This major London thoroughfare (and ward of the City of London) owes its name to one of the eight former gates of the City of London – that’s right, Bishopsgate.

Located at what’s now the junction with Wormwood Street (and marked by a mitre which appears on a building there), the gate was the departure point for Ermine Street which ran from London to Lincoln and York.

The gate and hence the road – which runs northward from the intersection of Gracechurch Street and Cornhill to where it becomes Norton Folgate Street (which links into Shoreditch High Street) – is believed to have been named for the 7th century Bishop Erkenwald (Earconwald). It was he who apparently first ordered its reconstruction on the site of a former Roman gate.

By Tudor times, the street had become known for the mansions of rich merchants – among those who had their homes here were Sir Thomas Gresham, Sir John Crosby and Sir Paul Pindar (Crosby Hall was later re-erected in Chelsea and the facade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house, is in the V&A). The street also become known for its many great coaching inns, all of which were eventually demolished.

Bishopsgate was the first street in London to have gas lighting when it was introduced about 1810 and, about 1932, became the first in Europe to have automated traffic lights (at the junction with Cornhill).

The City of London ward straddles the site of the old London wall and gate and is accordingly divided into “within” and “without” sections.

While there are a number of churches associated with the street – St Ethelburga Bishopsgate, St Helen’s Bishopsgate and St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, these days it is largely lined by office buildings including the former NatWest Tower. Other notable buildings include that of the Bishopsgate Institute and the busy Liverpool Street Station is also accessible from Bishopsgate.

The name Bishopsgate is also synonymous with an IRA truck bombing which took place in the street on 24th April, 1993, in which one man was killed and 44 injured.

PICTURE: Top – Looking southward along Bishopsgate in 2014. (stevekeiretsu; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0); Right – The Bishop’s mitre marking the location of the former gate (Eluveitie/ licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).

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This church in the shadow of 30 St Mary Axe (aka The Gherkin) is all that remains of a Benedictine nunnery that was founded here during the reign of King John in 1210.

St-Helen's-BishopsgateEstablished by one “William, son of William the goldsmith” after he was granted the right by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral, the priory was built to the north of a previously existing church with a new church for the nuns to use built right alongside the existing structure (thus accounting for the rarely seen side-by-side naves of the current building).

While the new church was built longer than the existing church, the latter was then lengthened to give them both the same length. A line of arches and a screen separated the nun’s choir and the parish church.

The church which stands today has been much altered over the centuries and what we now see there largely dates from the 14th and 15th centuries (although the bell turret which sits over the west front is an 18th century addition).

One of the priory’s claims to fame in medieval times was that it apparently was once home to a piece of the True Cross, presented by King Edward I in 1285.

The nunnery was dissolved in 1538 during the Great Dissolution of King Henry VIII and the buildings, excepting the church, sold off to the Leathersellers’ Company (all were eventually demolished by the 18th century). The screen separating the nun’s choir and the parish church, meanwhile, was removed, leaving the main body of the church as it can be seen today.

The now Grade I-listed church, which was William Shakespeare’s parish church when he lived in the area in the 1590s, survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz but was severely damaged by two IRA bombs in the early 1990s leading to some major – and controversial – works under the direction of architect Quinlan Terry.

Inside the church today is a somewhat spectacular collection of pre-Great Fire monuments including the 1579 tomb of Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange, the 1636 tomb of judge, MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Julius Caesar Adelmare, and the 1476 tomb of merchant, diplomat, City of London alderman and MP, Sir John Crosby.

It was also once the site of the grave of 17th century scientist Sir Robert Hooke but these were apparently removed from the church crypt in the 19th century when repairs to the floor of the nave were being made and placed in an unmarked common grave. Their location apparently remains unknown.

WHERE: St Helen’s Bishopsgate, Great St Helens (nearest Tube stations are Aldgate, Bank and Liverpool Street); WHEN: 9.30am to 12.30pm weekdays daily (also usually open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons but visitors are advised to telephone first); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.st-helens.org.uk.

While higher education may something we generally associate with more recent historical eras, London’s oldest higher educational institution in fact was founded in the dying years of the 16th century.

Thomas-GreshamGresham College was founded in 1597 by Sir Thomas Gresham (pictured, right) – son of Lord Mayor Sir Richard Gresham and the man behind the construction of the Royal Exchange (see our earlier post on Sir Thomas Gresham here) – according to instructions in his will (Sir Thomas died in 1579).

Under the terms of the will, part of his estate was left to the City of London Corporation and the Mercer’s Company and it is these who founded the organisation according to his request and still operate via the Joint Grand Gresham Committee.

According to the will’s terms, the corporation were to appoint professors in divinity, astronomy, geometry and music while the Mercer’s Company were given the responsibility of appointing professors in law, physic and rhetoric (a chair in commerce was added in 1985). There are also currently a number of visiting professorships.

The college – which was founded to provide free public lectures on subjects of scientific interest – is  governed by a council with the Lord Mayor of London as its president.

Sir Thomas’ mansion in Bishopsgate (now the site of what was formerly known as the NatWest Tower) was the college’s first home. Professors, whose salaries were met by rental income from the Royal Exchange, continued giving lectures there until 1768.

Various locations around the city were later used for the college before the opening of a new college building in Gresham Street in 1842. It moved again in 1991 and is now based at Barnard’s Inn Hall in Holborn.

Among the professors who have held chairs at the college are architects Sir Christopher Wren (astronomy) and Robert Hooke (geometry) as well as Richard Chartres, current Bishop of London (divinity).

The college, which doesn’t enrol students as such and doesn’t award degrees, continues to provide more than 100 free public lectures every year and is also involved in running seminars and conferences and other initiatives.

For a detailed history of Gresham College, check out Richard Chartres’ and David Vermont’s book on the college’s history – www.gresham.ac.uk/greshamftp/historygreshm_bk2.pdf. For more on the college and its programme of events, see www.gresham.ac.uk. Lectures are available online.

Remembered primarily for having founded the Royal Exchange as a centre for commerce in London and Gresham College, Sir Thomas Gresham was one of London’s leading merchants and financiers and an important advisor to successive monarchs during the sixteenth century.

Gresham was born in Milk Lane, London, to merchant Sir Richard Gresham (himself Lord Mayor of London in 1537-38) around 1518-19. He studied at Cambridge before being apprenticed to learn the family trade with his uncle, Sir John Gresham.

In 1543, he was admitted to the Mercers’ Company and subsequently spent time in the Low Countries, residing principally in Antwerp and acting as an agent for King Henry VIII. In 1544 he married Anne Fernley, widow of another London merchant. He also had a house in Lombard Street at this time.

Sir Thomas became an important advisor  to King Edward VI, helping him alleviate financial concerns, a role he continued to play during the successive reigns of Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I (although he spent some time out of favor during Mary’s reign).

Knighted for his services to the crown in 1559, he proposed to built his ‘exchange’ in 1565, offering to pay for it himself if the City of London and Mercers’ Company provided the land. Modelled on the bourse in Antwerp with a trading floor and shops and offices set around a large central courtyard, it was officially awarded the title ‘royal’ by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571.

Sir Thomas died suddenly in 1579, apparently of a heart attack, and left the majority of his wealth to his widow but included clauses in his will stating that after her death rents from the Royal Exchange be used to create a college which would see seven professors offer free lecturers on subjects ranging from astronomy and geometry to rhetoric and divinity.

Known as Gresham College, it became the first institution of higher education in London when it was founded in 1597 and was initially based at Sir Thomas’ mansion in Bishopsgate (it’s now based in Barnard’s Inn Hall and, as it has for the past 400 years, still offers free public lectures).

In 1666, Sir Thomas’ Royal Exchange burnt down along with much of London but it was rebuilt immediately afterward (King Charles II laid the foundation stone of the new building) and rebuilt again following another fire in 1838 (at the time the building was largely occupied by two insurance companies, one of which was Lloyds of London).

It’s this third building, designed by Sir Thomas Tite to resemble the original plan, which stands on the site today. While trading has long since ceased there – it’s now a luxury-end shopping centre – Sir Thomas’s symbol, the gold ‘Gresham Grasshopper’, can still be seen on the weathervane. For more information on the Royal Exchange, see www.theroyalexchange.co.uk.