Papal bulls, Chancellors, and Victorian knickers

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I

On 25 February 1570 Pope Pius V issued a papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis, or ‘reigning on high’, referring to Elizabeth I as “pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime”. She was branded a heretic and the pope released all her Catholic subjects from allegiance to her, threatening excommunication to any who obeyed her orders.

This attempt to incite a Catholic uprising that would over throw the Queen would appear to have been ineffective as she died in 1603 as the oldest monarch to have ruled England.

All of which has only a tenuous connection to today’s street name: Chancery Lane, the origin of which is uncertain.

Ralph Nevill, Bishop of Chichester and Lord Chancellor, was given land by Henry II for a palace here and, until the 14th century, Nevill’s successors also held the office of Chancellor. A building in the lane was used to store the Rolls of Chancery, the Chancellors’ official documents. The present name came into use during the reign of Elizabeth I (there’s the tenuous connection) and could also have been an abbreviation of Chancellors’ Lane.

Victorian knickers
An 1891 attempt at dress reform

Another theory is that the name comes from the ‘cancelli’ – lattice screen – which once divided the court of Chancery from the court of Common Pleas when they shared the Law Courts in Westminster.

Far more fun than the speculation over the derivation of the name, interesting though it may be, is a story that goes with the lane.

After World War II, when the building that housed a safe deposit was damaged, many of the records had been destroyed and deposit boxes had to be forced open in an attempt to establish the identity of the various owners. One provided no name but, presumably, some amusement, not to mention mystery: it contained a pair of Victorian knickers with a label stating ‘My life’s undoing’.

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