Lost London – Alsatia…

November 28, 2014

A Thames-side slum area located between Temple and Whitefriars Street (and south of Fleet Street), an area previously occupied by the Whitefriars Monastery, Alsatia was known as something of a lawless district where residents resisted any intervention by City officials.

The district came into existence following the dissolution of the monastery by King Henry VIII (he apparently gave the buildings and land to his physician Dr William Butts) and the area, despite some initial efforts to build substantial houses there, eventually degenerated into an overcrowded slum (apparently even when the priory was still existent, some of the surrounding areas had been somewhat disreputable).

The right of sanctuary apparently existed in the area which meant that debtors and criminals who entered gained immunity from arrest while they remained here.

Authorities were certainly loathe to enter the district given the strength which residents showed in resisting any attempts to grab hold of wanted persons and the maze-like narrow thoroughfares of the area and it became mockingly referred to as Alsatia in a reference to Alsace, a much disputed region on the French-German border which was historically outside normal legal jurisdiction.

Among those who took refuge here was Daniel Defoe – he is said to escaped here in 1692 after he was wanted by authorities for writing seditious material.

There were several attempts to clean up the slum but these had little effect (although the Great Fire of London did burn through here in 1666) and in 1608, King James I confirmed the area’s liberties in a formal charter. The rights remained in place until 1697 when they were abolished by an Act of Parliament (along with those of other liberties), although the area maintained its disreputable character for some time after.

Alsatia was mentioned in several books including in Thomas Shadwell’s 1688 play The Square of Alsatia and Sir Walter Scott’s 1822 novel, The Fortunes of Nigel, and the term continued to be used to refer to run-down neighbourhoods until late in the 19th century.

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