During the Middle Ages (5th Century to 15th Century), Highbury was involved in several major events. We look at the first, a possible battle in Highbury Vale between Saxons and Vikings in 800, on the ‘Vikings at the Bottom of Our Gardens?’ page. Change swept over the country in 1066, with the invasion of William of Normandy. The new king gave land that became known as Highbury to one of his men, & the European feudal system was imposed on all living here. In 1381 the imposition of the Poll Tax sparked off the violent Peasants’ Revolt, in which Highbury played its part.
It is 5th January 1066 when Edward the Confessor, Saxon King of England, passes away. His successor, Harold Godwinson, is crowned King in Westminster Abbey the following day, 6th January 1066. Soon after the coronation King Harold marches north with his army to quell a Scandinavian invasion in York, leaving behind a militia of men & vessels to protect the south coast. The King is occupied in the north for months; the force guarding southern England remains in place till the end of August, when it disperses.
On 24th September King Harold & his army overwhelm Scandinavian forces at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. On 1st October, still recovering from battle, they learn that Duke William of Normandy has invaded England’s south coast. Harold & his army then march south until they meet William’s forces near Hastings on 14th October 1066. Saxons fight Normans from around 9am to dusk, but when King Harold is killed the battle ends. William of Normandy effectively becomes King of England, & English history is changed forever.
William’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux & Earl of Kent, commissions a great tapestry to record the invasion. It is created in England & becomes known as the Bayeux Tapestry. It shows events leading up to the invasion – tree felling, shipbuilding, the appearance of Halley’s Comet in spring 1066 being explained to Harold by an astrologer – & it shows the battle itself, with Saxons v Normans.
For an animated view of the Battle of Hastings on the internet, tap into Bayeux filmpje at
The new King & his followers set about imposing the European Feudal system on the Britons. Feudalism was a way of life in which everyone owed loyalty to one higher up: serfs, bound to the manor, owed loyalty to their lord. Knights owed loyalty to their lord. The church, & the lord, owed loyalty to the king, & the king owed loyalty to God.
“In much of feudal Europe, a land was organised into manors. At its simplest, a manor was made up of a big house, where a noble or knight lived, his home farm, called the demesne, and the surrounding fields, woods and pasture…”
Fiona Macdonald, Everyday Life in the Middle Ages, Macdonald Educational 1984
People of the Middle Ages . http://www.themiddleages.net/people_middle_ages.html
British land is allocated: 25% to the new king & 25% to the church, with the remainder divided among those who have been loyal to William, & others.
King William grants Highbury & the land surrounding it to Ranulf (Shield Wolf). The land, including Tolla’s Hill, an ancient right of way, becomes known as the Manor of Tolentone, with Ranulf the first Lord of the Manor.
Tolentone Manor covers more land than today’s Highbury. It stretches from Vicarage Path on Crouch Hill/Mount Pleasant above Parkland Walk, down through Stroud Green, Highbury Hill & Newington Green to Ball’s Pond Road, & across Essex Road to Basire Street. Today’s Highbury & part of the Hackney Brook are within the Tolentone boundary.
Map drawn from description, History of Highbury, Keith Sugden
Ranulf’s Land : Hackney Brook
Ranulf’s land is crossed by a river, the Hackney Brook. It flows west to east across what is now Highbury Vale, down present-day Isledon Rd along Gillespie Rd to Riversdale Rd. It crosses Clissold Park to Abney Park & flows on to the River Lea. ‘Hackney’ is from ‘Haca’s Ey’ – (Haca, a Danish name – and Ey, an island)
Islington The First 2000 Years
In London’s Lost Rivers, Paul Talling investigates waterways that once flowed freely through London but have been overwhelmed by its growth. He lists the Hackney Brook as a tributary of the River Lea. Flowing freely in the days of Ranulf, it is now contained in an underground pipe. The book has a Google map (left) showing the Hackney Brook’s full course superimposed in blue over today’s road network.
The author conducts guided walks of London’s lost rivers, streams, canals, docks & wharves, much enjoyed by those who have gone on one. Tickets, limited to 20 per walk, usually sell out months in advance. See website for the guided walks mailing list.
London’s Lost Rivers by Paul Talling (ISBN: 9781847945976)
“The time estimate of walks is very rough as I’m in no hurry & these usually result in a social in the pub afterwards. These walks go ahead regardless of the weather – rain or shine, heatwave or arctic conditions! Please note that they are wholly above ground & there will be no subterranean trips down to the sewers! … I have public liability insurance. Well behaved dogs & children are welcome on all tours.” Paul Talling
In the newly created Manor of a millenium ago, Ranulf builds his Manor House. It sits inside a moat on the east side of what is now Hornsey Road, at Tolentone’s northwest boundary. The new Lord of the Manor lives here, with his serfs, in Tolentone House.
The everyday work of feudal law takes place in the Manor House. Manor Court is held several times a year, either in Tolentone House or in the open air. Those not attending it are fined. Here, presided over by the Lord’s reeve or steward, decisions are made about taxes owed to the Lord, work not being properly done, the inheritance of land or the granting of permission to leave the Manor.
Over two hundred years go by, with feudalism now an intrinsic part of British society. In 1271 the Manor House of Tolentone & three hundred wooded acres are given by Lady Alicia de Barowe to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (The Hospitallers), an extremely wealthy priory based in Clerkenwell.
The Priory of St John is a self-contained community, with its own orchards and vineyards, a brewery & a distillery, livestock, an armoury, ships on the Fleet, & workers: millers, brewers, pharmacists, attorneys, clerks & others.
The Knights of St John look after travelers to the holy land, providing an escort from Clerkenwell to Jerusalem. The Hospitallers tend to their ailments & wounds, & the Knights Templar provide the military escort for their journey.
In 1300 a new manor house is built on the hilltop site of High Burh to replace Tolentone House. It becomes known as Highbury Manor, with Tolentone House now called The Lower Place.
This move, from one manor house to another, happened elsewhere in the Middle Ages. As a village grew in size around its manor house, with the public coming & going to Manor Court, the roads around it would have become steadily worse. Building a new Manor House some distance from the old one set it apart from the population it served. Surrounding it with a moat gave it even more gravitas, & nearby Barnesbury Manor, Canonbury Manor & Holloway Manor were all surrounded by moats.
Sir Robert de Hales, 47, becomes Grand Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, making him “…the third most influential man in England, second only to the king & the Archbishop of Canterbury. Prior Hales was not only an administrative dynamo, but also an active organiser of fleets & naval expeditions.”
As the new Lord of Highbury Manor, Prior Hales rebuilds its modest Manor House. The replacement is more grandiose than its predecessor. Canon John Milton of Leicester writes: “He constructed afresh the manor house of Highbury & made it as elegant as the alternative Paradise, as good as the Garden of Eden”. The Manor House may have been filled with tapestries, Greek sculptures, fine furniture & jewels from Prior Hales’ travels to the Middle East.
Keith Sugden, History of Highbury
There is a war on with France, the Hundred Years’ War. To pay for it, Parliament and the King levy a ‘hearth tax‘, the Poll Tax – a charge of fourpence (one groat) per person, to be paid by everyone in the country. A second Poll Tax follows in 1379. A third, of a shilling a head, is levied in 1380 to be collected a year later from everyone, rich or poor, over the age of 15. The Lord Treasurer resigns. Prior Hales is appointed Lord Treasurer in his place, & it falls to him to collect the latest Poll Tax.
Since 1300, the weather has worsened across the country & crops have failed. The Black Death has killed nearly half of the population. Those who remain, grieving for lost family and friends, must still find the money to pay the Poll Tax.
Prior Hales, his tax collectors & their methods are all reviled. Canon John Milton of Leicester writes of Prior Hales: ‘he is among the most magnanimous and energetic of Knights but he does not please the community.’
(…’as we shall see...’Keith Sugden )
Prior Hales’ ruthless tax collectors were diverting money to their own coffers: ‘The kyng therof had smalle’.
The peasants begin to act on their anger. Tax collectors are attacked, first in Essex, then in Kent. There is looting, arson & murder. Workers who wish to protest about the Poll Tax gather for a march to London. Jack Straw leads the Essex protesters. On 7th June, Wat Tyler & his followers from Kent reach Canterbury. They open Maidstone prison, freeing John Ball, the radical ‘peasants’ cleric’ imprisoned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, & march on to London, attracting others along the way.
On 7th June John Ball preaches an open air sermon at Blackheath near Greenwich : “Our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men… Now the time is come … in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
On 13th June the rebels cross London Bridge & turn west, joined by Londoners. They set fire to the palace of John of Gaunt (the King’s uncle), the Savoy & Fleet Prison. They attack & sack the Priory of St John of Jerusalem (the Hospitallers) at Clerkenwell. The fire burns for days.
The Lord Treasurer of England, Grand Prior Sir Robert de Hales takes refuge in the Tower of London with Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury, Chancellor of the Exchequer. After a day’s siege, the rebels finally break in; the Archbishop, the Grand Prior, John of Gaunt’s physician & John Legge, who had devised the Poll Tax, are all seized, dragged off to Tower Hill & beheaded. Their heads are stuck on pikes & carried in triumph around the city.
On the day following his death 20,000 rebels, including one of his own servants, march to Prior Hales’ Highbury Manor House; they sack & burn it. Robert Hales was Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitaller, whose ‘haughtiness, ambition and excessive riches’ offended the common people. *His association with the Poll Tax & the ruthless methods of his tax gatherers meant that he “provided something like a flashpoint for the mob’s fury”.
Highbury Manor Burns
Never mind the perspective – feel the anger! In this sparrow’s eye view from the Highbury Barn side of the road, the Manor House would have faced its farm across the narrow road, with a moat all around it.
The Peasants’ Revolt spreads to other parts of the country; St Albans, Bury St Edmunds, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire. It eventually ends with its leaders executed. Wat Tyler is killed at Smithfield, at a meeting between the 14-year old King Richard II and the rebels; his head is removed, stuck on a pike & displayed on London Bridge. John Ball is tried, hung, drawn & quartered & his head stuck on a pike on London Bridge.
For over 300 years the great Manor House, now known ironically as ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’, lies in ruins.
This black and white copy of a watercolour map of the area is from History of Highbury. Commissioned by landowner John Austen, drawn by John Johnson & dated 1718, it shows Church Path meeting present-day Highbury Grove. The Manor’s farm, Highbury Barn, sits on the upper side of the road facing the enormous moated site where the Manor House had been.
Two remnants of the old moat become part of Victorian Highbury Barn’s Pleasure Gardens, as shown in the cover, right, of History of Highbury.
There was a fashion, in grand gardens of the time, called The Picturesque. ‘Ruins’, newly built, would be made to look weathered & ancient. Highbury Barn Pleasure Grounds had its own ready-made ruin from the sacking of its great Manor House.
Shops now face each other across Highbury Grange, where the Manor House & its farm stood centuries ago. Behind the shops, the Manor House land is covered with streets and houses. In 2010 the first Islington People’s Plaque was unveiled by former Member of Parliament Tony Benn and Islington Councillor Catherine West to mark the Peasants’ Revolt 1381. The plaque sits on the western wall of the Highbury Barn Tavern.
Tony Benn: ” ‘The Peasants Revolt’ was one of the early examples of a long series of public campaigns to secure freedom and democracy in Britain… a great moment in our long political history.”
Cllr Catherine West: ” It’s important that we acknowledge the events, people and organisations that have made their mark on Islington – whether hundreds of years ago or in more recent times. Although the revolt failed to achieve its stated aims, it succeeded in showing the nobles that the peasants were dissatisfied and that they were capable of wreaking havoc.”
Has anything of the Manor House survived? Could any of the interior furnishings have been interred in the ground over the years…? This could be a job for Timeteam!
Keith Sugden gives us, street by street, the direct route the protesters could have taken from St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell, which would have been still alight, to Highbury via what was known in the Middle Ages as Frog Lane.
This important walk in our local history would have been a wet, squidgy trek for all concerned. The name Frog Lane remained through the Middle ages until, it seems, Victorian times when streets were laid down and terraced housing built over this area and the rest of Islington.
The Hospitallers are St John’s Ambulance now, involved in humanitarian projects worldwide and most visible in the UK helping the runners at the annual London Marathon.
St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell (dating to 1504) survives the fire which consumes the rest of the Priory. Along with the Priory Church of St John, it now comprises the Museum of the Order of St John. It has a website,
and is on facebook and twitter.
The Village in History, Graham Nicholson and Jane Fawcett, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Guild Publishing, The National Trust, 1988.
Medieval life in Britain comes alive in this book. Highbury Manor, surrounded by villages, was part of the same medieval feudal system as the rest of the country.
The church played a major part in people’s lives: Parish churches conducted services and kept records of births, deaths and marriages. In addition, each Parish was responsible for the upkeep of the roads within its boundaries. This often amounted, when there were holes in the roads, to getting someone to fill the holes with stones.