Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton

1899

CHAPTER XVII: Westminster Abbey and Palace, Etc.

WESTMINSTER ABBEY AND PALACE, AND THEIR ASSOCIATIONS-THE THAMES AND ITS ASPECTS.

CHAPTER XVII: Westminster Abbey and Palace, Etc.

WESTMINSTER ABBEY AND PALACE, AND THEIR ASSOCIATIONS-THE THAMES AND ITS ASPECTS.

 

 

BEYOND King Street was anciently a network of narrow streets and alleys, and the Broad Sanctuary still marks the site of the " Alsatia " and " Old Mint " of Westminster, a refuge alike for the criminal and the persecuted. In this maze, not far from the western door of the abbey, was Caxton's house, wherein the first book was printed in England. On the ground now covered by Vine Street, near Rochester Row, was the abbey vineyard.

Gazing upon that noble pile, dedicated to St. Peter, it is difficult for imagination to carry us back to the days when Thorney Island was a desolate swamp, the haunt of the heron and the bittern, divided from the adjacent ground by the creeping sinuosities of the river. From the earliest days of Christianity in England the Cross had been rooted here, and when the Confessor laid the foundations of the abbey two churches had already preceded it. Something, but not much, remains of the saintly Edward's edifice, in which the last of the Saxon and the first of the Norman kings were crowned. Henry III. fashioned

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what is to us the more ancient portion into its present form; and Henry VII. completed the beautiful temple in which Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts and Hanoverians have been enthroned-and many buried and in which rest all that is mortal of so many mighty Englishmen.

On the ground now known as Old and New Palace Yards stood the ancient Palace of Westminster, in which Cnut, the Danish usurper, resided, in which the Confessor died, in which Edward I. was born, and the walls of which were shadowed by the presence of all succeeding monarchs to Henry VIII. After that time Whitheall usurped its place. In the ancient palace sat all the ancient parliaments, and on its site have deliberated all the modern. In the burning of old St. Stephen's, in 1834, much that remained of the mediaeval structure was destroyed. Fortunately the flames spared the crypt, and the glorious hall, founded by Rufus and rebuilt by Richard II. And in that same hall the unhappy son of the Black Prince was arraigned, and centuries afterwards another unhappy monarch. Here, also, Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Protector Somerset, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Thomas More, the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Essex, the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, the great Strafford, the seven bishops, the Jacobite lords of '45, Warren Hastings--to mention only a few--have stood as culprits.

But more pleasant memories are associated with Westminster Hall. It was the scene of many a

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coronation banquet; kings sometimes kept Christmas there. There Henry V. received the congratulations of the citizens on the victory of Agincourt; and Anne Boleyn came thither in great pomp. The particulars of all which you will find in Stow. All the kings and queens, soldiers, statesmen, lawyers, orators, all the makers of England's glory for centuries have stood beneath that roof, world-famous for its beauty.

No spot in Europe, at least out of Rome, is so crowded with historic interest, so haunted by the mighty shadows of the past as that small area that lies between Dean's Yard and the Thames. In the ancient school generations of great Englishmen have been educated: among others Ben Jonson, Cowley, Dryden, George Herbert, Giles Fletcher, Prior, Cowper, Southey, Sir Christopher Wren, Earl Russell, Gibbon, Froude, Locke, Warren Hastings. On the beams of the old schoolroom, that almost vies with that of Eton in fame, are carved in autograph the names of Dryden, Hakluyt, Cowper, Wren, Locke, and many another known to fame. Four years ago the bicentenary of the death of the renowned master, Dr. Busby, as notable for flogging as for imparting learning, was duly honoured.

At the hour of evening prayer there is preserved, in the great hall, a custom that goes back to the monastic days. A boy called the " Monos" cries the hour in Latin, in a high clear voice, that presently

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subsides into a whisper, like the muezzin of the Mahomedan. At the summons the scholars hurry in, and when all is silent a voice calls "Oremus!" and the Latin prayers are repeated, much as they were by the Benedictine monks, who once reigned supreme here.

It is difficult to tear oneself away from so fascinating a spot, so replete with stories, but their very abundance renders selection almost impossible, and with one more glance at the Thames I must bend my pilgrim's steps in another direction.

Standing upon Westminster Bridge, one thinks of Wordsworth's fine sonnet, and especially of the lines :

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty.

The stories of the river might rival the stories of the streets in interest; they go back to the time when, unconfined by any artificial bank, the silver Thames flowed in, north and south, over meadow and morass that have now for centuries been covered with buildings, and so on to the days when patrician mansions and fair gardens lined the Middlesex side, and the Surrey shore was all grassy meads, rising into wooded hills, with one little cluster of town on the bankside; when the river was alive with gilded barges and stately processions of court and city state, and with boats conveying gallants and ladies to the Globe or the Blackfriars, or to Paris Garden, to see

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the bear baiting. [1]  There was only one bridge across the Thames in those days and for long afterwards. Westminster Bridge was not built until past the middle of the eighteenth century; the only means of crossing the river between Westminster and London Bridge being by the Horseferry, still kept in remembrance by Horseferry Road.

It was not such scenes as these that Wordsworth gazed upon; mansions and gardens and meads had long since given place to hideous tumble- down wharves, and mud banks, to all the wretched sordidness that then marked the river's bank and still offends the eye on the Surrey side. What would he say now to our splendid Embankment, with its background of stately buildings, its beautiful gardens, its umbrageous boulevard and broad roadway? But it must be remembered that the grandeur and beauty that the great poet saw was not an outward but an inward vision, the "ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples " were but symbols of the mighty city's life, and even the dirt and ugliness of the river's side was to his vision but the soiled garment of that

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commerce to which London owes so much of its greatness.

The grand old river has many aspects, mostly sombre, yet mostly picturesque. Passing over London Bridge on a spring or autumn evening, towards sunset, I have often been struck by Rembrandtish effects of massive shadows and subdued lights. To the east land, water and sky have been blended indistinguishably in one grey gloom, through which the Tower and Tower Bridge and the wharves and buildings loomed ghostly, like faded silhouettes or faint pictures in sepia. To the west a lurid crimson, blurred sun, framed in a sulphurous halo, flecked with smoky red, has glared from purplish -black clouds, and cast shafts of sullen fire upon the dome of St. Paul's, upon the roofs of buildings, upon the water, upon boat and bridge and barge, veiled in shrouding grey, through which more distant objects appeared as seen through a glass darkly.

On summer evenings the light is brighter, and a saffron glow suffuses the west; yet always subdued by that gauzy film, never absent from the London atmosphere, and which causes such varied refractions of light. But to see London in its most beautiful aspects you should stroll along the length of the Embankment, when, through a clear air the full moon glitters and shimmers upon the rippling water, when the long rows of light blend in the distance into a line of white fire which, by the windings of the banks and the lamps on the bridges, seems to cross and

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re-cross the river in chains of luminous points, while the cold electric blue from the hotels and railway stations falls upon tree and turf and roadway with a lustre as brilliant as that of Luna herself. Had he looked upon this scene Wordsworth might indeed have exclaimed:

Earth has not anything to show more fair.

 
 
Footnotes:

[1] John Taylor, "the water poet," in his petition to King James (1615) for the suppression of all theatres on the Middlesex side of the Thames, states that such was the number of watermen who plied for hire between Windsor and Gravesend, half of whom had been called into existence by the bankside theatres (of which there were several) and other places of amusement, which visitors always approached by the Thames, that he estimated that, including the families of the breadwinners, some 40,000 persons were dependent upon these sources for a living.