Taking a dead man’s head to the pub

Londoners do some very odd things but taking a dead man’s head to the pub is probably one of the more unusual. Read on!

There’s a monument that many office workers pass under every day that they’d never realise has a ghoulish past. It’s an innocuous old gateway that leads from the front of St Paul’s cathedral into Paternoster Square. A lovely old thing with two statues on either side. What’s not to like?

Temple Bar

Templar Bar – a ghoulish secret

Only you have to imagine this gateway – Temple Bar – in its original location. For centuries, it bestrode Fleet Street as the westernmost entrance to the City of London. The spot is now marked by a late Victorian monument – a sort of pillar – with a dragon on top. The reason for Templar Bar’s removal was that by the 1870s, the 17th century gateway was causing serious traffic jams with its narrow arches. So it was taken apart stone by stone and re-erected in a park owned by a brewer for many years before being moved to its current spot in 2004.

The ghoulish part of its history is that Temple Bar was more often than not surmounted by the heads of traitors on spikes in the eighteenth century. Sir Christopher Wren had designed the arch to replace one incinerated in the Great Fire of 1666. The statues on it, by the way, are of Queen Elizabeth I and James I on one side and Charles I and Charles II on the other. After the Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the heads of leading rebels decorated the top. This was to be an object lesson to bolshy Londoners that anybody taking on the kings of England would see their head join the others.

One of the heads was that of a leading rebel against the king, involved in the so-called “Jacobite” uprisings, called Christopher Layer. Like many traitors, his head remained on top of Templar Bar for years. In fact, you could hire some glasses to take a closer look if you wanted. But one stormy night, Layer’s head blew off his spike and bounced into Fleet Street. It was picked up by an attorney called John Pearce who took it to a local public house and showed if off to his friends.

Christopher Layer

Christopher Layer’s head was taken to the pub – the indignity!

An account of this incident I have before me from the early nineteenth century says that a friend of Isaac Newton and eccentric collector Dr Richard Rawlinson asked if he could buy the head. Apparently, he was palmed off with somebody else’s head (where were all these heads coming from!!). When he died, Rawlinson “directed it to be buried in his right hand”. I know – weird eh? And so what happened to Layer’s head? Well, the story has it that it was buried under the floor of the aforementioned public house.

Crimes committed by very drunk people

Being half Irish, I’ve had a couple of drinks in my time. And I thought I’d look at crimes committed over the centuries in London by people who were very, very drunk. And what happened to them!

DRUNK CRIMES: Insulting the king

On the 23 August 1676, a Scottish sailor was found guilty at the Old Bailey of uttering “wicked and detestable words” about King Charles II. He also said he hoped Britain would be damned and destroyed. Unfortunately, his ravings were heard by what the court described as a “Gentleman of Quality” and therefore he was put on trial.

This was a time when insulting the monarch could have very serious consequences. The man had just heard that the king’s barge had sailed past on the river Thames and this triggered a flow of expletives. And it was noted that he was extraordinarily drunk.

However, by the time he was in court, he was sobbing, claiming he had nothing against the king and pleading for Christian mercy. Luckily the judge just fined him.

DRUNK CRIMES: Shoplifting

In the same year, 1676, there’s an account of “two legerdemain ladies of profound experience in the mysteries of shoplifting”. What a great way of describing a couple of thieves! One of them had already been whipped “at the cart” in public but that didn’t stop them stealing some expensive callicoe.

Once caught, their excuse to avoid another whipping was that they had been absolutely drunk on brandy and no idea what they were doing. Regrettably for them, the judge decided that was no grounds for avoiding a guilty sentence.

DRUNK CRIMES: Slagging off the Protestant religion

In 1678, Matthew Momford committed the terrible crime of getting drunk and slagging off the Protestant religion. In strongly anti-Catholic England, this was a very grave offence. At this time, Jesuit and Catholic priests were still being hanged, drawn and quartered in London as agents of the Pope and traitors.

So Matthew was very unwise to get half cut on booze and loudly declare he was a “Papist” (Catholic) and that all Protestants should be burned. Once arrested and sober, Matthew declared that he was a good Protestant again and that his words had just been drunk rubbish.

The judge said he felt Matthew had no religion and only a hefty fine of one hundred pounds – a huge sum at that time – would bring him back to God. And until he could pay the fine, he’d be imprisoned. Plus he would have to show good behaviour for ten years.