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The miser’s money put to good use – a walk through history inspired by Southwark Cathedral

Once upon a time, there was an avaricious gent named John. Our John was in the logistics business, more specifically, he transported people back and forth across the Thames. Okay, so this is a looong time ago, and while the intrepid and savvy Romans managed to span the river with the first ever London bridge, by the time John came around, the pontoon structure was history. So was the next bridge, an Anglo Saxon construction that the marauding Vikings happily destroyed in the early 11th century. It would take a hundred years and more before the river was spanned by a stone bridge—happy days, according to John Overie, who became quite rich ferrying people back and forth.

John lived in Southwark, which effectively means “Southern works” and refers to the old defensive earthworks originally built by the . . . yupp, you guessed it! . . . Romans. Living in Southwark meant living outside of London, and there were certain benefits to that, as this meant London law did not apply to you. If you were lucky, no law really applied to you, but overtime, Southwark was to fall under the dominion of the Bishops of Winchester, whose diocese stretched from the coast south of Winchester all the way to the southern bank of the Thames.

John ferrying peeps over the river, stained glass window, Southwark Cathedral

But when John lived, in the 11th century (perhaps. We must take this story with a sizeable pinch of salt), the bishop was rarely in Southwark. In fact, Southwark was something of a wild place, with people of all sorts settling down within convenient distance from the growing city of London but just as conveniently separated from it by the river. In Southwark, there were taverns and various forms of entertainment, from dogfights to whores. Quite often, John’s clients came to Southwark while sober, were carried back across the river stone-drunk. I imagine this gave John opportunities to, so to say, up the price by helping himself to a coin or more extra.

John had a daughter, Mary. Despite her father, this young woman seems to have been sweet and was generally well-liked. She was, however, no saint (yet) and when the nights were cold and dark she found comfort in the arms of a young man she was very, very fond of. Future facts (according to the legend) indicate said young lover may have been more fond of Mary’s future inheritance than of the girl herself.

No matter that John was very rich, he was a stingy git. One day, he came up with a brilliant idea to save some more money.
“He, he, he,” John snickered, rubbing his hands together. “They’ll get the surprise of their lives, they will!”
Too right they would: John’s plan was to play dead. Yes, dear reader, I can see this makes you confused. How would that make him richer?
Well, John was assuming that upon discovering that their beloved master was dead, his servants would so bewail this they would fast for an entire day in his honour, thereby saving him a mint in food.
“And drink,” John puts in. “You have no notion how much ale my rowers drink a day!”

Thing is, John miscalculated. You see, instead of falling over in grief upon finding John “dead”, his servants went wild with joy.
“The miser’s dead! He’s dead! Yay, let’s party!”
I am not quite sure where Mary was in all this. Was she also delighted at hearing dear Papa was dead? Or was she the oblivious introvert type who, like Ferdinand the bull, was happier contemplating a flower in her little garden, thereby missing out on all the hullabaloo? We will never know.

Whatever the case, there was John, expecting people to grieve and fast. Instead, it soon became evident ale casks were being opened, his larder raided as his servants feasted as if there was no tomorrow.
“Unacceptable!” John yelled and leapt out of his death pose to berate the wastrels. Except by now the servants had consumed quite a lot of ale, so when John suddenly popped up, looking very much alive, one of the servants shrieked, grabbed hold of something hard and smote John over the head, screaming that the devil was in the house and had to be driven out.

This time, John did die. In the ensuing uproar, Mary seems to have realised something was amiss and sent a messenger to fetch her lover, requiring his tender support in this trying situation. He, delighted upon hearing that he was but some wedding vows away from becoming very, very rich, set off at speed, but such was his haste that his horse stumbled and threw him off, leaving him as dead as John.

“Oh, woe!” Mary may have said, maybe even setting her hand to her forehead. “What now? What life is there for me without my father and my lover?”

Seeing as neither comes across as particularly nice, one could argue there was plenty of life awaiting Mary. But she did not agree, which is why she donated her father’s entire wealth to build a convent and so the large priory that sat at the southern foot of London Bridge came into being. It is said she herself retired to live there. A bit strange, IMO, as the priory of St Mary Overie was an Augustinian priory with canons. However, we must remember the story of Mary is a legend, and there are indications there was, in fact, a convent of nuns in the 7th or 8th century on the site of the future priory, so maybe that’s where she went. Or maybe people just wanted a local saint, thereby spinning the sad story of miserly John Overie and his substantially sweeter daughter.

And as to whether it is our Mary who is St Mary Overie, I am doubtful. Overie simply means “over the river”, probably an add-on to explain just what priory dedicated to St Mary (because there were MANY) you were talking about.

Still, it’s a nice little story—and it segues neatly into the history of the priory of St Mary Overie, which, in the fullness of time, was to become Southwark Cathedral.

According to the Domesday Book, in 1086 there was a minister on the site. It is thought this building was the oldest church in Southwark. By the early 12th century, the Normans began constructing the Augustinian priory. The canons ran a hospital, the Hospital of St Thomas, and as it was situated within the domains of the Bishop of Winchester, these bishops frequently involved themselves in developing the priory—and paying for the substantial reparations that were required after huge fires in the 13th and 14th century.

Its location meant it was a natural stopping place—at least for churchmen coming up to the big city. On one occasion Thomas Becket himself popped by and was greeted with joyous exclamations by the canons of the priory. The priory thrived, and with the added patronage of the bishop, it was grand enough that in 1424,the priory church hosted the wedding of Joan Beaufort and James I of Scotland. The Bishop of Winchester at the time was Cardinal Beaufort who hosted his niece’s wedding festivities at his nearby hall.  A decade or so later, James would be dead, murdered rather foully, but that has nothing to do with the priory of St Mary.

John Gower’s tomb, Southwark Cathedral

At the time of the James and Joan marriage, the priory church likely already had one of its grander tombs. This very colourful monument is in memory of John Gower, contemporary and BFF of Geoffrey Chaucer. Like Chaucer, Gower was a poet. Unlike Chaucer, his works have not fully withstood the teeth of time—at least not in the popular mind. Gower authored several long poems, but these three are his most well-known: Vox Clamantis, in Latin, starts off by giving us a description of the Peasant’s Revolt and continues on to a somewhat satirical analysis of society. Le Mirour de l’Omme is a poem in Anglo-Norman while Confessio Amantis, despite its title, is in Middle English and is considered as fine an example of the 14th century literature as Chaucer’s work. Me, I am mostly impressed by his evident language skills—writing in THREE languages, no less!

John Gower himself ?

What is interesting about Gower is that we don’t really know how he supported himself—writing was no more lucrative back then than it is today. Some say he was a lawyer as his name pops up on various deeds. Others say he was a wool merchant. Whatever the case, in the 1370s he moved into the priory and was to remain in residence until his death in 1408 – the last decade with his second wife living with him.

Southwark as such was perhaps not the best part of London for fancy people like Gower. But maybe it was the sheer buzz of the place that attracted people like our poet. It was full of rough characters, taverns and all sorts of strange entertainment. It was also home to a sizeable number of whores. This was because the city of London did not allow such activities within its walls. But that Southwark had 22 bathhouses (euphemism for stews) did not bother the Londoners. Like they’d done for centuries, they were happy to cross the river to pay for their pleasures.

The Southwark prostitutes were nick-named Winchester Geese, and the reason for this is two-fold.  Medieval prostitutes were obliged to wear a yellow hood to mark them as fallen women, and this, together with the (relatively) white aprons they wore made them look a bit like geese. The other reason is somewhat more depressing: we all know the fable of the goose laying the golden egg, and these human geese were deffo lining someone’s pockets. Not their own, of course, but the brothel owners and the Bishop of Winchester grew rich at their expense, the stews paying a sizeable chunk of their income as rent to the bishop—hence Winchester(’s) Geese.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII broke with Rome. The priory was a dead duck in the water—such establishments were to be dissolved, the canons turned out to make their living elsewhere. The priory of St Mary was surrendered to the king and its church became the new parish church of Southwark, now renamed St Saviour.

Not that all people living in the parish were welcome to attend services or be buried in consecrated ground. Oh, no, the fallen women of Southwark were still barred from entering and, as they’d been for centuries, buried elsewhere. In early medieval times, the bishop had set aside a plot of land in which to bury these unfortunates, a sad affair involving little but a shroud and some quicklime. These days, the Crossbones cemetery has been the site of extensive archaeological work, revealing a huge quantity of buried women and children.

The decades after the break with Rome were turbulent years. Under Edward VI, Catholics suffered. Under Mary I, Protestants suffered.

Mary I, a.k.a. Bloody Mary. Rather unfairly, IMO. Her sister persecuted just as avidly…

One such Protestant was John Rogers, whose trial was held in St Saviour’s retrochoir. Rogers was originally as Catholic as everyone else was, but during a stay in Antwerp he met William Tyndale, a protestant reformer famous for translating the bible into English. Rogers and Tyndale clicked, and when Tyndale died (violently: he was burned at the stake for heresy), Rogers continued his work in finalising the translations.

In 1548, Rogers and his numerous family returned to England where he became a prebendary at St Paul’s. When Mary ascended the throne, Rogers was on the street, preaching to the people and asking them to hold on to the Protestant faith. This, obviously, was not the smartest of moves when faced with a queen determined to bring back the old religion. John Rogers joined the long, long list of churchmen who were arrested, tortured, tried and, in most cases, executed during Mary’s reign.

In early 1555, John Rogers was condemned to death by the Lord Chancellor and catholic bishop Stephen Gardiner. He was offered a pardon if he recanted. He refused. On February 4, 1555, he was led in procession towards Smithfield and the waiting stake. It is said he went to his death joyfully, accompanied by a swelling number of people who yelled words of comfort to him. Rogers, unlike Tyndale, wasn’t accorded the mercy of being strangled before the fire was lit. Instead, he suffered the excruciating pain of actually burning to death. It is said he managed to smile throughout most of the ordeal, even pretending to wash his hands in the flames. (I find that improbable as he’d have been tied into place)

John Rogers burning to death

Over time, things quieted down—well, if you were a Protestant. During Good Queen Bess’s reign, it was the Catholics who were imprisoned, tortured and executed. The papists were never fully tolerated in England after her reign, forced to live in the shadows or at least out of the public eye.

John Humble’s tomb – to be fair, commissioned not by him, but by his son

In Southwark, life continued pretty much as before. Some people set off to the distant colonies, among them John Harvard, famous for having donated his wealth to a certain college in Massachusetts, who was baptised at St Saviour in 1607. Others remained behind and grew wealthy enough to endow charity schools and create impressive funeral monuments to themselves. Like alderman John Humble (😊) who has an impressive tomb atop of which we see him and one of his two wives. Even rich people lived through tragedies—in John’s case illustrated by the little statues representing the three daughters who died young.

Humble’s trio of dead daughters

With Southwark becoming somewhat more “respectable”—well, bar the bearbaiting, the gambling, the thriving stews and this new, morally dubious spectacle, the theatre—more and more people settled here. St Saviour thrived. Shakespeare attended services there as did most of his companions. Merchants of all sorts contributed to the upkeep and beautification of their church. With its position at the foot of London Bridge, St Saviour saw a constant stream of people. It witnessed war, it witnessed processions, it cast a shadow over the lives of the unfortunates in the parish, it stood like a beacon of hope to others, offering education to the poor (boys) and a haven for those in need of quiet, of some moments of reflection in the presence of God.

In 1905, St Saviour became Southwark Cathedral, more formally the Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie. And so, dear peeps, we have come full circle, back to where we started with the legend of Mary and her not-so-nice daddy, John. And if you’re ever in London, I recommend you take the time to visit this old church. History whispers in its aisles, it sings from the high roof, speaks to you from tombs and ancient floors. Who knows, you might even get a glimpse of our Mary 😊

The old meets the new… Southwark Cathedral in front of The Shard

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