January 10, 2017
No sign of Tube turmoil as we look south across the River Thames to The Shard and Southwark. The 95 storey high building is the tallest in London (and the fourth tallest in Europe). PICTURE: Fred Mouniguet/Unsplash
December 2, 2016
Recently added to the National Heritage List for England (or what little remains of it at least), the Hope Playhouse was the last Elizabethan era theatre to be built in Southwark and was designed to be a joint acting venue and bear baiting arena.
The theatre, which opened in about 1614, was built by impresario Philip Henslowe, who had built the Rose Playhouse in 1587 and the Fortune in 1600, and new partners a waterman Jacob Meade and carpenter Gilbert Katherens on a site slightly to the south of the Bear Garden (demolished in 1613) which had previously housed been dog kennels.
Designed deliberately to be similar to The Swan Playhouse in Paris Garden, the stage was apparently located on the south side of the structure with the main entrance located opposite on the riverside of the building. Upper galleries provided more salubrious seating for those who could afford it.
The first play to be staged there was Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, performed by Lady Elizabeth’s Company on 31st October, 1614 – in the play Jonson famously refers to the dual use of the playhouse by likening the smell to that of the animals at Smithfield Market.
The relationship of the theatre with acting, however, was to be short-lived. Bear-baiting and other past-times gradually took over the use of the playhouse despite the fact it had originally been envisaged that animal baiting would only be held on Sundays and Thursdays.
Tensions between the actors and other groups eventually led to Lady Elizabeth’s Company departing the playhouse in 1617, although another company, the Prince Charles’s Men, continued to use it for a few more years). Henslowe, meanwhile, had died in 1616 and his share of the property had passed to his son-in-law (and actor) Edward Alleyn (who was also the founder of the Prince Charles’s Men).
Very few plays were subsequently seen at the playhouse which, by 1620, had become known by the name Bear Garden – a reference to the former property which had stood to the north. Bear and bull-baiting as well as prize-fighting and fencing contests were apparently among the activities carried out there.
The Hope was ordered closed by Parliament in 1643 but survived until 1656 when, during the Civil War, it was closed and dismantled. Industrial buildings, including glass-blowing workshops, were later constructed over the top.
PICTURE: The street known as Bear Gardens in Southwark is near the site of the former Hope Playhouse.
November 30, 2016
Famed as a luxury shopping destination for the rich and famous, Harrods on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge takes its name from founder Charles Henry Harrod.
Harrod first established a drapery business in Southwark in 1824 and in 1832, founded Harrods & Co Grocers in Clerkenwell. Two years later he established another grocery, this time in Stepney, with a particular interest in tea.
In 1849, to capitalise on trade to the upcoming Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, he took over a small shop on the site of the current store – initially with just two assistants and a messenger boy. In 1861 his son, the similarly-named Charles Digby Harrods, took over the business and by 1880, the store was employing more than 100 people offering customers everything from medicines and perfumes to clothing and food and already attracting the wealthy customers it would become known for.
Even the burning down of the store in late 1883, failed to dint its long-term success, and Harrod took the opportunity to build a capacious new building on the site. Designed by Charles Williams Stephens, the building, which wasn’t finished until 1905, featured Art Nouveau windows and was topped with a dome. One of its attractions opened on 16th November, 1898, when it became home to England’s first “moving staircase” (escalator). Nervous customers were apparently offered a brandy once they’d made the journey.
Harrods’ fame continued to grow and over the years a who’s who of London society has been associated with the store – everyone from writers like Oscar Wilde, and AA Milne, actors Ellen Terry, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier and luminaries such as the “father of psychoanalysis” Sigmund Freud and many members of the Royal family.
Under the motto of Omnia Omnibus Ubique (All Things for All People, Everywhere), the store became famous for selling whatever the customer wanted including, thanks to an exotic pets department which lasted up until the 1970s, a lemur called Mah-Jongg which was sold to Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in 1923 and lived with them at Eltham Palace and a lion called Christian to Australian expats John Rendall and Anthony “Ace” Bourke in 1969 (it was later set free in Kenya).
The ownership meanwhile has long since left the Harrods family – Charles Digby had sold his shares as far back as 1889 when the company was floated on the London Stock Exchange and renamed Harrods Stores Limited with Sir Alfred James Newton as chairman and Richard Burbridge as managing director. Burbridge was succeeded by his son in 1917 and he by his son in 1935.
In 1959, the company was bought by House of Fraser and in 1985, the store was sold to the Al-Fayed brothers (Mohamed Al-Fayed famously had two memorials created inside dedicated to Diana, Princess of Wales, and his son Dodi Fayed, both of whom died in a car crash in Paris in 1997. He also decided not to renew the company’s Royal warrants – it has had up to four). Current owners Qatar Holding, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, bought the company in 2010.
The company has opened a number of other Harrods stores over the years – including its only ever foreign branch (long since independent) in Argentina in 1914 and, in 2000, a shop aboard the ship RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.
The Knightsbridge store, meanwhile, has been twice bombed by the IRA – in 1983 when six were killed and scores more injured after a car bomb exploded in an adjoining street and in 1993 when a bomb was placed in a litter bin, injuring four. In 1989, it controversially introduced a dress code, banning casual wear like flip-flops and Bermuda shorts.
Now the largest department store in Europe, the Brompton Road store has more than million square feet of selling floor over seven stories. It attracts some 15 million customers a year to its more than 300 different departments and other facilities including more than 25 restaurants and cafes, a concierge, bank, spa and personal shopping service.
November 1, 2016
The HMS Belfast has marked 45 years since it sailed up the River Thames to its current mooring site off The Queen’s Walk, just to the west of Tower Bridge. The ship, which is Europe’s only surviving World War II cruiser and which, as well as taking part in that conflict, also saw action in the Korean War, opened to the public in 1971. More than nine million people have since visited the ship which features nine decks, all of which are open to sightseers. For more on the ship, see www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast.
October 17, 2016
Of course, the Great Fire of London in 1666 is only one of numerous fires which have occurred in London (although it was no doubt the greatest in terms of destruction). But among others was a fire in 1212 which has been described as London’s worst in terms of the death toll which some have put as high as 3,000 (although it’s generally believed it’s unlikely to have been that high).
The fire, which only came some 77 years after another great conflagration destroyed a stretch of the city reaching from Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1135, began in Southwark on 10th July (hence it’s also known as the Great Fire of Southwark). Crossing London Bridge, it went on to destroy a large part of the City itself.
As well as destroying buildings on London Bridge including houses and the chapel (the structure itself, having recently been rebuilt in stone, survived somewhat intact although it only remained in partial use for some time afterward), also destroyed the Southwark church known as St Mary Overie (precursor to today’s Southwark Cathedral) as well as many buildings around Borough High Street.
There were apparently numerous deaths – the story goes that many of them occurred when a mass of people poured onto London Bridge from the City as they attempted to cross to Southwark to help put out the fire (or perhaps just gawk at it).
They were trapped in the middle of the bridge when, with the south end was already ablaze, the north end caught fire from sparks. As well as suffering fatally from the effects of flames and smoke, people were apparently crushed in panic and others were pushed off the bridge to drown in the River Thames (along with some of the boat crews who tried to rescue them).
And, just as the Great Fire of 1666, the fire of 1212 did result in some building reforms including the placement of a ban on the use of thatch for rooves.
June 20, 2016
Now the name of a dock on Bankside (pictured below), St Mary Overie (also spelt as Overy) also forms part of the formal name of Southwark Cathedral, more properly known as The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.
The simple version of the name’s origins is that it simply means St Mary “over the river” (that is, St Mary on the south side of the Thames) which was used in relation to a priory founded there in the Norman era by two knights (it’s to this foundation that what is now Southwark Cathedral owes its origins, something we’ll take a more detailed look at the nunnery in an upcoming Lost London post).
But there’s also another, more romantic version, of the name’s origins. That story, as it’s told on a plaque located at the dock (pictured above), goes back to before the Norman founding of priory, back to the days when, before the building of London Bridge, a ferry ran between the two banks of the River Thames.
The man responsible for the ferry was John Overs, a “notorious miser”, who decided to save money by feigning his death and thus plunging his household into mourning, saving that day’s provisions. As one may imagine, however, Overs was not a popular man and his servants, instead of fasting in their mourning, held a feast in celebration of his death.
In rage, the old master leapt out of his bed and a servant, terrified and imaging some sort of demonic manifestation, struck him fatally with an oar on the head.
Overs’ daughter, Mary, sent for her lover so that he may come and together with her claim her father’s inheritance but such was his haste, he fell from his horse and broke his neck. So overcome was Mary by her misfortunes that she founded a convent into which she subsequently retired (this was subsequently ‘refounded’ by the two Norman knights).
The dock, meanwhile, is today the berthing place of the Golden Hinde II, a sea-worthy replica of the flagship in which Elizabethan explorer Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe (for more on the ship, see our earlier post here).
May 13, 2016
Launched in 1973, this full-sized, working replica of the galleon sailed by Elizabethan seafarer and courtier Sir Francis Drake on his circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580 is moored at St Mary Overie Dock in Bankside.
The ship was made at the behest of two American businessmen, Albert Elledge and Art Blum, who wished to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Sir Francis Drake’s landing on the west coast of North America in 1579.
The ship was designed by Loring Christian Norgaard, a Californian naval architect, who spent three years researching it, drawing on original journals of the crew members and other manuscripts.
The two year job of building the vessel was given to J Hinks & Son who did so in Appledore, North Devon, using traditional methods and tools (with a few modern concessions).
The ship was officially launched from the Hinks shipyard by the Countess of Devon on 5th April, 1973. She sailed out of Plymouth on her maiden voyage in late 1974 and arrived in San Francisco the following May to commemorate Sir Francis’ proclamation of New Albion at a site believed to have been in northern California in 1579.
Since then, the ship has sailed more than 140,000 miles around the world – like its forebear, it has circumnavigated the world – and been feared in various films including Shogun (1979), Drake’s Venture (1980) and St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009).
It has been moored in Southwark since 1996 – it did leave briefly for a visit to Southampton in 2003 – and as well as hosting school visits, is also open for tours and can be booked for private functions.
WHERE: Golden Hinde II, Bankside (nearest Tube station is London Bridge); WHEN: Self-guided tours 10am to 5.30pm daily (check website for other tour times and dates); COST: Various (depending on tour); WEBSITE: www.goldenhinde.com.
April 15, 2016
Famed for its mention in Geoffrey Chaucer’s iconic 14th century work, The Canterbury Tales, The Tabard Inn once stood on Borough High Street in Southwark.
The inn was apparently first built for the Abbot of Hyde in 1307 as a place where he and his brethren could stay when they came to London and stood on what had been the main Roman thoroughfare between London and Canterbury.
It became a popular hostelry for pilgrims making their way from the Chapel of St Thomas á Becket on London Bridge to the saint’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral and was one of a number of inns which eventually came to be built in Southwark at the London end of the pilgrim route.
It’s in this context that it earns a mention in Chaucer’s 14th century work as the pilgrims set off on their journey.
The inn passed into private hands following the Dissolution and in 1676, 1o years after the Great Fire of London, burned down in a fire which devastated much of Southwark (the back part of it had been damaged by fire a few years earlier). Earlier patrons may have, it’s been suggested, included the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.
It was subsequently rebuilt as a galleried coaching inn and came to be renamed The Talbot (it’s been suggested this was due to a spelling mistake by the signwriter). Its neighbour, the George Inn, still stands in Talbot Yard (it was also apparently burnt down and rebuilt after the 1676 fire).
Business for the coaching inns dropped away, however, with the coming of the railways and the building was converted into stores before eventually being demolished in 1874.
A plaque to the inn can be seen in Talbot Yard (named for the inn’s later incarnation) – it was unveiled by Terry Jones in 2003.
March 8, 2016
It’s International Women’s Day, so we’re celebrating by remembering two heroic women immortalised in statues in central London. Above is Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was trapped in Brussels by advancing German armies in 1914 and then subsequently arrested for aiding French and British soldiers to escape before being executed by firing squad on 12th October, 1915 – an event widely condemned around the world. The marble statue, located in St Martin’s Place at the intersection of Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, is by George Frampton and was erected in 1920. Below, meanwhile, is a bust of Violette Szabo which tops a memorial to the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Szabo, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre after she was captured and eventually executed by the German Army in early 1945, was among 117 SOE agents who did not return from their missions to France. Located on Albert Embankment, the statue – which is the work of Karen Newman – was unveiled in 2009.
November 24, 2015
A detailed picture of the inhabitants of Roman London, known as Londinium, has been created for the first time, the Museum of London announced this week. Detailed analysis of the DNA of four skeletons has revealed a culturally diverse population. The examined skeletons include that of a Roman woman (pictured left), likely to have been born in Britain with northern European ancestry, found buried with high status grave goods at Harper Road, Southwark, in 1979, and another of a man, whose DNA revealed connections to Eastern Europe and the Near East, who was found at London Wall in 1989 with injuries to his skull which suggest he may have been killed in the nearby amphitheatre before his head was dumped in a pit. The other two skeletons examined were found to be that of a blue-eyed teenaged girl found at Lant Street, Southwark, in 2003, believed to have been born in north Africa, whose ancestors lived in south-eastern Europe and west Eurasia, and that of an older man found at Mansell Street who was born in London and whose ancestry had links to Europe and north Africa. The examination – the first multi-disciplinary study of the inhabitants of a Roman city anywhere in the empire – also revealed that all four suffered from gum disease. Caroline McDonald, senior curator at the museum, said that while it has always been understood Roman London was a culturally diverse place, science was now “giving us certainty”. “People born in Londinium lived alongside people from across the Roman Empire exchanging ideas and cultures, much like the London we know today.” The four skeletons will form the basis of a new free display, Written in Bone, opening at the Museum of London on Friday. PICTURE: © Museum of London
WHERE: Museum of London, 150 London Wall (nearest Tube stations are Barbican and St Pauls); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.museumoflondon.org.uk.
November 18, 2015
Little is known of Jack Cade until the former soldier from Kent led an uprising against the rule of King Henry VI during the Hundred Years War with France. And London was a key site of fighting during the uprising.
Cade, who adopted the name John Mortimer and who some claimed to have been a relative of Richard, Duke of York, was said to have been a veteran of the war who led rebels protesting against the king’s rule amid the general state of disorder affecting England at the time which saw such abuses as lands being illegally seized and a lack of confidence in courts to rule fairly. There was also some discontent over the loss of lands of Normandy.
While many of the rebels were peasants, the rebellion – which rose in late May or early June, 1450 – was also supported by nobles and churchmen who were protesting what they saw as poor governance.
Led by Cade, who also attracted the title ‘Captain of Kent’, were camped on Blackheath in what is now the city’s south-east by mid-June and there apparently presented an embassy from the king with a list of grievances.
Thomas, Lord Scales – authorised by the king to raise troops, subsequently marched out to Blackheath but Cade and his rebels retreated into the forests of Kent and managed to lure the royal troops into an ambush.
Cade and the rebels returned to Blackheath while back in London the Royal soldiers turned mutinous, angered over the defeat. They were disbanded to protect the City and the king retired to Kenilworth Castle, effectively abandoning London to the rebels (despite the offer of the Lord Mayor and aldermen to resist the rebels).
Cade then marched on London itself, reaching Southwark on 2nd July (apparently using the now vanished White Hart Inn as his HQ). He forced his way over London Bridge the next day, cutting the drawbridge ropes personally with his sword to ensure it couldn’t be raised again
Such was the support the rebels had in London, that resistance was initially minimal. Following his entry to London, Cade struck the famous London Stone (pictured above – for more on it, see our earlier post here) with his sword, declaring “Mortimer” was now lord of the city.
While initially under tight control, Cade gradually lost control of many of his followers who turned to looting. Meanwhile, to head off an attack on the Tower of London – where Lord Scales had retreated – he handed over the hated Lord Treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye, and his son-in-law William Crowmer, Under Sheriff of Kent (they had apparently been imprisoned in the Tower by the King for their own protection such as their unpopularity). Both were beheaded – Fiennes at Cheapside, Crowmer at Mile End – and their heads placed on poles on London Bridge.
The king’s supporters in the Tower had regrouped by early July and, with the rebels, while initially welcomed by many, now clearly having outstayed their welcome, they and city militias drove the rebels from the streets and had taken back the northern half of London Bridge (another bloody battle over the bridge) when William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, arrived with promises of pardon for the rebels on behalf of the Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, John Kemp.
His forced much reduced, Cade – a pardon in his pocket under Mortimer’s name only – moved back into Kent and continued to cause trouble. He was, however, captured by the new Sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden, on 12th July, – one version says this took place near Heathfield in Sussex at a hamlet now known as Cade Street. In any event, Cade was mortally wounded during the struggle and died en route to London.
His corpse, however, completed the journey and Cade was hanged, drawn and quartered and his head placed atop a pole on London Bridge.
While the rebel ringleaders were later captured and killed, in the most part King Henry VI honoured the pardons he had granted.
The story of Cade’s rebellion features in William Shakespeare’s play, King Henry the Sixth.
October 28, 2015
We’ve touched on this story before but it’s worth a revisit as part of this series. London changed hands several times during the later half of the first millennium as the Anglo-Saxons fought Vikings for control of the city, meaning the city was the site of several battles during the period.
One of the most memorable (or so legend has it, there are some archaeologists who believe the incident never took place) was the battle in 1014 in which London Bridge – then a timber structure (today’s concrete bridge is pictured above) – was pulled down. A story attributed to the Viking skald or poet Ottarr the Black but not found in Anglo-Saxon sources, the event, if it did take place, did so against the backdrop of an ongoing conflict between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons.
Anglo-Saxon London had resisted several attempts at being taken by the Vikings – a fire was recorded in the city in 982, possibly caused by a Viking attack – and in 994, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a fleet of 94 Danish and Norwegian ships were repelled with prejudice. Further attacks was driven back in 1009 and it wasn’t until 1013 that the city finally submitted to Danish rule after Sweyn Forkbeard had already claimed Oxford and Winchester.
But Sweyn, the father of the famous King Canute (Cnut), didn’t hold it long – he died on 3rd February the following year.
The deposed Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II (also spent Ethelred, he was known as ‘the Unready’) – who had been forced to flee from London, which he used as his capital, to what is now Normandy thanks to Sweyn’s depredations – is said to have seized his chance and along with the forces of his ally, the Norwegian King Olaf II, he sailed up the Thames to London in a large flotilla.
The Danish had taken the city, occupying both the city proper and Southwark, and were determined to resist. According to the Viking account, they lined the timber bridge crossing the river and rained spears down on the would-be invaders. (The bridge, incidentally, had apparently been built following the attack in 993, ostensibly to block the river and prevent further incursions further upstream – there is certainly archaeological evidence that a bridge existed in about the year 1000).
Not to be beaten, Æthelred’s forces, using thatching stripped from the rooves of nearby houses to shield themselves, managed to get close enough to attach some cables to the bridge’s piers, pulling the bridge down and winning the battle, retaking the city.
There’s much speculation that the song London Bridge is Falling Down was inspired by the incident but it, like much of this story itself, remains just that – conjecture (although Ottarr’s skald does sound rather familiar).
The bridge was subsequently rebuilt and King Æthelred died only two years later, on 23rd April, 2016. The crown subsequently passed to his son Edmund Ironside but he too died after ruling for less than a year leaving Viking Canute to be crowned king.
October 19, 2015
Famed for its market, the area around the southern end of London Bridge is generally simply known as Borough. But that’s just an abbreviation – Borough is actually a contracted version of Borough of Southwark.
The origins of the word borough come from the Old English burh, a word which originally simply referred to a ‘fortified place’ and, in this case, referred to the settlement which, since Roman times, had grown up outside the city walls around the southern approaches to London Bridge.
It later came to mean a town with its own locally-based government and, according to Cyril M Harris in What’s In A Name?, Southwark was, in the later Middle Ages, the only London borough outside the City Wall which had its own MP.
The fact that the borough was outside City jurisdiction meant it become a popular place for inns, theatres and other forms of entertainment including the infamous Southwark Fair.
Although ‘Borough’ can still be used as an alternative word for the entire Borough of Southwark, these days when people refer to ‘The Borough’, they’re often referring to just a small district of the much larger borough.
While it’s hard to get a fix on exactly where the boundaries of this district are, at the heart of this area is Borough High Street and landmarks particularly associated with it include the Borough Market (see our earlier post here) as well as Southwark Cathedral and the galleried George Inn as well as the Church of St George The Martyr (and, of course, its own Tube station, which opened in 1890).
Over the past couple of months our special Wednesday series has looked at “10 small, ‘secret’ and historic gardens in central London”. So we’re finishing the series by taking a quick look back at the 10 gardens we featured (and providing a single point where you can find any you may have missed)…
Do you have a favourite? Or maybe there’s a ‘small, secret and historic’ garden we didn’t mention that you love (and we may mention in a future special)?
August 26, 2015
We travel south of the Thames this week to Red Cross Garden in Southwark. Located not far from Borough Market, the garden has a rich history, having first been laid out in 1887 by the social reformer, philanthropist and National Trust co-founder Octavia Hill.
Described as Hill’s “flagship project”, it was here, after being granted use of the land by the Ecclesiastical Commission, that she demonstrated the role gardens and open spaces play in improving the lives of the poor living in 19th century Southwark (in the picture you can see in the background the hall and cottages which were also part of the project – Hill had these constructed between 1888-89, the hall being for community activities and the cottages homes for the “working poor”. Both were designed by Elijah Hoole).
The garden in Redcross Way was created on the site of a derelict paper factory and a hop warehouse and originally contained meandering paths, an ornamental pond with fountain, a bandstand and a covered play area for children as well as an elevated walkway for viewing the garden – described by Hill as an “open air sitting room for the tired inhabitants of Southwark”. There were a number of colourful mosaics – one called The Sower is still in situ but another known as The Good Shepherd was apparently lost.
The original layout of garden, which were used as the venue for the annual Southwark Flower Show as well as other events, had been lost by the late 1940s and it was only in much more recent years that it was restored by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust (with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Southwark Council). They were officially reopened in 2006 by Princess Anne.
The award-winning garden is now managed by BOST which leases the space from Southwark Council and relies on the work of volunteers (any donations are always welcome!). The latest addition has been the Victorian bandstand which, constructed in a style true to the original, was unveiled late last year.
WHERE: Red Cross Garden, Redcross Way, Southwark (nearest Tube stations are Borough and London Bridge); WHEN: 9am to dusk, daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.bost.org.uk/open-places/red-cross-garden/.
August 21, 2015
Known informally as the Chapel on the Bridge, the Chapel of St Thomas á Becket was located in the middle of London Bridge and, as the name suggests, was dedicated to the ill-fated archbishop of Canterbury.
Founded in 1205, the stone chapel was among the first buildings constructed on the bridge by priest-architect Peter de Colechurch in 1176, who was actually buried beneath the chapel (for more on him and the construction of the bridge, see our earlier posts here and here).
Facing downstream and located on a wider than normal pier – the 11th pier from the Southwark end of the bridge and the ninth from the City end – the original chapel was built in the early English Gothic style and consisted of an upper chapel with a groined roof and columns and vaulted lower chapel or undercroft. Standing some 40 foot high, it would have towered over the shops and residences on the bridge. There is some suggestion it was damaged by fire in 1212 and may have had to have been extensively repaired.
It’s name ensured its popularity – Becket was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, apparently on the orders of King Henry II, and, canonised just three years later, had quickly become the focus of a popular religious cult in his home town of London. The chapel also became renowned as a wayside stop for pilgrims to receive the saint’s blessing before making their way to Canterbury where his shrine was located.
But it wasn’t just pilgrims who had an attachment – the chapel was apparently popular among watermen who, when the tide allowed them, were known to tie up their craft on the chapel pier and ascend to the undercroft through a lower entrance.
The chapel – which apparently had two priests at the beginning as well as a number of clerks although the number of priests is known to have climbed as high as five in the 14th century – was nominally under the control of the priest of the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr, located at the City end of the bridge. The reality seems to have been however, that the priests and other “Brothers of the Bridge” enjoyed considerable freedom in their roles, including, after 1483, obtaining the right keep alms taken during services provided he made a generous contribution to the parish finances. Like most who worked on the bridge, the priests and “clerks of the chapel” would likely have lived on it.
Relics housed in the chapel apparently included fragments of the True Cross and a number of chantries were built inside the chapel in the 14th century – it’s believed this may have led to some overcrowding and been one of the reasons for a major rebuilding of the chapel – this time in the Perpendicular Gothic style – between 1384 and 1397.
The chapel survived until the Dissolution when, in 1548, the priest was ordered to close it up and it was desecrated and later converted into a dwelling (later still, parts of it were used as a warehouse). It was demolished over succeeding years – by the late 18th century just the lower chapel remained – with the final remnants removed in the early 1800s.
Some bones in a small casket were disinterred in from the chapel undercroft during this process in the early 19th century. Although these were rumoured to be those of de Colechurch, analysis found them to be part of a human arm bone, a cow bone and goose bones. (Other accounts suggest most of Peter’s bones were tossed into the Thames and that a small number were even sold at auction).
There’s a stained glass window commemorating the bridge in St Magnus-the-Martyr Church today (pictured above).
Bermondsey Abbey, which was more than 130-years-old by the time King John put his seal to the Magna Carta in 1215, has an unusual connection to the unpopular king – it is one of a number of buildings in London which has, at various times in history, been erroneously referred to as King John’s Palace.
This suggestion – that it was a palace which was later converted into an abbey – may have arisen from a site on the former abbey grounds being known at some point in its history as King John’s Court (that name was said to commemorate the fact that King John visited the abbey).
Putting how King John’s name came to be linked with the abbey aside, we’ll take a quick look at the history of the abbey which rose to become an important ecclesiastical institution in medieval times.
While there was a monastic institution in Bermondsey as far back as the early 8th century, the priory which was here during the reign of King John was founded in 1082, possibly on the site of the earlier institution, by a Londoner named as Aylwin Child(e), apparently a wealthy Saxon merchant who was granted the land by King William the Conqueror.
In 1089, the monastery – located about a mile back from the river between Southwark and Rotherhithe – became the Cluniac Priory of St Saviour, an order centred on the French abbey of Cluny, and was endowed by King William II (William Rufus) with the manor of Bermondsey.
It was “naturalised” – that is, became English – by the first English prior, Richard Dunton, in 1380, who paid a substantial fine for the process. It was elevated to the status of an abbey by Pope Boniface IX in 1399.
It had some important royal connections – King John’s father, King Henry II and his wife Queen Eleanor celebrated Christmas here in 1154 (their second child, the ill-fated Henry, the young King, was born here a couple of months later), and Queen Catherine (of Valois), wife of King Henry V, died here in 1437. It was also at Bermondsey Abbey that Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of King Edward IV and mother of the two “Princes in the Tower”, died in 1492 following her retirement from court.
The abbey, which grew to have an enormous income thanks to its acquisition of property in a range of counties, survived until the Dissolution when, in 1537, King Henry VIII closed its doors. It was later acquired by Sir Thomas Pope who demolished the abbey and built a mansion for himself on the site (and founded Trinity College in Oxford apparently using revenues from the property). We’ll deal more with its later history in an upcoming post.
The ruins of the abbey were extensively excavated in the past few decades and some of the remaining ruins of the abbey can still be seen buildings around Bermondsey Square and a blue plaque commemorating the abbey was unveiled in 2010. Bermondsey Street runs roughly along the line of the path which once led from the abbey gates to the Thames and the abbey had a dock there still commemorated as St Saviour’s Dock. The abbey’s name is commemorated in various streets around the area.
For more on the history of the Magna Carta, see David Starkey’s Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter.
The current London Bridge, which spans the River Thames linking Southwark to the City, is just the latest in several incarnations of a bridge which originally dates back to Roman times.
This week, we’re focusing on first stone bridge to be built on the site. Constructed over a period of some 33 years, it was only completed in 1209 during the reign of King John, some six years before the signing of the Magna Carta.
Construction on the bridge began in 1176, only 13 years after the construction of an earlier wooden bridge on the site (the latest of numerous wooden bridges built on the site, it had apparently built of elm under the direction of Peter de Colechurch, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, a now long-gone church in Cheapside).
It was the priest-architect de Colechurch who was also responsible for building the new bridge of stone, apparently on the orders of King Henry II. While many of the wealthy, including Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave funds for the construction of the bridge, a tax was also levied on wool, undressed sheepskins and leather to provide the necessary monies – the latter led to the phrase that London Bridge was “built upon woolpacks”. King John, meanwhile, had decreed in 1201 that the rents from several homes on the bridge would be used to repair it into perpetuity.
The bridge, which featured 20 arches – a new one built every 18 months or so, was apparently constructed on wooden piles driven into the river bed at low water with the piers of Kentish ragstone set on top. It was dangerous work and it’s been estimated that as many as 200 men may have died during its construction.
The bridge was almost completely lined with buildings on both sides of the narrow central street. These included a chapel dedicated to St Thomas á Becket – a stopping point for pilgrims heading to the saint’s shrine in Canterbury, as well as shops and residences (although, apart from the chapel, we know little about the original buildings). There was also a drawbridge toward the southern end and the Great Stone Gate guarding the entrance from Southwark.
Peter de Colechurch died in 1205, before the bridge was completed. He was buried in the undercroft of the chapel on the bridge.
Three men subsequently took on the task of completing the bridge – William de Almaine, Benedict Botewrite and Serle le Mercer who would go on to be a three time Lord Mayor of London. All three were later bridge wardens, the City officials charged with the daily running of the bridge itself.
One of key events on the bridge in the years immediately after its completion was the arrival of Louis, the Dauphin of France, in May, 1216. Louis had been invited to depose John by the rebellious barons after the agreement sealed at Runnymede fell apart and in 1216, he and his men marched over London Bridge on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral. (We’ll deal with this in more detail in a later post).
What became known as ‘Old London Bridge’, which stood in line with Fish Street Hill, survived the Great Fire of 1666, albeit badly damaged, but was eventually replaced with a new bridge, known, unsurprisingly as ‘New London Bridge’, which opened in 1831. Designed by John Rennie, this bridge was later replaced by one which opened in 1971 (Rennie’s bridge was sold off and now stands in Lake Havasu City, Arizona).
For a detailed history of Old London Bridge, check out Old London Bridge: The Story of the Longest Inhabited Bridge in Europe.
This Week in London – Wellington Arch marks the Battle of Waterloo; Shakespeare’s Globe celebrates the Bard’s birth; and the ‘cathedral on the marsh’ open day…
April 17, 2015
• The Battle of Waterloo comes under the microscope in a new exhibition opening at Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner tomorrow. Wellington Arch: Waterloo 1815 – The Battle for Peace provides an overview of the battle and the reasons which led to it, the people involved and the battle’s legacy. Displayed items include the sword the Duke of Wellington carried at the battle, his handwritten battle orders and an original pair of ‘Wellington boots’ as well as, of course, the arch itself, which was built in 1825-27 as a monument to Wellington’s victories over Napoleon. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wellington-arch/.
• Shakespeare’s Globe in Southwark celebrates the Bard’s birthday with a Hamlet-themed day of free family events this Sunday. Along with an Elsinore bouncy castle, there will be sword-fighting demonstrations, ‘skull’ coconut shies and a grave-digging ball pool while actors who have taken on the role of Hamlet over the years while appear on stage attempting to deliver the quickest ever reading of the play and famous film adaptions of Hamlet will be playing on screen around the site. The day will also mark almost a year since Shakespeare’s Globe embarked on an unprecedented two year global tour of Hamlet taking in every country in the world in honour of last year’s 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The birthday event at the Globe runs between 11am and 4.30pm. For more, see www.shakespearesglobe.com.
• The famous “cathedral on the marsh” – the Crossness Pumping Station – is open to the public this Sunday, the first of five days it will be open this year. The pumping station at Abbey Wood in south-east London was built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as part of a general sewerage system upgrade and was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1865. The Grade I-listed Beam Engine House was constructed in the Romanesque-style and features some of the “most spectacular ornamental Victorian cast ironwork” to be found today. The day runs from 10.30am to 4pm. Admission charges apply but no booking is required. For more, see www.crossness.org.uk.
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The Museum of London has opened two new display spaces which feature new archaeological discoveries, reveal the relevance of the museum’s collection to current events in London and showcase objects not usually on display. Opened last week, Looking for Londoners currently features objects uncovered during recent excavations to improve the Baitul Aziz Mosque at Dickens Square in Southwark, including the skull of an 18th century longhorn cow, pots used in burying Roman remains, and as child’s cup dating from the mid-19th century believed to have belonged to Richard Greenfield, born in 1847 as the fourth child of grocer Samuel Greenfield and his wife Mary Ann (pictured). Show Space’s current display, meanwhile, is themed on the idea of ‘spring’ and Londoners attempts to bring nature into the capital with objects including a ‘spring’ fancy dress outfit worn in the late 1890s to a ball in the Portsmans Rooms in Baker Street, cupcake coloured porcelain figurines featuring various embodiments of spring and a ‘mystery gnome’. Access to the new permanent galleries is free. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk. PICTURE: © Museum of London