Famous Londoners – St John Houghton…

St John Houghton is remembered as the first Catholic Englishman to have been executed for refusing to take the oath prescribed by King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy.

Stained glass depicting St John Houghton in St Etheldreda’s Catholic Church in Ely. PICTURE: Lawrence OP (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Houghton was born around 1487 and is believed to have been educated at Cambridge, becoming ordained around 1511 before he entered the London Charterhouse in 1515 or 1516. By 1523, he held the position of sacristan and in 1528 that of procurator before, in 1531, he was transferred to Beauvale Priory in Nottinghamshire to serve as its prior.

But he returned to London in November that same year when he was unanimously elected Prior of the London Charterhouse. The following year was named Visitor of the English Province for the Carthusian Order.

When the King’s agents visited in April, 1534, requiring the community to take an oath as required under the 1534 Act of Succession (which excluded Katherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary in favour of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth), Houghton asked that the community be exempted.

Such a request was not looked upon kindly and Houghton, along with his procurator, Humphrey Middlemore, was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. Subsequently convinced that the oath was consistent with their Catholic faith by fellow clerics, the two returned to the Charterhouse in May, and there, in the presence of an armed force, the whole community eventually took the oath.

But in 1535, the community was again required to take an oath – this time recognising King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England as required by the 1534 Act of Supremacy. But Houghton, along with  the heads of the other two English Carthusian houses – Robert Lawrence, Prior of Beauvale, and Augustine Webster, Prior of Axholme – sought an audience with Thomas Cromwell and asked for an exemption. All three were sent to the Tower.

The three men were interrogated by Cromwell on 26th April and then, a few days later, were called before a special commission and sentenced to death.

Houghton was among five clerics – along with the other two Carthusian priors as well as Bridgettine monk Richard Reynolds and John Haile, the parish priest of Isleworth – who were dragged through the streets to Tyburn on 4th May. There, Houghton – wearing his religious habit – is said to have embraced his executioner as he recited the words of the 31st Psalm before he was the first to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Catholic tradition says that when Houghton’s body was cut open to remove his heart, he said to have prayed: “O Jesus, what wouldst thou do with my heart?”

Pieces of Houghton’s body were then displayed around London – his head was displayed above London Bridge and his arm was nailed to the gate of the Charterhouse,

Houghton was beatified on 9th December, 1886, and canonised in 25th December, 1970. He is considered one of the 40 Catholic Martyrs of England and Wales, all of whom were executed between 1535 and 1679 during the English Reformation.

Lost London: Gates Special – Aldersgate

Its name now more well known as one of the City of London’s 25 wards, Aldersgate was a gate opening to the city’s north, located close to where the Museum of London now stands, and was one of the city’s four original gates.

A plaque in Aldersgate Street marks where the gate once stood (there’s also an explanatory ‘London Wall’ plaque nearby) – it was finally knocked down in 1761.

The gate’s origins go back to late Roman times – it was apparently created to strengthen the city’s northern defences against Saxon incursions – and was built with two roadways passing through the wall protected by semi-circular towers. (The name apparently has nothing to do with the age of the gate as many believe but may be a corruption of a Saxon name Ealdred or come from a type of tree which grew nearby.)

An important link to places like the fair at Smithfield, St Bartholomew’s Priory and the Charterhouse in the Middle Ages, it was used as a prison and even as late as 1660, diarist Samuel Pepys writes of seeing the limbs of executed traitors displayed upon it. It was also had residential quarters above it – these were said to have been occupied at times by the City Crier and in the mid-1500s were used by printer and stationer John Day (he is said to have printed an early copy of the Bible, dedicated to King Edward VI, there in 1549).

In 1603, it was through Aldersgate that King James I entered London (his arms were later placed over the gate), and just 14 years later, in 1617, the entire gate was rebuilt. Repaired in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666 (it’s final form was said to feature, as well as the arms of King James I, statues of the Biblical figures Jeremiah and Samuel), it was finally demolished in 1761 to improve the flow of traffic.

PICTURE: Site of where Aldersgate once stood. To the right of the picture is the Church of St Botolph-without-Aldersgate.

King James I’s London – 4. Charterhouse

The Charterhouse School was founded in 1611 – the seventh year of King James I’s reign – on the site of a former Carthusian monastery in Smithfield.

It owes its creation to Thomas Sutton (1532-1611) who bought the site – which then contained a Tudor mansion – from Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, in 1611, the year of Sutton’s death.

A Yorkshireman, Sutton (who is buried in the chapel in Charterhouse) is said to have been the “wealthiest commoner in England” at the time, having made a fortune after discovering coal. He used his resources to endow a school and an almshouse on the site.

Among the school’s alumni were John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, and novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.

The school – which is this year celebrating its 400th anniversary – moved to Godalming in Surrey in 1872 and the site was subequently occupied by the Merchant Taylor’s School while the almhouse continued to operate on the western part of the land (it still does today under the name Sutton’s Hospital in Charterhouse).

The school later became the medical college of the nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital and is now occupied by Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

For more on the Charterhouse, see www.thecharterhouse.org (tours run on Wednesday afternoons at 2.15pm from April until August and cost £10 per person). For more on the Charterhouse School, see www.charterhouse.org.uk.

What’s in a name?…Clerkenwell

Located just to the north of the City, the area of Clerkenwell takes its name from the Clerk’s Well which stands in Farringdon Lane.

The well was mentioned as far back as 1174 and was the scene of medieval mystery plays which were performed by the parish clerks of London. It was formerly located inside the wall of the 12th century St Mary’s Nunnery (located on the site of St James Parish Church) but is now found in the basement of a building named Well Court.

Islington Council record that a pump was installed at pavement level in 1800 to enable the public to use the well to draw water but this was closed by the mid 1800s and the exact site of the well lost to public knowledge. It was only in 1924 that the well was rediscovered during building work.

Alongside the nunnery, Clerkenwell was also home to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, English headquarters of the crusader order known as the Knights Hospitallers. The Order of St John is still headquartered on the site of the former priory – the remains of the original priory include the Norman crypt under the rebuilt church and the priory’s main entrance, St John’s Gate, now home to a museum on the order. Also found in Clerkenwell is the Charterhouse, founded by Carthusian monks in 1370 and later a school (it’s these days home to a school of medicine and dentistry).

The area, centred on Clerkenwell Green (although apparently there hasn’t been a green here for several hundred years), become famous for its leisure-related institutions in the 1600s – these included spas, tea gardens and theatres (Sadler’s Wells Theatre still remains, albeit in a modern, dance-related form) – and gradually evolved into a more built-up residential area.

It was initially favored by the fashionable until the Industrial Revolution saw printing houses, breweries and distilleries, and clock and watchmakers move in. A survivor from the 18th century is the Middlesex Sessions House, built on Clerkenwell Green as a court around 1782 and now used by the Freemasons.

Industry declined in the area after World War II and Clerkenwell, which had also become a noted location for communists in the early 1900s (Lenin edited a paper here at one stage), was gradually transformed back into a residential area. Since the Eighties, Clerkenwell has again been going through a process of transformation – this time one of gentrification.

The well, located at 14-16 Farringdon Lane, can be visited – to arrange a visit, contact the Islington Local History Centre on 020 7527 7988 or email local.history@islington.gov.uk. For walks in Clerkenwell, see the Clerkenwell & Islington Guides Association  at www.clerkenwellwalks.org.uk.