Aldgate’s Guild of Knights
The word “Aldgate” is more likely to inspire thoughts in most Londoners of an almost permanently impassable gyratory system than it is tales of knights and chivalry. But as ever in this great city, once you start to do a little digging there is more to it than meets the eye. David Charnick tells us more.
Just off of Aldgate High Street is Ridirich, a bronze unveiled on 16 December 1980 to commemorate the centenary of the construction firm George Wimpey, founded in Hammersmith in 1880.
Created by Galashiels-based sculptor Keith McCarter, Ridirich was instrumental in establishing his career, along with a stainless steel work called Judex sited some way to the south in Goodman’s Yard. McCarter’s intention was to create in Ridirich a work of strength that would respond to the expression of the containing architecture. There is more to the piece than strength, however.
The piece features smooth curved surfaces contrasted with patches of indentation which give the work depth. One of the curves forms a beak-like protuberance which McCarter has described as reminiscent of the helmet visors of ancient knights. Indeed, Ridirich is a Gaelic word for ‘knight’, and many people have noted the piece’s resemblance to a knight’s helmet.
Ridirich evokes the story of the Cnihtengild, a guild of Cnihtas (knights) who once held the ‘soken’, or jurisdiction, of a substantial area to the east of The City. According to John Stow’s Survey of London, the area extended north from the Aldgate to the Bishopsgate and south at least as far as the river. Part of this area was to become the Ward of Portsoken, one of the City’s twenty-five wards, or administrative districts.
But just who the guild of knights were who enjoyed such jurisdiction is not completely clear.
Though the Old English word cniht had a wider range of meanings than the modern English ‘knight’, it had definite military connotations. This has been pointed out by Christopher Brooke in his 1975 book (with Gillian Keir) London 800-1216: The Shaping of a City, where he notes the significance of the application of cniht to ‘that most Norman and French of characters, the knight’.
The Grant of the Soken
It was King Edgar the Peaceful who granted the soken of the area outside the Aldgate to the Cnihtengild.
A great-grandson of Alfred the Great and father of Ethelred the Unready, Edgar reigned from 959 to 975. His reason for making this grant and what it involved must, however, remain a matter for speculation, since there is no record of the terms of Edgar’s grant.
The first written reference to it comes in a charter of Edward the Confessor, a grandson of Edgar.
The charter is addressed to Ælfweard, Bishop of London from 1035 and to the Port-Reeve Wulfstan. It must date therefore from between 1042 (when Edward became king) and 1044 (when Ælfweard died).
The charter confirms that the men of the English guild of knights should enjoy their ‘sake and soke’ (a compound expression meaning the jurisdiction over a specific area) inside and outside The City as they did in the days of King Edgar and ‘in my father’s [days]’, (i.e. those of Ethelred the Unready).
The Priory was founded in 1108 by Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, and would soon become the principle landowner in the Aldgate area, particularly when the Cnihtengild surrendered its land to the Priory in 1125.
Remains of the Priory are visible through the ground-floor windows of Towergate Insurance, on the corner of Mitre Street and Leadenhall Street.
The Decline of the Guild
Whilst Stow records that the guild surrendered its lands to Holy Trinity Priory in 1115, the consensus seems to favour 1125. He records also that in surrendering the land the guild placed its charters, including that given by Edward the Confessor, on the altar of the priory church. Henry I was asked to ratify the gift to his wife’s priory, and the guild was wound up by its members themselves entering the priory, becoming canons.
It would not be surprising that the Cnihtengild should be in decline in the early twelfth century if, as Brooke suggests, their presence east of The City had a defensive purpose.
The White Tower, the keep at the heart of the Tower of London, was completed around 1100 and would itself have protected the eastward side of The City from attack. Besides, it is unlikely that the Norman kings would leave the protection of London in the hands of an English force.
Susan Kelly, in her 2004 collection The Charters of St Paul’s, London, points out that the function of the guild must have gone beyond the purely defensive.
Comparing it to guilds at Abbotsbury, Bedwyn, Cambridge and Exeter, she suggests that the Cnihtengild had a social function. She posits that it may have comprised ‘representatives of the royal administration’; this may explain why Edward felt the need to reaffirm its rights after years of Danish rule under Cnut and his successors.
Whatever the function of the Cnihtengild, the survival within the Norman administration of a distinctly English guild, whatever it did, would not be likely. Nonetheless, it is clear that for a time the guild enjoyed particular eminence (after all, both William II and Henry I confirmed its jurisdiction by charter).
The full story of the Cnihtengild remains, though, tantalisingly elusive. This of course has not prevented it from entering London folklore.
Chivalry and The City
Stow’s Survey of London provides the details on which the generally-accepted story of King Edgar’s Guild of Knights has been based. This story, however, owes less to an appreciation of the nature of warfare and nobility in the centuries preceding the Norman Conquest than it does to tales of chivalry and knightly challenges reminiscent of Arthurian romance.
Stow tells of ‘thirteen knights or soldiers well beloved to the king and realm’ who were granted the land provided they fulfilled certain obligations.
First, each one ‘should victoriously accomplish three combats: one above the ground, one under ground, and the third in the water’. After this they should hold tournaments on East Smithfield on a certain day: ‘they should run with spears against all comers, all which was gloriously performed’.
Perhaps the thought of its counterpart, West Smithfield, inspired stories of jousting in East Smithfield? West Smithfield still retains a flavour of the days when it was a ‘smooth field’ where jousting was commonplace (as well as executions and a livestock market). By contrast, East Smithfield survives only as the name of a street, hemmed in by buildings on its north side, and running on the south side along the wall of St Katherine’s Docks and what is left of the wall of London Docks.
Whatever the obligations Edgar imposed on the Cnihtengild in the tenth century, Stow’s account reflects a knightly code which would develop in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, by which time the Cnihtengild had long since disappeared.
It is this tradition that informs Denys Mitchell’s 1990 sculpture in Cutlers Gardens, in the northern reaches of the soken.
The mounted knight in plate armour brandishing his lance is a world away from the early English cnihtas who, in battle, would have been protected at best by chain mail and by iron helmets provided with nose-pieces.
However, whilst the purist might object to this representation, there is a concession to history in the explanatory plaque associated with the sculpture.
The Insular style (so called because it is uncertain whether it originated in England or Ireland, such was the cultural cross-fertilisation at the time) is seen in many manuscripts from the seventh century onwards, but is most familiar as a feature of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.
Though the style had been disappearing by the time of Edgar’s reign, the touch is nonetheless more reminiscent of his times than the statue towering over it.
The true story of the Cnihtengild seems destined to remain out of reach, but its transformation into a tale of quasi-Arthurian chivalry is a prime illustration of the development of folklore, a process which continues in London as the urban myth.
It is thus a salutary example of the need to think twice about the many stories that underpin our understanding of this ancient City.
Does doing so rob London of its romance and charm? Or does it draw back the gaudy curtains to allow us to explore deeper into the unknown.
(Author’s note: I am indebted to Keith McCarter for his invaluable contribution as the sculptor of the piece in sharing with me directly his thoughts and other information regarding Ridirich).