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Would Elizabeth I recognise Clerkenwell today?

Updated: May 16

A drawing of Clerkenwell in 1560, two years into the reign of Elizabeth I, shows some features still visible today, sort of.

The Village of Clerkenwell in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1560. Yale Center for British Art via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Published in the 19th century, The Village of Clerkenwell in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1560 is based on Civitas Londinum. This is the earliest surviving complete map of London, often mistakenly attributed to a merchant named Ralph Agas, printed from a woodcut whose blocks were made in around 1560. Its style is a combination of a map and a bird's eye view, with major buildings and some landscape features shown in relief.

Clerkenwell as shown in Civitas Londinum, c1560
 

The Map of Early Modern London

The above image of Clerkenwell from Civitas Londinum, also known as the Agas Map or the Woodcut Map, is my own photograph of part of the map, taken when it was on display at the London Metropolitan Archives in April 2022. Note the missing strip as the map moves from Clerkenwell in the west towards the Charterhouse to the east.


Other images in this blog post referring to Civitas Londinum are used with kind permission of Janelle Jenstad and the Map of Early Modern London. This project, based at the University of Victoria, has created a clear, high resolution, online, interactive version of the 'Agas map' (Civitas Londinum). It hugely improves on the only surviving printed copies of the map, made in 1633 from the 1560s woodcut blocks.


To give you an idea of the amazing work on the Map of Early Modern London, compare the above photo with the final image at the end of this post and see how the missing strip has been magically fixed. It is well worth spending time looking at the project's website at https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/agas.htm.

 

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In 1560, Clerkenwell was emerging from its history as a monastic suburb of London, but it retained a largely rural character. Its topography still reflected the presence of the two religious houses that had defined the area for four hundred years until Henry VIII closed all monasteries only some two decades previously.


These were the Priory of the Order of St John and the Nunnery of St Mary, both dating from the 12th century.


The drawing of The Village of Clerkenwell in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1560 at the top of this post has a key that mentions three buildings. They are all linked to the Nunnery or the Priory that had been dissolved. It is possible to locate the sites of all three today, although none survive in their 16th century form.


"1. The Parish Church of St James"

From 'The Village of Clerkenwell in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1560'

The parish church, St James Clerkenwell, had previously been the church of a Nunnery dedicated to St Mary. Founded in the 1150s, the church had been rebuilt and enlarged in 1470.


After the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, the former Nunnery church became the parish church and switched its dedication from St Mary to St James.


The picture below is from Old and New London, a book published in two volumes in 1872 by journalist, author and historian Walter Thornbury. A history of London, Thornbury's book contained many engravings illustrating many buildings that were already by then long gone.

The medieval church was declared unsafe in the late 1780s and was then demolished.


Today's church of St James, completed in 1792 by local architect James Carr, stands on the same location.


"2. The Clerkswell & Spring"

From 'The Village of Clerkenwell in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1560'

Just inside the southwest corner of the walled precinct of St Mary's Nunnery was a spring providing fresh water to the nuns.


There was a faucet channelling some of the water through the boundary wall to a cistern or well outside for the use of the wider community. This well survived the Dissolution and can clearly be seen in the 1560 drawing. It is also distinctly visible in Civitas Londinum.

The Clerks' Well and St James's Church in Civitas Londinum, permission of Janelle Jenstad and the Map of Early Modern London.

A tradition emerged in medieval times where parish clerks from the churches of the City of London, a short distance away, came to perform and attend Mystery Plays near to this spot. As a result, the public well became known as the Clerks' Well and the surrounding area eventually assumed the name 'Clerkenwell'.


The well underwent significant changes over the centuries, but remained in use until it was closed to prevent the risk of the spread of cholera in 1856. It was then filled in and built upon and its location was forgotten until its chance rediscovery during building work in 1924.


Today, the Clerks' Well is visible below the ground floor of Well Court, an office building on Farringdon Lane. It can be glimpsed from the street through the window, or seen more clearly and comfortably from inside, if accompanied by a member of Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association (such as me!).


"3. Part of house belonging to the Knights Templars"

From 'The Village of Clerkenwell in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1560'

The drawing's caption for this building is inaccurate in referring to the Knights Templar. It should refer to The Knights Hospitaller, another name for the Order of St John of Jerusalem.


This was a religious order founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to provide hospitality to pilgrims in the Holy Land, which soon added a military capability during the Crusades. The order was established in England in the 1140s, when it built the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell on land donated by a Norman knight, Jordan de Briset (who also gave the land for St Mary's Nunnery).


The error in the caption is simple to explain. The Knights Templar was a similar, but separate order based off Fleet Street in the area still known as Temple. In 1312 it was dissolved by the Pope in 1312, who gave the Knights Hospitaller most of the Templar properties. (See also Knights of the Round Church at London's Temple.)


As with any Priory, there was a large number of buildings in St John's precinct, including a church, dining rooms, dormitory accommodation, a Great Hall and others. Those that were still intact in the 1560s are shown in a simplified form in Civitas Londinum.

The former Priory of St John in Civitas Londinum, permission of Janelle Jenstad and the Map of Early Modern London.

The 1560 Clerkenwell drawing places the number 3 over the Priory Church of St John, which can be seen in the above image about half way up, just to the left of centre.


However, by this time the church had already been reduced in size after much of its stone was plundered in 1547 during the reign of Edward VI by the Lord Protector Somerset. He used the stone to make himself a mansion on the Strand, which became known as Somerset House (on the site of which a building of the same name stands today).


The original 12th century Priory Church of St John had a circular nave, whose outline is marked today by a stone curve laid into the paving of St John's Square. The circular church was based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (as was Temple Church), but it was rebuilt as a rectangular one in medieval times. Walter Thornbury's book has a (possibly rather fanciful) drawing of it.

The church of St John became a second parish church for Clerkenwell in 1723, when it was rebuilt in a Georgian style. In 1932, it reverted to the new Order of St John, which had been re-established in the late 19th century as an order of chivalry under Queen Victoria. Largely destroyed in World War II, today's red brick rebuild of the church tips its hat to the Georgian style, but on a tight post-war budget.

The Priory Church of St John. Note the curve marking the site of the original circular nave.

However, while there is almost nothing left above ground of the Norman or medieval church, the crypt below ground remains essentially the 12th century original.


Comparing an illustration from Walter Thornbury's book with a recent photograph I took in the crypt shows that it has been cleaned up, but the vaulted ceiling is identical. This is one of only a very few places in London where you can still see Norman architecture.


As a first answer to the question in the title of this post, we can locate the three main features portrayed in The Village of Clerkenwell in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1560, but there is nothing today that is really recognisable from that time as shown in the drawing.


However, turning to the depiction of Clerkenwell in Civitas Londinum, there is another important feature of St John's Priory that we can still see today, namely St John's Gate.


It is illustrated, with other buildings of the Priory that have not survived, in Walter Thornbury's Old and New London in 1872.


St John's Gate

St John's Gate was the southern entrance to the inner precinct of the Priory. Destroyed in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, it was not rebuilt until 1504.


In Civitas Londinum, the gate stands across what is labelled 'St John Street', but is known today as St John's Lane. The longer building behind and to the left of the gate in the picture below is the Priory Church.

Detail of the former Priory of St John in Civitas Londinum, permission of Janelle Jenstad and the Map of Early Modern London.

Today's gate is essentially a 19th century Victorian rebuild, but it retains much of the look of St John's Gate as shown in Civitas Londinum.

St John's Gate from the south

It also looks very similar to the engraving of it in Thornbury's book (viewed from the north):


(To read about St John's Gate's connection with the publication of the world's first magazine, please click here.)


Returning to the question in the title, we can point to St John's Gate as the only building Elizabeth I might recognise (in spite of its Victorianisation). The Clerks' Well and the crypt of St John's Priory Church also have a strong link to Tudor times and earlier.


However, Clerkenwell's two churches of that time have been totally rebuilt (although they are still in the same locations) and almost all the land has been developed, where once the area was very rural.


To conclude, Queen Elizabeth I would recognise very little of the buildings of Clerkenwell today, since so much has changed over more than four centuries.


Nevertheless, the broad sweep of the roads that surrounded Clerkenwell in 1560 can still be clearly identified, with more or less the same names (see the image below).


St John Street still leads north from Smithfield Market past what was the eastern boundary of St John's Priory


Clerkenwell Green, which once separated the precincts of St John's Priory and St Mary's Nunnery, is still there (but no longer green).


Civitas Londinum's 'Turner Street', which once formed the western border of St John's Priory, is now Turnmill Street and it still turns into Cowcross Street ('Cowe Crosse' in Civitas Londinum). However, where once there were just a couple of small cottages on this corner, today there is Farringdon Station.


Next time you emerge at Farringdon, perhaps from a journey on the Elizabeth line - named after the second Queen Elizabeth - try to imagine the rural scene that would have greeted her ancestral namesake.


You may also be interested to read Would Elizabeth I recognise Islington today?

 

For details of how to visit St John's Gate and the Priory Church of St John, including its crypt, go to the website of the Museum of the Order of St John.


St James Clerkenwell is usually open to visitors most of the time.


The Clerks' Well (and much more) can be seen on my walking tour of Clerkenwell, which is next scheduled for public booking on 18 May. As with all my walking tours, it is also available for private group bookings on mutually agreeable dates. Please contact me via the form at the bottom of this page to enquire about private groups.

 

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For details of all London On the Ground walks and tours, please click here.

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