarding itself as the New Troy, it engaged in public works and staged triumphant royal entries. London’s bread-basket extended to the Norfolk coast and the upper Thames valley. Apart from frank discussions at the wardmote, there were further opportunities for ordinary Londoners to express their views and participate. The craft guilds regulated the city’s trades and their members, developing separate livery and yeomanry organization. Parish fraternities were a neighborhood outlet for literate lay spirituality and accounting skills. The population, significantly reduced by the Black Death, recovered and prospered. London was above all a cosmopolitan city with thriving markets and accessible credit. Although there were recurrent demands for protection against alien competition, aliens joined the livery companies, became citizens of London and some became Englishmen. The royal Court, Parliament, and law courts a short ride away at Westminster guaranteed good business for city merchants. Most importantly, the lucrative 14th-century wool trade and 15th-century cloth trade were increasingly concentrated in the hands of Londoners who dominated English exports.

General Overviews

National histories are notoriously London-centric: the history of the kingdom is difficult to separate from that of the city that has served for so many centuries as its capital. Most English and, later, British history books feature London prominently, giving the city a central and often pivotal role. However, general works written from the distinctive viewpoint of London and maintaining a London perspective are harder to come by. Two comparatively short pieces in Palliser 2000 provide an effortless starting point for genuinely London-based history, summarizing a thousand years of religious, social, and economic development within the city. Using both documentary and prehistorical sources, Naismith 2019 examines the post-Roman residential nucleus to the west of the walls and its later relocation within the old defenses, claiming this Anglo-Saxon settlement to be the direct and essential determinant of the modern metropolitan city. Brooke and Keir 1975 takes the 11th-century Norman Conquest as its centerpiece, setting the subsequent rapid economic expansion and institutional development of early medieval London within the context of the European commune. The classic study Williams 1963 attributes the early-14th-century explosion of activity in London’s civic bureaucracy to its experience of royal control during the late 13th century, which provided the basis for a smooth transition to capital city status during potentially divisive social change. The prosopography provided by Williams 1963 is perhaps unsurprisingly challenged by subsequent scholarship (see Campbell, et al. 1993, cited under Economy: Trade with the Hinterland), although the prosopographical database itself is still a well-regarded part of current methodology. Barron 2004 takes the city up to the end of the 15th century, giving the clearest detail on the structure and development of local institutions and seeking a broader view of the purposes of London government, exploring the many ways in which it successfully managed popular and royal expectations. Sharpe 1894–1895, although belonging to the earliest generation of London studies, is nevertheless of special interest as it represents the first use of the city’s own archives to demonstrate London’s pivotal importance in national affairs.

  • Barron, Caroline M. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People 1200–1500. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199257775.001.0001

    An explanation of the corporate structure of the city’s government, emphasizing its flexibility and ability to reconcile diverse groups of citizens, represent their interests to the Crown, and provide public services securing the well-being and goodwill of a tightly packed population. Appendices include mayors and sheriffs 1190–1558, as well as lesser office-holders not to be found elsewhere. Graphs of import-export data; tables of crafts; map in clear sections with gazetteer.

  • Brooke, Christopher N. L., with Gillian Keir. London 800–1216: The Shaping of a City. Vol. 2 of History of London. London: Secker and Warburg, 1975.

    The evolution of a well-situated but unpromising community through overseas trade and civic micromanagement. Intensive 11th- and 12th-century growth is set in the European context of the commune. Part II covers early topography, Part III trade and civic institutions, and Part IV major religious institutions. Glossary; maps of London c. 1200, wards and parishes; appendices feature pre-Conquest charters, sheriffs and justices 1030–1216 and mayors 1191–1227, coin hoards and the Mint.

  • Naismith, Rory. Citadel of the Saxons: The Rise of Early London. London: I. B. Tauris, 2019.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781788316279

    Combining archaeology, coinage evidence, and written sources, the study traces London from the 5th-century Roman city to the Norman Conquest, dividing the Anglo-Saxon revival between Lundenwic and Lundenburh. As the principal English city, Anglo-Saxon London combined economic prosperity with close ties to the Crown and was the direct antecedent of today’s metropolis. Maps with overlay on modern streets, and timeline showing London events in a national context.

  • Palliser, D. M., ed. The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Vol. 1, 600–1540. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    The first of three separately edited volumes covering 600–1950, this volume contains two articles providing quick access to the basics of London’s development in the Middle Ages. Derek Keene’s “London from the Post-Roman Period to 1300” (pp. 187–216) provides a map showing principal religious houses, friaries, and parish churches. Caroline M. Barron’s “London 1300–1540” (pp. 395–440) includes graphs showing London’s share of trade in major commodities, and a map locating livery halls. Available online by subscription.

  • Sharpe, Reginald R. London and the Kingdom. London: Longmans, Green, 1894–1895.

    Originally published in three volumes to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the mayoralty, this was the first exploration of the city’s archives to present Guildhall’s view of the importance of London in shaping the nation. The capital’s decisive role at national crisis points had not previously been considered. The first twelve chapters of the first volume cover the Roman occupation through to the end of Henry VII’s reign. Volume 1 available online from Project Gutenberg.

  • Williams, Gwyn A. Medieval London: From Commune to Capital. University of London Historical Studies 11. London: Athlone Press, 1963.

    A classic study based on the city’s archives, covering the development of the late-12th-century commune. Crown control of London’s administration during 1285–1298 provided the basis for its subsequent record-keeping, civic offices, and ward representation. Old dynasties were displaced by socially mobile merchant families. Tables of aldermanic class, trading interests, and geographic origin 1200–1340. Outline biographies of major city figures and dissidents of 1263. Available to purchase as an e-book from Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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