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City of fur and feather: the animals of medieval London

From the horses that powered commerce to the occasional whale spotted in the Thames, animals were as much a part of as the English capital as its people. Claire Martin explores the menagerie of creatures that kept medieval Londoners moving, fed and entertained…

With a population that peaked at approximately 80,000 in 1300, and plateaued in the wake of the Black Death at around 40,000, London was never short of human residents. The merchants, craftsmen, widows and servants whose names have survived over hundreds of years, however, were only ever a fraction of the city’s population. They lived side by side with a host of furred and feathered neighbours, both invited and unwelcome. For some, their residence was just a temporary stop on the way to the dinner table, but others lived and worked alongside the city’s inhabitants and many more passed through London with little regard for the human city at all.

Horses London’s equine population was ubiquitous, indispensable and vast. From the army of cart horses – without whom commerce would have quickly ground to a halt – to the gentle palfreys of ladies and the work-a-day riding horses hired from inns or “the honest inhabitants of Hackney using to let horses to hire”, the city could not function without horsepower.

Just keeping this workforce on the road was an industry in itself: from the bakers who baked horsebread out of peas and beans to the saddlers, tanners, smiths and farriers. Even brewers who brought grain into the city for their own business were on occasion charged with ensuring the horses had sufficient food. Until they were sold in 1462, the London Bridge House employed at least six horses on the endless work of repairing the bridge, supplemented by countless further payments for hired carriage.

Londoners moving house or merchants shifting their goods could hire a horse and cart, although this was not always done in an orderly fashion. In 1479, there was much complaint about the behaviour of carters along the whole riverfront from Billingsgate to the Tower: while waiting for business, they would abandon their horse and cart to block the road and then slope off to the alehouses. Eventually, formal hiring places were instituted at Tower Hill, Tower Street and East Smithfield, which must have functioned much like modern taxi ranks.

Fridays were market days at Smithfield, where horses could be bought and sold. Not just frequented by honest traders and customers, though, the spectacle attracted window-shoppers and horse thieves, while the dung around the horse pool prompted further complaints, this time from the market’s neighbours.

Yet despite the ease of horse hire, some Londoners continued to own and bequeath horses to friends or relatives. They were usually prosaically described as a “bay horse” or a “black ambling horse”, but occasionally these daily companions became more than mere possessions and acquired a name. Bayard was commonplace – which meant ‘bay horse’, so was far from an inventive moniker – although one man named John Assheford left a horse called Ward, while the 15th-century House of Commons speaker Sir Thomas Charlton left three horses named Jennet, Fowlower and Cokpenny.

Even more prized were the great destriers or war horses that occasionally replaced the citizens’ more modest ponies. The great royal tournament of September 1331 saw the turnips and traders of Cheapside evicted in favour of knights on horseback charging down the lists. That said, the occasion is remembered more for the collapse of a stand, which deposited the ladies of the royal household onto the street.

Pigs Even at the peak of London’s population in the early 14th century, many people in the city found room for a pig. With their conveniently omnivorous diet and rapid growth, they were inexpensive to keep and provided meat that was easy to cure and preserve. While that made them the perfect urban, backyard animal, they were also large, powerful and potentially dangerous. The experiences of post-plague Norwich – where, by 1354, there were so many vagrant pigs that buildings and gardens were damaged and even “children killed and eaten and others buried exhumed” – demonstrates why London was keen to keep pigs under control.

Even at the peak of London’s population in the early 14th century, many people in the city found room for a pig. From the end of the 13th century, the constant principle was that pigs should remain in yards or gardens and not roam the public streets. Those found could be legally killed and the owner would have to redeem either pig or carcass for 4d, a fraction of its real worth. Yet problems persisted and rules were regularly reissued throughout the 14th century. Space was at a premium and styes had to be built in imaginative positions: in 1344, both David de Kynggeston and John de Besseville were found to have built pig stys on piles over the Walbrook river, “to the damage of the whole city”.

The exception to these rules were the pigs of the Hospital of St Anthony, which were allowed to range freely wearing little bells. John Stow describes them patiently following those who fed them, whining for bread or some other treat, and they became so synonymous with the school that the scholars of St Anthony became known “Anthony pigs”. Their rivals at St Paul’s school were “pigeons of Paul’s”, in reference to the many pigeons who flocked and nested around the cathedral.

Dogs Man’s best friend similarly found a home at the heel of London’s human residents where he had been for thousands of years. The late 15th-century Book of St Albans listed 14 types of dogs including hunting dogs (greyhounds, spaniels or terriers) and butchers’ dogs, used for controlling livestock and baiting bulls. The latter was deemed both entertainment and essential to the production of edible meat.

The scavenging midden dogs or the “prick-eared curs” were society’s rejects far removed from the pampered existence of the “small ladies’ pups that bear away the fleas”. Even then, Albertus Magnus wrote in the 13th century of how he believed that they often died of constipation caused by over indulgence. Such cosseted pets were occasionally immortalised on seals, such as that of Londoner, Margaret de Nevyle, depicted holding a tiny dog in the crook of her left arm or on tombs.

The effigy of the wife of John Oteswich at St Helen’s Bishopsgate includes two dogs wearing belled collars, the sign of a household pet, and their portly form suggests that Magnus may not have been wrong. The London Bridge House, and doubtless many other households, kept great mastiffs as guard dogs, and the city kept their own kennels near Moorgate under the management of an officer known as the Common Hunt. Londoners enjoyed hunting rights throughout Middlesex, particularly on the lands of the Bishop of London at Stepney, and in 1460 also asserted similar rights in Essex.

Like pigs, however, dogs could be problematic and were not permitted to roam at will. In 1387, for the avoidance of “noise, damage and debate”, a fine of 40d was imposed on anyone who allowed their dog to wander. An exception was made for pet dogs described as chiens gentiliz or “gentle hounds”. In 1475, butchers’ dogs were also given free rein as long as they were not females in season. Still, damages and arguments were never far away from an unsupervised dog. In 1366, Adam Pulter had to pay 20s compensation to Walter Baldeswell after his dog had bitten no fewer than 54 sheep, resulting in their death.

Swans The River Thames and its tributaries abounded in life both above and below the water and while the river is still home to many swans, in the 15th century thousands could be seen thick on the water in central London. In the winter of 1496–97, the secretary to the Venetian ambassador in London wrote: “It is a truly beautiful thing to behold one or two thousand tame swans upon the river Thames.” By ancient custom, unmarked mute swans belonged to the crown, but the king also granted rights to own and mark swans to institutions and private individuals – and that included Londoners. Today, the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies are the only remaining organisations authorised to mark their own swans out of the many in the medieval period.

An elaborate code of cut marks on the beaks evolved to identify owners with as many as 630 separate marks being in use between 1450 and 1600. For Londoners with interests outside the city, Dartford played host to a rich culture of swan ownership attested by names such as Swanley and Swanscombe and, in 1365, Robert Bykenore of Dartford left a pair of swans to his step-daughter, a pair to his friend, Robert de Louthe, and another pair to be shared between two further friends.

Whales and other aquatic mammals While swans were numerous, other visitors to the Thames caused excitement by their rarity. Large marine mammals, such as porpoises or whales, occasionally made their way into the river and while this now results in heroic rescue efforts, to our medieval ancestors they were a valuable resource, useful for both bone, flesh and oil.

In 1240, a whale was chased and caught at Mortlake while a dolphin was spotted in 1392 at London Bridge. The year 1457 appears to have seen an influx of animals into the Thames: between Erith and the city, Londoners captured two whales, a “swordfish” or narwhal, and a walrus. Where they washed up on the foreshore, whales became property of the crown by right of wreck, but as with swans, those rights were often shared with local landowners or religious institutions.

St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, was granted by Henry I the right to all cetaceans stranded on their land excluding the tongues. But even where ownership was clear, it was not always scrupulously observed. In 1336, when a whale was stranded between Greenwich and Northfleet, the prized flesh was carried away by locals before royal authority could be established.

Claire Martin is a historian and author specialising in medieval England, whose PhD focusses on London. Her forthcoming book is Heirs of Ambition, on the rise of the Boleyn family.

In 1240, a whale was chased and caught at Mortlake while a dolphin was spotted in 1392 at London Bridge. The year 1457 appears to have seen an influx of animals into the Thames:...

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