Standing some 200 feet above sea level (almost 63 metres), this rounded grassy hill, just to the north of The Regent’s Park proper, has long held a fascination for Londoners partly, at least, for the panoramic views it offers of the city skyline. 

Once part of a hunting ground used by King Henry VIII, the hill – which has also been known as Battle and Greenberry Hill – was purchased in 1841 from Eton College to provide more public space for Londoners.

It has served as the site of a famous unsolved murder (that of magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey whose mysterious death, exploited by anti-Catholic plotter Titus Oates, caused considerable uproar) as well as duels, prize fights, mass gatherings and mystic happenings.

The latter have included it being the location where Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) first organised a gathering of druids, known as a Gorsedd of Bards, in 1792, as well as it being the subject of a prophecy by 16th century ‘soothsayer’ Mother Shipton warning that the streets would “run with blood” if the hill should become surrounded by urban sprawl.

Around the summit of the hill stands a York Stone edging feature bearing an inscription from poet William Blake – “I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill” – while standing on the slope below is the famous Shakespeare’s Tree which was originally planted in 1864 to mark the 300th anniversary of the Bard’s birth (but was replaced in 1964).

The view over London is one of a number of protected views in the city (meaning you can’t build anything block it) and the trees below the summit are kept deliberately low so as not to impede sightlines.

The nearby residential district known as Primrose Hill is noted for being home to numerous famous figures including the likes of Jude Law, Kate Moss and the Gallagher brothers. It is also where the aliens in HG Well’s book, War of the Worlds, intended making their headquarters.

WHERE: Primrose Hill, The Regent’s Park (nearest tube stations are Chalk Farm, Swiss Cottage, St John’s Wood and Mornington Crescent); WHEN: Usually always; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/the-regents-park/things-to-see-and-do/primrose-hill.

PICTURE: Mike Rolls/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 (taken in 2012).

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Once a visible sign of London’s legal system, the city had several pillories which were used to degrade and humiliate those offenders put within them.

Titus-OatesOriginating in medieval times, the pillories were wooden contraptions in which a standing person’s head and hands were held in place and exposed to the ridicule of the crowd (not to mention their rotten foodstuffs and other less savoury things). They were a similar form of punishment to the stocks and were designed to humiliate those put within them.

They were used to punish a broad range of offenders including everyone from con-men and forgers to traders who didn’t play fair with their customers, people publishing unlicensed literature, and homosexuals.

Some people were pilloried repeatedly and additional punishments could be handed out to some put in the pillory – such as the nailing of the offender’s ears to the structure. There was cases of enraged mobs injuring the person locked in the pillory so badly that they died and the journey to the pillory – a formal parade of the malefactor before the people – was another chance for people to shout abuse and throw things at the offender.

As well as in Charing Cross where the pillory was located just to the south of Trafalgar Square, pillories were found at locations in Cheapside, Cornhill and Old Bailey in the City as well as Old Palace Yard and Tyburn in Westminster.

Among the most famous occupants of London’s pillories was the writer Daniel Defoe. The author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, he was placed here on 31st July,1703, due to his publication of pamphlets criticising the church. It didn’t prove the harshest of punishments, however – Defoe was greeted with flowers, not stones, by a crowd rather sympathetic to his cause.

Others to suffer the punishment of the pillory included Titus Oates, who fabricated a plot to kill King Charles II, and puritan William Prynne, who lost both his ears when pilloried for libelling Queen Henrietta Maria  (although they were apparently sewed back on before he lost them again for a subsequent offence).

The punishment was formally abolished in 1837 – the last time it was used was in 1830.

PICTURE: Wikipedia. Image is from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days, 1st edition.

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.