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Aldermanbury: a possible case of continuity?

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The text for this website is taken from “Schofield, J. & Dyson, T., “Archaeology of the City of London”, City of London Archaeological Trust, 1980, p. 42.

The Anglo-Saxon name Aldermanbury, found in the Cripplegate area in the north west of the city, means 'the fortified residence of the alderman' and originated from a prominent early medieval tenement which gave its name to the present street and to the parish through which the Street runs. In the 13th century, and apparently in the I2th also, the owners of this property held the church of St Mary next door to the south, while in the I4th century house and church were directly linked by a postern. Aldermanbury also claimed a 'soke', or private jurisdiction, over tenants within a defined area, possibly the parish. In the early I2th century this was large enough, or otherwise important enough, to be compared with the city wards. Indeed, in the mid 13th century the local ward of Cripplegate was referred to as 'Aldermansgarde'. Apart from Baynard's Castle, and St Paul's or major religious houses especially favoured by the king, no other London property could so persistently claim as much, and none appears to have shared the same, inexplicable, local prominence. But perhaps the explanation is to be found in the most interesting feature of all: that the tenement of Aldermanbury occupied the site of the east gate of the Roman fort at Cripplegate, as envisaged by Professor Grimes, and the area immediately within the gate. The line of the original gate frontage can still be Seen, directly north of the site of St Mary's church (now a public garden), protruding conspicuously into the street.

This might, of course, be no more than coincidence. But there are reasons for supposing that it was something more. In the first place, the only certain fact about the fate of the southern and eastern walls and gates of the Cripplegate fort is that they were removed before the Start of the 13th century. On the other hand, such gatehouses, which are not readily destructible, often survived the Dark Ages as residences for local notables — for a bishop at Trier on the Rhine and, apparently, for kings or earls at York and Exeter. Something of this kind might explain why Addle Street (now beneath Aldermanbury Square) used to swerve north to cross the line of the former fort wall 30 metres away from the gate. Had the gate area become an official enclave? It is hard to imagine the road being diverted for much less. Secondly, such an explanation would account for the name 'alderman', for in the Saxon period this denoted a royal official responsible for a king's local interests in a given place or area. This possibility is enhanced by the existence from the early I2th century — but no earlier — of the Guildhall, the seat of London's medieval government by the aldermen of the wards, 90 metres to the south-east. The close connection between royal and civic government at this period is shown at Winchester by the apparent presence there in 1148 of a royal official who supervised the local Guildhall, established perhaps also in a gatehouse on the site of the king's recently destroyed palace.

This introduces a third consideration, the two quite separate traditions which both agree in claiming that a royal palace (of Aethelbert of Kent, the founder of St Paul's, in one case; of Offa in the other) lay in this area of London ('in Aldermanbury' in one case; next to the church of St Alban Wood Street in the other). Some caution is necessary here, for both traditions are very late (dating from the 16th and 13th centuries respectively) and might well be dismissed outright were they not so unanimous. There is in fact no contemporary evidence for a palace in London before the one which Edward the Confessor built next to his new abbey at Westminster (completed by 1066). Nevertheless, from what we know of major Saxon towns in general and London in particular, it is more than likely that there had been one. It is a fact that Edward himself, and his successors up to the beginning of the I2th century, clearly had a large amount of property for disposal in the Cripplegate area, some of which went to Edward's other new foundation of St Martin le Grand nearby, some to Westminster Abbey itself. Furthermore, one of the palace traditions, obviously speaking of a period far closer to its own date, notes that the neglect of the palace site had led to its encroachment by neighbours but that its surviving liberties or Privileges, much diminished, were preserved by a 'small tenement'. Was the 'small tenement' Aldermanbury, and the palace liberties the origin of the soke which could later be compared and associated with a ward?

In the nature of the evidence it is impossible at the moment to be certain. But comparison with developments in other towns of the period lends feasibility to the following tentative framework. It can be suggested that the internal, south and east, walls of the Roman fort survived to accommodate a Saxon palace, incidentally preserving the lines of the original streets, until the mid 11th century when a new palace was built at Westminster. Thereafter much of the old site was disposed of and, on the evidence both of the new line of Addle Street and of parish boundaries, the walls dismantled. But part of the area, with the eastern gate-house and the palace liberties, was reserved for a royal official, the alderman, who would still be needed to represent the king's interests in the city. By the early I2th century, much of the government of London was undertaken by the leaders of the wards — themselves now called aldermen — and the citizens won the right to elect a sheriff to provide a link between themselves and the king. At this point more appropriate premises were made available at the Guildhall, a short distance to the south-east.






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