Green Dragon Court: myths, Lewis Carroll, and hangmen’s perks in London’s street names

I missed a trick in the recent post on myth and legend; the unicorn, as well as being a mythical creature, features in the full royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. 

But first, as one who claims to like knowing the whole story, I omitted to say why the unicorn was particularly popular with chemists (and apothecaries) when it came to signage. A unicorn’s horn was supposed to be a method of detecting poison: either when dipped in poison or because they were believed to sweat in the presence of poison.

Back to the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, which features a unicorn and a lion. The unicorn stands for Scotland and the lion represents England; a combination dating back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland also became of James I of England.

This supposedly accounts for the animosity between the unicorn and the lion. There are various literary references to this animosity but perhaps the best known is the old nursery rhyme that in Lewis Carroll quotes in Through the Looking Glass:

The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown:
The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
Some gave them white bread, some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum-cake and drummed them out of town.

Another trick I missed was that the dragon – the national symbol of Wales – also features in London street names. Sort of: the red dragon symbolises Wales but I can’t find any red dragon streets in London.

There is a Green Dragon Court near Borough Market and that takes its name from a tavern sign: there was a Green Dragon tavern here as early as 1542. There was also a Green Dragon in Fleet Street where hangmen would go there on execution days to sell used ropes at sixpence an inch.

The clothes of those who were executed also became the property of the hangman – perk of the job – and in 1447, according to that wonderful source, The London Encyclopaedia, in 1447 five men had been hanged, cut down while still alive, stripped and marked out for quartering when their pardon arrived. The hangman refused to return their clothes and they had to walk home naked.

From Mermaid Court to Unicorn Passage: more myth and legend in London street names

I thought we could return to the myths and legends themes for this post; I do seem to have jumped the gun with the previous post of Elizabethan symbols of pelicans, phoenixes and mermaids.

Just to recap, Phoenix Street is said to take its name from the Phoenix cockpit that is also commemorated in Cockpit Alley, the site on which the Drury Lane theatre was later built. Or perhaps it takes its name from a pub.

Mermaid Court in Southwark was once known as Mermaid Alley and also takes its name from a pub, which in turn could have taken its name either from the mythical creature or from the fact that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river, ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.

There is also a Unicorn Passage in the Southwark area, now a pedestrian walkway. The children’s theatre took its name from the passage. Unicorns were also popular in signs for taverns and shops; the mystical powers of the unicorn made it particularly popular with chemists and goldsmiths.

Unicorns, or mentions of them, date back to around 400 BC. In some legends, they had the head and body of a horse, legs of a buck, and tail of a lion; the body was white, the head was red, the eyes were blue, and there was a horn that was white at the base, black in the middle, and red at the tip. Nowadays, unicorns are generally pictured as white horses with beautiful, flowing manes, and a single white or gold horn.

There is a Scylla Road near to Heathrow Airport, a strange name for a road leading to a major transport hub given that Scylla and Charybdis were the sea monsters of Homer and a danger to seamen. (There is also a Scylla Road in the Peckham area.) Scylla and Charybdis were later objectified as a rock shoal and a whirlpool.

Scylla was a beautiful nymph who caught the eye of Glaucus, a mortal who ate of a strange herb and was turned into a sea-god. The love Glaucus felt for Scylla was not requited so he turned to the enchantress Circe for help. However, Circe took a liking to Glaucus herself and turned Scylla into a revolting monster with twelve feet and six heads, each with three rows of teeth.

Scylla then dwelt on a rock and would grab sailors when a boat sailed too close to her; in trying to avoid her they ran the risk of being sucked into the nearby whirlpool of Charybdis.

Charybdis also suffered from the jealousies of the Greek gods: she  was the daughter of Poseidon and aided him in his feud with his brother Zeus. Zeus in turn was angered by Charybdis having flooded large areas of land with water, so he turned her into a monster that would eternally swallow sea water, creating whirlpools.

Families, eh?