We ended yesterday’s Moonwalk-themed blog post with a passing reference to Passing (once Pissing) Alley, which is near Smithfield Market, and the subject of the post – Knightrider Street – was a route to Smithfield. Guess where we start today?
Smithfield played an important, albeit gruesome, part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Incensed by unjust taxation, peasants from Kent and Essex marched on London, ransacking buildings and beheading the Archbishop of Canterbury on Tower Hill.The revolt ended abruptly when one of the rebel leaders, Wat Tyler, was slashed by the Lord Mayor William Walworth’s sword and stabbed by an esquire of King Richard II at Smithfield.Before Smithfield became a meat market, it was the Smooth field where jousting tournaments were held; knights rode through Giltspur Street (which was originally called Knightrider Street) to reach the tournament.
According to one of our favourite London historians, John Stow: “Gilt Spurre, or Knightriders’ street of the knights and others riding that way into Smithfield was replenished with buildings on both sides up to Pie Corner.” (Pie, or Pye, Corner marks the spot at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane where the Great Fire ended, and there is a Golden Boy there to commemorate it.)
Spurs were an essential part of the knight’s life in medieval times; the expression ‘to win one’s spurs’ – to prove oneself – comes from the fact that originally it meant to obtain knighthood. (The word ‘spur’ itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon spura, to kick.)
Gilt spurs, therefore, would have been a real mark of oneupmanship. It is assumed that there were spurriers’ shops in the street at some point, possibly specializing in gilt spurs, or perhaps an enterprising spurrier wanted his shops to be noticeable as the ‘sign of the golden spur’.
Giltspur Street later had a far less glamorous side to it. It was the site of the Giltspur Street Compter (a debtors’ prison), built at the end of the 18th century. When the Wood Street compter was closed in 1791, the prisoners were moved to the Giltspur Street compter, which in turn was demolished in 1855.
The street also formed part of the route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, leading into the steep ascent of Holborn Hill, sometimes called Heavy Hill. As prisoners on that journey rode backwards, the expressions ‘to ride up Heavy Hill’ or ‘to ride backwards up Holborn Hill’ indicated that someone was on their last journey.
The expression ‘going west’, unlike the ‘go west’ of American pioneering times, referred to that last journey towards Tyburn.