More correctly known as the crypt of the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, this subterranean chamber dates from the 12th century and is the oldest surviving part of what remains of the priory.

Based close to St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell – another surviving section of the monastery, the partly Romanesque crypt features some magnificent 16th century monuments including the rather skeletal-looking funeral effigy of the last prior, Sir William Weston, who apparently died on the very day the priory was dissolved in May, 1540 (he apparently collapsed on hearing the news).

The crypt also contains a 16th century tomb effigy (pictured below) believed to be that of Don Juan Ruiz de Vergara, a Castilian Knight Hospitaller who died fighting the Turks at sea off the coast of Marseilles (it had apparently formerly been located in Valladolid Cathedral in Spain and was donated by a member of the order (and first Keeper of the London Museum, now known as the Museum of London), Sir Guy Francis Laking, in 1915). Understood to have been the work of Esteban Jordan, sculptor to King Philip II of Spain, the knight bears the eight pointed star of the order on his breastplate.

Meanwhile, the stained glass in the crypt chapel’s east lights depict the entombment of Christ as well as Raymond du Puy (Grand Master of the Order of St John from 1118–60), St John the Baptist and St Ubaldesca. Other stained glass windows in the chapel depict saints like St George, Andrew, Patrick and David and some of the English branch’s priors and knights.

Other items of interest in the crypt include a 13th century font, originally from a church in Buckinghamshire, and a stone fragment from the pavement of the Grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem.

The priory once served as the English headquarters for Order of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller. The order was founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to care for the sick and poor, and spread across Europe. The English ‘branch’ established on 10 acres just outside the City walls apparently by a knight, Jorden de Briset. It was dissolved, as we’ve already heard, in 1540.

WHERE: Crypt, St John’s Church, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: The crypt can only be visited on tours – public tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; COST: Free (a suggested £5 donation); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.

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Located in the basement of a modern office building (and visible through glass) are the remains of a 700-year-old crypt that once lay beneath Whitefriars Priory.

Reached via Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street which runs south from Fleet Street), the remains are all that is visibly left of the priory, founded here in the 13th century.

Known as ‘White Friars’ because of the white mantle they wore over their brown habits, the Carmelites (their proper name) were founded in what is now Israel in the mid-12th century. After the region fell to the Saracens in the mid-13th century, some members of the order made their way to England with the aid of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III. In  1241, Sir Richard Grey of Codnor founded the Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on this site.

The priory – which counted towering medieval figure John of Gaunt among its patrons – once stretched from Fleet Street to the Thames and to the Temple in the west and what is now Whitefriars Street in the east. It included a church – enlarged in the 14th century – as well as cloisters, a garden and cemetery.

The priory survived until the Dissolution after which King Henry VIII granted various buildings to the King’s Physician and the King’s Armourer and the great hall become the famous Whitefriars Playhouse.

Whitefriars became part of the rather infamous slum known as Alsatia, a ‘liberty’ seen as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing the law. The priory was gradually subsumed into the slum – there’s a suggestion that the crypt may have been used as a coal cellar.

The remains of the 14th century vaulted crypt, which had been located beneath the prior’s house on the east side of the former priory site, were apparently found in the late 19th century and restored in the 1920s when the now defunct newspaper News of the World was expanding. During a redevelopment in the 1980s (which came after News International moved out to Wapping), the remains were moved to their current location.

WHERE: Whitefriars Crypt, Ashentree Court, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Temple and Blackfriars); WHEN: Daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: None.

PICTURE: The crypt at seen at this year’s Open House London event. (Andrea Vail licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.)

St-James-ClerkenwellThe Church of St James, which stands just to the north of Clerkenwell Green, is all that remains today of the medieval nunnery which once occupied a large swathe of land in the area. 

The Augustinian Nunnery of St Mary was founded in about 114o by Jorden de Briset, the lord of Clerkenwell Manor (he also founded the Hospitaller Priory of St John of Jerusalem which lay to the south – more on this here) on 14 acres of land to the east of the famous “Clerk’s Well” (more on the well, which was located close to, but within, the western border of the nunnery, in our earlier post here).

By 1160 a wall had been built around the precinct said to have been roughly bounded by Farringdon Lane, Clerkenwell Green (an open space between the two religious houses), St James’s Walk and a boundary to the south of, and parallel with, Bowling Green Lane to the north.

The church – where Briset and his wife were later buried and which doubled as a parish church – was built about the same time, along with an adjoining chapter-house – both of which were made of stone in contrast to the timber buildings which initially made up the rest of the complex.

A cloister and other stone buildings were erected to the north of the church later in the 12th and 13th centuries including a lodging for the prioress, a dormitory, refectory and kitchen for the nuns. Other buildings on the site included  a gatehouse, what was known as the “Nun’s Hall” – possibly a hall for guests – and an infirmary with its own chapel, the location of which is apparently something of a mystery.

Substantial renovation works were carried out in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and by the time of King Henry VIII’s dissolution, it had become one of the wealthiest monasteries in England (although it only ever housed about 20 canonesses).

One of the last nunneries to be suppressed, it was dissolved in 1539 with the nuns being pensioned off.

The site was initially granted to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who held it only briefly being returning it to the king in a deal for another property and subsequently purchased by a succession of different owners.

Many of the buildings were converted for use as private mansions and outbuildings, among them Newcastle House and Challoner (later Cromwell due to the legend that Oliver Cromwell resided there) House which faced them across what had been the cloister courtyard.

The mansions were gradually redeveloped into smaller properties – it remained a popular residential area despite the building of a House of Detention to the immediate north – and in 1788-92, the parish church of St James was rebuilt to the designs of local architect James Carr, with the spire apparently modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields (Carr also bought Newcastle House and pulled most of it down before redeveloping the area).

Church gardens, which are open to the public, now occupy some of the site of the former nunnery – in 1987, part of the medieval cloisters were excavated here.

For some insightful walks delving into the history of London, see Stephen Millar’s three books, London’s Hidden Walks: Volumes 1-3.

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.

London-Bridge-chapelFounded 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).

Crypt

Founded in Clerkenwell in 1144, the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem served as the order’s English headquarters.

The order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, was founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to care for the sick and poor, and soon spread across Europe with the English ‘branch’ established on 10 acres just outside the City walls apparently by a knight, Jorden de Briset.

The original buildings – of which only the 12th century crypt (pictured above) survives complete with some splendid 16th century tomb effigies including that of the last prior, Sir William Weston – included a circular church, consecrated in 1185, and monastic structures including cloisters, a hospital, living quarters and a refectory or dining hall.

There are records of dignitaries staying at the priory as it grew in size and renown – among them was King John who in 1212, apparently stayed here for an entire month. There are also surviving accounts of Knights Hospitaller riding out in procession from the priory and through the City at the start of a journey to the Holy Land.

The priory and church were attacked during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, thanks to its connection with the hated Poll Tax (Prior Robert Hales was also the Lord High Treasurer and was beheaded during the revolt on Tower Hill).

The church was subsequently rebuilt as a rectangular-shaped building and then, in the early 16th century, enlarged when the site was significantly renovated. These renovations were still relatively new when the priory was dissolved in 1540 during the Dissolution of King Henry VIII.

The priory church, which survived the Great Fire of 1666, was later used as a parish church but was destroyed in an air raid in World War II. Subsequently rebuilt, it can be visited today along with the crypt below and the cloister garden, created in the 1950s as a memorial to St John’s Ambulance members from the London area (the original shape of the circular church is picked out in the paving here).

Perhaps the most famous building to survive is St John’s Gate which dates from the 16th century and was once the gatehouse entrance to the priory (added in the final renovations).

After the Dissolution it served various roles including as the office of the Master of Revels (where Shakespeare’s plays were licensed), the home of The Gentleman’s Magazine (Samuel Johnson was among contributors and worked on site), a coffee house (run by William Hogarth’s father) and a public house called the Old Jerusalem Tavern (yes, Charles Dickens was said to be a regular). It is now home to the recently renovated Museum of the Order of St John (you can see our earlier post on the museum here).

WHERE: Museum of the Order of St John, St John’s Gate (and nearby priory church), St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday (tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday); COST: Free (a suggested £5 donation for guided tours); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.

We’ll kick off a new Wednesday series next week…

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.

PICTURE: An archaeological dig at the ruins of Bermondsey Abbey in 2006. Zefrog/Wikipedia.

St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield – the oldest parish church in London (see our earlier piece here) – is worth a revisit thanks to the fact that it would have been standing (at least partially) when the seal of King John was first affixed to the Magna Carta .

St-BartholomewsOnly half the size it once was, this church was founded in 1123 AD as the priory church for a community of Augustinian Canons and owes its origins to Rahere, a favored courtier of King Henry I who renounced his way of life and made a pilgrimage to Rome, returning to found both the church and nearby hospital for the poor.

Only the eastern part of the church was built by the time of the death of Rahere – the first prior – in 1145 and the building continued for some years afterward. While the interior walls now look somewhat plain, they would have been highly decorated when the building was originally constructed. At the time of the Magna Carta, the church would have only been partly completed.

The tomb of Rahere still lies within the church, on the left hand side of the altar – although the canopy over it dates from the 15th century. There were some healing miracles recorded at the tomb.

The church’s current configuration came about when the priory was dissolved in 1539 and the nave of the church was pulled down, leaving what’s there now – the quire, altar and lady chapel.

The brick tower at the church’s west end dates from the 1620s while the gateway through which you enter the church grounds features a restored 13th century arch topped by a late Tudor building.

The church was briefly used by some Dominican friars but since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I has fulfilled the role of parish church. A concerted restoration effort began in the mid-19th century by Sir Aston Webb (architect of the Victoria & Albert Museum), leaving the Lady Chapel with a very different feel to the Norman choir. The building is now Grade I-listed.

WHERE: Off Little Britain, West Smithfield (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday, 10.30am to 4pm Saturday, 8.30am to 8pm Sunday (except for services) ; COST: £4 an adult/£3.50 concession/£10 a family; WEBSITE: www.greatstbarts.com

Located on the site of the former Blackfriars Monastery which has closed during the Dissolution (see our earlier post here), the origins of the Blackfriars Playhouse or Theatre go back to the mid-1570s when children connected with the Queen’s Chapel Choir performed plays in part of the former monastery.

While those plays were performed in order to practice for those performed before Queen Elizabeth I, the organisers did also apparently use the theatre for paying audiences. This first theatre ceased operation in 1584.

In 1596, part of the priory and an adjoining building were bought by James Burbage in 1596 who created a playhouse within them. It was used by the Children of the Chapel, a group of choristers and other boys, until 1608 when the King’s Men took over – with Burbage’s son Richard and Shakespeare among those who had a share in the theatre – and used it as their winter playhouse.

The theatre – where Shakespeare himself is believed to have performed – was apparently the first commercial premises of its type to used artificial lighting and, usually for the time, featured music between acts.

The wife of King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria, is known to have attended the theatre later in its life in 1634 and again a couple of years later.

The theatre closed with the commencement of the English Civil War and the theatre was demolished in 1655.

The candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which opened in January at the Globe Theatre on Bankside, was designed based on drawings of indoor theatres of the era (there’s also a recreation of the Blackfriars Playhouse in the US which is home to the acting troupe of the American Shakespeare Center).

While nothing remains of the playhouse today, it lives on in the name Playhouse Yard.

The-MinoriesLocated close to Tower Hill in the eastern part of the City, this pub – and indeed the street in which it sits (at number 64-73) – takes its name from a former nunnery that was once located here.

Known as the Minoresses, the nuns – who belonged to the Order of St Clare (also known as the Poor Clares) – lived in a nunnery here. The institution was founded by in 1293 by Edmund, the brother to King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307), and the earl of Lancaster, Leicester, and Derby, to house nuns who had been brought to England from Spain by the earl’s wife, Blanche of Artois, the widow of King Henry I of Navarre.

As with the case of the Black Friars, the name came to be used to refer to the district in which the now long-gone nunnery once stood (it was dissolved in the Great Dissolution and later used as a residence by the likes of Henry, Duke of Suffolk and father of Lady Jane Grey) and lives on in the name of the street and the pub.

The pub, which has undergone a paint job since our picture was taken, is located under a railway bridge (and may have once been part of the former Minories Railway Station which closed in 1873. For more, see www.minories-london.co.uk.

This pub, located just off Charterhouse Square near Barbican, has a distinctive barrel-shaped front window and a name that evokes a sense of the rich history of the area in which it stands.

The-Sutton-ArmsThe name of this pub at 6 Carthusian Street comes directly from Sir Thomas Sutton, a late 16th century/early 17th century businessman and moneylender who owned nearby land on which a Carthusian monastery once stood and who founded the Charterhouse School based at the site.

The monastery, which had been founded in 1371, was dissolved by King Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries which took place in the first half of the 16th century – it was a nasty business with some of the monks executed at Tyburn.

The land was subsequently granted to Sir Edward North who built a mansion on the site which was subsequently sold to the fourth Duke of Norfolk. It was his son, Thomas Howard – the first Earl of Suffolk, who, in 1611, sold the property to Sir Thomas (and subsequently built the magnificent Audley End House in Essex with the funds).

Said to have been the “wealthiest commoner in England”, Sutton, who died that same year, used his wealth to endow a charitable foundation to both educate boys and care for elderly men.

The Charterhouse school later moved out to Surrey while elderly “brothers” are still housed at the original location today (for more on the Charterhouse, see our previous posts on King James I’s London and on 10 Historic London Squares).

Some of the glass in the  pub’s great barrel-shaped window was apparently replaced after a bomb knocked some of the original out during the Blitz.

Incidentally, there’s another pub of the same name only a few streets away in Great Sutton Street.

Charterhouse-Square-GardensThe final in our series on historic garden squares in London (for this year, anyway), we’re taking a look at Charterhouse Square.

The five sided square, located just to the east of Smithfield, takes its name from a Carthusian monastery which was established in 1371 on what is now its north side. Prior to this, what is now the square had from 1348 served as a location for a plaque burial pit (a number of skeletons from the plaque pit have been unearthed as part of the Crossrail project – for our earlier story on this, follow this link).

The monastery was dissolved in 1537 after the monk’s refused to recognise King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy (some were later executed at Tyburn) and it was subsequently transformed into a manor house with Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, among its residents over the years (in fact he was imprisoned there around 1570 for allegedly plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots – he was later executed by Queen Elizabeth I for treason).

Under the will of Thomas Sutton, an almshouse and school was subsequently established on the site – the almshouse remains there while the school, whose students had included Methodism founder John Wesley and writer William Makepeace Thackeray, moved out to Godalming in Surrey in 1872. As well as the almshouse (which is open for guided tours, check this site for details), some of the buildings are now occupied by medical related institutions.

In the 1600s, the square was also home to numerous other large residences among them Rutland House, which had been the residence of the Venetian ambassador. It lost its aristocratic inhabitants in the ensuing centuries but remained mainly residential up until the late 19th century when it gradually became taken over by businesses and other organisations. Interesting to note is that the east side of the square is still home to the residential unit complex known as Florin Court, better known as Whitehaven Mansions, the home of Hercule Poirot in the TV series which bears his name.

The area of the garden square itself was variously referred to as the Charterhouse Churchyard, the Charterhouse Yard and Charterhouse Close over the years and has gone through numerous incarnations with efforts to improve and formalise its look dating back to at least the 16th century. It was at least partly enclosed by the late 1600s and the fences replaced several times, notably in 1742 when an Act of Parliament was passed allowing residents to fine those who entered without authorisation. The enclosing fences have since been modified several more times.

One of the major changes to the shape of the square occurred in 1860 when the Metropolitan Railway was extended between Farringdon and Moorgate. It was at this time that the road surface which surrounds the central garden, which has a Grade II heritage listing, was laid down.

Today the gardens in the centre of the square remain under the management of the Charterhouse (and hence aren’t open to the general public except on tours) but even without a tour it’s still a quiet place to walk around the outside of, evoking a strong sense of years gone past.

The-White-Cross

This pub situated on the bank of the River Thames in Richmond, in London’s west, owes its name to a former monastery which once stood on the site.

A pub has been on the site since at least 1748 when it was known as the Waterman’s Arms. But the current building dates from 1838 and it was renamed the White Cross shortly after.

There’s a couple of competing theories behind its name – one is that the landlord at the time of the name changed was one Samuel Cross. The other is that it was named after the friary which once stood on the site and was dissolved, no surprises here, by King Henry VIII, in 1534. The friary had been established by Observant Franciscans, who took the white cross as their symbol, around 1500.

Apparently some remains of the friary may be incorporated into the cellars of the pub. Other features to note are the lovely open fireplaces including one oddly placed under a window (delightful on colder days), and the sign pointing to the door on the side of the pub which states that this is the entrance in times of high tide (these usually occur during spring and see access to the front entrance blocked by the rising river water).

Located off Water Lane in Richmond. For more on the pub, check out http://thewhitecrossrichmond.com.

This curiously named area in London’s east – located outside the medieval walls – is named for a priory and hospital founded here in the late 12th century.

The Priory and Hospital of Blessed Mary without Bishopsgate (more commonly known as St Mary Spital), was founded by London citizen Walter Brunus and his wife Roisia (both later said to have been buried before the chapel’s high altar), possibly along with other Londoners, in 1197 (although the priory was apparently “refounded” in 1235 when the church was moved).

An Augustinian institution, it also housed what became one of the largest hospitals in England – as well as caring for pilgrims, widows and the infirm poor, it is said to have provided care for pregnant women and the young children of those who died in childbirth – and the site of a large cemetery.

The hospital survived until the reign of King Henry VIII (although apparently barely with the church said to have been in some disrepair by this time) when it fell prey to Thomas Cromwell and his agents in the Dissolution. It was closed in 1539.

The church and most of the buildings were subsequently demolished with part of the area subsequently used as an artillery ground under the jurisdiction of the Tower of London (the area of the inner priory, meanwhile, reverted to the Crown and retained its status outside the jurisdiction of local authorities, known as the Liberty of Norton Folgate).

But the name remained in use for the suburb which had started to appear around the priory and on its former lands (Spitalfields) and in the seventeenth century a market was established here which ensured its longevity. For more on Old (and New) Spitalfields Market and the area’s later history, see our previous post here.

Major excavations were carried out at the priory cemetery between 1991 and 2007 when more than 10,500 skeletons were unearthed. More than 5,000 of these were analysed providing archaeologists with considerable insight into medieval burials. The remains of a charnel house, dating from about 1320, which was once part of the cemetery still exist in Bishop’s Square.

For more, check out Christopher Thomas’ Life and Death in London’s East End: 2000 Years at Spitalfields.

We’ve had a quick look at the origins of Covent Garden before (as part of our What’s in a name? series) but it’s worth a recap.

Now a favorite of tourists visiting London, Covent Garden is these days largely known as a specialty shopping and entertainment precinct in the West End. But its beginnings as a market go back at least to the 1600s when a licence was formally granted to hold a market in the piazza.

The land had been formerly owned by the Abbey (or Convent) of St Peter in Westminster which had established 40 acre kitchen garden here (hence ‘Convent Garden’) and had passed into the hands of the Crown at the Dissolution. Later owned by the Earls of Bedford, it was the 4th earl, Francis Russell, who commissioned Inigo Jones to design a great residential square- including St Paul’s Church, known as the Actor’s Church – on the site.

By 1650, fruit and vegetable markets were regularly been held on the site and, interestingly, around this time the market adopted the pineapple, a symbol of wealth, as its emblem (it was also around this time that Punch and Judy shows were introduced to the area (see our earlier post on Mr Punch here)). Covent Garden’s rise to prominence as a market came when the Great Fire of London destroyed many of London’s other markets leaving it as the foremost fruit, vegetable and flower market. In May 1670, the 5th Earl of Bedford, William Russell (later 1st Duke of Bedford), obtained the formal right to hold a market on the site from King Charles II.

The growth of the market and the development of fashionable residential developments further west in Soho and Mayfair saw many of the affluent people who had lived around the market move out and the character of the square changed (in an indication of this, a list of Covent Garden prostitutes was published in 1740).

In 1813, the 6th Duke of Bedford, John Russell, secured an Act of Parliament regulating the market and in the late 1820s began to redevelop the site, commissioning architect Charles Fowler to design new buildings (up until then the market was housed in makeshift stalls and sheds). These include the grand main market building which still stands on the site today.

The market continued to grow – there is said to have been 1,000 porters employed at the market’s peak – and in 1860 a new flower market was built on the south piazza (where the London Transport Museum now stands), while in the 1870s, a glass roof was added to the market building. A “foreign” flower market opened in what is now Jubilee Hall in 1904.

In 1918, the Bedford family sold the market to the Covent Garden Estate Company. The next major installment in the market’s life came in 1974 when the market, which had outgrown the West End site, moved out to a new site in Nine Elms at Vauxhall in London’s inner south.

The Covent Garden site was left to fall into disrepair but, saved from demolition and redevelopment largely through the efforts of Geoffrey Rippon, then Secretary of State for the Environment, it subsequently underwent restoration, reopening as a speciality shopping centre in 1980 with areas including the Apple Market (pictured above), the East Colonnade Market and the Jubilee Market. Now owned by Capital & Counties who purchased it in 2006, the market – along with the larger 97 acre Covent Garden area – remain under the care of the Covent Garden Area Trust.

Meanwhile, the New Covent Garden Market at Nine Elms is these days the largest fruit, vegetable and flower market in the UK and boasts more than 200 businesses. There are currently plans to redevelop the 57 acre market site which will include providing more space for market tenants as well as new homes, shops and community facilities like parks.
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Covent Garden
WHERE: King Street, Covent Garden (nearest Tube stations are Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Embankment); WHEN: Public areas are open 24 hours; check with individual shops for opening times; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.coventgardenlondonuk.com
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New Covent Garden Market
WHERE: New Covent Garden Market, Nine Elms, Vauxhall (nearest Tube station is Vauxhall); WHEN: The fruit and vegetable market’s core trading hours are between midnight and 6am, Monday to Saturday, while the flower market’s core trading hours are between 2am and 8am, Monday to Saturday (times may vary for individual businesses); COST: Free (charge for cars); WEBSITE: www.newcoventgardenmarket.com.
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PICTURE: Apple Market Picture courtesy of www.coventgardenlondonuk.com.

A now long gone Franciscan friary located in the north-west of the City of London near Newgate (just to the north of St Paul’s Cathedral), Greyfriars, so known for the color of the friars’ clothing, was the second Franciscan religious house to have been founded in England.

The foundations of the friary date from the early part of the 13th century – the Franciscans, as members of the Order of Friars Minor were known, had arrived in 1224 and are recorded as settling on land granted to them by a rich mercer, John Iwyn, just inside the City wall, in 1225, in the butcher’s quarter of the city.

King Henry III apparently gave them some oak to build their own friary in 1229 and by the mid 1200s, there were more than 80 friars living on the site which was gradually extended over the ensuing years to the north and the west.

Using funds given them by Sir William Joyner, Lord Mayor of London in 1239, they built a chapel which was later extensively enlarged and improved in the late 13th and early 14th centuries – the new church was said to be 300 feet long – with much of the work funded by Queen Margaret, second wife of King Edward I, and later in the 14th century, Queen Isabella, wife of Edward III. It apparently suffered some damage in a storm in 1343 but was restored by King Edward III.

When it was finally completed in 1348, the church is said to have been the second largest in London. A library was later added to the buildings, founded by the famous Lord Mayor of London, Richard “Dick” Whittington.

Such was the fame of the church that, the heart of Queen Eleanor, wife of King Henry III, was buried here after her death in 1291 while, despite dying at her castle in Marlborough, Queen Margaret was also buried here in 1318 (apparently wearing a Franciscan habit).

But perhaps the most notorious person to be buried here was Queen Isabella, wife of King Edward II and known by many as the “She-Wolf of France”, after her death in 1358. In fact, it’s said that the ghost of Isabella still haunts the former location of Greyfriars, driven forth from the grave for her role in deposing her husband.

Other non royal luminaries said to have been buried here include the 15th century writer Sir Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur and 16th century Catholic nun Elizabeth Barton, the so-called ‘mad maid of Kent’ who was executed for her rather unwise prophecies predicting King Henry VIII’s death if he married Anne Boleyn.

The end of the friary, pictured above in the sixteenth century, came in 1538 when it fell victim to King Henry VIII’s policy of dissolving monasteries and was surrendered to his representatives.

Some of the houses were subsequently converted for private use and the church, which was somewhat damaged during this period with many of the elaborate tombs destroyed, was briefly closed before it and other buildings were given to the City of London Corporation who reopened it again in 1547 as Christ Church Greyfriars, a parish church serving the now joined parishes of St Nicholas Shambles and St Ewen.

Only a few year’s later King Edward IV founded a school for poor orphans in some of the old friary buildings known as Christ’s Hospital or informally as The Bluecoat School thanks to the uniforms students wore. Some of the school buildings, along with part of the church which was also used by the school, was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the school was rebuilt and remained in use until the late 1800s when the last of the students were relocated to a new facility in Sussex (where the school still exists today).

The church (also known as Christ Church Newgate Street), meanwhile, was also rebuilt after the Great Fire – it was one of Sir Christopher Wren’s designs and was completed in 1704. The church remained in use until World War II when a firebomb struck it during a German raid on 29th December, 1940, all but destroying it.

The church was not rebuilt and the parish merged with the nearby St Sepulchre-without-Newgate – the largest parish church in London – and eventually what’s left of the church – the tower with rebuilt steeple and the west and north walls – were converted into a public garden (rose beds were planted where the pews once stood and there are wooden towers representing the church’s pillars). Pictured right, it’s now a terrific place to sit and have lunch pondering the past which the bustle of the city goes on about you.

PICTURE: (top) Wikipedia

For a great biography of Isabella, the She-Wolf of France, see Alison Weir’s Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England. For more on Sir Christopher Wren’s churches in London, see John Christopher’s Wren’s City of London Churches.

This stunning early medieval casket, dating from around 1180-1190, commemorates one of the most infamous events of the Angevin era – the death of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December, 1170, by four knights of King Henry II.

The murder – for which the king undertook public penance (although whether he ordered the death of Becket, his former chancellor and friend, remains a matter of some dispute) – provoked outrage across Europe and pilgrims soon started flocking to Becket’s tomb.

So much so that the Archbishop was canonised in 1173 and in 1220 a richly decorated shrine was created to house Becket’s remains and serve as a focal point for pilgrims (a pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine is at the heart of Geoffrey Chaucer’s A Canterbury Tale). The shrine was eventually destroyed in 1538 on the orders of King Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The beautiful Becket Casket, made of Limoges enamel, depicts, among other things, Becket’s murder, subsequent burial and the ascension of his soul to heaven. On the rear are four long-haired figures who may represent saints or the Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.

One of more than 40 examples still in existence (the British Museum also has one), it was probably made for an important religious house and may have been used to contain relics of the dead saint.

It can now be found in the collection of the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Gallery at the museum’s premises in South Kensington.

WHERE: Room 8 (case 20), Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington (nearest Tube Stations are South Kensington and Knightsbridge). WHEN: 10am to 5.45pm daily (Fridays until 10pm – select galleries after 6pm)COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.vam.ac.uk.

For more on Thomas Becket, see John Guy’s book Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold.

PICTURE: V&A images

This well-to-do area in London’s north-west, just outside Regent’s Park, takes its name from the historic ownership of land here by the Order of St John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights Hospitaller).

The land had previously been part of the Great Forest of Middlesex. The Order of St John of Jerusalem, which since 1140s had its English headquarters in a Clerkenwell priory where St John’s Gate stands (this now houses the Museum of the Order of St John – see our previous entry here), took over ownership of land in the early 1300s after the previous owners, the Knights Templar, fell into disgrace.

Following the Dissolution, it became Crown land and remained so until 1688 after which it passed into the hands of private families, notably the Eyre family who owned much of the area.

It remained relatively undeveloped until the early 19th century when, following the introduction of semi-detached villas on planned estates, it was marketed as a residential alternative for London’s middle classes, away from the smog and congestion of central London.

It became favored by the bohemian set and residents included creative types like artists and authors as well as scientists and traditional craftsmen (apparently in the late 19th century it was also known for its upmarket brothels).

Rebuilt with swanky apartment complexes in the early twentieth century, these days it remains a leafy enclave for the wealthy. Many of the houses which have survived are heritage listed.

Landmarks include St John’s Church (pictured above, this was consecrated in 1814) and the St John’s Wood Barracks and a Riding School (this was completed in 1825 and is the oldest building still on the site) which is now home to the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery which carries out mounted ceremonial artillery duties such as firing royal salutes for the State Opening of Parliament, royal birthdays and state visits.

St John’s Wood is also home to Abbey Road Studios (home of the Beatles and that famous zebra crossing), Lord’s Cricket Ground (officially the home of the Marylebone Cricket Club which was moved here in 1814, the same year the church was consecrated) and the Central London Mosque located on the edge of Regent’s Park.

For more on St John’s Wood, take a look at the website of The St John’s Wood Society.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the transfer of the care of the Royal Parks to the government (meaning the public was freely able to enjoy access for the first time). To celebrate, over the next weeks we’ll be taking a look at the history of each of them. First up is the 142 hectare Hyde Park, perhaps the most famous of all eight Royal Parks.

Formerly owned by Westminster Abbey, King Henry VIII seized the land in 1536 for use as a private hunting ground. He had it enclosed with fences and the Westbourne Stream, which ran through the park – it now runs underground – dammed.

It remained the king and queen’s private domain (Queen Elizabeth I is known to have reviewed troops there) until King James I appointed a ranger to look after the park and permitted limited access to certain members of the nobility in the early 17th century.

The park’s landscaping remained largely unaltered until the accession of King Charles I – he created what is known as the ‘ring’ – a circular track where members of the royal court could drive their carriages. In 1637, he also opened the park to the public (less than 30 years later, in 1665, it proved a popular place for campers fleeing the Great Plague in London).

During the ensuring Civil War, the Parliamentarians created forts in the park to help defend the city against the Royalists – some evidence of their work still remains in the raised bank next to Park Lane.

After King William III and Queen Mary II moved their court to Kensington Palace (formerly Nottingham House) in the late 1600s, they had 300 oil lamps installed along what we know as “Rotten Row’ – the first artificially lit road in the country – to enable them and their court to travel safely between the palace and Westminster.

The natural looking Serpentine – the great, 11.34 hectare, lake in the middle of Hyde Park (pictured) – was created in the 1730s on the orders of Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, as part of extensive work she had carried out there. It was Queen Caroline who also divided off what we now know as Kensington Gardens from Hyde Park, separating the two with a ha-ha (a ditch).

The next major changes occurred in the 1820s when King George IV employed architect and garden designer Decimus Burton to create the monumental park entrance at Hyde Park Corner – the screen still remains in its original position while Wellington Arch was moved from a parallel position to where it now stands (see our previous posts for more on that). Burton also designed a new railing fence and several lodges and gates for the park. A bridge across the Serpentine, meanwhile, was built at about the same time along with a new road, West Carriage Drive, formally separating Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

While the basic layout of the park has been largely unchanged since, there have been some additions – among them, the establishment in 1872 of Speaker’s Corner as a place to speak your mind in the north-east corner of the park (near Marble Arch), the creation in 1930 of the Lido for bathing in warm weather, and, more recently, the building of the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Fountain (unveiled in 2004), and the 7 July Memorial (unveiled in July 2009).

Other sculptures in the park include Isis (designed by Simon Gudgeon, located on the south side of the Serpentine), the Boy and Dolphin Fountain (designed by Alexander Munro, it stands in the Rose Garden), and a monumental statue of Achilles, a memorial to the Duke of Wellington designed by Richard Westmacott, near Park Lane. There are also memorials to the Holocaust, Queen Caroline, and the Cavalry as well as a Norwegian War Memorial and a mosaic marking the site of the Reformer’s Tree (the tree was burnt down during the Reform League Riots of 1866).

The park has been integral part of any national celebrations for centuries – in 1814 a fireworks display there marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Exhibition – with the vast Crystal Palace – was held there in 1851 and in 1977 a Silver Jubilee Exhibition was held marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 25 year reign. Cannons are fire there on June 2nd to mark the Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and on 10th June for the Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday.

Facilities these days include rowing and pedal boats, tennis courts, deck chairs, a restaurant and cafe (the latter based in the Lido) and, of course, some Boris bikes. There is a heritage walk through the park which can be downloaded from the Royal Parks website.

WHERE: Hyde Park (nearest tube stations are that of Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner, Lancaster Gate, Knightsbridge and South Kensington); WHEN: 5am to midnight; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.gov.uk/Hyde-Park.aspx?page=main

PICTURE: Courtesy of Royal Parks. © Indusfoto Ltd 

This is the first in our new special series looking at 10 of the best of London’s small museums. We’re not including houses once lived in by famous people (that will be the subject of a later series), but rather those museums which contain some of the city’s most eclectic collections yet still tend to fly a little under the radar when it comes to the crowds…

First up, we take a look at the Museum of the Order of St John. The museum – which was reopened in late 2010 following a £3.7 million redevelopment – is located in St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell (pictured), the Tudor era gatehouse of the order’s once substantial London priory.

Told inside is the story of the order, from its founding in the 12th century as the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem with the aim of caring for sick pilgrims who had travelled to the Holy Land through to its later role as a military order and its Middle Ages moves – following the capture of Palestine by Muslim forces in 1291 – to Cyprus, then Rhodes, and eventually Malta, along with its current work through the charitable foundation of St John Ambulance.

Exhibits include weapons and armour, paintings and illuminated manuscripts (such as the Rhodes Missal of 1504), coins, furnishings, ceramics, silverware and textiles. There is also a 16th or 17th century bust of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller from 1557 to 1568 and famed for leading the order to victory in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 (he is remembered still in the name of the island nation’s capital, Valletta).

As well as the gatehouse (which, following the Dissolution, was used for various purposes including being the childhood home of 18th century artist William Hogarth and, at another time, housing a printing press used by famed lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson), the museum’s assets also encompass the 12th century crypt under what was once the priory church (it’s located just to the north across Clerkenwell Road). It’s well worth a visit for the stunning 16th century tomb effigies alone.

WHERE: The Museum of the Order of St John, St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday (tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday); COST: Free (a small donation for guided tours); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.

The London area of Blackfriars – centred on Blackfriars Railway Station – takes its name from the former Dominican friary (known as the “black friars” thanks to their dark robes) which stood on the site.

The Dominicans first came to England in the 1220s and soon took up residence in Holborn. But the limitations of that site led them to move to a new location between Ludgate and the River Thames in the latter part of the 13th century. There, they constructed a substantial priory.

The priory subsequently played an important part in London’s civic and religious life – Parliament and the Privy Council is known to have met here and in 1529, a hearing was held here with regard to the divorce of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

It was also a place of burial for the wealthy and influential – among those buried there was the beloved wife of Edward I, Eleanor of Castille (at least her heart was – her body was buried at Westminster Abbey).

The priory was dissolved in 1538 during the Dissolution. The Blackfriars Playhouse was built on the site during Elizabethan times and the Apothecaries Company also took up residence there. Those of the original buildings that survived were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. In more recent times, the area became the site of Blackfriars Railway Station.

A reminder of the area’s origins can be found on the facade of The Black Friar pub (1875) which sits opposite Blackfriars Bridge at the western end of Queen Victoria Street (pictured). There you can see a statue of a black friar, the work of Henry Poole which dates from around the beginning of the 20th century. There is also a plaque commemorating the friary in nearby Carter Lane.