As it’s Shakespeare’s 450th birthday today, and continuing the theme of streets that I may be walking along or near when I take part in this year’s London Moonwalk, let’s take a look at Eastcheap, and we’ll also revisit some earlier posts with links to the bard.
One of the charming and fascinating things about London street names is the number of them that are ‘singletons’ – that is, just a single word name with no street, road, lane or similar qualifier. A couple of others are Bishopsgate and Strand, and more will follow here in the course of time.
But on to Eastcheap: in Old English, ‘ceap’ meant ‘market’, and East Cheap, which had been a market in Roman times, continued as an important medieval meat market. It was called East Cheap to differentiate it from West Cheap (now Cheapside). It was also a drinking area, with “many hostelries”, the largest and most famous of which was the Boar’s Head Tavern.
The name itself refers to the banqueting dish of a boar’s head, and the first mention of the tavern is in the 14th century when one William Warden bequeathed “all that tenement called The Boar’s Head in East Cheap” to a college of priests founded by William Walworth.
Plays were performed in the tavern, which was frequented by Shakespeare who immortalized it as “the very tavern where Falstaff and his joyous companions met”. This gave rise in the 18th century to a Falstaff Club; members would meet at the tavern and assume the names of various Shakespeare characters.Oliver Goldsmith wrote an essay about the tavern, describing “the reflections that naturally arose while I sat at the Boar’s Head tavern, still kept at Eastcheap. Here, by a pleasant fire, in the very room where old Sir John Falstaff cracked his jokes, in the very chair which was sometimes honored by prince Henry, and sometimes polluted by his immoral merry companions, I sat and ruminated on the follies of youth”.
Another literary figure to immortalize the Boar’s Head in an essay was Washington Irving, who talks of when he “casually opened upon the comic scenes of Henry IV., and was, in a moment, completely lost in the madcap revelry of the Boar’s Head Tavern”.
The tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt in brick with a boar’s head, carved in stone and dated 1668, set above the door. In 1829-31, the building, no longer a tavern, was demolished for the building of a new street, at which time a Roman road was discovered three feet below the surface.
There was also a Boar’s Head in Southwark, which belonged to the real Sir John Falstaff.
Before we go, here, as promised, is a revisiting of some of the Shakespeare connections with various London streets.
Curtain Road, where the Theatre was located; many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed there including, for the first time, Romeo and Juliet. When the theatre was dismantled, the materials of which it was constructed were used to build the original Globe theatre.
Laurence Pountney Hill, the site of Sir John de Polteney’s mansion known as the ‘Manor of the Rose’ and mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
Worship Street, with a religious connection and where, reputedly, Shakespeare once lived.
Pickle Herring Street, where the real Sir John Falstaff lived.
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