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?

From Amen Court to Watling Street: more Ingoldsby-related streets

One last post for February (and it may be a few days before I have the chance to write another post). Before we leave the legend of Bleeding Heart Yard, the writer of The Ingoldsby Legends deserves a mention all of his own. The collection was originally printed in 1837 as a regular series for the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany, which was edited by Charles Dickens. The legends were, supposedly, written by Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor, a haunted stately home in Kent.

In fact, Ingoldsby was the a pen name of an English clergyman named Richard Harris Barham, a cleric of the Church of England, a novelist, comic poet, and friend of Richard Bentley, publisher of Bentley’s Miscellany. Tappington Hall was the small estate bequeathed to Barham by his father. Barham was the rector of St Augustine’s, Watling Street, and of St Mary Magdalen, Knightrider Street (where he is buried). He was also a minor canon and elder cardinal of St Paul’s, and so resided, as did scribes and other minor canons of the cathedral, in Amen Court.

Amen Court takes its name, as do other streets in the St Paul’s area, from the fact that, before the Reformation, there was a regular procession of the clergy around the cathedral; this involved reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Paternoster Row, the Hail Mary in Ave Maria Lane, the Credo in Creed Lane, and the Amen in Amen Corner or Court. (The 60s group called Amen Corner took its name from The Amen Corner, a weekly disc spin at the Victoria Ballroom in Cardiff.)

Knightrider Street was part of the route for knights riding from the Tower Royal to jousting tournaments at Smithfield. Simple, eh? However, some wet-blanket scholars dispute the theory on the grounds that there is no recorded instance of the word ‘knightrider’. It could be, the argument goes, that the street was really called ‘Riderstrete’ – rider being a Middle English synonym for knight, and that ‘knight’ was added to the street name in general use.

Watling Street was once the most important street in Roman London, running from Richborough on the coast of Kent, through Canterbury and London, and on to Chester. It’s best if I leave the explanation to our friend Habben: “It pleased the Saxons to connect this with one of their own mythic personages, Waetla, an aptheosised Atheling, or noble and to name it Waetlinga Street, or the road of the Waetlings.” Or Atheling could have meant ‘noble’ and so it was the street of the nobles.

From Bleeding Heart Yard to Snow Hill: London streets in The Ingoldsby Legends

I keep promising to look at myth and legend in London street names; that’s still on the cards, but let’s start with The Ingoldsby Legends, a 19th-century collection of myths, legends, ghost stories and poetry written (and invented) for the purposes of satirizing topics of the time. One of these ‘legends’ was ‘The House Warming!! A legend of Bleeding Heart Yard’ and purports to explain the name of this little courtyard.

The story centres around the beautiful wife of Sir Christopher Hatton, who was a real person and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (though he never married). Alice Fanshawe had sold her soul to the devil in order to advance herself and her husband, with the result that the queen confiscated the place of the Bishop of Ely to give to the couple – hence the housewarming party.

While the festivities were going on, the devil, who had become lazy, realized that Alice’s account was long overdue, and he hastened to the party, where he bounds in and capers around, knocking over furniture and scattering the food and drink. He grasps Alice’s hand (which caused her arm to shrivel), and leads her in a frantic dance that ends with them performing a grand pirouette from which they never return.

The following morning, the house is in ruins, there is a hole the shape of a hoof in the roof (that sounds like something out of Dr Seuss), and there is no sign, then or ever, of poor Lady Hatton.

“But out in the court-yard – and just in that part
Where the pump stands – lay bleeding a LARGE HUMAN HEART!”

There were also traces of blood and brains on the pump, as though a head had been smashed against it. The pump was replaced, yet on some moonlit nights a ‘Lady in White’ could be seen pumping endlessly and fruitlessly.

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

Apart from telling us how the yard got its name, Ingoldsby mentions various other streets, all of which deserve some mention as part of our legend theme.

Ely Place, once a seat of the Bishop of Ely, was indeed occupied by Sir Christopher Hatton, and was famous for its gardens, which produced a fine crop of strawberries. Shakespeare makes reference to this in Richard III, when Richard says, “My lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn,I saw good strawberries in your garden there.”

When guests are arriving at (and fleeing from) the Hattons’ housewarming party, the streets along which they travel are listed: the Strand, Chancery Lane, Shoe Lane, Cheapside, St Mary-le-Bow, Fewtar’s (corrupted to Fetter) Lane, Bishopsgate Street, Dowgate Hill, Budge Row, Snore Hille (which we have since whitewashed to Snow), Holborn Hill, Fleet Ditch, Harp Alley, and Gray’s Inn.

Let’s look at them all in order, starting with the Strand. This name is of Saxon origin, meaning ‘water’s edge” and is mentioned by name in the Saxon Chronicle; apparently it is recorded that this is where Earl Godwin and his son Harold drew up their land forces in the insurrection that they headed against Edward the Confessor in 1052.

Chancery Lane takes its name either from the fact that a building in the lane was used to store the Rolls of Chancery, the Chancellors’ official documents. The present name came into use during the reign of Elizabeth I and could also have been an abbreviation of Chancellors Lane. Another theory is that the name comes from ‘cancelli’ – lattice screen – which once divided the court of Chancery from the court of Common Pleas when they shared the Law Courts in Westminster.

There is an early reference to Shoe Lane as ‘Scholanda’ (Show-land) is taken to mean that the lane was once a place for the setting out and showing of water-borne merchandise to tax collectors and customers. Scholanda could also, however, have meant ‘land shaped like a shoe’; the lane itself is not shoe-shaped but it may have led to a piece of land that was. Alternatively, it could have taken its name from an ancient well – Showelle – at the north end of the lane.

Cheapside comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter. West Cheap, as it was known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap, was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as Bread, Milk, Honey, and Fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities. 

St Mary-le-Bow is the church in Bow Lane, destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Christopher Wren. Traditionally someone is only a Cockney if they are born within the sound of the church’s bells. The name of Bow Lane has nothing to do with its shape: the church was originally called St Mary de Arcubus from the arches, which are shaped like bows, upon which it was built.

The church of St-Mary-le-Bow

Fetter Lane we looked at not long ago, but at the risk of boring with repetition, here are some of the possible derivations of the name. The lane was once a spot where people in various stages of inebriation would congregate, passing on cheery greetings and advice to passersby. As Stow puts it, the lane was “so called of Fewters (or idle people) lying there, as in a way leading to gardens, but the same is now of latter years on both sides built through with many fair houses”.

There is also the theory that the name could have come from the ‘faitours’ – fortune tellers who were prevalent in medieval and Elizabeth times. The name may have come from the lance vests worn on cuirasses (also known as fetters) because of the armorers whose workshops were located there. One final theory is that the name derived from ‘felter’ – makers of felt also carried on their business in the lane.

Bishopsgate was one of the seven main London gates and the street is one of the longest in the City of London. The gate itself was named for Bishop Erkenwald, who became Bishop of London in 675.

Dowgate Hill (or Downgate) may have derived from the fact that the River Walbrook, once a main water supply for the City of London, flowed down the hill and through a gate into the Thames. The lovely Mr Habben, however, eschews this theory and states that, “it is an inscrutable corruption of, or deviation from, the original name, which it would now be difficult and inconclusive to conjecture, though Dock-Gate is tempting.” Sir Francis Drake lived in Dowgate Hill. 

Budge Row, which no longer exists, was the centre of dealers of ‘budges’, or fine lambskin fur, used for the edging of scholastic gowns. Apparently the word ‘budget’ comes from a bag made from lambskin, which may have been used to hold revenue, and transferred its meaning to the contents.

Snow Hill we covered in a recent seasonal post, which you can read here but, as the legend says, it was once called Snore Hylle and could have come from a Scandinavian trader called Snorro, or from the Celtic word ‘suadh’, a brook.

Holborn Hill comes from ‘Hol-Burne, the part of the old River Fleet that flowed under what is now Holborn Viaduct – the ‘burne’, or river, in the hollow. Fleet Ditch, similarly, took its name from the River Fleet; fleet comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a tidal inlet.

Harp Alley takes its name from a 17th-century inn that once stood here. It is now a court off Farringdon Street. 

Finally, Gray’s Inn, which takes its name from the town house of Lord Gray of Wilton, which was leased to lawyers in the 16th century. Inn once meant a large house and was used for the grand residences of the nobility.