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.

Coldbath Square: bath-related streets and Roman graffiti on National Bubble Bath Day

It’s a bit late to say ‘Happy New Year’, but welcome to 2019 in the world of London street names. Today, bath-related streets, but first please indulge me as I provide a bit of back story to this blog. The aim of starting a blog was to help me focus my mind on getting all my street name notes and draft text into shape so that I could try and have it all published as a book.

The other day my husband pointed out gently but firmly that while I was a natural-born blogger (subtext: I like to witter), the blog had been going for some years now and the book itself has been in the making for decades rather than years. Wasn’t it time, he asked, that I did what my mother would inelegantly phrase as ‘piss or get off the pot’? I also have an old friend who keeps asking me (his own way of gentle nagging) to let him know when it’s published so he can buy a copy. Yes, you, you know who you are, if you’re reading this.

That means trying to draw a line under all the new street names and bits of information I keep coming across and trying to crystallise what I already have. So, for my most loyal readers, and you also know who you are, there may be a fair amount of repetition as I start to distill my blog ramblings and clean up text of streets that have been covered more than once in this blog.

On that note, let’s look at some bath-related streets as I have seen various references to National Bubble Bath Day.

We can start with the most obvious, in terms of name, which is Coldbath Square. (Pete, if you are reading this, I know you are bound to have been there.) The name comes from a local spring discovered in 1697 by Walter Baynes and converted to a bath, which was said to be a great cure for nervous illnesses.

There was, evidently, no good reason for supposing that, despite the name, the water was any colder than that of any other spring or well, such as the nearby Clerkenwell. In any case, the bath was famous with Londoners and remained open until 1870.

A famous 18th-century strong man, Thomas Topham), had a pub in Coldbath Fields, called the Apple Tree, but the area was, however, far more notorious for its prison. 

The Coldbath Fields Prison was built in 1794 with 280 cells for individual confinement; soon there were nearly a thousand prisoners. It was built on swampy ground and the over-crowding and unhealthy air were responsible for prisoners dying off at an alarming rate. There was a great deal of rioting and the troops were often called in to try and install calm. The prison was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentions the prison in his poem ‘The Devil’s Thoughts’:

As he went through the Cold-Bath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in hell.

Stew Lane takes its name from the ‘stews’, or brothels, which crowded along the banks of the Thames from the 12th to the 17th century. They tended to be on the south side but some – like this lane – were on the north bank. The stews were licensed and regulated by the government to prevent any debauchery of the respectable wives and daughters of London and, says London historian John Stow, “for the repair of incontinent men to the like women”.

A less colourful explanation for the name is that it was from a bath house for those in need of a hot bath.

Water Lane, to the east, was the setting for an old Roman bath, popular at one time with visitors to London, and described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. 

Cheapside, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter, was once known as West Cheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap, and was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. It was also the location of the main baths of Roman London, built in the first or second century. Two individuals of this time left their mark: a child evidently ran across the tiles of the baths when they were still soft, leaving the mark of footprints.

My very favourite bath reference in all of my collected street names and their stories is   another tile that bears an early example of graffiti: “Austalis has been running off on his own for the past fortnight.”

If anyone reading this knows any more I would be exceedingly grateful for any further light that can be shed on Austalis or what or who he was running to or from.

 

Pocahontas and her London street name connection

A belated Happy New Year, overdue apologies for my long absence from these pages, and thanks to loyal followers who have continued to support me during my times of unexplained disappearance.

There was a story on the BBC this morning about Pocahontas and her resting place at St George’s Church in Gravesend, Kent, and that has pushed aside for now the theme I had all planned for today’s post. A ceremony at the church marked the 400th year since the death of Pocahontas (also known as Rebecca Rolfe, and was attended by US Ambassador Matthew Barzun, as well as a direct descendant of Pocahontas, John Rolfe.

Pocahontas provides one theory behind the name of La Belle Sauvage Yard, which no longer exists, but the name of which – like that of Bleeding Heart Yard – has fascinated people for centuries and generated many theories.

That font of London historical knowledge, John Stow, believed that the earliest occupant of the inn was one Arabella Savage, known as Bell Savage, and that her name provided inspiration for an imaginative sign painter. There is evidence that Savage was a local name: in 1380 a certain William Lawton was sentenced to an hour in the pillory for trying to obtain money, by means of a forged letter, from William Savage of Fleet Street.

Another theory came from Joseph Addison, founder of The Spectator, an 18th-century daily publication, who was intrigued by the inn’s sign, which showed a savage man standing by a bell. He was, he said, “very much puzzled by the conceit of it” until he read a French novel in which is described a beautiful young woman who was found in the wilderness and was called ‘La Belle Sauvage’.

Yet another theory is that, in the 17th century, when John Rolph, or Rolfe, brought his bride to England, they stayed at the inn. In honour of the beauty and gallantry of this foreign wife, the name was changed to La Belle Sauvage. The bride in question was Pocahontas.

Pocahontas was a Native American who was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe in what is the first recorded inter-racial marriage in North American history.

The Rolfes travelled to London to seek investment for their tobacco farm, and the couple became celebrities. When the couple set sail to return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill, died at the age of 21, and was buried in Gravesend.

The printing works of Cassell, Petter and Galpin were based at one point in the yard, and Pocahontas became the symbol for what became today’s publishing company of Cassell’s. There was once a statue of Pocahontas in Red Lion Square, commissioned by the company when it moved there.

According to a contemporary newspaper report, “To retain the firm’s link with La Belle Sauvage, and that neighbourhood’s own fanciful connection with the Princess Pocohontas, Cassell’s commissioned a larger than life size statue of the ‘Beautiful Savage’ to grace the entrance of the firm’s headquarters.” The statue was removed in the 1980s and sold to a private buyer in the 1990s.

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.

The yard was also home to an inn, once 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.

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.

Earlier in the inn’s history, it 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.

Not London street names: palings, slaughters, and chipping

Pale Lane: I saw that sign on the way out of Birmingham today, and I thought I’d stray away from London street names for a moment to look at some other quirky names.

I presume that ‘pale’ in this instance is nothing to do with light and dark, but to do with the obsolete use of the word as a post, as in paling, or to impale Dracula with a wooden stake. The expression ‘beyond the pale’ derives from the fact that often fences (made with pales) would enclose a house or neighbourhood, so anything beyond that was a potential danger.

Before the trip to Birmingham, I had my brother and sister-in-law over from Australia and we did a fair amount of sightseeing together. During a day out in the Cotswolds we saw signs for Upper and Lower Slaughter and naturally that gave rise to some discussion. Was it likely that those villages were the site of some massacre? I hated to be a wet blanket, but I said I was pretty sure not.

Indeed, ‘slaughter’ in this case comes from slohtre, which is an Old English term for a muddy place. Something that resonated with the Australian visitors, as it rained nearly the entire time they were here so most places they saw had been pretty muddy.

There are many compilations of naughty place names, many of which include the word ‘bottom’, but we want to be a bit more intellectual than that. So what about two of the place names that most delighted me when I first came to the UK: Stoke Poges (stockaded place) and Ashby-de-la-Zouche (ash tree farm belonging to the La Zouch family). I’ve visited one, and it was charming, and drove through the other, which was not.

I’ve also been to Christmas Common in Oxfordshire; apparently the origin of that name is unclear. It could either be because holly trees were grown there; because there was a Christmas family with local connections, or because of a 1643 Christmas Day truce during the English Civil War.

In Devon, apart from Westward Ho! you can find Ottery St Mary and Rattery, presumably not necessarily where pet otters and rats are boarded. Rattery may be a variant of ‘red tree’ and Ottery St Mary is from a church on the river Otter. Westward Ho! takes its name from Charles Kingsley’s novel.

But I guess I can’t really write a whole post without mentioning London at some point, so how about all the place names that include ‘Chipping’? Chipping Camden, Chipping Norton, and Chipping Sodbury, for instance. It is likely, or at least possible, that the word derives from the Old English word meaning ‘market’ – as does Cheapside.

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).

Pudding Lane: fire and culinary London streets

FIsh Street Hill EC3“By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it was now burning down all Fishstreet by London Bridge.” So wrote Samuel Pepys on 2 September 1666, following the start of the Great Fire of London in the early hours of that morning.The fire started in the house of the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane, which we have looked at in a recent post on the grosser names of London’s streets. It does lead to another category – that of culinary London, with comestibles and potables from seafood in Albacore Cresent to herbs in Yarrow Cresent by way of Milk Street.

Old Fish StSurprisingly, when it comes to these culinary names, they are often logical. More logical than so many of London’s street names, in any case. The Fish Street that Pepys writes about was once the main road leading to London Bridge, and was called New Fish Street (as opposed to Old Fish Street, which was demolished in 1870). In the 13th century it became the centre for fishmongers who settled there because of its proximity to the main fish market of Billingsgate; the street was one of the authorized spots for retail fish sales.

Today’s Fish Street Hill leads past the Monument; the reminder for everyone of the Great Fire. It is 202 feet high (202 feet said to be the distance to the spot where the fire broke out).

Monument 2The streets that lead off of Cheapside also say exactly what they were. Cheapside was an early shopping street: it was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter and it was originally known as West Cheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as bread, milk, honey, poultry, and fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.

Edward I decreed in 1302 that bakers could sell bread only from Bread Street. Before that, the “leprous women of St James’s” were allowed a tenement here in 1204; part of the street was later destroyed by fire in 1263. The street also became famous (or infamous) for its prison, or compter. The warden was so harsh on his prisoners that he was sent to Newgate Prison. The poet John Milton was born in this street and one entrance of the famous Mermaid Tavern led onto Bread Street while the other was on Friday Street.

Bread StArtichoke Hill, east of Tower Bridge, has a name that derives from an inn sign; the artichoke was adopted because of its comparative rarity and unusual shape, which lent itself well to signs. Artichokes were introduced in England in the 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII, and the sign of the artichoke became a symbol for gardeners and was a common one for inns in garden areas.

Camomile StreetIn the 12th and 13th centuries, houses were built no closer than about five metres from the old London Wall and the land along the line of the wall was allowed to grow wild. Two of the wild flowers that grew here were camomile and wormwood, and this is reflected in the two streets of this name that still exist. Wormwood, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe, was said to have gained its name because it grew up in the path followed by the serpent when he was evicted from Paradise.

Saffron Hill was given its name because, among other things, it was grown in the gardens here belonging to John Kirkby, who had been awarded the bishopric of Ely and bequeathed his estate to the see of Ely to be used as a palace. Saffron was the main source of the spice for the City dwellers: apart from its colour, it was useful for disguising meat that may have seen its best.

Continuing the herbs and spices theme, Cinnamon Street is a name that appears at the end of the 17th century and probably comes from the fact that the spice was sold there. It was in this street, at the culinarily appropriately named Pear Tree Inn, that John Williams was staying when blood-stained knife was discovered among his belongings and suspicion fell upon him in relation to the Ratcliff Highway Murders.

Garlick HillGarlick Hill also has a slightly gruesome history, but first the name: yes, indeed, garlic features here. The hill was named for the hythe, or wharf, where shipments of garlic were landed on the Thames. It is not unlikely that enough garlic would have been sold in medieval times to warrant an entire parish being called Garlickhythe and the parish church is St James Garlickhythe. During some building work in the church in 1839, an almost perfectly mummified corpse was discovered, and nicknamed Jimmy Garlick.

Pineapple Christchurch GreyfriarsFinally, Pineapple Court. The fruit was introduced to England in the 17th century; like the artichoke, its shape and novelty made it popular on signs, especially those of confectioners. Christopher Wren was said to be so taken with the shape that he adopted it in the decorations of all his buildings (though many of them resemble acorns more than pineapples).

This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of London’s culinary street names; it is more just to give a flavour of how important food was in early London.

However, for a complete list of London’s culinary street names, there is a great website called Streats of London, which identifies 495 London streets and images of 147 street signs. It provides not only a comprehensive list but a great graphic representation of the culinary street names of London and is the work of Mykal Shaw, who cycled 3,000 miles throughout London to photograph the signs.

Celebrating Milk Street on Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day

Mrs Beeton's book11 February is Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day, so what better day to celebrate Milk Street in London? Incidentally, to continue the culinary theme, in 1836 Mrs Beeton (née Isabella Mayson) was born in Milk Street. Mrs Beeton was, possibly, the original domestic goddess; she was the author of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a bible of domestic information from Victorian times to the present. Sir Thomas More was also born in Milk Street, in 1478, and more of him later.

Milk Street was one of the Cheapside market streets, named for its speciality. Cheapside comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter and it was originally known as West Cheap, as it was known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap.

EAS_4059Cheapside was an early shopping street: it 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, poultry, and fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.

Thomas More
Sir Thomas More

Back to Thomas More, who was canonized as a martyr in 1935. The young More originally planned to devote his life to the church, and led a highly ascetic life: he wore hair shirts, scourged himself regularly, and slept on the ground with a log as a pillow.

Although More later turned to law, he never lost those ascetic tendencies, or his religious convictions – which would eventually cost him his life. He entered Parliament in 1504, was knighted in 1521 and became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529.

More replaced Cardinal Wolsey, who had made the mistake of disagreeing with Henry VIII, a mistake that More would later echo. Wolsey had been unable to have Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that Anne Boleyn could become the next queen. He was stripped of his property, accused of treason and ordered back to London. He died en route to the capital, with his last words supposedly being, “If I had served my God as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

EAS_4055More is, perhaps, as famous for his views on social reform and his book Utopia as for his position in Henry VIII’s government. As a judge, he specialized in heresy, which is to say, during his time as Lord Chancellor six heretics were executed – not, relatively speaking, a great number, but possibly more than one would expect from a future saint.

The problems with Henry came to a head when More not only opposed the annulment to Catherine of Aragon, but also refused to take an oath renouncing the authority of the pope over that of the king. That double whammy led to him being tried and convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. (A nasty death, as the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were to discover.)

EAS_4080More also made the history books for his death as much as for his life, with his famous last words. When he mounted the dilapidated and shaky scaffold, he said to the attending official, “I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

On a lighter note, there are two entertaining stories about marriages in the More family. Sir Thomas himself, when presented with John Colt’s three daughters, took a fancy to the middle one. However, according to More’s son-in-law, Sir William Roper, More thought that it would be “great grief and some shame to the eldest to see her younger sister in marriage preferred before her”, and so More settled for marrying the eldest daughter.

William had no such compunction; though his wife Margaret was in actual fact More’s elder daughter, the reason for his choice was not as noble as More’s own. When the time came for a marriage to be arranged between William and one of More’s daughters, the prospective groom was taken by the girls’ father into their bedroom as they slept. More flung back the sheet and the naked girls rolled over in their sleep. William was powerfully attracted to the sleeping Margaret, and patted her naked bottom, saying, “Thou art mine.”

This displaying of future brides was not an uncommon practice: it was one way of proving that they had no marks of a witch.