London’s lost streets: La Belle Sauvage Yard, Pocahontas, and a dancing horse

Another of those streets with a wonderful name and colourful stories to with it but which, unfortunately, no longer exists: La Belle Sauvage Yard. The name of the yard has had an “incredible quantity of ink” shed over it, and theories range from forgers to pub landladies by way of Pocahontas.

There is no disputing the fact that the yard was once home to an “antient inn” and one theory was that the yard was named in honour of Pocahontas, who was a guest at the inn and who later became the symbol for the publisher Cassell, once based in the yard.

By happy coincidence, I was reading up some more on La Belle Sauvage Yard and someone asked me what happened to a statue of Pocahontas that had been commissioned by Cassell. It appears that the statue, originally situated in Red Lion Square when the publisher moved there, was removed in the 1980s and sold to a private buyer in the 1990s.

But back to the inn, which marked the end of Wyatt’s 1554 rebellion; it was here that he turned back and rested when he discovered that the people would not support him. It was also one of the most splendid of London’s coaching inns. At one time it had 40 rooms and stabling for 100 horses; by the 19th century the capacity for horses had increased to 400.

The inn was also a place for all kinds of entertainment, serving roles as disparate from coffee house to a centre for bull baiting, and a place where plays were performed before the advent of theatres.

One of the favourites who acted there was Richard Tarlton (or Tarleton) the actor and clown said to be the basis for the character of Yorick in Hamlet. (And the the source of one of the most quoted misquotes. It is, correctly: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio” but is often quoted: “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well”.)

The sculptor Grinling Gibbons used to live in the yard and is said to have carved a pot of flowers that shook with the motion of passing coaches. John Evelyn saw the carving and was so impressed that he recommended its creator to Charles II.

Another famous person associated with the inn was the William Banks (or Bankes); a prosperous vintner of Cheapside, and also a showman, who was mentioned by Tarleton. Banks’s most famous act involved a trained gelding called Marocco.

Marocco could play dead, identify certain members of the audience (such as those wearing glasses), distinguish between certain colours, and even urinate on command. He could also count: if coins were collected from spectators, Marocco, by stamping his hoof, could indicate from whom the coins came and how many came from each person.

Banks and Marocco later moved to Paris, where Banks was arrested and accused of sorcery; he had to reveal that the horse’s tricks were in the main accomplished through subtle gestures. From there the pair went to Orléans where Banks was again arrested for sorcery and sentenced to burn at the stake. He was given one last chance and, to redeem himself, Banks taught Marocco to kneel down before a cross, proving that he was not a devil.

One account of Banks suggest that, following Marocco’s death in 1605, he worked in James I’s stables, and later trained horses for George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (who gave his name to, among others, Of Alley).

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4 thoughts on “London’s lost streets: La Belle Sauvage Yard, Pocahontas, and a dancing horse

  1. For many years, I wrongly assumed that Pocahontas was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, in Rotherhithe. I had been told this by an elderly man who lived nearby, and he said that the headstone had been stolen. I was embarrassed to be proved wrong as late as in my 50s, when I was told (correctly this time) that she is buried in Gravesend, in Kent.
    It would be nice to believe that La Belle Sauvage Yard was named in her honour.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks for that, Pete. I didn’t know where she was buried – unfortunately my research hadn’t taken me beyond the statue. Certainly she is the most exotic explanation behind the name of La Belle Sauvage Yard.

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