Located off Ave Maria Lane in the City of London is a tiny thoroughfare named Amen Corner.
This location of this short laneway – which leads to the U-shaped (and gated) Amen Court – makes the name no great surprise. It lies just to the north-west of St Paul’s Cathedral and is one of a number of religiously named streets in the area (others include Paternoster Lane, Paternoster Square, Paternoster Row and Canon Alley).
The corner apparently became so-named in relation to a prayer chanted by monks. It’s said that on the day of the Feast of Corpus Christi, the monks would process through the streets, chanting prayers as they did so.
The first prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, was started in Paternoster Row – itself named after the first couple of words in the prayer when recited in Latin (“Pater Noster” which translates as “Our Father”). The monks would then process westward and by the time they reached the corner of Paternoster Lane and Ave Maria Lane, they would be at the end of the prayer – “Amen”. Hence Amen Corner.
Amen Corner was, from 1614 until the Great Fire of London in 1666 when it was destroyed, the location of a three storey house which served as the headquarters of the the Royal College of Physicians.
Ave Maria Lane, meanwhile, is named after the next prayer the monks would recite after turning the corner – “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary”).
Amen Court, which isn’t accessible to the public, is home to a short terrace of 17th-century houses where the cathedral’s canons have traditionally lived.
At its western end is a wall which once marked the boundary of Newgate Prison and which itself has an interesting history. The spectral ‘Black Dog of Newgate’ was said to have been sighted crawling along its top just prior to an execution taking place in the prison.
The most notorious of London’s many prisons, Newgate remained in use for more than 700 years.
The prison – located on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey on the site of what is now London’s Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey thanks to its position on the street known as Old Bailey) – was apparently first constructed around the end of the 1100s on the orders of King Henry II at the site of one of the gates in the Roman wall (see picture).
It was enlarged and renovated several times over the ensuing centuries (including a complete rebuilding after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and another to the design of George Dance after the prison was badly damaged during the Gordon Riots of 1780, sparked by opposition to Catholic emancipation).
The prison, which was infamous for the squalid conditions in which prisoners were housed, was used for a range of purposes including housing debtors and the incarceration of people awaiting execution (by the 18th century, it’s said that more than 350 crimes had become punishable by death).
In 1783 public executions were moved from Tyburn, west of the city, to a site just outside the prison. In 1868, executions were no longer open to the public at large and the gallows moved inside. The prison closed in 1902 and was eventually demolished in 1904.
Famous prisoners who spent time in Newgate include Shakespeare’ contemporary Ben Jonson (for killing a man in a duel), 17th century author Daniel Defoe (for his authorship of political pamphlets), Captain William Kidd (for piracy), and William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania (for contempt of court during a case brought after he was accused of having illegally preached ).
But perhaps the most infamous is the 18th century criminal Jack Sheppard, known for having escaped from the prison several times before finally being hanged at Tyburn (close to where Marble Arch now stands).
The only surviving part of the prison in its original location is part of the prison wall which can be seen in Amen Corner.