Ten things you may never have known about Lincoln’s Inn Fields

  1. It was previously referred to as Ficket’s Fields and Whetstone’s Park and was considered very dangerous because of the high level of robberies
  2. The square may also have been known as Cup and Purse Field
  3. Queen Elizabeth I and then James I forbade the building of houses on top of Lincoln’s Inn Fields preserving it as a green space
  4. Then James I changed his mind and the famed architect Inigo Jones was allowed to design a public square
  5. The four sides of the square have distinct names: Newman’s Row, Arch Row, Portugal Row and Lincoln’s Inn Wall
  6. Lord William Russell was beheaded in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21st July, 1683 and Algernon Sidney later that same year
  7. In 1662, the Duke’s Theatre was opened on Portugal Street on the site of an old tennis court and was named after Charles II’s brother, James the Duke of York
  8. After barbers and surgeons became separate professions in 1745 (no, really, that happened), Barber-Surgeons Hall was abandoned with surgeons wanting their own headquarters in London. They chose Lincoln’s Inn Fields
  9. Being so close to Chancery Lane, several Lord Chancellors lived on the square
  10. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, recent archaeology (conducted by Channel Four’s Time Team) suggests that refugees fleeing their burned homes camped in the square. Remains of large tent pegs were discovered

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?

“Could he be executed in front of my house?”

Oliver Cromwell and his puritan revolution were a thing of the past. The monarchy was restored. Charles II and the Restoration were in full swing. But in 1683, there were some aristocrats who didn’t like the way things were going in the royal court. King Charles and his brother James, the Duke of York, were suspected of being crypto-Catholics bent on restoring the old religion to England. Charles was secretive in his sympathies but James left no doubt that he was an ardent Catholic. That meant, to some leading politicians, that James had to be blocked from ever becoming king. Some went a step further and concluded that both Charles and James had to be killed.

Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution
Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution

The resulting Rye House Plot was uncovered and several peers of the realm including Lord William Russell were put on trial. Almost inevitably, Russell was found guilty. Being found guilty of treason meant death. The only problem for the king was that Russell and his views had some support with the London mob. So an execution at Tower Hill could have led to a riot in favour of the condemned man. There were already rumours of an attempt that would be made to rescue Russell while on the way from Newgate prison to the executioner’s block.

The Duke of York, the king’s brother James, came up with a novel solution. He hated Russell’s guts. After all, Russell and his friends had wanted to exclude James from the royal succession. Therefore – James asked Charles – could Russell possible be executed at his front door in Southampton Square? James and his buddies would therefore be able to watch Russell’s head depart from his shoulders over an agreeable claret from an upstairs window. The king decided this was a bit indecent.

Instead, Russell was taken down Holborn to be decapitated in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I worked at a digital agency on that London square for ten years – a big idyllic space in the centre of the city. Today, you can see office workers taking a lunchtime stroll or the tennis courts being used by the more energetic in the mornings. But on the 21st July, 1683 – Londoners would have been there to watch Russell meet his maker.

The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door
The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door

As Russell was led down Holborn, some of the crowds insulted him while others wept. By all accounts, he sang psalms most of the way. Looking at the mass of people who’d gathered for their fun day out watching his beheading, Russell said he looked forward to being in better company very soon. Regrettably, his executioner wasn’t going to despatch him so quickly. Jack Ketch made a total mess of the job taking at least two axe strikes to get Russell’s head off. He later penned a pamphlet blaming Russell for distracting him!! Ketch later took five strikes to behead the Duke of Monmouth – so he had form.

James, Duke of York, never got to have that execution at his front door. But he did go on to become king for four years. As expected, he pursued policies sympathetic to Catholics. And for that, he was duly overthrown. Politicians with Russell’s leanings invited a Dutch prince, William, to invade England and become king instead – which he duly did.