Pelicans, phoenixes and other royal street name references

Given the current meteorological conditions I should be focusing on snow but I covered Snow Hill recently, and you can read that post here. I was, however, enjoying the snow today when I went out with the dogs and I discovered two things.

First, that it’s not easy making snow angels with two springer spaniels (snowdogs) who want to get involved. Second, negotiating the more slippery bits along the river bank was easier if I adopted a peculiar, penguin-like waddle.

And that, faithful readers, leads me nicely into today’s bird-themed post, which is following up on my current pelican obsession.

After the last post on Pelican Stairs and The Prospect of Whitby, I continued my research into why a pub – and Francis Drake’s ship – would be named after a bird that is not indigenous to the UK. I did find out quite a lot about the use of pelicans in heraldry and religious allusions, but I have now learned more, and possibly the answer to my original questions.

But first, this is how my research into London street names started; it went something like this?

Q: Why are Pelican Stairs called that? 
A: They are named after a pub.
Q: Ok, but why name a pub The Pelican?
A: ?

I wanted to know more (though the street that set me off originally was Bleeding Heart Yard), so I started looking into pub names, then I would learn something about a resident in a particular street, or some reason that a particular pub had a special place in history. And it went from there. Then I reasoned that I couldn’t be the only person who wanted to know the rest of the story. (A nod here to Paul Harvey and his radio programme ‘The Rest of the Story’ of which my mother was a dedicated listener.) Why not write a book, I thought.

And here we are. I need to learn how to balance chasing after these tangents with actually pulling all my research and text into a publishable form. I keep finding new street names and new interesting facts, so the blog is supposed to be a way of channeling that information while I work on the book in the background.

What about the pelicans? I hear you cry.

It suddenly occurred to me that a well known insurance company uses a pelican as its logo and I checked the company’s website. That website informed me that the pelican generally has royal connotations.

Then I learned, from the Royal Museums Greenwich website, that the pelican was a favourite symbol of Elizabeth I. In times of food shortages, mother pelicans were believed to pluck their own breasts to feed their dying young with their blood and save their lives; Elizabeth used this symbol to portray her motherly love for her subjects.

That certainly could explain why pubs and Drake’s ship would pay homage to the pelican. Yay. That’s Pelican Stairs out of the way for now.

But wait – it didn’t stop there. I discovered that another favourite symbol of Elizabeth’s was the phoenix. There are a pair of portraits of the queen, painted on wood panels that scientific analysis has shown to be from the same two oak trees. The portraits, also painted in the same workshop, are called the Phoenix and Pelican portraits because in each of them she is wearing jewels depicting each of these birds.

A little more research uncovered some more of the queen’s favoured symbols, which are all used in another portrait, the Armada Portrait. These are pearls, a mermaid, and the globe.

Now I can view the pelican research not as wasted time but as a jumping off point for more London street names.

Phoenix Street, for instance, in the West End; this 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. That’s one theory. The other is that it takes its name from a pub.

Near Mount Pleasant, which we will look at another time, there is a Phoenix Place that took its name from an iron foundry – now a car park – and a Phoenix Road near King’s Cross that was named for a tavern. Mythical creatures such as the phoenix and the mermaid, were popular for signs.

Which, happily, brings us to another Elizabethan symbol: the mermaid. There is a Mermaid Court in Southwark, once known as Mermaid Alley. It takes its name from a pub, which is 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.

A more famous Mermaid Tavern (dating back to 1411, so possibly another prostitute reference) was that with one entrance on Bread Street and one on Friday Street. It is supposedly where where Sir Walter Raleigh instituted the Mermaid Club (or Friday Street Club). Members are said to have included Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.

There is a Pearl Street not far from Pelican Stairs, but I am still trying to find out where that name came from.

Finally, there are various Globes, including Globe Road and Globe Street, both named for taverns. The latter may commemorate the original Globe Theatre. But more of that another time.

Papal bulls, Chancellors, and Victorian knickers

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I

On 25 February 1570 Pope Pius V issued a papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis, or ‘reigning on high’, referring to Elizabeth I as “pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime”. She was branded a heretic and the pope released all her Catholic subjects from allegiance to her, threatening excommunication to any who obeyed her orders.

This attempt to incite a Catholic uprising that would over throw the Queen would appear to have been ineffective as she died in 1603 as the oldest monarch to have ruled England.

All of which has only a tenuous connection to today’s street name: Chancery Lane, the origin of which is uncertain.

Ralph Nevill, Bishop of Chichester and Lord Chancellor, was given land by Henry II for a palace here and, until the 14th century, Nevill’s successors also held the office of Chancellor. 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 (there’s the tenuous connection) and could also have been an abbreviation of Chancellors’ Lane.

Victorian knickers
An 1891 attempt at dress reform

Another theory is that the name comes from the ‘cancelli’ – lattice screen – which once divided the court of Chancery from the court of Common Pleas when they shared the Law Courts in Westminster.

Far more fun than the speculation over the derivation of the name, interesting though it may be, is a story that goes with the lane.

After World War II, when the building that housed a safe deposit was damaged, many of the records had been destroyed and deposit boxes had to be forced open in an attempt to establish the identity of the various owners. One provided no name but, presumably, some amusement, not to mention mystery: it contained a pair of Victorian knickers with a label stating ‘My life’s undoing’.

Nag’s Head Fable: consecration in a pub

This day in London’s history: on the 17th of November 1558 Mary Tudor (Mary I or Bloody Mary) died after a second phantom pregnancy. Mary had been desperate to have a child and after her death, her prayer book was found to be sodden with tears on the pages devoted to prayers for women in labour. Dying childless and in pain, possibly from some form of ovarian cancer, she reluctantly agreed that her half-sister Elizabeth should take over the throne, hoping that her sister would continue the Catholic practices that she had so fervently (and bloodily) instituted.

However, in 1559, the third Act of Uniformity was passed, repealing all the Catholic practices that had been re-established by Mary Tudor, and regulating ecclesiastical discipline for the next century. As a result, many of the Marian bishops vacated their sees, making it difficult for Elizabeth, as she had planned for Matthew Parker, chaplain to Ann Boleyn (the queen’s mother), to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. The story goes that, as there was a lack of officials in the church to preside at Parker’s consecration, he was irregularly consecrated at the Nags Head Tavern.

Some spoilsports point out that the story of consecration in a tavern is, entirely apocryphal and that Parker was actually consecrated at Lambeth Palace by four bishops who had held sees in the reign of Edward VI. Still, it is possible that those involved in the consecration did dine at the tavern afterwards.

The ‘Nag’s Head Fable’ was started up in 1604 by a Jesuit aptly named C Holywood, in an attempt to challenge the validity of the Apostolic Succession, which states that the continuing line of Christ’s teachings from the apostles is transmitted only through episcopal consecration.

Hares and heretics in Bloody Mary’s reign

This day in London’s history: on the 12th of November 1555, the English Parliament, under Queen Mary I, re-established Catholicism. They had already restored the old heresy laws, and high-profile Protestants were executed by being burnt at the stake. The body count of Protestants executed in the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’  was around 280.

Among those who were burnt at the stake were the bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, known as the Oxford Martyrs. (And, according to some, the inspiration for the nursery rhyme ‘Three Blind Mice’.)

A key figure in Mary’s government was Sir Nicholas Hare, described by the 19th-century writer Walter Thornbury in Volume I of the wonderful six-volume work Old and New London (Thornbury wrote volumes I and II; Edward Walford the last four), as “Privy Councillor to Henry VIII, the despotic, and Master of Rolls to Queen Mary, the cruel”.

Thornbury’s remarks were in the context of explaining the reason behind the name Hare Court, part of London’s Inner Temple; Sir Nicholas paid for the building of the court, which was mentioned in the poem ‘Dispensary’ by Sir Samuel Garth.

Hare was involved in getting the Treason Act of 1551-2 passed and presided over the trial of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, who committed the grave sin of imagining the queen’s death. Despite Hare’s best efforts (he refused to examine one of Throckmorton’s witnesses), Sir Nicholas the defendant was acquitted.

The restoration of Catholicism lasted only a short time; in 1558, on Mary’s death her half-sister Elizabeth I reversed it.