A theatre historian believes he has discovered where William Shakespeare lived while he was writing some of his most famous works including Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While it has long been known the playwright lived close to the site of Liverpool Street station in the late 1590s, Geoffrey Marsh says an examination of official records has pinpointed the location as being on the site of what is now an office block at 35 Great St Helen’s, only a stone’s throw from The Gherkin. The BBC reports that Marsh, who is also the director of the V&A’s department of theatre and performance, found Shakespeare was a tenant of the Company of Leatherworkers and most likely lived among dwellings overlooking the churchyard of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, pictured above. PICTURE: Via Google maps
St Helen’s Bishopsgate
Famous Londoners – Sir John Lawrence, Lord Mayor of London…
The Lord’s Mayor’s Show is coming up soon (10th November) so we thought it a good time to take a quick look at the life of one of the city’s most memorable Lord Mayors – Sir John Lawrence, who served in the office in 1664-65.
Sir John, a merchant and member of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers (and Master of the company in 1677), is remembered for the role he played during the Great Plague of 1665 which preceded the Great Fire of London the following year.
Following the arrival of the plaque in London, those with the means took to their heels and left the city for safer climes. But Sir John assured the public that he and the City officers would remain at their posts to keep law and order among the frightened populace.
He oversaw the issuing of a series of plague-related orders designed to stem the spread of disease and appointed people to oversee and attend to the needs of households affected by the disease and search out the bodies to be taken away as well as doctors to tend to the sick and help prevent infection.
His efforts in ensuring the food supply remained steady have been particularly praised as has his opening of his own home in St Helen’s Bishopsgate to those servants who were discharged when the households in which they worked fled the city.
His tenure as mayor is often favourably contrasted with that of his successor, Sir Thomas Bludworth but Sir John also had numerous other positions during his lifetime, including as president of St Thomas’ Hospital, a committee member of the East India Company and a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Sir John was married and had two children. He died on 26th January, 1692, and was buried at the Church of St Helen’s Bishopsgate.
He is remembered on a plaque at Bunhill Fields for being mayor when, at the City’s expense, the burial ground was enclosed with a wall.
PICTURE: Part of the inscription at the gates of Bunhill Fields commemorating Sir John’s role in enclosing the burial ground. (Edwardx; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0).
What’s in a name?…Mincing Lane
The origins of this short and narrow City of London laneway, which runs between Fenchurch Street and Great Tower Street, have nothing to do with minced meat of any kind.
Rather it comes from the fact – according to 16th century historian John Stow – that houses along here were once the property of the nuns of St Helen’s Bishopsgate. The medieval word for a nun was ‘mynchen’ – ‘mincing’ is merely a corruption of that word.
Historically, Mincing Lane was known for spice and tea trading and was also apparently the centre of the opium trade in London as well as hosting businesses connected to the slave trade.
The Clothworkers Company is located in Dunster Court, just off Mincing Lane – the current building, which opened in 1958, is the sixth on the site.
Among more modern buildings hosted in the one-way lane today is the Minster Court complex, dating from the early Nineties, which features in the forecourt facing out to the lane, Althea Wynne’s sculpture of three larger than life-size bronze horses, apparently nicknamed “Dollar”, “Yen” and “Stirling” (pictured). The building featured in the 1996 film, 101 Dalmatians.
PICTURE: Mike Quinn / Wild horses wouldn’t drag me in here /
Lost London – St Martin Outwich…
This former City church – now part of the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate – once stood on the corner of Threadneedle Street and Bishopsgate (the site is marked by a blue plaque).
A medieval church which was apparently rebuilt in the 14th century in the Gothic style, it was dedicated to St Martin while there is some discrepancy over the use of the name Outwich – some sources say it comes from a corruption of the name of the family who paid for its reconstruction – the Oteswich family – while others say the family in fact took their name from the church and that ‘outwich’ simply means the outer side of the wich (one of a number of Saxon words for a town).
It survived the Great Fire of 1666 but gradually fell into disrepair and in 1765 was badly damaged in another fire which destroyed some 50 houses.
In 1796, Parliament passed an act allowing the parish to raise money for its building – the donations included some from the powerful City livery companies – and after a couple of years of construction, it was consecrated in November, 1798.
Designed by Samuel P Cockerell, the church was unusual in that it featured an oval interior. Medieval stained glass from the original church was placed in a window over the altar while some of the monuments that had been present in the old church – including one commemorating John Oteswich and his wife – were transferred to the new. The dead buried at St Martin Outwich, meanwhile, were reburied in the City of London churchyard (where a memorial to them can now be seen).
A painting from 1838 shows a curved interior with high semi-circular windows, some intricate medieval monuments and closed in box pews.
Thanks to a falling population and pressure to widen the streets, the church was eventually demolished in 1874 and the parish amalgamated with St Helen’s. As had previously happened, a number of monuments – including the Oteswich memorial – which were in the old church were moved to St Helen’s before its demolition.
Proceeds from the sale of the church grounds were used to fund the construction of Holy Trinity Church in Dalston. Built in the late 1870s to the designs of Ewan Christian, it is perhaps best known as the Clown’s Church and is where the clown service is usually held each year.
10 sites from London at the time of the Magna Carta – 6. St Helen’s Bishopsgate…
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.
Established 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.
10 sites from Shakespearean London – 3. Shakespeare’s houses…
The playwright is believed to have lived in several different locations in London and is also known to have invested in a property. Here we take a look at a couple of different locations associated with him…
• Bishopsgate: Shakespeare is believed to have lived here in the 1590s – in 1596 tax records show he was living in the parish of St Helen’s. The twin-nave church of St Helen’s Bishopsgate (pictured), which would have been his parish church, still stands. In fact, there is a window to Shakespeare’s memory dating from the late 19th century.
• Bankside: In the late 1590s, Shakespeare apparently moved across the Thames to Bankside where he lived at a property on lands in the Liberty of the Clink which belonged to the Bishop of Winchester. The exact address remains unknown.
• Silver Street, Cripplegate: It’s known that in 1604, Shakespeare moved from Bankside back to the City – it’s been speculated outbreaks of plaque may have led him to do so. Back in the City, he rented lodgings at the house of Christopher and Mary Mountjoy in on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Streets in Cripplegate, not far from St Paul’s Cathedral. Mountjoy was a refugee, a French Huguenot, and a tire-maker (manufacturer of ladies’ ornamental headresses). The house, which apparently stood opposite the churchyard of the now removed St Olave Silver Street, was consumed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the church was also lost in the Great Fire). The former church site is now located on the south side of London Wall. Silver Street itself was wiped out in the Blitz and is now lost under the Barbican redevelopment but the house lives on in a representation found on a late 16th century map created by Ralph Agas.
• Ireland Yard, Blackfriars: In 1613, Shakespeare purchased the former gatehouse of the Blackfriars Priory located here, close to the where the Blackfriars Theatre was located. It is believed the property was purchased as an investment – there’s no evidence he ever lived there but it was passed to his daughter Susanna after his death. Incidentally, there is some speculation that Shakespeare may have lived in Blackfriars when he first came to London – a man believed to have been a boyhood friend from Stratford, Richard Field, who was known to have lived there.
For a more in-depth look at Shakespeare’s time in Silver Street, see Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street.
What’s in a name?…St Mary Axe
There’s several stories behind the rather odd name given to this narrow street which runs between Houndsditch and Leadenhall Street in the City of London – now famous for the gherkin-shaped skyscraper located within it.
It’s generally agreed that street’s name comes – at least partly – from a former church which it has been suggested once stood where the building known as Fitzwilliam House now stands.
Known as the Church of St Mary Axe (although its full name was apparently the somewhat longer Church of St Mary, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), the medieval building was apparently demolished in the 1560s and the parish united with that of St Andrew Undershaft (this church still sits on the corner of St Mary Axe and Leadenhall Street).
The reasons for the church to be so named remain a matter of speculation. The most interesting version (and the one that would explain the church’s longer name) has it that the name was given due to an axe that was once on display in the church.
The axe had apparently come from Europe where legend says it was one of three axes used by the Huns (some say the three included Atilla himself) to slaughter 11,000 handmaidens who had been travelling in Europe with St Ursula. St Ursula herself was fatally shot with arrows by the Huns’ leader.
How and why the axe came to be on display in this particular church remains something of a mystery but so well did the church become identified with the gruesome relic that it became known as the church of St Mary Axe.
Another version we’ve come across states that the church took on the name because its patrons were the the Skinners’ Company who used such axes. Yet another suggests that the street was named after the church of St Mary and that of a nearby tavern which operated under a sign bearing the image of an axe (but it’s possible the tavern had such a sign because of its proximity to the church in the first place).
These days, as well as being the location of St Andrew Undershaft (now part of the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate) and the building known as the Gherkin (it’s official name is 30 St Mary Axe), St Mary Axe is also the place where, on 10th April, 1992, an IRA bomb exploded outside the Baltic Exchange, killing three people.
PICTURE: The Gherkin with St Andrew Undershaft in the foreground.