The Eleanor Crosses: King Edward I’s 12 stone statues showing love and grief for his wife

By , June 25, 2009 1:06 am

When his wife, Eleanor of Castile, died Edward I spoke of her as the woman, “whom living we dearly cherished, and whom dead we cannot cease to love”.

Edward commissioned 12 large and elaborate stone crosses to stand in each of the places at which her funeral procession rested overnight, on the journey from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey in London.

This article is about Edward, Eleanor, and the 12 Eleanor Crosses  – some of which, remarkably, are still in existence well over 700 years later.

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Eleanor’s early life

Statue of Eleanor of Castile, from the Northampton Eleanor Cross

Statue of Eleanor of Castile, from the Northampton Eleanor Cross

Eleanor of Castile was born the daughter of Ferdinand King of Castile and his second wife, Jeanne.

She was their second child, and was born in 1241 (the exact date isn’t known, but probably at the end of the year).

Eleanor married Edward I, future King of England, in Burgos on 1st November 1254; Burgos is in the north of Spain. At the time of the marriage, Eleanor was either 13 years old, or coming up to 13 shortly.
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Edward I’s early life

Edward I, often nicknamed “Hammer of the Scots” or Scottorum Malleus was also known as “Edward Longshanks”.  He was unusually tall for medieval times, and is thought to have been about 6 foot 2 inches tall.

A few centuries after he died, someone dug him up and measured the bones. Nice.

King Edward I

King Edward I

Edward was born on 17th June 1239, son and heir of King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence.

Edward and Eleanor’s marriage was entirely political and arranged by their parents. The young couple had no say in it whatsoever.

Following his father’s death, Edward became King of England and Eleanor, Queen, on 16th November 1272.

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Edward and Eleanor’s marriage and children

Although an arranged marriage, the couple appeared to have grown very close. They had either 15 or 16 children.

Their first daughter was stillborn, the second, Katherine, died as a baby, as did the third, Joan. John died at the age of 5, their next son Henry died at the age of 6.

Their sixth child, Eleanor lived until the age of 29, but their next unnamed daughter died at the age of a few months.

Their eighth child, Joan of Acre, lived to adulthood, and had eight children in total. Their next child, Alphonso, died at the age of 10. Their tenth child Margaret lived to adulthood, and had a son, but their next four children, daughters Berengaraia, an unnamed daughter, Mary and an unnamed son all died as babies or infants.

Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile

Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile

Their fifteen child, Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, lived to adulthood and had ten children, and their sixteenth and last child, Edward of Caernarvon, lived to succeed his father and become King Edward II.

The couple appeared to have been happy together. Unlike medieval kings, Edward I had no known mistresses or bastard children.

Eleanor also travelled with him on his military activities. For example, she gave birth to their final son and eventual heir, Edward, in a tent where Caernarvon Castle was being built to subdue the west in 1284.

The Catholic Church in medieval times officially forbade all sexual relations even between husband and wife during Lent.

It can been seen from the household accounts kept by the royal household and which survive that each year on Easter Monday Eleanor’s Ladies in Waiting pretended to hold hostage in his own bed in his own room until he paid them a ransom so that he could visit his wife’s bedroom for the first time since before Lent.
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What is known about Eleanor of Castile

King Edward II, son of Edward I and Eleanor of CastileAs is common, not a huge amount is known about Eleanor. Even queens in medieval times were still just women and therefore not terribly important. What evidence survives does show, however, that she was well educated and intelligent.

Eleanor employed several scribes and an illuminator, or illustrator, paid for from her household accounts, to find and copy books for her to read (in the time before printing, books were extremely expensive, as they could only be produced by somebody copying the entire thing by hand).

She also commissioned works to be written for her, including Saints’ lives and romances. She entered into correspondence with abbots and professors at Oxford regarding matters as diverse as the theories in relation to angels, treaties on chess, and monastic orders.
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The death of Queen Eleanor

In autumn 1290, Edward and Eleanor were told that Margaret, heir to the Scottish throne, had died. Edward and Eleanor were in Nottinghamshire, as a parliament had just been held there. Edward and Eleanor left Clipstone, where the parliament had been held, and went towards Lincoln.

When they reached the Valley of Harby in Nottinghamshire, about 8 miles from the city of Lincoln, the Queen’s existing illness became worse. She died in Harby on 28th November 1290, aged about 49 years old. Edward was at her bedside as she died.

After she died, Eleanor of Castile’s body was taken to the Gilbertine Priory of St Catherine, Lincoln.

The Gilbertine Order was an unusual one in that it was the only monastic order to be founded in England. The order therefore ceased to exist at the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Gilbertine priories were also unusual in that they featured monks and nuns living in the same establishment. The common layout for Gilbertine priories was to have nuns’ quarters in the north of the precinct, monks in the south, and a church, refectory and other common buildings in between.

The Priory of St Catherine where Eleanor was taken is described as being in Lincoln, but that is only true for the site today. At the time when Eleanor of Castile’s body was taken there, the Priory was south of Lincoln proper, and outside the city walls. It therefore had substantial walls to protect it.
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Eleanor’s burials, and burial procession

Eleanor of Castile’s body was embalmed and dissected at the Priory of St Catherine. Rather revoltingly, to modern eyes, different bits of her body were buried in different places, her viscera, namely her stomach and bowels or guts, were buried in Lincoln at the Visceral Tomb in the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral.

The rest of her body was then sent to London. The procession took twelve days to reach Westminster Abbey, where most of her would be buried, and the Eleanor Crosses were built to mark the places where her funeral cortege rested overnight.

On reaching London, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, apart from her heart which was buried in the Dominican monastery at Blackfriars.

The Visceral Tomb in Lincoln Cathedral survives, although the effigy of Eleanor of Castile which was on top of the Tomb was destroyed in the 17th century during the time when puritans got very upset about such idolatry (as they saw it).

Westminster Abbey, where most of Eleanor of Castile's body was buried

Westminster Abbey, where most of Eleanor of Castile's body was buried

The procession of Eleanor’s body to London was a grand one. King Edward I accompanied the procession the whole way.

Eleanor’s body was temporarily placed in a general tomb near the high alter in Westminster Abbey which had contained the body of father-in-law King Henry III until his remains were removed to his finally completed grand tomb earlier in 1290.

After Eleanor’s tomb was built, her body was moved from the grave to her own tomb. That tomb still survives, although has been damaged a little over the years.
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Edward I’s 12 Eleanor crosses

The twelve Crosses erected by Edward I were probably designed not only to show his love and respect for his wife but to encourage people to pray for her soul. Twelve Crosses were originally built, but only three of them remain more or less intact, although bits of others can still be found.

Each of the Crosses were slightly different in style. Each had a plinth of steps at the bottom, and was built in three stages further up. At the bottom, the column was adorned with Eleanor’s heraldic symbols, and the Coat of Arms representing Castile, England and Ponthieu. Higher up, statues of the Queen were around the column, and the third part continued the column upwards became thinner, and was surmounted by a cross.

The Lincoln Eleanor Cross

The first Cross was built just outside the walls of the Gilbertine St Catherine’s Priory south of Lincoln. The Priory was destroyed following the dissolution of the monasteries, and a small piece of the Cross is all that survives. It is now in Lincoln Castle.

The Grantham Eleanor Cross

The next Cross was built at Grantham, a market town south of Lincoln but still in the county of Lincolnshire. That Cross has disappeared entirely, no remnants remain. The Cross at Grantham was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the 17th century.

The Stamford Eleanor Cross

The next overnight resting place, and therefore the next Eleanor Cross was in Stamford, also in Lincolnshire. A small piece of that Cross survives, which is a stone carved rose. The rose is in the museum in Stamford.

Recently, a thirty feet high statue made of bronze and stone has been put up in Sheepmarket, Stamford, but it is not intended as an exact replica of the original Eleanor Cross, is not in the same place, and is supposed to recall and inspire rather than replicate the original Eleanor Cross.

The Cross in Stamford was, as in Grantham, destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces.

The Geddington Eleanor Cross

Plans and sketches of the Eleanor Cross at Geddington

Plans and sketches of the Eleanor Cross at Geddington

The next Eleanor Cross is at Geddington, which is in the north-east of Northamptonshire.

The Eleanor Cross at Geddington survives, and is probably the best preserved of all of them, and still stands in the original location where it was built in 1293.

The Cross is, like all the Eleanor Crosses were, mounted on hexagonal staircases, and then features a long slim column, narrowing towards the top, with statues around it.

The Geddington Cross was different from the other 11, in that the cross was more triangular in shape than the others.

It is preserved and looked after by English Heritage, and their page on the Eleanor Cross at Geddington can be found here.

The Geddington Cross has three statues of Eleanor halfway up the column. The Cross originally mounted at the top of the Geddington statue has not survived.

The Hardingstone, Northampton Eleanor Cross

Drawings of the Eleanor Cross at Hardingstone, Northampton

Drawings of the Eleanor Cross at Hardingstone, Northampton

The next Cross was erected at Hardingstone in Northamptonshire. This Cross is octagonal, and sites on a plinth of steps which are replacements.

It is different in both shape and style to the Geddington Cross, but has similar features in the statues of Eleanor in the second part and the narrowing part at the top.

At the bottom of the Eleanor Cross in Hardingstone are carved stone books, which were originally painted with prayers for Eleanor’s soul to be said by those who read them.

The Stony Stratford Eleanor Cross

The next Cross is at Stony Stratford. This parish is now part of Milton Keynes, and is in Buckinghamshire, near the border with Northamptonshire. The Cross appears to have been of a similar to design to that at Geddington, and was destroyed by Cromwell’s armies in the Civil War in the 17th century.

The Woburn and Dunstable Eleanor Crosses

The next Cross was at Woburn in Bedfordshire. There are no surviving remnants of the statue and it’s not known precisely where in the town it stood.

The next Cross was erected at Dunstable in Bedfordshire. The Dunstable Cross no longer exists.

The St. Albans Eleanor Cross

The Waltham Eleanor Cross in the early 1920s

The Waltham Eleanor Cross in the early 1920s

The next one is at St Albans in Hertfordshire. It was in front of the Clock Tower, which is 15th century, in the high street, opposite  one of the entrances to St Albans Abbey.

This cross was demolished in the 1720s and replaced by a town pump, as it was in poor repair.

The Waltham Cross Eleanor Cross

You’ll never guess where this town got the second part of its name from…  This cross is in pretty good repair, and still standing in its original location.

The statues were removed to a local museum in the 1980s to protect them from pollution.

The Westcheap / Cheapside Eleanor Cross

The Westcheap / Cheapside Eleanor Cross shown in a 1630 drawing

The Westcheap / Cheapside Eleanor Cross shown in a 1630 drawing

The last but one Cross was in Westcheap, now known as Cheapside. This was demolished under orders from the puritan parliament in 1643.

There are several drawings and pictures of it as well as fragments of the remains in the Museum of London, so what it looks like is still known.

The Charing Cross Eleanor Cross

The last Cross was built at Charing, now called Charing Cross and a major railway terminus in London.

The statue was originally not where the railway station is today, but nearby on the south side of Trafalgar Square. At the time, this site was part of the Royal Mews attached to Westminster Palace.

Distances in London and from London to other places in the United Kingdom are measured from this point in Trafalgar square according to statutory interpretation.

The current Eleanor Cross which can be seen in the foreground of the Charing Cross Station forecourt is a replica.

The original was the most expensive, largest, and grandest of the Eleanor statues and was built from marble, rather than cheaper stone.

The replacement Eleanor Cross is 70 feet high, and was built by the South Eastern Railway Company when they built the station and the hotel above it. There are many drawings of the original and fragments and those drawings are in the Museum of London.

The Eleanor Cross at Charing, in the late 19th century

The Eleanor Cross at Charing, in the late 19th century


Rudyard Kipling: how the great writer’s son Jack died in the WWI trenches

By , June 22, 2009 5:29 am

Rudyard Kipling was one of the great Victorian and Edwardian writers. With a fluent voice, keen social eye and gift for story-telling, generations have enjoyed his Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Kim, and poems such as If, Tommy, Mandalay and Gunga Din.

His career soared high, and he became the first English-speaker to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907, and the youngest person yet to be awarded it.

He was offered both a Knighthood and the post of Poet Laureate, and turned both down.

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

And then came the horrors of the First World War, the trenches, the vast numbers of casualties, the slaughter of a generation of young men in the new era of machine guns, shells, poison gas and grenades.

And among the dead of the War was Kipling’s only son, Jack, killed in the Battle of Loos at the age of 18.

This article is about Rudyard Kipling’s life, and about “My Son Jack”, the teenager who wasn’t fit for military service, but nevertheless died young in the trenches of the First World War. At the end of the article, you will find links to free versions of Kipling’s work online and for Kindle.

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Kipling’s early life

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India, in 1865, and lived there until he was 6 years old. As a young child, his Hindi was more fluent than his English, and the influence of India on his life and writings is very clear.

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

At the age of 6, Rudyard and his sister were sent to live in England, while their parents remained in India. He went to school in England.

At the age of 16, Kipling returned by ship to Bombay, and travelled by train to Lahore (now in Pakistan) where his parents had moved to. The importance of his return to the city of his birth is made clear by his later statement,

There were yet three or four days’ rail to Lahore, where my people lived. After these, my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.

Kipling worked in Lahore, and then Allahabad, from 1882 until 1889, when he returned to London.

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Kipling’s marriage and family

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

In 1892, Kipling, then 26, married Carrie Balestier, who was 3 years his elder.

They moved to Vermont, in the United States of America, and lived there for 4 years, before returning to England to live in Devon.

The couple had 3 children, Josephine, born in 1892, Elsie, born in 1896, and John (known as Jack) born in 1897.

Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899, aged 6.

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Kipling’s Writing – a very brief summary

Kipling wrote for children and adults, and composed a huge variety of prose, poetry, and non-fiction history and literary analysis. Among his best-known works are:

For children:

  • The Just So Stories
  • The Jungle Book

Fiction:

  • Kim
  • Stalkey & Co

Poems:

  • Tommy
  • My Boy Jack
  • The White Man’s Burden
  • If-
  • Mandalay
  • Gunga Din
  • The Female of the Species
  • The Last of the Light Brigade
  • For All We Have and Are

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Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Jack Kipling seems to have been an amiable, sociable, like-able boy, but not to have taken after his father in intellectual or cultural terms. He had to have a lot of coaching in order to pass the entrance exams for secondary school.

At the age of 14, Jack hadn’t read any of his father’s work himself, although books such as the Just So Stories had been written for, and read to, Kipling’s children.

It wasn’t teenage rebellion, though. Father and son had a very close relationship, and the letters which survive between them show a real affection and closeness.

There are quite a lot of letters, as Jack (typically for boys from his type of family at the time) was at boarding school, and therefore away from his parents a lot of the time.

Kipling’s best known poem, If- was written for Jack when the boy was about 12 years old, to instruct him in what being a man was all about.

Jack suffered from very poor eye-sight, and had to wear very thick glasses to be able to see anything at all.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Jack (then only aged 17) was desperate to join up and “thrash the Hun”. But when he tried to volunteer, he was turned down because of his poor vision.

His eye-sight was terrible; he couldn’t even read the second line on a standard optician’s chart without glasses.

He turned to his father for help, and Rudyard Kipling pulled strings among his military friends. Jack was enlisted as a trainee officer, still under age. Officers were supposed to be at least 18 years old, in order legally to join up.

He trained as a Subaltern in the Irish Guards, and on completion of his preliminary training, was then posted to France. Just after his arrival, he wrote to his father:

Dear F -
Just a hurried line as we start off tonight. The front line trenches are nine miles off from here so it won’t be a very long march. This is THE great effort to break through & end the war.


The guns have been going deafeningly all day, without a single stop. We have to push through at all costs so we won’t have much time in the trenches, which is great luck.


Funny to think one will be in the thick of it tomorrow.


One’s first experience of shell fire not in the trenches but in the open.  This is one of the advantages of a Flying Division, you have to keep moving.  We marched 18 miles last night in the pouring wet.  It came down in sheets steadily.  They are staking a tremendous lot on this great advancing movement as if it succeeds the war won’t go on for long.  You have no idea what enormous issues depend on the next few days.


This will be my last letter most likely for some time as we won’t get any time for writing this next week, but I will try & send Field post cards.

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The Battle of Loos

This was the eve of the Battle of Loos. The Battle was fought over 3 days in September 1915, and represented a victory for the Allied Forces – but one bought at a terrible cost, and paid for in blood. The British Army suffered 50,000 casualties. Jack’s regiment of the Irish Guards suffered particularly badly, with an 80% casualty rate from just this one short battle.

And the victory didn’t last, either, as a few weeks later the Germans counter-attacked and drove the British Army back to where they had started.

Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, died at Loos.

And so did John Kipling. The letter above was his last, as he was killed on the third day, 27th September 1915.

Accounts of how he died varied; Rudyard Kipling spend years investigating after the war, and interviewed hundreds of other soldiers. He was either shot by a machine gun, or had the side of his head blown away by a shell. Either way, he was dead, and his body was never definitely recovered. He had just turned 18 at the time of his death.

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Rudyard Kipling’s guilt

Had it not been for his intervention, Kipling’s son Jack would not have been in the trenches in the first place. And Kipling knew it, writing in a poem after the end of the First World War, ”

If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied

He wrote a much-admired two-volume history of the Irish Guards, his son’s regiments; he also wrote the almost unbearably poignant poem, My Boy Jack. The final verse of this poem:

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!


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Kipling’s work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Kipling became an influential member of the Commission (then called the Imperial War Graves Commission, later renamed), which established the standard gravestone of Portland stone, seen all over northern France and Belgium.

He was particularly concerned that Hindu, Jewish and Muslim troops were remembered in ways suitable and compatible with their religion and culture.

It was Kipling who came up with the phrase “”Their Name Liveth For Evermore” for memorial stones, and “Known unto God”, for the graves of those soldiers who bodies couldn’t be identified.

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Later Life

Kipling died in London in 1936, and has no descendants today.  The only one of his children who made it past the age of 18, Elsie, died childless in 1970.

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Accessing Rudyard Kipling’s poetry and prose

Because Kipling’s work is now out of copyright, it is possible to find free versions of both his poetry and his stories online. There are also Kindle versions.

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There are many versions of Kipling’s work available free online, as well. Here are a few examples:

The wonderful novel Kim, available from Bibliomania CLICK HERE

The charming, whimsical Just So Stories, with MP3 versions available for streaming CLICK HERE

The 1911 novel Puck of Pook’s Hill CLICK HERE

And a selection of poetry, Departmental Ditties and Other Verses CLICK HERE

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There is a great selection of books, DVDs etc also on Amazon (this lot is sadly not free).

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The River Fleet – London’s second tidal waterway

By , June 20, 2009 2:58 pm

London’s tidal river? Easy one, it’s the River Thames.

But the Thames isn’t the only one. The River Fleet, now mostly running underground, was a navigable, tidal river, which joins the Thames next to Blackfriars Bridge, and marks the historic boundary between the cities of London and Westminster.

The Fleet’s course isn’t a long one; it rises as  springs in Hampstead, a posh, hilly and leafy area of north London. After about half a mile, it goes underground, and is buried the rest of the way.

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury

An extract from Greenwood's 1830 Map of London, showing the River Fleet and two bridges over it, near St. Pancras and Bloomsbury


Historically, pirates operated on the River Fleet, barges went up and down, watermills were powered by it, and sewage gases exploded.

Visitors to the Royal Courts of Justice or the Temple are likely to walk along Fleet Street, and the newspaper industry as a whole is still known as “Fleet Street”, although the papers mostly moved east out of central London towards Wapping and Canary Wharf in the 1980s.

This article is about the course, history and current state of the River Fleet.

The Course and Geography of the River Fleet

The River Fleet starts life as a  number of springs on Hampstead Heath, an impressive 800-acre area of common land north of central London.  There are two main sources, one on either side of Parliament Hill, both about 350 feet above sea level.

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet

Highgate model boat pond, created in the 1700s by damming the River Fleet


The streams are dammed into a series of ponds, the Highgate Ponds and the Hampstead Ponds. Three are run as year-round swimming pools, one for men, one for women, and one mixed-sex (warning, it’s not that warm on Hampstead Heath in the winter….) The City of London Corporation runs the bathing ponds, and the relevant page on its website can be found here.

From Hampstead, the two streams run downhill, mostly underground in culverts and pipes, through Kentish Town and Camden, joining together south of Camden Town. There are memories of the Fleet River before it went underground, including Fleet Road and Fleet Primary School.

The River Fleet continues south, going under King’s Cross Station in a sewer / pipe, and southwards towards St. Pancras and Bloomsbury. A tributary of the Fleet enters from the west, having started life near Tottenham Court Road, and come past University College, London, and University College Hospital.

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

The mouth of the River Fleet at low tide, under Blackfriars Bridge

South of Camden, the first St. Pancras Church was built on the banks of the River Fleet in about 380 AD, and Old St. Pancras Church is still above the current course of the Fleet today.

The Fleet then wriggles its way south, west of Clerkenwell, and along the Farringdon Road.  Another tributary runs underground from near the Barbican, through Smithfield Market (meat and butchery) to join the Fleet at the south of Farringdon Road.

The Fleet’s river valley is quite deep here, a real descent from Snow Hill in the east and Holborn in the west. The Victorian Holborn Viaduct crosses the river valley.  At  the bottom of the valley, over the now-buried river, is the main road going south to Blackfriars.

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Samuel Scott's 1750 painting of the River Thames and the mouth of the River Fleet

Fleet Street, originally a road from Westminster to the City of London via Aldwych, is just to the west of the Fleet, near the River Thames. Until the first bridge was built over the River Fleet here in about 1180 AD, the Fleet could be forded at the easterly end of Fleet Street.

The River Fleet emerges today, as it has done for centuries, near Blackfriars.

There is a great website featuring photographs from all along the River Fleet’s course (overground) which can be found here.



History of the River Fleet

The Roman River Fleet

In Roman times, the River Fleet marked the westerly edge of City of London, and was outside the city walls. It was a navigable, strongly-running river, and powerful enough to run a tidal mill on one of the two small islands on the east side of the Fleet estuary. For a detailed academic article on the archaeological remains of the Roman Fleet, see here.

The Anglo-Saxon River Fleet

In 900 AD, the estuary of the River Fleet, where it joined the River Thames, was approximately 100 yards wide, and shallow and marshy at the edges. It was possible to ford the Fleet here, with care, and at low tide only. The name “Fleet” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, fl?ot, meaning  “tidal inlet”.

The Medieval Fleet

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

Fleet Prison, built on the east bank of the River Fleet in 1197, and open until 1844

As London grew after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD, the River Fleet became very useful for boats and barges.  During the reign of King John, the Knights Hospitaller and St. Batholomew’s Hospital shared a wharf on Fleet Lane, allowing goods and people to be ferried up the Fleet from the Thames.

Further up the Fleet, near Farringdon Road today, there are road names which recall the Fleet’s barges unloading coal from Newcastle, such as Newcastle Lane, Newcastle Close, and Old Seacoal Lane.

Stone for building Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was also ferried up the Fleet.

By the 12th century, people were already complaining that the River Fleet was smelly and polluted. Several tanneries were next to the Fleet, and discharging a nasty cocktail of offal, skin scraps and dog faeces into the river.  Butchers threw unwanted and rotten animal parts in the Fleet, and human sewage and other industry by-products joined them.

In the early 13th century, the Whitefriars (Camelites) who had their base next to the mouth of the Fleet, were complaining that the stench overpowered their incense, even during Mass when there was a lot of incense being burned.

Edward I was attacked by pirates who sailed up the River Fleet – the pirates came second in the fight which followed.

The River Fleet got ever nastier, and became a slum area over time.

The River Fleet in Tudor and Stuart times

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

The Royal opening of the Holborn Viaduct, which passes over the Fleet River Valley, in 1869

In 1598, John Stow wrote in his Survey of London that there were five bridges over the Fleet, and said it was, “impassable for boats, by reason of the many encroachments thereon made, by the throwing of offal and other garbage by butchers, saucemen and others, and by reason of the many houses of office standing upon it” (A “house of office” was a toilet or lavatory, here emptying directly into the river).

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren turned the River Fleet into the wider, straighter New Canal, with docks on both side of the river; it was about 30 feet wide. But it stayed horribly smelly, contaminated still with rubbish and sewage, and was pretty unpopular.

Higher up the Fleet, a number of fashionable wells and spas were established, as the water here was clean and uncontaminated. The most popular were Clerk’s Well, Bagnigge Well, and St. Bride’s Well. Although the wells have long-gone, Clerkenwell and Brideswell are places in London to this day.

The Covering of the River Fleet

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

A sarcastic drawing of the heavily-polluted New Canal / River Fleet in 1728. The bathers are a comment on the river's cleanliness

Unloved, smelly, and in the way, the Fleet started to be covered over.  In 1733, the part from Fleet Bridge to Holborn Bridge was covered over, and in 1739, the stretch from Holborn to Ludgate Circus was covered over, and the Fleet Market and the Mansion House built over it.

When the Regent’s Canal was constructed in 1810 – 1815, the Fleet was buried northwards, to Camden Town, and by 1880 the whole river, apart from the few hundred yards from the source springs, was underground in pipes, conduits and the New Canal bed.

In 1846, a build up of sewage and associated gasses caused a massive explosion, and the pipes near King’s Cross blew up, sending a tidal wave of sewage through the streets, demolishing buildings, flooding houses, and ramming a boat on the Thames, near the mouth of the Fleet, into Blackfriars Bridge.

The River Fleet today

Most of the Fleet remains underground. The mouth can be seen near Blackfriars Bridge, at low tide, and the streams and ponds are popular spots on Hampstead Heath.

The truly intrepid (I am not among their number) can, if the proper arrangements are made, explore the pipes and conduits underground through which the River Fleet now flows. An article about people doing just that, underground, can be found here.



The origin of English surnames 1: work and status

By , June 14, 2009 3:44 am

A brief history of surnames in England

Surnames, in the sense of a fixed family name which passed down through the generations, came to England from the 11th century onwards, and  pretty much universally during the 13th and 14th centuries.

In most towns, villages and areas before that, people would often have extra tags added to their names. If a village had 6 men called John in it, people would talk about John the Baker, John by the Church, John the Tall, and so forth. But John the Baker’s son Henry would, if he became a carpenter, be Henry the Carpenter, as an adult, not Henry Baker.

William Rufus, King of England, from a contemporary illustration

William Rufus, King of England, from a contemporary illustration


Surnames started off as an aristocratic idea – there may have been a few in Anglo-Saxon times, but the Norman Barons who came over with William the Conqueror really kicked it off.

William is a great example of pre-surnames – he was William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, to his detractors) but his son, who followed him as King, was William Rufus (the red) because he had red hair or a red face. William the Conqueror’s next son to become King of England, Henry I, was commonly called Henry Curthose, because he wore short-lenght hose on his legs.

Occupational surnames

Many English surnames derive from occupations. As the 13th and 14th centuries drew on, John the Baker’s son was called Henry Baker, even if he followed another trade altogether.

The most common English surname today is “Smith”, as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths and so forth were abundant across England.

Obvious occupation-related surnames

Other fairly common surnames show an obvious link to trades and occupations:

  • Archer
  • Baker
  • Carter
  • Cook
  • Carpenter
  • Driver
  • Miller
  • Taylor
  • Weaver



Obsolete occupations and words

In many cases, surnames come from occupations which don’t exist any more, or where the word for the occupation has changed over time, and therefore the origin of the surname isn’t obvious.

A 16th century Fuller at work

A 16th century Fuller at work

Examples include:

  • Arkwright
  • Bailey
  • Barker
  • Cartwright
  • Chapman
  • Cooper
  • Fletcher
  • Fuller
  • Turner
  • Wainwright
  • Ward
  • Wheelwright
  • Wright

“Bailey” is a corruption of “Bailiff”, a person who helped establish law and order, and often helped run a large, powerful aristocratic or gentry household.  Bailliffs were also Royal Officials in towns and shires, to help keep the King’s Peace.

A barker was a man who tanned leather – so the surnames “Tanner” and “Barker” have a common origin. Tanning leather was a filthy line of work, involving rotting animal remains, and urine and dog muck used to cure the skins.

A chapman was a man who sold things, often a travelling salesman with a pack full of items such as needles, thread, and nails.

A cooper had an important job in any community, he made barrels. Many things were stored in barrels – beer, ale, wine, salt, flour and grain, for example. “Cooper” is a common English surname, as lots of barrels were made and used.

Fletchers made arrows, a now obsolete term. “Fletching” applied specifically to the process of balancing the arrow with fins or feathers, but the term “Fletcher” was used for arrow-makers in general.

“Turner” means a man who turned things on a lathe, usually to create wooden objects such as table-legs or poles.

“Ward” comes from someone who guarded or protected something, often a town’s or city’s walls. Similar words such as “warden” have a common origin.

"The Hay Wain", an 1821 painting by John Constable

"The Hay Wain", an 1821 painting by John Constable

“Wright” means a person who makes things, from the Old English word wryhta, meaning “worker”. So an Arkwright made chests and cupboards, a Cartwright made carts,  a Wainwright made wagons or carts (from an old word wain, meaning wagon / cart) and a Wheelwright made wheels.

False Friends

Some surnames look obvious, such as “Walker”, but the origins are actually different from what we might suppose. The surname Walker doesn’t derive from someone walking for a living, or being a messenger. A walker was a man who helped full cloth, that is, turn it into tougher, less shrinkable woolen material. It comes from the Middle English word walkcere, meaning a man who fulls cloth with his feet. The surnames “Fuller” and “Tucker” refer to men who worked in fulling cloth, too.

“Butler” is another false friend – it is partly an occupational surname, from the Old French word bouteillier, or servant in charge of wine supplies. There is a separate origin for the surname for descendants of Theobald Walter, who was a 12th century politician.

Status surnames

Many surnames appear to show a high-ranking status, such as Bishop, Lord, Duke, and King. In most cases, the surname was started by a man who was in the employ or service of a Lord or Bishop, rather than actually being one himself.

For the next blog post in this series, please see:  Origin of English surnames 2: patronymics or father’s first name

Prehistoric man in England: before homo sapiens

By , June 4, 2009 9:41 am

The long history of humans and pre-humans in England

The British Isles as a whole have been home to several different human and humanoid species since approximately 700,000 years ago, but not continuously. There were long periods of time when it was too cold and inhospitable to live in the areas.

This article looks at the pre-homo sapiens people who lived, worked, travelled, traded, and died in the British Isles for hundreds of thousands of years before modern mankind existed; it goes from the origins of human existence in England until just before the Upper Stone Age and Neanderthal Man. Those topics will be considered in the next article.

A worked obsidian arrowhead from the Stone Age (Palaeolithic)

A worked obsidian arrowhead from the Stone Age (Palaeolithic)


The people then living in what is now England weren’t living on an island – the land was still connected to the European continent. Many are likely to have lived in fertile plains and river valleys which are now under the English Channel and the North Sea.

Lower Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) humans in England – 700,000 to 250,000 years ago

The oldest human (and human-ancestor) traces to be found in the British Isles are in East Anglia, and date from 700,000 years ago.

At the time of the activity, East Anglia (Suffolk, in the south, and Norfolk, in the north, marked in red on the picture to the right of this text) were not coastal counties, as they are today, but were rather part of a landmass that stretched over what is now the North Sea.

The East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk

The East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk


Both counties now have soft, eroding coastlines, mostly formed from sedimentation in the times when the area was covered in rivers and swamps, depositing mud, clay, and sand. As land has eroded, remains have been found.

Two important sets of discoveries were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in Pakefield,  Suffolk, and Happisburg, Norfolk. They include the remains of flint tools, and captured and butchered mammals, and are 700,000 years old. No human remains have been found, so it is unknown for sure what type of homo species lived here.  No axes have been found, only other, more basic, types of flint tools.

The earliest human species remains to be found in England lived 500,000 years ago. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a long and detailed dig at Boxgrove Quarry, in West Sussex, on England’s south coast.

The Boxgrove site is made up of chalk, with lots of flints, and was therefore an important site for Stone Age people. Over the years, many different flint tools have been discovered at Boxgrove, together with animals bones and other remains. The flint tools are of the Acheulean type, first used in Africa 1.6 million years ago, and still used 100,000 years ago.

Remains of many different animal species show that a wide range of food was butchered at the site, including lions, tigers, bears, deer, elephants, horses and wolves, as well as large birds, and fish. It was clearly a busy place.

This is a skull from a homo heidelbergensis man found in Spain. Shared under creative commons, attributed to José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

This is a skull from a homo heidelbergensis man found in Spain. Shared under creative commons, attributed to José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

In 1993 and 1996,  the earliest-yet human remains were found in Boxgrove; a tibia (shin bone) in 1993 and teeth from the same person in 1996.

The remains were from homo heidelbergensis, a species which may be an ancestor of homo sapiens, or may have become extinct (theories vary).  These people were taller (on average 6ft) and probably carried more muscle than modern humans.

The leg bone found at Boxgrove Quarry had been gnawed at both ends by either a wolf or a lion.

The teeth showed lots of flint scratches, which may have meant that the mouth and teeth were used during the creation of flint tools or when they were used.

Detailed information about Lower Palaeolithic discoveries in England can be found in this article from British Archeology, including details of the geology, geography, flora and fauna extant at the time. Information about the on-going Boxgrove Project, which is multi-disciplinary, can be found at their website.



For about 54,000 years, starting about 478,000 years ago, it was almost certainly too cold in what is now the British Isles for any human-type people to live here.  This cold Anglian Stage was followed by the warmer Hoxnian Stage, which started about 424,000 years ago.

Acheulean flint axes from the Upper Palaeolithic, found in north-west Kent.

Acheulean flint axes from the Upper Palaeolithic, found in north-west Kent.

During the Hoxnian Stage, stone age people were once again active in England.  Extensive stone tools, animal remains, and one set of human remains have been found at Swanscombe in Kent, east of London along the River Thames.

The area along the Thames appears to have been occupied between about 400,000 and 300,000 years ago, with stone tools and animals bones from various dates during that period.

A skull, split into 3 parts, was found here – the 3 different bits being found in the 1930s and 1950s.  Although usually known as “Swanscombe Man”, it’s thought that the skull is actually that of an adult woman. Her species is not entirely clear, but may well be homo heidelbergensis or similar.  The skull is about 300,000 years old

Other stone tool and butchered animal remains have been found across the region, including at Purfleet, and at riverside sites such as Stoke Newington, London, Hitchin in Hertfordshire, and several sites in Essex and Suffolk.

Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Stone Age) humans in England -  250,000 to 60,000 years ago

There is very little evidence that any human or human-type species lived in the British Isles between about 200,000 years ago and 60,000 years ago, pretty much the whole duration of this part of the Stone Age.  It was almost certainly too cold for much of the time for humans to live here easily, but it may well be the case that some evidence of inhabitation at warmer periods during this era is yet to be found.

In the next article – Neolithic Man in England

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