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.
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).
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.
This City of London pub, located close to Liverpool Street Station, was originally known as The Old Jerusalem and dates back to the mid-18th century.
But the pub’s name was changed in the 19th century, inspired by the tragic history of a local businessman by the name of Nathaniel (there are some that suggest his name was Richard) Bentley.
The story goes that Bentley, who owned a hardware shop and warehouse, had been something of a dandy in his youth, earning the nickname, the “Beau of Leadenhall Street”.
But when his fiance died on the eve of their wedding day, he broke down and subsequently refused to clean anything, including himself (there was also speculation that he’d closed the dining room where the wedding breakfast was to be held with the spread still on the table). His home, shop and warehouse in Leadenhall Street became filthy and so famous that letters were apparently addressed to ‘The Dirty Warehouse, London’. He died in 1809 and the warehouse was later demolished.
William Barker, the owner of The Old Jerusalem, subsequently changed the name of his pub to Dirty Dick’s and it apparently became known for its own lack of cleanliness in sympathy with the man after whom it was named.
Charles Dickens is said to have been a patron of this establishment and it’s said that Bentley’s story inspired Dickens to create the character of Miss Havisham for this book, Great Expectations.
In keeping with its name, the cellar bar was for years cluttered with cobwebs and all sorts of items including a mummified cat but more recent years have seen the clutter removed (although some has been preserved and relocated to a glass display case).
The pub, at 202 Bishopsgate, is now owned by Young’s. For more, see www.dirtydicks.co.uk.
These posters are among almost 2,000 original works created by artists working for the Ministry of Information during World War II now in the collection of The National Archives based in Kew.
The posters tackle a range of issues – from saving on fuel at home to warnings about spies, posters to inspire effort on the homefront and those to recruit new men and women to the service.
Under a partnership with Wikimedia UK, in 2013 The National Archives digitised and released more than 350 images of the posters into the public domain. Here are some those released.
The originals are held at The National Archives.
Famous for his reform of the postal system, Sir Rowland Hill was a national celebrity during the Victorian era.
Born in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, on 3rd December, 1795, Rowland was the son of schoolmaster Thomas Wright Hill. Educated in his father’s school, Hill Top, in a Birmingham suburb, it was determined he would follow in his father’s footsteps at an early age and by the age of 12 had become a student teacher and in 1819 helped his family establish new model school, Hazelwood, in Edgbaston near Birmingham. In 1827, he was also involved with his family in establishing another new school, Bruce Castle School, in Tottenham, Middlesex.
That same year, Hill married Caroline Pearson, who originally came from Wolverhampton, and together they had four children – three daughters Eleanor, Clara and Louisa and a son Pearson.
In the following years, Hill became involved in campaigns to colonise South Australia and in 1835 he joined the South Australian Colonisation Commission as Secretary, a role which he held until 1839 (interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly given his interest, Hill’s sister Caroline would later emigrate to South Australia with her family).
Hill was in his early 40s when he became interested in reforming the postal system – what to be his life’s great work. In 1837, he published his influential pamphlet, Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, in which he argued for consistency in the system including pre-payment of standardised charges for sending mail.
Hill believed that if letters were cheap to send, more people – including the poorer classes – would send more and thus the profitability of the system would increase (a thought which proved true). It’s said, although whether it’s true or not is uncertain, that Hill became interested in reforming the postal system after he noticed a young woman who too poor to claim a letter sent to her by her fiancé (at the time it was usually the recipients who paid for the letter’s mailing).
Only three years later, Parliament passed the Penny Postage Act which saw the world’s first official postage stamps – the penny black and the two-penny black – issued. Hill and his family had by then moved to Orme Square in Bayswater (there’s now an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the property).
After the new government of Sir Robert Peel took office in 1841, Hill was dismissed and, joining the London and Brighton Railway as a director in 1843, relocated to Brighton.
But Hill was able to resume his postal reform efforts in 1846 after another change of government saw him appointed Secretary to the Postmaster-General. In 1854, he was appointed Secretary to the Post Office, a job he held until his retirement in 1864 due to ill health.
Hill was knighted in 1860. He spent the last 30 years of his life at Bartram House, Hampstead, and it was there he died 27th August, 1879 (a plaque now marks the house). He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
There are several public statues commemorating Hill include a bronze which, created in 1881, stands in King Edward Street in London (pictured).
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.
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.
This hill in the city’s north rises 136 metres (446 feet) above sea level and is said to take its name from a tollgate the Bishop of London once erected on the summit.
The hill, which stands to the northeast of the expansive Hampstead Heath and south of Highgate Wood, is topped by Highgate Village, long a fashionable residential district which features some significant 18th century buildings. It boasts views of central London.
Landmarks include the famous Highgate Cemetery – resting place to everyone from Karl Max to George Eliot and Douglas Adams – and the Highgate School, established on 1565 to educate the poor and now a rather exclusive – and expensive – establishment (the school, incidentally, was built on the site of an earlier hermitage). TS Eliot was a former master there and students included Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman.
Other buildings of note include The Flask pub, St Michael’s Church (dating from 1831) and St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church (dating from 1888).
Famous residents have included Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (he was originally buried in a crypt below the school’s chapel but his remains were relocated to St Michael’s Church in 1961) while 16th and early 17th century philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon died in what was then called Arundel House (now The Old Hall) in 1626. Classical scholar and poet AE Housman’s former house at 17 North Road is marked with an English Heritage Blue Plaque.
Highgate Hill is also famous for being where, so the story goes, Dick Whittington, who was accompanied by his cat, heard the Bow bells and felt called back to London (there’s a monument to Whittington and his cat close to the bottom of Highgate Hill Road).
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).
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.
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.
The highest point in the Borough of Greenwich in London’s south-east, Shooter’s Hill rises to 433 feet (132 metres) above sea level and provides views over the Thames to the north and London to the west as well as Kent and Essex.
The name, which is also that of the surrounding district, apparently comes from the fact that archery was practiced there in the Middle Ages.
But the area – which still is reasonably well wooded – was also the haunt of highwaymen (in response, there was a gallows at the crossroads at the bottom of the hill and a gibbet on the summit where bodies were displayed).
The modern road known as Shooters Hill Road, part of the A2 and later the A207, follows part of the route of the ancient roadway known as Watling Street.
Landmarks on the hill include a Gothic revival water tower dating from 1910 and a rather impressive folly known as Severndroog Castle which was built in in 1784 by Lady James in honour of her husband, Commodore Sir William James, who captured a pirate fortress at Suvarnadurg on India’s west coast in 1755.
Other landmarks include Christ Church Shooters Hill which features a Grade II-listed milestone and a Bronze Age mound known as Shrewsbury Barrow.
Literary mentions include one in Samuel Pepys’ famous diary – he rode past a body on the gibbet in 1661 – and in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
We know, we know – Napoleon Bonaparte never visited London. But given this month marks the bicentenary of his death on 5th May, 1821, we thought we’d mention a couple of places where you can find traces of the French Emperor in the British capital…
1. Napoleon As Mars The Peacemaker. This larger than life statue – it stands 11 feet tall – is the work of Italian artist Antonio Canova and depicts Napoleon as the Roman God. Napoleon didn’t like the almost naked statue – when he saw it in 1811, he declared it “too athletic” and as a result, it was never displayed in public. Following the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the British Government purchased the statue and presented it to the Duke of Wellington as a gift. Recently cleaned, it is now on display in the Iron Duke’s former home, Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (and can be seen there when it reopens to the public this week). The house also counts a recently restored bronze death mask of Napoleon among its treasures. The bronze is a copy of a plaster mask modelled on Napoleon’s corpse. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/.
2. Napoleon’s horse Marengo. A small grey Arab, Marengo was named after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo in Italy in 1800 and apparently served the Emperor between 1800 and 1815. Marengo was captured on the battlefield after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and transported to England. After its death, the horse’s skeleton was preserved and initially displayed at the Royal United Services Institute, moving to the National Army Museum in Chelsea in the 1960s. The skeleton is currently undergoing conservation work at the Natural History Museum before returning to the National Army Museum where it will be displayed in the Battle gallery. For more on the National Army Museum, see www.nam.ac.uk.
3. Portrait of Napoleon. A small image of a young Napoleon, this portrait – which arrived in England in 1797 – was the first many British people had seen of the Emperor (it was copied in engravings which were published across Britain). It was painted in a campaign tent on the road from Verona to Vienna in March, 1797, by Venetian artist named Francesco Cossia. Cossia had been commissioned by Francophile Maria Cosway, an artist then living in Oxford Street, London, to paint likenesses of several French Revolutionary generals including Napoleon. It is believed to have entered the collection of Sir John Soane somewhere between 1827 and 1830 and can now be seen in the Breakfast Room at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (reopening on 19th May). For more, see www.soane.org.
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.
The highest of the city’s three ancient hills (at 17.7 metres or 58 feet above sea level), it was on Cornhill that the first Romans settled following the invasion of 43AD and the later the site of the basilica.
In medieval times, a grain market was established on Cornhill which gave it the name it now bears.
Cornhill was also the location of a pillory (Daniel Defoe famously spent a day here in 1703 after writing a seditious pamphlet), stocks, and a prison known as the Tun where street walkers and lewd women were incarcerated.
Remembered in the name of the street which today runs from Bank junction to the western end of Leadenhall Street as well as being the name of one of London’s 25 wards, the hill is the site of several churches.
These include the aptly named St Michael Cornhill and St Peter-upon-Cornhill (said to be the oldest place of Christian worship in London) as well as the curiously named St Benet Fink (despite being rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 this was eventually demolished in 1844 when the Royal Exchange was rebuilt).
The hill was also the location of The Standard, at the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Streets. Constructed in 1582, this was the first mechanically pumped public water supply in London. It was sometimes used as a point from where to measure distances out of London.
The area became famed for its coffee houses in the 16th to 19th centuries (Pasqua Rosée opened what is claimed to be London’s first in St Michael’s Alley in 1652) and as such was a financial centre. Much of Cornhill is now occupied by offices.
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…
We’ll launch our new series next Wednesday.
Formerly named The Essex Head, this West End pub was established as far back as 1777.
Perhaps its greatest claim to fame (in its earliest incarnation, at least) was that it was the location where, in 1783, lexicographer Samuel Johnson and his friend and physician Richard Brocklesby established the Essex Head Club.
James Boswell was a member and the club apparently met at the pub three times a week as a favour to the landlord, Sam Greaves, a former servant of the Thrale family, friends of Johnson (who also lived with them for some years). It apparently lived on for some time even after Johnson’s death in 1784
The original name of the pub, located at the corner of Essex Street and Devereux Court in the Temple district, referred to Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, whose London home, Essex House, was previously located nearby (the house was largely demolished in the 1670s).
The pub, meanwhile, took on its current name in 1975. It was done to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of celebrated crime writer Edgar Wallace.
Wallace, who was known for wearing a trilby and apparently driving a yellow Rolls Royce (and whose claims to fame include initially drafting the screenplay for the film King Kong – he died before it was completed), is credited as being the inventor of the modern thriller novel.
While he was born in Greenwich, Wallace had spent his childhood in the area where the pub now stands (there’s also a plaque to him in Fleet Street commemorating the time he spent working as a reporter before he found fame as an author – we’ll being telling more of his story in an upcoming ‘Famous Londoners’).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.