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  • Writer's pictureErin

History - Take One Street, Cheapside

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

Last month I took a detailed look into Aldersgate Street, which you can read all about here. I loved looking back at old maps and finding more about the past of this very historic street. So I’ve decided to do it agian, this time looking at Cheapside.

Google Maps

Today it links St Paul’s Cathedral to Bank junction, but like much of the City of London, it all appears pretty modern, you can even find the City’s only major shopping centre here! And like today, it’s been an important central road through the City of London for a very long time.

The name originates from the Old English word ceapan to buy, as this was the main market place in times gone by. Today it's lined with the likes of Tesco, Rymans and Argos, but some of the streets off Cheapside give some indication of what used to be sold there. Next time you wander down, keep an eye out of Milk Street, Honey Lane and Bread Street to name a few.

As well as being the main street to do your shopping back in the Middle Ages, this was also the royal processional route from the Tower of London to the Palace of Westminster. And on some of the really special occasions, the conduits which would normally provide water for locals, flowed with wine!

But the history of the area goes even further back. In fact the church of St Mary-le-Bow is thought to have Saxon origins, and some examples of Saxon jewellery were found in 1838, now in the Museum of London, including 11th century pewter brooches, rings and beads.

One of the most prominent features on Westcheap (as it used to be known) after the late 13th century, would have been one of the twelve Eleanor Crosses. These monuments were built to commemorate the wife of King Edward I, Eleanor of Castile and were found in a line along the east of England, each marking the resting places along the route on which her body was transported to London.

A drawing of the original Eleanor Cross outside Charing Cross - Public Domain

Sadly the one here is no more, but you can find a replica outside Charing Cross Station in London, plus those at Geddington, Hardingstone and Waltham Cross survive pretty much intact!

Into the 14th century, when Edward's grandson was on the throne, King Edward III had organised a tournment to celebrate the birth of his son, who later became known as the Black Prince. During the event, the wooden stands where Queen Philippa and her entourage were seated suddenly collapsed. Luckily no one was seriously injured, but the angry king ordered the builders of the stand to be put to death, lucky for them the Queen was more forgiving and it seems they were let off. Does that sound familiar? She's also the Queen who persuaded her husband to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais.

Queen Philippa interceding for the Burghers of Calais by J.D. Penrose - Public Domain

To delve a little deeper into the history of Cheapside, I've used one of my favourite websites Layers of London to have a look at some old maps of the area. Looking at the Medieval Map of London (1270-1310) you can see how little the actual road layout has changed.

Today Cheapside starts where St Paul's tube station entrance stands, but looking at this map you can see the Church of St Michael atte Corne.

Medieval Map of London - Layers of London

Also known as St Michael-le-Querne, or St Michael ad Bladum, the name was a reference to a quern-stone (used to grind materials), as there was a corn market in the churchyard.

It was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and never rebuilt, but you can find a remnant of the church in the form of a parish boundary marker on the wall of St Paul's Cathedral Choir School just round the corner.

Another lost church on Cheapside is the Church of St Thomas which used to stand on the eastern end of the street. It was part of the Hospital of St Thomas of Acre, the medieval London headquarters of the Knights of Saint Thomas, a christian military order, first founded as a church in 1227.

Medieval Map of London - Layers of London

They established themselves on the site of the birthplace of the order’s patron saint - Saint Thomas Beckett. Today you’ll spot a plaque and a little bust of the man who is probably most well known for being murdered on the apparent orders of King Henry II in Canterbury Cathedral.

And just outside, in the middle of road, contemporaries would have found the Great Conduit. This underground channel provided drinking water into the City of London, coming from springs of the River Tyburn near Marble Arch.

Today you’ll find a plaque on the pavement outside Tesco, as well as one of the wall, marking the very spot.

I think it’s astonishing to see how many churches would have been in the close vicinity looking at old maps of the area, but one to note in particular is St Peter Westcheap. It’s another one of the churches lost in 1666, but unlike many of those which were never rebuilt, there’s still a little reminder of it.

Just on the corner of Wood Street you can find a tiny little gated green space which used to be part of the burial ground. On the railings you can still find a figure of St Peter, to whom the church was dedicated to. He holds a key and book which he is often depicted with.

Just twenty years before the Great Fire of London, just across the road from the church, a Jacobean goldsmith is believed to have buried some of his stock during the English Civil War (1642-51).

Discovered in 1912, a 400 piece collection of 16th/17th century found buried in a wooden box was unearthed, with a fine collection of rings, brooches, gemstones, cameos, fan holders and more. But what’s really cool is where some of the gemstones would have come from originally. It’s thought that some came from as far and wide as Sri Lanka, India, Brazil, Burma, Persia and Hungary!

Today the items are found in the collections of the Museum of London, the British Museum and the V&A. Now that’s a bit odd for the hoard to be spread out isn’t it?

It seems as though some lucky workmen who stumbled across the find kept it to themselves and sold on the items to one “Stony Jack”. Ok, now I might go a little bit off topic here, as I found this incredibly interesting…

Real name George Fabian Lawrence was a successful antiques dealer, and quite a shady little character. He’s often credited with being responsible for practically every single archaeological find in London between 1895 until 1939, the year he died. Aswell as running a dodgy sounding antiques shop, he would apparently hang around various building sites in London, making friends with the workmen, offering them a cigarette I suppose, buying them a drink after work, and casually offering to buy any curiosities they may dig up. And it seems as though he was on site when worked stumbled on the Cheapside Hoard…

But as he also worked for the London Museum (now MOL) as an “Inspector of Excavations”, he sold most of the collection to them, a few bits to the British Museum and a chain to the V&A.

Although the collection won't be on display until 2024 when the Museum of London relocates to Smithfield, have a look at their online display here. Or even better, the other day they tweeted the "Tweetside Hoard" which you can view on here - it's so cool! I particularly adore the cameo of Queen Elizabeth I, the beautiful gold pendant cross with inset opal and diamond, as well as the “Oval cased verge clock-watch with alarm and calendar”!

I hope you have enjoyed finding out more about a street which appears holds much history, despite looking incredibly modern today.

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