This Week in London – ‘Hidden Highlights’ at Westminster Abbey; food and Black entrepreneurship; and, ride the Dodgems at Somerset House…

Westminster Abbey Library, part of of the ‘Hidden Highlights’ tour. PICTURE: Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

A lost medieval sacristy used by Westminster Abbey’s monks in the 13th-century which has been revealed in the abbey grounds has been opened to the public. A visit to the dig uncovering the former sacristy is one of the stops on new ‘Hidden Highlights’ tours which also take in other areas not usually open to the public including the Jerusalem Chamber where King Henry IV died in 1413 and, the Library, formerly part of the monk’s dormitory which features a 15th century oak roof and 17th century bookcases (pictured above). The tour, which finishes in the Diamond Jubilee Galleries which have been closed since the start of the pandemic, is part of a summer of events at the abbey which also includes open air cinema, visits to the abbey after dark, live music performances and a chance to look behind the scenes at the abbey’s role in the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. For more, see www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-news/lost-medieval-sacristy-opens-to-public-for-summer-festival-of-events.

A new exhibition looking at the central role food plays in Black entrepreneurship and identity in the city’s south east has opened at the Museum of London Docklands. Feeding Black: Community, Power & Place puts four businesses in the spotlight – Livity Plant Based Cuisine in Croydon, Woolwich businesses African Cash & Carry and Junior’s Caribbean Stall, and Zeret Kitchen in Camberwell – and tells their stories through objects, recipes and videos as well as newly commissioned photography by Jonas Martinez and original oral histories and soundscapes by Kayode ‘Kayodeine’ Gomez. The free display can be seen until 17th July next year in the London, Sugar & Slavery gallery. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

Ride the dodgems at Somerset House. Dodge, described as a “thrilling open air experience” that takes an “inventive twist on the traditional fairground”, features dodgem cars and installations from acclaimed artists as well as food and drink and DJ sets. The event runs until 22nd August. There is free entry to the site but charges apply for the dodgem rides. For more, see www.somersethouse.org.uk. The event is part of the #LetsDoLondon campaign, described as the “biggest domestic tourism the capital has ever seen”.

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LondonLife – Exploring Buckingham Palace’s gardens…

The garden at Buckingham Palace in spring. PICTURE: John Campbell (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.)

The historic 39 acre garden at Buckingham Palace opened to the public for the first time last Friday as part of the palace’s summer opening. Visitors can follow a route that takes in the 156-metre Herbaceous Border, plane trees which were planted by and named for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and views of the island and its beehives across the 3.5-acre lake. There’s also the opportunity to enjoy a picnic on the lawns and guided tours of the south-west of the garden with features including the Rose Garden, summer house and wildflower meadow. The current landscape dates back to the 1820s when King George IV turned Buckingham House into a place. It features more than 1,000 trees, the National Collection of Mulberry Trees (mulberry trees were first planted by King James I in 1608), 320 different wildflowers and grasses, and, since 2008, five beehives. The Queen traditionally hosts three garden parties in the gardens annually which are each attended by 8,000 guests, who consume around 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake. The gardens are open until 19th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.rct.uk.

A curving path leading past the Magnolia Dell to the Rose Garden. PICTURE: John Campbell (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.)
The Rose Garden and summer house can be seen as part of guided tours. PICTURE: John Campbell ( Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.)
Spring flowers in the Buckingham Palace garden. PICTURE:John Campbell (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.)

A Moment in London’s History – The opening of Royal Albert Hall…

Crowds gathered at the Opening of Royal Albert Hall, on 29th March, 1871, as seems in the Illustrated London News, on the 8th April, 1871.

Next week sees the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary concert taking place, one of a number of events to mark the anniversary of the hall’s opening.

This spectacular building in South Kensington was officially opened on 29th March, 1871, as The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences (the opening was actually brought forward from 1st May – 20th anniversary of the opening of the Great Exhibition – at the request of Queen Victoria).

The Queen had laid the foundation stone in 1867 and the work on the building, the creation of which was partly funded by profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851, was complete by the end of 1870 (at least its structure – much of the interior decoration was apparently added later).

An image of the interior of the hall during the opening ceremony on 29th March. 1871. The illustration originally appeared in The Graphic. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia.

Queen Victoria and members of the Royal Family left Buckingham Palace in a line of state carriages for the event at noon escorted by the Royal Horse Guards Blue. Large crowds lined the route of her passage and a guard of honour composed of the Grenadiers stood opposite the entrance.

On arriving, the Queen was met by the Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), members of the building committee and some of those who has served as commissioners of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Queen processed to a dais inside the building’ auditorium where some 8,000 dignitaries and invited guests waited in the audience. But she was apparently too overcome by memories of her late husband – Prince Albert, after whom the building as named – to give a speech. So it was the Prince who did so, although the Queen did reportedly add her own comments, saying according to an account in The Guardian: “I cannot but express my great admiration for this beautiful building, and my earnest wishes for its complete success.”

A battery of artillery performed a salute in nearby Hyde Park after which the Queen and Royal Family took their seats in the Royal Box to watch the musical program that followed. The Queen then returned to Buckingham Palace.

Interestingly, the first concert at the hall, held to test acoustics, actually took place month earlier on 25th February for an audience of some 7,000 people made up of those who had worked on the building and their families as well as officials and various invited members of the public.

Lost London – Lesnes Abbey…

A viewpoint overlooking the the ruins of Lesnes Abbey. PICTURE: M W Pinsent (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Located in London’s south-east, Lesnes Abbey was founded in 1178 as the Abbey of St Mary and St Thomas the Martyr by Richard de Luci, a joint Chief Justiciar of England at the time.

It’s believed de Luci did so as an act of penance for his support of King Henry II in his dispute with St Thomas Becket (in fact, de Luci was ex-communicated by him twice before Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in December, 1170). De Luci retired here after resigning his office in 1179 and died soon after. He was buried in the chapter house.

The Augustinian monastery, never a large or wealthy community, had fallen into a state of disrepair and debt by the early 15th century apparently due to mismanagement but at least partly caused by the cost of maintaining the river wall and draining the marshes in which it was located.

Some rebuilding was carried out at the start of the 16th century but in 1525 it was closed or suppressed on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s orders and the monastic buildings were demolished with the exception of the Abbot’s lodging.

The site was subsequently sold off and passed through various hands – it spent some 300 years as a possession of Christ’s Hospital – and eventually became farmland with the abbot’s house forming the core of a farmhouse which was demolished in 1844.

The site was excavated under the direction of Sir Alfred Clapham in the early 20th century and was purchased by the London County Council in 1930. It was opened as a public park in 1931. Since 1986, it’s been owned and managed by the London Borough of Bexley.

The site today, a scheduled ancient monument, includes some impressive ruins from the abbey. The nearby woods takes its name from the abbey.

The ruins of Lesnes Abbey. PICTURE: Axel Drainville (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

This Week in London – Marking the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold; and, a new sculpture trail in Greenwich…

The 18 day meeting between King Henry VIII and King Francois I of France in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, is the subject of an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace. Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King, which is being held to mark the 500th anniversary of the event (having been rescheduled from last year), is being held in rooms in Hampton Court Palace that were once used by the architect of the summit, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and features objects from the actual meeting as well as treasures from the courts of the two kings. They include the spectacular Stonyhurst vestments – woven from cloth of gold and chosen by Henry for use at the religious services held near Calais, Wolsey’s Book of Hours, and a unique tapestry which, manufactured in Tournai in the 1520s, depicts a bout of wrestling at the event with a black trumpeter shown among the brace of royal musicians. The display can be seen until 5th September. Admission charge applies. For more information and tickets – prebooking is essential, see www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/.

A free sculpture trail, featuring works by artist Josie Spencer, has opened on the King William Lawns at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Fragments in Time features life-sized bodies captured in dramatic positions, including fractured figures, which demonstrate the beauty and resilience of the human spirit while highlighting the fragility of life. The artist says the works have been chosen from a group of pieces that treated the figures as if they were the “archaeology of our time found in another century, in the future, when those then looking at them can see the fragility of our life now”. The trail can be seen until 6th August.

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10 London hills – 10. Richmond Hill…

The famous and protected view looking south-west from Richmond Hill across The Thames and Glover’s Island. PICTURE: flicksmores (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For the final in this series we head out west to Richmond Hill which takes its name from the palace which once stood nearby.

At the summit of the hill, which stands about 50 metres (165 feet) high, stands the gate to Richmond Park while the steeper western slopes drop down to Petersham Meadows by the River Thames.

What was the village of Richmond – now incorporated into greater London – sits partly on the slopes of the hill. It and the hill take their names from a palace, established here in the early 16th century by King Henry VII as a replacement for Sheen (Shene) Palace which had been destroyed in a fire in 1499. The King named the new building Richmond Palace, in honour of the earldom of Richmond in Yorkshire, one of his titles.

Richmond Hill is famed for its views – they include the only view in England protected by an Act of Parliament (passed in 1902). It looks to the south-west over Petersham to the Thames, taking in Glover’s Island, and reaching as far as Windsor and has been immortalised in works by the likes of artists JMW Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds as well as by author Sir Walter Scott.

Richmond Hill features many fine 18th century homes including Wick House (built for Joshua Reynolds in 1771) and the westward slopes boast the Terrace Walk and Terrace Gardens, both of which are Grade II* listed, while the massive bulk of the former Royal Star and Garter Home for disabled ex-servicemen (now apartments) can be seen close to the summit.

Other famous residents on the hill have included Rolling Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood and actress Celia Johnson while scenes for the film, The Hours, were shot on The Terrace.

Looking at Richmond Hill from the Petersham meadows; to the left is the Petersham Hotel, to the right, the former Star and Garter Home. PICTURE: Maxwell Hamilton (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Treasures of London – Southwark Bridge…

Southwark Bridge lit up to mark its 100th birthday. PICTURE: Courtesy of the City of London Corporation.

Southwark Bridge celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this month so we thought it a good time to have a quick look at the bridge’s history.

The bridge was a replacement for an earlier three-arch iron bridge built by John Rennie which had opened in 1819.

Known by the nickname, the “Iron Bridge”, it was mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit. But the bridge had problems – its narrow approaches and steep gradient led it to become labelled “the curse of the carman [cart drivers] and the ruin of his horses”.

Increasing traffic meant a replacement became necessary and a new bridge, which featured five arches and was made of steel, was designed by architect Sir Ernest George and engineer Sir Basil Mott.

Work on the new bridge – which was to cost £375,000 and was paid for by the City of London Corporation’s Bridge House Estates which was originally founded in 1097 to maintain London Bridge and expanded to care for others – began in 1913 but its completion was delayed thanks to the outbreak of World War I.

The 800 foot long bridge was finally officially opened on 6th June, 1921, by King George V who used a golden key to open its gates. He and Queen Mary then rode over the bridge in a carriage.

The bridge, now Grade II-listed, was significantly damaged in a 1941 air raid and was temporarily repaired before it was properly restored in 1955. More recently, the bridge was given a facelift in 2011 when £2.5 million was spent cleaning and repainting the metalwork in its original colours – yellow and ‘Southwark Green’.

The current bridge has appeared in numerous films including 1964’s Mary Poppins and, in more recent times, 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

A Moment in London’s History – The coronation of King Edward IV…

It’s 560 years ago this month that the Yorkist King Edward IV was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

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King Edward IV by Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1540 (NPG 3542). PICTURE: Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Only three months earlier, on 4th March, 1461, the 19-year-old Edward had been declared King at Westminster in London. He had then gone on to defeat the Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Towton in North Yorkshire during a snowstorm on 29th March, said to have been the bloodiest single day battle ever fought on English soil with an estimated 28,000 men dying.

While his coronation was first set for July, ongoing trouble from the Lancastrians saw him bring the date forward (his predecessor, Henry VI, was in exile at the time).

Edward arrived at the Tower of London on Friday, 26th June, and then retired to Lambeth for the night. The following day – Saturday, 27th June – he crossed London Bridge and made his state entrance into the City.

Accompanied by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen and some 400 of the elite citizens of the City, Edward, said to be an impressive figure at six foot, four inches tall, then processed through the City streets to the Tower of London.

Once at the Tower, he created some 28 new Knights of the Bath, including his younger brothers George and Richard. They then rode ahead of him as he rode through the streets to Westminster.

The following morning, Sunday, 28th June, Edward went to Westminster Abbey where he was crowned King. Thomas Bourchier, the Archbishop of Canterbury, presided over the ceremony, assisted by William Booth, the Archbishop of York.

After the coronation, a banquet was held in Westminster Hall with the King sitting under a cloth of gold. One of the highlights was apparently the moment when Sir Thomas Dymoke, the King’s champion, rode into the hall in full armour. Flinging down his mail gauntlet, he is said to have challenged anyone who disputed Edward’s right to be king to do battle with him. No-one took up the offer.

A further banquet was held the following day at the Bishop of London’s Palace – in honour of his brother George who was created Duke of Clarence, and on the Tuesday, King Edward, wearing his crown, attended St Paul’s Cathedral.

Edward’s first reign ended in 1470 when on 30th October, he was forced into exile and King Henry VI. But it was only to be for a brief period – Edward IV reclaimed the throne on 11th April, 1471, defeating the Lancastrians in a decisive battle at Barnet on 14th April (April marked the 550th anniversary of that battle).

10 London hills – 8. Harrow Hill…

The Harrow School (left) and St Mary’s Church on top of Harrow Hill. PICTURE: Google Maps

This hill in outer north-west London, which rises 124 metres (408 feet) above sea level, is the location of the village Harrow-on-the-Hill.

The hill’s name is said to refer to a Saxon place of worship and was later taken to mean the Christian church that stood upon it.

That church – the historic St Mary’s, the latest incarnation of a Christian church which has stood on the hill since the Norman Conquest – dominates the hill to this day. Nearby is a spot called King Charles’ Well where King Charles I is said to have stopped and taken one last look at London as he made his way from Oxford to surrender to the Scottish army in Nottinghamshire.

The other famous landmark atop the hill, opposite the church, is the world renowned Harrow School, founded under a Royal Charter by John Lyon in 1572, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The hill is also host to a Grade II-listed war memorial and a fine array of historic homes dating from the Georgian period to the early 20th century. Among this who have lived on the hill are 19th. century critic and writer Matthew Arnold and 19th century Scottish author RM Ballantyne.

Panoramic views of Central London can be seen from the top of the hill and there is a famous viewpoint in the churchyard known as Lord Byron’s View, which looks away to the north-west. It’s so-called because Byron, while a schoolboy at Harrow, was a frequent visitor to the spot by a tombstone – called the “Peachy Tomb”- where he would apparently spend time “dreaming”.

Byron’s View atop Harrow on the Hill. PICTURE: Google Maps

Famous Londoners – Thomas Crapper…

One of the most famous plumbers in the world, Thomas Crapper was the founder of London-based sanitary equipment company, Thomas Crapper & Co, and a man whose name has become synonymous with toilets (although he was not, contrary to popular belief, the inventor of the flushing toilet).

A portrait of Thomas Crapper. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia.

Crapper was born in the town of Thorne in Yorkshire in 1836, the son of Charles Crapper, a sailor (his exact birthday is unknown but he was baptised on 28th September, so it’s thought to have been around that time).

In 1853, he was apprenticed to his brother George, a master plumber based in Chelsea, and, having subsequently gained his own credentials, established himself as a sanitary engineer in Marlborough Road in 1861 (he had married his cousin, Maria Green, the previous year).

Sometime in the late 1860s, in a move some saw as scandalous, his company became the first to open public showrooms displaying sanitary-related products. He was also a strong advocate for the installation of flushing toilets in private homes.

While not the inventor of the modern flushing toilet (that is often credited to Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1595, although there are even earlier examples), he was responsible for a number of advances in the field including making design improvements to the floating ballcock, a tank-filling mechanism, and the U-bend, an improvement on the S-bend.

Crapper’s company did have some high profile clients – in the 1880s it supplied the plumbing at Sandringham House in Norfolk for then Prince Albert (later King Edward VII). This resulted in Crapper’s first Royal Warrant and the company would go on to receive others from both Albert, when king, and King George V.

Crapper’s branded manhole covers, meanwhile, can still be seen in various parts of London, including around Westminster Abbey where he laid drains. His name can also be found on what are said to be London’s oldest public toilets.

Thomas Crapper & Company logo. PICTURE: Oxyman (licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Crapper retired in 1904 (his wife had died two years earlier) and the firm passed to his nephew George (son of his plumber brother George) and his business partner Robert Marr Wharam (the firm, Thomas Crapper & Company, continues to this day – now based in Huddersfield, it still sells a range of vintage bathroom products).

Having spent some time commuting from Brighton, Thomas lived the last six years of his life at 12 Thornsett Road, Anerley, in south-east London (the house now bears a plaque). He died on 27th January, 1910, of colon cancer and was buried at Elmer’s End Cemetery nearby.

While it is often claimed that it’s thanks to Thomas Crapper and his toilets that the word ‘crap’ came to mean excrement, the word is actually of Middle English origin and was already recorded as being associated with human waste when Crapper was just a young boy.

But there is apparently more truth to the claim that toilets became known as ‘crappers’ thanks to Thomas Crapper’s firm. It was apparently American servicemen who, when stationed overseas during World War I, encountered Crapper’s seemingly ubiquitous branding on toilets in England and France and, as a result, started referring to toilets as such.

10 London hills – 5. Primrose Hill…

View from the top of Primrose Hill. PICTURE: Steve Cadman (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Standing in a park located just to the north of Regent’s Park in the city’s inner north-west, Primrose Hill stands 63 metres above sea level and, like Parliament Hill, provides panoramic views of the city skyline.

The hill, which features one of six protected views in London, was once part of a chase (unenclosed hunting land) owned by King Henry VIII and was Crown property until 1842 when it became part of a public park through an Act of Parliament.

The name has been in use for at least 500 years and is thought to refer to the flowers that grew here profusely (which it means it can’t have been named for Archibald Primrose, Prime Minister between 1894 and 1895).

The hill forms part of one of Mother Shipton’s “prophecies” – she apparently proclaimed that when London surrounded the hill, its streets would run with blood.

It was for a time known as Greenberry Hill after three labourers – Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill – were found guilty of the murder of magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (he had heard Titus Oates’ evidence in the so-called Popish Plot). Sir Edmund was found impaled on his own sword on the hill in October, 1678 – convicted of his murder the three men were hanged on its summit in 1679 (they were later exonerated and the death of Sir Edmund remains something of a mystery).

The hill, which has also apparently been known as Battle Hill, was also the location where the poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) founded the Gorsedd, a community of Welsh bards, on 21st June in 1792.

In 1838, a railway tunnel under the hill was completed by the North Western Railway – it was the first in London and connected Chalk Farm and Swiss Cottage. In the 1840s, a proposal to create a cemetery here was put to Parliament but never went ahead. There were also plans to develop the entire hill as a housing estate but nothing came of it.

On top of the hill is York stone edging with an inscription by William Blake: “I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill.” There’s also the remains of an anti-aircraft battery from World War II.

On the hill’s slope, meanwhile, is a tree planted in 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (it replaced once planted 100 years earlier in honour of the Bard’s 300th).

Primrose Hill gives its name to part of the surrounding area, which remains a sought-after residential district.

For details on when to visit, head to www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/the-regents-park/things-to-see-and-do/primrose-hill.

A Moment in London’s History – Sir Robert Walpole becomes first ‘Prime Minister’…

Portrait of Robert Walpole (1676-1745); probably a work of Godfrey Kneller (via Wikipedia).

This month – over the Easter weekend, in fact – marked the 300th anniversary of the date on which Sir Robert Walpole effectively became the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Walpole, who had entered Parliament as a Whig at the age of 25 in 1701, had had a tumultuous political career which had included rising quickly to the positions of Secretary at War and Treasury of the Navy before, having been targeted by his Tory opponents, spending six months in the Tower of London after he was found guilty of corruption.

The accession of King George I in 1714 was good news for the Whigs and the following year Walpole was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. He resigned a couple of years later due to a party split but by 1720 he was once again man of influence, appointed to the Privy Council and made Paymaster General as well as Paymaster of the Forces.

The following year, on 3rd April, 1721, he was effectively elevated to the position of Prime Minister after being appointed First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and leader of the House of Commons.

Walpole remained at the head of the government until 1742 when he resigned after a motion of no confidence was moved against him. But it wasn’t all bad news, King George II subsequently elevated him to the House of Lords as the Earl of Orford.

Interesting, it was also King George II who offered Walpole the residence in Downing Street (Walpole only accepted on condition that it be a gift to the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty so he wasn’t liable for the cost of upkeep).

Walpole was the first of what has since been an unbroken line of 77 Prime Ministers (although only 55 people have held the office due to the multiple occasions on which individuals have served).

While the term was used informally to describe Walpole as far back as the 1730s (although in 1741 he denied he was the “sole and prime minister” in the House of Commons, thanks to the association of the term with foreign tyrannies), it wasn’t until the following century that it was used in Parliament (Benjamin Disraeli, was the first to sign an act using the title in 1878) and not until 1905 was the post of prime minister officially given recognition in the order of precedence.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – A recap…

We’ve finished our series on London sites related to the story of Thomas Becket. Before we move on to our next special series, here’s a recap…

1. Cheapside…

2. Merton Priory…

3. Guildhall…

4. London churches…

5. The Tower of London…

6. Westminster Abbey…

7. Southwark…

8. St Thomas Becket memorial…

9. St Thomas’ Hospital…

10. The Pilgrim’s Way…

We’ll launch our new series next Wednesday.

Famous Londoners – Old Martin…

A grizzly bear (not Old Martin). PICTURE: Joshua J Cotten/Unsplash

A large, fully grown, grizzly bear presented to King George III by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1811, Old Martin was one of the scarier residents of the Tower of London’s menagerie.

The bear, who was apparently named after a famous bear in Europe (the “old” was added because he spent so long in resident at the Tower), is said to have been the first grizzly in London.

He was not, however, the first bear to live there – King Henry III had been given a polar bear by King Haakon IV Haakonsson of Norway in 1251 (George, however, was apparently unimpressed with his gift, said to have commented in private that he would have preferred a tie or pair of socks).

Despite his many years in the menagerie, Old Martin apparently refused to be tamed and remained fierce towards both strangers and his keepers alike.

When the Duke of Wellington closed the menagerie in the early 1830s (King William IV apparently had little interest in the animals), Old Martin was moved to the London Zoo in Regent’s Park. He died there in 1838.

His skin and skull were subsequently sent to the Natural History Museum and rediscovered there in 1999 for an exhibition at the Tower.

There’s a rather odd story associated with Old Martin. It’s said that in 1816 – when Old Martin was living in the Tower’s menagerie – a Yeoman Warder saw a ghostly bear while on night duty near the Martin Tower. He apparently attempted to run it through with a bayonet but the blade went straight through and struck the door frame behind it. The somewhat dubious story goes that the poor Yeoman Warder died of shock just a few hours later.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 10. The Pilgrim’s Way…

The final in our series on St Thomas Becket’s London is not about a static site but a pathway, one that people have been walking since the Middle Ages as pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

A Pilgrim’s Way signpost near Chaldon in Surrey. PICTURE: G Travels (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Famous today through its association with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Pilgrim’s Way actually refers to not one path but a series of routes taken by pilgrims as they made their way from London to Canterbury, linking up along the way with another route originating in Winchester.

The pilgrimage from London typically started at the now long lost St Thomas Becket Chapel in the middle of Old London Bridge and then headed south through Southwark where the Tabard Inn – where Chaucer has his pilgrims staying at the start of his journey – was located.

These days, there’s several routes – the official Pilgrim’s Way website has a couple of different routes through London. Both start at Southwark Cathedral and one then follows the line of A2 south before heading east to the Thames through Deptford where it joins up with a second route. This route, on leaving Southwark Cathedral, follows the south bank of the Thames east.

On becoming one route at Deptford, the Pilgrim’s Way then follows the Thames through Greenwich and Woolwich before turning southward to Dartford and eventually linking up with the Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester in the village of Otford in Kent (and then on to Canterbury).

Other versions of the pilgrimage route start at Westminster Abbey and take in St Paul’s Cathedral before crossing over the Thames and heading east to Gravesend and on to the Medway towns and eventually Canterbury.

Interestingly, some believe that King Henry II took the route from London to Canterbury when performing his very public act of atonement for his role in the saint’s death (although others believe he made the pilgrimage from Winchester).

Treasures of London – St Thomas Becket pilgrim badges…

The Museum of London is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic but we run this story in the hope you’ll be able to visit soon.

This pilgrim badge depicts the scene of Becket’s martyrdom. An inscription at the base of the badge reads ‘THOMAS MA’ (meaning ‘Thomas Martyr’). Becket is on his knees in front of an altar with a number of knights attacking him. Behind the altar stands the figure of Edward Grim, a clerk who tried to stop Becket’s murder. One of the knights carries a shield with two bears’ heads on it, identifying him as Reginald Fitzurse (through the visual pun on the Latin ‘ursus’, meaning ‘bear’). Fitzurse was the knight popularly believed to have struck final blow that killed Becket. PICTURE: © Museum of London.
Pilgrim badge in the shape of a bust of St Thomas Becket wearing a mitre and inscribed ‘T:H:O:M:A:S’. PICTURE: © Museum of London.

The Museum of London contains a large collection – in fact, it’s said to be the largest in the UK – of pilgrim badges relating to the commemoration of the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, who was brutally murdered in 1170.

Produced largely in Canterbury (possibly some in London), the lead-alloy badges were worn, typically on a hat or staff, by pilgrims as a means of commemorating their pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

They came in various shapes and sizes. Many simply depict a bust of Becket’s head wearing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mitre (see picture right).

But others are more elaborate and depict the full-length figure of the archbishop, scenes of his martyrdom at the hands of King Henry II’s knights (see picture above) and even the elaborate bejewelled shrine housing St Thomas’ remains that was erected in about 1220 in Canterbury Cathedral (the endpoint of the pilgrimage).

The museum also has small tin ampullae which were created to hold “Canterbury Water” or “St Thomas’ Water” – water into which drops of the martyred archbishop’s blood were dripped before it was blessed – which was given to pilgrims to take home as a kind of “cure all”.

The collection of badges can be seen when the museum reopens. Keep an eye out for the reopening at www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 9. St Thomas’ Hospital…

Following Thomas Becket’s brutal murder in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, King Henry II is ordered by Pope Alexander III to perform acts of penance for his death, going on a public pilgrimage to Canterbury where he spent a night in prayer at Becket’s tomb and was whipped by monks.

The Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garrett Museum now resides in the former St Thomas’ Church which probably started life (in a previous version) as the chapel for the medieval hospital. PICTURE: Calstanhope (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).

Becket’s renown, meanwhile, quickly grew in the aftermath of his death and miracles soon began to be attributed to him. And then, little over two years after he was killed, the Pope declared him a saint. It’s believed that soon after that, in 1173, St Thomas’ Hospital in Southwark- which had been founded a couple of years earlier – was named in commemoration of him.

The hospital was run by a mixed-gendered order of Augustinian canons and canonesses, believed to be of the Priory of St Mary Overie, and provided shelter and treatment for the poor, sick, and homeless. Following a fire in the early 13th century, the hospital was relocated to a site on what is now St Thomas Street.

In the 15th century, Dick Whittington endowed a ward for expectant unmarried mothers at the hospital and in 1537, it was the location for the printing of one of the first English Bibles – which is commemorated in a plaque at the former site of the hospital.

When the monastery at Southwark, which oversaw the hospital – also referred to as the Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr, was closed in 1539 during the Dissolution, the hospital too was closed. It did reopen a decade later but was dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle instead of St Thomas Becket (and has remained so since). The name change was political – King Henry VIII had ‘decanonised” St Thomas Becket as part of his reform of the church in England.

The hospital was rebuilt from the end of the 17th century (the long-deconsecrated Church of St Thomas in St Thomas Street, home to the Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garrett, is the oldest surviving part of this rebuild) but it left Southwark in 1862 when the site was compulsorily acquired to make way for the construction of the Charing Cross railway viaduct from London Bridge Station.

Following a temporary relocation to Royal Surrey Gardens in Newington, it moved into new premises at Lambeth – across the river from the Houses of Parliament – in 1871. It has since been rebuilt and merged with Guy’s Hospital.

Correction: Apologies – we had typo in the copy – the date Becket was made a saint was, of course, 1173!

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 8. St Thomas Becket memorial…

PICTURE: Morgaine (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

High profile and influential though he was during his lifetime – serving as Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, it was the brutal and shocking nature of Thomas Becket’s death that ensured he would be remembered down through the ages.

Already strained, relations between King Henry II and Becket took a further downturn after the Archbishop excommunicated Roger de Pont L’Évêque, the Archbishop of York, Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the Bishop of Salisbury, thanks to their role in crowning Henry, the Young King, in York, without the Archbishop’s permission.

On hearing the news of the excommunication, King Henry II is said to have uttered those immortal words, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” (although there is considerable dispute over exactly what he said – contemporary biographer (and Canterbury monk) Edward Grim, for example, has the quote as: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”).

Whatever the exact words, the King’s utterance – made while he was at Bur-le-Roi near Bayeaux in modern France – was interpreted as a command by four knights who were present – Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. Leaving the castle, they set out for England to confront the Archbishop.

The knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December, 1170, and informed Becket that he was commanded to go to Winchester to answer for his actions. Becket refused and the knights, retrieving weapons and armour they had stashed outside the cathedral, returned to the cathedral and hunted down Becket (who had apparently ordered the doors to remain open) with swords in their hands.

They found him at a door to the cloister near the stairs leading up to the cathedral quire where monks were chanting vespers. Becket is reported to have said “I am no traitor and I am ready to die” before one of the knights tried to pull him inside. Grabbing a pillar, he refused to go. The knights then struck him with a series of blows on the head which proved fatal.

A modern memorial to Becket which features a statue depicting him lying back with his hand raised as though to ward off blows as he is attacked, is located in St Paul’s Churchyard. The statue, which is made from resin coloured to appear as bronze, is the work of Bainbridge Copnall and was created in 1970 as part of commemorations marking 800 years since his death. It was acquired by the City of London Corporation in 1973.

It was damaged by a falling cherry tree in 1987 but was restored by a student of Copnall.

Where’s London’s oldest…livery company?

There are 110 livery companies in London, representing various “ancient” and modern trades. But the oldest is said to be the Worshipful Company of Weavers.

What was then known as the Weavers’ Guild was granted a charter by King Henry II in 1155 (although the organisation has an even older origins – there is an entry in the Pipe Rolls as far back as 1130 recording a payment of £16 made on the weaver’s behalf to the Exchequer).

Saddler’s Hall in Gutter Lane where the Worshipful Company of Weavers is based out of.

In 1490, the Weaver’s Guild obtained a Grant of Arms, in the early 16th century it claimed the status of an incorporated craft, and, in 1577 it obtained ratification of its ordinances from the City of London.

By the late 16th century, the company – its numbers swollen by foreign weavers including Protestants fleeing persecution in Europe – built a hall on land it owned in Basinghall Street. A casualty of the Great Fire of London, the hall was rebuilt by 1669 but by the mid-1850s had fallen into disrepair and was pulled down and replaced by an office block.

After the office building was destroyed during World War II (fortunately some of the company’s treasures which had been stored there had already been moved), the company considered rebuilding the hall but decided its money could be better used, including on charitable works.

For many years, the company’s business was run from various clerk’s offices outside the City of London but since 1994 it has been run from Saddlers’ House.

The company, which ranks 42nd in the order of precedence for livery companies, has the motto ‘Weave Truth With Trust’.

For more, see www.weavers.org.uk.

10 London sites related to St Thomas Becket – 7. Southwark…

Thomas Becket spent eight years in role of Archbishop of Canterbury, including almost two based at a Cistercian abbey in Pontigny, France, while in exile following his dispute with King Henry II over the Constitutions of Clarendon.

Thomas returned to England in 1170 but his relationship with King Henry remained acrimonious, particularly after the Archbishop excommunicated Roger de Pont L’Évêque, the Archbishop of York, Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, and Josceline de Bohon, the Bishop of Salisbury, who had crowned King Henry’s heir, Henry, the Young King, at York in June of that year without his approval.

Ruins of Winchester Palace in Southwark. PICTURE: Aaron Bradley (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s that event that led to Becket’s infamous death at the hands of four knights in late December (more about that next week). But a few weeks before that Becket was in Southwark and there he met representatives of the Priory of St Mary Overie (of which what is now Southwark Cathedral was part) and visited Winchester Palace, London residence of the Bishop of Winchester (which now stands in ruins – see picture).

In what was to be Becket’s last visit to London before his death, he paused overnight at at the palace as he travelled to seek an audience with Henry, the Young King, in Winchester, in a bid to reconcile with the 15-year-old.

It was apparently quite an occasion – crowds estimated by one probable eyewitness to number some 3,000 came out to meet him as did a procession of singing monks from St Mary’s. Becket is said to have distributed alms to the poor and it’s said that a woman named Matilda, who apparently was known for making a spectacle of herself at public occasions, kept telling the Archbishop to “Beware of the knife” (which appears a little too conveniently prescient perhaps to ring true).

While at the palace, messengers arrived to inform Becket that the Young King did not wish to see him and instead ordered him back to Canterbury. Becket didn’t immediately obey – first headed further wet to Croydon and his manor at Harrow before eventually arriving back in Canterbury on about 18th December.