Located beneath Guildhall’s Great Hall is the oldest surviving part of the structure, the largest of London’s medieval crypts.

Dating from the reign of King Edward the Confessor in the 11th century, the vaulted East Crypt is considered to be one of the finest examples of its kind in England with a ceiling featuring a series of carved bosses depicting heads, shields and flowers.

It features a series of stained glass windows depicting five famous Londoners – Geoffrey Chaucer, William Caxton, Sir Thomas More, Sir Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys.

The pillars holding up the roof, meanwhile – once located at ground level – show signs of where horses were once tied up while their riders went about their business.

The West Crypt, which is believed to date from the 13th century, was sealed off after collapsing under the weight of the roof of the Great Hall which fell down during the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was reopened in 1973.

The windows of the West Crypt represent some of the City of London’s livery companies (pictured above, right).

One of the most famous incidents took place in the crypts on 9th July, 1851, when Queen Victoria attended a banquet here during a state visit.

The crypts today are available to hire for atmospheric events.

WHERE: Guildhall, Guildhall Yard, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Bank, Mansion House and Moorgate); WHEN: 10am to 4.30pm daily (when not being used for events); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/attractions/guildhall-galleries/Pages/guildhall.aspx.

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GuildhallIt’s a Bank Holiday weekend and thoughts are turning to a day out, so we thought it a good time to take a look at the beautiful village of Lavenham in Suffolk, one of the finest “medieval villages” remaining in England.

While settlement of the village, which is about an hour and 45 minutes north-east of London by car, goes back to before Saxon times (indeed the village apparently takes its name from a Saxon thegn called Lafa) it was in the medieval period that it attained the charming character which is still so evident today.

Crooked-HouseThe village was awarded its market charter in 1257 and it was from this period until about 1530 that its ‘golden years’ occurred, based on its prominent role in the wool trade (in particular the production of sought-after blue broad cloth – ‘Lavenham Blue’) and its location between London and the key ports like Kings Lynn.

It was during this period that its several guildhall were constructed and it was recorded as one of the richest parts of England with some of its most prominent families becoming extremely wealthy, like the De Vere family headed by the Earl of Oxford, and the Spring and Branch families who used their wealth to raise themselves to the nobility.

Lavenham’s decline began in the later 1500s and followed a sharp downturn in the wool trade amid greater competition from Europe. Its fortunes reached a low in the late 18th century before industrialisation in the 19th century revitalised the village somewhat (although nowhere close to the prominence and affluence it once boasted).

Today Lavenham is something of a tourist mecca, boasting an amazing collection of timber-framed buildings – more than 320 of which are listed – mostly dating from between 1450 and 1500.

Central among them is the Guildhall (pictured top), located on the market place, which dates from about 1530, and as well as hosting religious guild activities (its formal name was the Guild of Corpus Christi), has also served as a prison, workhouse, almshouse, and wool store and now houses a National Trust-run museum.

One of the most famous photographed buildings in the town is the Crooked House on High Street (pictured above right), so-called because of the dramatic lean its upper story is on.

There’s also the Little Hall, which, dating from the 14th century, was the wool hall of clothier William Causation and is now home to the Suffolk Preservation Society (open to the public over the warmer months). And among other notable homes is De Vere House, a grade I-listed property (now available to stay in) which still had elements dating back to the Middle Ages (and was the last home in the village to be owned by the Earls of Oxford).

The Church of St Peter and St Paul (pictured below) is also notable – described as “one of the finest parish churches in England”. The current version (there has apparently been a church here since Saxon times) was apparently funded by the 13th Earl of Oxford and wealthy cloth merchants including Thomas Spring III (whose coat of arms appears 32 times on the parapet) to celebrate their safe return from Battle of Bosworth Field where King Henry VII was victorious in 1485.

A couple of interesting notes to finish on. Among the residents in the late 18th century was the London-born Jane Taylor who lived in Shilling Street with her family. Jane and her sister Ann published a collection of poetry which included the poem, The Star, from which the lyrics for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star are taken.

There’s also a John Constable connection – the landscape painter was a student at the Grammar School which opened in Barn Street in 1647.

And, as you might expect in such a well-preserved location, Lavenham has also appeared on the big screen, notably De Vere House as the birthplace of Harry Potter and his mentor Albus Dumbledore.

A charming village to pass a few hours walking around (and, relax in, there’s plenty of pubs and cafes to refresh yourself at afterwards).

For more, check out www.discoverlavenham.co.uk and www.visit-lavenham.co.uk.

Lavenham-church

ReculverThis striking ruin perched on the shore of Herne Bay in Kent is all that remains of a 12th century church which once stood here, itself constructed on the ruins of a Saxon monastery and, earlier still, a Roman era fort.

The site once faced the now swallowed up Isle of Thanet across a narrow waterway to the east and it was this location which made it a prime spot for the Romans, in the early to middle years of the 3rd century AD, to build one of what became known as Saxon Shore forts, constructed to watch over waterways and resist raiders from across the sea. The square fort – known as Regulbium – featured walls supported by earthen ramparts containing a range of military buildings including a headquarters building at the centre. It’s main entrance was located in the north wall.

Reculver-smallThe fort ceased to be garrisoned by regular troops by the end of the 4th century and archaeologists have found little sign of any activity there at the start of the next century.

Following the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD and the conversion of local Saxon kings to Christianity, Egbert, the King of Kent, gave land which included Reculver (Raculf) to one Bassa for the foundation of a church or minster (this has been dated to 669 AD). A monastery was subsequently founded on the site which remained there until the 10th century after which the church, which stood roughly at what was the middle of the Roman fort and which had been enlarged during the Saxon period, became a parish church of Reculver.

Remodelled in the 12th century (from which period the towers date), it was visited by Leland in 1540 who wrote of a stone cross which stood at the entrance to the choir and was carved with painted images of Christ and the 12 Apostles (fragments of the cross are now in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral).

The encroaching sea, meanwhile, continued to move closer and closer to the northern side of the church, seriously so by the end of the 18th century when the vicar persuaded parishioners to demolish the church and build a new one at nearby Hillsborough. Thankfully, while much of the stone from the church was used in the new building, the twin west towers were left standing.

Their value as a landmark was recognised in 1809 when the ruin was bought by Trinity House as a navigation marker. They subsequently strengthened the towers’ foundations to ensure they weren’t undermined any further. Further strengthening measures took place in later years. About half of the Roman fort remains. The site is now managed by English Heritage.

Reculver is a site richly evocative of England’s past with a history going back more than 1,700 years. The remains may only be fragments of what once stood there but they nonetheless tell a myriad of stories.

WHERE: At Reculver, three miles east of Herne Bay (nearest train station is Herne Bay (four miles); WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST:Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/reculver-towers-and-roman-fort/.

Crypt

Founded in Clerkenwell in 1144, the Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem served as the order’s English headquarters.

The order, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, was founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to care for the sick and poor, and soon spread across Europe with the English ‘branch’ established on 10 acres just outside the City walls apparently by a knight, Jorden de Briset.

The original buildings – of which only the 12th century crypt (pictured above) survives complete with some splendid 16th century tomb effigies including that of the last prior, Sir William Weston – included a circular church, consecrated in 1185, and monastic structures including cloisters, a hospital, living quarters and a refectory or dining hall.

There are records of dignitaries staying at the priory as it grew in size and renown – among them was King John who in 1212, apparently stayed here for an entire month. There are also surviving accounts of Knights Hospitaller riding out in procession from the priory and through the City at the start of a journey to the Holy Land.

The priory and church were attacked during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, thanks to its connection with the hated Poll Tax (Prior Robert Hales was also the Lord High Treasurer and was beheaded during the revolt on Tower Hill).

The church was subsequently rebuilt as a rectangular-shaped building and then, in the early 16th century, enlarged when the site was significantly renovated. These renovations were still relatively new when the priory was dissolved in 1540 during the Dissolution of King Henry VIII.

The priory church, which survived the Great Fire of 1666, was later used as a parish church but was destroyed in an air raid in World War II. Subsequently rebuilt, it can be visited today along with the crypt below and the cloister garden, created in the 1950s as a memorial to St John’s Ambulance members from the London area (the original shape of the circular church is picked out in the paving here).

Perhaps the most famous building to survive is St John’s Gate which dates from the 16th century and was once the gatehouse entrance to the priory (added in the final renovations).

After the Dissolution it served various roles including as the office of the Master of Revels (where Shakespeare’s plays were licensed), the home of The Gentleman’s Magazine (Samuel Johnson was among contributors and worked on site), a coffee house (run by William Hogarth’s father) and a public house called the Old Jerusalem Tavern (yes, Charles Dickens was said to be a regular). It is now home to the recently renovated Museum of the Order of St John (you can see our earlier post on the museum here).

WHERE: Museum of the Order of St John, St John’s Gate (and nearby priory church), St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell (nearest Tube stations is Farringdon); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday (tours are held at 11am and 2.30pm on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday); COST: Free (a suggested £5 donation for guided tours); WEBSITE: www.museumstjohn.org.uk.

We’ll kick off a new Wednesday series next week…

London is a vast city and whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned Londoner, there’s probably still many places you haven’t yet visited. So over the next few posts we’re running a list of 10 of the less well-known sites for your perusal…

1. Eltham Palace. While Henry VIII’s final home, Hampton Court Palace, remains among London’s top 10 tourist sites, less well known is his childhood home, Eltham Palace. True, nowhere near as much of it remains from the Tudor and earlier medieval times, but with a later adjoined 1930s mansion housing some amazing Art Deco interiors, the medieval remains are just the start.

The palace’s history can be traced back to the Domesday survey of 1086. It passed into royal ownership in 1305 when then owner, Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, gave it to King Edward I.

Numerous kings and their families spent time at Eltham including Edward III, Henry IV, and Henry VI, and it was Edward IV who, between 1475 and 1480, ordered the Great Hall built – a treasure which still survives.

Henry VIII was the last English monarch to spend considerable time at Eltham – it was elipsed by Greenwich Palace as a royal residence – and, after falling into disrepair into the seventeenth century, it passed back into ‘non-royal’ hands.

Much of what stands at Eltham today dates from the 20th century when millionaire socialites Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld oversaw the restoration of the medieval Great Hall and the construction of an adjoining mansion which is a masterpiece of 1930s style incorporating a combination of Art Deco, “ocean-liner style” and Swedish design.

The Courtaulds left for a new life in Southern Rhodesia in 1944 and from then until the early 1990s the military occupied the property. English Heritage subsequently oversaw a major restoration and opened it to the public in 1999.

It’s well worth a visit to see the medieval Great Hall (which apparently boasts the third largest hammer-beam roof in England) and the 1930s property (aside from the stunning interiors – including Virginia’s gold-plated bathroom and warmed sleeping quarters for the Courtauld’s pet lemur – there’s also some great Courtauld family movies on show which give an amazing insight into the family which once lived there and an audio guide tour fittingly narrated by David ‘Poirot’ Suchet). There’s also 19 acres of gardens to explore, including a magnificent medieval bridge spanning what remains of the moat, and a cafe to while away the afternoon.

WHERE: Off Court Road, SE9. Half a mile from Eltham and Mottingham train stations. COST: £8.30 adult/£7.20 concession/£4.20 child (garden only tickets are available). English Heritage members free. WEBSITE: www.elthampalace.org.uk