Cripplegate and the desecration of Milton’s coffin

St_Giles_Cripplegate
St St Giles-without-Cripplegate. (Photo: Friends of the City Churches.)

In our tour of City of London gates, today let’s look at Cripplegate, another one of the Roman city gates. The name of this postern, at the end of Wood Street,  was once thought to come from the fact that when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured.

As the 19th century historian and writer Walter Thornbury puts it, “Bishop Alwyn removed the body of the martyred king to St. Gregory’s Church, near St. Paul’s; and as it passed through Cripplegate, such was the blessed influence it diffused, that many lame persons rose upright, and began to praise God for their miraculous cure.” It is also thought possible that the gate was a favoured spot for disabled beggars.

The spoilsports say that a more likely derivation of the name is that the word comes from ‘crepul’ – a tunnel or covered way, which was constructed for the sentries who went to take up their places at the gate.

However, to counter that argument is the existence of the medieval church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, as St Giles is the patron saint of cripples and lepers. By the by, Edmund is the patron saint of pandemics, for what that’s worth in this context.

John Bunyan attended the church, and Daniel Defoe died in the parish (being later wrongly listed as “Mr Dubowe, Cripplegate”). Oliver Cromwell was married there, and the second wedding in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral takes place in the fictional church of St Mary-in-the-Fields, Cripplegate.

John Foxe, the 16th-century historian and martyrologist (now there’s a job title), who wrote Actes and Monuments – otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, is buried in the church. Also buried there is John Milton, whose body suffered somewhat in the 18th century. The church was being repaired and the decision was taken (apparently after a “merry meeting”) to remove Milton’s coffin while the work was going on.

Unfortunately no-one was sure where the poet was buried; what was believed to be (but may not have been) Milton’s coffin was found directly above that of his father’s coffin. The coffin was broken open, following which those present mauled it somewhat, removing and keeping a rib-bone, ten teeth, and several handfuls of hair. The gravedigger, Elizabeth Grant, then ook possession of the body and showed it to those willing to pay a fee.

These events were detailed in a 1760 work by Philip Neve, Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton’s Coffin, following which there was some debate as to the likelihood that it had actually been Milton’s coffin.

Back briefly to the gate itself: it was rebuilt twice, in the 13th and 15th centuries, at one time served as a debtors’ prison, and was eventually demolished in the 18th century. Apart from the church, the name lives on in Cripplegate Street and, as one reader pointed out, the ward of Cripplegate itself.

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