Category Archives: London History

Mary seizes the throne (Henry Machyn, 1553)

Queen Mary - quite scary

Henry Machyn wrote in his diary in 1553:

“The xix day of July was … Mare proclamyd qwene … , [as the] sister of the late kyng Edward the vi and daughter unto the nobull Henry  the viii … , and … ther was … song, and … belles ryngyng thrugh London, and bone-fyres, and tabuls in evere strett, and wyne and beer and alle, … and ther was money cast a-way”.

Meantime, Lady Jane Grey, who had acceded to the throne only nine days previously (see July 10th posting), was imprisoned in the Tower.  She was later tried and convicted on a charge of treason on November 13th, 1553, and eventually executed on February 12th, 1554.



Burnt for her beliefs (Anne Askew, 1546)


On this day in 1546, in the final full year of Henry VIII’s reign, 25-year-old Anne Askew was burnt at the stake at West Smithfield for heresy, for preaching against the then still orthodox  belief in transubstantiation (see also June 18th and June 27th postings).  She had previously been racked in the Tower of London – the only woman to have suffered both fates.  And she had to be carried to,  and seated at,  the stake.

The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, in his “Book of Martyrs” of 1563,  gives the following as Anne Askew’s own account  ..

“They said to me there, that I was a heretic, and condemned by the law, if I would stand in my opinion. I answered, that I was no heretic, neither yet deserved I any death by the law of God. But, as concerning the faith which I uttered and wrote to the council, I would not, I said, deny it, because I knew it true. Then would they needs know, if I would deny the sacrament to be Christ’s body and blood. I said, ‘Yea: for the same Son of God that was born of the Virgin Mary, is now glorious in heaven, and will come again from thence at the latter day like as he went up. And as for that ye call your God …  a piece of bread … ,  …  let it but lie in the box three months, and it will be mouldy, and so turn to nothing that is good. Whereupon I am persuaded that it cannot be God.’

…  Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, and thereon they kept me a long time; and because I lay still, and did not cry, my lord chancellor [Sir Thomas Wriothesley] and Master Rich [Sir Richard Rich] took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nigh dead.  Then the lieutenant caused me to be loosed from the rack. Incontinently I swooned, and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours reasoning with my lord chancellor upon the bare floor; where he, with many flattering words, persuaded me to leave my opinion. But my Lord God (I thank his everlasting goodness) gave me grace to persevere, and will do, I hope, to the very end.”

West Smithfield is visited on our “Historic Smithfield, Clerkenwell and Holborn” standard walk, and on our “Medieval London”, “Tudor and Stuart London” and  “Rebellious London” themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (

Bear-baiting  in Old London

A Medieval depiction of bear baiting

On this day in 1623, John Chamberlain (see also January 8th posting) wrote in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton:

“The Spanish Ambassador is much delighted in beare baiting: he was the last weeke at Paris garden [in Southwark], where they shewed him all the pleasure they could  … and then turned a white [polar] beare into the Thames, where the dogges baited him swimming, which was the best sport of all”.

The Swiss visitor Thomas Platter had written of the practice of bear-baiting earlier, in 1599:

“Every Sunday [!] and Wednesday in London there are bear-baitings.  … The theatre is circular, with galleries … for spectators, [and] the space … below, beneath the clear sky, … unoccupied. In the middle of this place a large bear on a long rope was bound to a stake, then a number of English mastiffs were brought in and first shown to the bear, which they afterwards baited … .  [N]ow the excellence … of such mastiffs was evinced, for although they were much … mauled by the bear, they did not give in, but had to be pulled off by sheer force … .  The bears’ teeth were not sharp so to they could not injure the dogs; they have them broken short.  When the first mastiffs tired, fresh ones were brought in … .  When the bear was weary, another one was supplied … .  … When this bear was tired, a … bull was brought in … .  Then another powerful bear … .  Lastly they brought in an old blind bear which the boys hit  with … sticks; but he knew how to untie his leash and … ran back to his stall”.

And Henry Machyn, in 1554:

 “The sam day at after-non was a bere-beyten on the Banke syde, and ther the grett blynd bere [whose name was Sackerson] broke losse, and in ronnyng away he chakt a servyng man by the calff of the lege, and bytt a gret pesse away, and after by the hokyll-bone, that with-in iii days after he ded”.

The barbaric practice of animal-baiting began at least as long ago as the Middle Ages: the oldest record of the royal office of “Master of the Bears” is from 1484, during the reign of the last Plantagenet King, Richard III.

Bear Gardens - Copy.JPG

The old  animal-baiting arenas on Bankside in   Southwark eventually closed down in the late seventeeth century, although  at the same time new ones opened up Hockley-in-the-Hole in Clerkenwell, “the home of low-caste sport.  Animal-baiting was only finally outlawed, under the “Cruelty to Animals Act”, in the early nineteenth century, in 1835.


The Annual Vintners’ Installation Procession

4 - The procession on the footbridge over Thames Street

The  annual Vintners’ Installation Procession takes  place today (from 11:25) …

The new Master and other Officers of the Vintners’ Company will be  installed in the Company’s Hall, and afterwards process   from the Hall to the church of St James Garlickhythe for a special service.  In accordance with long tradition (*), they  will first be presented with bouquets  “of sweet and fine herbs that their noses be not offended by any noxious flavours or other ill-vapours”.  The procession will be led by a Wine Porter in a white smock and silk top hat, who will symbolically cleare the way with a birch besom that never actually touches the ground.  The Porter will be followed by the similarly anciently-attired Beadle, Stavesmen, Swan-Markers and Barge Master, and in turn by the gowned Master, with the rest of the Company bringing up the rear.

(*) The Company received its Charter in 1363.

Lady Jane Grey accedes  to   the throne (Henry Machyn, 1553)

The so-called Streatham Portrait, believed to be a copy of a contemporary portrait of Lady Jane Grey

Henry Machyn wrote in his diary in 1553:

“The ix day of July was sworne unto the qwen Jane [Grey] … doythur of the duke of Suffolke …

The x day of July was reseyved in the Towre [Jane] with a grett company of lords and nobulls … and the duches of Suffoke her mother, bering her trayn, … and ther was a shot of gunnes … and the proclamasyon … [of] qwen Jane … and a trumpet blohyng …”.

Machyn is now best known as a diarist or chronicler (see March 17th posting).  His  Diary contains descriptions of such  important events in history as the Reformation, and the conversion of the country to Protestantism, under Henry VIII, and the reversion to Catholicism under Henry’s daughter Mary [Tudor].

The Great Fire of 1212


On this day in 1212, there was a great fire in Southwark that reportedly killed thousands of people, many of them trapped on London Bridge.  According to a near-contemporary account:

“An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.”

The fire badly damaged the recently-built bridge, leaving it only partially usable for years afterwards, and necessitating a partial rebuild.  It also damaged  Southwark Cathedral, necessitating a partial rebuild.


Some of the masonry  used in the rebuilding of the cathedral  was salvaged from the fire debris and shows signs of fire damage.

London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral are visited on our standard “Historic Southwark” walk and on our “Medieval London” and “Post-Medieval (Tudor and Stuart) London” themed specials.

Further details of all our walks are available in the Our Guided Walks section of this web-site.

Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section of the web-site, or by e-mail (