This day in London history: on 30 December 1621, James I tore the Protestation of 1621 from the Commons Journal and ordered the imprisonment of its principal author, Sir Edward Coke. The Protestation of 1621 was a declaration by the House of Commons reaffirming their right to freedom of speech in the face of the king’s view that they had no right to debate foreign policy.
Sir Edward Coke, famous as he was for his politics (as Attorney General he led the prosecution in several notable cases, including those against Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators), is even more notable – for the purposes of this blog – for his wife.
Lady Elizabeth Hatton provides one of the many, many theories behind the name of Bleeding Heart Yard, a street name that has been surrounded by massive speculation through the years. The yard itself is a small and unprepossessing little courtyard near to Farringdon Road, showing none of the glamour involved in the theories behind its name.
The more sensible, but less romantic, theories are that the name derives either from an inn sign or family crest. There was, apparently, an inn nearby that depicted the Virgin Mary with five swords piercing her heart, to represent the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. Pictures also often show seven swords, representing the seven dolors of Mary.
Another contender is the Douglas family crest with its bleeding heart. A heart is the only internal organ used in heraldry, and examples can be found as early as the 14th century.
Sir James Douglas was a trusted friend of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland in 1309. The king had never been able to go to the Holy Land and fight against the Saracens, so he gave instructions that on his death his heart should be embalmed and taken to Jerusalem to be interred in the Holy Sepulchre. (Opinion is divided as to whether Robert Bruce actually died from leprosy – the original theory – or from syphilis, as later scholars claim.)
Sir James was chosen to undertake this grisly delivery, and in due course set off with his king’s embalmed heart in a casket which he wore on a chain round his neck. Unfortunately, in a diversion to assist Alfonso XI in battle against the Moors of Granada, Douglas himself was killed. The king’s heart and Douglas’s bones (in the custom of the time, they had been separated from his flesh by boiling his remains) were taken back to their homeland, and the bleeding heart (later crowned) was adopted on the Douglas crest.
Dickens helped make the yard famous and propounded yet another theory: in Little Dorrit, there is a whole chapter entitled ‘Bleeding Heart Yard’. “The opinion of the Yard,” says Dickens, “was divided respecting the derivation of its name. The more practical inmates abided by the tradition of a murder; the gentler and more imaginative inhabitants…were loyal to the legend of a young lady of former times closely imprisoned in her chamber by a cruel father for remaining true to her own true love, and refusing to marry the suitor he chose for her.”
The girl could be seen behind the bars of her prison, sighing to herself and constantly murmuring, “Bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding away,” until she finally expired in a manner fit for any Dickens heroine and, Dickens continues, “Neither party would listen to the antiquaries who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood, showing the Bleeding Heart to have been the heraldic cognizance of the old family to whom the property belonged.”
The definitive, and far more exotic, story behind the name is about a beautiful gypsy who made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. She did so, married him, and then lost her heart – literally – to Old Nick. He appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off. As she was whisked through the air, her cloak fell to the ground in what is now Cloak Lane and one of her shoes fell in Shoe Lane. The revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.
This legend was based on Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who died in 1646, and whose life was noteworthy enough to hold its own against any legend. In the 16th century, Sir Christopher Hatton was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth and established an estate in Holborn – then still a partly rural area. Although he himself never married, his nephew, William Newport, inherited Sir Christopher’s estate, took the Hatton name and died six years later, leaving a widow, Elizabeth. The young and beautiful (and rich) Lady Elizabeth Hatton was the toast of 17th-century London society; her Annual Winter Ball in Hatton Garden was one of the highlights of the London social season, and invitations were much sought after.
Her suitors were many and varied, including Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke. Coke won Elizabeth’s heart – possibly to his detriment, because the two quarrelled virtually throughout their long marriage. Elizabeth retained the Hatton name and the couple lived in separate houses for much of their marriage. There were indeed rumours of Elizabeth being carried off by the devil – after defying him to do so if she could not open the door to the wine cellar which thwarted the efforts of her servants.
A 19th century writer, F H Habben, who compiled a dictionary of London street names, speaks rather wistfully of the Lady Hatton theory: “So who can doubt the legend? And yet those incredulous sceptics, who destroy our beautiful legends one by one, seek to explain the name by the assertion that it was originally Bleeding Hart Yard, a forgotten sign or family cognizance, and I am inclined to think they are right.”