Conspiracies, whorehouses, and flying horses

This day in London history: on 8 January 1318 Knights Templar (a Christian military order also known as the Knights of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem) in England were seized and some were arrested.

Knights Templar Cross
The red cross of the Knights Templar

The Knights were originally (around 1119), nine very poor knights who vowed to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem; they were distinctive by their garb of white mantle with a red cross. By the 14th century they were well-established and their fund raising had been so successful that they were rich, powerful, and privileged enough for them to be put in the Tower and have their property confiscated.

In 1307 Philip IV of France (who, coincidentally, was deeply in debt to the Knights Templar), accused them of heresy and used that as an excuse to have them tortured and burnt at the stake. This started on Friday 13 October, which is used as one reason why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

Philip also also leant on the Pope (Pope Clement, to whom he was related) to pressure other monarchs to follow suit, and on January 8 1308 Edward II rather reluctantly did so, though only one Templar member was actually arrested and imprisoned.

According to popular mythology, the Knights were in possession of a number of religious treasures, including the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Turin Shroud, and this has given rise to a number of conspiracy theories and novel plots. Of these, Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The DaVinci Code are among the best known.

Be that as it may, the Knights have various connections to the street names of London. Possibly the most interesting of these is Holland Street in the Southwark area south of the Thames. Holland is a common street name in the Kensington area of london, from land owned by Sir Henry Rich, Baron of Kensington and first Earl of Holland.

Hollands Leaguer playHowever, in contrast to this respectable picture of nobility, the Holland Street south of the river was named for a notorious procuress – the self-proclaimed Donna Britannia Hollandia – who rented the moated manor house of Paris Gardens, once owned by the Knights Templar, and ran a ‘stew’ (brothel) frequented by James I and his court.

Mother Holland was a force to be reckoned with: when during Charles I’s reign, there was an attempt by soldiers to storm the house, she waited until they were on the bridge before drawing it up and depositing the soldiers in the unpleasant waters of the moat.

According to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1833, she later relied on “the remnant of prescriptive privilege which sill clings to the palace derived from its possessors the Templars, she set the civil authorities at defiance, and underwent a regular siege”. The house was subsequently known as ‘Holland’s Leaguer’ (‘leaguer’ being a military encampment). A play called ‘Holland’s Leaguer’ premiered in 1631 and was a success, no doubt because of the scandal. The play was published the following year.

NEO Bankside

Holland Street is now the site of a NEO Bankside, a multi-million pound, award-winning skyscraper of luxury apartments.

There was once also a Flying Horse Court, which no longer exists but was named from a tavern that was “very old” in the late 19th century. The flying horse is Pegasus, and was used as an heraldic symbol by the Knights Templar.

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