London’s saintly names: from Catherine Wheel Alley to St Mary Axe

EAS_4059A while ago, this blog featured a religious-themed post, in which I made the brash statement that, “There are too many streets with churches, cathedrals, temples, and saints in their names for me to go into them here.”

As ever, the readers of this blog make it what it is, and @MattF’s recent comment regarding last week’s post was no exception: “Saint Lawrence Jewry (different church, same saint) has a griddle as a weathervane to signify the manner of Saint Lawrence’s death. Perhaps a future post could look at saints?”

That’s a very good idea, so I shall now eat my words, take a look now at some of the saint streets that have graced this blog and, depending on how that goes, maybe seek out some more in the future.

So let’s start with the above-mentioned church of St Lawrence Jewry. Although it is located in Gresham Street, it is near the former medieval Jewish ghetto, which was centred on the street named Old Jewry – hence the second part of the name. It is one of London’s many buildings that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Christopher Wren.

The parish was united with that of St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street, which was not rebuilt. Milk Street was one of the medieval market streets of London, so probably where milk was sold and Gresham Street takes its name from Thomas Gresham, a merchant and financier. By happy coincidence, Sir Thomas More, who was born in Milk Street, preached in the older church of St Lawrence Jewry.

More himself is considered a saint by the Catholic church; he, like St Lawrence, also had a quip for his executioner (having been sentenced to death after annoying). When he mounted a 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.”

Before we leave Old Jewry, here is another connection with a saint: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, also known as Thomas à Becket and later a saint and a martyr, was baptised in the church of Becket was baptised in St Mary Colechurch at the southern end of Old Jewry.

EAS_4075Becket was born at the Cheapside end of Ironmonger Lane, known as ‘Ysmongeres Lane’ around the turn of the 12th century and the haunt of ironmongers. The Ironmongers Company had their original hall here until the 15th century, when they acquired buildings in Fenchurch Street and moved there, along with most of the ironmongers.

On the subject of the recent nautical-themed post, @oldmapman mentioned that the symbol for the parish of St Clement Danes is an anchor and @MattF followed up by saying that the anchor symbolism comes from St Clement having supposedly been martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown overboard.

St Clement Danes is located on Strand, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon for shoreline. So a double nautical connection. Incidentally, the Danes bit comes from (this is one of a few theories) the idea that in the 9th century the Danes colonized the village of Aldwych on the river between the City of London and the future site of Westminster. At the time, half of England was Danish and London was on the dividing line between the English and the Danes.

EAS_4133Although it has been featured a few times in this blog, how can we have a saint theme without St Mary Axe? Boringly, some consider the name to have come from a shop with the sign of an axe. But what fun is that? Much better is that the name comes from the church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins (converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century).

An ancient king of England – Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula (presumably King Cole’s sister) permission to travel to Germany with her large and chaste retinue (the aforementioned 11,000 virgins) who were then beheaded by Attila and his Huns. Using axes. Apparently an axe was once stored in the church, and gave it the less cumbersome name of St Mary Axe.

Tooley StreetTooley Street is a corruption of St Olave’s Street – which is how it was recorded at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street and later Towles Street. St Olave, or Olaf, was king of Norway and later became a saint. Before his canonization, however, as king of Norway he was at war with the aforementioned colonizing Danes.

The story goes that in 1014 Olaf’s fleet, on its way up the Thames, was stopped at the heavily Danish-fortified London Bridge. Olaf had his ships covered with protective wicker work, moved in close to the bridge, attached ropes to the piles and sailed off, bringing the whole thing down. It is, unfortunately, possible that this story is not entirely true. However, it sounds good and it is also considered by some to be the basis for the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Catherine Wheel 2Catherine Wheel Alley takes its name from a once-popular inn sign. (During the time of the Puritans, when overtly religious symbols were frowned on, most landlords changed the name to the Cat and Wheel.)

The Catherine Wheel, adopted as part of the arms of the Worshipful Company of Turners’ Company, was a representation of the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century.

Despite the tradition of the Catherine wheel, she was not actually tortured on a wheel, though was the plan of the emperor Maxentius. He was enraged by her refusal to marry him and condemned her to death on a spiked breaking wheel but, at her touch, the wheel was miraculously destroyed. Not to be thwarted in his evil plan, Maxentius finally had her beheaded.

Barley Mow Passage takes its name, some say, from from a relatively comment inn sign – ‘mow’ in this case is a heap, and barley is a major ingredient of beer. Others, however, think that it is a corruption of Bartholomew: the land in the area once belonged to the priory of St Bartholomew. The Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great is London’s oldest surviving church and it is located in Cloth Fair.

From the 12th century to the 19th century a three-day fair – Bartholomew Fair – was held in the Smithfield area; money charged on tolls for goods was a source of income for the priory of St Bartholomew. The fair was, early on, essentially a trade fair for the woollen and drapery industries, with Italian and Flemish cloth merchants.

Bartholomew Fair gradually attracted more and more people, and soon the speciality of cloth was virtually overlooked. Unfortunately, as was not uncommon with many fairs, Bartholomew Fair degenerated into a riotous occasion. By the early 19th century, pickpockets and brawlers dominated, and the fair was discontinued in 1855. (41 Cloth Fair is one of the only houses in the City to have escaped the flames and lays claim to being the oldest London house in existence.)

There is a Bolt Court, which takes its name from the rebus of the Bolton family, who owned a great deal of local property. The 16th-century Prior William Bolton was one of those who did a great deal to restore the nearby church of St Bartholomew: he installed the oriel window (supposedly so that he could keep an eye on the monks).

The rebus is a device once commonly used to denote names by the pictorial representation of words and the Bolton rebus was a birdbolt (a short blunt arrow used to kill birds without piercing them) through a tun (a large barrel or fermenting vat). There is still an example of this rebus in the church.

One last saint reference – there are many more, so this theme can be revised several more times if required or desired – can go to St Peter. Cross Keys was a popular tavern sign (there is a Cross Keys Close in Marylebone), deriving from Christian heraldry as the keys of St Peter (crossed keys appear on the papal arms), or the keys to heaven.

The sign of the crossed keys was once used for one of the Bankside brothels, and there was once a Cross Keys tavern in Wood Street, where the young Dickens was sent on his arrival in London.

The close in Marylebone may have been named from an inn that once stood there; it may also have been named in view of the fact that a carpenter called Philip Keys built the close in the late 18th century.

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Shakespeare-related streets: from Aldersgate to Worship

William_Shakespeare_1609Who am I to buck the trend of the Shakespeare frenzy that is gripping the UK? In the run-up to the various events marking the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death, let’s revisit some of the bard-related London streets – a small fraction of them, I’m sure – that have graced this blog over the years. (And, yes, in keeping with tradition, some of the connections are very tenuous.)

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.

Bell Yard, off Fleet, takes its name from a pub sign; the Bell was once one of the most common pub names in the UK. Another Bell Yard (off Carter Lane) was also named from an inn; William Shakespeare was a frequent patron of the original inn, and the only surviving letter to him was penned here in 1598 by Richard Quyney (who wrote to his ‘loving friend and countryman’. Quyney’s son Thomas married Shakespeare’s younger daughter.

Curtain Road in Shoreditch marks the site of the first London theatre, established by James Burbage and his brother-in-law John Brayne around 1576. Surprisingly, though Curtain is a great name for a lane with a theatre, it was the land, belonging to the priory of Holywell, which was called the ‘Curtayne’. The origin of the name is uncertain.

The theatre was, rather unimaginatively, called the Theatre; a rival one, built nearby, was actually called the Curtain. Both theatres provided entertainment for Londoners for several years, staging plays by Shakespeare and others.

Aldersgate StreetEastcheap, which had been a market in Roman times and continued as an ,important medieval meat market, looks its name from Old English ‘ceap’, or ‘market’. It was called East Cheap to differentiate it from West Cheap (now Cheapside). It was also a drinking area, with “many hostelries”, the largest and most famous of which was the Boar’s Head Tavern.

Plays were performed in the tavern, which was frequented by Shakespeare who immortalized it as “the very tavern where Falstaff and his joyous companions met”. This gave rise in the 18th century to a Falstaff Club; members would meet at the tavern and assume the names of various Shakespeare characters.

Friday Street, the only day of the week to be represented in London street names, may take its name from Frigdaeges, an Old English name. There is also John Stow’s theory that it was “so called of fishmongers dwelling there and serving Friday’s market”. There was a famous tavern that stood in Bread Street but had a side entrance on Friday Street: the Mermaid tavern.

It was here, tradition holds, that Sir Walter Raleigh instituted the Mermaid Club, which included Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare among its members. Grave doubts have been cast, from many quarters, on the truth of the club’s existence, but it is certain that Jonson was an habitué of the Mermaid, and at least possible that he was joined on occasion by Shakespeare.

Laurence P HillThe Laurence part of Laurence Pountney Hill comes from the nearby church of St Laurence, called St Laurence next the Thames in 1275, and which burned down in the Great Fire. (St Lawrence is famous for having been broiled alive upon a gridiron; apparently he said, partway through his torture, “I’m well done. Turn me over!”)

Pountney derived from Sir John de Polteney, a prominent citizen of London and four times Mayor in the 1330s. He owned a mansion near to the church and leased it in 1348 to the Earl of Hereford and Essex for the rent of one rose per annum. The house, known as the ‘Manor of the Rose’ was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

The name of Old Jewry dates back several hundred years; it was an area occupied by Jewish financiers who had been invited to England by William the Conqueror. In the reign of Richard I, however, the anti-semitism, as portrayed by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, began to take hold. many of the Jews were murdered and their homes destroyed.

Pickle Herring Street, in the Tooley Street area, no longer exists, alas, but it supposedly took its name from the fact that the street was on the site of one of the Thames’ old wharves – where cargoes of pickled herrings were shipped. The name may also have come from the fact that Sir John Falstofe – who gave his name to Shakespeare’s Falstaff – lived on this spot in 1447. Falstofe was once a fish merchant, so it could have been his pickled herrings that gave the street its name.

Playhouse Yard was named for the Blackfriars Theatre (on the site of the ruined Blackfriars monastery), which was opened in 1596 by James Burbage, the father of Richard Burbage, who owned a share in the playhouse. This was to be a backup for the winter months when theatregoers would be reluctant to travel as far as the Globe in Southwark, where Burbage’s company was to be transferred. Shakespeare, who had a share in the theatre, bought a house nearby in 1612 so that he could be on hand for the performance of his plays.

Silver Street (no longer there) was, says Stow, named from the silversmiths who lived there, and earlier forms included ‘Silvernestrate’. Shakespeare took lodgings on the corner of the street and, according to a marvellous website, Shakespearean London Theatres, he spent a number of years living there, from 1604, with a French family called the Mountjoys.

Apparently legal evidence, which survives from May 1612, shows that Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit about a marriage dowry of £60. The evidence confirms his presence as a lodger at a house on Silver Street in the Jacobean period.

Wardrobe TerraceWardrobe Terrace does take its names from a wardrobe. In 1359 a house belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased by Edward II and became the storeroom for the royal clothing worn on state occasions. The Wardrobe is mentioned in Shakespeare’s will: he bequeathed, to his daughter, land near the Wardrobe.

Worship Street was once known as Hog Lane and may have taken its name from John Worshop, a merchant tailor, who owned over six acres of land in the area. Shakespeare is reputed to have once lived here, possibly when it was still Hog Lane.