A ruff guide to NW5
Borough archivist Tudor Allen on Camden in Elizabethan times
07 April, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
16th-century houses in Grays Inn Lane
THE reasons behind the royal visit are lost in the mists of time – but one stand-out fact remains from the day Queen Elizabeth I left London to travel to the small countryside village of Kentish Town.
As Camden’s borough archivist Tudor Allen will reveal in a talk about life in Elizabethan times in our patch, Queen Bess came to what is now NW5 on three occasions – and the villagers were treated to rounds of free drinks to celebrate.
It is just one of many tantalising snippets of life 400 years ago Mr Allen has hewn from his archives.
The talk is part of the “City Read” campaign, a project to promote literature and reading. Running throughout April, one aspect of the drive is to stimulate interest in what is essentially a Londonwide book group. This year the book chosen is Prophecy by SJ Parris, which is set in Elizabethan times – and this has prompted Mr Allen to give a lecture on Camden during the reign.
Elizabeth was on the throne between 1558 and 1603, and the archivist has plenty of primary and secondary materials to draw on at his Theobalds Road headquarters.
“Primary sources include documents that show land ownership details, written on parchment and animal skin, and often in Latin,” he says.
And while the northern neighbourhoods of Camden were firmly outside London, many of the streets we know today were already laid out.
Kentish Town Chapel on what is now the Owl Bookshop
“Holborn was already quite built-up by then,” he says. “London was already fairly big, and Holborn was a suburb and had an entrance to the city.”
And the streets still hold vital clues to our past, if you know where to look, he explains. Mr Allen describes, for example, how when you come out of Chancery Lane tube station, you can still see the posts that denoted the entrance into London proper.
“There were literally barriers there with posts and chains blocking routes and you’d have to pay to come in,” he adds.
“They were called Holborn Bars and they were manned by guards to stop lepers or vagabonds entering.”
Holborn was already the centre for the legal profession, with Inns of Court well established – law schools and lawyers’ offices had been there since the 14th century.
Nearby, land was predominantly owned by rich aristocrats, says Mr Allen.
“Much of Bloomsbury was in the possession of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. He had a town house in Bloomsbury and is the peer who William Shakespeare wrote over 100 sonnets for,” he says.
And Holborn’s wealth was underlined by the fact it had the London palace for the Bishop of Ely. But Ely’s holdings fell foul of Elizabeth’s friendship with a favourite, Christopher Hatton – whose name gives us the Hatton Garden neighbourhood.
“In 1576, Elizabeth made Hatton Lord Chancellor and she took land from the Bishop of Ely to give him,” says Mr Allen. “Hatton had extensive, manicured gardens which the Queen would visit and walk with him through. They met and danced the maypole around a cherry tree”.
A tantalising link to this day still survives – the tree trunk can still be found in the interior of The Mitre pub, by Hatton Garden and Ely Place.
Heading north from the city’s sprawl, what now counts as the borough was dotted with villages, settlements and hamlets.
While Camden Town had yet to be built, Kentish Town, Kilburn, Hampstead and Highgate were well-established hamlets.
Kentish Town had a parish church on what is now the site of the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town Road. “The little chapel there was the centre of village life,” says Mr Allen.
And work in the neighbourhood would have included plenty of land labouring.
“Many were employed in the fields,” he says. “It was countryside, so there were crops, hay and cows to milked. There were inns and pubs, which provided further work as well as places to relax after a hard day farming.”
Other evidence reveals that Elizabeth also trod the roads of Highgate.
“Highgate, which had large homes owned by the wealthy, was also visited by Elizabeth,” says Mr Allen.
An estate was owned by Highgate school founder Roger Cholmeley, there was a hermitage on the site of the school’s current chapel, and an important toll gate where The Gatehouse pub now stands.
Across the hills to Hampstead, where Whitestone Pond is now sited, was a beacon, lit to warn of the coming of the Spanish Armada.
Christopher Hatton raised a guard of 100 people from his land to fight the Spanish – and Gray’s Inn Hall at South Square, Chancery Lane, has a window screen made from the wood of a captured Spanish ship .
But it wasn’t, of course, a bucolic idyll. Camden had its fair share of grisly happenings during the period.
Members of the Babington Plot, a plan hatched by Anthony Babington and others from his home in St Giles-in-the-Fields to assassinate the Queen and replace her with her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. The plotters were discovered and later would be taken back to the neighbourhood to be executed, using the time-honoured tradition of the convicts being hanged, drawn and quartered.
“And there were other bloody moments relating to the atmosphere of religious persecution,” adds Mr Allen. “We have evidence that a house on what is now Gray’s Inn Road was raided by authorities where they had been tipped off mass was being administered. It was owned by a man called Swithin Wells, a schoolmaster, and as armed men burst in they caught a Jesuit, Edmund Gennings, leading a Catholic service.”
A few weeks later, Wells and the Jesuit were executed outside the house as a bloody warning to all.
• Elizabethan Camden – an illustrated historical talk with Tudor Allen is on Tuesday, April 11, at 7.15pm, Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, Holborn Library, 32-38 Theobalds Road, WC1X. Visit www.camden.gov.uk/ or call 020 7974 4444.