Ely Place, EC1
On the map Holborn Circus looks like a circle from which five roads radiate out. At the north-eastern point lies Charterhouse Street and on its northern side is to be found Ely Place, a road which, in truth, leads nowhere. Its other curiosity is that whilst undeniably right in the heart of London physically, administratively for centuries it was outwith the City of London’s jurisdiction and even today has its own gatehouse and beadles.
The reason for its peculiar status was that it was the London residence of the Bishop of Ely. In 1290, when the then Bishop, John de Kirkeby, left this earth to meet his maker, he bequeathed to his successors a plot of land and nine cottages in Holborn upon which to build a residence “suitable to their rank”. His immediate successor built a chapel to St Ethelreda who founded the first religious house in Ely in the 7th century and to whom Ely Cathedral was dedicated. It still stands, remarkably surviving the Great Fire of 1666 although it was badly damaged in the air raids of the Second World War, one of London’s few surviving buildings from the reign of Edward I.
John de Hotham, Bishop of Ely during the reign of Edward III, added a vineyard, kitchen-garden, orchard and generally finished off the Palace such that it was described by the 16th century antiquarian, William Camden, as “well beseeming for bishops to live in”. Arundel, later to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, erected a large and handsome “gate-house or front” looking towards Holborn. It still stood when John Stow compiled his Survey of London in 1598. In its heyday Ely Place was one of the most magnificent of London’s mansions.
Ely Place was a liberty which meant that it was exempt from local taxation and came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Ely. It was also a Sanctuary which meant that “persons pursued by law for certain offences could not be arrested by civil authorities”. Although the Bishop of Ely no longer lives in the area, an Act of Parliament, passed in 1842, established a group of commissioners whose responsibility was to maintain Ely Place and take responsibility for security there. It is still a private street today with beadles controlling egress who goes in and out and signs warn that you must obey the rules of the Commissioners of Ely Place.
But the street has changed immeasurably since the glory days of the Bishop of Ely’s Palace. Its gardens were renowned, particularly for their strawberries, the Duke of Gloucester commenting to the Bishop of Ely in Shakespeare’s Richard III, “when I was last in Holborn,/ I saw good strawberries in your garden there/ I do beseech you send for some of them”. Continuing a Shakespearean theme, John of Gaunt lived at Ely Place, after his Savoy palace on the Strand was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, until his death in 1399.
By 1772 the Bishop’s Palace was in such a ruinous state that the only thing was to knock it down, which the Crown did when they bought the land from the Diocese that year. The townhouses that can be seen on either side of the street date from that era. Also dating from that era is Ye Old Mitre, now a Fuller’s pub, on the corner of Ely Place and Ely Court, although the original pub was built on the orders of Thomas Goodrich, Bishop of Ely, in 1546. As befits the quirky status of the street, alcohol licences were granted by Cambridge authorities until well into the 1960s.
London can be a quirky, disorientating place at times.