St Mary-le-Strand and the Maypole

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Centre for Metropolitan History

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Author

Walter Thornbury

Year published

1878

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Pages

84-88

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'St Mary-le-Strand and the Maypole', Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), pp. 84-88. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45135 Date accessed: 26 July 2014.


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CHAPTER XIV.

ST. MARY-LE-STRAND, THE MAYPOLE, &c.

"Fairly we marched on, till our approach
Within the spacious passage of the Strand
Objected to our sight a summer broach
Yelep'd a Maypole, which, in all our land,
No city, town, nor street can parallel;
Ner can the lofty spire of Clerkenwell—
Although we have the advantage of a rock—
Perch up more high his turning weather-cock."

Building of St. Mary-le-Strand Church—Singular Accident—The Young Pretender here renounces the Roman Catholic Faith—Strand Bridge—Strand Theatre—The Original Church of St. Mary-le-Strand—Setting up the Maypole—Anne Clarges, Wife of the First Duke of Albemarle—Maypole Alley—Sir Isaac Newton purchases the Maypole—An Ancient Cross—Chester, or Strand Inn.

It is said by all the antiquaries who have written on the subject of London topography, that the present church of St. Mary-le-Strand covers the site of the spot on which in the olden time was set up the Maypole which the sour-visaged Puritans pulled down as dangerous to the morals of youth. It was called "St. Mary's as a matter of course, because its predecessor, which stood on the south side of the Strand, and was demolished by the Protector Somerset, was dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin." It is said that the Protector was at the time so all-powerful in matters of state, that he was never forced to make to the parishioners any compensation for the robbery of which he was guilty, though from his time down to the year 1723 they were churchless, and in order to be decently baptised, married, or buried, they were forced to have recourse to the ministers of neighbouring parishes.

In accordance with an Act passed in the reign of Queen Anne, for building fifty new churches in and around the metropolis, this site was fixed on for the first of these sacred edifices, which must have been much needed, on account of the growth of the population westward of St. Clement Danes. The first stone of it was laid in 1714, but it was not till nine years later, as we have said, that it was actually consecrated. Gibbs was the architect, and in his own account of St. Mary's Church says it was the first building he was employed upon after his arrival from Italy; and few structures, perhaps, have been more severely criticised. The building is fine of its kind, but not extensive, and stands, as it were, in the centre of the roadway of the Strand, in a line with the houses which form the southern side of Holywell Street, and from which it is separated by the entrance to Newcastle Street. The entrance, at the west end, is by a circular flight of steps which lead to a portico of Ionic columns, covered with a dome, which is crowned with an elegant vase. The columns are continued along the body of the church, with pilasters of the same order at the corners; and between the columns are niches, handsomely ornamented. Over the dome is a pediment, supported by Corinthian columns, which are also continued round the body of the church, over those of the Ionic order beneath, between which are the windows placed over the niches. A handsome balustrade is carried round the top, and its summit is adorned with vases. The steeple at the west end is ornamented, with composite columns and capitals. There was at first no steeple designed for the church; only a small campanile, or turret, for a bell, was to have been over the west end of it; but at the distance of eighty feet from the west front it was intended to have erected a column, 250 feet high, in honour of Queen Anne, on the top of which her statue was to be placed. The design for the column was approved by the commissioners, and a great quantity of stone was brought to the place for laying the foundation of it; but the idea of erecting that monument was abandoned upon the Queen's death, and the present steeple was erected instead of the campanile, as at first proposed. Internally the church has a sumptuous appearance. The side walls display two ranges of pilasters, one above the other; the ceiling is slightly arched, and is divided into compartments, covered with decorations in stucco, and richly coloured; and the altar at the east end, which is placed within a very large and striking-looking recess, has above it three large windows filled with stained glass, with subjects of the Annunciation, the Passion, &c. The church underwent a thorough restoration in 1862, when a new organ by Messrs. Hunter and Webb was put up.


SOMERSET HOUSE IN 1755.

A sad accident happened at this spot during the procession of royalty to St. Paul's on the proclamation of peace in 1802. Just as the heralds came abreast of the building, a man who was standing on the roof of the church happened to lay his hand on one of the stone arms upon the parapet, knocked it down upon the crowd below, and so killed three persons.

If we may believe the statement of David Hume, it was in this church that Prince Charles Edward Stuart, "the Young Pretender," as he is called by the Hanoverian party, formally renounced the Roman Catholic faith, and professed the religion of the Church of England, doubtless for political motives.

The author of "Walks through London" says that "at the digging the foundation for the St. Mary-le-Strand Church, the virgin earth was discovered at the depth of nineteen feet; a proof that the ground in this neighbourhood originally was not much higher than the Thames. This village was, therefore, truly denominated the Strand, from its situation on the bank of the river. Where Catherine Street now stands a stream of water ran into the Thames. Over this, in the Strand, was a bridge called Strand Bridge."

Nearly opposite to St. Mary's Church is the Strand Theatre. The house is small, and at one time was commonly known as the "Bandbox." It was originally built for the exhibition of a panorama, but was altered to a theatre in 1831. We will reserve a detailed description of this house for a future chapter.

The original Church of St. Mary-le-Strand was built under the dedication of "The Nativity of our Lady and the Innocents," and in consequence of a religious sisterhood attached to it. It was sometimes styled also "St. Ursula of the Strand." It was formerly in the patronage of the Bishops of Worcester, possibly because built or endowed by one of those prelates, whose town-house adjoined it, while the Inns of the Bishops of Lichfield and Coventry, Llandaff, and Chester were not far off. The old Church of St. Mary occupied the site of the eastern part of the present Somerset House. In the reign of James I. a windmill, and also a watch-house, stood on the site of the present church; and Stow observes that on this spot there was "a stone building or conduit over a spring."

The Maypole, to which we have already referred as formerly standing on the site of the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, was called by the Puritans one of the "last remnants of vile heathenism, round which people in holiday times used to dance, quite ignorant of its original intent and meaning." Each May morning, as our readers are doubtless aware, it was customary to deck these poles with wreaths of flowers, round which the people danced pretty nearly the whole day. A severe blow was given to these merry-makings by the Puritans, and in 1644 a Parliamentary ordinance swept them all away, including this very famous one, which, according to old Stow, stood 100 feet high. On the Restoration, however, a new and loftier one was set up amid much ceremony and rejoicing. From a tract printed at the time, entitled "The Citie's Loyaltie Displayed," we learn that this Maypole was 134 feet high, and was erected upon the cost of the parishioners there adjacent, and the gracious consent of his sacred Majesty, with the illustrious Prince the Duke of York. "This tree was a most choice and remarkable piece; 'twas made below bridge and brought in two parts up to Scotland Yard, near the king's palace, and from thence it was conveyed, April 14, 1661, to the Strand, to be erected. It was brought with a streamer flourishing before it, drums beating all the way, and other sorts of musick. It was supposed to be so long that landsmen could not possibly raise it. Prince James, Duke of York, Lord High Admiral of England, commanded twelve seamen off aboard ship to come and officiate the business; whereupon they came, and brought their cables, pullies, and other tackling, and six great anchors. After these were brought three crowns, borne by three men bareheaded, and a streamer displaying all the way before them, drums beating and other musick playing, numerous multitudes of people thronging the streets, with great shouts and acclamations, all day long. The Maypole then being joined together and looped about with bands of iron, the crown and cane, with the king's arms richly gilded, was placed on the head of it; a large hoop, like a balcony, was about the middle of it. Then, amid sounds of trumpets and drums, and loud cheerings, and the shouts of the people, the Maypole, 'far more glorious, bigger, and higher than ever any one that stood before it,' was raised upright, which highly did please the Merrie Monarch and the illustrious Prince, Duke of York; and the little children did much rejoice, and ancient people did clap their hands, saying golden days began to appear." A party of morris-dancers now came forward, "finely decked with purple scarfs, in their half-shirts, with a tabor and a pipe, the ancient music, and danced round about the Maypole."

The setting up of this Maypole is said to have been the deed of a blacksmith, John Clarges, who lived hard by, and whose daughter Anne had been so fortunate in her matrimonial career as to secure for her husband no less a celebrated person than General Monk, Duke of Albemarle, in the reign of Charles II., when courtiers and princes did not always look to the highest rank for their wives. With her is connected a story which may best be told, perhaps, by a brief outline of a certain cause celèbre in which her name figures prominently:—

"During the trial of an action for trespass between William Sherwin, plaintiff, and Sir Walter Clarges, Baronet, defendant, at the bar of King's Bench, in November, 1700, the following circumstance occurred:—The plaintiff, as heir and representative of Thomas Monk, Esq., elder brother of George, Duke of Albemarle, claimed the manor of Sutton, in Yorkshire, and other lands in Newton, Eaton Bridge, and Shipton, as heir-atlaw to the said duke, against the defendant, to whom they had been left by his only son and successor, Christopher, the second duke, who died without issue in 1688."

In the course of the trial some very curious particulars were disclosed with respect to the family of Anne Clarges, the wife of George, the first Duke of Albemarle. "It appeared that she was daughter of John Clarges, a farrier in the Savoy, who was farrier to the duke, then Colonel Monk. She was married in 1632, in the church of St. Lawrence Pountney, to Thomas Ratford, son of another man of the same name, who had been a farrier and a servant in the employment of Prince Charles, and resident in the Mews (no doubt the King's Mews at Charing Cross). She had a daughter who was born in 1634, and who died at four years old. She lived with her husband at the 'Three Spanish Gipsies,' in the New Exchange, in the Strand, and sold such things as washballs, powder, and gloves, and also taught girls plain work. About 1647 she was acting as sempstress to Colonel Monk, and used to carry him his linen. In 1648 her father and mother died, and in the following year she and her husband 'fell out and parted,' but no certificate from any parish register could be produced to prove his burial. However, in 1652, she was married at the church of St. George, Southwark, to General George Monk, and was delivered in the following year of a son, Christopher, who, as stated above, became, or at all events was called, the second duke, and who died in 1688. Several witnesses were brought forward to swear that they had seen Thomas Ratford, her Grace's first husband, alive as lately as January, 1669–70, many years after her marriage with the first duke and the birth of the second. In opposition to this evidence, it was alleged that all along, during the lives of Dukes George and Christopher, this matter was never questioned; that the latter was universally received as the son of the former; and further, that the matter had been thrice already tried at the bar of the King's Bench, and the defendant had gained three verdicts. A witness swore that he owed Ratford five or six pounds, which he had never demanded; and a man who had married a cousin of the Duke of Albemarle had been told by his wife that Ratford died five or six years before the duke married. In summing up, Lord Chief Justice Holt told the jury, 'If you are certain that Duke Christopher was born while Thomas Ratford was living, you must find for the plaintiff. If you believe that he was born after Ratford was dead, or that nothing appears what became of him after Duke George married his wife, you must find for the defendant.' In the end a verdict was given for the defendant, who was only son to Sir Thomas Clarges, Knight, brother of the duchess, and who was created a baronet in 1674."

Newcastle Street, at the north-east corner of the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, was formerly called Maypole Alley, but early in the last century was changed to its present name, after John Holles, Duke of Newcastle, the then owner of the property, and the name has been transferred to another place not far off. At the junction of Drury Lane and Wych Street, on the north side, close to the Olympic Theatre, is a narrow court, which is now known as Maypole Alley, near which stood the forge of John Clarges, the blacksmith, alluded to above as having set up the Maypole at the time of the Restoration.

As all earthly glories are doomed in time to fade, so this gaily-bedecked Maypole, after standing for upwards of fifty years, had become so decayed in the ground, that it was deemed necessary to replace it by a new one. Accordingly, it was removed in 1713, and a new one erected in its place a little further to the west, nearly opposite to Somerset House, where now stands a drinking fountain. It was set up on the 4th of July in that year, with great joy and festivity, but it was destined to be short-lived. When this latter Maypole was taken down in its turn, Sir Isaac Newton, who lived near Leicester Fields, bought it from the parishioners, and sent it as a present to his friend, the Rev. Mr. Pound, at Wanstead in Essex, who obtained leave from his squire, Lord Castlemaine, to erect it in Wanstead Park, for the support of what then was the largest telescope in Europe, being 125 feet in length. It was constructed by Huygens, and presented by him to the Royal Society, of which he was a member. It had not long stood in the park, when one morning some amusing verses were found affixed to the Maypole, alluding to its change of position and employment. They are given by Pennant as follows:—
"Once I adorned the Strand,
But now have found
My way to Pound
On Baron Newton's land;
Where my aspiring head aloft is reared,
T' observe the motions of th' ethereal Lord.
Here sometimes raised a machine by my side,
Through which is seen the sparkling milky tide;
Here oft I'm scented with a balmy dew,
A pleasant blessing which the Strand ne'er knew.
There stood I only to receive abuse,
But here converted to a nobler use;
So that with me all passengers will say,
'I'm better far than when the Pole of May.'"

Of the old cross in the Strand, Mr. Newton tells us, in his "London in the Olden Time," that it was mutilated at the time of the Reformation, and that it stood for some years headless, and was eventually taken down in the reign of Charles II. He identifies its site with that of the Maypole, already mentioned.

Allen, in his "History of London," says that "opposite to Chester Inn" (which, by the way, appears to have been the same building that was afterwards called "Strand Inn," and which stood where now is the east end of Somerset House) "stood an ancient cross, at which the judges occasionally used to sit to administer justice outside the City walls."

The origin of the judges administering justice in public is of very remote antiquity, as is evident from the frequent allusion to the custom made in Holy Scripture, where judges are spoken of as sitting "in the gate;" and the reason of so public a situation being chosen, says Herbert, in his "Inns of Court," was on two accounts: "that their proceedings might be generally seen, and that none might go out of the common way to seek for justice."

"Strand Inn" was one of those Inns of Court belonging to the Middle Temple so ruthlessly pulled down in the reign of Edward VI., by the Protector Somerset, for the building of Somerset House, when the students settled at New Inn, in Wych Street, another of the Inns of Chancery. Pennant records the tradition that it was in this place that Occleve, the poet of the reign of Henry V., studied law.

Mr. Newton tells us, in his "London in the Olden Time," that "Strand Inn" having ceased to be occupied as an episcopal residence, "a part of it became separated, and let off to students of the law, in whose occupation it was known both as 'Chester Inn' and 'Strand Inn.'" He adds that when seized on by the Protector Somerset, he "for some time kept his court there." On its west side was another large house, called the "Bishop of Worcester's Inn," of which we know nothing except it was a long time the residence of the Bishops of that see, and no print or view of it has come down to our times.