Little slices of London's history

Bleeding Heart Yard: revisiting (and debunking) old favourites

I recently read a murder mystery called Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths, in which the yard and theories about the name featured. Loyal readers may remember that I have mentioned (at boring length, perhaps) the fact that my obsession with London street names began back in the 1990s with Bleeding Heart Yard when I worked in an office nearby (and frequented a wine bar in the yard). Naturally I went back to look at the various posts I have written on the Bleeding Heart and decided it is time to put all the theories I could find into one place.

The aforementioned murder mystery covered most of the theories and references:

An inn sign depicting the Virgin Mary with five swords piercing her heart (my post, ‘Protestations, Prisoners, and Bleeding Hearts covers that and a few others)

The fact that Charles Dickens mentions the yard – and that area generally – in Little Dorrit (my post ‘Sublime and ridiculous in London names: Bleeding Heart Yard and Cripplegate’ mentions that)

The versions involving Lady Elizabeth Hatton; that she was wooed by, and jilted, a ‘foreign ambassador’ who then killed her and left her body in the yard. That she sold her soul to the Devil who came to collect at a ball and whisked her away .

The Lady Elizabeth story is also mentioned on the CabbieBlog website: “On 22 January 1626 [sic] In Bleeding Heart Yard, Farringdon Lady Elizabeth Hatton’s mutilated body was found after she danced with the devil”.

The website for the Bleeding Heart Yard wine bar that I frequented points to Lady Elizabeth as the source of the name, having been whisked away from her Annual Winter Ball, on January 26, 1662 [sic]. “Halfway through the evening’s festivities, the doors to Lady Hatton’s grand ballroom were flung open. In strode a swarthy gentleman, slightly hunched of shoulder, with a clawed right hand. He took her by the hand, danced her once around the room and out through the double doors into the garden. A buzz of gossip arose. Would Lady Elizabeth and the European Ambassador (for it was he) kiss and make up, or would she return alone? Neither was to be. The next morning her body was found in the cobblestone courtyard – torn limb from limb, with her heart still pumping blood onto the cobblestones.”

What I (re)discovered in reading through my various notes and posts is that – as various readers have told me over the years – I should use ‘purportedly’ much as Private Eye uses ‘allegedly’. I like to embrace the outlandish theories as they tend to be more fun than plain facts, but I don’t intend these theories to be taken as fact.

One theory that I promulgated in my ‘Protestations’ posts is that the name comes from the Douglas family crest (as in Sir James Douglas, friend and champion of Robert the Bruce, and Douglas motorcycles). Confession time: I have no idea where that theory came from; I can’t find it in any of my notes or, indeed, anywhere else. In penance for my sloppy bibliographical records I have looked through all my reference books to see if I can find mention of it anywhere.

(A momentary digression: when I first started my obsession the world wide web had not been launched to the public. My research took me to the local history sections of various London libraries where I either handwrote what I found in the books there or, depending on the state of my funds at the time, photocopied relevant pages). Over the years I have found, to my delight, various of those books, either in charity, antique, or second hand book shops. Now, many of them are available online, either used or reprinted as mass market paperbacks.)

Bleeding Heart Yard references

All of which means I have no excuse to be lazy and look online for street name derivations, especially as that is where misperceptions are perpetuated. Here is what I have found in the various books (no more sloppy bibliography for me) I have collected over the years.

Gillian Bebbington, Street Names of London: Bebbington states definitively that the name is derived from an old inn sign depicted a broken-hearted Virgin Mother, but she does also give a nod to the fact that “until recently the name was always associated with the redoubtable Lady Hatton of Hatton Garden, who, according to the Ingoldsby Legends, entered into league with the Devil”.

S Fairfield, The Streets of London: “Probably named from a sign. The bleeding heart would have been a Christian symbol used at first by a religious body and later adopted by an inn or trade.”

Peter Bushell, London’s Secret History: This points to the yard commemorating the story as laid out in The Ingoldsby Legends of the wife of Sir Christopher Hatton entering a pact with the Devil and being carried off, leaving her bleeding heart behind.

Hector Bolitho & Derek Peel, Without the City Wall: The authors, having encountered the yard, say, “That evening we searched several books of reference for the story of Bleeding Heart Yard, but even Stow and Cunningham did not mention it; nor was there any help from The Place-Names of Middlesex.” They then look at Dickens and the two theories in Little Dorrit before coming up with Old and New London and the name deriving from “a pre-Reformation tavern sign – the heart of the Blessed Virgin pierced with five swords”.

Walter Thornbury, Old and New London: Thornbury doesn’t mention the yard itself; he mentions Charles Street, saying, “There is a publichouse of the name of the ‘Bleeding Heart’ in this street. This is a sign dating from before the Reformation. It is the emblematical representation of the five sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary— viz., the heart of the Holy Virgin pierced with five swords. Bleeding Heart Yard, adjoining the publichouse in Charles Street, is immortalised by Charles Dickens in ‘Little Dorrit.’.” Thornbury then goes on to quote extensively from Dickens.

BLEEDING HEART YARD (from Old and New London)

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit: “The opinion of the Yard was divided respecting the derivation of its name. The more practical of its inmates abided by the tradition of a murder; the gentler and more imaginative inhabitants, including the whole of the tender sex, were loyal to the legend of a young lady of former time closely imprisoned in her chamber by a cruel father for remaining true to her own true love, and refusing to marry the suitor he chose for her. The legend related how that the young lady used to be seen up at her window, behind the bars, murmuring a love-lorn song, of which the burden was ‘Bleeding Heart, Bleeding Heart, bleeding away,’ until she died. It was objected by the murderous party that this refrain was notoriously the invention of a tambour-worker, a spinster, and romantic, still lodging in the yard. But forasmuch as all favourite legends must be associated with the affections, and as many more people fall in love than commit murder—which, it may be hoped, howsoever bad we are, will continue until the end of the world to be the dispensation under which we live— the Bleeding-Heart, Bleeding-Heart, bleeding-away story, carried the day by a large majority. Neither party would listen to the antiquaries, who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood showing the bleeding heart to have been the heraldic cognisance of the old family to whom the property once belonged. And considering that the hour-glass they turned from year to year was filled with the earthiest and coarsest sand, the Bleeding Heart Yarders had reason enough for objecting to be despoiled of the one little golden grain of poetry that sparkled in it.”

RH Barham, The Ingoldsby Legends: This has been quoted extensively and is too long to quote in full here, but the crux of ‘THE HOUSE-WARMING!! A legend of Bleeding-Heart Yard’ is that, following Lady Hatton and her diabolical dance partner disappearing, a large hole in the shape of a hoof appeared in the roof and:

“Of poor Lady Hatton, it’s needless to say,
No traces have ever been found to this day,
Or the terrible dancer who whisk’d her away;
But out in the court-yard – and just in that part
Where the pump stands – lay bleeding a LARGE HUMAN HEART”

Sundry large stains appeared on the wooden pump, as though someone’s head had been knocked hard against it; these stains were unaffected by rain. The pump (so the poem goes) was replaces by one made of iron; on moonlit nights a Lady in White could be seem pumping away to no avail.

“And hence many passengers now are debarr’d
From proceeding at nightfall through Bleeding-Heart Yard!”

FH Habben, London Street Names: “Hatton Garden is a memento of the illustrious Sir Christopher Hatton, Elizabeth’s Chancellor. In connection with Sir Christopher may be mentioned his marriage with a beautiful gipsy girl, who bewitched him by compact with the Evil One. This gentleman’s price was the girl’s body and soul after a stipulated time. At the expiration thereof the Evil One seized her, carried her into mid-air, tore out her heart and cast it to the ground. The spot upon which it fell was named Bleeding Heart Yard, so who can doubt the legend? And yet those incredulous sceptics, who destroy our beautiful legends one by one, seek to explain the name by the assertion that it was originally Bleeding Hart Yard, a forgotten sign or family cognizance, and I am inclined to think they are right.”

I have another confession about quoting an attributable story. I seem to have conflated Habben’s story about the gipsy girl with another story, the source of which I cannot (yet) find. “As she was whisked through the air, her cloak fell to the ground in what is now Cloak Lane and one of her shoes fell in Shoe Lane.”

Now, I shall put this up on my website and head off to doublecheck the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, as the number of Hattons and their wives and heirs is making my brain hurt. For those who didn’t feel like following the links to my early posts about Bleeding Heart Yard, I think that in my Protestations post I have fairly well unravelled the various people mentioned in the various stories about the yard. Should I find errors or omissions I will rectify them in another post.

4 responses to “Bleeding Heart Yard: revisiting (and debunking) old favourites”

  1. I am inclined toward the sign for the inn, depicting the Virgin Mary.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete, pretty gruesome stuff – I guess I should have included one of those pictures! I’m sure you’re right, but mysterious, murderous dancers are so much more fascinating than a sign, however gory! All the best, Elizabeth..

  2. […] two reputable sources. According to the charming Hector Bolitho and Derek Peel (who feature in my previous post on Bleeding Heart Yard), the murder of Sir Edmund (they call him Sir Edmundbury Godfrey) was turned into anti-Papist […]

  3. […] last couple of posts have involved street names that derive from signs (Bleeding Heart Yard, Red Lion Square, Hen and Chicken Court…) and I thought it was time to revisit the role of signs […]

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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