Bermondsey Abbey, which was more than 130-years-old by the time King John put his seal to the Magna Carta in 1215, has an unusual connection to the unpopular king – it is one of a number of buildings in London which has, at various times in history, been erroneously referred to as King John’s Palace.

This suggestion – that it was a palace which was later converted into an abbey – may have arisen from a site on the former abbey grounds being known at some point in its history as King John’s Court (that name was said to commemorate the fact that King John visited the abbey).

Putting how King John’s name came to be linked with the abbey aside, we’ll take a quick look at the history of the abbey which rose to become an important ecclesiastical institution in medieval times.

While there was a monastic institution in Bermondsey as far back as the early 8th century, the priory which was here during the reign of King John was founded in 1082, possibly on the site of the earlier institution, by a Londoner named as Aylwin Child(e), apparently a wealthy Saxon merchant who was granted the land by King William the Conqueror.

In 1089, the monastery –  located about a mile back from the river between Southwark and Rotherhithe – became the Cluniac Priory of St Saviour, an order centred on the French abbey of Cluny, and was endowed by King William II (William Rufus) with the manor of Bermondsey.

It was “naturalised” – that is, became English – by the first English prior, Richard Dunton, in 1380, who paid a substantial fine for the process. It was elevated to the status of an abbey by Pope Boniface IX in 1399.

It had some important royal connections – King John’s father, King Henry II and his wife Queen Eleanor celebrated Christmas here in 1154 (their second child, the ill-fated Henry, the young King, was born here a couple of months later), and Queen Catherine (of Valois), wife of King Henry V, died here in 1437. It was also at Bermondsey Abbey that Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of King Edward IV and mother of the two “Princes in the Tower”, died in 1492 following her retirement from court.

The abbey, which grew to have an enormous income thanks to its acquisition of property in a range of counties, survived until the Dissolution when, in 1537, King Henry VIII closed its doors. It was later acquired by Sir Thomas Pope who demolished the abbey and built a mansion for himself on the site (and founded Trinity College in Oxford apparently using revenues from the property). We’ll deal more with its later history in an upcoming post.

The ruins of the abbey were extensively excavated in the past few decades and some of the remaining ruins of the abbey can still be seen buildings around Bermondsey Square and a blue plaque commemorating the abbey was unveiled in 2010. Bermondsey Street runs roughly along the line of the path which once led from the abbey gates to the Thames and the abbey had a dock there still commemorated as St Saviour’s Dock. The abbey’s name is commemorated in various streets around the area.

For more on the history of the Magna Carta, see David Starkey’s Magna Carta: The True Story Behind the Charter.

PICTURE: An archaeological dig at the ruins of Bermondsey Abbey in 2006. Zefrog/Wikipedia.

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London-Bridge2

The current London Bridge, which spans the River Thames linking Southwark to the City, is just the latest in several incarnations of a bridge which originally dates back to Roman times.

This week, we’re focusing on first stone bridge to be built on the site. Constructed over a period of some 33 years, it was only completed in 1209 during the reign of King John, some six years before the signing of the Magna Carta.

Construction on the bridge began in 1176, only 13 years after the construction of an earlier wooden bridge on the site (the latest of numerous wooden bridges built on the site, it had apparently built of elm under the direction of Peter de Colechurch, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, a now long-gone church in Cheapside).

It was the priest-architect de Colechurch who was also responsible for building the new bridge of stone, apparently on the orders of King Henry II. While many of the wealthy, including Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave funds for the construction of the bridge, a tax was also levied on wool, undressed sheepskins and leather to provide the necessary monies – the latter led to the phrase that London Bridge was “built upon woolpacks”. King John, meanwhile, had decreed in 1201 that the rents from several homes on the bridge would be used to repair it into perpetuity.

The bridge, which featured 20 arches – a new one built every 18 months or so, was apparently constructed on wooden piles driven into the river bed at low water with the piers of Kentish ragstone set on top. It was dangerous work and it’s been estimated that as many as 200 men may have died during its construction.

The bridge was almost completely lined with buildings on both sides of the narrow central street. These included a chapel dedicated to St Thomas á Becket – a stopping point for pilgrims heading to the saint’s shrine in Canterbury, as well as shops and residences (although, apart from the chapel, we know little about the original buildings). There was also a drawbridge toward the southern end and the Great Stone Gate guarding the entrance from Southwark.

Peter de Colechurch died in 1205, before the bridge was completed. He was buried in the undercroft of the chapel on the bridge.

Three men subsequently took on the task of completing the bridge – William de Almaine, Benedict Botewrite and Serle le Mercer who would go on to be a three time Lord Mayor of London. All three were later bridge wardens, the City officials charged with the daily running of the bridge itself.

One of key events on the bridge in the years immediately after its completion was the arrival of Louis, the Dauphin of France, in May, 1216. Louis had been invited to depose John by the rebellious barons after the agreement sealed at Runnymede fell apart and in 1216, he and his men marched over London Bridge on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral. (We’ll deal with this in more detail in a later post).

What became known as ‘Old London Bridge’, which stood in line with Fish Street Hill, survived the Great Fire of 1666, albeit badly damaged, but was eventually replaced with a new bridge, known, unsurprisingly as ‘New London Bridge’, which opened in 1831. Designed by John Rennie, this bridge was later replaced by one which opened in 1971 (Rennie’s bridge was sold off and now stands in Lake Havasu City, Arizona).

For a detailed history of Old London Bridge, check out Old London Bridge: The Story of the Longest Inhabited Bridge in Europe.

Houses-of-Parliament2 Both Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (these days better known as the Houses of Parliament – pictured) pre-date 1215 but unlike today in 1215 the upon which they stood was known as Thorney Island.

Formed by two branches of the Tyburn River as they ran down to the River Thames, Thorney Island (a small, marshy island apparently named for the thorny plants which once grew there) filled the space between them and the Thames (and remained so until the Tyburn’s branches were covered over).

One branch entered the Thames in what is now Whitehall, just to the north of where Westminster Bridge; another apparently to the south of the abbey, along the route of what is now Great College Street. (Yet another branch apparently entered the river near Vauxhall Bridge).

The abbey’s origins go back to Saxon times when what was initially a small church – apparently named after St Peter – was built on the site. By 960AD it had become a Benedictine monastery and, lying west of what was then the Saxon city in Lundenwic, it become known as the “west minster” (St Paul’s, in the city, was known as “east minster”) and a royal church.

The origins of the Palace of Westminster don’t go back quite as far but it was the Dane King Canute, who ruled from 1016 to 1035, who was the first king to build a palace here. It apparently burnt down but was subsequently rebuilt by King Edward the Confessor as part of a grand new palace-abbey complex.

For it was King Edward, of course, who also built the first grand version of Westminster Abbey, a project he started soon after his accession in 1042. It was consecrated in 1065, a year before his death and he was buried there the following year (his bones still lie inside the shrine which was created during the reign of King Henry III when he was undertaking a major rebuild of the minster).

Old Palace Yard dates from Edward’s rebuild – it connected his palace with his new abbey – while New Palace Yard, which lies at the north end of Westminster Hall, was named ‘new’ when it was constructed with the hall by King William II (William Rufus) in the late 11th century.

Westminster gained an important boost in becoming the pre-eminent seat of government in the kingdom when King Henry II established a secondary treasury here (the main treasury had traditionally been in Winchester, the old capital in Saxon times) and established the law courts in Westminster Hall.

King John, meanwhile, followed his father in helping to establish London as the centre of government and moved the Exchequer here. He also followed the tradition, by then well-established, by being crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1199 and it was also in the abbey that he married his second wife, Isabella, daughter of Count of Angouleme, the following year. 

Templars

Not much remains today of the original early medieval home of the Templar Knights which once existed just west of the City of London. While the area still carries the name (as seen in the Underground station, Temple), most the buildings now on the site came from later eras. But there are some original elements.

First though, a bit of history. The Templar precinct which become known as the Temple area of London was the second site in the city given to the military order, known more completely as the Knights of the Temple of Solomon (thanks to their Jerusalem HQ being located near the remains of the Temple of Solomon).

Temple-churchThe first was in Holborn, located between the northern end of Chancery Lane and Staple Inn, and was known as the ‘Old Temple’ after which, in the latter years of the 12th century, the Templars moved their headquarters to the new site – ‘New Temple’ or Novum Templum – on unoccupied land on the bank of the River Thames. 

This new precinct included consecrated and unconsecrated areas. The consecrated part was a monastery and was located around what is now Church Court with the monastic refectory built on the site of what is now Inner Temple Hall – the medieval buttery is the only part of the original building which survives.

The lay or unconsecrated part of the precinct lay east of Middle Temple Lane, where a second hall was built on the site of what is now the Middle Temple Hall (you’ll find more on that here) which was used to house the lay followers of the order.

The original buildings also included the still existing Templar Church (pictured, along with a monument depicting the Templars outside the church), which was consecrated in 1185 during the reign of King Henry II by Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, on a visit to London. Like all other Templar churches, its circular design was based on the design of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (the chancel was added later and consecrated in the presence of King Henry III in 1240 – for more on the Temple Church, you can see our earlier post here.

The New Temple become an important site in London (and the kingdom as a whole – the Masters of the Temple were the heads of the order in England) and was used by many of the nobility as a treasury to store valuables (and to lend money). It also had close connections with the monarchy and was, as we saw earlier this week, a power base for King John and from where he issued what is known as the King John Charter in 1215. He also used it for a time as a repository for the Crown jewels.

In an indication of the Temple’s prominence in state affairs, some of the great and powerful were buried here during this period including William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, who died in 1219, and his sons William and Gilbert (for more on those buried in the Temple, see our earlier post here). There were also apparently plans to bury King Henry III and his Queen here – this apparently spurred on the building of the chancel on the church – but they were eventually buried in Westminster Abbey instead.

Numerous relics were also apparently housed here during the Templar times including a phial believed to contain Christ’s blood and pieces of the true Cross.

The Templar era came to an end in 1312 when the order was dissolved on the authority of Pope Clement V amid some heinous allegations of blasphemy and sexual immorality which had the support of King Philip IV of France. While the pope awarded their property to the rival order, the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (also known as the Hospitallers), King Edward II had other ideas and ignored their claims with regard to the London property and instead, claimed it for the Crown (a dispute which went on for some years).

It later became associated particularly with lawyers, although lawyers would have certainly been at work in the New Temple given its role as banker to the wealthy (but more on its later associations with lawyers in later post).

For more on the history of the Templars, see Malcolm Barber’s The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.

Buckingham-Palace

As we all know by now, Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, are proud parents of a new born son with news of the new arrival provoking celebrations across Britain and, indeed, the world.

To celebrate the royal birth, here are 10 interesting facts about some previous royal births in London…

• The last time a Home Secretary attended a royal birth was in 1936 for the birth of Princess Alexandria, cousin of the Queen. The practice was officially stopped before the birth of Prince Charles in 1948.

• Such was the doubt over whether Mary of Modena, wife of King James II, was really pregnant that more than 40 eminent people were invited to witness the birth of their son Prince James in 1688 (and even then the rumours of that the stillborn baby had been swapped for another were rife).

• Queen Anne, who ruled from 1702-1714, went through 17 pregnancies but, tragically, outlived all of her children, her last surviving child – the Duke of Gloucester – dying in 1700.

• The tradition of firing a 41 gun salute on the news of the birth of a future monarch dates from the birth of the future King Edward VII. Twenty-one shots are fired in honour of the birth with an additional 21 fired because the guns are located in Green Park, a Royal Park.

• Queen Elizabeth II was born by caesarean section at 2.40am on April 21, 1926, at the home of her mother’s parents – 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair. (See our previous post on this here).

• Such was the animosity between Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his father, King George II, that when Frederick’s wife Augusta went into labour at the king’s home of Hampton Court Palace, he bundled her into a coach and had her taken to his home of St James’s Palace. With no preparations made there, his newly born daughter had to be wrapped in a tablecloth (the story is retold in detail in Lucy Worsley’s terrific book, Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court)

• Queen Victoria, who had nine children, used chloroform for pain relief during later births, despite the concept being frowned upon by some officials.

• Buckingham Palace (pictured above) has been the birthplace of numerous Royal Family members. Of course, Prince Charles was born here in 1948 as was his brother Prince Andrew (1960) and Prince Edward (1964) but so too – somewhat earlier – were 14 of King George III and Queen Charlotte’s 15 children when the property was known as Buckingham House and, later, the Queen’s House. King Edward VII was the only monarch who both was born and died in the building.

• Such was the desperation of King Henry VIII for a son, that a document announcing the birth were drawn up to that effect prior to Anne Boleyn giving birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. The document was still issued – the only concession being an ‘s’ added to the end of the word prince.

• The oldest English king to father a child was King Edward I – he was 66-years-old when his last child, Princess Eleanor, was born in 1306. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, was the oldest queen to father a child when she gave birth to the future King John at 44-years-of-age in 1166.

A relatively short-lived Norman fortification located on Ludgate Hill, this tower or ‘castle’ was probably built in the late 11th century and was one of several new fortress located in the city post 1066.

Ludgate-HillBelieved to have been built by Gilbert de Monfichet – a relative of King William the Conqueror who hailed from Rouen (and is believed to have been connected with Monfichet family of Stansted Monfichet in Essex), the tower apparently comprised a stone keep on a motte surrounded by ditches. It was located on Ludgate Hill near the city wall, to the north of Carter Lane, on what was then the western edge of the walled city.

First appearing in documents in the 1130s, it was apparently strengthened during a revolt against King Henry II in 1173-1174 but was eventually demolished in the 13th century (some accounts suggest it was King John who ordered its demolition in 1213, after Gilbert’s successor Richard was banished).

The site was given to the Dominican priory of Blackfriars in 1275 (there’s a suggestion that the tower was already in ruins by 1278 meaning it must have been at least partially demolished some time prior). Apparently some of the masonry from the tower was used in the priory’s construction.

Excavations in the 1980s revealed the remains of a ‘V’ shaped defensive ditch – interpreted as one of three defensive ditches which protected the tower – and rubbish and cess pits – interpreted as standing within what was the tower’s bailey.

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

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.

• A revamped Crown Jewels display opens today at the Tower of London to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The new display features graphics, music and newly restored film footage and will focus on the coronation ceremony as its central theme, exploring how the regalia are used in the ceremony. The regalia – which includes some of the most extraordinary diamonds in the world such as the Star of Africa and Koh-i-Nur – is being displayed in the order in which it is used at the coronation ceremony. The Crown Jewels have been on show to the public at the Tower of London since at least 1661 after they were remade for King Charles II’s coronation. The previous collection had been largely destroyed in the Civil War although some pieces survived including a gilt silver spoon probably made for King Henry II or King Richard I (the “Lionheart”). For more information, see www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/.

Five dresses worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, have gone on display at Kensington Palace  which re-opened to the public this week following a £12 million overhaul. The five dresses include a black silk taffeta gown (designed by Emanuel) which Diana wore to a fundraising event at the Goldsmith’s Hall in 1981 – her first official engagement with Prince Charles as well as a formal dinner dress of ivory silk (Catherine Walker) created for a State Banquet for the King and Queen of Malaysia in 1993 and a black ribbed silk shift evening dress (Gianni Versace) worn to the London premiere of Apollo 13 in Hammersmith in 1995. For more on the revamp of the palace see our earlier post. Or visit www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/.

• A plaque commemorating the site where the iconic image for the cover of David Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars was photographed has been unveiled in the West End. The plaque at the somewhat innocuous site at 23 Heddon Street, just off Regent Street, was installed by the Crown Estate and unveiled this week by Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet. The image for the album cover was shot by the late photographer Brian Ward who managed to persuade Bowie to step outside the ‘studio’ space he had rented upstairs despite the fact it was a cold, wet January night.

• On Now: At Home with the World. This exhibition at the Geoffrye Museum explores the cosmopolitan nature of London’s homes over the past 400 years and looks at how diverse cultures have helped shaped the homes – covering everything from Chinese porcelain and the tea craze of the 1700s to the use of Islamic and Indian patterns in the 1800s, the popularity of Scandinavian and American design in the 1900s and the globalism of today. The period rooms on show at the museum have been reinterpreted to highlight the international influences. This is one of a series of Stories of the World: London exhibitions taking place across the city which are exploring four aspects of life – home, identity, journeys and place – as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad program. Runs until 9th September. Entry is free. For more, see www.geffrye-museum.org.uk.