This central – and rather unassuming – London street owes its name to the French – not British – who apparently once lived in the area which lies just south of Smithfield.
Originally named Little Brittany, it was settlers from Brittany in the east of modern France that inhabited the area where the street can be found after the Norman Conquest. Foremost among them apparently was the Duke of Brittany who apparently had a house here prior to the 1500s.
Between the late 15th century and early 18th century, the street was known as a location for booksellers (it was here that Britain’s first daily newspaper, the early 18th century Daily Courant, was printed in the area after moving from Fleet Street).
Famous residents over the years have included the 17th century poet John Milton (there’s also a much-repeated anecdote that has a Little Britain-based bookseller trying to convince the Earl of Dorset to buy as many copies of the apparently immoveable Paradise Lost as he could carry) , a very young Samuel Johnson (the then three-year-old and his mother lodged with a bookseller when she brought him to be touched by Queen Anne as a cure for his scrofula), and Benjamin Franklin who stayed here in 1724.
Literary references included a mention in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – the office of the lawyer Mr Jaggers were placed here.
St Bartholomew’s Hospital now occupies many of the buildings in the street.
There’s an ancient church in London which has taken on the role of various other cathedrals and churches in many recent historic films, most notably in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love (a fitting reference this week, given the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death last weekend).
But the church – location of the scene in the film in which Shakespeare’s begs forgiveness after the death of Kit Marlowe – has also been seen in everything from the 1991 Kevin Costner-vehicle, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (where it represented the interior of Nottingham Cathedral) to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes (where it represented St Paul’s Cathedral, location of a ritual sacrifice being conducted by the evil Lord Blackwood).
It has also appeared in the 1996 Victorian-era drama Jude, 2006’s Amazing Grace – the story of William Wilberforce’s effort to combat the slave trade, 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (where it hosts the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots), 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and the 2012 fantasy epic, Snow White and the Huntsman.
Oh, and the church? The priory church of St Bartholomew The Great (St Bart’s) located in West Smithfield, which has a history dating back 900 years (for more on the history of the church, see our earlier post here).
But the church hasn’t just been seen in films of the historic genre – it’s also played roles in more contemporary movies as well, from 1994’s Four Weddings and Funeral (St Julian’s where a wedding doesn’t take place) to 1999’s The End of the Affair and, more recently, the 2014 film Muppets: Most Wanted.
It’s doubtful there’s a church interior in London that’s been in so many movies in recent times. For more on the church itself, see www.greatstbarts.com.