Tag Archives: Richard III

The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Seven

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.

What Is The Origin Of (241)?…

In Dicky’s meadow

I was born in Lancashire and I still have some slight vestiges of that distinctive accent in my everyday speech, principally the flat a in words such as grass and bath which mark out the northerner from those from the south. I also retain some Lancastrian phrases like in Dicky’s meadow, fortunately one that I have not had to utter too often.

The Day to Day in Liverpool column in the city’s Daily Post and Mercury of March 20, 1916 gives us a charmingly succinct explanation of the phrases meaning; “No, that would land us in Dicky’s meadow. What does that expression mean? was the natural query. The clerk’s interpretation was that the saying implied a state of difficulty or trouble. He learned it in his boyhood, but he knew nothing it as to its origin”.

The column took pains to point out that the clerk was born and educated in mid-Lancashire as opposed to Liverpool and so it can be assumed that the phrase was unknown to or at least rarely used by Liverpudlians. It also reveals that Liverpool has never really considered itself to be part of Lancashire and most Lancastrians are happy for that to remain so.

That it was a phrase originating in Lancashire is confirmed by a quaint article found in The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express of December 27, 1890, entitled Sum Lankisher Sayins. It is written in Lancashire dialect or, at least, a phonetic representation of it. The piece about Dicky’s meadow begins; “It’s a quare shop to find yo’rsels in, is Dicky’s meadow, becos ther isn’d th’ ghost ov a chance on yo’ geddin eawt ageean when wonst yo’ve getten in”. The nightmare for all good working folk of the time was to get in such financial straits, either because of lack of work or sickness, often the two went hand-in-hand, that they ended up in the workhouse. Dicky’s meadow was a more pleasing synonym for that grim place.

But who was Dicky?

There is a temptation in etymological searches to assume that a phrase bearing a name alludes to an actual character. Dicky’s meadow is one such case. One theory goes that the Dicky is Richard, Duke of York, who was killed in one of the major battles of the War of the Roses, the Battle of Wakefield, on December 30, 1460. His demise shows that the Duke was really in a difficult situation and historians conclude that he was ill-advised to engage with troops loyal to Henry VI on that field at Sandal Magna.

But there a couple of reasons why this derivation is unlikely. The first is that there is such a long passage of time between the battle and the phrase emerging in mid-nineteenth century Lancashire that it smacks of convenient retro-fitting. And Wakefield is in Yorkshire. The rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire is legendary, easily surpassing that between Liverpool and the rest of Lancashire. Why would Lancastrians reference a place in Yorkshire, although you can see the attraction from a pejorative perspective? They may just as easily have referenced the car park attendant, Richard III, who came to a sticky end in the fields of Bosworth in 1485.

There may be a more prosaic explanation at hand. In the early nineteenth century dicky or in its alternative form dickey was an adjective used to describe something that was uncertain, hazardous, or critical. Interestingly, the Preston Herald of June 23, 1866 reports that a crowd of workers, protesting at the importation of labourers from the south, shouted, “We’ll see ‘em in Dickey meadow first”. Whilst it may be a misprint the use of Dickey as an adjective rather than the genitive of a person’s name may suggest that it isn’t necessary to consider identifying a real person. Dickey was indicating that it was simply a terrible position to be in.

There is a more widely used phrase to indicate being in dire straits, queer street. The Burnley Express on October 23, 1920 joined the two; “we shall never be anywhere else nor I’Queer-street or Dicky’s meadow under t’present system”. The inevitable conclusion is that Dicky’s meadow is the Lancastrian version of Queer Street.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Seven

Herbal Hill, EC1

We have seen that many of London’s streets are named after pubs that one stood there or a trade or industry or activity that once flourished in the area. If you walk down Clerkenwell in an easterly direction, then just before the junction with Farringdon Road, on the left-hand side you will find Herbal Hill. This street was previously known as Little Saffron Hill, only gaining its current name in the late 1930s.

Hard as it is to believe today when all around consists of brick, concrete and tarmac, but this area was once the one of the most fertile in the City with gardens and vineyards aplenty. As what might be termed a scientific approach to medicine was fairly rudimentary, much faith was placed on the homeopathic qualities of plants and spices. Rather in the way that we reach for an aspirin or some paracetamol when we feel under the weather, so half a millennium or so ago people would turn to herbal medicine to sooth away aches and pains. It was only in extremis that a doctor was summoned, partly because of cost and partly because there was little faith, and rightly so, that the doctor knew what he was doing.

Whole gardens or parts of gardens were given over to the cultivation of herbs to supply the herbalists or for home use and in the 16th century there was an established garden in what is now Herbal Hill. Who owned it is not certain. There was a nunnery, St Mary’s, to the east of Farringdon Road and so it is unlikely that their land stretched to our road. The next pretender is the Bishop of Ely who was reputed to have a fine garden and a flourishing strawberry patch. The latter gets a name check in Shakespeare’s Richard III; “My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn I saw good strawberries in your garden there.” Records suggest, though, that Herbal Hill was outside of the Bishop’s garden.

The likely horticulturist whose work is celebrated in our street’s name is John Gerard who moved from Cheshire to take up a position as the head gardener to William Cecil in 1577. He tended two gardens – one in the Strand and the other at Theobalds to the north of the Bishop of Ely’s gaff. Gerard lived somewhere between the two. He was a great experimenter and became famous for the range and variety of his plants and his ability to propagate unusual species successfully. In 1597 he wrote a book entitled Herball or Generall Historie of Plants which is reputed to be the first catalogue of all the plants to be found in a garden, although some say that it was a translation of a Flemish guide.

It is true that there are passages where Gerard compares and contrasts the fortunes of his horticultural endeavours with those of the Flemish. The following is an example “my selfe did plant some shoots thereof in my garden, and some in Flanders did the like, but the coldness of our clymat made an end of mine, and I think the Flemish will have the like profit of their labour.” Rather like dear old Monty Don, not everything he turned his hand to flourished. But it is hard to see that this is a mere translation. Whatever the truth is, Gerard’s expertise was recognised by Anne of Denmark in 1602, giving him two acres of land to rent where King’s College stands and his horticultural endeavours have borne fruit in the name of our street.

A Thing Devised By The Enemy

Campaign for Richard III’s reburial in York heard by high court

History, they say, is written by the winners and if you want proof positive of this truism you need look no further than the treatment meted out to poor old Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings who met his untimely end on the battle field of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. The Tudors, who established their dynasty following the battle, had no less a propagandist than William Shakespeare who put it about that Dicky was a deformed hunchback and that is our image of the unfortunate monarch.

Until a couple of years ago the whereabouts of Richard’s body was unknown. However, excavations at a municipal car park in Leicester led to the discovery of a pile of bones. Using state of the art technology scientists have established beyond reasonable doubt that the holder of a long-term municipal parking season ticket was none other than the last of the Plantagenets. There has, subsequently, been a battle royal fought out in the courts – grim-visaged war, you might say – as to where the bones should be reinterred but that sorry saga should not detain us.

What is more interesting is that the identification of the bones has enabled scientists to run tests to establish the precise extent, if any, of the king’s deformities. The results have just been published in the medical journal, the Lancet, and fascinating reading they make too.

The conclusion is that the monarch’s disfigurement was minimal to the observer. The presence of a sideways curvature of the spine which is described by the medicos as well-balanced meant that his head and neck would have been straight, not tilted to one side. His torso was unquestionably short and out of proportion to the length of his arms and legs and his right shoulder would have appeared higher than his left. The researchers opine that a good tailor or armourer – and we must assume that as the monarch of the realm Dicky had access to these – would have made light work of these physical imperfections such that they would appear non-existent to most onlookers. His leg bones were symmetric and well-formed suggesting that there would have been no trace of a limp and the effect of scoliosis which Richard contracted as an adolescent would not have impaired his ability to exercise. Without the scoliosis the researchers calculate that Richard would have been of average height for a man at the time – about 5 foot 8 inches – but the consequences of his affliction would have made him seem shorter.

So the image of Crookback Dick seems to have been a work of fiction put about by his enemies to traduce his reputation and to enhance the wholesome image of the Tudors. Glad we have straightened that one out!

Tales From The Nursery – Part Five


One of the favourite nursery rhymes of all times is Humpty Dumpty which, as I’m sure you don’t need reminding, goes like this, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall./ All the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again”. The quatrain is another example of the trochaic metre which is commonly used in nursery rhymes because it is easy to remember.

Humpty Dumpty was characterised by Lewis Carroll in his book, Alice Through The Looking Glass, as an anthropomorphic egg and this is the image most of us have of the character. Eggs, of course, are fragile things and it is easy to associate the fate that befell Humpty with what can happen to an egg. But Carroll was not the inventor of the rhyme. It was first published in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements of 1797 but its antecedents almost certainly go back earlier than that.

And who was Humpty Dumpty?

As usual there is no definitive answer but there are a number of suspects. First up is Charles I who, of course, lost his head at the hands of the Parliamentarians, despite the best efforts of his supporters, the cavaliers. Another suspect is Richard III who ended up under a car park in Leicester after being killed at the battle of Bosworth, again despite the best efforts of his supporters.

But Humpty Dumpty was a sobriquet given to fat or large people as far back as the 15th century and there is no conclusive evidence that either Richard III who was famous for his hunchback or Charles I were porkers.

The theory I like best owes its origins to the English Civil War. Cannons were used with greater frequency during the campaign and were cumbersome, requiring several people to move them.  Colchester, a major town in Essex, was protected by a city wall at the time and came under siege from the Parliamentarians in 1648. A large cannon was stationed on the roof of St Mary’s By The Wall and the gunner named One-Eyed Jack Thompson – would love to know how he got his nickname. So effective was our Royalist Cyclops and so much damage did he cause to Lord Fairfax’s troops that he and his cannon were singled out for special treatment. Some time on the 14th or 15th July 1648 Thompson and his gun came tumbling down and the damaged cannon couldn’t be hauled back into place. On August 28th 1648 the Royalists laid down their arms and surrendered to the Parliamentarians.

Sounds plausible and makes for a great story.