Abdication, seals, and Piccadilly

This day in London history: On 11 December 1688 James II is said to have abdicated the throne by throwing the Great Seal of the Realm into the River Thames. However, cynics say that if the story is true, the seal was certainly recovered: his successors, his daughter Mary and her cousin and husband William used the same seal, adapted to show a dual monarchy.

The Great Seal of the Realm is used to symbolize the reigning monarch’s seal of approval on important documents of state. In theory there is one per sovereign but another abdicating king, Edward VIII, who gave up the throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson, never had his own seal. On the other hand, Queen Victoria had to have four as they wore out.

There is a Duke Street that leads off Piccadilly; this was named as a compliment to James Stuart, who was the Duke of York before he was king. Benjamin Franklin used to stay at lodgings in a Duke Street off Oxford Circus, which may or may not have been named after James II; Franklin’s landlady was supposed to have enjoyed his company so much that she reduced his rent by over 50% to lure him to stay on.

Piccadilly itself takes its name from an item of clothing: In the 17th century a ‘pickadil’ was defined as “that round hem or several divisions set together about the skirt of a garment or other thing; also a kind of stiff collar, made in the fashion of a band”.

London and the Great Freeze

This day in London’s history: on 24 November 1434 the River Thames froze over. This was a not uncommon occurrence between the 15th and early 19th century. On this occasion, according to B Lambert, author of ‘The history and survey of London and its environs’:

“In the year 1434 a great frost began on the 24th of November, and held till the 10th of February, following ; whereby the river Thames was so strongly frozen, that all sorts of merchandizes and provisions brought into the mouth of the said river were unladen, and brought by land to the city.”

In later years, there were Frost Fairs held on the Thames; the most memorable of these was in the winter of 1683-1684, known as The Great Freeze, when the Thames was frozen for two months. According to the diarist John Evelyn, “The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished and full of commodities, even to a printing press.”

Even more recently (in 2010) the River Wye froze; in December of that year the ice started to melt and crack into pieces that floated downstream.

Frozen Wye Frozen Wye 2

Why London Bridge fell down

This day in London’s history: on the 13th of November 1002, the St Brice’s Day massacre took place. Following a number of years of Danish invasion, King Ethelred the Unready ordered the killing of Danes throughout England; the Danes continued to have a strong presence in England and could be the inspiration behind the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.

By 1014 the Danes had invaded and captured London (causing Ethelred to flee the country) and Denmark and Norway were in conflict. Olaf, King of Norway, sent a fleet up the Thames, which was stopped at the heavily Danish-fortified London Bridge. Not easily thwarted, 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 – complete with armed Danes – down.

It is, unfortunately, possible that this story is not entirely true. However, it sounds good and as such is considered to be the basis for the nursery rhyme.

Olaf also gave his name to Tooley Street in London: the name was recorded as St Olave’s Street at the end of the 16th century; it then became St Tooley’s Street, later Towles Street, and eventually Tooley Street.