Bishopsgate: history and map

Bishopsgate was originally the entry point for travellers coming from the northeastern shires or the exit for travellers coming through the City across London Bridge, the only bridge on the Thames at that time, from the southeastern ports of Dover and Gravesend.  In medieval times these gates would be closed at night and opened again in the morning.  The City Wall surrounded central London in a sort of semi-circle, bounded on the south by the river, an area of only a single square mile.  It’s shown on the map here in a light tan color.  Persons and places of most interest are in bold type.

The Agas map, a large woodcut birdseye map first created c.1561 and revised and republished several times over the following decade was given that name by mistake by the great engraver George Vertue, (it’s certainly too early for the cartographer, Ralph Agas).  The section here, roughly 1/8th of the whole map, shows the area surrounding Bishopsgate Street from the river at the bottom to Norton Folgate at the top c. 1561-1570.  Originally a little over 2′ x 6′, cut on 28 blocks of wood, this section shows London’s earliest theater district, and Oxford’s location at its center.

Bishopsgate birdseye map c.1565
Bishopsgate birdseye map c.1565

To enlarge the map, click on the thumbnail map here, then click again on the larger image for a version that fills your screen.  To scan the entire map from top to bottom, use the scroll bar.  Keep the map window open so you can toggle back and forth from this page to the map as you follow the locations of the various places described in the text.  Although we can’t take the shape of the smaller buildings on the map as totally accurate, we can certainly trust the bigger and more famous buildings, their relative locations, the names of streets, and so forth.

Oxford didn’t begin living at Fisher’s Folly until 1580, by which time there would have been more buildings than there were in the 1560s, but this is the best map for showing where the different points of interest were located.  Names of persons and places important to the history of the London Stage and the Earl of Oxford are in bold type.  I’ve also added color to the buildings most pertinent to his story.  No effort has been made to represent the actual color of these buildings, which, I assume consisted largely of the same cream walls, brown timbers, and gray slate as we see in paintings from the period.

Named for the old gate that was still standing in Oxford’s time, and that guarded the entrance to the City along it’s ancient northern edge, Bishopsgate parish straddled the thoroughfare known as Bishopsgate Street or further south, Gracious (Grace Church) Street, the ancient post road that led north and west from the southern ports in Kent, through Surrey, across London Bridge, and through the City.  Passing through Bishopsgate, it continued north past Norton Folgate (at the top of the map) and Hackney then on to the northern and eastern shires of Essex and Suffolk, where Oxford was born and where he still had roots and family.

Oxford must have been attracted to Bishopsgate––some distance from his family’s city mansion at London Stone (shown in purple with a red roof) at the lower left corner of the map) or his early days in Westminster––for its proximity to the theaters.  Three major City theater inns, including the Bull (here brown with a yellow roof) and the Cross Keyes (here yellow with a brown roof) were located on this street inside the City, evidence of its use by travellers.  That Burbage’s big public arena, the Theatre, (shown in ochre with a red roof at the northern end of Bishopsgate Street) and it’s companion stage, The Curtain,(not shown) were also located on this road, shows that Burbage and his patrons were aware of the advantage of a location a few hundred yards from the nation’s busiest thoroughfare.  (Click here to see the distance between Fisher’s Folly, Shoreditch, where Burbage built his stage, and Blackfriars, where the Chapell Children performed plays for the West End, both built in 1576.)

Bishopsgate Without

Writing in 1878, historian Walter Thornbury states:

The Ward of Bishopsgate, having partially escaped the Great Fire, is still especially rich in old houses. In most cases the gable ends have been removed, and, in many, walls have been built in front of the ground floors up to the projecting stories; but frequently the backs of the houses present their original structure. Mr. Hugo, writing in the year 1857, has described nearly all places of interest; but many of these have since been modified or pulled down. . . .

Shoreditch, straddling the gate at its center, had nothing to do with a ditch or Jane Shore; its name is an Anglicized form of the name of an important early resident, one Soerdiche.  In the section north of the Wall was located Oxford’s residence during the 1580s, Fisher’s Folly (shown here with a green lawn which we know contained a bowling alley).  The Folly was located across the street from the parish church, St. Botolph’s Bishopsgate (as distinct from St. Botolph’s Aldgate, a short way to the east).  Thornbury writes:

The church of St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, stands on the banks of the City Ditch . . .  The registers of the church (says Cunningham) record the baptism of Edward Alleyn, the player (born 1566); the marriage, in 1609, of Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, to Ann Cornwallis, daughter of Sir William Cornwallis; and the burials of the following persons of distinction: 1570, Sept. 13, Edward Alleyn, poet to the Queen; 1623, Feb. 17, Stephen Gosson, rector of this church, and author of “The School of Abuse . . . ,” 4to, 1579; 1628, June 21, William, Earl of Devonshire (from whom Devonshire Square, adjoining, derives its name). . .

Across from the Folly stood Bedlam, the infamous hospital for the insane, that gave us our present term for a state of deafening chaos.  There mental cases were incarcerated in Oxford’s time, with sightseers coming to observe and laugh at the “poor Toms” through barred windows.  Thornbury: “The first Bethlehem Hospital was originally a priory of canons, with brothers and sisters, formed in 1246, in Bishopsgate Without, by Simon Fitz Mary, a London sheriff.  During the Dissolution, Henry VIII gave it to the City of London, who turned it into an hospital for the insane. . . . ”

With Bedlam across the street and the Artillery grounds located just to the northeast (note the men with bows and arrows), life at the Folly would have had its share of noise:

the Tower gunners came every Thursday, to practise their exercise, firing their ‘brass pieces of great artillery’ at earthen butts. . . .  Teasel Close [as it was previously known] was the practice-ground of the old City Trained Band, established in 1585, during the alarm of the expected Spanish Armada. ‘Certain gallant, active, and forward citizens,’ says Stow, ‘voluntarily exercising themselves for the ready use of war, so as within two years there was almost 300 merchants, and others of like quality, very sufficient and skilful to train and teach the common soldiers.’

The sounds of the militia firing off their canons and short arms would have added a militant tone to the conversations and music at Fisher’s Folly.  Thornbury turns to Oxford’s manor:

Devonshire Square, a humble place now [he’s writing in 1878], was originally the site of a large house with pleasure gardens, bowling-greens, &c., built and laid by Jasper Fisher, one of the six clerks in Chancery, a Justice of the Peace, and a freeman of the Goldsmiths’ Company.  The house being considered far too splendid for a mere clerk in Chancery, much in debt, was nicknamed “Fisher’s Folly.” After Fisher’s downfall, Edward, Earl of Oxford, Lord High Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth, took it.  The Queen lodged here during one of her visits to the City. . . .

In fact the Queen made several summer progress visits to the Folly during the early 1570s while Fisher was still living there, which suggests that he wasn’t quite the lowly clerk that history would have him.  It also suggests that Oxford knew the place well before he bought it.  Late in 1588, facing bankruptcy, he sold it to his friend, Sir William Cornwallis.  From Cornwallis it passed to Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland (nephew of Oxford’s boyhood companion, the 3rd Earl), and from him (whether directly or through someone in between) to Oxford’s contemporary, William Cavendish, first Earl of Devonshire.  Thornbury:

The Earls of Devonshire held the house from 1620 to 1670, but during the Civil Wars, when the sour-faced [puritan] preachers were all-powerful, the earl’s City mansion became a conventicle, and resounded with the unctuous groans of the crop-haired listeners. Butler, in his Hudibras, says the Rump Parliament resembled “No part of the nation /But Fisher’s Folly congregation.”

In 1708, the square was considered “a pretty though very small square, inhabited by gentry and other merchants;” while Strype describes it as “an airy and creditable place, where the Countess of Devonshire, in my memory, dwelt in great repute for her hospitality.”

Devonshire House in 1896
Devonshire House in 1896

This was not the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who also lived there, though much later.  Eventually falling into dispair in the 20th century, Devonshire House was razed, but the ground on which Oxford’s Folly once stood is still known as Devonshire Square.  The square itself, now in the center of London’s financial district, has been preserved, though all the buildings are modern.

The Pye Inn, located one door down from the Folly at the corner of Bishopsgate and Houndsditch (here colored ochre with a reddish roof), was owned in 1580 by the Alleyn family, whose son, Edward Alleyn, age fourteen at the time Oxford moved in, would soon become the first superstar of the newborn London theater.  Named not for the dish, but for the bird, the magpie, later it would be known as The Dolphin Inn.

The row of buildings that extend from the Pye to the east on the north side of Houndsditch may include those that caused the fight between University Wit Thomas Watson and John Bradley that landed Watson and Christopher Marlowe in prison in 1592.  The incident took place somewhere on Hog Lane (seen here in tan and later known as Petticoat Lane), a long winding road, barely more than a footpath then, that passed close behind the Folly.  It may have been in one of the houses in this row closest to Aldgate,or in one nearby but not built when the map was made,that the infamous spy, Robert Poley, one of the agents reponsible for murdering Marlowe in 1593, was residing in the 1590s.

Poley was an agent of the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, who lived just around the corner from the Folly and its crew of writers, musicians, and secretaries in an aging pile known as The Papey, located just inside the Wall (here colored yellow with a green garden), that, until the Dissolution, had been a retirement home for indigent priests.

The following seems to describe the exact location of Fisher’s Folly:

In the house No. 18, at the corner of Devonshire Street, Mr. Hugo discovered, as he imagined, a portion of the Earl of Devonshire’s house, or that of Lord John Powlet.

The little building between the Folly and the Pye was Paulet’s residence.  Like many residents of Bishopsgate Without, John Paulet was a recusant who preferred to live outside the jurisdiction of the Protestant City officials.  It’s more likely that the decorations described belonged to Fisher’s Folly:

It was of the Elizabethan age, and one room contained a rich cornice of masks, fruit, and leaves, connected by ribands.  In another there were, over the fireplace, the arms of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, . . . Shakespeare’s friend.

This may date from the late 1580s, when Oxford was looking to Southampton as a patron (and son-in-law), or from the 1590s when the manor belonged to Southampton’s friend, the 5th Earl of Rutland, or even possibly from a much earlier time when Southampton’s father, the second Earl, may have been a friend of Jasper Fisher’s.

Fisher’s Folly was built next to, or very near, Houndsditch, which in earliest days had been an open flowing stream that ran parallel to the north side of the Wall.  Probably covered by Oxford’s time, it still had the bad reputation that gave it its name. Thornbury: “Stow speaks of the old City ditch as a filthy place, full of dead dogs, but before his time covered over and enclosed by a mud wall,” one that

though not a dignified place, has a legend of its own.  Richard of Cirencester says that here the body of Edric, the murderer of his sovereign Edmund Ironside, was contemptuously thrown by Canute, whom he had raised to the throne.  When Edric, flushed with his guilty success, came to claim of Canute the promised reward of his crime—the highest situation in London—the Danish king cried, “I like the treason, but detest the traitor.  Behead this fellow, and as he claims the promise, place his head on the highest pinnacle of the Tower.”  Edric was then drawn by his heels from Baynard’s Castle, tormented to death by burning torches, his head placed on the turret, and his scorched body thrown into Houndsditch.”

This legend is of interest considering the strong likelihood that it while he was living so close to Houndsditch that Oxford wrote the play Edmund Ironside for the Queen’s Men.

Thornbury continues:  “On the side of the ditch over against this mud wall was a field at one time belonging to the Priory of the Holy Trinity, which, having been given at the Dissolution to Sir Thomas Audley, was handed over by him to Magdalen College, Cambridge, of which he was the founder.”  This must have been the property that later caused the lawsuit that has been connected to the final version of The Merchant of Venice.

With the decline of the neighborhood in the early 17th century, Houndsditch became the purview of the old clothes dealers, the rag-and-bone shops of the City.  Thornbury quotes Ben Jonson:

‘Where got’st thou this coat, I marle? [marvel]’ says Well-bred in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour; to which Brainworm answers, ‘Of a Houndsditch man, sir; one of the devil’s near kinsmen, a broker.’  Beaumont and Fletcher call the place contemptuously Dogsditch:  ‘More knavery, and usury, and foolery, and brokery than Dogsditch.’”

North of the Folly on Bishopsgate was the Liberty of Norton Folgate, known before the Dissolution as the Priory of Holywell, where, interestingly, in 1536, Oxford’s father married his first wife, Dorothy Neville, in a double ceremony with the Earl of Rutland, father of Oxford’s boyhood friend, Edward Manners, and the other Neville daughter.  The Priory and much of the land surrounding Norton Folgate and it’s church (here colored ochre with a red roof) had been the property of the Earls of Rutland since the reign of Henry III.  With the Dissolution, the King gave a portion of the land abutting the Priory land to his Porter, who passed on to one Giles Allen, who, in 1576, leased a portion of it to James Burbage for his public Theatre (ochre with a red roof).

Bishopsgate Within (the Wall)

Among the nasty charges laid at Oxford’s door in 1580 by Charles Arundell––thirsting for revenge for revealing his treasonable plotting to the Queen––are some important bits of information, among them that before moving to Fisher’s Folly, Oxford had been living in Broad Street (Nelson 215).  What seems clear is that at some point between his return from Italy in 1576 and his move to Fisher’s Folly, probably in 1580, Oxford lived for a time on this short little street, so close to the City theater inns.

Thornbury states: “Old Broad Street, as late as the reign of Charles I, was . . . one of the most fashionable streets in London. In Elizabeth’s reign, Gilbert Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, lived here . . . .  Old Broad Street leads us into the interesting region of Austin Friars [shown here in yellow] a district rich in antiquities.  Here once stood a priory of begging friars, founded, in 1243, by Humphrey Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex . . . .  The church was ornamented ‘with a fine spired steeple, small, high, and straight. . . .  At the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII granted the friars’ house and grounds to William Paulet, first Marquis of Winchester, Comptroller of the Household, and Lord High Treasurer, who made the place his town residence.

It was possibly here that in 1546, Oxford’s father, the 16th earl, lived for a time under Paulet’s watchful eye, during the troubles that caused the break-up with his first wife, in company with two other temporary residents, the young Sir John Perrot (DNB) and Sir Henry Neville (of Bergavenny).  The church was given by Edward VI to the Dutchmen of London, to have their services in “for avoiding of all sects of Ana-Baptists, and such like.”  So this was the Dutch Church on the walls of which were pasted the “satirical verses” that, in 1593, helped send Christopher Marlowe to perdition.

“Here,” says Mr. Jesse, “lies the pious founder of the priory, Humphrey de Bohun, who stood godfather at the font for Edward I, and who afterwards fought against Henry III, with the leagued barons, at the battle of Evesham.  Here were interred the remains of the great Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, the most powerful subject in Europe during the reigns of King John and Henry III, and no less celebrated for his chequered and romantic fortunes. Here rests Edmund, son of Joan Plantagenet, ‘the Fair Maid of Kent,’ and half-brother to Richard II. . . .

Again, it was while living at Fisher’s Folly around the corner that Oxford wrote for the Queen’s Men the earliest versions of the great history plays that dealt with the lives of some of the people whose images adorned the tombs and crypts of this ancient church.

Here also rest the mangled remains of the barons who fell at the battle of Barnet, in 1471, and who were interred together in the body of the church; of John de Vere, twelfth Earl of Oxford, who was beheaded on Tower Hill with his eldest son, Aubrey, in 1461 . . .

It was at the battle of Barnet that the retainers of the 13th Earl were routed by the forces of Yorkist Edward IV.  Oxford escaped to France, from whence, after a number of adventures, he managed to get back to England to defeat Edward’s brother, Richard III, thus putting the Tudors on the throne. The 17th Earl may have been a bit blasé about the many tombs of his ancestors located round and about, but he must have looked in on them once or twice while living so close by.

Speaking of Richard III, a few hundred yards to the east stood a palatial mansion once occupied by the unhappy monarch, Crosby Hall. (here colored pink).  Thornbury describes it as “one of the finest examples of Gothic domestic architecture of the Perpendicular period, . . . built about 1470 by Sir John Crosby, grocer and woolstapler” on ground leased from the Prioress of the Convent of St. Helen’s [here spelled St. Elen’s], for whom this parish inside the Wall was named.  Built of stone and timber, Crosby Hall had a frontage of 110 feet on Bishopsgate Street.

Crosby Hall in 1790
Crosby Hall in 1790

Sir John, member of Parliament for London, alderman, warden of the Grocers’ Company, and mayor of the Staple of Elans, was one of several brave citizens knighted by Edward IV for his . . . resistance to the attack on the City made by that Lancastrian filibuster, the Bastard of Falconbridge . . . .

––another historical figure that Oxford immortalized while living just up the street, if, as I believe, the first version of King John was written in the 1580s for the Queen’s Men.  Today what’s left of the mansion is now located in Chelsea as a memorial to one of its most famous residents: “Between 1516 and 1523, Crosby Hall was inhabited by the great Sir Thomas More, first Under Treasurer, and afterwards Lord High Chancellor of England.”  So it must have been this house that the great Erasmus, complimenting his friend More, compared to the Academy of Plato, “or rather to ‘a school and an exercise of the Christian religion; all its inhabitants, male and female, applying  ‘their leisure to liberal studies and profitable reading . . . .'”

It’s also as close to certain as it’s possible to get that the early manuscript play, “The Play of Sir Thomas More,” was written by Oxford in 1581, dictated by him to his secretary Anthony Munday and three other scribes, a play in which More plays one of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks on Erasmus, switching identities with a servant.

In 1566 Alderman Bond purchased [Crosby Hall] for £1,500, and repaired and enlarged it, building, it is said, a turret on the roof. . . . Bond entertained the Spanish ambassador [there], as his sons afterwards did the Danish ambassador. . . .  From the sons of Alderman Bond, Crosby Hall was purchased, in 1594, by Sir John Spencer, for £2,560. . . .

This was the John Spencer who was Lord Mayor of London in 1594, who is sometimes confused with the wool merchant whose daughters were Spenser’s “Phyllis, Charillis, and Sweet Amaryllis.”

In 1470 the widow of Sir John sold it to “that dark and wily intriguer, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.,” i.e., Richard III, whose story was first dramatized in the 1580s for the Queen’s Men as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York. “‘There,’ says Sir Thomas More, ‘he lodged himself, and little by little all folks drew unto him, so that the Protector’s court was crowded and King Henry’s left desolate.”

Not yet King, Richard was still only “the Protector” of his nephews, the little Princes, of whose murder he would be accused by all Lancastrians, including Shakespeare.   It was in the Council Chamber of Crosby Hall that the mayor of London offers Richard the crown, and where, in Act I Scene 2 of the play, Richard persuades Anne to await his return from the funeral of the murdered King Henry.  Thornbury continues:

In 1501 the Mayor of London was living at Crosby Place, where he entertained Princess Katherine of Arragon two days before her marriage to Prince Arthur, and not long after the ambassadors of the Emperor Maximilian when they came to condole with Henry VII on the death of the prince.  Sir John Rest, Lord Mayor in 1516, was the next distinguished tenant, at whose show there appeared the grand display of ‘four giants, one unicorn, one dromedary, one camel, one ass, one dragon, six hobby-horses, and sixteen naked boys.’

Say what?

Thornbury mentions a particularly interesting tradition that unfortunately no one has yet been able to verify: “It was during this reign that Crosby House was for a time tenanted by the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, “Sydney’s sister, Pembrokes mother.”  He adds: “. . . and at her table Shakespeare may have often sat as a welcome guest.”  No doubt, if and when Mary Sidney and Oxford were able to see past the rivalry of their respective coteries.  If such a get-together did occur, it’s likely it wouldn’t have been until she was on her own, following her son’s accession to the Pembroke title in 1601.

Anthony Bacon (brother of the great Francis), resided in a house in Bishopsgate Street, not far from the Bull Inn, to the great concern of his watchful mother, who not only dreaded that the plays and interludes acted at the Bull might corrupt his servants, but also objected on her own son’s account to the parish, as being without a godly clergyman.

Please continue to use the map to spot anything located in this section of London. (To see the route between the two first theaters built in London, Burbage’s public stage in Shoreditch and Blackfriars on the Thames, just inside the City Wall close by Westminster and the West End audience, click here.)

4 thoughts on “Bishopsgate: history and map

  1. Thanks for the markups! It has never been clear where Toddes Alley was and if it figures in any histories. Am I correct that the Boar’s Head Inn and Tavern are pretty close to the bounds of this map?

  2. Actually quite a bit further east. It seems it was on the north side of Whitechapel St. a little way east of Aldgate near the end of Hog Lane. Have you read C.J. Sisson’s book on the Boar’s Head Theatre? Many possible connections to our story. Too bad we don’t have this kind of information on some of the other theaters.

    1. Stowe’s Survey of London, first published 1598, comments on the Dolphin Inn on page 149 of the Everyman edition (1929) in the section on Bishopsgate Ward. Evidently it was known as the Pye, or Magpie, Inn when the Alleyns owned it, but I have no idea when the change might have occurred. Some documentation might survive from when/if the Alleyns sold it.

      Stowe’s Survey is the best book for wandering the streets of Old London. Together with the birdseye maps of the period, you can almost feel you’re there. You must always keep in mind that the land beneath London was a series of low hills approaching the river, so there must have been many steeply slanted streets that were probably no good for carts, only people and horses, particularly as you get close to the river. This of course can’t be seen from the maps.

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