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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Some people suggest that typos are not a big deal, and that
we should all relax about spelling and grammar. Today’s blog is a cautionary
Ancient Roman authors tell us that the ancient British tribe that lived in the London area was called the Trinobantes. (If you want to learn more about the real history of early London, I have blogged about it here).
It only took a small typo in medieval manuscript tradition
for that to become Troinovantes, which happens to mean ‘New Trojans’.
The first known person to make this spelling mistake was a Welsh monk and historian, Nennius, who was writing in about 830 A.D. He stated that the Britons were New Trojans, but was a bit hazy on the actual details. How exactly had these Trojans got here?
The British Isles was crying out for a historian with enough guts, enough storytelling verve and enough of a disregard for basic facts to tell us more about these Trojans. Finally, around the year 1140, one Geoffrey of Monmouth answered the call.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a historian who never met a tale he considered too tall. Only Geoffrey of Monmouth could take a small spelling mistake and spin it into a national epic.
His History of the Kings of Britain is best known
today for giving us Arthur and his wizard Merlin in some of their earliest
recognizable forms. But the earlier parts of his chronicle are, if anything,
even more exciting and even more action packed.
Today I want to retell the story of Brutus of Troy,
the geographically confused Trojan who allegedly founded London. Throughout the
middle ages, London was very proud of its Trojan legend – apparently there was
even a proposal in the 1380s to rename the city ‘Little Troy’.
It all began with the Trojan war. So many great storytellers
have already covered this topic, and I really can’t claim to do it justice here.
The Greeks went to war with the Trojans and fought for ten long years outside
the city walls. It was a war so epic that the Greek poet Homer literally wrote an
epic about it (The Illiad).
Facing a stalemate, the Greeks gave the Trojans a peace
offering of a gigantic wooden horse. The Trojans were happy to accept it:
little did they know that Greek soldiers were hiding in its belly. That night,
the soldiers escaped and sacked the city. Most of the Trojans were either
slaughtered or enslaved
The very same night, visions of the dead appeared to Aeneas, prince of Troy. Get out, they warned him, while you still can! Aeneas and his family scrambled to the harbour, which was lit by the fire of the burning city. They took a small boat and sailed sadly onwards. They would go on to have a journey so epic that Roman poet Virgil literally wrote an epic about it (The Aeneid).
They found a new home in Italy. There Aeneas married a princess and founded a dynasty of Kings. Decades later, these Italian Trojans would go on to found the city of Rome.
Brutus, the cursed child
We pick up the story with Aeneas’s grandson, Prince Silvius.
Silvius had just knocked up a woman, out of wedlock. The royal soothsayers were
asked: would it be a boy or a girl.
The reply came: the child would be a boy. But that boy had a
terrible fate awaiting him. He would slay both of his parents and live a life
of exile. (The royal soothsayers were apparently happy to answer questions that
no one had asked).
Silvius didn’t like this message. But the pregnancy proved
long and complicated. A boy was born, but his mother perished. The first part
of the prophecy had come true.
He named the boy Brutus. There were whispers in the court about the curse carried by this child. But Silvius ignored them. It had to be a coincidence? Silvius raised Brutus to be a prince and taught him all of the arts of war and princely behaviour.
When Brutus was fifteen years old, his father took him
hunting in the woods. The two became separated. Brutus sent an arrow whistling
through the undergrowth to strike his pray. Unwittingly, he struck his own father
There was no one in Italy now to protect young Brutus. He
was driven out, exiled and forced to seek out his fortune and livelihood alone.
Knights, Trojan Slaves
Brutus was a prince no more. But he still has his training
in war, hunting and princely manners. He became a knight errant and wandered
His travels took him to Greece, where he served under the mighty King Pandrasus. Brutus performed great feats of honour and fought in many battles. He built up riches in spoils of war, but then gave them away to the fighting men, ensuring his popularity. He met with wise sages and learned from them. In some ways he was living a charmed life. But there was something troubling him.
Wherever he went, slaves flocked to his side. They were the
decedents of the Trojans, the once might people brought low by war. The slaves
were excited to see one of their own, living life as a prince. They begged him
to free them. But he could do nothing.
A squabble erupted at the court of King Pandrasus. One of
the nobles, Assacarus, was half Trojan. His enemies argued that Assacarus had no
right to be a noble or hold castles and property. Assacarus was being pushed to
the edge. He appealed to Brutus for help. This squabble would lead to out and
Battle for Freedom
Brutus and Assacarus rallied the slaves. Seven thousand
flocked to them. They had to turn this rag-tag bunch into a functioning army.
They took up station in the woods near Assacarus’s castle and adopted guerrilla
Brutus delivered a letter to Pandrasus: To Pandrasus, king of the Greeks, I Brutus leader of the Trojans send greetings. Although we are an ancient and noble people, we have chosen to live as if primitive people in the woods. This is because is better to live simply and to be free than to live in palaces as a slave. If this offends your power then please forgive us; but freedom and dignity is what every slave desires. If you can accept this, then let us live out our lives in peace in the secluded glades of the forest; or else let us leave your country. If not, then prepare for war.
Pandrasus gathered his army and marched towards Assacarus’s castle.
The Greeks had the siege engines, the wealth and more men. Brutus knew that in
a conventional war, the Trojans didn’t have a chance. He had to find a way to even
Instead the Trojans melted into the woods. They pounced when the Greeks least expected it and pinned them against a river. Some drowned, many were killed. The Trojans took many prisoners, including the king’s own brother, Antigonus.
The war was now personal for King Pandrasus. He pressed on his
remaining forces and besieged the fortress of Assacarus. The Greeks settled in for
A few days later, something unexpected happened. A Greek
noble who had been captured by Trojans showed up. ‘We escaped’, he said. ‘But
Antigonus is injured. Come and help me move him’. The noble led the best of the
King’s guard into the dark of the wood. And there, Brutus fell on them.
The Greeks were badly weakened. Brutus calculated: one
last push and we can win this. In the dead of the night, the Trojans
attacked the royal camp from three directions at once. The Greeks were sleeping
and barely had time to find their weapons. The king was captured. Victory
belonged to the Trojans.
Brutus was now in possession both of the King and of his
brother. With these two valuable lives he could buy the freedom of an entire
The Trojans had to work out what they wanted to ask for.
Some suggested that they should demand a half or a third of the kingdom. Brutus
however was sceptical: Trojans and Greeks have fought together so often. If
we stay here, won’t we just end up fighting this war again?
Brutus proposed a more radical scheme: the Greeks would give treasure and ships to the Trojans. The Trojans would agree to leave and to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Their agreement with the Greeks was to be sealed with a marriage between Brutus and Pandrasus’ daughter, Innogene.
The deal was signed, and Brutus led the Trojans into exile. Poor
Innogene was led away from her people and the land she knew. Geoffrey tells us
that she climbed to the highest part of the ship and stared at the horizon.
Once Greece passed out of site, she swooned with grief into Brutus’s arms.
A few days later the landed on Lefkada. In ancient times there had been a city here, but now the buildings were fading into the forest. Poking out of the forest was a temple to the Goddess Diana. Brutus made offerings there, and asked the goddess the most important question: where should we Trojans settle? By the magic of the place, the goddess’s image replied. Diana said that there was a place at the ends of the world, the island of Albion, which would be perfect place to build a new Troy.
Back on the high seas, the crew passed many obstacles – so
many that I won’t describe them all. They landed Africa, had a run in with some
Sirens, and fought in a civil war in Aquitaine in the South of France.
Only one of these adventures is important to the plot. In somewhere around Italy (Geoffrey’s geography is a bit hazy on geography) they came across a lost colony of Trojans. They were led by Corineus, a man of huge strength and remarkable skill at war. He was in every way Brutus’s equal, and joined the crew as deputy leader.
The Trojans sailed on towards the lands on the edge of the
known world. In the year 1136 B.C. they finally reached the shores of the
island of Albion. They landed, according to tradition, on the site of the modern
town of Totness.
Giants of Albion
To understand what happened next, we need to backtrack about
two and a half centuries and re-locate to Syria. There was a mighty king in
that country named Diocletian. He tried very hard to have a male heir. He had
thirty daughters instead. Of these thirty daughters, we only know the name of
the eldest: Albina.
Diocletian married off his daughters to the greatest and most ambitious men. He hoped to find his male heir amongst the in laws. These princes ended up spending more time trying to curry favour with their father in law than the did trying to impress their own wives.
Understandably, the thirty daughters were quite annoyed with their men. Less understandably, they decided to mass murder their husbands all in one night.
Diocletian was revolted. He cursed his daughters and had
them imprisoned on a boat. He had the rudder and sails cut so that they could
not steer, and then set them adrift. They drifted for days until they were
wrecked on the shores of an uninhabited island. Albina leapt off the boat first
and claimed the land as her own. Henceforth it would always be known as Albion,
in her honour.
At first the women lived off gathering nuts, vegetables and fruits. However, after a while they learned to hunt. In medieval thought, meat was closely associated with lust. These thirty women were stranded without the company of men, and were cursed by all mankind. The women took a desperate step: they summoned daemons and had sex with them. Nine month later, this resulted in half-daemon babies. These cursed children became the race of Giants.
This story has really been a long way of telling you that
Albion was not abandoned. It was the home of a fearsome race of giants, born of
the union between cursed murderesses and spooky sex daemons.
Britain, Founding London
The Trojans landed at Totness. Brutus was the first to touch
the land. He named in Britain, after himself. They set ashore and drove the
shocked giants into retreat. Corineus proved to be a masterful giant slayer.
Brutus lands and battles giants
The giants were not yet vanquished. They gathered together
under the leadership of the greatest and most terrifying of the giants, named
Gogmagog. He was so huge and so strong that he could pluck up an oak tree as
though it were a stick.
One day, when the Trojans were holding festivities for the
Gods, Gogmagog led a part of twenty giants in a sneak attack. At first the Trojans
were slaughtered. But Brutus then rallied his men and they turned the tide.
Eventually, every giant lay dead save Gogmagog.
Gogmagog would have a different ending. Brutus set up a
grand gladiator tournament. Corineus and Gogmagog would wrestle, to the death.
If Corineus won, he would become Duke of a province.
The fight was fearsome. At first Gogmagog had the upper hand. He squeezed Corineus so hard that three of his ribs shattered. Corineus bellowed in pain and hoisted up the Giant. Gogmagog was tossed high in the air, over the cliff and was dashed on the rocks in the sea.
The death of the King of the Giants was a momentous occasion. The Trojans were now in charge of the whole island. They could make their new Troy.
Brutus scoured the island for the perfect location. He found
it on the Thames river. There he erected a mighty city with a grand palace,
which would later (some say) become the London Guildhall. He erected a temple
to Diana, which would later be turned into St Paul’s Cathedral. He also raised
up the first walls and towers around the city. He endowed the city with all of
the rights, liberties and governing structures associated with old Troy.
He named it Troy Novant, or new Troy. But we call it London. By this reckoning, London was founded a little before Rome!
There, King Brutus and Queen Innogene became the first King
and Queen of Britain. They founded a long line of Kings who would rule through
to the time of King Arthur.
And I hope, if you’ve reached the end of this blog, that you
begin to understand why Londoners though it was worth claiming to have
been founded by Brutus of Troy. He was high born, but was rejected by his family.
Brutus was a chivalric hero, but one who fought dirty. He was privileged, yet
he fought for slaves. He was a sort of valiant mash up of Spartacus, Odysseus,
King Arthur and the Mayflower pilgrims.
About this series: In the period I work on – fifteenth century
London – Londoners had developed all sorts of legends and myths and had lots of
ways of retelling their past. These histories fascinate me and are my main
topic of research. However, in this series I am investigating the truth or
fiction behind some of those myths.
This post concludes a four-part miniseries where I investigate London’s early history, pre 800 A.D.
We don’t have much good knowledge of Anglo-Saxon pagan
religion. We know the names of their principal Gods: Wodin, king of the Gods;
Tiw, a god associated with heroic glory, war, and law; and Thunor, the god of
Thunder. We assume that their mythology was similar to the better recording
legends of the Scandinavians, with Odin Wodin being Odin and Thunor being Thor.
Anglo-Saxons didn’t build temples but preferred to worship outdoors. Judging
from archaeology they were fond of adopting ancient British and Roman places of
worship such as old standing stones, and also liked to worship around trees or
In 604 a man arrived in the city named Mellitus. He was part of a great mission, authorised by the Pope, sent to convert the people of England. Mellitus set himself up as apostle to the men of Essex, and installed himself as bishop of London. He probably spent a lot of time at the royal court, but the building of a new Cathedral must have provided jobs and stirred interest in the city.
St Paul’s was probably raised on its current site – that is inside the old walls of the Roman city, at a time when most Londoners lived outside of the walls. Mellitus was making a powerful claim that the church was bringing back the Roman glory days. Early Christians would have had to traipse in to the old ruined city, through the old city wall in order to worship – this must have been a daunting experience!
Perhaps it was too daunting, because the first generation of
the mission didn’t go very well. In 616 the Christian king, Saebert, died and
his three pagan sons took over. Bede claims that burst in on Mellitus whilst he
was trying to say mass at his Cathedral:
“And when they saw the bishop, whilst celebrating mass in the church, give the eucharistic bread to the people, they, puffed up with barbarous folly…[said]… to him, ‘Why do you not give us also that white bread, which you used to give to our father Saebert, and which you still continue to give to the people in the church?’
To them, the Bishop answered, ‘If you will be washed in that water of salvation, in which your father was washed, you may also partake of the holy bread of which he partook; but if you despise the water of life, you may not receive the bread of life.’”
(Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 2, chapter 5, here )
The pagans were outraged. They wanted the magic bread, and they weren’t going to wash for it! If these quarrelsome Christians were going to make a massive fuss and disobey the kings for something as minor as a piece of bread, then they must be troublemakers! They ran Bishop Mellitus out of town and for thirty years the Cathedral stood empty.
Christianity was down, but it was not out. There were several decades where London could have gone either way, but by the 660s, the Christian King Sebbi expelled his pagan brother and restored Christianity. Sebbi was so pious that later he would abdicate his throne and retire to a monastery. He had a particularly strong partnership with a pious monk named Earconwald. Nowadays you’ll commonly see it spelled ‘Erkenwald’, which is the middle English version of the same name.
Rather handily, Earconwald would later become a saint and have legends written about him. Much of the rest of this blog post relies on the twelfth century life of St Erkenwald written by Arcoid of London: The Saint of London: The Life and Miracles of St Erkenwald, ed. E. Gordon Whatley, (Binghampton, 1989).
With Sebbi’s help, Earconwald set about rebuilding Christianity. He first founded Chertsey abbey for monks. Next, Earconwald’s sister Ethelburga founded Barking abbey for nuns.
Finally, in around 675 Earconwald got a promotion and became Bishop of London. He liked to be seen in public and to preach to the people – so much so that, even when he was too old and frail to walk, he had a horse litter built so that he could still preach in the streets. According to a much later (and not very reliable) story, once a wheel fell off his litter but the vehicle carried on travelling smoothly as if nothing had happened! The people apparently appreciated his common touch and his sense of charity, and Christianity flourished under his rule – or at least so his late biographers tell us.
The unlikely tale of the stolen body
He was staying at Barking abbey, with his sister and the nuns, when illness finally took him. His later biographer tells us that “as he passed from among them, a most marvellous fragrance and sweetest odour filled the cell where he lay, as if the whole house were drenched in perfume” (Vita of St Erkenwald, 91).
What a sweet end. What came next however, spoiled it. Two separate crowds turned up at the same time to claim the body: one was made up of monks from Chertsey, the monastery that Earconwald had founded. The other was a large crowd of ordinary people from London, led by the canons of St Paul’s. Both sides wanted to take the cold, dead Earconwald back with them to be buried
There was an ugly stand off in the yard: nasty names were
called and the Londoners broke into the nunnery. A crowd of laymen grabbed the
body and legged it! The monks and nuns set out in hot pursuit, “weeping and
wailing for the body of the blessed man” (Vita, 91). The chase was on!
As if there was not enough melodrama in this tale, a storm
began to gather. The rain lashed down, the wind “was so violent that people
could scarcely stand upright” (Vita, 91). The candles around the body were
blown out. As the chase tried to cross the river Hile, also known as the River
Roding, the waters surged up and blocked their paths forwards and backwards.
Still the two parties fought each other. But then, from amongst the Londoners stood up a learned and devout man who cried out that they must stop. This ridiculous chase had gone on long enough and was angering God. Everyone had to lie on the floor, pray for forgiveness, and let God decide.
This seemed a sensible enough suggestion and they all did so. Quickly the storm passed, and all of the candles around the body spontaneously lit themselves. The river lowered and presented them with their path back to London. Earconwald was going back to St Paul’s! God had spoken: Earconwald was a Londoner, through and through!
The monks and nuns didn’t miss out completely though. Earconwald’s horse litter – the one that did the wheel miracle earlier in the story – was given to Barking. It was quickly found that if an ill person took a ride on the chariot then they would become miraculously better. It quickly became a tidy little money spinner, and the monks took some pieces of the chariot back to Chertsey with them.
Both Earconwald and Sebbi were buried in St Paul’s Cathedral
and they quickly became the focus of saints’ cults and pilgrimages. This local
mania for miracles and relics is really the first evidence that Londoners were
becoming properly enthusiastic about Christianity. The new religion had found
I’ve set up Chronicles of London to blog about Medieval and early modern London. For my research I work on 1400-1550 so expect to see that period well represented. I also want to expand my comfort zone so will range backwards and forwards from 600 to the Great Fire of 1666. I’m especially interested in history, literature and learning.
On this blog I want to try to explore the reality of life in the pre-modern city.
Another particular interest will be the Literature of London. Historians sometimes act as though the Tudors invented the idea of writing about cities. I want to show that there was a long and fascinating tradition of writing about London. I will retell, and where appropriate translate, some of the best literature of London.
I will also do series on Myths and Legends. This will cover what Londoners thought about their own past. It will cover their parades, statues, law books, chronicles, literatur and any other ways that Londoners used to talk about the history of London.