Famous Londoners – Will Somers…

The most famous of court jesters during the reign of King Henry VIII, little is known of Will Somers’ early life although it is suggested he was born in Shropshire.

It’s said Somers (also spelt Somer or Sommers) entered the service of a wealthy Northamptonshire merchant Sir Richard Fermor who presented him to King Henry VIII at Greenwich in 1525 (he is known to have been in service by 1535).

King Henry VIII as David, seated with harp, in an interior with his jester, William Sommers; illustrating Psalm 52. Taken from Psalter of Henry VIII (1530-1547).

Somers’ role as jester involved using his wit to comment on court life and those in it – including the likes of Cardinal Wolsey – and while he was permitted a wide latitude he would over-step including when he insulted Queen Anne Boleyn and her daughter Princess Elizabeth, leading to the King to threaten to kill Somers himself.

Somers was provided with royal livery to wear at court (he also sometimes apparently wore elaborate costumes) and was provided with a “keeper” to look after him.

Such was the esteem Somers’ was held in, he is believed to be the fool depicted in a family portrait of the King, his wife Jane Seymour and children Prince Edward and Princesses Mary and Elizabeth (Somers has a monkey on his shoulder in the painting; Jane Foole also appears in the portrait). He’s also believed to be depicted in an image with King Henry VIII which appeared in a psalter (pictured)

Towards the end of King Henry’s life it’s said Somers was the only one who could make him laugh. He remained at court following the King’s death through the reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary I and present at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I, eventually retired during her reign.

Somers is believed to have died on 15th June, 1560, and be buried in St Leonards, Shoreditch. There’s now a plaque to Somers there commemorating his burial.

Sommers subsequently appeared in various works of literature in following centuries including in more recent years when he has also appeared in TV shows – including the series The Tudors – as well as various novels including Paul Doherty’s The Last of Days.

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10 (lesser known) statues of English monarchs in London…1. King Edward VI at St Thomas’…

In honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, we have a new series looking at 10 lesser known statues of previous monarchs in London.

We kick off with not one, but actually two, statues of King Edward VI, the son of King Henry VIII and his third queen, Jane Seymour, can be found at St Thomas Hospital in Southwark.

Both of the statues were commissioned to commemorate the king’s re-founding of the hospital – which had been first founded in the 12th century and had been closed in 1540 as part of the Dissolution – in 1551 and which saw the complete rebuilding of the hospital under the stewardship of the hospital’s President, Sir Robert Clayton.

The 1682 statue. PICTURE: Matt Brown (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The oldest of the statues, now located outside the north entrance to the hospital’s North Wing on Lambeth Palace Road, was designed by Nathaniel Hanwell and carved from Purbeck limestone by Thomas Cartwright in 1682.

Peter Scheemakers’ bronze of King Edward VI. PICTURE: Secretlondon (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

It originally was part of a group – the King standing at the centre holding his raised sceptre surrounded by four figures which were innovative in that they depicted patients of the time – which adorned the gateway to the hospital on Borough High Street.

It was moved when the gate was widened in around 1720 and subsequently occupied several different positions – including spending some time in storage – before eventually, without the surrounding figures, being moved to its current position in 1976. It was designated a Grade II* monument in 1979.

The second of the two statues is a bronze figure in period dress which was created by sculptor Peter Scheemakers in 1737.

It can now be found inside the hospital’s North Wing, having been moved there last century, and like its counterpart, was designated a Grade II* monument in 1979.

The inscription on the front of the plinth describes the King as “a most excellent prince of exemplary piety and wisdom above his years, the glory and ornament of his age and most munificent founder of this hospital” and adds that the statue was erected at the expense of Charles Joye, Treasurer of the hospital.

This Week in London – Anne Boleyn’s heraldic badge at Hampton Court; and, St Patrick’s Day parade returns…

Queen Anne Boleyn’s carved heraldic badge. PICTURE: Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces.

Five hundred years after Queen Anne Boleyn is recorded as first appearing before her future husband, King Henry VIII, her carved heraldic badge has gone on show at Hampton Court Palace. The blackened oak carving, which features a crowned falcon atop a tree stump flowering with Tudor roses, was discovered by antiques expert Paul Fitzsimmons. While it had been covered in centuries of soot, grime and wax, conservation saw the removal of a layer of black paint to reveal the original colouring of white, gold and red. Subsequent research revealed the carving’s similarity to the 43 surviving falcon badges with the ‘frieze’ above the windows and hammer beams in the palace’s Great Hall, leading researchers to believe that the carving is an element of the room’s original Tudor scheme. Records show one Michael Joyner was paid to create carvings of the King’s and Queen’s badges. Following Boleyn’s downfall and Henry VIII’s subsequent marriage to Jane Seymour, craftsmen were paid to overpaint the former Queen’s white falcons in black, severing their association with her. Boleyn, who first appeared before Henry playing the role of Perseverance in a court masque, first started using the white falcon as her device around the time she was created Marquess of Pembroke, shortly before her public marriage to Henry in 1533. After her marriage and coronation, new imperial falcon badge was created, featuring the crown and sceptre. The badge can be seen in the Great Hall (included in general admission). For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/.

St Patricks’ Day will be marked in London this weekend for the first time in three years with a parade through central London and festivities in Trafalgar Square. The annual parade of Irish marching bands and dancers will start at Green Park at noon on Sunday and wind its way through the streets to Whitehall. Trafalgar Square, meanwhile, will play host to a line-up of Irish talent from noon to 6pm on Sunday with family-friendly concerts, storytelling, children’s films and youth performances, as well community choirs, schools, dance troupes and children’s workshops featuring camogie games, medal-making and face painting as well as a food and drinks stalls. For the full programme, head to www.london.gov.uk/st-patricks.

Send all items to exploringlondon@gmail.com

Lost London – Arundel House…

Arundel House, from the south, by Wenceslas Hollar. Via Wikimedia Commons.

One of a string of massive residences built along the Strand during the Middle Ages, Arundel House was previously the London townhouse of the Bishops of Bath and Wells (it was then known as ‘Bath Inn’ and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was among those who resided here during this period).

Following the Dissolution, in 1539 King Henry VIII granted the property to William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton (it was then known as Hampton Place). After reverting to the Crown on his death on 1542, it was subsequently given to Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley, a younger brother of Queen Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, and known as ‘Seymour Place’. Then Princess Elizabeth (late Queen Elizabeth I) stayed at the property during this period (in fact, it’s said her alleged affair with Thomas Seymour took place here).

Arundel House, from the south, by Wenceslas Hollar. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Seymour significantly remodelled the property, before in 1549, he was executed for treason. The house was subsequently sold to Henry Fitz Alan, 12th Earl of Arundel, for slightly more than £40. He was succeeded by his grandson, Philip Howard, but he was tried for treason and died in the Tower of London in 1595. In 1603, the house was granted to Charles, Earl of Nottingham, but his possession was short-lived.

Just four years later it was repurchased by the Howard family – in particular Philip’s son, Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel – who had been restored to the earldom.

Howard, who was also the 4th Earl of Surrey, housed his famous collection of sculptures, known as the ‘Arundel Marbles’, here (much of his collection, described as England’s first great art collection, is now in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum).

During this period, guests included Inigo Jones (who designed a number of updates to the property) and artist Wenceslas Hollar who resided in an apartment (in fact, it’s believed he drew his famous view of London, published in 1647, while on the roof).

Howard, known as the “Collector Earl”, died in Italy in 1646. Following his death, the property was used as a garrison and later, during the Commonwealth, used as a place to receive important guests

It was restored to Thomas’ grandson, Henry Howard, 6th Duke of Norfolk, following the Restoration. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, for several years the property was used as the location for Royal Society meetings.

The house was demolished in the 1678. It’s commemorated today by the streets named Surrey, Howard, Norfolk and Arundel (and a late 19th century property on the corner of Arundel Street and Temple Place now bears its name).

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 – The Holbein portrait of King Henry VIII’s family…

King Henry VIII; King Henry VII
by Hans Holbein the Younger
(ink and watercolour, circa 1536-1537
NPG 4027)
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Thankfully much copied (at least in part), this full length portrait of King Henry VIII, his third wife and parents was the work of Hans Holbein the Younger.

Holbein, appointed the king’s painter in 1536, was commissioned to create the work following the King’s marriage to Jane Seymour on 30th May, 1536, and completed it in 1537 (there’s some speculation it may have been commissioned in celebration of the birth of King Henry’s son, King Edward VI).

The mural featured the King standing in full splendour, although without typical symbols of royalty such as a crown or sceptre, as well as his wife Jane Seymour, and his parents, King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York. They were all standing around a central pillar upon which are inscribed verses in Latin extolling the Tudor dynasty.

The work is understood to have been commissioned for one of the King’s more private chambers in the Palace of Whitehall which Henry had seized after the downfall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

The portrait survived the reign of King Henry VIII but was destroyed in the fire which devastated the palace in 1698.

A full-sized cartoon of the left-hand side of the work which was completed by Holbein in preparation for its creation is held in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (pictured right).

While there are numerous copies of the figure of King Henry VIII, the only complete copy of the mural is attributed to Remigius van Leemput who created it in 1667 – it can be seen at Hampton Court Palace.

Treasures of London – Traitor’s Gate…

PICTURES: David Adams

Built by King Edward I in the 13th century as a water gate to provide access from the Tower of London to the River Thames, the name ‘Traitor’s Gate’ came to be applied to this portal in Tudor times in relation to those accused of treason who were brought into the tower under its arch.

The double gateway is part of St Thomas’s Tower, which was designed by a Master James of St George, and behind it is a pool which was used to feed water to a cistern on the roof of the White Tower. While the gate was originally built to give access directly to the river, Traitor’s Gate now sits behind a wharf which runs along the river bank (and where can be seen the bricked up entrance says ‘Entry to the Traitor’s Gate’ – this was bricked up in the 19th century when embankment works were carried out)

Sir Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh and even the future Queen Elizabeth I (when a princess) were among those who were brought in by barge through the Traitor’s Gate (their journey would have led them under London Bridge where the heads of executed prisoners were on display). Whether Henry VIII’s disgraced Queen Anne Boleyn entered the tower through the gate remains a matter of some dispute.

This Week in London – Marking the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold; and, a new sculpture trail in Greenwich…

The 18 day meeting between King Henry VIII and King Francois I of France in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, is the subject of an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace. Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King, which is being held to mark the 500th anniversary of the event (having been rescheduled from last year), is being held in rooms in Hampton Court Palace that were once used by the architect of the summit, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and features objects from the actual meeting as well as treasures from the courts of the two kings. They include the spectacular Stonyhurst vestments – woven from cloth of gold and chosen by Henry for use at the religious services held near Calais, Wolsey’s Book of Hours, and a unique tapestry which, manufactured in Tournai in the 1520s, depicts a bout of wrestling at the event with a black trumpeter shown among the brace of royal musicians. The display can be seen until 5th September. Admission charge applies. For more information and tickets – prebooking is essential, see www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/.

A free sculpture trail, featuring works by artist Josie Spencer, has opened on the King William Lawns at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Fragments in Time features life-sized bodies captured in dramatic positions, including fractured figures, which demonstrate the beauty and resilience of the human spirit while highlighting the fragility of life. The artist says the works have been chosen from a group of pieces that treated the figures as if they were the “archaeology of our time found in another century, in the future, when those then looking at them can see the fragility of our life now”. The trail can be seen until 6th August.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

10 London hills – 5. Primrose Hill…

View from the top of Primrose Hill. PICTURE: Steve Cadman (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Standing in a park located just to the north of Regent’s Park in the city’s inner north-west, Primrose Hill stands 63 metres above sea level and, like Parliament Hill, provides panoramic views of the city skyline.

The hill, which features one of six protected views in London, was once part of a chase (unenclosed hunting land) owned by King Henry VIII and was Crown property until 1842 when it became part of a public park through an Act of Parliament.

The name has been in use for at least 500 years and is thought to refer to the flowers that grew here profusely (which it means it can’t have been named for Archibald Primrose, Prime Minister between 1894 and 1895).

The hill forms part of one of Mother Shipton’s “prophecies” – she apparently proclaimed that when London surrounded the hill, its streets would run with blood.

It was for a time known as Greenberry Hill after three labourers – Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill – were found guilty of the murder of magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (he had heard Titus Oates’ evidence in the so-called Popish Plot). Sir Edmund was found impaled on his own sword on the hill in October, 1678 – convicted of his murder the three men were hanged on its summit in 1679 (they were later exonerated and the death of Sir Edmund remains something of a mystery).

The hill, which has also apparently been known as Battle Hill, was also the location where the poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) founded the Gorsedd, a community of Welsh bards, on 21st June in 1792.

In 1838, a railway tunnel under the hill was completed by the North Western Railway – it was the first in London and connected Chalk Farm and Swiss Cottage. In the 1840s, a proposal to create a cemetery here was put to Parliament but never went ahead. There were also plans to develop the entire hill as a housing estate but nothing came of it.

On top of the hill is York stone edging with an inscription by William Blake: “I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill.” There’s also the remains of an anti-aircraft battery from World War II.

On the hill’s slope, meanwhile, is a tree planted in 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth (it replaced once planted 100 years earlier in honour of the Bard’s 300th).

Primrose Hill gives its name to part of the surrounding area, which remains a sought-after residential district.

For details on when to visit, head to www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/the-regents-park/things-to-see-and-do/primrose-hill.

London Explained – Beefeaters…

A nickname for the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London, its origins are somewhat obscure but apparently related to a penchant for beef and was presumably meant as an insult (hence they prefer being called by their proper title). It was apparently first used of the English population in general and is said to have first been applied to the Yeoman Warders in the second half of the 17th century.

A Yeoman Warder in everyday “undress” uniform. PICTURE: PRA (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0/image cropped)

The Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London (not to be confused with the Yeomen Warders of The Guard, the Sovereign’s Bodyguard, who are also referred to as “beefeaters”), are charged with guarding of the Tower of London and its contents including the prisoners of state who were formerly held within its walls (the last was during World War II).

With a history dating back to the reign of King Henry VII and first present at the Tower during the reign of King Henry VIII, they were made extraordinary members of the Sovereign’s Bodyguard during the reign of King Edward VI in 1552 (meaning they wear scarlet livery and carry partizans on state occasions).

The Chief Yeoman Warder is their commander and second-in-command is a Yeomen Gaoler (who still carries an axe on state occasions). There are also three Sergeant Yeoman and a Yeoman Ravenmaster. A Yeoman Warder (along with a detachment of soldiers) carries out the Ceremony of the Keys every night – formally locking the Tower.

These days (drawing on innovations introduced by the Duke of Wellington when he was Constable of the Tower between 1826 and 1852), the Yeoman Warders must be warrant officers who have served at least 22 years (and have been awarded the long service and good conduct medal) in the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines.

The Yeoman Warders – and there were 38 (although we’re not sure how cutbacks due to COVID may affect this) – live within the Tower under the authority of the Resident Governor. They wear the red state dress uniform on state occasions and a dark blue “undress” uniform for everyday use. Moira Cameron became the first female Yeoman Warder in 2007.

As well as carrying out state duties, since Victorian times the Yeoman Warders have conducted towers of the Tower and assisted visitors with their inquiries.

Lost London – St Giles hospital for lepers…

Partly located on a site now occupied by the church of St Giles-in-the-Fields in central London  was a leprosy hospital founded by Queen Matilda, wife of King Henry I, in 1101.

The site was located outside the City walls making it ideal for such an establishment (given lepers had to isolate from the rest of the population) and the hospital, one of the first such establishments in England, was dedicated to St Giles, the patron saint of outcasts.

As well as an oratory or chapel, the hospital, initially founded on eight acres of farmland, is believed to have included houses for lepers, a master’s house, and quarters for a chaplain, clerk and servant. A chapter house was added in the early 14th century.

The hospital was under the care of the crown and in 1299, King Edward I ordered that the hospital be run by and its revenues given to the military Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem (also known as the Leper Brothers of Jerusalem or Lazarists).

By the 15th century leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease) was on the decline in England but this hospital continued to be used for lepers until at least 1500 after which it is recorded that it had opened it doors to the poor who needed care.

In 1539, the hospital was closed under King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries. While the chapel remained in use as a parish church (it was at this time that “in-the-fields” was added to the church’s name), the hospital’s other buildings were given by King Henry VIII to John Dudley, Lord Lisle (and later Duke of Northumberland and Protector of Edward VI, the king’s eventual heir).

The church, meanwhile, had fallen into a poor state of repair by the early 1600s and was demolished. Construction of a Gothic replacement started in 1623 in a project largely funded by Alice, Duchess Dudley, daughter-in-law of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley. The new church was consecrated by William Laud, Bishop of London in 1631. The current building dates from 1733 (but more about that at another time).

PICTURE: The church of St Giles-in-the-Fields as it appears now. (Prioryman/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

10 (lesser known) National Trust properties in London…5. Sutton House…

We decided to continue with our Wednesday series. While the properties are all currently closed, we hope you’ll still enjoy exploring them with us online until the day they reopen…

Hackney property Sutton House –  originally known simply as ‘the bryk place’ – was built by Ralph Sadleir (or Sadler), a courtier  who started out in the service of Thomas Cromwell but rose to become Principal Secretary of State to King Henry VIII. Sadleir, who had married a cousin of Cromwell, had the property constructed in 1535 as his family home.

Sadleir – who makes an appearance in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels and who, as well as being of service to King Henry VIII, also served King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I – sold the property just 15 years later. The red brick house – now said to be the oldest surviving domestic building in Hackney – subsequently passed through numerous hands with its owners apparently including merchants, a sea captain and French Huguenot refugees. In 1751, it was divided into two residences – Ivy House and Milford House.

The property housed a boy’s school in the early 1800s – novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton was among those who attended – and later became a girl’s school. The rector of Hackney bought the premises in 1891 and used it as a base for the St John at Hackney Church Institute, a social and recreational centre for young men.  His modifications included turning part of the cellars into a chapel.

Mistakenly named after the founder of the Charterhouse School, Thomas Sutton (he actually lived in a now demolished adjacent property), Sutton House was bought by the National Trust in the 1930s using the proceeds of a bequest made in memory of two men killed in World War I.

Among its various roles, the building served as a centre for fire wardens during World War II and, from the 1960s, serving as the offices of a trade union. After the union left in the 1980s, the house fell into disrepair and in 1982 squatters moved in and it was renamed ‘the Blue House’. Several murals from this period – when rock concerts were held in the barn – are preserved into the house.

The squatters were evicted and in the late Eighties, a society was formed with the aim of saving the house. Following renovations, the house opened to the public in 1994. These days the Grade II*-listed home is used as a museum and art gallery. There’s also a shop and cafe.

While the facade of the house underwent some changes during the Georgian era, the property’s interior remains essentially Tudor. Highlights include the kitchen, oak panelled chambers, carved fireplaces and, of course, the cellars.

The National Trust reclaimed some adjacent land to create an award winning garden known as the Breaker’s Yard. The name comes from the fact the land was once occupied by a car breaker’s yard.

There’s said to be a couple of ghosts who reside in the house including wailing dogs and a mysterious ‘blue lady’.

The property, which stands in Homerton High Street, is temporarily closed but for more information, check the website at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-house-and-breakers-yard.

ALL PICTURES: Kotomi_ (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Lost London – The Holbein Gate…

The most grand of the entrances to the now demolished Whitehall Palace, this monumental gateway – located in what is now Whitehall, at the south end of and on the other side of the road to the Banqueting House – was built in 1531-32 on the orders of King Henry VIII.

The name apparently comes from the tradition that the three story gate was designed by Hans Holbein but there is apparently some doubt that was the case.

The gate had rooms on the first and second floor with small flanking turrets to either side. It boasted a Royal Coat of Arms over the archway under the gate along with other royal emblems including the Tudor rose. There were also several busts set into roundels on the black and white chequerboard facade, possibly by Giovanni da Maiano.

King Henry VIII apparently used the chambers as a study and library (and later, it’s said, to store the wheelchairs he required late in life). Most famously, the upper room is also believed to have been the location where he secretly married Anne Boleyn on 25th January, 1533.

The upper floor was used as the Paper Office between 1672 until 1756 while the lower floor was used as lodgings with residents including the Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox and Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, famed as one of the mistresses of King Charles II.

Remarkably, the building, along with the Banqueting House, survived the fire of January 1698 which destroyed most of the palace. Proposals were subsequently put forward to demolish the gate to allow better flow of traffic but these were fended off until August, 1759, when it was destroyed along with an adjacent house.

PICTURE: Whitehall Showing Holbein’s Gate and Banqueting Hall by Thomas Sandby, c1760 (now at the Yale Center for British Art)

What’s in a name?…Blackheath…


Lying just to the south of Greenwich Park, this famous common apparently derives its name from the colour of the soil (although some suggest it was the colour of the bracken or even the “bleakness” of the location).

On the route from Canterbury and Dover to London, the sometimes windswept locale has seen its share of historical events over the centuries. As well as hosting remains dating to both the Saxon and Roman eras, Blackheath was where the Danes set up camp in 1011-13 (it was during this time that they murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, Alfege, probably on the site where St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich now stands).

It’s also where Wat Tyler assembled his peasant army during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, where Jack Cade and his followers camped in 1450 during the Kentish Rebellion, and where King Henry VII defeated Michael Joseph and his Cornish rebels in 1497.

As well as uprisings, the heath has also seen its share of more joyous events. King Henry IV apparently met Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos here in 1400 before taking him back to Eltham Palace, King Henry V was welcomed by the Lord Mayor of London and aldermen here after his momentous victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and King Charles II was welcomed here on his return to London during the Restoration. Less happily, in 1540 King Henry VIII met Anne of Cleves here for the first time.

During the 18th century, both John Wesley and George Whitefield preached to crowds on Blackheath. Meanwhile, legend has it that King James I founded England’s first golf club here in 1600s (the club joined with the Eltham Golf Club in the 1920s).

The heath, which also had a notorious reputation for highwaymen prior to residential development of the area in the late 18th century, has also been the site of fairs since at least the late 17th century.

But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the “village” of Blackheath really formed, attracting the moderately well-to-do. The area received a significant boost as a residential locale close to London when the railway opened in 1849.

Significant buildings include All Saints’ Church which dates from 1857 and the entertainment venue known as the Blackheath Halls, built in 1895. The Georgian mansion known as the Ranger’s House – which parks on to Greenwich Park – is just to the north.

Notable residents have included early 20th century mathematician and astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, 19th century philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill, seaside cartoonist Donald McGill and polar explorer Sir James Clark Ross. American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne lived at 4 Pond Road in 1856.

Correction: Wesley and Whitefield  preached in the 18th century, not the 19th as originally stated. Apologies for any confusion!

PICTURES: Top – Aerial view of Blackheath (foshie; licensed under CC BY 2.0; image cropped); Below – Looking towards All Saints (Herry Lawford; licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Exploring London marks 10 years!

Did you know that 2020 marks 10 years since Exploring London first began…well…exploring London?

We’ll be celebrating our anniversary across the year in a number of ways including counting down our 100 most read stories ever…

So let’s kick off the countdown with numbers 100 and 99…

100. LondonLife – A new crown for King Henry VIII…

99. 10 sites of significance in Jane Austen’s London…1. 10 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden…

PICTURE: Adi Goldstein/Unsplash

What’s in a name?…St Martin’s-le-Grand…

This City of London street is named for a church which once stood to the east of the thoroughfare.

The church was founded as part of a monastery the 11th century by brothers Ingelric and Girard – the former was apparently a man of some influence in the courts of King Edward the Confessor and King William the Conqueror (although there is apparently a tradition that the church was founded earlier, by the Saxon King Wihtred of Kent, in the 7th or 8th century).

The collegiate church, which had the job of sounding the curfew bell in the evenings to announce the closing of the city gates during the reign of King Edward I (the right later moved to another church), gave special rights to the precinct in which it stood including that of sanctuary for certain types of criminals. Indeed, by the 14th century, it was the largest area of sanctuary in England.

This was particularly useful for those making what was supposed to be their final journey from Newgate to their execution at Tower Hill – the precinct lay along the route and, yes, some were said to have escaped into the district as they passed by. But perhaps the most famous said to have sought sanctuary in the precinct were Miles Forrest, one of those accused of murdering the so called “Princes in the Tower” – King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York.

The institution was dissolved during the reign of King Henry VIII and demolished in the mid-16th century but the name lived on in the precinct where it once stood – during the Elizabethan era it was apparently famous for its lace.

The site of the church was later the site of the General Post Office, built in 1829, which was eventually demolished in 1911 and replaced by a premises located to the west.

The street, which becomes Aldersgate Street in the north and runs into Cheapside in the south, was also once home to the The Bull and Mouth Inn, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and a French Protestant Church. The latter was built in 1842 but demolished in 1888 to make way for more Post Office buildings.

PICTURES: Looking south (top) and north (below) from St Martin-le-Grand (Google Maps).

This Week in London – 16th century altar piece on display for first time in a century; Tudor sports at Hampton Court; and, the most expensive British-made watch…

One of the major surviving altarpieces created by Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor Giovanni Martini da Udine in the early 16th century has gone on display at The National Gallery. The Virgin and Child with Saints, said to date from about 1500–25, has undergone an extensive seven year conservation process – described as one of the longest and most complex in the gallery’s history – prior to going on show for the first time in 100 years. The process involved removing old varnish and repaints, dividing the altarpiece into its original three boards and cleaning and repairing them before putting them back together with an additional support and then finally filling and retouching the original paintwork and adding a frame to ensure it can be moved in the future. The painting depicts the Virgin and Child with St James on one side and St George on the other while a man, most likely the artist’s patron, kneels in front. Known as a ‘sacra conversazione’ (holy conversation), this type of painting become increasingly popular over the course of the 15th century. The work can be seen in Room 56. Admission is free. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk. PICTURE: Installation of The Virgin and Child with Saints by Giovanni Martini da Udine in Room 56./©The National Gallery, London

Join in some Tudor sports this weekend at Hampton Court Palace. Until Sunday, families are invited to head to the East Front Gardens where they can try their hand at shooting a crossbow or a bow and arrow, practice some traditional sword fight, and watch demonstrations in hand to hand combat by King Henry VIII and his courtiers. There will also be some falconry displays. Admission to ‘Henry VIII’s Sporting Academy’ is included in general admission charge. For more, check out www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/.

The most expensive British watch ever made has gone on show at the Science Museum in South Kensington. The 18ct gold-cased watch, known as the Space Traveller II, was handmade by George Daniels in 1982 and named in honour of the Moon landings. It sold for £3.2 million at auction in 2017. The watch, which has been loaned by a private donor, is being displayed in the Clockmakers’ Museum and sits in an exhibit about Daniels, a former master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers who is credited with helping to revive independent watchmaking in the late 20th century. While Space Traveller I was sold soon after its completion, Space Traveller II was used by Daniels until his death in 2011. It displays both solar and sidereal (star) time and also shows the phase of the Moon, an annular calendar, the equation of time and features a stopwatch which functions with either solar or sidereal time. Entry to the Clockmakers’ Museum is free. For more, see www.sciencemuseum.org.uk.

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Treasures of London – The Great Hall at Eltham Palace…

Originally built as a dining hall for King Edward IV in the 1470s, the Great Hall is a survivor of the medieval royal palace that once stood on the site and later become incorporated into the Art Deco home created by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s.

The hall, which is comparable in size to that of Hampton Court Palace, was designed by Thomas Jordan, chief mason to the king, and Edmund Graveley, his chief carpenter.

It is 101 foot long and 36 foot wide and has a magnificent oak roof described as a ‘false’ hammerbeam construction (the ‘false’ because the posts are morticed into the ends of the hammerbeams rather than resting on them).

The hall would have once had a raised dais at one end while the other end joined to the rest of the would have featured a screen behind which doors led to a buttery, pantry and kitchen. A hearth was located near the dais end of the hall.

The windows, which are set high in the walls, would have been of stained glass (the stained glass there now was added in 1936 and is the work of George Kruger Gray) and the walls below them would have been decorated with tapestries.

Eltham was a favourite residence of King Edward IV and one of the most lavish feasts ever held there was at Christmas, 1482, when some 2,000 people were fed (it was the king’s last visit to the palace before his death the following April). The hall would have also been familiar to King Henry VIII who spent much of his childhood here but later in his life rarely came to Eltham.

King Charles I was the last king to visit the palace and in 1651 it was sold off by Parliament to Colonel Nathaniel Rich who, as well as demolishing many buildings, stripped the lead off the hall’s roof. The property was later used as a farm and the hall became a barn.

In the early 19th century a campaign was launched to save the hall from demolition which saw the roof propped up and during the latter half of the 1800s it was used as an indoor tennis court.

Further repairs were made in the 1890s and again between 1911 and 1914 when the roof was dismantled and reassembled under the direction of the Office of Works.

The Courtaulds, who had their spectacular adjoining property built in the 1930s, apparently intended to use the hall as a music room and carried out a number of repairs – including to the roof – and additions including a minstrel’s gallery (there is no evidence of such a feature in the original).

After World War II, the Ministry of Works assumed responsibility for the Great Hall (and other palace remains) – opening the hall to the public for three days a week – before in 1984 English Heritage took over management of the Great Hall (and later the entire site).

PICTURE: David Adams

WHERE: The Great Hall, Eltham Palace, Court Yard, Eltham, Greenwich (nearest train station is Mottingham); WHEN: 10am to 6pm Sunday to Friday; COST (without Gift Aid): £15 adults/£9 children/£13.50 concessions/£39 family (English Heritage members free); WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/.

 

This Week in London – Jousting at Hampton Court; into the shadows at the NHM; and, Bauhaus designers honoured…

Jousting returns to Hampton Court Palace this weekend with visitors invited to join King Henry VIII and his court as they watch this sporting spectacle. Along with the thrills and spills of the tourney, visitors can also partake of the delights of Tudor food and music and a specially commissioned play featuring chief minister Thomas Cromwell as he prepares a royal banquet to celebrate the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. The event kicks off with a royal procession in which knights will greet the king with a display of heraldic pageantry before they head to the jousting arena at the East Front Gardens. Admission charge applies. Runs on 14th and 15th July. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk. PICTURE: A previous jousting event at Hampton Court Palace (David Adams).

Venture into the hidden world of shadows in a major new exhibition opening at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington on Friday. Afraid of the dark? takes visitors deep into underground caves, to the depths of the oceans and into the pitch blackness of night as it recreates habitats usually hidden from view and presents hundreds of incredible creatures, some brand new to science, which have adapted to a life without sunlight. The sensory display allows visitors to touch some of Britain’s nocturnal animals, hear the sounds of the deep sea, smell the distinctive aromas of a bat cave and see through the eyes of a cave boa using infrared technology. Runs until 6th January. Admission charge applies (children aged up to 16 are free). For more, see www.nhm.ac.uk.

Bauhaus designers and teachers Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy have been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at the Belsize Park home where they lived and worked in the 1930s. Gropius (1883-1969) founded the art school known as Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 with Breuer (1902-1981), who initially joined as a student before becoming director of furniture workshops in 1924, and Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) who joined the staff in 1923 and edited the house magazine and 14 books. All three went on to have successful careers in the field of design and architecture and live in flats in the Grade I-listed Isokon Building, completed in 1934 and originally known as the Lawn Road Flats, in Belsize Park. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.

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10 islands in the Thames – 8. Thames Ditton Island…

We’re skipping upstream, past a few islands this week, to take a look at Thames Ditton Island which lies in Kingston Reach, above Teddington Lock. The island is the largest of a group of three which also includes Swan Island (the smallest) and Boyle Farm Island.

Located opposite the grounds of Hampton Court Palace (built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in the early 16th century and then, following his fall from grace, claimed by King Henry VIII in 1525), the 320 metre long Thames Ditton Island owes its existence to King Henry who had the river widened and straightened here so that he could use the river for an uninterrupted journey up the river from Westminster to Hampton Court. In doing so, the island was created.

Used as pasture land for the local manor (and known apparently at one point as Colly’s Ait, ait being a word for a river island, before being renamed Thames Ditton after the village on the west bank) for several centuries, the island became a popular recreation spot for the wealthy interested in water sports during the Edwardian era, thanks to the arrival of the railway in the area in the late 19th century.

The island is these days connected to the Thames Ditton bank by a 1930s suspension bridge which ends near the 13th century Ye Olde Swan pub. It is now home to more than 45 rather exclusive riverside properties (almost all are in stilts to help ward off the danger of flooding, a phenomenon with which long-term residents in the area are familiar).

Swan Island, while lies just to the south of Thames Ditton Island, is tiny and the location of the home of the ferryman, who up until 1911, would take people across the river to Hampton Court.

Further to the south likes Boyle Farm Island which also has a single house open it. It stands opposite the mainland property formerly known as Boyle Farm but now a nursing home known as the Home of Compassion.

Interestingly, while Thames Ditton Island is part of Greater London, Boyle Farm Island is part of Surrey (along with Thames Ditton village).

PICTURE: Andrew Lewin (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)