Enter the London guildhall today and look up. You will notice two very odd looking and rather unusual interlopers from a former time. These are two figures made of papier mâché, proportioned like dwarves but the size of giants. One is named Gog and the other is named Magog, and they are the mascots of London. They have historically been wheeled out to take part in public events such as the Lord Mayor’s show. But who are they and how did they come to be here?
Attentive readers of this blog may perhaps have had a flashback at their name. Previously I blogged about the medieval legend of Brutus of Troy. In it, Brutus led a band of warriors who fought with Gogmagog, king of the giants. They slew the fearsome Gogmagog, and took possession of Britain. This Brutus to found London.
It’s pretty clear that Gogmagog is related to Gog and Magog. Gogmagog belonged to Geoffrey of Monmouth and his Latin chronicles, written and read by churchmen. Gog and Magog are something a bit different: popular folklore that belong to the people of London.
By investigating Gog and Magog, maybe we can get a bit closer to the people of medieval and Tudor London. We can understand what they knew of the ‘official’ history of London – what they kept, what they added and what they changed.
Gog and Magog probably represent two different strands of street theatre: one linked to the Mayor, the other to the King. Both go back to the 1400s.
The Mayor’s Giant
In the 1400s, the biggest party day of the year was midsummer. This was the day of the ‘Great Watch’. Originally it was a parade in which London mustered its military forces. But during the 1400s it came to be an all-round celebration with massive pageants and street theatre, much like the Lord Mayor’s Show is today.
Every year at the head of the pageant, there was at least one giant. The Venetian ambassador in 1521 wrote home about the ‘very tall canvas giant, armed with bows, arrows, sword and buckler, so constructed that he turned about from side to side, looking in every direction’.
The exact set up of the giant changed year on year. Some years there was only one, who walked at the head of the Mayor’s pageant. Other years there were three groups of giants, one for the mayor, and one each for the two sheriffs. In some years there were male and female giants together, or figurines representing giant children.
The focus on Giant families probably means that these were meant to represent Albina and her race of ancient giants, who were supposedly the first inhabitants of Britain.
The Great Watch became increasingly unruly. Henry VIII had been a fan of it early in his reign and even dressed up as a commoner so that he could go and join the crowd. However, by the 1530s he began to see it as an unruly threat, a time of disorder and chaos. Great Watches became less and less frequent, and after the 1540s they never happened again.
The King’s Giant
In 1432 London held a massive parade for the young King, Henry V. As Henry crossed London bridge, he encountered a massive figurine of a giant, named Champion. As the poet laureate John Lydgate wrote at the time:
Entering the bridge of this noble city,
there was a pillar raised like a tower,
And thereupon stood a sturdy [Giant, named] Champion
Of look and cheer stern, like a lion.
His sword up reared, proudly with menace,
And in defence of the King’s state royal,
The giant would abide each adventure,
And all assaults that are martial,
For the king’s sake he proudly would endure.
In token whereof the Giant had an inscription
On either side declaring his intent
Which said thus, by good advisement:
“All those that be enemies of the king,
I shall them clothe with confusion,
and make him mighty by virtuous living,
His mortal foes to oppress and bear down,
And him to increase as Christ’s champion,
All mischiefs from him to abridge!”John Lydgate, Triumphal Entry of Henry VI, 1432. See here.
Champion the giant represented London. The massive power of the city and its military might would always be used as a champion for the king.
Londoners liked the figure of champion, who first appeared in the great Triumphal entry of 1413. They kept messing with the format: in 1415 in the celebrations for the battle of Agincourt, Champion had a wife and a message that he would ‘teach the French some courtesy!’. In 1421 he had a hinging mechanism that allowed him to bow to the queen. However, by the mid-1400s, Champion the giant seems to have gone out of fashion and wasn’t much used in royal pageants any more.
The death of Henry VIII left England an uncertain and fearful place. His son, Edward was still a child. The next in line were the Catholic Mary and her younger sister Elizabeth. Civil war and religious war beckoned. In this disordered atmosphere, some looked backwards for answers. And Londoners rediscovered Champion.
For the coronations of Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, giants made a comeback. London was to be represented by two giant figurines again. But this time they were given different names: Gogmagog and Corineus. At Mary’s coronation, the two figures acted out their battle in a reference to London’s founding myth.
Gog and Magog, the modern giants
Ever Queen Mary’s coronation, London has always kept two figurines of giants in the Guildhall. They’ve been rebuilt a couple of times and their names have changed a bit, but there has been some basic continuity.
Londoners stopped using them for Royal coronations. However, in the late 1500s, they invented a new festivity: the Lord Mayor’s show. This came to be every bit as big and exciting as the Great Watch had previously been. The two figures that they made for Mary’s Coronation appear to have been wheeled out most years for the past 500 or so to join the celebrations. Over time they have become a part of the city’s folklore. The name ‘Gogmagog’ has split in half and the two figures are now known as Gog and Magog.
Enterprising Londoners added to the Folklore. By 1728, Elkanah Settle’s New History of the Trojan Wars and Troy’s Destruction added a new layer of myths. The Guildhall was now said to be the remains of Brutus’s ancient palace. Brutus had led two giants, Gog and Magog, in chains into London after his victory. He set them as porters at his door, and the effigies remained in the guildhall forever as tokens of the victory of man over giant.
Of course, they’ve been rebuilt a few times since then. They were rebuilt once in the early eighteenth century, and another time after they were burned by German bombs in the blitz.