AN American visitor asked me this week if there was such a thing as "Catholic London." It struck me as an apposite question for the silly season.
Not that the question itself is silly. Nor, for that matter, is it unduly sectarian, even in this (supposedly) enlightened and ecumenical age.
For there is undoubtedly a Catholic dimension to the history of London about which,
i in fact, a new book could possibly be written. The last of importance was the indispensable Catholic London, by Douglas Newton, published in 1950.
The "dimension" in question, moreover, is not primarily supplied by London's Catholic churches as such. Interesting indeed though many of them are, they are almost all relatively modern. The chief fascination for the searcher after "Catholic London" is supplied at a more subtle and often almost hidden level.
For Catholic associations penetrating deeply into the past one must, for example, look to pre-Reformation churches, as well as to the clues supplied by what I would call London's "holy places," its place names, its monuments, even its prisons, of bygone days.
Henry terrorist tactics
TO start off with the latter, one must look briefly at where some of such prisons were situated. The only former prison of its kind still standing is the Tower of London. Immediately on entering, on the left, is the Bell Tower, where Sts John Fisher and Thomas More were imprisoned.
It was from a window here that More watched the Carthusian Priors set out on their Via Crucis to Tyburn. Thus began a trickle that was to become a flood by Queen
Elizabeth l's time. (to highlight such facts is not to belittle the horrors of the Marian persecutions.) After the Tower, the most evocative spot was, perhaps, the old prison of Newgate. It is now the site of the Old Bailey, next to which once stood (in King John's day) the "new" gate into the City.
Here, as early as 1537, nine Carthusians and two Franciscans were among the first victims of Henry VIII's terrorist tactics. They were left, standing and chained to pillars, to die of starvation. (It is sometimes forgotten that More and Fisher were not the only Henrican martyrs.) At Ludgate Circus one is near the sites of two notorious prisons, Bridewell and The Fleet. Here once flowed the Fleet river which entered the Thames at Blackfriars, once a Dominican Friary. On the river's western bank was the former royal palace of Bridewell (St Bridget's Well) which, under Elizabeth, became a workhouse and prison and was soon filled with "treasonable" Catholics. It was here that the infamous Topcliffe exercised his inventive genius for torture. Robert Southwell, S J, one of his victims, describes the cruelties in this prison as scarcely believable.
The Fleet Prison stood on what is now the eastern side of Farringdon Street, near the present Congregational Memorial Hall. Many Catholics passed years here before being finally executed. It was also the place of imprisonment of Bishops Gardiner ' and Bonner under Edward VI.
The latter was later confined to the Marshalsea in Southwark, dying there as a prisoner in 1569. There were two other prisons in Southwark which housed Catholic prisoners. One was the King's Bench, and the other the Clink, whence the expression "in the clink." Its site is today recalled by Clink Street, near Southwark Cathedral.
The procession of Catholic martyrs to Tyburn, starting with the Carthusians watched by More in 1535 as they left the Tower, went on at intervals for nearly 150 years: The last to die there was Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh, in 1681.
The great triangular gallows erected in 1571 remained a fixture until 1759. It was large enough for the hanging of 24 victims at a time, 8 on each side. Adjacent Marble Arch (Nash's imitation of Rome's Arch of Constantine) forms an appropriate, if unintentional, memorial. It is a reminder of pagan Rome "drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus "(Apoc. xvii, 6) and of Constantine who gave the Church the liberty for which its first martyrs had died.
Monuments to the Popish faction
CATHOLIC "monuments" in London are, as such, naturally few. But there are many which have special interest for Catholics though not specifically Catholic themselves.
First of all there is The Monument. This was erected between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire. Sentences were added to the inscriptions in 1681 (the Titus Oates period) attributing the fire to "the treachery and malice of the Polish Faction."
On the accession of James II this calumny was obliterated. But it was replaced soon after the arrival of William III in 1689. It was not until 1830 that the offensive inscription was finally erased. And this was done at the instance of the first Jew to be elected Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Solomons.
There are only two outdoor statues in London older than the 17th century (King Alfred in Trinity Square and Queen Elizabeth in the churchyard of St Dunstan's Fleet Street.) Public statues in the modern sense began with the Stuarts. That of Charles I at the head of Whitehall was cast in 1633. Britain's last two Catholic monarchs, Charles II (who changed religions on his deathbed) and James II were the work of Grinling Gibbons. He represented them as Roman generals. They stand respectively at Chelsea Hospital and in front of the National Gallery.
Historical statues of Catholics on relatively modern buildings are too numerous to mention in a small space. But I have always been specially struck by the amount of Catholics among the many life-size portrait statues on the podium of Albert Memorial. On its four sides are represented, in high relief, musicians and poets, painters, architects and sculptors.
Of the 169 selected representatives of these arts, nearly 100 are Catholics. Most prominent, perhaps, are the figues of Inigo Jones, the architect, and T A Arne who composed Catholic music (to say nothing of Rule Britannia) and the contemporary portrait statues of the immortal Pugin and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.
Pope's head and the Cardinal's cap
AS for "place names", one hardly knows where to begin. Those recalling former pubs (or "inns") form a considerable category of their own. There is Pope's Head Alley off Cornhill. This "Pope's Head" was a celebrated tavern from the reign of Edward IV to the time of Samuel Pepys, who mentions it in his diary.
The Crossed Keys were the sign of St Peter and the Pope and the official flag of Westminster Abbey, bearing its great crossed keys, still flies from one of the west towers on festival days. The Pope's symbol is brought to mind by Cross Key Court, London Wall, Cross Key Square, Little Britain, and Cross Keys Close, off Marylebone Lane.
Cardinal Cap Alley, Bankside, was near Winchester House, home of the Bishop of Winchester who wore the Red Hat thereby commemorated. The cleric on question was Cardinal Beaufort.
Bleeding Heart Yard was made famous by Dickens in Little Dorrit. It was named after a tavern-sign of Our Lady of Sorrows. It lies at the rear of Ely Place and is approached from Hatton Garden and Greville Street (Holborn).
One could go on for ever (quod Deus avertall) Forgive me if I have bored you. All of this was prompted by tilt innocent question "Is there such a thing as 'Catholic London'?"
Perhaps the least well remembered prison of persecution days is the Westminster Gatehouse at the west end of the Abbey, where an open space now surrounds a war memorial column. Here died, in 1607, the Abbey's last surviving monk. Nearby was Topcliffe's own house, which he used as a private prison and torture chamber.
Catholics banned from the choir
AS for Westminster Abbey itself, few buildings in London are more fascinating, not least for Catholic visitors. The original Abbey church was built in honour of St Peter by King Edward the Confessor. It was completed and dedicated only a few days before his death at the beginning of the fateful year 1066.
Nothing remains above ground of the original Abbey church. The Gothic building that we know today was begun by Henry III who laid the foundation stone of a Lady Chapel in 1220. A hundred years after his long reign ended (in 1272). Richard II added the nave, in similar style to that begun by Henry. The present west porch dates from his time, but the two west towers were not added until the 18th century.
West Minster was the original name for the (Benedictine) "monastery in the West." It gave its name to the settlement which grew up nearby, the City of Westminster. (The monastery was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1540.) In Catholic times the general public (and more is the shame) were, as a rule, admitted only to the nave. They were cut off from the choir and sanctuary by a massive Rood Screen Removed by Edward VI.
A regal devotion to Our Lady
EVERY monarch since 1066 has been crowned in this great Abbey except the two who were never crowned at all. One was the tragic boy king, Edward V,who "reigned" for only three months before being murdered in the Tower. The other was Edward VIII who abdicated before he could be crowned.
The last great addition to the Abbey before the Reformation was the replacing of Henry III's Lady Chapel with what is now known as the chapel of Henry VII. That king had a great devotion to Our Lady and he also wished to provide a future shrine for the saintly Henry VI as well as a resting-place and chantry for himself and his Queen.
The Reformation stopped the cause of the canonisation of Henry VI and his remains were never brought to the Abbey. His Shrine would have been behind the High Altar of the Lady Chapel and Henry VII's tomb in the middle of its choir.
The present altar in this particularly beautiful chapel (see photograph) is a modern work, modelled on Torrigiano's original High Altar. Of the 105 statues of saints which originally adorned the chapel, no less than 95 still remain. this is quite a record considering the iconoclastic happenings of the intervening years.
Executions in Oxford Street
MOST prominent among the ":ioly places" of Catholic London are Tower Hill and Tyburn.
On Tower Hill were executed those condemned to be beheaded. Here perished, apart from More and Fisher, Adrian Fortescue and Thomas Dingley, Knights of Jerusalem (1539) and William Howard, Viscount Stafford (1680). Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, being of royal blood, was executed within the actual precincts of the Tower. All were interred in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
The Tyburn "Tree" was the name given to the Middlesex gallows which was placed on the higher ground near the Tyburn stream where the old Chelsea Watling Street (Edgware Road) met the road from London (Tyburn Road, now Oxford Street). On an island at this busy intersection there is now a plaque among the paving stones indicating the exact position of the "Tyburn Tree."