Today (July 19) in London History – It happened in 1301

Was it a game? A dare? It cost Richard, an 8-year-old London schoolboy, his life. It happened on July 19th, 1301. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

How does that old saying go? We die three times. We die when we die. We die when we’re buried. And we die the last time our name is mentioned.

Eight-year-old London schoolboy Richard who died on this day, July 19th, in 1301, lives on. He lives on because I’ve just mentioned his name, lit the torch of his name. 

And who’s to say, maybe the last time Richard’s name is mentioned is a long time – even centuries – in the future. So that last time – that third and final death – could be a long way off.

That’s a reasonably confident prediction because 8-year-old Richard, the son of John le Mazon, is not dependent for his survival – for skirting oblivion, for not going into the black hole of utter extinction – on word of mouth, not dependent on his name being carried along on some stream of purely oral tradition. 

Richard’s not dependent on that because his name – and what happened to him – and his father’s name – and his neighbourhood – is part of the historical record. He’s got an entry – which I’ll read to you in a minute – in the Coroner’s Roll (as it was known) for the year 1301. 

And, yes, please rest assured, if this project were a restaurant, a restaurant that had no regular, daily fare – only Today’s Specials – I did have a selection of Specials to choose from. I chose to make this day in London History eight-year-old Richard’s day. Decided to pass on Lola Montez carried married on July 19th, 1849 in the fashionable Mayfair Church, St George’s Hanover Square. And pass on George IV’s coronation on July 19th, 1821.

And pass on Winston Churchill on July 19th, 1941 inaugurating the V for Victory campaign in Europe, with the BBC using the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (which match the Morse Code for the letter V) to introduce news bulletins. 

 And pass on that sadistic brute and undying symbol of imperial kitsch General Sir Herbert Kitchener – yes, I know, that is one in-your-face echo – anyway, pass on General Kitchener appearing at Guildhall on July 19th, 1915 in a recruitment drive for the army. Conscription was still a year away and terrible losses on the western front meant the army needed more cannon fodder, needed replacements for the thousands of dead and wounded.

And speaking of which, I also decided to pass on the temporary wood and plaster cenotaph being unveiled, in Whitehall, on July 19th, 1919 for a military march past commemorating the end of the First World War. 

All of them of course bigger London events – A-List events – but I went for the runt of the pack. Went for the 8-year-old London youngster, who played a game he shouldn’t have played on the way to school on July 19th, 1301– and lost his life in consequence. 

Ok, I mentioned that Richard is in the historical record – he’s in the Coroner’s Roll for the year 1300. 

Let’s first of all shine a quick light on all of that.

The coroner was the mediaeval official whose job it was to record all cases of sudden and unnatural deaths, including suicides, accidents and homicides. 

The standard phrase in that ancient historical document – I call it the standard phrase because it’s used over and over – the standard phrase is: “dead of a death other than his rightful death.”

It’s maybe perverse of me, but to me there’s something appealing about the notion of “a rightful death”. That’s the one were scheduled for, it’s our due – but, alas, it’s an imperfect world –sometimes we don’t get what’s rightfully ours, we get cheated of our rightful death.

When there was a death that was not a rightful death – a violent death in other words – the coroner and sheriffs were notified. They summoned an investigative jury from the ward where the victim had died and from neighbouring wards. It was a substantial body of London citizens, that jury. At the lower end it would be some twelve citizens. But it could be as many as 50. 

The coroner’s rolls set out, pretty concisely, the findings of the investigative jury. Where and when the death that was not a rightful death happened. Who was involved. What triggered the event. Particulars of weapons and wounds if it was a homicide or suicide. What happened to the perpetrator if there was a perpetrator. Any possessions found. Etc. Nine Coroner’s Rolls have survived. Each of them covers a judicial year in the 14th century. The judicial year always began in September. The one eight-year-old Richard appears in is the oldest – it sets out the Coroner’s findings for deaths that were not a rightful death in the year 1300 to 1301.

So nine years in total in the first four decades of the 14th century. After 1339 to 1340 the trail goes cold.

Anyway, let’s get to our schoolboy.

His is the 26th entry for that year. So on average, the coroner was called out about once every ten days to look into a London death that was not a rightful death. 

The record reads: On Friday the eve of the Feast of St Mary Magdalen (that’ll have been the 22nd of July) the year aforesaid [A.D. 1301] information given to the aforesaid Coroner and Sheriffs, that a certain Richard son of John le Mazon lay dead of a death other than his rightful death on the strand of Queenhithe, in the parish of St Michael in the Ward of William – de Betoyne. Thereupon, they proceeded thither, and having summoned good men of the said Ward and of the three nearest Wards, namely Bread Street, Vintry and Bridge, they diligently enquired how it happened. The jurors say that when, on the preceding Tuesday [that was July 19th], the said Richard, who was 8 years of age, was walking, immediately after dinner, across London Bridge to school, he hung by his hands in play from a certain beam on the side of the bridge, so that, his hands giving way, he fell into the water and was drowned. Being asked who were present, they say a great multitude of passers-by, whose names they know not, but they suspect no one of the death except the said mischance. The corpse viewed, on which there appeared no wound or hurt.

Takeaways? Yes, several, I think. William de Betoyne (he was the Alderman of Queenhithe Ward) and Richard’s father John le Mazon – those French articles, de, le are embedded in the nomenclature of the time. A reminder that the Norman Conquest wasn’t that far back in this country’s historical rearview mirror.

Secondly, the mention of the Saints day – the eve of the feast of St Mary Magdalen – a reminder of course that religion was completely intertwined into the life and culture and calendar of the time and this was one hundred per cent a Catholic country. Henry VIII and the protestant reformation was way in the future.

All of that is distant past stuff. What I found strikingly modern – chillingly modern – was that mention of a great multitude of passers-by. My hunch is a lot of them – probably most of them – were spectators. Watched that poor little boy drown. Not that there was much they could do – people couldn’t swim, the waters underneath London Bridge were very treacherous, there would have been nothing so modern as a life preserver attached to a rope to hand. But still – this 720-year-old report inevitably brings to mind those horrible modern stories of people filming terrible accidents and other catastrophes. And you note as well that in 1301 school was in session in late July.  Be interesting to know, was Richard’s home on the London side of the bridge and his school on the other side, the Southwark side. Or was it the other way round? And of course we all know – giving it a second’s thought – that his mum and dad would have stressed to him, over and over again, “be careful when you’re walking across the bridge – don’t fall in.”

And finally, that plank that was sticking out – that he went out on to and hung from – who put that there? And why?

Well, not finally, because there’s something else. It’s a kind of eternal verity, this. We all recognise it. Did Richard’s friends dare him – in that way of schoolboys – to go out there and hang from that plank? If so, it’s very sad. High spirits in a couple of seconds transmogrifying into terror and then horror and that little kid falling, falling, falling. Down into those churning waters. Falling to his death by drowning.

And here’s another light touch London history thumbprint on my London, the London I read and see.

I know Queenhithe well. I point it out when I’m guiding that way. Many’s the time I’ve scoured that bit of foreshore, picking up Elizabethan clay pipes and medieval roof tiles – tangible bits of ancient London history. From now on though, when I’m down that way I’m also going to be seeing that little corpse there on the Queenhithe Strand. And I’ll probably murmur under my breath, “rest in peace, lad – rest in peace Richard.” 

Forestalling, thanks to that utterance,– Richard’s third and final death. We die the last time our name is spoken. 

What’s not so light touch is the reminder that 14th century London was a dangerous playground for kids. Historian Jon Lewis reminds us that it was full of pits and sloughs that were overflowing with human and animal faeces in which dread diseases bred. Killer diseases like typhus, smallpox and tuberculosis were rife. Modern medicine was centuries in the future. The medical assistance you could get was barber surgeons bleeding you. Which did you no good at all, it only weakened you, perhaps infected you because the knife was filthy. Infant mortality throughout the 14th century was about 35 per cent.

And thanks to those cheerful notes we’re in need of a respite, a good Today in London recommendation. Has to be a visit to St James’ Garlickhythe, a church not so far from Richard’s patch. Today’s St. James Garlickhythe is of course the Christopher Wren church. The mediaeval St. James’ Garlickhythe burned down in the Great Fire of London. But little Richard won’t even have known that mediaeval church – it was built in the 14th century. But there’s been a church there since Angelo Saxon times. Richard’s St James will have been the one that preceded what we today call the mediaeval church that the fire did for.  On Thursday evenings – starting at 6.30 pm – there’s some special London action at St James’ Garlickhythe. The Royal Jubilee Bellringers’ practice.

A swath of London that’s good on your ears and good on your state of mind. 

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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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