Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
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The Famous Legend respecting Shoreditch—Sir John de Soerditch—"The Duke of Shoreditch"—Archery Competitions of the Sixteenth Century—St. Leonard's Church—Celebrated Men of Elizabeth's Time—The Fairchild Sermon—Holywell Lane—The "Curtain" Theatre.
This ancient and ill-used parish extends from Norton Folgate to Old Street, and from part of Finsbury to Bethnal Green. Originally a village on the old Roman northern road, called by the Saxons Old Street, it is now a continuation of Bishopsgate Street.
The old London tradition is that Shoreditch derived its name from Jane Shore, the beautiful mistress of Edward IV., who, worn out with poverty and hunger, died miserably in a ditch in this unsavoury suburb. This legend, however, is entirely erroneous, as we have shown in a previous chapter. It does not seem to have been popular even so late as 1587. Dr. Percy hit upon quite as erroneous a derivation when he traced the name of the parish to shore (sewer), a common drain. Shoreditch, or, more correctly, Soerdich, really took its name from the old family of the Soerdiches, Lords of the Manor in the time of Edward III. Sir John de Soerdich of that reign, an eminent warrior, lawyer, statesman, and diplomatist, was, on one memorable occasion, sent to Rome to protest before the Pope against the greedy and tyrannical way in which foreign priests were thrust into English benefices, and it was all Sir John could do to get safe back to the little island. The Soerdich family, Mr. Timbs informs us, held the manor of Ickenham, near Uxbridge, and resided there till our own time. The last of the family, an engineer, died in 1865, in the West Indies. In the reign of Richard II. the manor of Shoreditch was granted to Edmund, Duke of York, and his son, the Earl of Rutland, which accounts for the fact that St. Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, is full of the Manners family. Stow mentions a house in Hackney called Shoreditch Place; and Strype notes the vulgar tradition that Jane Shore once lived there, and was often visited by her royal lover. This was probably the old mansion of Sir John de Soerdich, who rode against the French spears by the side of the Black Prince, and with Manney and Chandos.
In the reign of Henry VIII., when Shoreditch was still a mere waste of fields, dotted with windmills and probably, like Islington (fields, much frequented by archers, for practising at roving marks), the burly king conferred on an archer of Shoreditch, named Barlow, who had pleased him at some wondrous competition at Windsor, the jocular title of Duke of Shoreditch. Happiest and proudest of all London's archers must Barlow have gloried at all civic processions, when, as captain, he strode first to the Hoxton, Islington, or Newington Butts. The duke's companions adopted such titles as the Marquises of Hoxton, Islington, Pancras, and Shacklewell, and other ludicrous appellations of honour. In Elizabeth's reign the archers of London numbered no fewer than 3,000, and on one occasion we hear of one thousand of them, wearing gold chains, going from the Merchant Taylors' Hall to Smithfield, to try their skill, attended by 4,000 billmen, besides pages. In Dryden's time Shoreditch was a disreputable place, frequented by courtesans; and in Lillo's old ballad of "George Barnwell," the apprentice hero of which thrice robbed his master and murdered his uncle in Ludlow, that wicked siren, Mrs. Millwood, lives at Shoreditch, "next door unto the 'Gun.'"
The present St. Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, occupies the site of a church at least as old as the thirteenth century. The old church, which had four gables and a low square tower, was taken down in 1736, and the present ugly church built by the elder Dance, in 1740, with a steeple to imitate that of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, and a fine peal of twelve bells. The chancel window, the gift of Thomas Awsten, in 1634, and a tablet to the Awstens, are the only relics left of the old church. St. Leonard's is the actor's church of London; for, in the days of Elizabeth and James, the players of distinction from the Curtain, in Holywell Lane, and from "The Theatre," as well as those from the Blackfriars Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe, were fond of residing in this parish. Perhaps nowhere in all London have rooms echoed oftener with Shakespeare's name than those of Shoreditch.
The parish register, within a period of sixty years, says Cunningham, records the interment at St. Leonard's of the following celebrated characters:—"Will. Somers, Henry VIII.'s jester (d. 1560); Richard Tarlton, the famous clown of Queen Elizabeth's time (d. 1588); James Burbage (d. 1596) and his more celebrated son, Richard Burbage (d. 1618–19); Gabriel Spenser, the player, who fell, in 1598, in a duel with Ben Jonson; William Sly and Richard Cowley, two original performers in Shakespeare's plays; the Countess of Rutland, the only child of the famous Sir Philip Sydney; Fortunatus Greene, the unfortunate offspring of Robert Greene, the poet and player (d. 1593). Another original performer in Shakespeare's plays, who lived in Holywell Street, in this parish, was Nicholas Wilkinson, alias Tooley, whose name is recorded in gilt letters on the north side of the altar, as a yearly benefactor of £6 10s., which sum is still distributed in bread every year to the poor inhabitants of the parish, to whom it was bequeathed.
In the burial register, January 22nd, 1588, is the following entry: "Aged 207 years. Holywell Street. Thomas Cam." The 2 should probably be 1. A correspondent of the Penny Magazine, writing in 1833, notices this entry as the most remarkable record of longevity in existence, and adds: "It thus appears that Cam was born in the year 1381, in the fourth of Richard II., living through the reign of that monarch, and through those of the whole of the following sovereigns—viz., Henry IV., Henry V., Henry VI., Edward IV., Edward V., Richard III., Henry VII., Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and to the thirtieth of Elizabeth. Such an extreme duration of life is, however, contrary to all recorded experience; and unless the fact can be supported by other evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the entry in the register is inaccurate."
At St. Leonard's, every Whit Tuesday, is preached a sermon on the "Wonderful Works of God in the Creation," or "On the Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead, proved by certain changes of the Animal and Vegetable Parts of the Creation." The money, £25 in all, left for this purpose to the preacher was bequeathed, in 1728, by Mr. Thomas Fairchild, a gardener, whose gardens (Selby's Gardens) then extended from the west end of Ivy Lane to the New North Road. The sum originally bequeathed was afterwards increased by sundry contributions. It used to be the custom for the President and Fellows of the Royal Society to attend these sermons.
Holywell Lane (west side of Shoreditch) was so called, says Stow, from a sweet, wholesome, and clear well, spoiled, in that writer's time, by the manure-heaps of the nursery gardens. Here formerly, till the dissolution, stood a Benedictine nunnery of St. John the Baptist, founded by some forgotten Bishop of London; and in this street lived and died Richard Burbage, the tragedian, and friend and companion of Shakespeare. Near St. Leonard's Church stood two of the earliest London theatres—the "Curtain" and "The Theatre." The site of the first of these is still marked by Curtain Road.
"The Theatre," on the site of Holywell Priory, was remarkable as being, according to Malone, the first theatre erected in London. It is noticed in a sermon preached at Paul's Cross, in 1578, as the "gorgeous playing-place erected in the Fields." In 1598 this wooden theatre was taken down, and the timber of it was used for enlarging the Globe.
The "Curtain" is mentioned as early as 1577 (before Shakespeare came to London), and by Stubbs, in his "Anatomie of Abuses," in 1583. In 1622 it was occupied by Prince Charles's actors. Aubrey, in 1678, calls it the "Green Curtain," and terms it "a kind of nursery, or obscure playhouse." It gradually, like many of the smaller theatres, sank into a sparring-room. Maitland, in his "London" (1772), mentions some remains of the "Curtain" as recently standing. It is supposed to have got its name from having been the first house that used the green curtain.