What’s Left of Norman London?

One of the biggest upheavals in England’s history was the Norman Conquest of 1066 but how much can still be seen of London from the 11th and 12th centuries?

So are there any actual sites that can still be visited from Norman London?

I’m glad you asked. Remarkably, yes!

The Norman Conquest 

The Norman period lasts from the beginning of the Norman Conquest in 1066 until the reign of the first Plantagenet King, Henry II, in 1154.

In October 1066, believing that he was the rightful King of England, William the Duke of Normandy sailed across the English Channel to face Harold Godwinson’s army for the Battle of Hastings.

Whether or not it was an actual arrow in the eye that did it, Harold is killed and William, hot-foots it to London in order to consolidate his power as the new and lawful King of England.

To do this he went to Westminster Abbey, recently rebuilt by the previous King of England, Edward the Confessor. William’s coronation ceremony was held on Christmas Day 1066.

Image of Edward’s Abbey from the Bayeux Tapestry. You can view it all online here.

Most of the Abbey was rebuilt in the 13th century, but part of Edward’s older Abbey does survive.

The Pyx Chamber

Built between 1042-52, this squat room has a low ceiling because it’s the undercroft below what was the monk’s dormitory.

Norman London - The Pyx Chamber | Look Up London

Although it was built pre-conquest, it’s in the Norman style of architecture, also referred to as Romanesque.

The Norman style is typified by massive stone columns and round arches.

Pyx refers to the boxes kept here which used to store coins and valuable materials – even the Crown Jewels – until the 14th century. The ‘Trial of the Pyx’, ie the testing of the coinage, is an ancient ceremony which still takes place today albeit in Goldsmith’s Hall.

Testament to its use as a strong room, you can still see the two whopping great doors.

Later it was converted into a small chapel and today it’s managed by English Heritage so members can visit it for free.

Something close by that I also like to point out on my private tours of the Abbey is this surviving tomb of Abbot Gilbert Crispin who was born in 1055.

He was appointed by Bishop Lanfranc who came over with William the Conqueror and represents the Norman take over across important religious and political positions.

Crispin died in 1117 but it’s incredible to think his tomb can still be seen today, now tucked under a bench to prevent the further rubbing away of his effigy by the thousands of visitors each day.

William’s Writ

Although he’s known as William the Conqueror to most, the City of London likes to refer to him plainly as William I considering he never truly ‘conquered’ London. Although he was most certainly in control, a peaceful surrender was arranged in exchange for the City keeping its independence.

Evidence of this survives in the oldest document held in the London Metropolitan Archives, known as William’s writ.

Occasionally William’s Writ is on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery which is a wonderful free museum in the City of London.

Image Credit: London Metropolitan Archives

Read more about this incredible document here.

The White Tower

So instead of ransacking the City, William made the canny decision to leave them be. However, to ensure they knew who was in charge he built himself a huge new tower on the edge of the City.

Today this is known as the Tower of London and it has changed over the centuries but the central White Tower remains.

The White tower was built between 1076-1101 and is made of a mix of Caen stone from France and Kentish ragstone. Far taller than any neighbouring houses and placed on a hill it still dominates, exuding a powerful statement of who’s now in charge.

Inside, one of the best preserved interior spaces is the chapel of St John the Evangelist.

White Tower - Tower of London - C. Look Up London

Today it’s a serene space of plan white but in the 11th century it would have been richly coloured and lavishly decorated.

Crypt of St Mary-Le-Bow

Alongside the Tower, the Norman’s planned two major churches and one was a new St Paul’s Cathedral. Construction started around 1087 but thanks to lightning strikes and that pesky Great Fire of London, nothing solid remains of the earlier church.

The other church was St Mary Arcubus or St Mary of the Arches on Cheapside. Founded around 1080, possibly on the site of an earlier Saxon church, the name is derived from the round arches of the crypt.

The old English word for the curved arches was bowe, hence its modern name, St Mary-Le-Bow.

This Norman crypt survived a tornado in 1091, the Great Fire in 1666 and an incendiary bomb in May 1941 and amazingly it can still be visited today in the form of a rather nice cafe!

Southwark Cathedral

Across the Thames two Norman knights re-founded a priory in 1106. It was known as St Mary Overie, which meant ‘over the river’.

Today it’s known as Southwark Cathedral but as you come through the main entrance, chunks of the Norman priory can still be seen in a glass covered atrium.

Back on the north side of the river we can find further religious sites taking shape in the early 12th century.

St Bartholomew the Great

The Priory of St Bartholomew was founded in 1123 by Prior Rahere who was a courtier to King Henry I.

Although much restored in the 19th century, the church of St Bartholomew the Great contains some genuine 12th century masonry including many of the stocky columns (note the similar round arches).

St Bartholomew the Great History

As well as the four piers that make up the crossing.

Inside St Bart’s there’s a helpful (if a little complicated) diagram breaking down the ages of the various architecture. You can read all about the church in my dedicated blog post here.

The Order of St John

Next door to St Bartholomew’s is another monastic organisation founded in the 12th century, the Order of St John. 

Better known as the Knights Hospitaller the priory church was built around the 1140s, made up of a round apse and rectangular nave.

Like St Mary-Le-Bow, the priory church was gutted in the Blitz but thankfully again, the crypt survived.

Descending into the 12th century crypt you can see the progress of the building and a gradual change from round arches towards the entrance and then pointed ones towards the back.

You can hear more about the incredible buildings and the history of the Knights Hospitaller in my YouTube video for History Hit here.

One further church deserves an honourable mention even though the Norman remains aren’t as impressive as the rest of this list.

St Pancras Old Church

St Pancras Old Church’s foundation is often debated but certainly there was a church built here in the 11th century and Historic England claims the ‘core’ of the building is 11th century. 

It was substantially altered in the 19th century, Pevsner terms the 1848 Roumieu and Gough restoration as “crudely Normanized” but there’s no denying it’s an atmospheric place to visit.

In the photograph below the exposed section of wall on the left is supposedly Norman and has recently been painted white.

The Norman period officially ends in 1154 as King Henry II comes to the throne, there’s a huge amount of Medieval London that survives, but that’s a story for another day!

Did I miss anything? Have you been to any of these places? Let me know in the comments.

Related Blog Post

For another piece of Norman architecture a little further out of Central London you can visit St Mary Magdalene, with parts dating back to the 12th century! Read more here.

St Mary Magdalene, East Ham

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