CheapsideLocated at the junction of Cheapside and Poultry, the Great Conduit, also known as the Cheapside Standard, was a famous medieval public fountain.

The Great Conduit (the word conduit refers to column fountains fitted with ‘cocks’ or taps for dispensing the water) gave access to water piped using gravity four kilometres from the Tyburn into the City largely via lead pipes.

It was constructed by the City Corporation from the mid-13th century after King Henry III approved the project in 1237. It was rectangular-shaped timber building with an elevated lead tank inside from which the water was drawn.

It took the name ‘Great’ after further conduits were built further west in Cheapside in the 1390s. There were at least 15 conduits or standards scattered about the City by the time of the Great Fire in 1666.

It was rebuilt several times over its life, notably in the reign of King Henry VI, but after being severely damaged in the fire was deemed irreparable and orders were given for it to be taken down in 1669 (many houses by then had alternate water supplies, notably from the New River project). From the 1360s, management of the conduit was the responsibility of four wardens, maintaining the pipes and charging professional water carriers and tradesmen who required water by allowing free

The Cheapside Conduit was a notable landmark – some executions and other punishments were carried out here, speeches were made from here and the conduit building itself was used as a place for posting information. And to celebrate special occasions it was made to flow with wine – this took place in 1432 when King Henry VI marched through London after being crowned King of France, at the coronation of Queen Margaret in 1445 and at the wedding procession of King Henry VIII’s queen Anne Boleyn in 1533.

The substructure of the Great Conduit was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century and again in the 1990s. A plaque marking the location of the Great Conduit at the eastern end of Cheapside was unveiled in late 1994 by Thames Water and the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators. There’s also a memorial set into the pavement over the substructure.

Houses-of-Parliament2 Both Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (these days better known as the Houses of Parliament – pictured) pre-date 1215 but unlike today in 1215 the upon which they stood was known as Thorney Island.

Formed by two branches of the Tyburn River as they ran down to the River Thames, Thorney Island (a small, marshy island apparently named for the thorny plants which once grew there) filled the space between them and the Thames (and remained so until the Tyburn’s branches were covered over).

One branch entered the Thames in what is now Whitehall, just to the north of where Westminster Bridge; another apparently to the south of the abbey, along the route of what is now Great College Street. (Yet another branch apparently entered the river near Vauxhall Bridge).

The abbey’s origins go back to Saxon times when what was initially a small church – apparently named after St Peter – was built on the site. By 960AD it had become a Benedictine monastery and, lying west of what was then the Saxon city in Lundenwic, it become known as the “west minster” (St Paul’s, in the city, was known as “east minster”) and a royal church.

The origins of the Palace of Westminster don’t go back quite as far but it was the Dane King Canute, who ruled from 1016 to 1035, who was the first king to build a palace here. It apparently burnt down but was subsequently rebuilt by King Edward the Confessor as part of a grand new palace-abbey complex.

For it was King Edward, of course, who also built the first grand version of Westminster Abbey, a project he started soon after his accession in 1042. It was consecrated in 1065, a year before his death and he was buried there the following year (his bones still lie inside the shrine which was created during the reign of King Henry III when he was undertaking a major rebuild of the minster).

Old Palace Yard dates from Edward’s rebuild – it connected his palace with his new abbey – while New Palace Yard, which lies at the north end of Westminster Hall, was named ‘new’ when it was constructed with the hall by King William II (William Rufus) in the late 11th century.

Westminster gained an important boost in becoming the pre-eminent seat of government in the kingdom when King Henry II established a secondary treasury here (the main treasury had traditionally been in Winchester, the old capital in Saxon times) and established the law courts in Westminster Hall.

King John, meanwhile, followed his father in helping to establish London as the centre of government and moved the Exchequer here. He also followed the tradition, by then well-established, by being crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1199 and it was also in the abbey that he married his second wife, Isabella, daughter of Count of Angouleme, the following year. 

What’s in a name?…Cheapside

September 12, 2011

One of the major thoroughfares of the City of London, the name is reflective of its role as a marketplace with the medieval English word ‘cheap’ generally been taken to mean market.

Starting from the intersection of Newgate Street and St Martin’s Le Grand through to where it runs into Poultry, the street was apparently originally known as Westcheap – Eastcheap is still located down near the Monument. Cheapside’s surrounding streets – including Poultry, Milk Street, and Bread Street give indication of the sorts of goods that were once sold in the area.

Cheapside was, in medieval times, an important street and was on the processional route royalty would have taken from Westminster to the Tower of London. It is the site of St Mary-le-Bow Church (it’s said that if you’re born within hearing of the Bow bells you’re a true Londoner), and, until the Great Fire of 1666, the eastern end of Cheapside was the site of the end of the Great Conduit where water arrived after being piped in from the Tyburn River in the west.

Key figures associated with Cheapside include slain Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, born there in 1118, poet John Milton, born on the adjoining Bread Street in 1608, and writer Geoffrey Chaucer. A glimpse into the street’s past was found in 1912 when the Cheapside Hoard was unearthed during the demolition of a building there (you can see our earlier post on that here).

The area was heavily bombed during World War II.

Lined with shops, restaurants and office buildings, Cheapside today remains close to the heart of the city and is currently undergoing significant redevelopment, the recently opened swanky shopping centre at One New Change being an example.

For six centuries, the gallows at Tyburn, in the city’s west, was one of London’s sites of public execution. Today, little remains to remind visitors of the infamous past of the area, which lies close to Marble Arch, but for a plaque set in the middle of a road.

From 1196 to 1783, it’s suggested that thousands of people (some have estimated as many as 60,000) were hanged at various gallows erected at Tyburn, known by numerous names over the centuries including ‘The Elms’, the ‘The Deadly Never Green Tree’, and most infamously the ‘Tyburn Tree’.

Hangings were apparently initially carried out using the branches of a tree on the bank of the Tyburn River but the first gallows date from 1220. In Elizabeth times these were upgraded to a larger gallows known as the ‘Triple Tree’ which enabled many more people to be hanged simulteously – as many as 24 at once in 1649.

The gallows was removed in 1759 because it was blocking the road and a mobile gallows used until hangings were moved into Newgate Prison (see our earlier entry on Newgate).

Executions were a public spectacle and it’s estimated that at times the crowds at Tyburn swelled to more than 50,000 people, all eager to witness someone “dancing the Tyburn jig”.

Among those to be hanged at Tyburn were William Fitz Osbern (a champion of London’s poor who was hanged in 1196), Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (hanged in 1330 after being accused of assuming royal power), Perkin Warbeck (pretender to the throne of King Henry VII who was hanged in 1499), and Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Maid of Kent’ (hanged for treason after prophesying King Henry VIII would die within six months of marrying Anne Boleyn).

Others included key figures in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace (an uprising in England’s north in 1536 which followed King Henry VIII’s break with Rome) and many other Catholics including Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland (1681).

In an unusual move, the body of already deceased Oliver Cromwell, along with that of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, was exumed from his grave and and hanged there to mark the first anniversary of the Restoration.

What is believed to have been the site of the Tyburn Tree is today marked by a plaque set in a traffic island at the corner of Edgware Road and Bayswater Road (nearest tube station is Marble Arch).

There is a Shrine of the Martyrs dedicated to the more than 105 Roman Catholics who were hung at Tyburn for their faith at the Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place (for visiting details, see www.tyburnconvent.org.uk).

Note: This article originally referred to the Shrine of the Martyrs commemorating more than 350 Catholic martyrs who died during the Reformation as all being executed at Tyburn but it is believed some 105 were – the greater figure refers to those martyred across England and Wales during the Reformation.