Medieval London street names

I’ve recently been in an online discussion about street names in medieval England. I decided to look at my map of medieval London and contribute some notes, but it’s going to take a little work and I might want to refer back to it in future. If I just leave it in the comments of some post I’ll never find it again, so I’m putting it here.

I’m working from A Map of Medieval London: The City, Westminster and Southwark 1270 to 1300, published by The Historic Towns Trust. I have modernised spellings (for example strete or strate to street) and anglicised terms rendered in French (for example Les Arches to The Arches) so that meanings are more transparent and the naming principles are easier to use.

I’m interested here in the generic element of the street name. The specific element is one of the aspects I might come back to another time.

Streets and Lanes

The large majority of the streets labelled on my map are ‘-street’ or ‘-lane’ (for example Catstreet, Standinglane). Each name is usually written as a single word, though a number of lanes named after churches are written in separate words (for example St Martin’s Lane).

The -streets are a mix of wider roads or obvious through-ways with some that look more minor, while few if any of the -lanes look like main roads. Someone told me, in the online discussion that sparked this post, that the English word street is derived from the Latin word strata, in the phrase via strata which described paved roads. In medieval English ‘street’ could apply to an urban street or cross-country road as long as it was paved. I wonder, though I don’t have the evidence, if this was applicable within medieval London – the streets being paved and the lanes just of compacted dirt. I guess even if so that some lanes may have been paved later as urban development continued.

Gates

There are many named gates around the perimeter of the City: not only in the wall that surrounds the landward sides but also on the waterfront (I don’t know exactly what structure if any is at the water ‘gate’ points but they are where roads go to the riverside and end there). Some of the roads leading to the gates have both gate and street in their name, for example Ludgatestreet. Others just take the name of the gate directly, for example Aldredsgate. Sometimes a gate’s names applies to the street on the inner side, in the City itself, sometimes to the road on the outer side in the suburbs, and sometimes both.

In some other regions in the north and east of England ‘-gate’ means street or road and is common throughout towns, but I don’t think it had that sense in London.

Markets

Several of the streets have market names, presumably for a trade once conducted there. Some, like Fishstreet or Breadstreet, use a product as a specific and are still called streets (the market itself may still be labelled something like West Fish Market, but it is in Fishstreet). Cheap was I think a Middle English word for market or trade and there is Eastcheap and Westcheap (later called Cheapside).

Vintry and Poultry look like single-word unique names but I believe the French etymology is the commodity name (vin or poulet) and -(t)erie as a suffix indicating the trade in that commodity or the place where the trade takes place.

The Change is a street, I think where moneychangers traded.

I don’t see any London streets actually called ‘-market’ but I know they exist in some other towns in England.

It is worth noting that the map shows designated market locations where the streets retain an unrelated name. For example the shambles (meat market) is in Newgatestreet.

Hills

There are a number of streets with a name ending ‘-hill’ (for example Cornhill). Some of these led to a river and, though I haven’t dug out a map that gives elevations, I suspect most of them are sloping roads or otherwise associated with bits of relatively high ground.

Burys

There are a few streets named ‘-bury’, like Aldermanbury, Buckerelsbury or Lothbury. As a name for a locality within a town (as opposed to a whole town) this seems possibly to denote a court, such as the court of the City aldermen or the court of a significant urban landowner’s estate.

Hawes

There are a couple of streets called ‘-hawe’ or ‘-haw’ which may denote a yard or enclosure that the street leads to or originated as part of.

Unique features

The Strand is the road along the inland side of the waterfront buildings, wharves and jetties to the west of the City (there is an equivalent street within the City proper but it is called Thames Street). Strand means beach and I think London’s Strand was originally directly next to the muddy slopes of the riverbank, but with embankment and building into the tidal zone it ended up that there was a continuous row of waterfront structures with the road behind them, and lanes between some of them leading to steps down to the actual water.

There’s a road along the outside of the city wall in the west, called The Bailey. I’m not sure of the exact meaning of ‘bailey’ in this context, but I guess it is to do with the wall, since I’m familiar with it as a walled enclosure as part of a castle. The road is called The Old Bailey by 1520. Another road running along the wall, this time immediately inside it on the north, isn’t labelled on my 1300 map but by the 1500s was called London Wall and still is (despite the obliteration of most of the wall itself by later building). Similarly on the outer side of another stretch of wall there survived to 1300 a length of ditch called the Hounds Ditch, with a road running along it on the outer side of the ditch that later became called Houndsditch as a street name. There is also a road labelled Long Ditch in Westminster, alongside a drainage feature.

There are also a couple of perimeter roads with the names of their corresponding open areas outside the city walls: East Smithfield to the east of the city, and Clerkenwell to the north, with the area itself being named named for a well which still exists on the 1300 map. 

There is a backway off Vintry called The Arches, presumably named for an architectural feature.

There is a street near the Tower of London called Petit Wales, which I guess refers to some association with Wales or Welsh people. By about 1700 there’s also a Petty France, named supposedly for having French people living there.

There is a label at the west end of the cathedral saying The Atrium, which I guess refers to the open space there, a sort of public square within the cathedral precinct.

Roads

I have not found any London street called ‘… Road’ on this map. I’m told that the word denoted a way for horse traffic and was in the medieval period generally applied to roads from town to town (or village etc.), rather than streets within towns.

Alleys

The really little urban spaces are not named on my map so I can’t tell you whether they would have called them alleys generically and if so whether they would have named individual ones.

Closes

In the medieval period a close was an enclosed precinct, often around something like a cathedral. There was a close around St Paul’s Cathedral and the bishop’s palace in medieval London, and some similar walled precincts for other buildings, but they aren’t labelled on my map so I suppose the modern mapmakers at least didn’t think of them as named streets.

Squares

There are no spaces named ‘… Square’ on my map and very few that look like they could be called squares. I mentioned The Atrium above but other than that I only see a few irregular wide places at junctions.

Avenues, Ways, Drives, Groves, Walks, Passages

There do not appear to be any ways with these names or other street type designations on my medieval map, so I guess they weren’t used in this place and period? Or maybe if they were they were for ways too small to show up.

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