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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London’s livery companies and street names

Throgmorton pillarYesterday’s post touched on the Drapers Company, so I think it’s time to start taking a look at the City of London livery companies, inextricably linked into London’s history and to many of its famous streets (or unusual street names). They are also linked to a common expression – ‘at sixes and sevens’ – and a curious pub name, both of which are explained later in this post.

The Drapers Company has a hall at one end of Throgmorton Avenue; at the other end is the hall of the Carpenters Company. (To give them their proper names, they are the Worshipful Company of Drapers (number 12 in order of precedence, and we’ll get to that shortly) and the Worshipful Company of Carpenters (number 26).

Livery companies can be seen as early trade associations, incorporated under Royal Charter, with some of them dating back to medieval times. In 1515 an order of precedence was set, with the top 12 still referred to as the Twelve Great Livery Companies. Between 1746 and 1926 no new companies were created; those post-1926 are considered the modern livery companies.

The livery companies were powerful bodies in their time, regulating their respective trades and the practitioners of that trade. Interestingly, the original companies would seem to indicate the importance of textiles in medieval times: of the great twelve companies (see table below), five are textile related in some way; number 13 in order of precedence is the Worshipful Company of Dyers, and there is also a Worshipful Company of Weavers. The twelve great companies are:

  1. Worshipful Company of Mercers
  2. Worshipful Company of Grocers
  3. Worshipful Company of Drapers
  4. Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
  5. Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths
  6. Worshipful Company of Skinners/Merchant Taylors
  7. Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors/Skinners
  8. Worshipful Company of Haberdashers
  9. Worshipful Company of Salters
  10. Worshipful Company of Ironmongers
  11. Worshipful Company of Vintners
  12. Worshipful Company of Clothworkers

The Skinner and Taylors have no fixed order of precedence; instead they swap annually between sixth and seventh. This comes about because of a long-standing dispute about which was granted a charter first; both received charters in 1327 but there is with no proof as to which was earlier. The dispute, apparently, eventually reached bloodshed and was taken to the Lord Mayor of London. He decreed that the respective Masters should be entertained to dinner by each other’s company annually and that each company should alternate the ranks of sixth and seventh from year to year.

This is often said to have originated the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’, (though some sources say it is more likely to have come from dicing).

So that’s the potted history of livery companies; now here are some connections, however tenuous, between the livery companies and some of the street names that have adorned this blog.

Garlick Hill cropGarlick Hill, where the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers’ Company is based. The company is ranked fifteenth in the order of precedence and was founded by royal charter in 1444 with authority to control the sale of leather within the City.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane, where the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers make their home in the Clothworkers’ Hall (their own hall was destroyed in the Blitz). The company, which was granted a Royal Charter in 1439, is one of the oldest, dating back to at least 1272. Cordwainers make “fine soft leather shoes and other luxury footwear articles”. The name comes from the soft leather, or cordwain, that its members used; this originated from Cordoba in Spain. And, yes, Jimmy Choo is a member of the Cordwainers.

EAS_3880Elephant and Castle, where theories about its name include the emblem of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers (number 18 on the list). The Cutlers are now based in Warwick Street but their original hall (destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666) was in what is now Cloak Lane.

EAS_4136St Mary Axe, where the the John Stow Memorial Service is held in the church of St Andrew Undershaft. Stow was a member of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors and that august body organizes the biannual service, which includes the ceremonial changing of the quill.

Threadneedle Street, which takes its name from the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, and where the Merchant Taylors once had their hall.

The Swan with Two Necks (ok, cheating; it’s a pub name, rather than a street name, but so what? it’s a great name), which takes its name from the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the practice of swan upping. The Vintners, along with the Dyers and the ruling monarch, are the only people or bodies allowed to own swans on the Thames.

Pudding LanePudding Lane, home to the first great hall of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (not a typo, it is the Society and not the Company). The hall, like so many other halls and London landmarks, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and was later rebuilt in Blackfriars Lane. The Apothecaries also have a connection with the British Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden, which has an entrance in Swan Walk and therefore a connection with the famous Doggett Coat and Badge race, which is organized by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.

Petticoat Lane viewWeaver Street and Petticoat Lane, with connections to The Worshipful Company of Weavers, which, while it is number 42 in precedence, received its charter in 1155, making it the oldest recorded City Livery Company.

And last, at least for now, Ironmonger Lane, with connections to the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers (which has its hall in Aldersgate StreetAldersgate Street) and The Worshipful Company of Mercers, which has its hall in the lane. The first Mercers’ Hall was off Cheapside but was – you guessed it – destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

More on livery companies in the next (or at least a future) post.

Weird and wonderful street names of London

Yesterday I read a great blog post  by Fun London Tours about the City of London’s 10 most unusual street names. Nearly all of them have been included in this blog, or lined up to be so at some point,  so I thought today I would provide a companion piece by way of some more detail on some of the streets mentioned.

EAS_4029Knightrider Street: This street featured in this blog when I was writing about some of the streets I would be going through or near when I took part in the MoonWalk London 2014. The obvious explanation is that it is from knights riding to riding from the Tower Royal to jousting tournaments at Smithfield but there is more to it than that, with some spoilsports arguing that knightrider is not a word.  (And, Fun London Tours blog points out, “David Hasselhoff has his own little shrine in the adjacent Centrepage pub!”)

Friday StFriday Street: It may have taken its name from Frigdaeges, an Old English name, but most people plump for John Stow’s theory that it was “so called of fishmongers dwelling there and serving Friday’s market”. There was a time in Catholic England when eating meat on Friday was forbidden and, at least one meat eater was executed for that crime. Friday is, it seems, the only day of the week represented in London street names.

French Ordinary Court cropFrench Ordinary Court: Leading off another street unusual name (Crutched Friars), this small street was given its name because in the 17th century the Huguenots were allowed by the French Ambassador, who had his residence in Crutched Friars, to sell coffee and pastries. They also served fixed price meals; in those days such a meal was called an ‘ordinary’.

cock laneLove Lane: There’s no better way of putting it than to quote the inimitabel John Stow, who said bluntly that it was “so called of wantons”. Love, but with a price tag. There are many streets with names that have bawdy and that category could include Cock Lane, as Fun London Tours naughtily suggests.

Cock Lane could take its name from the fact that the only place where the City’s prostitutes could live; it may also have a less lewd (though bloody) explanation for its name. Cock Lane was, perhaps, most famous for its ghost.
Wardrobe Terrace crop

Wardrobe Place: Amazingly, what it seems: in 1359 a house belonging to Sir John Beauchamp was purchased by Edward II and became the storeroom for the royal clothing. The house was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but the name lives on. The area was mentioned in Shakespeare’s will, when he bequeathed land near the Wardrobe to his daughter.

Cripplegate Street: This takes its name from one of London’s Roman city gates, supposedly thus named because when Edmund the Martyr’s body was brought through the gate in 1010, some cripples were miraculously cured. This theory has its detractors, who claim that the name comes from ‘crepul’ – a tunnel or covered way, which was constructed for the sentries there.

Mincing Lane cropMincing Lane: This Lane, with connections to Jimmy Choo and Cruella de Ville, takes its name from nothing to do with funny walks. The word derives from the Old English feminine of ‘monk’, and the name dates back to the 12th century. According to London historian John Stow, it was once “Mincheon lane, so called of tenements there sometime pertaining to the Minchuns or nuns of St Helens in Bishopsgate.”

EAS_4136St Mary Axe: This name involves an axe and a Saint Mary, and takes its name from the church of the same name, later combined with St Thomas Undershaft. Supposedly Maurius, father of King Cole – gave his daughter Ursula permission to travel to Germany with 11,000 virgins who were subsequently slain by an enraged Attila and his Huns.

EAS_4139With all due respect to the blog that inspired this particular post, it is hard to talk about St Mary Axe without mentioning another weird and wonderful City of London street name: Undershaft.

Crutched FriarsCrutched Friars: A relatively new name (the street was once called, less interestingly, Hart Street), it derives its current name from a holy order, the Crossed Friars, an Augustinian order who wore habits that were blue with, usually, a red cross on the back.

Hanging Sword Alley: This name can be traced back as early as 1564, when a large Tudor house was known by the sign of the Hanging Sword. The area was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation. The alley was also known at one time by the sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, after a 14th century inn, depicted in Plate 9 of Hogarth’s ‘Industry and Idleness’ series.

EAS_3921Of course, if we’re looking at gory street names in the City of London, a particular favourite is Bleeding Heart Yard.

Virgins, churches, chickens, and a philanthropist

St Mary Axe plaque cropFollowing on from yesterday’s Moonwalk-themed story about Undershaft, we will take a fleeting glance at nearby St Mary Axe, which is covered in more detail here before we move on to Poultry.

The street takes its name from a church that was known in full as St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. Apparently there was an axe there, which gave the church its shorter name.

The church was converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century and the parish was united with that of St Thomas Undershaft.

EAS_4101Moving further west, by way of Leadenhall Street and Cornhill, we come to Poultry. This was once a London speciality street where 14th-century shoppers would go for their – yes, poultry. 

Poultry was once called Scalding Alley, says John Stow, from the poulterers who dwelt there and “their poultry, which they sold at their stalls, were scalded there. The street doth yet bear the name of the Poultry”.

Elizabeth Fry plaqueThere is a plaque in Poultry to commemorate the Quaker, prison reformer and philanthropist Elizabeth Fry. In 1800 Elizabeth (Betsy) Gurney married fellow Quaker Joseph Fry, a banker, and the couple moved to St Mildred’s Court just off Poultry, where they lived for nine years.

Mrs Fry, of an old Quaker family, was horrified at the conditions under which as many as 300 women and children could be packed into Newgate. She worked hard at improving conditions but was forced to give up philanthropy when her husband became bankrupt. Since 2001 Fry has been depicted on the reverse of Bank of England £5 notes.

Thomas Hood plaque
Photo: Openplaques.org

At number 22 Poultry was Dillys, the booksellers where Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published; Johnson had dined there with John Wilkes and found him to be “excellent company”.

Poultry was also the location of the “house where I was born” – the poet Thomas Hood, who penned the immortal lines “I remember, I remember, the house where I was born,” was born in a house at what is now 31.

Back to the Moonwalk: 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.

Quills, maypoles, and intolerant curates

St Andrew and Gherkin
St Andrew Undershaft in the shadow of the Gherkin

Yesterday saw the Changing of the Quill ceremony at St Andrew Undershaft Church in St Mary Axe, and more of that shortly. The derivation of the name St Mary Axe has been dealt with in an earlier post, so this post will explain how Undershaft got its name.

John Stow 2
The effigy of John Stow with its new quill

First, back to yesterday’s ceremony, part of the John Stow Memorial Service. There is a bust of Stow in the church, part of a monument erected there by his wife Elizabeth; the couple were regular worshippers at the church. Every three years there is a changing of the pen ceremony, central to the John Stow Commemoration Service. The old pen is removed from Stow’s stone hand and a new one presented to the Lord Mayor of London who then places it in the effigy’s hand. (This event, formerly an annual event, is organized by the Merchant Taylors, of which Stow was one, and LAMAS, the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society.) EAS_4139Back to the derivation of the name Undershaft. The simple explanation is that it takes its name from the church of St Andrew Undershaft, but that’s too simple, and is begging the question. The name from the church itself came from a huge maypole that once stood in front of the church, so tall that it rose above the tower. A maypole was the centre of many of the May Day celebrations – a carry-over from ancient festivities of nature worship. People would dance around the maypoles, elect May Queens, and carry on other activities that were generally fun and harmless – until 1517. EAS_4136By that time, there had been a growing resentment among London apprentices at the number of foreigners in the city. On May Day 1517 – Evil May Day – this resentment erupted in rioting at the St Andrew Undershaft maypole. The rioting spread and the pole was pulled down; though never re-erected, it was stored along the houses in nearby Shaft Alley and remained there for over 30 years. A local clergyman then decided to preach a sermon denouncing the maypole as a heathen object; Stow himself reported on how the householders, who had so long lived with the pole over their doorways, reacted. “I heard his sermon at Paules cross, and I saw the effect that followed; for in the afternoon of that present Sunday, the neighbours and tenants to the said bridge, over whose doors the said shaft had lain, after they had well dined, to make themselves strong, gathered more help, and with great labour raising the shaft from the hooks, whereon it had rested two-and-thirty years, they sawed it in pieces, every man taking for his share so much as had lain over his door and stall, the length of his house; and they of the alley divided among them so much as had lain over their alley gate. Thus was this idol (as he poor man termed it) mangled, and after burned.” Incidentally, the clergyman was a certain Sir Stephen, curate of St Katherine Christ’s church, who was, said Walter Thornbury, another wonderful London historian, “considerably intolerant”. In reaction against heathen practices, by which Sir Stephen meant also Catholicism, he advise “all men to alter the Popish names of churches and the names of the days of the week, to eat fish any day but Friday and Saturday, and to keep Lent any time but between Shrovetide and Easter”. The fun had more or less gone out of May Day celebrations after 1517, and then the Puritans banned them completely anyway. They were reinstated after the Restoration of Charles II; in a memo to the king from the Duke of Newcastle, it was suggested that maypoles and their related festivities would “amuse the people’s thoughts and keep them in harmless actions which will free your majesty from faction and rebellion”.

A saint, an axe, and lots of virgins

Good morning, gentle reader(s?). The normal ‘This day in London history’ post will follow later. (It will feature the talented and incredibly courageous Victorian writer, Fanny Burney, who died on this day in 1840.) But first, by special request from a Twitter follower, the story of the name behind St Mary Axe.

This comes from the church of the same name, which was converted to warehouses after its suppression in the 16th century. The parish was united with that of St Thomas Undershaft.

St Ursula

There really was an axe, supposedly kept in the church – the full name of which was often given as St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins.

The legend behind the axe and the Eleven Thousand virgins is that 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 numbers seem rather excessive – the early equivalent, perhaps, of the package holiday taken to ridiculous extremes.

The sight of all those maidens served only to enrage Attila and his Huns – who weren’t, for some unknown reason, keen on virgins – to such an extent that three axes were used to chop through all eleven thousand of the virginal necks.

It seems like a lot of hard work for no good reason: beheading is (apparently) not an easy task even when just one person is involved. Eleven thousand heads must have been very tiring for the huns, especially with only three axes; the wonder is that the huns didn’t get more axes, or, indeed, that with all those virgins one or two didn’t manage to escape.

EAS_4132
The Gherkin behind the church of St Andrew Undershaft

The story would appear to be more legend than fact, or, as it is delicately phrased by one London historian, “three mortal axes could, however, never have accomplished so dire a massacre, and one may safely assume that some symbol or sign of three Axes was wrongfully interpreted from a pagan picture”. Another, boring, reason for the name is given as being merely from a shop with the sign of an axe.

St Mary Axe is now probably as famous for Number 30 as for its virgins. This building was originally called the Swiss Re Building but, in the same way as 53rd at Third in Manhattan is the ‘Lipstick Building’, this is known widely as ‘The Gherkin’.

Incidentally, it is not clear why St Mary got top billing over St Ursula, unless it is because she is the ultimate virgin. St Ursula is the patron saint of students, and St Agnes is the patron saint of virgins. Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands after Ursula, and Magellan named Cabo Virgenes (Cape Virgins, off the southeastern tip of Argentina) after her.