Elizabethan Islington: from talking the talk, to walking the walk

My goodness me: Islington and its neighbours continue to surprise & delight when it comes to their Tudor history and connections to esteemed Tudor personages.

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.

During the walk we learned about the many plots made against Elizabeth I during her reign – one of which features heavily in ‘Prophecy’ (this walk being another Cityread Week 2017 event). We also learned about the measures taken to prevent the plots; regal and imposing though Elizabeth may have been, the poor woman lived in constant fear for her life and kept a sword in her bedchamber despite the presence at all times of armed guards.

Three stops in particular on this walk captured my imagination – the first being Haywards Place, on the border of Islington and Clerkenwell. This site, so we learned, was home to the Red Bull Theatre – a 17th century playhouse that historians believe was roughly the same size as the Globe and Fortune theatres (sadly, it burned down during the Great Fire of London). The Red Bull Theatre had strong links with Queen Anne’s Men, a troupe of actors named after King James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark – and with a number of prominent playwrights including Thomas Heywood, one of the most prolific and popular writers of that era. Heywood was a member of the troupe (as was Christopher Beeston, the renowned theatrical impresario) and much of his work was performed at the Red Bull. Can you believe that during his lifetime Heywood managed to write over 200 plays? To put that into perspective, his contemporary, William Shakespeare, “only” penned 37 plays.

Just up the road from Haywards Place resides Saint James Clerkenwell, an elegant parish church in whose graveyard Thomas Heywood and a number of other well-known Tudor actors lie. The church itself has a long and varied history – there has been a religious establishment on this site since the 12th century, beginning with the church of the nunnery of St Mary. Having undergone various incarnations, the church went on to survive the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and, at the end of the 18th century, was rebuilt into its present Georgian form. A number of noteworthy events have taken place here, including the marriage of the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, to Elizabeth Washington, in 1632.

Saint James Clerkenwell.png

Probably my favourite stop on the walk, however, was another landmark whose existence I had previously been completely unaware of and whose discovery bowled me over: Clerk’s Well, on Farringdon Lane. Have you ever wondered where the name Clerkenwell came from? Wonder no longer: the well after which London’s edgiest suburb is named was discovered, complete with running water, in 1924 – during building works. It is still visible today, incorporated into a modern building called Well Court. I was intrigued to learn that Clerkenwell – walking distance from where I live – was described, during Tudor times, as “having a great number of dissolute, loose and insolent people harboured in such and the like noisome and disorderly houses”. Four hundred years later, I’m glad to report that not all that much has changed.

The Clerk's Well.jpg

So much history, in such a small area – and I know that there is far more for me to learn. Before I sign off, though, I can’t resist mentioning Passing Alley – through which we did indeed pass on our historical sojourn. This narrow and unassuming alleyway had a very slightly different name during Tudor times; I will leave you to guess what that name may have been – and also to muse upon what the alleyway would have smelled like, given both its nickname and its proximity to Smithfield’s cattle market…

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