Lost London – Westminster Abbey’s Sanctuary Tower…

The Middlesex Guildhall building, once site of the Sanctuary Tower. PICTURE: Cary Bass-Deschenes (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Located on the site now occupied by the Middlesex Guildhall, the Sanctuary Tower and Old Belfry was where fugitives of the law could seek refuge from those who pursued them.

The 13th century tower was located on the western side of Thorney Island upon which Westminster Abbey stood. Standing two stories high, it was a fortified structure with heavy oak doors.

The tower had some high profile (temporary) residents over the years of its existence. These included Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of King Edward IV, who twice had to take sanctuary in the abbey during the Wars of the Roses, Henry Holland, the Duke of Exeter, who claimed sanctuary after the Battle of Barnet (and was subsequently found drowned in the Thames), and Tudor Poet Laureate John Skelton who had to flee here after crossing Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (he is buried in nearby St Margaret’s Church, some claim he died in the tower).

While the practice of granting sanctuary was abolished by King James I in 1623, the tower wasn’t demolished in 1776.

The name of the building and practice of sanctuary is reflected in the name of the nearby street known as Broad Sanctuary and short drive before Westminster named The Sanctuary.

Where is it? #12

The latest in the series in which we ask you to identify where in London this picture was taken and what it’s of. If you reckon you know the answer, leave a comment below. We’ll reveal the answer early next week. Good luck!

And the answer is…this is part of the decorative facade of the Middlesex Guildhall which stands opposite the Houses of Parliament in Parliament Square. The building, which dates from 1912-13 and stands on the former site of the Westminster Abbey Sanctuary Tower and Old Belfry (where fugitives from the law could seek sanctuary), is now home to the Supreme Court and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Designed by architect James Gibson, it is the latest in a series of buildings which stood on the site which have served as courthouses and the headquarters of the Middlesex County Council (the first Middlesex Guildhall was built here in 1889). Described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “art nouveau Gothic”, it features a series of medieval-looking decorative friezes and sculptures by Henry Charles Fehr.

The image pictured above shows one of the friezes – this one of the Duke of Northumberland offering the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey the Crown (known as the “Nine Days Queen”, she was later imprisoned and eventually executed on 12th February, 1554). Others show King John handing the Magna Carta to the English barons and the granting of the charter of Westminster Abbey.

It was refurbished for use of the Supreme Court in 2007 and the court has occupied it since its creation in 2009.

Interestingly, according to Ed Glinert of The London Compendium, it was here that courts martial were held of those suspected of giving aid to the enemy during World War I.