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THE SILENT HIGHWAY.
ONE of the most remarkable pictures of ancient manners which has been transmitted to us is that in which the poet Gower describes the circumstances under which he was commanded by King Richard II.
“ To make a book after his hest."
The good old rhymer,—"the moral Gower,” as Chaucer calls him,—who probably resided in Southwark, where his monument may yet be seen in the church of St. Mary Overies, had taken boat; and upon the broad river he met the king in his stately barge. It was an accidental meeting, he tells us. The monarch, who had come most probably from his palace of Westminster, where thousands ministered, it is said, to his luxurious tastes, espied the familiar face of the minstrel, and stopped him upon that great highway of London, which was an open road for the meanest as for the highest. He called him on board his own vessel, and desired him to book “some new thing." This was the origin of the Confessio Amantis. But the poet shall record the story in his own simple words :
6. As it befel upon a tide,
As thing which should then betide,
Under the towné of New Troy,
Nothing can be more picturesque than this description, and nothing can more forcibly carry us into the very heart of the past. With the exception of some of the oldest portions of the Tower of London, there is scarcely a brick or a stone left standing that may present to us a memorial of “the king's chamber” of four hundred and fifty years ago. There, indeed, is the river, still flowing and still ebbing, the most ancient thing we can look upon, which made London what it was and what it is. Nearly all that then adorned its banks has perished; and many of the stirring histories of the busy life that moved upon its waters have
* Camera Regia; which title, immediately after the Norman Conquest, London began to have.—CAMDEN.
become to us as obscure as the legend of “New Troy.”
The Prologue' of Gower, in the true spirit of the romantic times, tells us of the town which was founded by the Trojan Brute. Here was the fable which the middle-age minstrels rejoiced in, and which History has borrowed from Poetry without any compromise of her propriety. The origin of nations must be fabulous; and if we would penetrate into the dark past we must be satisfied with the torch-light which fable presents to us. We commend, therefore, the belief of the good citizens of London, who, in the time of Henry VI., sent the king a copy of an ancient tract, which says of London, “ According to the credit of chronicles it is considerably older than Rome; and that it was by the same Trojan author, built by Brute, after the likeness of great Troy, before that built by Romulus and Remus. Whence to this day it useth and enjoyeth the ancient city Troy's liberties, rights, and customs."* This is dealing with a legend in a business-like manner, worthy of grave aldermen and sheriffs. Between Brute and Richard II, there is a long interval ; and the chroniclers have filled it up with many pleasant stories, and the antiquarians have embellished it with many ingenious theories. We must leap over all these. One ancient writer, however, who speaks from his own knowledge, William Fitz-Stephen, who died in 1191,-has left us a record in his . Description of London, which will
Stow, book i.
take us back a few hundred years further. The original is in Latin. “The wall of the city is high and great, continued with seven gates, which are made double, and on the north distinguished with turrets by spaces : likewise on the south London hath been enclosed with walls and towers, but the large river of Thames, well stored with fish, and in which the tide ebbs and flows, by continuance of time hath washed, worn away, and cast down those walls." Here, then, six hundred and fifty years ago, we find the river-bank of London in the same state as described by Sir Thomas More in his imaginary capital of Amaurote “The city is compassed about with a high and thick stone wall, full of turrets and bulwarks. A dry ditch, but deep and broad, and overgrown with bushes, briers, and thorns, goeth about three sides or quarters of the city. To the fourth side the river itself serveth as a ditch."* The Saxon chronicle tells us that in the year 1052 Earl Godwin, with his navy, passed along the southern side of the river, and so assailed the walls. A hundred and fifty years after, in the time of Fitz-Stephen, the walls were gone.
About the same period arose the stone bridge of London ; but that has perished before the eyes of our own generation.
There is another passage in Fitz-Stephen which takes us, as do most of his descriptions, into the every-day life of the ancient Londoners - their schools, their feasting, and their sports :“ In Easter holydays they fight battles on the
* Utopia, b. ii. c. ii.
water. A shield is hanged on a pole, fixed in the midst of the stream ; a boat is prepared without oars, to be carried by violence of the water, and in the forepart thereof standeth a young man, ready to give charge upon the shield with his lance. If so be he break his lance against the shield and doth not fall, he is thought to have performed a worthy deed. If so be, without breaking his lance, he runneth strongly against the shield, down he falleth into the water, for the boat is violently forced with the tide; but on each side of the shield ride two boats, furnished with two young men, which recover him that falleth as soon as they may. Upon the bridge, wharfs, and houses by the river side, stand great numbers to see and laugh thereat." Four centuries afterwards Stow saw a somewhat similar game“I have seen also in the summer season, upon the river of Thames, some rowed in wherries, with staves in their hands, flat at the fore-end, running one against another, and, for the most part one or both of them were overthrown and well ducked.” Howel says, “There was in former times a sport used upon the Thames, which is now discontinued : it was for two wherries to row, and run one against the other, with staves in their hands, flat at the fore-end ; which kind of recreation is much practised amongst the gondolas of Venice.”*
From the time of Fitz-Stephen to that of Gower we may readily conceive that the water-communi
* Londinopolis : 1657.