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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Renaissance Cities--London

The legendary Tower of London today.
When we think of the great city of London England any number of mental images pop up from Big Ben (now the Elizabeth Tower), Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Palace (where the British Parliament meets) and several more. But when we talk about London during the Renaissance, we have to forget all that. None of those landmarks existed at the time. But London is a very old city, dating back to around 40 AD when the Romans settled on a spot along the Thames where the river was narrow enough to build a bridge (yes, the original London Bridge, built of wood) and yet deep enough for seagoing vessels to dock. That's the narrow premise upon which this great city was founded. There, a thousand years later, William the Conqueror built one of the few ancient London landmarks still in existence, the legendary Tower of London. Renaissance London stretched along the Thames from there (Tower Hill) to Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London, where had been built, several hundred years earlier (600 AD), the original St. Paul's Cathedral.
Renaissance London--more small town than city.
Most of present day iconic London including Hyde Park, the theater district, Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, Regent's Park, Westminster, all of that would have been farm land or forest during the Renaissance. The area around St. Paul's Cathedral and along what was then called Watling Street leading from there down to London Bridge (the one and only, at the time) was the central "business" district of the city. And, like many 16th century European cities, it would not have been a pleasant place to even visit much less live there. Worse, it only got worse during the next couple centuries to follow. It was little wonder Henry VIII decamped for Windsor Castle for most the 38 years of his reign.
London in the 1500s. St. Paul's Cathedral is in the upper left corner of Anthony van der Wyngaerde's map drawing. The Tower of London is just to the right of the bridge terminus.
When we talk about Renaissance London we must, by necessity, encounter Henry Tudor, the victor over Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Fields in 1485, roughly around the time the High Renaissance began in Italy. To the victor went the spoils, including the crown of England and the title Henry VII. The real star of the Renaissance era in England, however, centers of his son Henry VIII, who came to the throne following his father's death in 1509. He was eighteen years old. Though times had been tumultuous in England for generations before (the War of the Roses, for instance) most of the turmoil revolving around this Renaissance monarch centered on one inescapable problem--he needed a male heir. Moreover, all six of his wives were prone to delivering girls (if they bore children at all). The break with Pope Clement VI, the establishment of the Church of England with Henry as its head, and the incredible bloodshed that followed, all derived from this one dilemma. Only Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, bore him a legitimate male heir, his son Edward, destined to succeed him as Edward VI nine years later. Jayne Seymour died just twelve days after her son's birth. Her son's reign as king was likewise short. He died at the age of 15.
The Family of Henry VIII, ca. 1545, by an unknown artist. Edward is on the left, Jane Seymour on the right.
Against this whole backdrop, the Protestant Reformation came to England. Edward's half-sister, Mary (Queen of Scots), was Catholic; his other half-sister, Elizabeth was, like Edward, Protestant. In case you don't know how that bloody little family feud came out, Mary lost her head after only five years on the throne and Elizabeth presided with great wisdom over what's come to be called the "Elizabethan Era" from 1558 to 1603, a reign that might normally be considered after the Renaissance, but for England, where artistic enlightenment had to await religious enlightenment, it brought such writers and artists as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Sir Anthony van Dyck. Meanwhile, the Renaissance city of London had to await the advent of architects, Indigo Jones, Christopher Wren, William and Robert Adam a century later for similar urban embellishments.

Westminster Abbey with a Procession of the Knights of Bath, 1749, Canaletto.
Begun in 1517, completed in 1540, the church has become a symbol of
Renaissance London.

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