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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Pickled eggs, Charles II, and Falstaff

Charles II coronation robes
Charles II in his coronation robes

This day in London history: on 6 February 1685 King Charles II died of apoplexy, having suffered a fit four days earlier. While his last words are popularly considered to be, “Let not poor Nellie starve,” it seems that they weren’t his very last words as, after that, he told his courtiers, “I am sorry, gentlemen, for being such a time a-dying.”

There are many things for which Charles II could and should be remembered, but one that may escape the notice of some people is his indirect contribution to one of London’s quaintly-named (and sadly no longer existing) streets, Pickled Egg Walk.

This walk – a “place of low amusements” – took its name from the Pickled Egg tavern. The proprietor, who was not a Londoner, had a particularly delectable recipe for pickled eggs. The story goes that Charles II (though some versions say it was his father, Charles I) once stopped there, sampled that delicacy for the first time, and enjoyed it. Royal pleasure was something that any canny landlord would capitalize on and this one was no exception, promptly naming the inn for his speciality.

There was once also a Pickle Herring Street – again, sadly, no longer there, having given way to modern developments in the Tooley Street area (from St Olave’s Street, with a connection to London Bridge falling down). The easy explanation for its name is that the street was on the site of one of the Thames River’s old wharves – where cargoes of pickled herrings were shipped. The area was once known as ‘London’s larder’, from its use as the primary storage area for butter, cheese and, later, canned meat.

Falstaff
A 19-century depiction of Falstaff

As always, there are other possible explanations: though herrings were pickled in England as far back as the 14th century, it was more of a Dutch speciality. There is a record, in 1584, of a ‘Peter Van Duraunte alias Pickell Heringe’ being buried in Bermondsey. Van Duraunte was actually a brewer, so the nickname is not obvious, unless he had an inn called the Pickled Herring; such an inn may have given rise to the street name.

The name may also have come from the fact that Sir John Falstofe – who gave his name to Shakespeare’s Falstaff – lived on this spot in 1447. Falstofe was once a fish merchant, so it could have been his pickled herrings that gave the street its name.

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.