Once apparently known as Traitor’s Hill, Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath offers stunning views of the City of London and surrounds.

The summit of the hill, the view from which is protected, features a plaque, donated by the Heath and Hampstead Society and installed in 2016, which identifies various London landmarks visible from the site (it updated a similar plaque installed in 1984). Among the landmarks visible from the hill, which lies some six miles from the City in the south-east of the heath, are The Gherkin (St Mary Axe), St Paul’s Cathedral, The London Eye and the Houses of Parliament.

The hill’s name is somewhat shrouded in mystery. According to one story, it relates to the fact it was defended during the English Civil War by troops loyal to Parliament (hence first Traitor’s, then Parliament, Hill). Another named-related story, generally deemed to be somewhat dubious, has it as the site where Guy Fawkes and co-conspirator Robert Catesby planned to watch the destruction of Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Once part of a manor granted by King Henry I to a local baron, the hill was added to the public open space of Hampstead Heath in the late 1880s although manorial rights to the land persisted until the mid-20th century. The City of London Corporation has managed the hill since 1989.

Parliament Hill, these days a popular place for kite flying, is also the site of a short white pillar known as the ‘Stone of Free Speech’, once believed to have been a focal point for religious and political meetings (although its origins, like the hill’s name, are somewhat sketchy).

WHERE: Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath (nearest Tube station is Hampstead/nearest Overground stations are Gospel Oak and Hampstead Heath); WHEN: Always; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/green-spaces/hampstead-heath/visitor-information/Pages/Parliament-Hill-Viewpoint.aspx.


The first great stone cathedral on the site where Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s now stands was a relative – and as yet incomplete – newcomer in 1215. Construction on it had started more than 120 years before in 1087 but it eventually took more than 200 years to finish.

Old-St-PaulsIt was Bishop Maurice, chaplain to William the Conqueror (he donated some Caen stone for its construction), who began the project after the previous wooden Saxon church on the site – the latest in a succession of them dating back to the 7th century – had been destroyed by fire (although it was under successor Bishop Richard de Beaumis that work began to really take shape).

The first part of the building to be completed was the quire in 1148 – its opening was delayed by another fire in 1135 caused during civil unrest following the death of King Henry I – but it wasn’t until after the Magna Carta’s advent – in 1240 – that the church was eventually consecrated by Bishop Roger Niger.

Originally designed in the Norman Romanesque-style, the architectural style changed during the building process into the Early English Gothic style.

Enlarged and renovated several times since construction began, it wasn’t fully completed until the 14th century – when it was the largest church in England and the third largest in Europe featuring the tallest steeple, built in 1221, and spire, built in 1315, ever built (that is, until 1561 when it was knocked down by lightning).

It later contained a number of important relics including the arms of Mellitus, the first bishop of London (see our earlier post on him here), St Mary Magdalene’s hair, the head of King Ethelbert and, importantly for the time, some pieces from the skull of St Thomas á Becket. Among the tombs inside the emerging church in 1215 were those of Sebba, King of the East Saxons, who had been buried in the north aisle in 695, and that of King Ethelred “The Unready”.

While the exterior was remodelled in the early 17th century – including the addition of a monumental new porch by architect Inigo Jones – the medieval building remained standing until the Great Fire of 1666.

PICTURE: Via Wikipedia


We’ve visited Rochester before but given it’s the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta we thought it would be good to take a more in-depth look at Rochester Castle and the events that took place there after the sealing of the “Great Charter”.

Rochester Castle was first built in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings as a Norman stronghold to control the Medway and the Roman road – Watling Street – which crossed it at that point. There was a Roman-era town on the site and it’s likely the first castle – surrounded by a deep ditch and featuring walls of earth topped with timber – was  built within the town’s walls – possibly on the site of the existing castle.

Rochester-Castle2Work on a stone castle was started in the late 1080s by Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester (he also built the first Tower of London), and the castle precincts outer walls still largely follow the line of his original curtain walls. The keep was built by William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was granted the castle by King Henry I in 1127. It remained in the custody of the archbishops until the events of 1215.

Following the sealing of the Magna Carta in May, relations between King John and the barons soured again into outright civil war with the castle declared for the rebels. In October and November, 1215, it was held for some seven weeks by a force of knights – accounts suggest between 95 and 140 – against the forces of King John. These eventually breached the south curtain wall and after the forces of the knights – who were led by William de Albini and Reginald de Cornhill – retreated to the keep, the king ordered his sappers to work.

The miners were successful in undermining the south-west tower which collapsed along with a large section of the keep (the fat of 40 pigs were apparently used to make sure the fire in the mine was hot enough). The defenders nonetheless kept fighting, retreating further into the remains of the keep, until they were eventually forced to surrender when faced with starvation. King John’s fury at their resistance was said to be great but while some of the defenders lost their hands and feet when they were apparently lopped off on his orders after surrendering, he was convinced to spare the holdouts from being hanged on the spot and merely had them imprisoned.

The tower was later rebuilt by King John’s long ruling son, King Henry III, and you can see its distinct round shape (in contrast with the earlier, square towers) when looking at the keep today. (Incidentally, King John’s siege was the castle’s second major siege – the first had taken place in 1088 when the forces of King William II (Rufus) had besieged the castle which was then held by the rebellious Odo, Bishop of Bayeaux, who was involved in an attempt to put William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert, Duke of Normandy, on the throne in place of William (who was the second son). Odo was forced to come to terms and exiled as a result of the siege).

Rochester-Castle3In the hands of the Crown after King John’s siege, the castle was again the site of a siege in 1264 – this time unsuccessful when rebels under the command of Simon de Montfort failed to take it from those of King Henry III (although the garrison was later forced to surrender following events elsewhere).

It was rebuilt and repaired a number of times, including during the reigns of King Edward III and that of King Richard II (during whose reign it was also ransacked in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381). Other kings to visit it over the years included King Henry VII and King Henry VIII.

Already much deteriorated and neglected, in 1610, King James I gave the castle to Sir Anthony Weldon whose family sold off some of the timber and stone to local builders. It survived the Civil War without incident and was used as a public pleasure garden from the 1870s onward before, in 1884, it was sold to the City of Rochester. In 1965 responsibility for its care was given to the Ministry of Public Building and Works. Current managers, English Heritage, took over the site in 1984.

The castle remains an imposing site in Rochester and the outer walls of the keep remain intact even if it’s no more than a shell. Worth the climb to the top simply to take advantage of the spectacular views of the town and cathedral below!

WHERE: Rochester Castle, Rochester, Kent – nearest train station is Rochester (half a mile); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily (until 30th September); COST:£6.20 adults/£3.90 children (aged 5-15) and concessions (free for English Heritage members); WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rochester-castle.

St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield – the oldest parish church in London (see our earlier piece here) – is worth a revisit thanks to the fact that it would have been standing (at least partially) when the seal of King John was first affixed to the Magna Carta .

St-BartholomewsOnly half the size it once was, this church was founded in 1123 AD as the priory church for a community of Augustinian Canons and owes its origins to Rahere, a favored courtier of King Henry I who renounced his way of life and made a pilgrimage to Rome, returning to found both the church and nearby hospital for the poor.

Only the eastern part of the church was built by the time of the death of Rahere – the first prior – in 1145 and the building continued for some years afterward. While the interior walls now look somewhat plain, they would have been highly decorated when the building was originally constructed. At the time of the Magna Carta, the church would have only been partly completed.

The tomb of Rahere still lies within the church, on the left hand side of the altar – although the canopy over it dates from the 15th century. There were some healing miracles recorded at the tomb.

The church’s current configuration came about when the priory was dissolved in 1539 and the nave of the church was pulled down, leaving what’s there now – the quire, altar and lady chapel.

The brick tower at the church’s west end dates from the 1620s while the gateway through which you enter the church grounds features a restored 13th century arch topped by a late Tudor building.

The church was briefly used by some Dominican friars but since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I has fulfilled the role of parish church. A concerted restoration effort began in the mid-19th century by Sir Aston Webb (architect of the Victoria & Albert Museum), leaving the Lady Chapel with a very different feel to the Norman choir. The building is now Grade I-listed.

WHERE: Off Little Britain, West Smithfield (nearest tube station is Barbican); WHEN: 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday, 10.30am to 4pm Saturday, 8.30am to 8pm Sunday (except for services) ; COST: £4 an adult/£3.50 concession/£10 a family; WEBSITE: www.greatstbarts.com

This week we’re starting a new series in honour of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in which we look back at the London of 1215. First up we take a look at the Tower of London which was a smaller version of the complex of buildings which today exists on the site.

By 1215, the Tower of London – the fortress first constructed on the orders of William the Conqueror – had already existed for more than 100 years, nestled into a corner of the city’s walls which had existed since Roman times.

Then, as now, the White Tower – initially itself known as the Tower of London, it was later dubbed the White Tower thanks to the whitewash used to cover the Kentish limestone to protect it from the weather (and for its visual impact) – stood at the heart of the complex. Unlike today’s building, it lacked the large windows which date from the early 18th century, and while the towers were believed to be capped with cones, the present cupolas date from the reign of King Henry VIII.


While it had long been surrounded by a palisade and ditch, in 1189, King Richard I’s chancellor William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely, had begun to extend the castle’s defences while the king was on crusade (in fact, the first siege of the Tower took place in 1191 when the then Prince John did so in opposition to Longchamp’s  regime – it only lasted three days before Longchamp surrendered).

This extension, which was completed by King John following his accession to the throne in 1199, saw the size of the bailey around the White Tower doubled and a new curtain wall and towers – including the Bell Tower – built around its outer perimeter with a ditch below (the ruins of the Wardrobe Tower, just to the east of the White Tower show where the original Roman-era wall ran).

But it wasn’t until the reign of King John’s son, King Henry III, that the royal palace which now stands on the river side of the White Tower was constructed. Until that point – and at the time of the signing of the Magna Carta – the royal apartments remained within the White Tower itself, located on the upper floor.

Like those of the garrison commander known as the constable (located on the entrance level), the king’s apartments would have consisted of a hall and a large chamber, which may have been divided into smaller chambers with wooden partitions as well as a chapel (on the upper level this was the still existing Chapel of St John the Evangelist, although it would have then been more more richly decorated). Unlike the lower levels, the king’s level was of double height with a gallery (this level now has its own full floor).

The royal apartments had a variety of uses – as well as a residence and refuge for the king, they were also at times a place to keep high profile prisoners such as the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard, who was imprisoned on the orders of King Henry I (and who escaped from an upper window on a rope which had been smuggled in to him and fled to Normandy).

It is also worth noting that while King John apparently kept exotic animals at the Tower, it is his son, King Henry III who is usually credited with founding the Royal Menagerie there.

And it was his son, King Edward I, who expanded the Tower to its current size of  about 18 acres by rebuilding the western section of the inner ward and adding the outer ward.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest Tube station Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm Sunday to Monday; COST: £24.50 adults; £11 children under 15; £18.70 concessions; £60.70 for a family (discounts for online purchases/memberships); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.  

Baynard’s Castle actually refers to two buildings – a Norman fortification demolished in the early 13th century and a later medieval palace located to the east of the original structure. This week we’re looking at the first of those buildings – the Norman fortification.

Castle-BaynardThe first Baynard’s Castle was built in the late 11th century by Ralph Baynard (Baignard) and is believed to have replaced an earlier fortification at the site at the junction of the Thames and the Fleet rivers (the river now emerges into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge).

Baynard (his name may be the origin of the name for Bayswater – Baynard’s Watering place – see our earlier post here), was the sheriff of Essex and a supporter of William the Conqueror.

The castle – which is said to have featured walls and parapets and which is generally said to have been on the waterfront (although some have said it was located inland) – remained in Baynard’s family until the reign of King Henry I when in 1111, his grandson William Baynard apparently forfeited his lands for supporting Henry’s eldest brother and would-be king, Robert Curthose.

It was later passed to the King’s steward Robert Fitz Richard, son of the Earl of Clare, and is known to have been inherited by his grandson, Robert Fitzwalter.

Fitzwalter, however, was a key opponent of King John and as early as 1212 he was in hot water for his part in a conspiracy against the king, although he stated it was because the king tried to seduce his daughter, Matilda the Fair. Either way, he escaped trial by heading to France and John seized the opportunity to raze the castle which he did on 14th January, 1213.

Fitzwalter was later forgiven under an amnesty and went on to play a leading role among the baronial opposition to Kong John – he was among 25 barons charged with enforcing the promises of the Magna Carta of 1215.

The name Baynard’s Castle is remembered in the London ward of Castle Baynard (pictured) which covers the area in which it once stood.

Lost London – Queenhithe…

September 7, 2012

Not, strictly speaking, lost, Queenhithe – a dock on the north bank of the Thames – is nonetheless these days merely a shadow of its former self.

There has been a dock here since Saxon times when it is recorded that King Alfred (he of ‘The Great’ fame), established a harbour here in 883. It was then known as Ethelred’s Hythe (the Ethelred being that of his brother-in-law and ‘hythe’ being a Saxon word for a trading shore where goods could be traded directly out of boats).

Queenhithe took its name from Queen Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, who was granted dues from goods being traded at the dock in the early 1100’s – a right which was later inherited by future English queens.

The dock reached the peak of its popularity in the 13th century when it became the principal site for the landing of grain and other food supplies to feed London but in the 15th century, the dock’s importance waned as other docks downstream, better suited to larger watercraft, took over much of its trade.

Remains of the wooden timbers which in medieval times lined the Thames waterfront have been found here. The inlet for Queenhithe’s harbour (pictured above) is one of few left on The Thames.

The name these days gives itself to Queenhithe street (which leads to the inlet) and the Queenhithe Ward, one of 25 wards in the City of London. There was also a former church known as St Michael Queenhithe – it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and then demolished in the late 19th century.

Given we’re marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a look at sites of significance to her story located in London, it’s perhaps only fitting that we take a look at the nearest royal residence outside the city.

Windsor, located as close as half an hour by train from London’s Paddington station (or around 50 minutes to an hour from Waterloo), boasts plenty to see including the historic town centre, nearby Eton, great river and country walks and, of course, Legoland. But today our attention will remain on Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world.

There has been a fortress on this site since shortly after the Norman invasion when in about 1080 King William the Conqueror ordered it constructed on a ridge above the river bank as part of a series of defensive fortifications around London. The earth and timber Norman castle was gradually added to over the years – King Henry I (reigned 1100-1135), the first king to live here, added domestic quarters while King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189) built substantial royal apartments transforming the castle into a palace and began replacing the outer timber walls with stone fortifications as well as rebuilding the Norman Keep as the Round Tower (parts of which still date from this period). King Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) built upon and expanded his work.

But it was in the reign of King Edward III (1307-1327) that the castle was expanded enormously. This included the reconstruction of the lower ward including the rebuilding of the chapel, naming it St George’s (although the current chapel dates from the reign of King Edward IV – 1461-1470), and the reconstruction of the upper ward complete with apartments for him and his wife, Queen Phillipa, arranged around courtyards (although some of the work wasn’t completed until the reign of his successor, King Richard II – 1377-1399). It was also during King Edward III’s reign that the castle became the base for the Order of the Garter (which he created in 1348), a role it still fulfills.

Other works were ordered by successive Tudor monarchs including King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Queen Mary I. Parliamentary forces seized the castle during the Civil War (Oliver Cromwell did use it as his headquarters for a time) and Royalists were imprisoned here (King Charles I was in fact buried in a vault beneath St George’s Chapel after his execution having been previously imprisoned here).

The next major additions came in the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685) when the Upper Ward and State Apartments were reconstructed in baroque splendor, the latter complete with splendid murals ceiling paintings by Italian artist Antonio Verro (the murals were later destroyed but some of the ceiling paintings survive).

From the time of King William III (1689-1702), monarchs began spending more time at Hampton Court Palace but the focus returned to Windsor with King George III. He ordered a range of improvements and updates including modernising Frogmore House in the Home Park for his wife Queen Caroline (the property was subsequently used by various royals but no-one currently lives there), but many of these were stopped prematurely due to his illness. His son, King George IV, picked up where his father left off.

In the reign of Queen Victoria, Windsor became the royal family’s principal residence and was visited by heads of state including King Louis Philippe in 1844 and Emperor Napoleon III in 1855. The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, died here on 14th December, 1861.

King Edward VII (1901-1910) and King George V (1910-1936) both had a hand in redecorating the palace and the Queen’s father, King George VI (1936-1952), was living in the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park when he succeeded to the throne.

In more recent times, the castle was the home to the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret, for much of World War II. The castle suffered its greatest setback in recent times in 1992 when a serious fire broke out in the Queen’s Private Chapel which destroyed several rooms including the ceiling of St George’s Hall which dated from the reign of King George IV. Restoration works took five years to complete.

Today the Queen spends many private weekends at the castle while the court is officially in residence here for a month over the Easter period and during Ascot Week in June – it’s at this time that the Garter Day celebrations take place with the installation of new knights.

The Queen also hosts State Visits here with banquets held in St George’s Hall as well as what are known as a ‘sleep and dine’ in which high profile figures are invited to dinner with the Queen before being shown a special display of items from the Royal Library and then spending the night. The Royal Standard flies from the Round Tower when the Queen is in residence.

As well as touring the State Apartments, the Gallery, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (completed in the 1920s for Queen Mary, wife of King George V), and St George’s Chapel, visitors to the castle can experience the Changing of the Guard at 11am every day but Sundays between May and early August (and every second day after that).

WHERE: Windsor (a short walk from either Windsor Central Station or Windsor & Eton Riverside Station); WHEN: 9.45am to 5.15pm until 27th July (times vary after this date – check the website); COST: £17 an adult/£10.20 a child (under 17s – under fives free)/£15.50 concession/£44.75 family (price includes an audio tour); WEBSITE: www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/windsorcastle.