While the designation of London’s oldest public library depends on your definition, for the purposes of this article we’re awarding the title to the Guildhall Library.

Its origins go back to about 1425 when town clerk John Carpenter and John Coventry founded a library – believed to initially consist of theological books for students, according to the terms of the will of former Lord Mayor, Richard (Dick) Whittington (for more on him, see our previous post here).

Guildhall2Housed in Guildhall (pictured above), this library apparently came to an end in the mid-1500s when Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector for the young King Edward VI, apparently had the entire collection loaded onto carts and taken to Somerset House. They were not returned and only one of the library’s original texts, a 13th century metrical Latin version of the Bible, is in the library today.

Some 300 years passed until the library was re-established by the City of London Corporation. Reopened in  1828, it was initially reserved for members of the Corporation but the membership was soon expanded to include”literary men”.

By the 1870s, when the collection included some 60,000 books related to London, the library moved into a new purpose-built building, located to the east of Guildhall. Designed by City architect Horace Jones, it opened to the public in 1873.

The library lost some 25,000 books during World War II when some of the library’s storerooms were destroyed and after the war, it was decided to build a new library. It opened in 1974 in the west wing of the Guildhall where it remains (entered via Aldermanbury).

Today, the 200,000 item collection includes books, pamphlets, periodicals including the complete London Gazette from 1665 to the present, trade directories and poll books as well as the archive collections such as those of the livery companies, the Stock Exchange and St Paul’s Cathedral and special collections related to the likes of Samuel Pepys, Sir Thomas More, and the Charles Lamb Society.

The library also holds an ongoing series of exhibitions.

Where: Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury; WHEN: 9.30am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday; COST: Entry is free and no membership of registration is required but ID may be required to access rarer books; WEBSITE: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visiting-the-city/archives-and-city-history/guildhall-library/Pages/default.aspx.

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A now long gone Franciscan friary located in the north-west of the City of London near Newgate (just to the north of St Paul’s Cathedral), Greyfriars, so known for the color of the friars’ clothing, was the second Franciscan religious house to have been founded in England.

The foundations of the friary date from the early part of the 13th century – the Franciscans, as members of the Order of Friars Minor were known, had arrived in 1224 and are recorded as settling on land granted to them by a rich mercer, John Iwyn, just inside the City wall, in 1225, in the butcher’s quarter of the city.

King Henry III apparently gave them some oak to build their own friary in 1229 and by the mid 1200s, there were more than 80 friars living on the site which was gradually extended over the ensuing years to the north and the west.

Using funds given them by Sir William Joyner, Lord Mayor of London in 1239, they built a chapel which was later extensively enlarged and improved in the late 13th and early 14th centuries – the new church was said to be 300 feet long – with much of the work funded by Queen Margaret, second wife of King Edward I, and later in the 14th century, Queen Isabella, wife of Edward III. It apparently suffered some damage in a storm in 1343 but was restored by King Edward III.

When it was finally completed in 1348, the church is said to have been the second largest in London. A library was later added to the buildings, founded by the famous Lord Mayor of London, Richard “Dick” Whittington.

Such was the fame of the church that, the heart of Queen Eleanor, wife of King Henry III, was buried here after her death in 1291 while, despite dying at her castle in Marlborough, Queen Margaret was also buried here in 1318 (apparently wearing a Franciscan habit).

But perhaps the most notorious person to be buried here was Queen Isabella, wife of King Edward II and known by many as the “She-Wolf of France”, after her death in 1358. In fact, it’s said that the ghost of Isabella still haunts the former location of Greyfriars, driven forth from the grave for her role in deposing her husband.

Other non royal luminaries said to have been buried here include the 15th century writer Sir Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur and 16th century Catholic nun Elizabeth Barton, the so-called ‘mad maid of Kent’ who was executed for her rather unwise prophecies predicting King Henry VIII’s death if he married Anne Boleyn.

The end of the friary, pictured above in the sixteenth century, came in 1538 when it fell victim to King Henry VIII’s policy of dissolving monasteries and was surrendered to his representatives.

Some of the houses were subsequently converted for private use and the church, which was somewhat damaged during this period with many of the elaborate tombs destroyed, was briefly closed before it and other buildings were given to the City of London Corporation who reopened it again in 1547 as Christ Church Greyfriars, a parish church serving the now joined parishes of St Nicholas Shambles and St Ewen.

Only a few year’s later King Edward IV founded a school for poor orphans in some of the old friary buildings known as Christ’s Hospital or informally as The Bluecoat School thanks to the uniforms students wore. Some of the school buildings, along with part of the church which was also used by the school, was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the school was rebuilt and remained in use until the late 1800s when the last of the students were relocated to a new facility in Sussex (where the school still exists today).

The church (also known as Christ Church Newgate Street), meanwhile, was also rebuilt after the Great Fire – it was one of Sir Christopher Wren’s designs and was completed in 1704. The church remained in use until World War II when a firebomb struck it during a German raid on 29th December, 1940, all but destroying it.

The church was not rebuilt and the parish merged with the nearby St Sepulchre-without-Newgate – the largest parish church in London – and eventually what’s left of the church – the tower with rebuilt steeple and the west and north walls – were converted into a public garden (rose beds were planted where the pews once stood and there are wooden towers representing the church’s pillars). Pictured right, it’s now a terrific place to sit and have lunch pondering the past which the bustle of the city goes on about you.

PICTURE: (top) Wikipedia

For a great biography of Isabella, the She-Wolf of France, see Alison Weir’s Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England. For more on Sir Christopher Wren’s churches in London, see John Christopher’s Wren’s City of London Churches.

A covered – and splendidly decorated – Victorian-era market located just off Gracechurch Street in the heart of the City of London, Leadenhall Market might go un-noticed by many but visit at lunchtime on a weekday and you’ll to fight for space among the besuited City workers looking for sustenance there.

The history of a market on this site goes back to Roman times for it was under the current market that the remains of Londinium’s basilica and forum – the Roman marketplace – can be found (there’s apparently a part of the basilica wall in the basement of one of the Leadenhall shops).

This fell into disuse following the Roman period, however, and the origins of the current market are generally agreed upon as emerging in the 14th century when it occupied the site of a lead-roofed manor (hence “leaden hall) which was at one stage leased by the famous Lord Mayor Richard “Dick” Whittington before it burnt down in the late 1400s. The subsequent market was initially associated with poultry and then with cheese and other foodstuffs (it remained known for game and poultry) and separate areas were later developed for trade in wool, leather and cutlery.

In 1666, a small section of the market was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but it was rebuilt shortly after – for the first time under cover – and was divided into three sections: the Beef Market, the Green Yard and the Herb Market.

In 1881, after the existing building was demolished, a new structure boasting wrought iron and glass was designed by Sir Horace Jones (architect for the Corporation of the City of London, he also designed Billingsgate and Smithfield Markets – see our earlier entries here and here). The market is now one of the City’s five principal shopping centres and, as well as fresh food and flowers, hosts a variety of specialty shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs.

The Grade II* listed building was extensively restored in 1991. It has since starred in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as well as other films including The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and the recent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Before we finish, we would be remiss not to mention Old Tom. A celebrated gander, he managed to avoid the axe for years and became a favorite of traders and customers (even being fed by local innkeepers) – so much so, that when he died at the age of 38 in 1835, his body lay in state before he was buried on site. There’s a bar in the market named for him.

WHERE: Gracechurch Street, City of London (nearest Tube stations are Monument, Bank and Cannon Street); WHEN: Public areas are generally open 24 hours a day with core trading hours between 10am and 5pm weekdays (check with individual shops for opening hours); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.leadenhallmarket.co.uk

PICTURE: DAVID ILIFF. Licence CC-BY-SA 3.0. Via Wikipedia.