Over the centuries, London has seen many secret societies – right down to our own time. Normally made up of aristocratic gentlemen or wannabes and engaging in bizarre and sometimes profane or lewd rituals.
The Kit-Cat Club originally met at the house of a pastry cook called Christopher Cat on Shire Lane, near Temple Bar. The name of the club came from the mutton pie that was his speciality. Or at least that’s one theory (most likely from Daniel Defoe). Another was that the members toasted “old cats and young kits”. When Christopher moved out of his house, the club followed him to the Fountain Tavern on The Strand.
The members of the Kit-Cat Club had been gentlemen who had come together to plot a revolution against King James II. This monarch had tried to bring back the Catholic religion and introduce a more authoritarian form of monarchy normally associated with King Louis XIV in France. The so-called “Whigs” – Protestant nobility – were having none of this and they successfully conspired to overthrow James and drive him into exile.
Every year, they would toast a woman chosen by a ballot of the members. Her name would be carved on to the glasses with a diamond. The men voting for Kit-Cat woman of the year included such 18th century grandees as Sir Robert Walpole, the Earls of Halifax and Dorset and the Duke of Somerset. So a distinguished group!
It’s a great mistake to build a palace that rivals that of the monarch. Take Cardinal Wolseley who commissioned Hampton Court Palace only to have Henry VIII decide it was way too good for his top adviser and took it over. The same dangerous error was made by the Lord Protector Somerset – who built a previous version of what we know today as Somerset House on the Strand.
Somerset was the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour – who died after giving birth to Henry’s successor, Edward VI. He became king as a child and Somerset had to exercise effective power – hence his title of Protector. Enjoying his new role, the boy’s uncle decided to construct a massive home for himself between London and Westminster.
The only problem was the presence of other people’s homes – like the residences of the bishops of Lichfield, Llandaff and Worcester. The solution was easy. Demolish the residences and use the masonry for his new palace.
He also knocked down the nearby church of St Mary’s for more materials. And then Somerset’s men tore down a chapel in St Paul’s churchyard; robbed more stone from the church of St John of Jerusalem near Smithfield and then wrecked the Strand Inn near the Temple.
All of this wasn’t enough. His lordship’s new Somerset House needed to be huge and impressive. So, the ambitious noble ordered his masons to start tearing bits off St Margaret’s church in Westminster – a much loved place of worship. And that’s what finally got to Londoners.
They formed the Tudor equivalent of a human chain around St Margaret’s and drove off Somerset’s masons. This didn’t help Somerset’s popularity and his star began to wane. Building stopped on Somerset House and the man himself was eventually dragged to the scaffold to have his head chopped off.
If you stand in front of St Paul’s cathedral and look to your left, towards Paternoster Square, you’ll see a stone arch with windows and well-worn statues. This is Temple Bar. Hard to believe now, but there were once human heads on poles adorning the top of it.
The structure was built in 1670 by Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect who gave us St Paul’s Cathedral and many smaller churches. He set about rebuilding London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, a vast inferno that consumed much of the ancient city.
This terrible event had one upside. It gave Wren the opportunity to design a new and more ordered metropolis. However, poor Wren’s hopes of creating piazzas and wide streets was confounded at every turn by stubborn Londoners and their wish to keep the medieval winding thoroughfares and dark alleys.
So, why did Wren build Temple Bar? The stone gate replaced wooden posts and chains that separated the City of London from the City of Westminster. It was originally positioned across the road in front of what’s now the Royal Courts of Justice. On one side was Fleet Street in the City and on the other was The Strand leading to Whitehall and the centre of royal government.
Everybody entering the City had to pass under the Temple Bar. It wasn’t entirely popular. For one thing, it held up traffic. The archway soon became way too narrow for the mass of carts, horses, carriage and people trying to cram through and do business. It also had four poorly crafted statues of James I, Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II that were described in very unflattering terms by one Victorian writer as “mean” with “small feeble heads”. They’re not the greatest works of art it must be said.
The man who carved these mediocre works of art was called John Bushnell. By all accounts, he was somewhere between eccentric and insane. One scheme he devised was to prove that the Greeks could have invaded Troy by building his own Trojan Horse out of timber and covering it in stucco. He spent £500 of his own money (a vast sum then) on this project creating a horse’s head that could hold a dining table to seat twelve people. The whole thing fell to pieces during a storm.
There is a room along the top portion of Temple Bar that was used as a storage room for Child’s bank. On the very top of Temple Bar, the heads of traitors once stared down on passers-by. This was meant to be an object lesson for 17th and 18th century Londoners not to rebel against their anointed kings and queens.
The first head to appear on Temple Bar was Sir Thomas Armstrong involved in the so-called Rye House Plot. Next came Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend who planned to assassinate King William III as he returned from hunting in Richmond – intercepting his coach between Brentford and Turnham Green. They were hanged at Tyburn despite pleading their innocence – and their heads removed for public display.
In a ghoulish twist, typical of London, there were enterprising people in 1746 who were reportedly hiring out looking glasses at Temple Bar so that passers-by could take a closer look at the severed heads. It cost a halfpenny apparently. In 1766, a man was arrested for firing musket balls at the heads – which he then confessed to having done for three nights running.
In 1772, one of the heads blew down during a storm. Incredibly, the blackened object had been on top of Templar Bar since 1723 – nearly fifty years! A chap called John Pearce took it to a local tavern where it was then buried under the floor. Must have been an amusing subject of conversation beforehand!
Peter the Great was one of the great tsars of Russian history – modernising his country while employing brutal authoritarian methods of rule. He famously embarked on a tour of Europe to learn how countries like Britain and the Netherlands ran their affairs.
He even tried to go undercover, very unconvincingly, as a dockworker to find out how ships were made. It wasn’t difficult to identify him as the Tsar of Russia given his massive height for the time (about six feet eight) and having an entourage of up to 200 lackeys. So nobody down the docks was falling for his man of the people disguise.
While in England, he stayed at Deptford by the river Thames. The English king, William III, recommended he lodge at the rather impressive mansion of the diarist John Evelyn. That’s a forgotten name now but in the late 17th century he was as well known as Samuel Pepys as a chronicler of his times. And he owned a gorgeous property, Sayes Court, with a very decorative garden cultivated over a forty year period.
Evelyn agreed to put up Peter the Great and vacated the property so that the tsar could move in with his courtiers. It all seemed a very agreeable arrangement. But then, Evelyn’s servants began penning frantic messages to their absent master begging him to return. Because it seemed the tsar and his friends were a bunch of lunatics.
When the diarist returned to his property, it was a to a scene of mayhem. Paintings had been used for dartboard practice; the floors were coated in grease and ink; windows were smashed and worst of all, the garden had been totally trashed. Peter and his friends had developed some kind of game or sport that involved Peter sitting in a wheelbarrow while being driven at speed and force through flowerbeds and a very long, holly hedge. They had even demolished part of the garden wall!
Incredibly, the floors had to be replaced – along with the windows – and new furniture bought. The hell-raising monarch was given somewhere else to stay. And Evelyn successfully got a large dollop of compensation from the state to repair his beloved house and garden.
It’s often been a dangerous business being a politician. But to be one in London over the centuries has been particularly hazardous. Take, for example, the Lord Treasurer of England Walter Stapleton circa 1326.
Not only was he in charge of the country’s finances, Walter was a leading adviser to King Edward II and – typical of the Middle Ages – also the Bishop of Exeter. Men of the cloth often held top political positions. It wasn’t seen as unusual or ungodly. However, the conduct of King Edward II was seen as less than godly – with accusations of sodomy and vice swirling around him.
Edward’s own queen launched a rebellion to overthrow her husband the king in alliance with her lover. Londoners came out in the queen’s support. The king fled towards Wales while his Lord High Treasurer, the unfortunate Walter, tried to lock the gates of the city to stop Queen Isabella getting in.
However, he’d misjudged the mood of London very badly. The hapless politician galloped as fast as he could towards St Paul’s cathedral to plead for sanctuary but was intercepted by the mob. They pulled Walter from his horse, stripped his clothes (worth a pretty penny I’m sure) and dragged him naked to the stone cross that once stood in Cheapside.
There, they proclaimed him a traitor and cut off his head – putting it on a pole and processing around with it. The same fate befell his servants whose headless bodies were tossed on a heap of rubbish by the river.
Over fifty years later, a similar gory end came to Simon Sudbury, the Lord Chancellor of England. Like Walter, Simon held some ecclesiastical positions as well as being a politician. He was both Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury – so a top nob in medieval society. But the London mob soon cut him down to size – literally.
Regrettably, Sudbury supported the introduction of a poll tax. The peasants hated it. They marched on the capital and surrounded the Tower of London where Simon was holed up with the Lord Treasurer Sir Robert Hales.
Eventually, the two men were handed over to the mob and beheaded. Apparently, it took something like eight blows to take Simon’s head off. His skull can still be seen in the church of St Gregory in the town of Sudbury, Suffolk today.
Londoners have frequently rioted and attacked top politicians with no regard to their rank or position. During the 1780 anti-Catholic “Gordon Riots”, the house of Lord Mansfield was thoroughly plundered. In 1815, Lord Eldon – the Lord Chancellor – confronted a mob that was breaking the windows of his home with a shotgun in his hand!
Eldon was hated by the city populace as he’d managed to oppose just about every progressive measure you could imagine including the abolition of slavery and attempts to secure affordable bread for the poor (the Corn Laws). But the pelting of Eldon’s house with stones wasn’t a one off incident. Lord Wellington – hero of Waterloo – was assailed in his carriage by Londoners – as was King George III and King George IV.
So if politicians think they’ve got it tough today – pick up a history book. They’re getting off lightly in our times – with just a few hostile tweets.