RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London customs ceremony festivals church services livery processions gratuities ritual
Subject: Religious observances of city authorities
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Albus, ff. 6-7
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Albus. Rolls Series, no.12, vol.1 (1859), 27-30.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: 14th century


Concerning certain observances and ceremonies at various festivals

It is said to be the custom for the mayor, on the festival of All Saints following [his election], to go with his household after lunch to the church of St. [Thomas], and also for the aldermen, and those who are of the mayor's retinue, together with the leading men of the crafts, to congregate there in their suits. And from there to go to the church of St. Paul and hear vespers them before returning. Similarly, on Christmas Day it has been the custom for the mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs, and those who are of the mayor's and sheriffs' retinues, to come together after lunch at the church of St. [erased] and from there, as mentioned above, to go to the church of St. Paul. There he is accustomed to stand on the right side of the choir, in the stall next to that of the Dean; while the aldermen, arranged in order of precedence, stand some on the same side of the choir near to the mayor and some on the other side. After hearing vespers and compline, the next thing they do is as set out in the previous chapter. The same procedure is followed on St. Stephen's day. Likewise on the day of St. John the Evangelist. And on Holy Innocents day it has been the custom for the mayor, aldermen, sheriffs, and the others to hear vespers in the church of St. [Thomas of Acon]; and on the following day there to hear a mass, as well as vespers. Which being done, they return home. Formerly, these rites were also observed on the day of Circumcision, at Epiphany, and on the festival of the Purification of the glorified Virgin.

Note that no prayers are said for the soul of Bishop William inside that church, except on the days when the mayor and sheriffs take their oaths at the Exchequer. Nor has it been the custom for the mayor and aldermen to stay at St. Paul's until compline is over, except at Christmas, Epiphany, and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. At other of the abovementioned festivals they leave immediately after vespers. On the Monday in Easter week, before noon, it has been the custom for the mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs, in their suits, as well as either sex of the greater populace of the city, to come to the Hospital of St. Mary outside Bishopsgate to hear a sermon. Likewise on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the same week.

Also, around the festival of Pentecost it has been the custom of the mayor and aldermen to get together and, by joint decision, make arrangements for suits of clothes for themselves. Furthermore, the mayor and the sheriffs confer on their friends, members of their households, and officers of the city their liveries, according to what is demanded by each's level.

When in fact the Monday during Whitsun arrives, before lunch, between the bell striking nine and ten, the mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs have been accustomed to assemble in their suits at the church of St. Peter Cornhill, along with all members of the retinues of sheriffs and mayor. From which place, they would set out in a procession of the rulers of London along Cheapside as far as the cemetery of St. Paul's, with those of the sheriffs' retinue leading the way, followed by those of the mayor's retinue; then the mayor, with the recorder and the aldermen, in order of precedence. Entering on the north side and making their way through by procession towards that church, they would exit on the south side of the cemetery, and thus via the close they would enter the church from Watling Street, through its great west entrance. There they would rest themselves, while verses of the hymn Veni, Creator were, alternately, chanted by the vicars and played by the organ, while angels on high dispensed incense. After which the mayor and aldermen, going up to the altar, would make offerings. Once this was completed, each returned to his own home. Note that the Archdeacon of London was accustomed to give to the sergeants-at-mace accompanying the mayor, sheriffs and the chamber, because they had protected the procession of rulers from the press of the crowds, two nobles to be divided equally between them.

The following day (that is, the Tuesday) before lunch, between the bell striking nine and ten, the mayor and aldermen have been accustomed to gather at St. Bartholomew's and, from there, leading a procession of the folk of Middlesex, they would pass through the gate of Newgate and from there to St. Michael Cornmarket; then beyond, via the Old Exchange, they would enter the close of St. Paul's by St. Augustine's gate, and from then on just as was done the previous day. And the Archdeacon would give 10s. to the same sergeants, so it is said. On the third day (that is, the Wednesday in Whitsun week), the mayor, aldermen and the others have been accustomed to gather at the same hour at the church of St. [Thomas] of Acon, and from there lead a procession of the folk of Essex, along a direct route to St. Paul's cemetery. And the same proceedings would take place as on the Monday previous; and the Archdeacon of Essex would give the sergeants-at-mace 6s.8d. Let it be known that when those fees were not paid, it was customary to distrain on the Archdeacon to pay them.


These quasi-religious rituals owe as much to the forging or maintenance of social solidarity within the ruling class, and reinforcement of the social hierarchy, as they do to religious customs. Which is not to deny the religious sentiments of those townsmen, but to suggest that these ceremonies served purposes above and beyond the demands of such sentiments. Such ceremonies are a feature particularly of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when class consciousness within the towns was finding clearer expression; they doubtless grew out of less formal periodic events.

It will be noted that a number of these ceremonial occasions clustered around the Christmas season.

If the devout practices of the city rulers was intended to set an example to the citizenry, it was not an example universally followed. A commons petition to parliament in 1449, evidently framed by churchmen, complained of fairs and markets being held on holy days, and particularly at the time of the high feasts, when, it stated colourfully:

on account of great worldly covetousness, the people are wilfully more troubled and defiled by manual labour than on any other workday in pitching and making booths and stalls, in the carrying and drawing, heaving and shoving of their wares out and home again, with beasts for this purpose, without meat from morning till evening, driven from place to place, having nothing else in mind other than the horrible corruption of their souls by guileful buying and selling, much lying and false swearing, with drunkenness and debating, and especially in removing themselves and all their company from divine service.
[Chris Given-Wilson et al., eds., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504, University of St Andrews, 2005; Internet resource:]
The king granted, provisionally, the request to ban the sale of goods (foodstuffs excepted) in markets and fairs on holy days.



"festival of All Saints"
November 1.

The original has prandium a term for meal-time, usually applied to breakfast or lunch; since Vespers was celebrated around 6 p.m., lunch is the likeliest meaning here.

"church of St. [Thomas]"
The hospital of St. Thomas was centrally located, north of Cheapside. It was perhaps not just the location but the connection of Thomas Becket, a source of pride to Londoners, with the hospital (the building originally having been his father's house) that dictated the choice. The building later became home to the powerful Mercer's Company. The name "Thomas" has been erased from the original document.

"mayor's retinue"
Literally, of his livery: those officers specifically assigned to assist him (e.g. his sergeants and clerks).

"leading men"
Another use here of probi homines, in this context likely referring to the chief officers of the craft gilds.

Probably referring to their official costumes (liveries), implying a similar style. Or in sectis suis might possibly mean "with their followings".

Compline was celebrated around 9 p.m.

"previous chapter"
This was to offer prayers for William, Bishop of London, credited with having obtained from King William I a charter of liberties for the city, and to pay a visit to the graves of the parents of Thomas Becket.

"St. Stephen's day"
December 26.

"day of St. John's"
December 27.

"Holy Innocents day"
December 28.

"day of Circumcision"
January 1.

January 6.

"festival of the Purification"
February 2.

Oaths of loyalty to the king, as distinct from their oaths of office.

"Hospital of St. Mary"
The "New Hospital" dedicated to St. Mary was founded in the thirteenth century, by a London citizen and his wife.

The 7th Sunday following Easter (Whit Sunday).

Depending on who was receiving it, this might range from a badge, to a particular style of cap or other worn article, to an entire uniform.

A noble was a gold coin valued at 6s.8d.

"St. Bartholomew's"
The priory of St. Bartholomew stood not far outside the city walls, in northwestern London; today it represents one of the few medieval standing structures to have survived (partially) in London.

"Old Exchange"
I.e. the mint and money exchange; this would have placed it around the northeast corner of St. Paul's churchyard, adjacent to the site of the old folkmoot – a logical location.

"St. Augustine's gate"
This appears to have been the same cemetery entrance mentioned earlier as leading off Watling Street.

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Created: March 14, 2003. Last update: March 8, 2005 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2005