Remembering the founding father of London history at the John Stow Quill Ceremony

John Stow

Today, I had the honour of attending the John Stow Quill Ceremony at St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London.

A renowned author, historian and antiquarian: we Londoners owe much to John Stow, as was acknowledged in this very special ceremony. But first, who was this man whose legacy endures to this day and who we now think of as the founding father of London history?

Born in around 1525, the son of a tallow chandler, John Stow grew up in Cornhill – in the heart of the City of London. Rather than following in his father’s footsteps, Stow became an apprentice, and in due course a freeman, of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, eventually setting up business close to Leadenhall Street. In 1570, he moved to the parish of St Andrew Undershaft – in whose church the ceremony was held.

A man of many interests (and talents), Stow eventually embarked upon a writing career during which he would pen publications including ‘The woorkes of Geffrey Chaucer’, ‘Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles”, ‘A Generale Chronicle of England from Brute until the present yeare of Christ 1580’ and ‘Historia brevis of Thomas Walsingham’. Today, some of Stow’s manuscripts reside in the British Library and in Lambeth Palace Library.

However, the work for which Stow is probably best known is his ‘Survey of London’, which was published in 1598 and provides a unique and detailed account of the buildings, social conditions and customs of London during Tudor times. Proving just how vital a document it is, Stow’s ‘Survey’ has remained in continuous print since then.

Turning to today’s venue, St Andrew Undershaft, there has been a place of worship on this site since the 12th century, but the present church was almost completely rebuilt in 1532, during Henry VIII’s reign. Most of its Tudor furnishings remain intact to this day, the church having survived both the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz (it also survived an IRA bomb in 1992). The church owes its unusual name to the fact that, during the Middle Ages, a large maypole was set up opposite the church every spring – meaning that the church stood literally “under the shaft” of the maypole.

Hans Holbein resided in the parish and attended services here; more pertinently, this is where John Stow was buried, in 1605. Following his death, Stow’s wife commissioned a mural monument to her husband in the church. This contains an effigy of Stow, seated at a desk, writing in a book and surrounded by other books. The figure holds a real quill pen – the reason why we are here today. Every three years, the pen is replaced with a new one by either the Lord Mayor of London or the Master Merchant Taylor, as part of a special ceremony, organised by the Merchant Taylors’ Company and the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society LAMAS), dedicated to the memory of John Stow.

Commencing proceedings, a procession formed of the Verger, Churchwarden, Officers of LAMAS, the Master and Clerk of the Merchant Taylor’s Company and the Rector of St Helen’s Bishopgate filed into the church, arriving at Stow’s monument. Following some prayers, the Alderman Mr Robert Howard gave a reading, which was followed by an address from the church’s chaplain, the Reverend William Taylor. The Replacing of the Quill then began and was carried out by the Master Merchant Taylor, preceded by a monologue by Taryn Nixon, President of LAMAS. The ceremony concluded with a blessing.

It was a simple ceremony – but all the more moving for that. John Stow himself led a simple life; although his writings earned him a great deal of recognition during his lifetime, Stow never earned much money from them. Fitting, then, that Londoners should continue to remember him and his work in this way, respecting Stow’s memory and thanking him for all he did for our amazing city.

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