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|Subject:||A perspective on English towns in the fifteenth century|
|Original source:||Private collection|
|Transcription in:||Charlotte Augusta Sneyd, ed. A Relation, or Rather a True Account, of the Island of England. Camden Society, vol.37 (1847), 31, 41-45.|
|Original language:||Italian (English translation by Sneyd)|
The population of this island does not appear to me to bear any proportion to her fertility and riches. I rode, as your Magnificence knows, from Dover to London, and from London to Oxford, a distance of more than 200 Italian miles, and it seemed to me to be very thinly inhabited; but, lest the way I went with your Magnificence should have differed from the other parts of the country, I enquired of those who rode to the north of the kingdom, i.e. to the borders of Scotland, and was told that it was the same case there; nor was there any variety in the report of those who went to Bristol and into Cornwall ...
... there are scarcely any towns of importance in the kingdom, excepting these two: Bristol, a seaport to the west, and Boraco (Eboracum) otherwise York, which is on the borders of Scotland; besides London to the south.
Eboracum was in ancient times the principal city of the island, and was adorned by many buildings by the Romans, in their elegant style; but, having been sacked and burnt in the reign of King William the Conqueror, she never afterwards could recover her former splendour; so that, at present, all the beauty of this island is confined to London; which, although sixty miles distant from the sea, possesses all the advantages to be desired in a maritime town; being situated on the river Thames, which is very much affected by the tide, for many miles (I do not know the exact number) above it: and London is so much benefited by this ebb and flow of the river, that vessels of 100 tons burden can come up to the city, and ships of any size to within five miles of it; yet the water in this river is fresh for twenty miles below London. Although this city has no buildings in the Italian style, but of timber or brick like the French, the Londoners live comfortably, and, it appears to me, that there are not fewer inhabitants than at Florence or Rome. It abounds with every article of luxury, as well as with the necessaries of life: but the most remarkable thing in London, is the wonderful quantity of wrought silver. I do not allude to that in private houses, though the landlord of the house in which the Milanese ambassador lived, had plate to the amount of 100 crowns, but to the shops of London. In one single street, named the Strand, leading to St. Paul's, there are fifty-two goldsmith's shops, so rich and full of silver vessels, great and small, that in all the shops in Milan, Rome, Venice, and Florence put together, I do not think there would be found so many of the magnificence that are to be seen in London. And these vessels are all either salt cellars, or drinking cups, or basins to hold water for the hands; for they eat off that fine tin, which is little inferior to silver (pewter). These great riches of London are not occasioned by its inhabitants being noblemen or gentlemen; being all, on the contrary, persons of low degree, and artificers who have congregated there from all parts of the island, and from Flanders, and from every other place. No one can be mayor or alderman of London, who has not been an apprentice in his youth; that is, who has not passed the seven or nine years in that hard service described before. Still, the citizens of London are thought quite as highly of there, as the Venetian gentlemen are at Venice, as I think your Magnificence may have perceived.
The city is divided into several wards, each of which has six officers; but superior to these, are twenty-four gentlemen who they call aldermen; and, of these aldermen, one is elected every year by themselves, to be a magistrate named the mayor, who is in no less estimation with the Londoners, than the person of our most serene lord (the Doge) is with us, or than the Gonfaloniero at Florence; and the day on which he enters upon his office, he is obliged to give a sumptuous entertainment to all the principal people in London, as well as to foreigners of distinction; and I, being one of the guests, together with your Magnificence, carefully observed every room and hall, and the court, where the company were all seated, and was of opinion that there must have been 1000 or more persons at table. This dinner lasted four hours or more; but it is true that the dishes were not served with that assiduity and frequency that is the custom with us in Italy; there being long pauses between each course, the company conversing the while.
A no less magnificent banquet is given when two other officers named sheriffs are appointed; to which I went, being anxious to see every thing well; your Magnificence was also invited, but did not go in consequence of the invitation having come from the Lord Privy Seal. At this feast, I observed the most infinite profusion of victuals, and of plate, which was for the most part gilt; and amongst other things, I noticed how punctiliously they sat in their order, and the extraordinary silence of every one, insomuch that I could have imagined it one of those public repasts of the Lacedemonians that I have read of.
In imitation of London, which is truly the metropolis of England, every town, however small, elects its mayor, and the least towns their bailiff, and the shires their sheriff. I believe that the same is done in the island of Jersey, one of the Menanian isles, lying near the kingdom of England to the south; and in other small islands appertaining to Normandy, but nevertheless under the dominion of England.
Neither the identity of the sender nor that of the recipient of the report, of which the above is just an extract, is known for certain. It is assumed from internal evidence to be a report produced for a commissioner sent by Venice to England in 1496 to negotiate a treaty of alliance, which task was concluded the following year. The reporter was evidently part of the embassy sent to England and remained behind after the commissioner returned home, in order to carry out additional research and write his report, which he did in 1500, according to its title.
It is therefore not surprising that London gets the lion's share of the attention, as it does from Devizes and of course FitzStephen. The writer's direct knowledge of English towns, as he admits, is limited, and he relied on reports of others for locations farther afield. It seems unlikely he would have relished visiting most, for only London came close to matching the great Italian cities with which he was familiar although his incorrect suggestion that London was as populous as Florence or Rome is an example of his tendency to exaggerate for effect.
The writer's particular interest in London is in its commerce: its capacity to act as a maritime port, and its luxury trades. The main thrust of his research seems to be towards England's wealth, and who controls it, although he is clearly as fascinated as any tourist in a country so different in many regards from Italy; his report addresses a wide range of subjects, from social behaviour to the way the kingdom was governed, and he makes the types of errors in interpretation that one might expect from a tourist, although at times there is some depth to his perception he was at least an avid researcher.
|Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002||© Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003|