Another in the series on historic sites on the “Thames Path” walk …
Borough, at the south end of London Bridge (the historic City of London being at the north end), was first recorded as “Southwarke borrow” in 1559, taking its name from the Old English “burh” (*). It was unaffected by the Great Fire of London in 1666, the southward progress of which across the river was halted at a gap in the buildings on the bridge that formed a natural firebreak. However, it suffered its own Great Fire in 1676.
Borough High Street is part of, and was once known as, Stane Street, the Roman road to the south, and Borough Market was first established here at least as long ago as the early Medieval period. Throughout the later Middle Ages, it would have constituted an important part of the pilgrimage route from London to the shrine of St Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral.
Immediately to the west of the bridge-head lies what is now Southwark Cathedral. This began its life as a nunnery in 606, becoming the priory of St Mary Overie in 1106, the parish church of St Saviour following the Dissolution in 1540, and Southwark Cathedral and the Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie in 1905. Some elements of the present structure are survivors from the twelfth century building, although most are from the thirteenth or early fifteenth rebuilds following fires in 1212 and 1390 (the former of which, incidentally, reportedly killed 3000 people).
The interior contains many memorials, including a wooden effigy of a knight who died in around 1275, and the tombs of Chaucer’s contemporary and fellow Ricardian poet John Gower (d. 1408), who introduced the iambic tetrameter into English verse, and Lancelot Andrewes (d. 1626), who produced the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible.
Also interred here is Edmond Shakespeare (d. 1607), brother of the more famous William.
To the east of the bridge-head lies what is now St Thomas’s and Guy’s Hospital, which began its life in 1225, as an infirmary attached to the priory of St Mary (see above).
The oldest surviving part of which is the one-time chapel and later operating theatre and herb garret, which now houses a museum.
One of the alcoves from the eighteenth-century restoration of “old” London Bridge still survives in the grounds of the hospital. It is known as the “Lunatick Chair”, and houses a statue of John Keats, who studied to become a surgeon in the hospital, before turning his hand to the poetry for which he is more famous.
The church of St Olave once stood nearby, on a site now occupied by Olaf House.
Famously, there were some fifty inns and other drinking establishments on and around Borough High Street in the Medieval to post-Medieval periods. These included the “Tabard” and “White Hart”, which were known to and written about by Chaucer and Shakespeare, respectively.
And also the “Queen’s Head”, owned by a family named Harvard, most of whom died during an outbreak of the plague in 1625. At this, one of the survivors, John Harvard, sailed to the Americas to seek his fortune, going on to help found a university in Cambridge in Massachusetts that today bears his name.
Many of the inns were burned down in the Great Fire of Southwark in 1676. The “Tabard” and the “White Hart” were later rebuilt, but no longer stand, having been demolished in the late nineteenth century.
The “George”, originally built sometime before 1542, was also rebuilt after the Great Fire of Southwark, in 1677, as a galleried inn, and still stands.
Part-way down Borough High Street, on the west side, once stood Suffolk House, depicted above on a colourised version of the Wyngaerde panorama of 1543.
This was the London residence of the Dukes of Suffolk, the Brandons.
Towards the southern end of the street, on the east side, is the church of St George the Martyr, originally built in the twelfth century, and subsequently rebuilt in the fourteenth (and again in the eighteenth, in the Neo-Classical style). Henry V was met here by the Aldermen and Mayor of London upon his triumphal return from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
In the churchyard is a surviving part of the wall of the second Marshalsea Prison, written about by Charles Dickens in “Little Dorrit”. This is where Dickens’s father John was once imprisoned for debt.
(*) Southwark itself was was first recorded as “Sudwerca” in the “Domesday Book” of 1086, taking its name from the Old English “suth”, and “weorc”, meaning defensive work or fort, in reference to the Roman defences south of the river.