Sir Walter Raleigh catches fire in Islington

Sir Walter Raleigh – swashbuckling adventurer under Queen Elizabeth I (or Queen Bess if you prefer) – and Islington don’t exactly sit together in your mind. But Raleigh and other Elizabethans loved popping over to the village of Islington to take the air. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its dairies would become famous for their creams, custards, cakes and gooseberry fools. But in the sixteenth century – the time of Raleigh – it was archery practice on the fields and just admiring the views over the green valley of Holloway and on to Highgate hill. The view has changed a bit since then!

Raleigh's old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition
Raleigh’s old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition

The Tudors took to building country homes in the area decorated with oak panels and stained-glass windows. Raleigh, worn out by long voyages of discovery and returning with tobacco to poison his fellow Englishmen, took up residence with gusto. His house was still standing in 1830 by which time it had become the Pied Bull Inn, behind what was then called Frederick Street. There is a very silly story about Raleigh smoking tobacco that I found in an Edwardian history of London:

Sitting one day in a deep meditation with a pipe in his mouth, he inadvertently called to his man (servant) to bring him a tankard of small ale. The fellow, coming into the room, threw all the liquor into his master’s face and running downstairs bawled out: Fire! Fire! Sir Walter has studied till his head is on fire and the smoke bursts out of his head and nose! 

An unusual case of somebody spontaneously combusting due to too much thinking. Pictures depicting this incident used to appear over tobacconist shops. A stained-glass window in Raleigh’s house was bordered with images of sea-horses and parrots plus tobacco leaves. Years later, the pioneer of the filthy habit would be executed for treason. He allegedly took two pipes with him to the Tower of London, his prison, to have a good puff before the big event.

Knights Templar, lawyers and a bugler

The Temple Horn Blower is a character I discovered recently in one of my antiquarian guides to London. This London curiosity doesn’t seem to exist anymore unless you know better. Let me explain who and what he was.

Temple Horn Blower in action!
Temple Horn Blower in action!

First – we need to go back to the year 1118 and the foundation of the Knights Templar. They set up their headquarters in London approximately where Southampton Buildings sits today.

Then around 1180, they moved to their “New Temple”, which partly remains nearer to the river Thames. You can still see the rotund chapel with carved stone knights over their graves.

In 1312, the Order was bloodily suppressed by the papacy and Europe’s monarchs with their land in London being grabbed by the rival Knights Hospitallers. They held on to the Temple in London until they were dissolved in 1608.

The Hospitallers let part of their property to law students and the area around what is now Chancery Lane evolved in to the legal district of the capital. Inns of Court became established outside the old city of London walls in areas called “liberties” – that is beyond London’s walls but still attached to the city. By 1572, the lawyers had built the Middle Temple Hall. After the Hospitallers were wound up, they developed the whole area for their use.

The legal eagles of the 17th and 18th centuries seemed to like the Templar connection and even adopted the order’s symbols – the Holy Lamb and the horse with two riders (though this evolved into a pegasus for some reason!).

And one custom that emerged was of a chap called the Temple Horn Blower – in top hat, frock coat and gold lace –  bugling the young lawyers to dinner at 5.30pm every afternoon. Apparently, this was to get them back from hare hunting round Charing Cross (not many hares there now).  Once they arrived for dinner, there were strict rules in the Tudor period about not wearing Spanish cloaks or playing “shove-groat”. And no daggers to be carried into the dining hall.

I worked in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for ten years and was never aware of this custom practised nearby. To my knowledge, it expired. Anybody know different?