Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Wards of Old London: Aldersgate Without - The Flame of Dissent

A visitor to London, following the outer course of the City's Roman and Medieval walls in a westerly direction, passes from the Ward of Cripplegate Without into that of Aldersgate Without. This small ward straddles the modern Great North Road (A1) which, thanks to the Eighteenth Century Turnpike Trusts, replaced the older Ermine Street (A10), emerging from Bishopsgate, as the main route linking London to the cities of north-eastern England, and of Scotland.

Aldersgate Street in 1857, by T.H. Shepherd (image is in the Public Domain). 

Within the ward, the Great North Road is Aldersgate Street, and it was here, in 1554, during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I, that Londoners were drawn in their thousands to hear a mysterious disembodied voice, surely that of an angel, inveighing against the Queen's proposed marriage to Philip II of Spain. The voice seemed to come from the wall of a particular building, but the truth about the so-called "bird in the wall" was revealed when officials started dismantling it, and discovered a serving maid, Elizabeth Crofts, bricked up within it. She was imprisoned at Newgate, but subsequently released, when it became clear that she was acting under the direction of others.

By the late Seventeenth Century, the lanes leading off from Aldersgate Street had become a centre of the book-trade, "a plentiful and perpetual emporium of learned authors," according to the writer, Roger North, where "the shops were spacious, and the learned gladly resorted to them, where they seldom failed to meet with agreeable conversation."

These streets were a focus, also, for religious non-conformism. Londoners had been overwhelmingly Parliamentarian during the English Civil War, and many had been won over by Presbyterian preachers to fight in Sir Philip Skippon's "London trained bands." Many had been disappointed, however, by the Puritan fundamentalism of the Commonwealth years; and, subsequently, by the collapse of their political and religious ideals as the monarchy was restored. New religious movements emerged from the chaos and carnage of the war, and one of these was Quakerism, popular not least because of its embrace of pacifism.

Quakers had been persecuted under Oliver Cromwell's Republic; and his son, Richard, arrested and imprisoned more than seven hundred of them before his regime dissolved. They were released under Charles II, and the founder of the movement, George Fox (1624-91), having traveled and preached extensively in the Low Countries, and in North America, spent the last years of his life in London.

"Now was I come up as a spirit through the flaming sword into the Paradise of God," Fox wrote. "All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter."

The Quaker, James Nailor, scourged and pilloried in London in 1656 (image is in the Public Domain).

The house of a woman by the name of Sarah Sawyer, in Rose and Rainbow Court (now beneath the Barbican Estate), was in use as a Quaker meeting hall by 1655, and was subsequently used by Quaker women to provide meals for the poor.

A woman preaching at a Quaker meeting in London, c1723, by Bernard Picard (image is in the Public Domain). It was unheard of, at the time, for women to preach in most other denominations. 

John and Charles Wesley, sons of a Lincolnshire rector, had been educated at nearby Charterhouse School, and had both followed their father into the Church. They had evangelised, somewhat unsuccessfully, in the United States, where John had also been disappointed in love; and, in 1738, they drifted back to London, depressed and forlorn. On their out-bound voyage, they had been impressed by the religious zeal of Moravian Christians, who, in a life-threatening storm, had calmly prayed and sung hymns, whilst the English passengers had panicked.

John Wesley, by George Romney, National Portrait Gallery (image is in the Public Domain).

Originating in what is, today, the Czech Republic, the Moravians were one of the oldest Protestant congregations in Europe (pre-dating Martin Luther and John Calvin), and, by the early 18th Century, had established a presence in many European cities, including London. Charles Wesley attended a meeting at the house of a London Moravian, John Bray, close to Aldersgate Street, on 21st May, and experienced a religious epiphany, which inspired him to write the hymn "Where shall my wondering soul begin?" John attended a meeting at the same house a few days later, and wrote of his experience:

"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle of the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

The Aldersgate Flame, outside the Museum of London, commemorating John Wesley's conversion. Photo: Mike Peel ( - licensed under CCA (CC-BY-SA-4.0).

The Wesley brothers later broke with the Moravians and established their own Methodist Church nearby. Both John and Charles died as priests in full communication with the Church of England: Methodism only broke away from the established Church after their deaths.

Ceramic commemorations of John Wesley, Museum of Methodism (London). Photo: AishaMethodism (licensed under CCA).

By the time that the American writer, Washington Irving, visited Aldersgate in 1820, the area had fallen into decline, with houses " ... ready to tumble down, the fronts of which are magnificently enriched with old oak carvings of hideous faces; unknown birds, beasts and fishes; and fruits and flowers which it would perplex a naturalist to classify."

Any such houses that had not already fallen down were destroyed during the Blitz, and most of the area now lies beneath the concrete of the Barbican Estate.  

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

1 comment:

  1. Always fascinating. I had never heard that story of the voice in the wall.