Aldersgate: churches, parks, and brothels

Aldersgate Street

Postman's Park
Postman’s Park from Aldersgate Street

Back to the London Wall gates; so far we’ve looked at Aldate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, and Moorgate, and and today is the turn of Aldersgate, which gave its name to a street and a ward. Depending on who you believe, the gate’s name comes either from Aldrich, a Saxon, who built it, or from the alder trees that once grew around it.

The ward, which straddled the line of the London Wall, was divided into Aldersgate-Within and Aldersgate-Without, and the church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldersgate is a church of medieval origin, which survived the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt in the 18th century.

The church’s graveyard was built over to create a park, known as Postman’s Park, wherein lies the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, a memorial to ordinary people who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten.

Continuing the church theme, there is a plaque on Aldersgate Street that marks the site of the Moravian meeting room where John Wesley said his heart was “strangely warmed” and he was converted following a reading of Martin Luther. It also followed a less than successful trip to the United States when he was presumably in particular need of spiritual reassurance.

EAS_3866From religion to sex: Aldersgate Street was once, in part, called Pickax Street and delineated the northern extremity of the ward; according to English Heritage’s Survey of London the name was perhaps derived from Pickt Hatch, an Elizabethan name for an area of brothels said to be in this part of London”. It is mentioned by William Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor and by Ben Jonson in The Alchemist.

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.

Aldgate, Chaucer, and literary history

Aldgate 1609
A 17-century engraving of Aldgate

Our last post was about Pardoner Street, named for one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrim; following the Chaucer theme today let’s take a look at Aldgate. A lease of 1374 granted the whole of the house above the gate of Aldgate to the Chaucer, and he lived there while he carried out his duties as a customs official.

Aldgate was one of the original Roman gates set into London Wall (which also survives as a street name); the others are Ludgate, Newgate, Cripplegate, and Bishopsgate, along with the later additions of Aldersgate and Moorgate.

The derivation of the name Aldgate has been much contended. In the 17th century John Stow maintained that it was ‘old gate’ from Aeld Gate, but later historians claim that pre-15th century documents show the name without a ‘d’.

With that letter missing, suggestions for alternative derivations include Ale Gate, presumably where there may have been an ale house; and All Gate, meaning that the gate was open to all. It was also considered to have been once called Aest Gate, or ‘east gate’ as it was the easternmost of London Wall’s gates.

The gates were all taken down between 1760 and 1762; Aldgate was bought by Ebenezeer Mussell who rebuilt it on the north side of his mansion, which he then renamed Aldgate House. Mussell, described by 19th century historian and author Walter Thornbury as a “zealous antiquary”, also had a bas-relief on the south front of his house, carved from Wat Tyler’s tree, an old oak that once grew on Bow Common and had been carved to adorn the old City gate.

Phyllis WheatleyIn 1773, Boston publishers were unwilling to produce the book Poems on various subjects, religious and moral by African-American Phillis Wheatley, so it was printed by a bookseller in Aldgate. This made Wheatley the first African-American woman to have her work published.

Wheatley, who purchased at the age of by the wealthy John Wheatley of Boston, was named after the ship on which she had been taken to America. The Wheatley family encouraged her in her education and poetry writing and, in 1778, she was legally freed from slavery by John Wheatley’s will.

Unfortunately, her emancipation left her unexperienced in domestic work, into which she was forced following the imprisonment for debt of her husband John Peters. She died shortly afterwards, closely followed by her baby son.

Keats, wormwood, gates and health springs

This day in London history: on 18 December, 1795, the poet John Keats (who was born on 31 October) was baptized in the church of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate. The church is mentioned as early as 1212, when it was called Sancti Botolfi Extra Bishopesgate, though worship on the site dates back to Roman times. Edward Alleyn was also baptized here, as was an infant son of Ben Jonson.

Bishopsgate takes its name from the ‘Bishop’s Gate’, an entrance to the city for the Bishops of London, and probably named for St Erkenwald, Bishop of London in the 7th century.There were seven original ‘gates’ as part of London Wall: Aldgate, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Ludgate, Moorgate, and Newgate.

The churchyard adjoining the buildings runs along Wormwood Street, also part of the route of the original London Wall. At one time the land here was kept free of houses, and the land along the line of the old London Wall was allowed to grow wild. One of the wild flowers that grew here was wormwood; this herb, 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.

Although Keats went to medical school in London, his heart was that of a poet, and he finally abandoned the studies that would enable him to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He moved to Hampstead (where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also lived) and lodged initially in Well Walk.

Well Walk takes its name from the medicinal waters of Hampstead, which was once the health centre of London: in the 18th century it was still very much a rural area and waters from the Chalybeate Springs, for the wealthy Londoners, were every bit as good as those in Bath. The springs are still there, no longer potable, however, and covered over. Legend has it that the springs arose on the spot where a monk, who was carrying a bottle of the Virgin Mary’s tears, tripped and spilled his precious cargo.