Austin Friars, Thomas Cromwell, and a botched execution

Drapers plaque websiteNow that we’re in the middle of ‘Wolf Hall’, the BBC’s dramatization of Hilary Mantel’s superb novels about Thomas Cromwell, it seems a good time to revisit Austin Friars, where Cromwell lived.

Austin Friars is one of several London streets whose names fall into the ‘doubling up’ category. Like streets such as Piccadilly, Strand, Haymarket, Cheapside, and many others, they don’t have street, lane, road, or anything like that in their name. A few other examples are London Wall (not too difficult to figure out), Bevis Marks, Petty France, Shad Thames, and The Baulk.

Austin Friars 2 cropAustin Friars takes its name from a dissolved Augustinian friary established in the 13th century and dissolved in 1538. In addition to the priory buildings, some of the land belonging to the friars was used for buildings rented out to people such as Cromwell. Cromwell continued to extend his estate by obtaining more of the friary land and building one of the largest private mansions in the city.

Throgmorton pillarIt wasn’t just friary land that Cromwell acquired, according to London historian John Stow, whose father had a house in Throgmorton Street. When Cromwell decided to extend his nearby garden, he just moved Stow senior’s house. As Stow junior puts it: “this house they loosed from the ground, and bare upon rollers into my father’s garden twenty-two feet, ere my father heard thereof; no warning was given him”.

When Cromwell was executed following his fall from Henry VIII’s favour, his estate was seized and sold off. His execution was a fine example of the punishment not necessarily fitting the crime. The decapitation was seriously botched and, according to a contemporary chronicler, Cromwell “paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged Boocherly miser whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office”.

Drapers Hall Plaque copy
Coat of arms of the Drapers Company

The Drapers Company, which is one of the twelve great livery companies of London, bought his mansion from Henry VIII for the sum of about £1,200. The house then became Draper’s Hall, which is at one end of Throgmorton Avenue – a private road that runs from Throgmorton Street to London Wall. The Hall, which was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, was rebuilt but was again severely damaged by fire in 1772.

Exchanges, decapitations, and Throgmorton Street

Royal Exchange aerial view
Royal Exchange aerial view

This day in London history: on 23 1571 January Queen Elizabeth I awarded the Exchange its Royal title. The Exchange was founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for the city. The original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and it was then rebuilt in 1669, providing the beginnings of today’s Stock Exchange.

In 1697 an Act of Parliament imposed heavy penalties on unlicensed brokers, as well as fixing the number of brokers at 100. This led to many stockbrokers leaving (or being forced to leave) the Exchange and transacting their business in local coffee houses, Jonathan’s Coffee House in particular.

In the 18th century, a new and more formal Stock Exchange was opened, occupying part of Throgmorton Street. The street itself is named for Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, diplomatist and a relative of Catherine Parr.

Nicholas Throckmorton
Sir Nicholas Throckmorton

Throckmorton managed to survive several monarchs: he was among those who signed the document that limited the succession of the throne to Lady Jane Grey and her descendants. His support of Jane was not entirely sincere, however: he also made sure not to lose the good will of Mary, and was able to maintain a staunch Protestant for the whole of his life.

The closest Sir Nicholas came to real danger was being sent to the Tower for a time in 1544, having been accused of complicity in Wyatt’s rebellion. He was acquitted, however, and managed to see another monarch (Elizabeth) succeed to the throne. He also survived to become one of her favourite ministers, and it is alleged that he was poisoned by Dudley, another of the queen’s favourites.

Bess Throckmorton
Bess Throckmorton

Throckmorton’s daughter Elizabeth (Bess) was a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth; when she had an affair with yet another of the queen’s favourites – Sir Walter Ralegh – they were both sent to the Tower in 1592. Queen Elizabeth relented before long, however, and Ralegh married Bess Throckmorton soon after their release.

The Raleghs were a devoted couple; in her case, perhaps too devoted. When Ralegh’s charm no longer worked on his queen and he was executed, his wife had his head embalmed and she carried it around with her, for the rest of her life, in a red leather bag.

John Stow’s father had a house in Throckmorton Street; when Thomas Cromwell wished to extend his nearby garden, in order to make room for the extension, he dug up Stow senior’s house, put it on rollers and moved it out of the way with so much as a ‘by your leave’. According to Stow junior, “this house they loosed from the ground, and bare upon rollers into my father’s garden twenty-two feet, ere my father heard thereof; no warning was given him”.

Thomas Cromwell by Holbein
Thomas Cromwell by Holbein

Cromwell got his comeuppance eventually: he was executed in 1540 (though not for moving the Stow house). He was accused of a long list of  crimes including treason, heresy, corruption, and plotting to marry Lady Mary Tudor. He suffered a gruesome decapitation at the hands of an incompetent executioner; according to a contemporary chronicler, Edward Halle, he “paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged Boocherly miser whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office”. After the execution, his head was displayed on a spike on London Bridge.

Drapers Hall interior
Drapers’ Hall Interior

The Drapers’ Company – the third of the livery companies – took over Cromwell’s house along with the nefariously extended garden. The company’s hall still stands there at one Throgmorton Avenue, a private road that runs from Throgmorton Street to London Wall. At the other end is the Carpenters’ Company.