The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas (a) Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on Tuesday 29th December, 1170 (by knights acting on what they had interpreted as an instruction from the King, Henry II). The site became an important one of pilgrimage throughout the later Middle Ages (the penitent Henry making the journey barefoot in 1174, the year after Thomas was made a saint). The practice of pilgrimage ceased after the Reformation and Dissolution under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, but may be said to have resumed in later centuries. Research published by the Chaucer Society in the nineteenth century suggests that the route taken by pilgrims from London to Canterbury ran more less along the line of the old Roman road of Watling Street – or its modern equivalent, the A2 – through Dartford, Rochester and Faversham (note in this context that Rochester is mentioned in the Monk’s prologue, Sittingbourne in the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and Boughton-under-Blean, which is near Faversham, in the Canon Yeoman’s prologue, in “The Canterbury Tales”). Further research from this time suggests that the journey along this – sixty-mile or so – route would probably have taken four days, with overnight stops at each of the three aforementioned towns (where suitable accommodation was available). I follow in the pilgrims’ tracks …
City of London
Thomas Becket was born on Cheapside in the City of London in circa 1120, the son of Gilbert, a merchant of Norman ancestry, and Matilda. He was educated at Merton Priory, and later at one of the grammar schools in London, possibly St Paul’s, before entering the church, and eventually rising to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162.
There is a chapel dedicated to him inside the Mercers’ Livery Company Hall at the corner of Cheapside and Ironmonger Lane.
“Old” London Bridge was rebuilt, by Peter, chaplain of St Mary Colechurch, in 1176-1209, and stood until 1831 (an alcove still survives in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital).
There were scores of buildings on it then, including a chapel dedicated to St Thomas (depicted in a stained glass window in the church of St Magus the Martyr).
Southwark 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. 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 London Bridge that formed a natural firebreak. However, it suffered its own Great Fire in 1676.
Historically, Southwark was a so-called “liberty”, free of many of the regulations governing life in the City across the river. Over time it became one of the poor places in which it, the rich City, attempted to locate – and forget – some of its more “undesirable” buildings (including prisons such as the Clink, King’s Bench, Marshalsea and White Lion), industries (including tanning) and activities (including – in the numerous “stews” – prostitution, animal-baiting, and the performance of stage plays, all of which attracted large and unruly crowds).
What is now Southwark Cathedral was originally founded 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. Being over the “rie” or river, the church was undamaged in the Great Fire, and also survived the bombing of the Blitz. 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 buried in around 1275, and the tomb of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who was responsible for the translation of the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible.
What was St Mary’s re-established its public infirmary as St Thomas’s Hospital in the early thirteenth century (the hospital later relocated to Lambeth).
On nearby Clink Street are the remains of Winchester Palace (and also the site of the Clink Prison). The palace was originally built in the twelfth century by King Stephen’s brother Henry de Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (at this time, Southwark was in the Diocese of Winchester). It was subsequently rebuilt in the late thirteenth to fourteenth century, and remained in use until the time of the Civil War in the seventeenth, when it was portioned off. It was substantially destroyed by a fire in the nineteenth century, with only parts of the Great Hall surviving to this day. The Great Hall dates to the twelfth century, circa 1144; the “Rose Window” to the fourteenth (and possibly to the Bishopric of William of Wykeham, circa 1367-98).
Borough High Street
Borough was first recorded as “Southwarke borrow” in 1559, taking its name from the Old English “burh”. 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 in the thirteenth century.
Famously, there were some fifty inns and other drinking establishments on and around Borough High Street at the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, including the “Tabard” and “White Hart”, which were known to and written about by Chaucer and Shakespeare. They all survived that fire, although many were burnt 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.
Just off Borough High Street, at the corner of Union Street and Redcross Way, is the unconsecrated burial ground known as the “Crossbones Graveyard”. Here from Medieval times were interred the “Outcast Dead”, including the “Winchester Geese”, which is to say women who worked as prostitutes in brothels or “stews” licensed by the Bishops of Winchester. An “Ordinance for the Governance of the Stews” was issued by King Henry II in 1161.
The church of St George the Martyr, at the corner of Borough High Street and Tabard Street, was originally built in the twelfth century, and 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.
Old Kent Road
The “Thomas a Becket” public house on the Old Kent Road stands on the site of the “St Thomas a Watering”, alluded to as follows in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”:
“And forth we rode a little more than pace
Unto the watering of St Thomas … ”
A little further east is the former North Peckham Civic Centre, featuring a fine mosaic mural by Adam Kossowski depicting, among other things, that very scene.
Deptford was first recorded as “Depeford” in 1293, taking name from the Old English “deop”, meaning deep, and “ford” (across the Ravensbourne). The church of St Nicholas was originally built at least as long ago as the twelfth century, and subsequently rebuilt in the fourteenth, and again in the late seventeenth, in 1697, only to be badly damaged during the Blitz. The fourteenth-century tower still stands. Christopher Marlowe is buried in the churchyard.
Extraordinarily, in the Middle Ages, no fewer than three rebel armies gathered on the high windswept at the top of Blackheath Hill preparatory to marching on London: the first under Wat Tyler during the “Peasants’ Revolt”, in 1381; the second under Jack Cade, in 1450; and the third under Michael Joseph and Thomas Flamank during the “Cornish Revolt”, in 1497.
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 …
… and of the open countryside of Kent to the east.