St-James-ClerkenwellThe Church of St James, which stands just to the north of Clerkenwell Green, is all that remains today of the medieval nunnery which once occupied a large swathe of land in the area. 

The Augustinian Nunnery of St Mary was founded in about 114o by Jorden de Briset, the lord of Clerkenwell Manor (he also founded the Hospitaller Priory of St John of Jerusalem which lay to the south – more on this here) on 14 acres of land to the east of the famous “Clerk’s Well” (more on the well, which was located close to, but within, the western border of the nunnery, in our earlier post here).

By 1160 a wall had been built around the precinct said to have been roughly bounded by Farringdon Lane, Clerkenwell Green (an open space between the two religious houses), St James’s Walk and a boundary to the south of, and parallel with, Bowling Green Lane to the north.

The church – where Briset and his wife were later buried and which doubled as a parish church – was built about the same time, along with an adjoining chapter-house – both of which were made of stone in contrast to the timber buildings which initially made up the rest of the complex.

A cloister and other stone buildings were erected to the north of the church later in the 12th and 13th centuries including a lodging for the prioress, a dormitory, refectory and kitchen for the nuns. Other buildings on the site included  a gatehouse, what was known as the “Nun’s Hall” – possibly a hall for guests – and an infirmary with its own chapel, the location of which is apparently something of a mystery.

Substantial renovation works were carried out in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and by the time of King Henry VIII’s dissolution, it had become one of the wealthiest monasteries in England (although it only ever housed about 20 canonesses).

One of the last nunneries to be suppressed, it was dissolved in 1539 with the nuns being pensioned off.

The site was initially granted to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who held it only briefly being returning it to the king in a deal for another property and subsequently purchased by a succession of different owners.

Many of the buildings were converted for use as private mansions and outbuildings, among them Newcastle House and Challoner (later Cromwell due to the legend that Oliver Cromwell resided there) House which faced them across what had been the cloister courtyard.

The mansions were gradually redeveloped into smaller properties – it remained a popular residential area despite the building of a House of Detention to the immediate north – and in 1788-92, the parish church of St James was rebuilt to the designs of local architect James Carr, with the spire apparently modelled on St Martin-in-the-Fields (Carr also bought Newcastle House and pulled most of it down before redeveloping the area).

Church gardens, which are open to the public, now occupy some of the site of the former nunnery – in 1987, part of the medieval cloisters were excavated here.

For some insightful walks delving into the history of London, see Stephen Millar’s three books, London’s Hidden Walks: Volumes 1-3.

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A 17th century public executioner famed for his botched executions, Jack Ketch looms as an infamous figure in British history and a byword for brutality and executioners in general.

Ketch’s origins are unknown (he’s also known as John Catch) but he is believed to have received his appointment as a public hangman sometime in the early to mid 1660s – the first recorded mention of him in that role, in a pamphlet celebrating his handiwork, dates from 1678. Such was his self-importance that he apparently adopted the title Esquire and apparently asked for his letters to be addressed to Dr John Ketch.

Among those who died at his hand were those accused of involvement in the Popish Plot against the Crown – a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II which was all apparently fabricated by Titus Oates. These included William Staley and Edward Coleman both of whom were hung, drawn and quartered in 1678 (Ketch was also charged with whipping Oates following his perjury conviction).

But Ketch’s most infamous executions, the only two beheadings he is known to have performed, became notorious because of the botched manner in which they were carried out.

It was reported that it took Ketch three blows to strike off the head of William, Lord Russell, when he was executed for treason on 21st July, 1683 (he had opposed the succession of James II and was accused of involvement in the Rye House Plot), although Ketch apparently denied suggestions he had turned up drunk and blamed Lord Russell for flinching.

The beheading of James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth (and illegitimate son of King Charles II), on 15th July, 1685 (pictured above in a print from the time), was apparently even worse – it took Ketch five blows to take off his head and he apparently finished the job with a knife after having almost given up halfway through. Monmouth had been captured following the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685 in which he led an army having declared himself king (more on that another time).

Ketch fell out of favor with the authorities later that year and was briefly gaoled in Bridewell prison. He was reinstated but his return to the job of public executioner was only short-lived for he died in 1686 and is believed to have been buried in St James’ in Clerkenwell on 29th November, 1686.

He was survived by his wife Katherine, who apparently stood by her man despite the public feeling against him, and is it generally assumed a girl Susanna who was baptised at the church in Clerkenwell in 1668 – some 18 years before his death – was his daughter.

Following his death, Ketch’s name was adopted by subsequent public hangmen – he even appeared as an ongoing character in Punch and Judy shows.

For more on Ketch, see Tim Wales’ article Jack Ketch in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (a subscription is required for access).

PICTURE: Wikipedia.

Located just to the north of the City, the area of Clerkenwell takes its name from the Clerk’s Well which stands in Farringdon Lane.

The well was mentioned as far back as 1174 and was the scene of medieval mystery plays which were performed by the parish clerks of London. It was formerly located inside the wall of the 12th century St Mary’s Nunnery (located on the site of St James Parish Church) but is now found in the basement of a building named Well Court.

Islington Council record that a pump was installed at pavement level in 1800 to enable the public to use the well to draw water but this was closed by the mid 1800s and the exact site of the well lost to public knowledge. It was only in 1924 that the well was rediscovered during building work.

Alongside the nunnery, Clerkenwell was also home to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, English headquarters of the crusader order known as the Knights Hospitallers. The Order of St John is still headquartered on the site of the former priory – the remains of the original priory include the Norman crypt under the rebuilt church and the priory’s main entrance, St John’s Gate, now home to a museum on the order. Also found in Clerkenwell is the Charterhouse, founded by Carthusian monks in 1370 and later a school (it’s these days home to a school of medicine and dentistry).

The area, centred on Clerkenwell Green (although apparently there hasn’t been a green here for several hundred years), become famous for its leisure-related institutions in the 1600s – these included spas, tea gardens and theatres (Sadler’s Wells Theatre still remains, albeit in a modern, dance-related form) – and gradually evolved into a more built-up residential area.

It was initially favored by the fashionable until the Industrial Revolution saw printing houses, breweries and distilleries, and clock and watchmakers move in. A survivor from the 18th century is the Middlesex Sessions House, built on Clerkenwell Green as a court around 1782 and now used by the Freemasons.

Industry declined in the area after World War II and Clerkenwell, which had also become a noted location for communists in the early 1900s (Lenin edited a paper here at one stage), was gradually transformed back into a residential area. Since the Eighties, Clerkenwell has again been going through a process of transformation – this time one of gentrification.

The well, located at 14-16 Farringdon Lane, can be visited – to arrange a visit, contact the Islington Local History Centre on 020 7527 7988 or email local.history@islington.gov.uk. For walks in Clerkenwell, see the Clerkenwell & Islington Guides Association  at www.clerkenwellwalks.org.uk.