Sublime and ridiculous in London names: Bleeding Heart Yard and Cripplegate

It’s time for a reality check. I received another I-hope-it-was-a-gentle rebuke from reader MattF, who warned me against taking to heart some of the less likely explanations of why streets are called what they’re called. My aim is to entertain as well as inform, so I like to air as many views as I can find about street name derivations, but equally, MattF has a point so I’ll try to make it clear which theories are probably complete eyewash and which may be plausible.

On that note, I thought it might be fun to look again at some of the weirder street names I’ve come across, and some of the many theories behind those names.

Starting with where my pursuit of London street names began: Bleeding Heart Yard. Dickens helped make the yard famous: there is a chapter in Little Dorrit entitled ‘Bleeding Heart Yard’. “The opinion of the Yard,” said Dickens, “was divided respecting the derivation of its name. The more practical inmates abided by the tradition of a murder.”

The other inhabitants believed that the name came from a young woman was imprisoned by her father for not marrying the man he chose for her. She sighed and wasted away, murmuring, “Bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding away.” Dickens, like MattF, said: “Neither party would listen to the antiquaries who delivered learned lectures in the neighbourhood, showing the Bleeding Heart to have been the heraldic cognizance of the old family to whom the property belonged.”

(Incidentally, one family name that is bandied about in the heraldic cognizance – distinctive emblem – as being the basis of the name is the Douglas family, as in Douglas motorcycles, which has a heart in its crest.)

There are other theories about the name, but the most dramatic – and least likely – is that a beautiful gypsy made a deal with the devil in order to be able to capture the heart of a rich lord. She did so, married him, and then lost her heart – literally – to Old Nick. He appeared unexpectedly at a ball one night and carried her off. 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. The revellers at the ball were revolted to discover a bleeding human heart in the courtyard.

“So who can doubt the legend?” asked a 19th-century writer who compiled a dictionary of London street names. “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 was also called up (sort of) on the last post for mentioning Newgate and ignoring Cripplegate. To be fair, there are a few London ‘gate’ names and I’ve covered them in various other posts. And even I couldn’t fit Cripplegate into the ‘new’ theme. But that’s another one with theories ranging from plausible to downright weird.

Before I start, let me quote MattF on the derivation of Cripplegate’s name: “…please don’t give any more oxygen to the nonsense that it’s named after cripples.”

Ok, so it’s not the real reason for the name. Here’s the theory anyway: allegedly, when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured.

(Whether it’s relevant or not, Edmund is the patron saint of pandemics. Why do pandemics have a patron saint? Anybody out there know?)

MattF puts the proper explanation for the name very well, so over to him: “It was connected to the Barbican by a “crepel” – a covered tunnel or passage in Old English – and referred to as the Crepelgate back in the 11th century.”

Incidentally, there is a medieval church, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, which is so named because when it was built it was without (outside) the city wall. St Giles is the patron saint of lepers and cripples.

Jane Austen, Oliver Cromwell, and a notorious pickpocket

16 December in London’s history: Jane Austen was born on this day in 1775. One of the most widely-read authors in English history, Austen spent her early life in Hampshire, moving to Bath and later Southampton with her family.

Austen did, however, visit London on occasion to visit her brother Henry, who was also her literary agent. One of the places she would have stayed was Henry’s residence in Hans Place, Knightsbridge. Hans Place was named after Hans Sloane, who founded the British Museum and also brought cocoa to England.

Also on this day in London’s history, Oliver Cromwell was appointed as appointed as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. There are many London associations with Cromwell, including Whitehall and Long Acre, where he lived; Cripplegate, where he was married; Tyburn, where his body underwent a mock execution on the 12th anniversary of the beheading of Charles I; and Red Lion Square, where his remains were reputed have been interred briefly before that mock execution.

Other Cromwell connections include Horseferry Road, where he is supposed to have taken the ferry; and Fleet Street, where the pickpocket Moll Cutpurse targeted Cromwell supporters.

Cripplegate and the desecration of Milton’s coffin

St St Giles-without-Cripplegate. (Photo: Friends of the City Churches.)

In our tour of City of London gates, today let’s look at Cripplegate, another one of the Roman city gates. The name of this postern, at the end of Wood Street,  was once thought to come from the fact that when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured.

As the 19th century historian and writer Walter Thornbury puts it, “Bishop Alwyn removed the body of the martyred king to St. Gregory’s Church, near St. Paul’s; and as it passed through Cripplegate, such was the blessed influence it diffused, that many lame persons rose upright, and began to praise God for their miraculous cure.” It is also thought possible that the gate was a favoured spot for disabled beggars.

The spoilsports say that a more likely derivation of the name is that the word comes from ‘crepul’ – a tunnel or covered way, which was constructed for the sentries who went to take up their places at the gate.

However, to counter that argument is the existence of the medieval church of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, as St Giles is the patron saint of cripples and lepers. By the by, Edmund is the patron saint of pandemics, for what that’s worth in this context.

John Bunyan attended the church, and Daniel Defoe died in the parish (being later wrongly listed as “Mr Dubowe, Cripplegate”). Oliver Cromwell was married there, and the second wedding in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral takes place in the fictional church of St Mary-in-the-Fields, Cripplegate.

John Foxe, the 16th-century historian and martyrologist (now there’s a job title), who wrote Actes and Monuments – otherwise known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, is buried in the church. Also buried there is John Milton, whose body suffered somewhat in the 18th century. The church was being repaired and the decision was taken (apparently after a “merry meeting”) to remove Milton’s coffin while the work was going on.

Unfortunately no-one was sure where the poet was buried; what was believed to be (but may not have been) Milton’s coffin was found directly above that of his father’s coffin. The coffin was broken open, following which those present mauled it somewhat, removing and keeping a rib-bone, ten teeth, and several handfuls of hair. The gravedigger, Elizabeth Grant, then ook possession of the body and showed it to those willing to pay a fee.

These events were detailed in a 1760 work by Philip Neve, Narrative of the Disinterment of Milton’s Coffin, following which there was some debate as to the likelihood that it had actually been Milton’s coffin.

Back briefly to the gate itself: it was rebuilt twice, in the 13th and 15th centuries, at one time served as a debtors’ prison, and was eventually demolished in the 18th century. Apart from the church, the name lives on in Cripplegate Street and, as one reader pointed out, the ward of Cripplegate itself.

The great storm and Defoe’s sad end

This day in London’s history: on 25 November the Great Storm of 1703 reached its peak of intensity. The lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey and Queen Anne had to shelter in a cellar at St. James’s Palace to avoid collapsing chimneys and part of the roof. On the Thames, around 700 ships were heaped together in the Pool of London, the section downstream from London Bridge.

Defoe The Storm

The storm, the worst in British history, ripped through the country, killing people and livestock and wreaking havoc. Daniel Defoe, who travelled the country afterwards assessing the damage and wrote what is called the first substantial work of modern journalism, called it “The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time”.

Defoe reported that men and animals were lifted off their feet and carried for yards through the air and that lead roofs were ripped from one hundred churches.

Although Defoe went on (in 1719) to write one of the most famous English language novels – Robinson Crusoe – he died penniless and intestate in lodgings in Ropemaker Street, and was buried without ceremony in Bunhill Fields. The final insult was that the local bureaucracy couldn’t even get his name right: he was registered in death as ‘Mr Dubowe, Cripplegate”.