Clerkenwell as a haven from the urban bustle? It may be hard to believe it now, but Clerkenwell was once considered to be a country retreat from the city. King John stayed for a break in the Clerkenwell Priory in 1212. The area was also renowned for its relaxing spa springs and pleasure gardens during the 13th Century but its tranquility would soon be broken.
The sanctuary was disrupted when the Priory was mostly destroyed by fire during The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. The rebels had also burnt down the Savoy Palace and stormed the Tower of London. One of the peasants’ leaders, Wat Tyler of Maidstone, met with Richard II at Smithfield in Clerkenwell. He demanded the end of Lordships and that all men should be free.
What precisely was said between Wat Tyler and the King is largely hearsay, mostly as recorded by supporters of the King. But it is historical fact that Tyler was attacked and mortally wounded – perhaps after a scuffle broke out or possibly as part of a plot – by the Mayor of London and the King’s men. One account of the time recounts he was taken to a hospital for the poor (St. Bartholomew’s) but the Mayor went after him. After Tyler’s death, the King promised the rebels reform while the Mayor simultaneously raised a militia to surpress them. The rebels, gathered on St John’s Fields, dispersed although many of the leaders were pursued and executed in grisly fashion.
The Priory and the landmark St John’s Gate were rebuilt, being completed by 1504. But in 1536 Henry VIII began the process of the dissolution of the monasteries. The monarch became the leader of the Church of England and separated the church from the Pope’s authority in Rome. The process involved the closing of monasteries, convents and priories while Henry disposed of their assets. Most of the remaining Knights Hospitaliers of Clerkenwell went to Malta, but three who remained were executed as traitors. Clerkenwell Priory was sold off to The Duke of Northumberland for £1,000. Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary I, briefly reinstated Catholicism and the Priory reverted to its religious purpose. It has had several owners and uses since, including as a Presbyterian Meeting House. St John’s Gate is now the only remaining part of the structure.
The area was also home to a group of “Lollards” in the 15th Century, part of a religious and political movement who challenged the church’s doctrine of the sacrament, opposed capital punishment and rejected religious celibacy. The group were dismissed as heretics and repressed, one member being burnt at the stake in 1410. Their beliefs had some overlaps with later Protestant groups.
Tyler’s radical influence reverberated in Clerkenwell again when anti-Royalist Oliver Cromwell took up residence near Clerkenwell Green in the 17th Century. He owned a house on Clerkenwell Close, just off Clerkenwell Green. Izaak Walton also lived just off the Green, where he wrote the famous book The Compleat Angler which was first published in 1653.
In 1675, a Mr Pinks had recorded numerous bowling-greens in Bowling Green Lane, both open and covered, and laid with turf or gravel. The reputation of the area as a fashionable resort declined however during the Industrial Revolution as Clerkenwell became a centre of the printing industry and breweries. Poverty was on the rise creating fertile ground for The Chartist movement of the 19th Century, which campaigned for democratic inclusion and the citizenship rights. An account of the historic Chartist demonstration of 10 April 1848 describes the march’s progress through Clerkenwell on its way to Kennington Common:
“The churchwardens of Clerkenwell assembled the special constables of the parish at the workhouse, and proceeded subsequently to Clerkenwell-green, in the absence of the G division, for the purpose of preventing any riotous proceeding. About eight o’clock a body of Chartists appeared on the ground, several of them carrying flags and banners, one of which had on it the following inscription – ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God.’ There were two poles surmounted with the cap of liberty, with a tri-coloured flag and an American flag. The procession was formed two-and-two, shortly before nine o’clock, consisting of between 300 and 400 persons. It entered St. John-street, crossed Smithfield, and passed through Farringdon-street to Kennington-common. There were about 4,000 persons present.”
What happened on 10 April 1848? From The Illustrated London News, 15 April 1848
Coming up next in Discovering Clerkenwell: find out which 20th Century historic figures met over a pint in Clerkenwell and how a humble coal man made beautiful music for Handel.