London’s Red Lion Square and a posthumous beheading

Now that the Boston Red Sox have clinched the 2018 World Series, I thought I would mark their victory by looking at one of London’s ‘red’ street names – technically, a ‘square’ name: Red Lion Square.

The name comes from the Red Lyon tavern, “in olden times the most important hostelry in Holborn”, which gave its name to the square and the nearby street. This tavern is alleged to have been where, following the Restoration of the monarchy, the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and two others were kept overnight after being disinterred from Westminster Abbey so that they could be posthumously tried and executed.

The men were ceremonially hanged at Tyburn and beheaded; their bodies were buried in a pit by the gallows at Tyburn and their heads were displayed from the roof of Westminster hall for his head remained on a spike above Westminster Hall for nearly 25 years, until a storm broke the spike and hurled Cromwell’s head to the ground. It was then bandied about amongst collectors of such grisly items, and finally buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. The spirits of the three men supposedly haunted the area for many years.

Red Lion Square was one of the first licensed developments outside the City, when London was still rapidly spreading west. It was developed by the speculator Nicholas Barbon, whose father Praisegod Barebone, was an anti-royalist and supporter of Cromwell.

Barbon started off with a career in medicine, having studied in Holland and been admitted to the College of Physicians in 1664. He later became involved in financial matters, wrote two treatises on money and – following the ravages of the Great Fire of London – was the originator of fire insurance in Britain. In 1680 he started an ‘insurance office for houses’ with plans to insure up to 5,000 homes in the City.

Nicholas Barbon was a persuasive man who radiated charm and arrogance in equal measure, depending on his objective. A contemporary referred to him as a “rogue, knave and damned”. In addition to the fire insurance, he was one of the most active and influential builders in London following the Great Fire. He did get it wrong sometimes and not all of his buildings stayed up (such as one in Mincing Lane).

Red Lyon Fields, as it was known prior to the 17th century, was purchased by Barbon for speculative development and building commenced in the late 1680s; it was one of the first licensed developments outside the City. However, lawyers in the area (the “gentlemen of Graies Inn”) were unamused at the thought of their rural surroundings being spoiled, and they began a campaign against the development and its workmen.

These ‘riots’ began in 1684 and the legal men had the upper hand at first: despite the bricks being hurled at them by workmen they were able to take two hostages. Barbon was not the sort to take that kind of thing lightly, and returned the following day with hundreds of workmen, shouting threats and promising not to be intimidated. The excitement eventually died down when the square proved that it was attractive, and it became a commercial success.

Even in death, Barbon proved that he was not a man who could easily be daunted – his will directed that none of his debts was to be paid.

Red Lion Square also had its fair share of famous residents, and the most delightfully eccentric of them all was Jonas Hanway, explorer and philanthropist, who lived and died there. Among other things, Hanway was known for instituting the Foundling Hospital. Samuel Johnson said of Hanway that he “gained some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it by travelling at home”. In any event, Hanway’s reputation lives on mainly because he was instrumental in introducing that great British accessory – the umbrella – to the men of the UK.

Although long used by ladies in the UK, and a status symbol in China in the 11th century BC, the umbrella was considered effeminate and unseemly for British men. They were originally viewed as a sunshade rather than protection against the rain. It was not until Hanway, incurring the wrath of cab drivers and the amusement of small boys and passersby, persevered in his use of the umbrella that they became associated with rain. For years after his death, however, it was still considered unmanly to use them – as late as 1818 the Duke of Wellington banned his troops from using them. Towards the end of the 19th century the curved steel frame rib, which allowed the umbrella to be furled, made the use of them more widespread.

Three of the core pre-Raphaelites – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Morris (1834-1896), and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), lived at number 17 Red Lion Square, where there is a blue plaque to mark their residence. Their lease included the restriction that “models are kept under gentlemanly restraint as some artists sacrifice the dignity of art to the baseness of passion”. Another pre-Raphaelite, Leigh Hunt, also had a connection with the square: he had memories of an old lady who lived there and who used to astound him by letting her false teeth slip out and back in again.

A blue plaque also indicates that John Harrison, who invented the marine chronometer, lived and died in the square. Bertrand Russell is still in residence there, in the form of a statue, and there was a statue to Pocahontas there. The publishers, Cassells, were once based in the square; they commissioned the statue and then took it with them when they moved.

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5 thoughts on “London’s Red Lion Square and a posthumous beheading

  1. I am a RedSox fan – so I appreciate the work and effort! But to keep it fair, need you to do something around the Dodgers.

    Hmmm… Artful Dodger, Dickens,,, should be right up your alley. LOL

  2. How wonderful to see you back, after so long!
    Great post as always, and of course Hanway got his street too, albeit a small one, off Tottenham Court Road. 🙂
    Don’t stay away so long, Elizabeth. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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