Today (December 13) in London History – London, December 13, 1476

The oldest printed document in England and December 13 owns it. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I freely admit it. I’ve got a sneaky streak in me, a perverse streak. 

And that streak is making the running today, December 13th. Spoilt for choice, I’m going contraflow, going for the runt of the litter. The rest of the litter you’ll have at least a passing degree of familiarity with. The runt of the litter you’re going to have zero degree of familiarity with. Which is – I readily admit – a good part of the appeal. I like springing surprises.

So let’s pass an eye along the litter, heading toward the runt.

On this day in London history, December 13, 1771 a bunch of City of London moneymen announced that they were clubbing together to pay subscriptions of £100 each into the Bank of England for the building of a New Lloyd’s Coffee House. What that amounted was a declaration of independence by said collection of shipowners, merchants, bankers, brokers and underwriters. Heretofore they’d not had their own premises. Basically, they were cutting their hosts –  coffee house owners – out of the loop. Why give them a piece of our action just because we’re doing business in their house – we’ll have our own house.

And then – one that’s near and dear to my literary historian heart – it was on December 13th, 1784 that the great Dr Johnson died. Yes, Dr Johnson who made the undying pronouncement: “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” This one gets a three-line whip in the diary. Come December 13th next year I’ll do a proper, full-length piece on Dr Johnson and his passing. 

What else?

Well, alas, there was death and mayhem outside the Clerkenwell House of Detention on December 13th, 1867. Three supporters of the Fenian cause in Ireland positioned a beer cask covered with white cloth outside the prison wall. The cask was packed with explosives. The idea was to blow a hole in the wall and free two Fenian prisoners. The blast tore through the wall of the prison. But it also demolished six houses on the other side of street. Six people were killed outright. Eleven died of their injuries later. Nine men were arrested. One of them was the last person to be publicly hanged in England. Seventeen years later – same date, December 13th – same Irish Republican organisation, terrorists to their opponents, freedom fighters to their supporters – tried to blow up London Bridge.

And it seems that there’s something about December 13th being a date London switches on. In 1878 the Holborn Viaduct was illuminated with electricity on December 13th. And on December 13th, 1904 the London Underground went electric. And it was on December 13th 1951 that one Margaret Roberts became Margaret Thatcher. She and Denis tied the knot at Wesley’s Chapel on the City Road. Which, come to think of it, makes December 13th the day of the Iron Lady and the English rose. The English rose being the London Walks boss – our lovely Mary. December 13th is her birthday.

There’s more. There was an important general election on December 13th, 1918. It was the election in which women voted for the first time. And were permitted to stand for election.

Well, it goes on, but I want to get to our runt. But I can’t resist one very tasty diary entry – yet another diary entry, eh. This one was made by that fascinating politician Chips Channon. Henry Channon was American-born but 18 months as an undergraduate at Oxford did for him. He developed a lifelong Proustian infatuation with the aristocratic civilisation of Europe. At Oxford he acquired the nickname Chips, which became his telegraphic address. How cool is that?

Anyway, his December 13th, 1943 diary entry is also pretty cool and very much in character. It records, in his words, “a Proustian incident.”

Goes like this:

[Chips Channon diary entry here]

But those are all warm-up acts.

Here’s our star turn – but it’s also the runt of the litter. It’s like finding a bottle of 1796 Lenox Madeira, the oldest wine on the market.

Except it’s much older than 1796.

It’s a document find that was made in the Public Record Office in 1928. It was an Indulgence printed by Caxton – the first printer in England. It was issued by Abbot Sant to Henry Langley and his wife Katherine on, yes, December 13th, 1476. What a discovery, what a find. Before Mr Ratcliffe, one of the Assistant-Keepers of the Records, came across it, everybody believed that the earliest printed work in this country – printed of course by Caxton – was printed nearly a year later. That no-longer-the-primordial-printed-work in England was the “Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers.”

The Indulgence “find” – for a scholar a discovery like this would be like a miner finding the Star of India Sapphire – was proof that printing began in England in 1476 and not in the following year. 

And a delightful detail, Sir Henry Langley’s and wife Katherine’s indulgence is printed on an ancient piece of parchment that has seven holes in it. Seven holes made by mice. I hope they enjoyed their snack.

Finally, the two obvious questions. 1. Who were the Langleys, Sir Henry and Katherine who lived in 1476, 550 years ago. The year Vlad the Impaler, the great national hero of Romania, finally copped it. And the year Leonard di Vinci was acquitted of sodomy. Answer: we don’t know.

And 2. What was an indulgence? Well it was sort of like time off for good behaviour. You were facing some purgatory time for your sins you could get it reduced through the performance of good works. But also if you paid up. Money talked. Money got you a first-class purgatory. It got you where you wanted to get faster and more comfortably. It was like flying Concorde. 

It may be a runt but it’s runt you can’t help but take to heart. It’s an absolutely exquisite piece of London history that happened about 200,000 days ago. We can imagine Sir Henry and Katherine being perhaps a little bit nervous about their advancing age and what’s coming. And Abbot Sant – I imagine him being very oleaginous – saying, “please put your minds at rest, there’s something we can do – it’ll cost a bit of money but it’ll be money well spent, it’ll sort the problem out” – and then the three of them go to William Caxton the printer and Caxton and Abbot exchange knowing looks and in due course the couple and the Abbot exchange pieces of gold and some of those pieces of gold get passed to Caxton and in due course Sir Henry and Katherine have their passport, their certificate, their handsome printed indulgence that will do the business for them cometh the hour.

Now, a Today in London recommendation. Well, 1476 is well before Henry VIII and the break with Rome so what I suggest we do is take ourselves off to Westminster Cathedral. It’s one of London’s best-kept secrets. 

It’s the mother church of Catholics in England. It doesn’t pull any punches with its self-description: it says it’s a catholic cathedral like no other.  This time of the year it’s A Christmas Celebration season – they’re doing their ever-popular evenings of music and readings for Christmas. And Rejoice and Hallelujah because the Campanile, the bell tower, has reopened to the public. Its Viewing Gallery – with its breathtaking views of London north, south, east and west is reason by itself for dropping in on Westminster Cathedral. If you haven’t heard of it – it can be confusing to strangers, and indeed to London – Westminster Cathedral is not Westminster Abbey. It’s the Catholic Cathedral, located just a stone’s throw away from Victoria Station. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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