Pardons, testicles, and hog’s turds

William Blake’s depiction of Chaucer’s Pardoner

On 10 June 1374 Geoffrey Chaucer had spent two days as comptroller of the customs for the port of London, a position he held for twelve years. Like Dickens, Chaucer plays a strong role in London’s history and its street names: there are a number of Chaucer roads, streets, and avenues and, apart from the name of the author, there are also a number of street names that recall the Canterbury Tales.One of these is Southwark’s Pardoner Street (unrelated, but similar, to Pardon Street), named for a pilgrim in Chaucer’s Tales. Pardoners were licensed to preach and collect money for causes; letters of indulgence (a sort of annulment of sins) were given to those who donated generously enough.

This system was, not surprisingly, abused and Chaucer was among those who denounced pardoners as peddlers of forgiveness. (Martin Luther also frowned on the practice in Germany in helped to bring about the Reformations: the formation of ‘Reformed’ (Protestant) churches.)

Chaucer’s Pardoner is certainly not a pleasant character, and freely admits he is in the business for profit rather than the redemption of souls (“Once dead what matter how their souls may fare?”).

The ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, ostensibly an attack on various sins – gluttony, drunkenness, swearing, perjury, gambling, avarice, treachery, and murder – is really sales pitch. An unsuccessful one, however; when the he suggest that the host might like to be the first to kiss the Pardoner’s holy relics for the price of a groat and forgiveness, the host is less than impressed with the idea, and his brutally honest response is:

You’ll have me kissing your old breeches too
And swear they were the relic of a saint

To avoid any misinterpretation, he further tells the Pardoner:

I wish I had your ballocks in my hand
Instead of relics in a reliquarium;
Have them cut off and I will help to carry ‘em.
We’ll have them shrined for you in a hog’s turd.

Prisons, prostitutes, and bishops

Clink info plaqueToday’s stop along our London Moonwalk magical mystery tour is Clink Street, with a centuries-old name that still lives on in modern idiom when people talk about being put ‘in the clink’, or in prison.

The contradictorily named Liberty of the Clink, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London until the 16th century, was attached to the manor of the Bishops of Winchester who occupied much of the land on the south bank of the Thames. (And rented out the brothels there, as in Cardinal Cap Alley.)

The Clink prison, from which the street takes its name, was used for those who contravened the laws governing the ‘stews’, or brothels: as the 16th-century London history John Stow tells us, “for such as should babble, frey, or break the peace on the said bank, or in the brothel houses”. The first prison on this site, dating back to 1127, was  a cellar in the Palace of the Bishop of Winchester.

Clink Street and rose window
Clink Street with a view of the rose window

It also housed ‘prisoners of conscience’ – those who disagreed with the religious beliefs of the current monarch. Some of those prisoners of conscience were the founder members of the movement that eventually headed for America as the Pilgrim Fathers.

The Clink prison was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and never rebuilt. Much of the rest of the area was also destroyed in the blitz during World War II; when the damage was being cleared up, part of the west wall and the 14th-century rose window of the Bishop’s palace was discovered and preserved.

Today, Clink Street houses the Clink Prison museum, as well as leading to the replica of the Golden Hind – Sir Francis Drake’s galleon.

Don’t forget: if you want to support Walk the Walk and its efforts on behalf of breast cancer charities, you can sponsor me by visiting my fundraising page here.


Golden Hing
The Golden Hind

Shakespeare, Curtain Road, and four theatres

Pre-Raphaelite R&J
Ford Madox Brown’s vision of Romeo and Juliet

This day in London history: on 29 January 1595 (according to some sources), Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet was probably staged for the first time. In any case, it would have been acted out on the stage of a theatre called, unimaginatively, the Theatre, the first purpose-built London theatre. Shakespeare and his company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were based there at the time.

The Theatre was located on what is now Curtain Road in Shoreditch and, 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, apparently, is uncertain.

The Theatre
Map depicting the location of the Theatre

There was also a though a rival theatre, built nearby, that was called The Curtain. The location was considered a particularly good one for theatres: it was outside the jurisdiction of the City, where plays and suchlike were frowned upon, but close enough for the audience to travel there.

Back to the Theatre: it was established by James Burbage and his brother-in-law John Brayne around 1576. James’s son, and the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage,  would have taken the role of Romeo in that first performance, and Juliet would have been played by a young boy actor. It would be another 65 years before female roles were played on the stage by women; the first such role was Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello.

The two theatres provided entertainment for Londoners for several years, staging plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, among others. At the end of the 21-year lease, held by Burbage,there was an argument with the owner, Giles Allen, about renewing it. The Theatre was dismantled virtually overnight and the materials used to make another theatre – the Globe.

Photograph: Christine Matthews

The Globe was destroyed by fire in 1613, rebuilt a year later and then closed in 1642. Since then a modern reproduction of the Globe, close to the original site, was opened in 1997 following the efforts of Sam Wanamaker, who founded the Shakespeare Globe Trust to rebuild the Globe. Wanamaker, sadly, did not live to see the project reach fulfilment; he is commemorated in a plaque nearby.

Penny Post, Docwra, and St John’s Gate

PO regs penny postThis day in London history: on 10 January 1840, the Uniform Penny Post was introduced in the UK, allowing letters not exceeding half an ounce in weght to be sent anywhere in the country for one penny if prepaid. If the recipient had to pay, it cost two pence. On 1 May that year, the world’s first postage stamp for a public postal system – the Penny Black – was issued.

In 1680, though the Post Office had a monopoly on the collection and delivery of letters between post towns, there was no delivery system. Enter William Dockwra and Robert Murray, who established the London Penny Post, which cost one penny for delivery of letters and packets, weighing up to one pound, within the cities of Westminster and London as well as Southwark.

Penny Black cancelledThe name Dockwra, with variant spellings, comes from the village of Dockray in Cumberland; the word derives either from the old Norse ‘dokk – a ‘valley’ or the Old English ‘docce’ (dock, or sorrel), and ‘ra’, a corner.

There is a Docwras Buildings in Islington, which was built in about 1857 by Thomas Docwra & Son, well-borers. With all due respect to these Docwras, however, there was a far more famous Thomas Docwra in the 16th century.

Thomas Docwra
Sir Thomas Docwra

The Priory of Clerkenwell, which was founded in the early 1140s, was the administrative centre of the property of the Knights of St John. Sir Thomas Docwra was the prior from 1502 until his death in 1527. (His successor was said to have died of grief on Ascension Day in 1540 when the religious order of St John was dissolved in Britain by Henry VIII.)

Sir Robert Hales, prior of the order in the 14th Century, was also Chancellor of the Realm and responsible for collection of the poll tax that sparked the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Wat Tyler and his rebels set fire to the priory and beheaded Hales. (A rather more extreme reaction to a poll tax than centuries later when the Tory government reintroduced it to the UK.)

The priory was quickly rebuilt and then, in 1504, Docwra was responsible for having it refurbished. Stow says that it was like a palace, though it is questionable if Docwra would have expended so much energy had he known that the order was soon to be suppressed.

St John's Gate
Docwra’s coat of arms can be seen on the north side of St John’s Gate.

The gatehouse – St John’s Gate – is the only priory building still in existence. It was, in Elizabethan times, the office of the Master of the Revels – that era’s equivalent of a censorship board. All plays had to pass through the office for approval, and it is therefore more than likely that William Shakespeare would have been a visitor there.

The gatehouse had a chequered career, including service as a watch-house (where people under temporary arrest were held); a tavern – the Old Jerusalem Tavern; the offices of a masonic order; and the meeting place for various societies. By 1845 it was under threat of demolition because of its dilapidated and dangerous state. A local architect and antiquarian, one William Griffith, came to its rescue by starting a restoration fund and ensuring that it was saved.

St John’s Gate is now the headquarters and museum of the Most Venerable Order of St John, or Order of St John, which directs St. John Ambulance and the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem.


Mermaids, drinkers, and prostitutes

“Not so beautiful as they are painted”

This day in London history: on 9 January 1493, Christopher Columbus, spotted three manatees near the Dominican Republic and mistook them for mermaids. The disillusioned explorer reported that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted”. Manatees are considered to have been the source of the mermaid legends; they are now an endangered species.

Mermaid by Waterhouse
Pre-Raphaelite vision of a mermaid

Nothing to do with London, gentle reader? Oh, yes, indeed: there is a Mermaid Court in the Southwark area of London; dating back to at least the early 18th century, it was named from an inn. The name was a common one, and especially popular for taverns in areas frequented by sailors, who had long believed in the existence of the beautiful creatures who were half woman, half fish. Mermaid Court is not far from the south bank of the Thames, and a tavern there could have attracted its fair share of nautical drinkers.

Another, perhaps more famous, Mermaid Tavern was that on Cheapside, with patrons such as Ben Jonson and, legend has it, Shakespeare, though various sources doubt the accuracy of that assertion. Jonson wrote a satirical poem ‘On The Famous Voyage’ about two men journeying along the Fleet ditch, in which he writes:

“At Bread Street’s Mermaid having dined, and merry,
Proposed to go to Holborn in a wherry.”

Mermaids have been around for a long time and, though the mermaids of yore and lore are likely to be the dugong or the manatee, less than beautiful aquatic mammals, it seemed there was no shortage of them up until the 19th century.

Merman Science museum
Victorian merman

Back in the time of King John, a merman was supposed to have been caught and kept alive for six months on raw meal and fish until he made his escape and was never seen again. In the 17th century, a living mermaid was available for viewing in Bell Yard, and in the 18th century another one was spotted in the north of Scotland.

There were several mermaids around in the 19th century, including one (live), which was exhibited in Fleet Street in 1822, and one (stuffed), which was on display at Bartholomew Fair and sketched by George Cruikshank. (“A wood-cut of her may be seen in Morley’s Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair.”)

No self-respecting Victorian gentleman would be without a cabinet of curiosities; according to the London Science Museum (where the above photo of a Victorian merman, or chimera, comes from), “These were collections of obscure and wonderful artefacts. This chimera is made of fish skin, bone, and scales covered in thin paper. It also has animal fur, teeth, claws and tissue attached to heighten the appearance of a ‘real’ animal.”

Drinking in the Mermaid Tavern
Artist’s vision of Shakespeare and others in the Mermaid Tavern

But back to the Mermaid Tavern: another likely explanation for the name of the tavern itself is that, given the once-dubious nature of the area south of the river (see Clink Street, Stew Lane, and Cardinal Cap Alley), ‘mermaid’ could have been used in its not uncommon 16th-century meaning of a courtesan. Or, bluntly, a prostitute.

Conspiracies, whorehouses, and flying horses

This day in London history: on 8 January 1318 Knights Templar (a Christian military order also known as the Knights of the Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem) in England were seized and some were arrested.

Knights Templar Cross
The red cross of the Knights Templar

The Knights were originally (around 1119), nine very poor knights who vowed to protect pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem; they were distinctive by their garb of white mantle with a red cross. By the 14th century they were well-established and their fund raising had been so successful that they were rich, powerful, and privileged enough for them to be put in the Tower and have their property confiscated.

In 1307 Philip IV of France (who, coincidentally, was deeply in debt to the Knights Templar), accused them of heresy and used that as an excuse to have them tortured and burnt at the stake. This started on Friday 13 October, which is used as one reason why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

Philip also also leant on the Pope (Pope Clement, to whom he was related) to pressure other monarchs to follow suit, and on January 8 1308 Edward II rather reluctantly did so, though only one Templar member was actually arrested and imprisoned.

According to popular mythology, the Knights were in possession of a number of religious treasures, including the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Turin Shroud, and this has given rise to a number of conspiracy theories and novel plots. Of these, Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The DaVinci Code are among the best known.

Be that as it may, the Knights have various connections to the street names of London. Possibly the most interesting of these is Holland Street in the Southwark area south of the Thames. Holland is a common street name in the Kensington area of london, from land owned by Sir Henry Rich, Baron of Kensington and first Earl of Holland.

Hollands Leaguer playHowever, in contrast to this respectable picture of nobility, the Holland Street south of the river was named for a notorious procuress – the self-proclaimed Donna Britannia Hollandia – who rented the moated manor house of Paris Gardens, once owned by the Knights Templar, and ran a ‘stew’ (brothel) frequented by James I and his court.

Mother Holland was a force to be reckoned with: when during Charles I’s reign, there was an attempt by soldiers to storm the house, she waited until they were on the bridge before drawing it up and depositing the soldiers in the unpleasant waters of the moat.

According to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1833, she later relied on “the remnant of prescriptive privilege which sill clings to the palace derived from its possessors the Templars, she set the civil authorities at defiance, and underwent a regular siege”. The house was subsequently known as ‘Holland’s Leaguer’ (‘leaguer’ being a military encampment). A play called ‘Holland’s Leaguer’ premiered in 1631 and was a success, no doubt because of the scandal. The play was published the following year.

NEO Bankside

Holland Street is now the site of a NEO Bankside, a multi-million pound, award-winning skyscraper of luxury apartments.

There was once also a Flying Horse Court, which no longer exists but was named from a tavern that was “very old” in the late 19th century. The flying horse is Pegasus, and was used as an heraldic symbol by the Knights Templar.

Dickens, prisons, and bowler hats

This day in London history: on 17 December 1843, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published and on 17 December 1849, the first bowler hat was sold.EAS_4053(Update: this blog is about Dickens; for more on the bowler hat, read this post.)

Charles Dickens has many associations with London, starting with Wood Street: the young Dickens stayed at Cross Keys inn there upon his arrival in London. Samuel Pepys and Ben Jonson frequented a tavern – the Mitre – in Wood Street.

Wood Street’s name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard I’s farsighted edict that all houses should be built of stone to avoid the risk of fire). It could also be that, as with so many other streets in the Cheapside area, it was given the name wood because wood was sold there.

The street was particularly infamous because of the Wood Street compter, mainly a debtors’ prison, but which also served to take in overflow from Newgate, and had three sections – where you were depended on whether you were rich, poor, or comfortably well off.  Prisoners were transferred here in the 16th century from the Bread Street compter and then, in the 18th century, the occupants of Wood Street compter were, in turn, transferred to the Giltspur Street compter.

The debtors’ prisons played a big role in the life of the young Dickens and, consequently, in his writing. His own father had been sent to Marshalsea in Southwark because of a debt to a baker. This meant that Dickens had to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory.