Category Archives: London History

The Flower Of All Cities

Wishing a Happy New Year to all our readers …

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My latest book, “The Flower Of All Cities“, has now been out for six months.   It is available either through your friendly local bookshop or faceless online minster (also through my publisher, Amberley).  Price £20 or equivalent (or less).

Contained within is the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666.  A   story of settlement, struggle, conquest, oppression, rebellion, war, plague and purifying fire.  A story of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts.  Of kings and queens and gentlefolk and commoners, of knights and monks and merchant-adventurers and strutting players; of the anointed and ill-fated, the remembered and the forgotten.  Of Fortunata, Alfred, Thomas Becket, William Longbeard, Wat Tyler, Dick Whittington, John Crosby, John Blanke, John Houghton, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Askew, Hugh Myddelton, John Smith, Mary Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse), John Hampden   and Nathaniel Hodges.  And of  William FitzStephen, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas More, John Stow, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare,  John Donne, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, Thomas Middleton, John Milton, Christopher  Wren, John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys and Aphra Behn.  Of “great matter” and “great reckoning”.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

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In December, 1868, Arthur Munby wrote evokingly in his diary:

“ … I rambled through the old-fashioned streets about Cripplegate; attracted first by the fine massive antique tower of [St Giles] Cripplegate church … .  In the quiet of a Saturday afternoon, when offices are closed and busy men departed, the world of modern life disappears for a moment, and these old 17th & 18th century streets and alleys, these deserted old churches, bring back something of the interest and delight with which one rambles through a medieval street abroad.  Far better it is to ramble here, at such a time, than in some bustling suburb, mean, newfangled, fashionable or vulgar.  I went, probably for the last time, through the mazes of old Newgate market: long low alleys, …  walled on both sides with butchers’ shops nearly as old as the Fire: open sheds, with massy beams and rafters and blocks, browned and polished by age and friction.  Many of the alleys were …  dark, for the butchers had moved to the new Market at Smithfield: but two or three were lighted up & busy with buyers and sellers – long rude vistas of meat and men”.

Eltham

Another in the occasional series on historic sites on the “Capital Ring” walk  …

Eltham Palace

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Eltham Palace began life as a moated manor house built by the Bishop of Durham in the late thirteenth century, sometime around 1295.

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Shortly afterwards, in 1305, it was acquired by the then future King Edward II, and thereafter became a royal palace, lived in or at least visited by a succession of Plantagenet, Tudor and early Stuart monarchs, and much extended by various of them, notably by Edward IV, who added a Great Hall in 1470.  It  began to decline after Greenwich and Hampton Court Palaces were completed in the sixteenth century, by the beginning of the seventeenth being “farre in decay”, and by the end of the  Civil War, as John Evelyn put it, “in miserable ruins, …  destroyed by [Parliamentarian Colonel Nathaniel] Rich the Rebel”.  What was left of it was then put to use as a farm in the eighteenth century, eventually falling into such a state of disrepair by the early twentieth that most of it had to be demolished.

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In 1933 the site was bought up by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who had made a fortune out of the manufacture of artificial or art silk (or rayon), and who commissioned the architects Seely and Paget to build adjoining the surviving Great Hall  a luxuriously appointed  Art Deco home for them, and for their pet ring-tailed lemur Mah-Jongg – who it appears had the unfortunate  habit of biting their well-heeled guests!     The Courtaulds moved out, to a 24000-acre estate in Argyllshire, in 1944, whereupon the Royal Army Educational Corps moved in.  English Heritage acquired the property in 1995, and completed a major programme of repairs and restorations on the 1930s house and gardens in 1999.  The house and gardens are now open to the public, although unfortunately no photography is allowed inside the house.

Eltham Lodge

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A little further afield, although still within  the former grounds,  lies  Eltham Lodge, originally built for one of Charles II’s supporters, Sir John Shaw, in 1664, and  currently the clubhouse of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club.

Tudor Barn

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And a mile or so to the north, on the opposite side of Eltham High Street, and in the picturesque recreated “Well Hall Pleasaunce”, lies a Tudor Barn of 1568, now a restaurant.

Shooters Hill

Another in the occasional series on historic sites on the “Capital Ring” walk …

Shooters Hill is one of the highest points in, and  at the outermost  edge of, London, and commands fine  views of the city to the west …

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… and of the open countryside of Kent to the east.

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It is traversed by the old Roman road to Kent now known as Watling Street, or, more prosaically, the A2.    In Medieval times, the road formed the pilgrimage route from London to the shrine of the archbishop and saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

Shrewsbury Tumulus

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On the brow of the hill, just under half a mile north of the water tower, and accessed by way of Shrewsbury Lane and Plum Lane,  is a Bronze Age burial mound known as the Shrewsbury Tumulus.  It is the only  one of a number of such tumuli discovered in the 1930s to survive.

Charlton

Another in the occasional series on historic sites on the “Capital Ring” walk …

Charlton was first recorded in the “Domesday Book” of 1086 as Cerletone, from the Old English “ceorl”, meaning “churl” or peasant, and “tun”, farm-stead, estate or town.  It is likely to have been in existence considerably earlier.

Church of St Luke

The church of St Luke was originally built in stone sometime before 1086, and was under the control of Bermondsey Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538.

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It was later bought by Sir Adam Newton  in 1607, and rebuilt in brick after his death in 1630.  There are  memorials inside  to Newton and his wife; and also to Edward Wilkinson, who was the “Yeoman of the Mouth” to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Edward VI, and “Master Cook” to Elizabeth I.  There is also one  to Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister assassinated in the House of Commons in 1812.

Charlton House

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Charlton House was built by either Inigo Jones or John Thorpe for the aforementioned Sir Adam Newton, the tutor to King James I’s, son, Prince Henry, in 1607-12.  When Sir Adam  Newton died in 1630, it passed to his son  Sir Henry; and after he  moved to Warwickshire after the Civil War of 1642-51, it was bought by Sir William Ducie.  When Ducie died in  1679, it was  bought by Sir William Langhorne; and after he died in 1715, it passed to his cousin Margaret Maryon, and  remained owned by the  Maryon (Wilson) family until  1925.  It was then bought by Greenwich Borough Council, who converted it into a community centre and library.  The building   remains  open to the public to this day.  Much of the structure is surviving Jacobean.  Note, though, that the  north wing had to be rebuilt in the mid-twentieth century after being  destroyed  during the bombing of the Second World War.

Lewisham

Another in the occasional series on “Far Flung Lost London”

Lewisham was first recorded in an Anglo-Saxon charter of 918 as Lievesham, meaning, in Old English, homestead or hamlet of Leofsa.  That same year, the manor was given by Elfrida, the daughter or niece (sources differ) of Alfred the Great to the abbey of St Peter at Ghent.  Lewisham was to remain a semi-rural  settlement surrounded by farms and fields throughout the later Medieval and post-Medieval periods.  It only began to be more extensively developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when a number of fashionable mansions were built among the existing  farmhouses.  (Sub)urbanisation began after the arrival of the railway in the middle part of the nineteenth century.

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The church of St Mary was originally built in or before  918, and subsequently   rebuilt between 1471-1512.  It was substantially rebuilt  again between 1774-7, and  yet again, after a fire, in 1830, and extended in 1881.   The tower of the late Medieval church still survives, and is the oldest structure in Lewisham.   The vicarage dates to 1692-3.

Rainham

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The last in the occasional series on historical sites on the “London Loop” (London Outer Orbital Path)  walk …

Rainham was first recorded in the “Domesday Book” of 1086 as Raineham, probably from the Old English personal name Regna and ham, meaning homestead.  It essentially remained a small village on the banks of the Thames throughout the later Medieval and post-Medieval periods, only finally becoming (sub)urbanised  in the early twentieth century (following the establishment of a  coaching link to London in the eighteenth century, and the arrival of the railway in the nineteenth).  Note, though, that there was also some boat-building industry here as long ago as the sixteenth century.  Note  also that the river-front was redeveloped in the eighteenth century, at which time muck was brought here from London for use in the fields.  Rainham Hall was built here for Captain John Harle in 1729.  Historically part of the county of Essex, Rainham  town has been  part of the London Borough of Havering since   1965.

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The church of St Helen and St Giles was originally built in the Norman period, between 1160-70, by Richard de Lucy (who was, incidentally, one of those implicated in the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170).  It was restored in 1893-1906. It is the oldest building in the Borough of Havering.

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Among the treasures in the interior are some surviving fragments of Medieval wall painting and an ancient ship graffito.