A talk on Elizabethan Islington reveals a whole new side to this fascinating part of London

I’ve lived in Islington for over ten years, but have never really associated it with the Tudors, interested though I am in that era. So I was intrigued to hear that a talk called ‘Elizabethan Islington’ was being given at Finsbury Library, as part of Cityread Week 2017, which is celebrating SJ Parris’s novel ‘Prophecy’, an Elizabethan spy thriller set in London in 1583.

Given by Jiff Bayliss, who is both a local historian and a CIGA guide, this highly informative talk introduced us to a number of famous Tudor personalities associated with Islington, as well as some of the borough’s most historic buildings.

It turns out that Elizabeth I regularly stayed in Islington (or the village of Isledon, as it was known until the 17th century) and often passed through it when travelling to and from London. However, the Tudor royal with by far the closest connection to Islington – and to whom, coincidentally, Elizabeth was at one time very close – was Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. An incredible woman, Catherine. Not only did she manage to outlive Henry (keeping her head in the process), she was fluent in four languages, wrote religious books and acted as Regent when the King was in France. It was after Henry’s death that Catherine moved to Islington: to Charterhouse Square in Clerkenwell, to be precise.

Katherine Parr

The Charterhouse itself, of which the Square formed the outer precinct, continued to have strong Tudor associations long after Catherine’s death. Founded as a Carthusian priory in 1371, it became a private mansion after its dissolution in 1538. In November of that year, Elizabeth stayed at the house for five days and received homage from her nobles and assembled ambassadors. She also used Charterhouse during the preparations for her coronation in January 1559. The Queen visited the house on later occasions, including a visit during 1603, the year of her death.

Even closer to home for me, however – I couldn’t believe this when Jiff told us – Sir Walter Raleigh, the renowned explorer (and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I), in 1577 lived in The Old Queen’s Head public house on Essex Road (my road!). What’s more, Sir Walter was a regular visitor to a house that once stood on the site of the Old Pied Bull public house on Upper Street, Islington’s main thorough fare.

Then, as it does now, Islington attracted its share of quirky residents. John Taylor (1578 – 1653) was an Elizabethan boatman, soldier, writer, comic poet and all-round entertainer who lived in Islington. As a boatman, he ferried Shakespeare’s customers across the River Thames and memorialised him in verse. Taylor once tried to row down the Thames estuary in a paper boat – and claimed to have succeeded, in spite of the bottom falling out of the boat. His most successful adventure was described in ‘The Pennyles Pilgrimage’ ((1618), an account of his visit to Scotland that year. Taylor returned to London in style, laying on a grand supper for his friends at Islington’s Maidenhead public house.

Those are just a few of the key Tudor personalities connected to Islington. What, though, of the area’s elegant architecture – does it also have Tudor links? Here, again, there were some surprises in store…

One of Islington’s most prominent and well-known buildings is Canonbury Tower. Originally built in the early 1500s by Prior Bolton of St Bartholomew’s Priory as a summer retreat, the Tower is one of Islington’s oldest buildings and residences. Through today’s talk, I found out that Henry VIII granted Canonbury Manor and Tower to his chief minister and “fixer”, Thomas Cromwell. During the Elizabethan period, its ownership changed several times and it was eventually acquired by Sir John Spencer, a Lord Mayor of London, in 1594 (and we know that Queen Elizabeth used to visit the Spencer family when travelling through Islington). Although the Cromwell connection to the Tower was lost a long time ago, he does have an Islington housing block, Thomas Cromwell Court, in King Henry’s Walk, named after him.

Canonbury Tower
Canonbury Tower, today

Another famous Islington landmark is the Priory of the Order of St John, in Clerkenwell. Less well-known is its connection to the arts – which enjoyed a golden era under Elizabeth, with William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and John Webster (to name but a few of that period’s successful playwrights) all coming to prominence. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Priory was granted to John Dudley, 1st Earl of Northumberland who, after 1539, used the building for storing his hunting nets. However, when Elizabeth came to the throne, she used the buildings to house the offices of the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tylney, from 1578 until 1607. The Master was responsible for theatrical censorship and anyone involved in the production of plays – and many of Shakespeare’s works were licensed here for performance.

That seems like the perfect way in which to end this post. Suffice to say, Jiff’s talk has well and truly wetted my appetite to find out more about the history of this endlessly fascinating part of London – to do so, I will be paying a visit very soon to Islington Museum, as well as visiting the iconic buildings I’ve mentioned above.

One comment

  1. […] Having attended an excellent talk on Elizabethan Islington last Tuesday, today I joined a guided tour with the same theme which began in Islington but also encompassed Clerkenwell, Farringdon, Smithfield and St Bart’s Hospital. Thanks to our incredibly knowledgeable & informative CIGA guide, Philip Nelkon, this was a most absorbing and rewarding two hours. Not only did I learn many new facts, but I also got to see in the flesh two of the buildings that were mentioned in Tuesday’s talk – the Priory of the Order of St John, and the Charterhouse. […]

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