Located in the basement of a modern office building (and visible through glass) are the remains of a 700-year-old crypt that once lay beneath Whitefriars Priory.

Reached via Magpie Alley (off Bouverie Street which runs south from Fleet Street), the remains are all that is visibly left of the priory, founded here in the 13th century.

Known as ‘White Friars’ because of the white mantle they wore over their brown habits, the Carmelites (their proper name) were founded in what is now Israel in the mid-12th century. After the region fell to the Saracens in the mid-13th century, some members of the order made their way to England with the aid of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III. In  1241, Sir Richard Grey of Codnor founded the Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on this site.

The priory – which counted towering medieval figure John of Gaunt among its patrons – once stretched from Fleet Street to the Thames and to the Temple in the west and what is now Whitefriars Street in the east. It included a church – enlarged in the 14th century – as well as cloisters, a garden and cemetery.

The priory survived until the Dissolution after which King Henry VIII granted various buildings to the King’s Physician and the King’s Armourer and the great hall become the famous Whitefriars Playhouse.

Whitefriars became part of the rather infamous slum known as Alsatia, a ‘liberty’ seen as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing the law. The priory was gradually subsumed into the slum – there’s a suggestion that the crypt may have been used as a coal cellar.

The remains of the 14th century vaulted crypt, which had been located beneath the prior’s house on the east side of the former priory site, were apparently found in the late 19th century and restored in the 1920s when the now defunct newspaper News of the World was expanding. During a redevelopment in the 1980s (which came after News International moved out to Wapping), the remains were moved to their current location.

WHERE: Whitefriars Crypt, Ashentree Court, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Temple and Blackfriars); WHEN: Daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: None.

PICTURE: The crypt at seen at this year’s Open House London event. (Andrea Vail licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.)

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Tower-of-London1OK, so not really a battle although it must have felt something like that to those involved (and the ‘battlefield’ turned out to be much of the City itself), the uprising known as Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 saw two great armies march upon London – one from Kent led by Wat Tyler and another from Essex which is said to have been under the command of Jack Straw.

The armies had risen in response to a series of events which they saw as unjust and which trace their origins back to the Black Death. Killing about a third of the population when it struck some 30 years earlier, this had resulted in a growing demand for labourers to work the fields raising, as one might expect, hopes of increased wages and greater freedom of movement among the peasant class.

But to ensure the social order was maintained, authorities had not only put limits on how much farm workers could be paid but ensured long-standing but increasingly unpopular practices – such as serfs being forced to work some time for free for their landlords – were maintained. On top of this came the imposition and enforcement of a series of poll taxes to fund England’s wars with France.

The poll taxes – and the harsh way in which they were enforced – were a step too far and when a tax collector visited the village of Fobbing in Essex in May, 1381, he was shown short shrift and thrown out. The unrest soon spread and by June, the rebels, having rampaged through the countryside were marching on London.

By 12th June, the men from Essex were camped at Mile End while Tyler and his army from Kent were at Blackheath. The next day, after being denied a meeting with the king, the rebels headed into the City where sympathetic Londoners opened the gates. Once inside, they targeted the property of those they deemed responsible for their misfortune, opening prisons and destroying any legal records they could find.

Foremost among the sites attacked and looted was the Palace of Savoy (see our earlier post here), home of the King’s uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and, as the power behind the throne, the man many deemed as the ultimate source of the ills besetting them (John himself had a lucky escape – he was away from the city when the palace was attacked.).

King Richard met with the leaders of the men from Essex on 14th June at their camp at Mile End and, after they pledged their allegiance, agreed to their petitions to abolish serfdom and allow them to sell their labour. But the attacks, meanwhile, were continuing in the City with a group of rebels led by Tyler storming the Tower of London (pictured above) the same day and seizing and beheading the Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor, along with the Robert Hales, Lord High Treasurer and Prior of St John’s in Clerkenwell – both key figures in the government of the king (you can read more about Simon of Sudbury here).

The following day – 15th June – King Richard again met with the rebel leaders – this time with Wat Tyler, leader of the Kentish band, at Smithfield. It was then that things went awry for the rebels. Apparently enraged by Tyler’s insolence (already stories differ as to exactly why he did so), the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Walworth (see our earlier post here), stabbed Tyler in the neck. King Richard managed to keep the situation under control until armed troops arrived and after the king declared a general pardon, the rebels dispersed.

Tyler, meanwhile, was taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital but on the orders of the Lord Mayor was dragged from his bed and beheaded (his head was displayed atop a pole positioned in a field). He was among dozens of the rebels who were subsequently executed for their role in the uprising (leaders Jack Straw and another, John Ball, were among them).

Hidden away to the north-west of the City of a quiet cul-de-sac, the oldest still-in-use Roman Catholic church in London (indeed, in England) is St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn.

St-EtheldredaLocated in Ely Place, this atmospheric church – named for Etheldreda, seventh century female abbess of Ely – opened as a Roman Catholic Church in 1878, although the building in which it is lodged is much older, indeed a rare survivor from the 13th century. It was built in 1290 by John De Kirkeby, the Bishop of Ely and Treasurer of England during the reign of King Edward I, as a chapel to a residence he constructed on the site.

It and the adjoining palace remained in use by subsequent bishops and other nobles (including John of Gaunt who lived here after his own residence, Savoy Palace , was burnt down during the Peasant’s Revolt) up to and after the Reformation – the first reformer Bishop to use it was Thomas Goodrich, who built the nearby Mitre Tavern. (Worth noting is that the church also has some strong links to Shakespeare – there’s a great article on the church’s website exploring these).

In 1620, the Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, moved into Ely Place and the chapel was used once again for Catholic masses (the residence was considered part of Spanish territory) – this was a relatively short-lived development for, thanks to deteriorating relations between England and Spain following a failed match between Prince Charles (later King Charles I) and the Infanta of Spain, the next ambassador was refused permission to live there.

Having escaped destruction in the Great Fire of London, the chapel was requisitioned by Parliament as a prison and hospital during the Civil War and subsequently fell into disuse before in 1772, the property – including the chapel – was sold to the Crown who in turn sold it to a surveyor and builder, Charles Cole.

Cole demolished the palace buildings with the exception of the chapel and had the current Ely Place built with neat rows of Georgian homes, modernising the chapel for the use of residents as an Anglican place of worship. The church attracted few worshippers, however, and in 1820 was taken over by the National Society for the Education of the Poor.

In 1873, the chapel was again to be sold and following a somewhat controversial auction was bought by the Catholic Institute of Charity (aka the Rosminians) and restored under the eye of Father William Lockhart (the Catholic Emancipation Act had been passed in 1829, allowing Catholics to have churches and say mass).

Interestingly, it was during this work that 18 bodies were discovered buried in the crypt – they had died in the ‘Fatal Vespers’ of 1623 when, during a secret meeting of Catholics at the French ambassador’s house in Blackfriars, the floor collapsed and more than 100 were killed. Not able to be buried publicly due to anti-Catholic feeling, they were buried in secret with some of them buried here.

A mass commemorated the completion of the restoration work on 23rd June, 1878, and the church has been in use as a Roman Catholic Church ever since (although years of repairs were needed following significant bomb damage in World War II). Further restoration work was carried out in the 1990s when Flemish tiles from the original cloister were discovered.

These days the church – which features a relic of St Etheldreda contained in a bejewelled cask sitting by the altar – is a quiet oasis in the midst of the bustling city – a great place to take some time out in the midst of a busy day. Also of note is the east window – the work of Joseph Edward Nuttgens, it was completed in 1952 and, like all the other windows, replaced a Victorian window destroyed in the Blitz (look for the image of St Etheldreda) – and the  west window – the work of Charles Blakeman, it is apparently the largest stained glass window in London and depicts a series of English Catholic martyrs.

WHERE: St Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place (nearest Tube stations are Chancery Lane and Farringdon); WHEN: 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday; 8am-12.30pm Sunday; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.stetheldreda.com.

At one time the grandest of medieval townhouses in London, the history of the Savoy Palace, also known as the Palace of the Savoy, goes back to at least the 13th century.

A mansion was built here by Simon de Montfort, the ill-fated Earl of Leicester, in 1245. Following his death, it and the land between the Strand and the Thames were gifted by King Henry III to Peter, Count of Savoy, and it was renamed the Savoy Palace (apparently originally spelt Savoie).

The uncle of the king’s young wife Eleanor of Provence, Peter had accompanied his niece to London for her wedding to the king at Canterbury Cathedral on 14th January, 1236, and decided to stay. In 1241, the king named him the Earl of Richmond and in 1246 granted him the land upon which the property was built.

After being briefly given to a religious order, Queen Eleanor gifted the property to Prince Edmund (“Edmund Crouchback” – a term referring to his entitlement to wear a crusader’s cross, not a hunchback), the 1st Earl of Lancaster and younger brother to King Edward I.

It was subsequently occupied by Edmund’s successor earls and, later, dukes. Among the ‘guests’ to visit the palace during the 14th century were the French King Jean (John) II, held there for three years following his capture by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years War in 1356.

Interestingly, as the property of the Dukes of Lancaster, the precinct around the palace was considered part of County Palatine of Lancaster (created in 1351), meaning that the rule of the dukes was applied here instead of that of the king – a situation which remained in place until the 1800s.

The palace eventually became the property of John of Gaunt, the 2nd Duke of Lancaster and third son of King Edward III. The richest and most powerful man in the kingdom (he was all but king in name during the younger years of King Richard II in whose name he ruled), Gaunt’s home was said to be sumptuous.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that it become a focus of the rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 (it had been attacked unsuccessfully a few years earlier). They attacked and destroyed the property, razing it to the ground. (The story includes the tale that 32 men drank themselves to death after becoming trapped in the cellar while the palace burned).

The site, however, continued to be referred to as that of the Savoy and in the early sixteenth century King Henry VII, by order of his will, financed the founding of the Savoy Hospital on the site for the poor people (the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy is a relic of this building – see our earlier post here). The hospital closed in 1702 and was later demolished (we’ll deal with this in more detail in a later Lost London post).

The site, which stands on the north side of the Thames just west of Waterloo Bridge,  is now occupied by the salubrious Savoy Hotel (the entrance of which is pictured above) and the Savoy Theatre, which, like the hotel, was founded by impressario Richard d’Oyly in the 1880s (the theatre was the first building in the country to be entirely lit by electric lighting).

The name of the Savoy Palace is also remembered in street names around the site including Savoy Street, Savoy Hill, Savoy Steps, Savoy Way and Savoy Place.

What’s in a name?…Strand

October 10, 2011

Now one of the major thoroughfares of the West End, the origins of the roadway known as the Strand go back to the Roman times leading west out of the city.

Later part of Saxon Lundenwic which occupied what is now the West End, it ran right along the northern shore of the Thames and so became known as the Strand (the word comes from the Saxon word for the foreshore of a river). During the following centuries the river was pushed back as buildings were constructed between the road and the river, leaving it now, excuse the pun, ‘stranded’ some distance from where the Thames flows.

Sitting on the route between the City of London and Westminster, seat of the government, the street proved a popular with the wealthy and influential and during the Middle Ages, a succession of grand homes or palaces was built along its length, in particular along the southern side.

All are now gone but for Somerset House – originally the home of the Dukes of Somerset, it was built in the 16th century but rebuilt in the 18th century after which it served a variety of roles including housing the Navy Office, before taking on its current role as an arts centre. Others now recalled in the names of streets coming off the Strand include the Savoy Palace, former residence of John of Gaunt which was destroyed in the Peasant’s Revolt, and York House, once home of the Bishops of Norwich and later that of George Villiers, favorite of King James I (see our earlier Lost London entry on York Watergate for more).

After the aristocracy decamped further west during the 17th and 18th centuries, the road and surrounding area fell into decline but was resurrected with a concerted building effort in the early 19th century (this included the creation of the Victoria Embankment which pushed the Thames even further away) which saw it become a favorite of the those who patronised the arts, including the opening of numerous theatres. Among those which still stand on the Strand today are the Adelphi and Savoy Theatres (this was apparently the first in London to be fitted with electric lights and sits on a site once occupied by the Savoy Palace).

Among the other landmarks along the Strand are the churches of St Mary-le-Strand (the present building which sits on what amounts to a traffic island) dates from 1717 and was designed by James Gibbs, and St Clement Danes, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1682 (it is now the Central Church of the Royal Air Force). The Strand is also home to the Victorian-era Royal Courts of Justice (it boasts more than 1,000 rooms), Australia House (home of the oldest Australian diplomatic mission), the Strand Palace Hotel (opened in 1907) and Charing Cross Railway Station.

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.