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Medieval buildings and property development in the area of Cheapside

John Schofield, Patrick Allen and Colin Taylor

This major report concerns four archaeological excavations in 1976-80 in the streets leading off Cheapside, the main commercial street of Saxon and medieval London, together with documentary research on the sites and on the surrounding area. It considers evidence of the period AD 850 – 1700. The excavations were conducted by the Museum of London, and the documentary studies draw heavily on the work of the Social and Economic Study of Medieval London.

Contents of the report

After a short introduction (Part 1), the first main section (Part 2) comprises detailed reports on the archaeological excavations at Watling Court (47-51 Cannon Street, 14-16 Bow Lane; sitecode WAT78), Well Court (44-8 Bow Lane; WEL79), 1-6 Milk Street (MLK76) and 25 Ironmonger Lane (IRO80). Each report is followed by a comprehensive discussion of the documentary evidence for the site.

The second main section (Part 3) is a synthesis of the archaeological and documentary data, and is itself in five sections. The first two discuss the establishment of the street system and the character of the earliest property plots in the Cheapside area in the late 9th or 10th centuries; then the development of stone buildings, particularly undercrofts, on some of those properties. The third section analyses the stone buildings, ranging from the AD 1100 to 1500, and places them in the context of medieval building techniques generally. Despite widespread damage by later foundations, evidence was recorded for a range of constructional elements (foundations, walls, vaults), interior details (doors, stairs), roof coverings, cesspits and wells. (Little is said about the timber buildings of the 10th to 11th centuries on these sites , because they are described, and their constructional elements analysed, in Special Paper 11: Aspects of Saxo-Norman London 1.) The fourth section deals with the 310 pits – some lined with timber, stone or brick – which were recorded at Watling Court and Milk Street, while the fifth assesses the value of the pottery and other artefacts as indicators of status or function on the sites which produced them.

The final main section (Part 4) relates the four sites to medieval Cheapside generally, evaluates the contribution which archaeology has made to our knowledge of the history of the area, and recommends a strategy for future research. For the 9th to 12th centuries, when documentary sources are lacking, archaeology throws valuable light on styles of buildings and on the processes by which London’s street pattern developed; but for later periods, it has so far yielded few insights into the complex social structures, or the demographic and economic changes, which are revealed by the written records.

The paper concludes with appendices on

  1. site phasing;
  2. dating evidence from pottery and other finds;
  3. roof tile, decorated floor tiles, bricks and other building material;
  4. parasites from some of the cesspits;
  5. plant remains from a cesspit at Milk Street.

Summary of historical conclusions

The outlines of the street system in this area were probably established about AD 886, when king Alfred restored the City. The Well Court excavation shows that Bow Lane probably originated in the late 9th century, and this suggests that Cheapside itself had been laid out by this time. North of Cheapside, Milk Street and Ironmonger Lane seem to have been laid out somewhat later; the former perhaps in stages during the 11th century, the latter by 1100. Alleys led through properties by the 14th century, and were common thoroughfares by 1600.

By the 12th century it is possible to identify from documentary sources several blocks of land which may represent earlier properties. The archaeological work suggests that these blocks may have comprised several buildings, with small units along the street and larger buildings in courtyards behind. Between about 1100 and 1300 plots of land were progressively subdivided and the density of buildings increased; though at the same time some plots were expanding as landlords acquired properties. About 1320 the trend towards greater density ceased, and both archaeological and documentary evidence suggest decay or a fall in the intensity of settlement along street frontages. Along Milk Street, a quiet backwater off the commercial thoroughfare of Cheapside, were several large houses with stone foundations.

When we turn to styles of building, the bulk of the archaeological evidence concerns the period before 1300 and shows how properties comprised structures, open areas and rubbish pits. For the late 9th or 10th centuries, spaces without pits dug in them suggest the position of timber buildings along the Bow Lane frontage. By 1100 large timber cellars had been built behind the frontages on both sides of Bow Lane, and from the early 12th century stone buildings appeared on three of the four excavated sites. These stone structures stabilised the street frontages adjacent to them. Most of the surviving remains were of cellars, all but one sited next to the street and no doubt indended for the storage of merchandise. Documentary sources fill out the picture of the plots of which they formed part, but archaeological evidence shrinks markedly after about 1300 owing to truncation by later buildings.

Social and economic character is revealed to some extent by building styles on sites which included the residences of some of the wealthiest and most important citizens of London; but the evidence is fragmentary and the associated artefacts, found mainly in rubbish and cesspits, display no special social or industrial characteristics. This is a common experience with densely-settled town-centre excavations, reflecting the complex intermixture on the ground of rich and poor, and the influence of urban rules which, after about 1200, required that rubbish should be disposed of elsewhere.

[Transactions 41 (1990), pp 39 – 237; abstract by Francis Grew, 02-Jan-1998]

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