Tsar Peter the Great trashes a London home

Peter

What possessed Tsar Peter the Great to trash a magnificent house in London? It’s a complicated story!

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 in London, 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 London 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 the Great 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 London house and garden.

Politicians lynched by the London mob

Politicians and journalists are more unpopular today than ever. But in the past in London they stood a very real risk of being lynched.

One of the many politicians to be lynched was Walter Stapleton, Lord Treasurer of England, who came to a sticky end around 1326.

Victim of the London mob

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.

Stapleton is one of many medieval lynched politicians

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.

Poll tax leads to politicians being lynched

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.

DISCOVER: Was King George III really a tyrant?

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. In the past they were lynched – their lives cruelly cut short.

Priests and prostitutes in Southwark

Priests and prostitutes may not seem an obvious combination but in the Middle Ages – nobody would have batted an eyelid. It was well known that men of the cloth and women of the night were having fun down in Southwark!

Last week, I got my hands on an 1814 guide to London. There’s one page that made me chuckle, describing the way in which priests and prostitutes had fun together.

On the south bank of the river Thames, in the borough of Southwark, every other house seemed to be a brothel. Londoners strolled across the bridge linking their city to this playground and paid for sex in one of the many “stews” – a delightful word for a brothel.

Stewholders – brothel keepers – rented their premises from powerful landowners. These included the Lord Mayor of London Sir William Walworth (died 1385). These enterprising women were often from across the English Channel in modern Belgium and the Netherlands. They were referred to as the “bawds of Flanders” or “Froes”.

The authorities took a surprisingly lenient view of their activity provided certain rules were obeyed. Stews were not to open on a Sunday – after all the priests who formed a goodly part of the clientele would be busy in church.

Married women could not work in them and female criminals who had been branded for their crime were forbidden to get involved. These were moral establishments after all!

Catholic priests and bawdy prostitutes

My book, dating from 1814, takes a typically anti-Catholic line. The Middle Ages is depicted as a time of dark superstition and cruelty. When it comes to the stews, the author thinks that brothels were so prevalent because so many Catholic priests before the Protestant Reformation had taken vows of celibacy. It was a vow few of them could keep.

Perhaps in days when thousands were tied up by vows of celibacy, these haunts might have been necessary, for neither cowl nor cope had virtue sufficient to annihilate the strongest of human passions.

The signs for these stews didn’t hang off the building but were painted on the walls. The author thinks it’s hilarious that one brothel was called The Cardinal’s Hat. The involvement of the clergy weren’t just as potential clients. The bishop of Winchester – who ran much of Southwark – didn’t bat an eyelid as he taxed the prostitutes. It was good money. He wasn’t going to forego his cut.

In fact, his taxation became a subject of ribald gossip among Londoners. As they arrived over London bridge, the prostitutes would squawk and cackle at them – looking for business. They became known as the “Winchester Geese”. Let’s hope the bishop saw the funny side.

Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Walk through Leicester Square or Covent Garden today and you can see the usual street performers attracting gawping crowds.

If you find these acts annoying, I’m afraid they’ve been a part of London life for hundreds of years. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys were Londoners who kept diaries of their daily lives and both described the entertainers they saw in the 17th century.

So…what kind of street performers were entertaining people back then?

  • A man called The Turk. A rope was fixed to the top of a church steeple and the other end to the ground at a 90 degree angle. The Turk then climbed by his toes. When he reached the top, this fearless chap slid down head first with his arms and legs spread out.
  • The Hairy Woman. Her eyebrows covered her entire forehead. A lock of hair grew out of each ear. And she had a thick beard and moustache.
  • The Dutch Boy. Exhibiting himself at Charing Cross, this strange child had the words Deus Meus inscribed in tiny letters on the iris of one eye and Elohim on the other iris. Doctors examined him but disagreed whether the words were on his eyes from birth or placed there afterwards. It also seems he wasn’t blind.
  • Richardson the fire eater. This incredible individual chewed and swallowed hot coals, ate melted glass and put a hot coal on his tongue on top of which he cooked an oyster. He then had a drink….of pitch, wax and sulphur – flaming!

Add to that collection the usual array of contortionists, dancing bears and bull baiting. Something for everybody!

So as I say – if street performers are a pain in your view – I’m afraid they’re not going away any time soon.

When three thousand people died on London Bridge

London Bridge as you see it today is a modern construction. It’s hard to imagine the medieval bridge that once stood nearby crowded with houses. Even more fantastic is the old story that up to three thousand people may have died as a result of a fire on the bridge.

Even allowing for some medieval hyperbole – it seems there was a huge disaster in the 13th century. Frankly, looking at artist impressions of old London Bridge, I’m amazed it didn’t fall down every other week. It looks rickety as hell.

Before I go any further with this blog post – we are talking about London Bridge here and not Tower Bridge. Please don’t get the two confused. It drives Londoners bonkers. Tower Bridge is that iconic Victorian two level construction further down stream.

London Bridge is the oldest of all the bridges – but what you see today is the latest in several iterations.

London Bridge is falling down…  So says an old nursery rhyme. The city’s oldest bridge has certainly had a turbulent history. But it was just over seven 750 years ago that London Bridge witnessed a horrific calamity not equalled since.

Today’s 1970s bridge is a bog standard affair. Big road bridge, wide pavements, minimal number of spans. Rewind to the medieval period and in 1212, Londoners were gazing in awe at the first stone bridge to cross the Thames. It had taken 30 years to build but what a feast for the eyes!

Made up of about twenty arches that forced the river to gush like a torrent through them. It was a triumph of 13th century engineering. And on top were houses, shops and water wheels with a hustle and bustle of people all day long.

The stone bridge had replaced an earlier timber bridge that had come to grief in a fire that had swept through London in the year 1136. A man called Peter of Colechurch was tasked with constructing a new bridge that would be more resistant to fire. Some accounts claim he diverted the river Thames to achieve this medieval architectural miracle – though many doubt this was possible to any significant scale.

Along the bridge, Londoners built shops and houses, water wheels and even a chapel. The city was confident it now had a link to the southern shore that was indestructible. How wrong they were.

Fire was an ever present threat in a city made largely of wood. And even though the bridge itself was stone, the houses being thrown up along its span were of brick, wood and highly combustible thatched roofs.

On the 12th July, 1212, a fire broke out on the Southwark side of the new bridge. It crept along to the old church of St Mary Overie. Soon it had consumed the area we now call Borough Market.

Londoners from the north side of the river moved on to the bridge to either help or just gawp. Unfortunately for them, cinders or sparks ignited the very combustible roofs of houses on the London side of the bridge.

You get the picture? People on London Bridge were now caught between a fire at both ends. And none of them could swim. Plus there’s no fire brigade to speak of. And the bridge is jam-packed with houses and other buildings.

Smoke is swirling around and panic sets in. There’s a grim choice: stay on the bridge and get burnt alive or jump in the river, which is gushing through the small arches.

Some Londoners with boats tried to rescue people but it was all to little avail. According to John Stow, a historian of the city writing 350 years later, the bodies of three thousand partly burnt people were found while many were completely incinerated or swept away by the river.

Some historians doubt this figure and think it was lower. But there’s little doubt this was a major calamity and remembered for many centuries afterwards.

Eighteenth century transgender celebrity!

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Some people today find it very hard to even consider giving transgender people equal rights. Maybe they should learn a few lessons from 18th century London where polite society was more than a little obsessed though gratifyingly tolerant of a trans French diplomat called the Chevalier d’Eon.

Transgender celebrity in 18th century London

The Chevalier was a diplomat attached to the French embassy and worked for King Louis XVI (soon to lose his head in the French revolution). He seems to have delighted in confusing people about his true sexuality. This very colourful character lived one part of his life dressed in public as a man (1762-1777) and then another as a woman (1786-1810). During both periods he cross-dressed at parties as the mood took him.

While he was in London, there was a gambling mania. People were betting on anything. And there was feverish speculation about the Chevalier’s true sexuality. The fashionable salons of the city buzzed with gossip and hearsay about the French diplomat – exactly what one suspects he wanted. It must have amused the Chevalier to tease the people whose tongues never seemed to stop wagging.

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Reading the 1771 pamphlet I bought today

I was at an antique book fair today and spotted a 1771 pamphlet about an examination of this trans diplomat by a group of well-born ladies who were overwhelmed by curiosity. On the 24 May, 1771, a “jury of matrons” took a good look at the naked form of the Chevalier with his consent at Medmenham Abbey.

If the name of this abbey seems familiar, it was where the so-called Hellfire Club used to meet. That was a group of wealthy men who dressed in gowns and turbans then paid prostitutes to dress as nuns before despoiling them. Yes, eighteenth century England was a very debauched affair!

Examination of the transgender diplomat

The aristocratic grand dame in charge of the Chevalier’s examination declared that they had to know what was between his legs in case their daughters married him. She couldn’t abide the thought of one of the girls being accidentally wed to another woman or a “hermaphrodite”. The main cause of concern was that as aristocrats they needed to have children to pass their wealth and estates on to. The Chevalier might not be able to deliver the goods!

One of the other ladies in the room was sure he wasn’t really a man:

For though I threw out every possible lure to induce him to make overtures to me and almost solicited him to my bed, I could never get a tender thing from him. Besides, I observed he had little or no beard and that he always avoided entering upon amorous subjects.

Infuriatingly, the pamphlet says that the meeting couldn’t make up its mind and adjourned. One person who did make up his mind was King Louis XVI. In 1775, his majesty insisted that the Chevalier dress as a woman. He eventually complied but took to fencing with men in public to show he was no ordinary woman!

As an additional point, some feminists today have quibbled about whether trans people can be really regarded as women. Again, the eighteenth century can teach us so much. Mary Wollstonecraft was the leading feminist of her time and mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. She described the Chevalier as a model of female fortitude.

Even though after his death – doctors confirmed that although the Chevalier was very androgynous – he did have male genitalia.

Lost train stations of London

London isn’t short of train stations. There’s Euston, Victoria, Kings Cross, Paddington and Fenchurch Street to name but a few. However, the city has also lost a few train stations over the years with the shift to cars and as a result of redevelopment. So, let’s go find these ghost stations!

LOST TRAIN STATIONS: Broad Street station demolished by Margaret Thatcher – in person

Broad Street station, opened in 1865, once stood near Liverpool Street station where the Broadgate office complex is now located. The lines coming into Broad Street connected north London to the east and I can’t help feeling would be appreciated now.

But it’s the usual story of trains being undermined by the tube, tram and then car in the early to mid-20th century. Then the station was damaged during the Second World War and never properly repaired.

Finally, along came Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and her disdain for collective forms of public transport – married to a love for the City of London. So, the station went and the offices for investment banks went up.

Thatcher even participated in the demolition of Broad Street in 1986!

LOST TRAIN STATIONS: Blackwall station

On my desk right now is a publication from 1830 called The Penny Magazine. This 26 December 1840 issue focuses on the marvels of Britain’s expending train network. Even by 1840, there were still way more canals per mile than railway but the new technology was catching up fast.

As The Penny Magazine noted:

The effect of canals and roads has been principally to develop the material resources of the country, and to uphold its prosperous condition. The railways will not only have a similar effect, but will exercise a much more powerful influence on manners and institutions.

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In the picture, you can see the railway terminus at Blackwall. It was built in the Italianate style by the architect and Liberal MP William Tite – who also designed The Royal Exchange, the huge Roman-porticoed building that confronts you at Bank station.

Blackwall was a busy interchange at a time when the docks were booming and the East End of London was densely populated. But it fell victim in the early 20th century to the emergence of the new tram system and was shut to passenger traffic in 1926. Goods trains continued to arrive there until the 1960s when the decline of the docks signalled the end for the Blackwall terminus.

Not one brick remains today. But the Docklands Light Railway, constructed in the 1980s to revive the dock area of the city, uses much of the old line that took passengers from the City of London eastwards in the 1840s.

LOST TRAIN STATIONS: Camberwell station

There are abandoned train, tube and tram stations across London. Close to where I live you can just about make out the entrance to Camberwell station. It was closed in 1916, during the First World War.

There has been talk – lots of it – about re-opening the station but I’m not holding my breath. The reason for the re-think has been the increase in the working population and a realisation since the 1970s that the car is not the answer to everything.

The Victorians were avid builders of railways and accompanying stations and there’s no doubt that some stations became surplus to requirements quite quickly. However, some of the demolition in the 20th century now looks amazingly short sighted. A good example would be the ripping up of rail lines between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace.

I lived in Crouch End for several years and had to join an endless bus queue from there to Finsbury Park. And if you want to attend an exhibition at Alexandra Palace – or “Ally Pally” as it’s fondly known – you have to walk up a steep hill if you don’t have a car or bike. Once upon a time, you could have got a train.

Why would anybody want to wipe the backside of King Henry VIII?

At the Tudor court, aristocrats vied to be the Keeper of the Stool – responsible for helping King Henry VIII with his bowel movements. Why? Because you not only got proximity to his backside – but more importantly, to his ear. In that confined space, just you and the monarch, there was a great opportunity to drip poison about your enemies or simply advise on state matters while the king went about his business.

This was me on Private Lives of the Monarchs (UKTV – Yesterday TV) explaining this curious court job.

Who was Britannia on the old penny coins?

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This story always tickles me. It seems that Britannia in her trident and helmet on the old penny coins was one of the mistresses of Charles II.

The so-called “Merry Monarch”, who ruled after the grim puritan interlude of Oliver Cromwell, had an insatiable libido. He famously carried on an affair with London street girl Nell Gwyn, who started life selling oranges outside the Drury Lane theatre. But it wasn’t Nell that we see as Britannia on the penny coins.

No, it was a lady of impeccable breeding. Frances Stuart, later the Duchess of Richmond, was a fabulous beauty according to that great diarist of London life, Samuel Pepys. She looked down on Nell but in the final analysis, they were up to the same game – using sex for influence at court. And both at the beck and call of the lascivious king.

One French visitor sniffily carped that it was hard to imagine less brains with more beauty than Frances Stuart. But for a women dismissed as dim but pretty, she actually made a large fortune out of manipulating the king’s affections. Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs talking about Frances and her presence on our coins.

The horror of the Great Plague of London

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those CrossesEngland’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!