This rather large fountain once stood in Mayfair as a tribute to literary greats Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and John Milton.

Designed by Thomas Thorneycroft (and apparently funded from wealth of a lady who died intestate but who had apparently always advocated for the location of a fountain on the site), the fountain stood on the centre of what is now a roundabout at the intersection of Old Park Lane and Hamilton Place.

Unveiled in July, 1875, it featured the three poets standing on various sides of a central pillar (Shakespeare taking pride of place looking towards Hyde Park). Below them sat three muses and above them, on top of a central column, stood a figure representing fame, blowing a trumpet.

The fountain,  and survived until World War II during which it sustained damaged. It was dismantled in 1948 and only the figure of ‘Fame’ is believed to have survived.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PICTURE: V&A images

One of those somewhat confusing placenames where the ‘w’ is effectively silent, Southwark (pronounced something like Suh-thuck) is a sizeable district south of the River Thames and one of the city’s oldest areas.

The area, which was settled as far back as Saxon times, takes its name from the Old English words suth or sud weorc which translates as “southern defensive work” and relates to the fact that the site is south of the City of London and at the southern end of London Bridge (the first bridge here was built by the Romans). While it was this name which was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, in the 900s the area was recorded as Suthriganaweorc which meant ‘fort of the men of Surrey’.

The name Southwark was also applied to borough which sat south of the river and still exists today – the Borough of Southwark. This in turn became shortened to just Borough, hence the name borough still exists as an alternative for part of Southwark even today (think of Borough Market and Borough High Street).

Part of Roman Londinium, Southwark was effectively abandoned after the end of Roman rule and then reoccupied by Saxons in the late 800s when the ‘burh’ (borough) of Southwark was created. It developed considerably in the medieval period and became known for its inns (think of the pilgrim inn, The Tabard, in The Canterbury Tales).

The area, particularly Bankside – part of the Borough of Southwark, also become known as an entertainment district with theatres and bear-baiting pits as well as a red-light district. It was also known for its prisons, in particular The Clink (controlled by the Bishop of Winchester), Marshalsea and the King’s Bench.

The area was also a centre of industry – everything from brewing to tanning – and came to boast numerous docks and warehouses (when it also became a centre of the food processing industry). With the closure of the docks, it’s retail, tourism, creative industries and the financial services which are dominant in the area today.

Landmarks are many thanks to the area’s long and colorful history (far too many to list in this short piece) but among major sites are Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market, and the George Inn as well as the Old Operating Theatre, Guy’s Hospital, and a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hinde. Personalities associated with the area (again far too many to list here) include Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

PICTURE: Southwark Cathedral © Copyright Kevin Danks and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

For more, check out Southwark: A History of Bankside, Bermondsey and the Borough

Once the eastern-most gateway into London, Aldgate is another of London’s gates which dates from Roman times.

The gate, which stood over the short street in the City now simply known as Aldgate, was rebuilt several times during the Middle Ages before, thanks again to the need for road widening, it was demolished in 1761.

Some sections of the gate were apparently taken to Bethnel Green, just to the east, where they were rebuilt as an addition to a 17th century mansion known as Aldgate House.

The name Aldgate is generally thought to mean ‘Old Gate’ but alternative theories suggest it derives from ‘Ale Gate’ (a connection with a local alehouse perhaps?) or ‘All Gate’ (that, is, all are free to enter).

The most famous person associated with the gate is the Middle English writer Geoffrey Chaucer – he lived in apartments above it for more than 10 years – from 1374 to 1386 – while working as a customs official.

Aldgate is also one of the wards of the City of London.

PICTURE: An artist’s impression of how Roman Aldgate may have looked as seen on a plaque marking the site of the former gate (part of a series of plaques on the former London Wall Walk).


The late Poet-Laureate Ted Hughes was honored in a ceremony in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner last week with the dedication of a hand-carved memorial slab. 
The memorial includes a quotation from his work That Morning: “So we found the end of our journey, So we stood alive in the river of light, Among the creatures of light, creatures of light…”. The memorial to Hughes, who died in 1998 at the age of 68, was placed at the foot of that of TS Eliot, who was a mentor to Hughes. Among those who attended the commemoration were Hughes’ widow Carol and his daughter Frieda as well as literary figures including Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Sir Andrew Motion, Michael Morpurgo and Graham Swift. Other literary luminaries commemorated in Poets’ Corner (only some of whom are buried here) include Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Lord Byron and John Keats as well as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling. For more on Poets’ Corner, see www.westminster-abbey.org.

PICTURE: Carol Hughes lays a bouquet of flowers and herbs from the garden of the Hughes’ Devon home at the memorial. (Copyright Dean and Chapter of Westminster).

What’s in a name?…Cheapside

September 12, 2011

One of the major thoroughfares of the City of London, the name is reflective of its role as a marketplace with the medieval English word ‘cheap’ generally been taken to mean market.

Starting from the intersection of Newgate Street and St Martin’s Le Grand through to where it runs into Poultry, the street was apparently originally known as Westcheap – Eastcheap is still located down near the Monument. Cheapside’s surrounding streets – including Poultry, Milk Street, and Bread Street give indication of the sorts of goods that were once sold in the area.

Cheapside was, in medieval times, an important street and was on the processional route royalty would have taken from Westminster to the Tower of London. It is the site of St Mary-le-Bow Church (it’s said that if you’re born within hearing of the Bow bells you’re a true Londoner), and, until the Great Fire of 1666, the eastern end of Cheapside was the site of the end of the Great Conduit where water arrived after being piped in from the Tyburn River in the west.

Key figures associated with Cheapside include slain Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, born there in 1118, poet John Milton, born on the adjoining Bread Street in 1608, and writer Geoffrey Chaucer. A glimpse into the street’s past was found in 1912 when the Cheapside Hoard was unearthed during the demolition of a building there (you can see our earlier post on that here).

The area was heavily bombed during World War II.

Lined with shops, restaurants and office buildings, Cheapside today remains close to the heart of the city and is currently undergoing significant redevelopment, the recently opened swanky shopping centre at One New Change being an example.

Best remembered for his landmark Middle English work in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer is known by many as “the father of English literature”.

But he also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, civil servant and courtier and while much of his life (and death) remain something of a mystery, there’s no doubt that he spent a considerable part of it in London.

Chaucer (the name comes from the Latin for ‘shoemaker’) was born into a wealthy London family sometime between 1340 and 1345 and nothing is known of his early life or education. In 1357 he was working as a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and daughter-in-law of King Edward III.

Two years later, he travelled in the retinue of the countess’ husband, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, to France with the army of King Edward III but in 1360 was captured near Rheims. He was subsequently ransomed with the king himself contributing to the sum needed.

Soon after Chaucer formally joined King Edward III’s court and was over the next two decades was sent on numerous missions by him to places as far flung as France, Genoa, Florence and possibly Padua (it was on these trips that he was apparently exposed to the writings of men such as Dante, Boccaccio and Froissart).

In 1366 he married Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Philippa of Hainault, King Edward III’s queen (and, some suggest, the sister to Katherine Swynford, mistress to John of Gaunt). Chaucer and his wife are believed to have three or four children – their son, Thomas, was later chief butler to English kings and served as the Speaker of the House of Commons.

In 1374, Chaucer was appointed as Comptroller of Customs for the Port of London, a post which he held until 1386 or so. It was during this time that he wrote many of his other major works including Parlement of Foules and Troilus and Criseyde (he had written his first major work, The Book of the Duchess, in honor Blanche of Lancaster, the late wife of his friend John of Gaunt sometime earlier following her death in 1369). Chaucer was also known at this time to have lived rent free in an apartment above the now removed Aldgate.

At some time in the 1380s, it is suggested Chaucer moved out to Kent where he is thought to have started work on The Canterbury Tales and where he also served as a local MP. His wife is believed to have died while they were there.

In 1389, he was appointed to the position of Clerk of the King’s Works and oversaw building projects at the Palace of Westminster, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, and at the Tower of London (building the wharf). Later he served as deputy forester of the royal forest of North Petherton in Somerset.

Chaucer’s name disappears from records in 1400 and he is believed to have died either that year or shortly after. The cause of his death remains unknown although writer Terry Jones, in his book Who Murdered Chaucer?, has suggested Chaucer was murdered in 1402 at the behest of Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury – a claim which has met with short shrift with many.

Chaucer’s remains were later transferred to a more elaborate tomb and he become the first writer to occupy a space in Poet’s Corner – a fitting place for a towering figure of English literature.

PICTURE: Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from Ellesmere Manuscript in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The manuscript is an early publishing of the Canterbury Tales. Source: Wikipedia.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

February 14, 2011

It’s Valentine’s Day, so we’re pausing from our usual updates to give you a couple of interesting historical titbits…

• The first recorded written Valentine’s Day card is generally attributed to Charles, the Duke of Orleans, who wrote it to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London following King Henry V’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415;

• Geoffrey Chaucer, author of 1382 text Parlement of Foules – a poem written in honor of King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia which is generally attributed with first linking St Valentine’s Day and romantic love, was born in and lived in London (although it should be noted that many don’t believe Chaucer was referring to 14th February in his reference but to another day associated with a different St Valentine).

PICTURE: Andrew C. (www.sxc.hu)