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A New Quill For Old John Stow

April 4, 2014
by the gentle author

Let me confess, I am a biro writer. I get through so many pens at such a rate that there really is no alternative. Yet in the case of my illustrious predecessor, John Stow, one the earliest historians of London, a quill is his preferred writing instrument and, every five years, a replacement is delivered upon a satin cushion to his monument in St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London.

This week it was time was for a new quill, so Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined the excited crowds to witness the Lord Mayor of London put it into the hand of John Stow at a ceremony honouring the work of this celebrated antiquarian.

John Stow was a tailor born in 1525, who struggled to keep himself while writing, yet successfully undertook his epic Survey of London between 1560 and 1598, describing the streets, buildings, history, culture and people of his City. In Stow’s lifetime the population of the London quadrupled, going from 50,000 to 200,000, and he saw the churches ransacked of their medieval monuments and brasses with the names of the dead erased. As a parishioner of St Andrew Undershaft, he witnessed the great maypole taller than the tower – and from which the church takes its name – torn down and discarded as an idol.

In the Survey of London, John Stow recorded more than fifteen hundred names of Londoners who would otherwise have been condemned to oblivion, rescuing their identities in perpetuity while omitting the names of those did the damage, that they might be forgotten. Through his writing, Stow sought to preserve the memory of the world that he saw passing away and, in doing so, he created the most complete record we have of medieval and renaissance London.

John Stow’s monument was placed upon the wall in the corner of the church by his widow after his death in 1605, just six years after the publication of the great Survey by which we remember him and, thankfully, his memorial has avoided the fate of the medieval brasses and tombs which caused Stow such grief in his lifetime.

Thus, today and for eternity, John Stow sits snug in his marble cubicle in a quiet corner of St Andrew Undershaft, lost in thought, with a large book open in front of him on his desk and two other small volumes conveniently placed upon brackets on either side, for ease of reference. Old Stow writes in silence and no-one knows what he is working on. But now he has a new quill to keep him going for another few years and, after four centuries, we hope that he might complete another volume of his Survey one day – because the pace of change has not abated in London.

John Stow (1525-1605)

St Andrew Undershaft

Verger, Tom Wright, carries the quill

Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf, with the Master of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, John Price, and Vicar of St Andrew Undershaft, William Taylor

St Andrew Undershaft takes its name from a great maypole that once stood here, taller than the tower

John Stow with his new quill

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

18 Responses leave one →
  1. April 4, 2014

    It’s good that John Stow and his work is remembered by this tradition. If he were writing today he would be able to fill many books. Valerie

  2. April 4, 2014

    It would be interesting what he would be writing now. Is it different today or was it the same then? When he started it was in the reign of Elizabeth I and finished under the reign of James VI. It was also the time of the persecution of Mary Queen of Scots. Fascinating when you connect history with his time of writing.

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 4, 2014

    80 was a very great age, for those days, though London would not have been as unhealthy, then, as it was to become in the late 17th C.
    Nonetheless, he would have seen & remembered five monarchs: Henry VIII in old, distempered, ill-tempered age, Edward VI, that woman, the Great Queen, & James (VI & I)

  4. April 4, 2014

    I love England — also for its traditions. This one is very special and unique!

    By the way: I also use the biro in general, but exclusively a fountain pen when writing my diary …

    Love & Peace

  5. Barbara permalink
    April 4, 2014

    I would love to see his epic survey – or perhaps a translation into modern English. Does this exist?

  6. Gina Moore permalink
    April 4, 2014

    As a child growing up far away in Singapore, my mother often told me that we were descended from John Stow, who she always described as the ‘first historian of London’, and a beggar who loved his books more than money. Unfortunately she died before anyone thought to ask her how she knew this, or whether it could have been a fanciful notion on her part. Now, in the age of the internet, my cousin has delved into the family genealogy, and found that there were indeed Stows in the family, though we don’t know if they are one and the same. Ironic really, since I so love the idea of it, I’m almost happy to leave it unproven for fear of discovering that it isn’t true.

  7. April 4, 2014

    I can’t find my John Stow, but I am sure it was his survey which writes about the annual ‘Lion Sermon’ in one of the city churches – a thanksgiving bequest of a merchant who escaped death by lion on his travels?? Perhaps you know of it?? Something I read and never followed up.
    Lovely photos of an important ceremony. Thanks.

  8. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    April 4, 2014

    Greg, “That Woman”? I am thrilled to see her so referenced. I have never seen/heard that before. Thank you!

    Barbara, I have a recent paperback of Stow’s Survey, perfectly readable in the original. No need for translation. VERY fascinating, probably more so for an actual Londoner, rather than this London-phile.

  9. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    April 5, 2014

    What a wonderful man – John Stow – and what a superb legacy to leave the world.
    This post has been really great, so thanks again, to you, gentle author.

  10. Nina permalink
    April 5, 2014

    …. a lovely tradition, I never knew about John Stow until I read this so thank you Gentle Author …

  11. April 8, 2014

    This is lovely. I’ll be visiting next week from the U.S., just in time to see the fresh quill!

  12. William John Teaford permalink
    October 12, 2014

    My Mother was a Stowe, a direct descendant of the 1634 US Immigrant John Stowe. In September 1964 while in London visiting my wife’s family, my mother urged us to visit St. Andrew, and the statue of this John Stowe. I and all my Stowe Cousins now have our copies of “London and Environs”, and are delighted to see the church and the statue in such excellent condition. Fifty years ago I was greatly concerned that all, statue, church and all would not long survive. Thank you Londoners for honoring and preserving the story of a simple tradesman who poured his life into a lasting monument to guide us forever.

  13. December 1, 2014

    I live in Salem, Massachusetts, settled in the early 1600s (and yes, where the infamous witchcraft trials took place in 1692); it’s a small city that I dearly love. It has a great maritime, literary and architectural history, but in this time of the 21st century, it is being overshadowed by what some call “urban blight.” Much like London, indeed Spitalfields, it feels we are losing our genuine cultural heritage of this city.

    We have a mayor (she’s in her 40s, born in Hawaii–our 50th state) who went to university here in Salem and decided to stay. Sometimes I think she has no idea whatsoever that more “modern” buildings being built which she authorizes, diminishes and denigrates the beauty and authenticity of this city. Salem-is-not-Las-Vegas-or-Los-Angeles, for heaven sake! (How she keeps getting elected is beyond me.) These modern behemoths chill me to the bone and fairly break my heart. Look, I’m not saying we can’t progress as the years go by, but why must these Soviet bloc type monstrosities laud over our beautiful and original buildings, swallowing them up in an excuse called progress? More’s the pity….

  14. Michael permalink
    September 9, 2016

    I have a copy of John Stow’s summary of the chronicles of england dated 1598 , it is a miniature bound in vellum. I have not seen a further copy on the market for sale and the only thing available is a copy as an e-book. Can anyone tell me if other miniature copies exist to view ?

  15. Michael Bundy permalink
    February 14, 2017

    How apt that the writings of his quill will survive the ravages of the centuries, when even his monument will crumble into dust.

  16. Dolores Gaines permalink
    August 1, 2017

    As a descendant of John Stow, I was thrilled to read this article and see the photos. Thank you!

  17. wayne stowe permalink
    December 3, 2018

    I hope to see in person one day. Maybe 2019 when the new quill comes.

  18. tom permalink
    February 17, 2021

    The real white quill feather reminds me somewhat of Shakespeare’s monument at Stratford on Avon. I wonder if there are other monuments which have such a device? Replaced each year?

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