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Would Elizabeth I recognise Islington today?

An old greetings card shows 'The Village of Islington or Iseldon In the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I'.

I recently came across an old greetings card with this illustration. It cleverly adopts the style of Civitas Londinum, a woodcut whose blocks were made most likely in the 1560s (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I). The style is a combination of a map and a bird's eye view, with major buildings and some landscape features shown in relief.

There is nothing on the card to indicate its date of production, but it was acquired in 1987 from the now defunct Canonbury Bookshop. I assume that the drawing was created in the 1970s or 1980s.


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In the middle of the 16th century, shortly before Elizabeth came to the throne, Islington was a rural village outside London, with around 450 inhabitants. It consisted of Upper Street and Lower Street (now Essex Road) and not much else apart from fields and a few grand houses. However, it did have 15 inns/taverns, which works out at one for every 15 inhabitants!

Upper Street was part of the major north/south route for drovers bringing livestock into Smithfield Market. The inns were used by drovers as a stopover, while Islington's fields were used as pastures for their animals and local dairy cattle.

That 16th century village, and some of the mansions it contained, are well captured in the illustration. The picture includes a key, which notes eight buildings and locations.

How many of these can we still see today? Let's go through them, starting in each case with what is written in the key to the illustration.


1. Canonbury House and Tower, owned by Sir John Spencer, Lord Mayor of London 1594-95. The Tower and the octagonal houses at the corners of the gardens are still standing.

Canonbury House was the country retreat of the Canons and Prior of St Bartholomew's Priory in Smithfield. The de Berners family, the biggest landowners in Islington since the time of the Domesday Book in 1080, gave the Canons the triangle of land that consequently became known as Canonbury in the 13th century. It is bounded by Upper Street to the west, Lower Street (now Essex Road) to the east and Hopper Lane (now St Paul's Road) to the north.

In the early 16th century the penultimate Prior of St Bartholomew's, William Bolton, built an impressive courtyard mansion here. After Henry VIII closed all the Monasteries, Canonbury House passed through the hands of many prominent people, including Thomas Cromwell (chief minister to Henry), Anne of Cleves (Henry's fourth wife), John Dudley (Duke of Northumberland, father in law of 'Nine Day Queen' Lady Jane Grey) and Sir John Spencer.

It was Spencer who added the Tower in the late 16th century, the only part of the Tudor Canonbury House that survives today. It has had some restoration work, notably in the early 20th century, but can claim to be the oldest building in Islington.

Canonbury Tower today

The octagonal brick pavilions placed by Bolton at the southern corners of the gardens also still stand, but are now incorporated into 19th century private houses.

The one that marked the garden's southwest corner (on today's Alwyne Villas) still displays Prior Bolton's symbol in stone just below a window. This symbol, or rebus (an image of a bolt, or crossbow arrow, passing through a barrel, known as a tun, forming a visual pun on his surname: bolt tun). The same rebus can also be seen in the church of St Bartholomew the Great at Smithfield.


2. The Parish Church.

The Islington parish church of St Mary's at the time of Queen Elizabeth I had been built in the 1480s, although there had likely been a Saxon and a Norman church before that.

The Tudor church depicted in the illustration was pulled down in 1751 as it was too small for Islington's growing population. It was also rather dilapidated, although its stone tower was strong enough to resist attempts to bring it down with gunpowder. It only tumbled when a fire was set in its foundations and wooden scaffolding erected around it.

A new church, neoclassical in style, was completed in 1754 by a joiner/architect named Launcelot Dowbiggin. His influences for the spire included Christopher Wren's St Mary le Bow and St Bride's, both in the City, and George Dance the Elder's St Leonard's Shoreditch.

Dowbiggin's church suffered a direct hit from a German bomb on 9 September 1944, the third night of the Blitz. Only his tower and spire remain, while the body of the church that we see today dates from 1956. It was designed by architects John Seely and Paul Paget, who became specialists in post-war church reconstruction.

St Mary's Church, Islington

3. The supposed Residence of Sir Walter Raleigh. Afterwards converted to the Pied Bull Tavern.

Sir Walter Raleigh, the soldier, explorer and poet, was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, but executed under her successor James I. He may or may not have had a large house on Upper Street, roughly where the junction with Theberton Street is today.

There certainly was a large old house on that location, which had become the Pied Bull tavern by 1725. The pub that stands on the site today is called the Bull, an echo of this previous incarnation.

The Bull at the junction of Upper Street and Theberton Street

4. Islington Green, with the stocks and the maypole.

Islington Green remains a green open space, the point where Upper Street and Essex Road divide, but there are no longer any stocks or a maypole.