Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Smithfield', Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878), pp. 339-344. British History Online [accessed 14 June 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Smithfield", in Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878) 339-344. British History Online, accessed June 14, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Smithfield", Old and New London: Volume 2, (London, 1878). 339-344. British History Online. Web. 14 June 2024,

In this section



Bartholomew Fair—A Seven Days' Tournament—Duels and Trial by Ordeal in Smithfield—Terrible Instances of the Odium Theologicum—The Maid of Kent—Foxe's Account of the Smithfield Martyrs—The Smithfield Gallows—William Wallace in Smithfield—Bartholomew Priory—The Origin of Bartholomew Fair—St. Bartholomew becomes popular with Sailors—Miscellaneous Occupiers of Smithfield— Generosity of English Kings to St. Bartholomew's—A Religious Brawl—The London Parish Clerks in Smithfield—The Court of Pie-poudre.

Smithfield, or "Smoothfield," to follow the true derivation, was from the earliest times a memorable spot in old London. Bartholomew Fair, established in the reign of Henry II., in the neighbourhood of the priory and hospital founded by Rayer, the king's worthy jester, brought annually great crowds of revellers to the same place where, in Mary's cruel reign, so many of her 277 victims perished. Smithfield, in the reign of the early Edwards, was a chosen place for tournaments, and here many a spear was splintered on breastplate and shield, and many a stout blow given, till armour yielded or sword shattered.

In 1374 Edward III., then sixty-two, enamoured of Alice Pierce, held a seven days' tournament in Smithfield, for her amusement. She sat beside the old man, in a magnificent car, as the Lady of the Sun, and was followed by a long train of plumed knights, careless of the disgrace, each leading by the bridle a beautiful palfrey, on which was mounted a gay damsel.

In 1390 that young prodigal, Richard II., wishing to rival the splendid feasts and jousts given by Charles of France, on the entry of his consort, Isabella of Bavaria, into Paris, invited sixty knights to a tilt in Smithfield, commencing on the Sunday after Michaelmas Day. This tournament was proclaimed by heralds, in England, Scotland, Hainault, Germany, Flanders, and France. The Sunday was the feast of the challengers. About three p.m. came the procession from the Tower —sixty barbed coursers, in full trappings, each attended by a squire of honour, and after them sixty ladies of rank, mounted on palfreys, "most elegantly and richly dressed," and each leading by a silver chain a knight, completely armed for tilting, minstrels and trumpeters attending the procession to Smithfield. Every night there was a magnificent supper for the tilters at the bishop's palace, where the king and queen were lodged, and the dancing lasted till daybreak. On Tuesday King Edward entertained the foreign knights and squires, and the queen the ladies. On Friday they were entertained by the Duke of Lancaster, and on Saturday the king invited all the foreign knights to Windsor.

That great historical event, the death of Wat Tyler, we have elsewhere described, but it is necessary here to touch upon it again. Wrongs, no doubt, his followers had, but they were savage and cruel, and intoxicated with murder and plunder. They had beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury, and held London in terror for seven days. Wat Tyler's insolent behaviour at the meeting in Smithfield (June 15, 1381) greatly alarmed the king's friends. He came towards Richard, throwing his dagger in the air, and he even ventured to hold the king's bridle. Walworth, in the alarm of the moment, ran his sword into the rough rebel's throat, and at the same instant a squire stabbed Wat in the side. It was then that Richard II. courageously, and with great presence of mind, led off the rebels to Islington Fields, where the mayor and a thousand men soon scattered them to the winds.

Smithfield was frequently chosen as the scene of mediæval duels, and of the ordeal by battle. The combat, in the reign of Henry VI., between the master and the 'prentice, who had accused him of treason, will be remembered by all readers of Shakespeare. The ordeal was, perhaps, hardly fairly tried in this case, as the poor armourer had been plied with liquor by his over-zealous friends; but there is one comfort, according to the poet, he confessed his treason in his dying moments.

Smithfield was, at one time, a place of torture peculiarly in favour with theologians. Here that swollen Ahab, Henry VIII., burnt poor wretches who denied his ecclesiastical supremacy; here Mary burnt Protestants, and here Elizabeth burnt Anabaptists. In 1539 (Henry VIII.) Forest, an Observant friar, was cruelly burnt in Smithfield, for denying the king's supremacy, the flames being lit with "David Darvel Gatheren," an idolatrous image from Wales. Latimer preached patience to the friar, while he hung by the waist and struggled for life. And here, too, was burnt Joan Boucher, the Maid of Kent, for some theological refinement as to the incarnation of Christ, Cranmer almost forcing Edward VI. to sign the poor creature's death-warrant. "What, my lord!" said Edward, will ye have me send her quick to the devil, in her error? I shall lay the charge therefore upon you, my Lord Cranmer, before God."

Of the last moments of the Smithfield martyrs, Foxe, their historian, has left a narrative, so simply told, so pious in tone, and so natural in every detail, as to guarantee its truth to all but partisans. A few passages from Foxe will convey a perfect impression of these touching scenes, and of the faith wherewith these good and brave men embraced death. Speaking of Roger Holland, a Protestant martyr, Foxe says, with a certain exultation:— "The day they suffered a proclamation was made that none should be so bold to speak or talk any word unto them, or receive anything of them, or to touch them upon pain of imprisonment, without either bail or mainprize; with divers other cruel threatening words, contained in the same proclamation. Notwithstanding the people cried out, desiring God to strengthen them; and they, likewise, still prayed for the people, and the restoring of His word. At length Roger, embracing the stake and the reeds, said these words:— 'Lord, I most humbly thank Thy Majesty that Thou hast called me from the state of death unto the light of Thy heavenly word, and now unto the fellowship of Thy saints, that I may sing and say, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts! And Lord, into Thy hands I commit my spirit. Lord, bless these Thy people, and save them from idolatry.' And so he ended his life, looking up into heaven, praying and praising God, with the rest of his fellowsaints: for whose joyful constancy the Lord be praised."

The end of three more of the holy army Foxe thus gives:—"And so these three godly men, John Hallingdale, William Sparrow, and Master Gibson, being thus appointed to the slaughter, were, the twelfth day after their condemnation (which was the 18th day of the said month of November, 1557), burnt in Smithfield in London. And being brought thither to the stake, after their prayer made, they were bound thereunto with chains, and wood set unto them; and after wood, fire, in the which being compassed about, and the fiery flames consuming their flesh, at the last they yielded gloriously and joyfully their souls and lives into the holy hands of the Lord, to whose tuition and government I commend thee, good reader. Amen."

Of the heroic death of John Rogers, the protomartyr in the Marian persecution, Foxe gives the following account:—

"After that John Rogers," he says, "had been long and straitly imprisoned, lodged in Newgate amongst thieves, often examined and very uncharitably treated, and at length unjustly and most cruelly, by wicked Winchester, condemned. The 4th of February, A.D. 1555, being Monday in the morning, he was warned suddenly by the keeper's wife of Newgate, to prepare himself to the fire; who, being then sound asleep, scarce with much shogging could be awaked. At length, being raised and waked, and bid to make haste, 'Then,' said he, 'if it be so I need not tie my points;' and so was had down first to Bonner to be degraded. That done, he craved of Bonner but one petition. And Bonner asking what that should be: 'Nothing,' said he, 'but that I might talk a few words with my wife before my burning.' But that could not be obtained of him. 'Then,' said he, 'you declare your charity, what it is.' And so he was brought into Smithfield by Master Chester and Master Woodroofe, then sheriffs of London, there to be burnt; where he showed most constant patience, not using many words, for he could not be permitted; but only exhorting the people constantly to remain in that faith and true doctrine which he before had taught and they had learned, and for the confirmation whereof he was not only content patiently to suffer and bear all such bitterness and cruelty as had been showed him, but also most gladly to resign up his life, and to give his flesh to the consuming fire, for the testimony of the same. . . . The Sunday before he suffered he drank to Master Hooper, being then underneath him, and bade them commend him unto him, and tell him, 'There was never little fellow better would stick to a man than he would stick to him,' presupposing they should both be burned together, although it happened otherwise, for Master Rogers was burnt alone. . . Now, when the time came that he, being delivered to the sheriffs, should be brought out of Newgate to Smithfield, the place of his execution, first came to him Master Woodroofe, one of the aforesaid sheriffs, and calling Master Rogers unto him, asked him if he would revoke his abominable doctrine and his evil opinion of the sacrament of the altar. Master Rogers answered and said, 'That which I have preached I will seal with my blood.' 'Then,' quoth Master Woodroofe, 'thou art a heretic.' 'That shall be known,' quoth Rogers, 'at the day of judgment.' 'Well' quoth Master Woodroofe, 'I will never pray for thee.' 'But I will pray for you,' quoth Master Rogers; and so was brought the same day, which was Monday, the 4th of February, by the sheriffs towards Smithfield, saying the psalm 'Miserere' by the way, all the people wonderfully rejoicing at his constancy, with great praises and thanks to God for the same. And there, in the presence of Master Rochester, Comptroller of the Queen's Household, Sir Richard Southwell, both the sheriffs, and a wonderful number of people, the fire was put unto him; and when it had taken hold both upon his legs and shoulders, he, as one feeling no smart, washed his hands in the flame as though it had been in cold water. And, after lifting up his hands unto heaven, not removing the same until such time as the devouring fire had consumed them, most mildly this happy martyr yielded up his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father. A little before his burning at the stake his pardon was brought if he would have recanted, but he utterly refused. He was the first martyr of all the blessed company that suffered in Queen Mary's time, that gave the first adventure upon the fire. His wife and children, being eleven in number, and ten able to go, and one sucking on her breast, met him by the way as he went towards Smithfield. This sorrowful sight of his own flesh and blood could nothing move him; but that he constantly and cheerfully took his death, with wonderful patience, in the defence and quarrel of Christ's Gospel."

The chosen place for executions before Tyburn was the Elms, Smithfield, between "the horsepond and Turnmill brook," which, according to Stow, began to be built on in the reign of Henry V. The gallows seems to have been removed to Tyburn about the reign of Henry IV. In Stow's time none of the ancient elms remained. Here that brave Scotch patriot and guerilla chief Sir William Wallace, was executed, on St. Bartholomew's Eve, 1305. After many cruel reprisals on the soldiers of Edward I., and many victories, this true patriot was betrayed by a friend, and surrendered to the conquerors. He was dragged from the Tower by horses, and then hung, and, while still conscious, quartered. Here also perished ignominiously Mortimer, the cruel favourite of the queen, the murderess of her husband, Edward II. Edward III., then aged eighteen, seized the regicide, Mortimer, at Nottingham Castle, and he was hung at the Elms, the body remaining on the gibbet, says Stow, "two days and nights, to be seen of the people."

The history of Bartholomew Priory and of Bartholomew Fair, so admirably narrated by Mr. Henry Morley, is an interesting chapter in the history of Smithfield. The priory was founded by Rayer, a monk, who had been jester and revel-master to Henry I., a specially superstitious monarch. Rayer was converted by a vision he saw during a pilgrimage to Rome, where he had fallen grievously sick. In his vision Rayer was borne up to a high place by a beast with four feet and two wings, from whence he saw the mouth of the bottomless pit. As he stood there, crying out and trembling, a man of majestic beauty, who proclaimed himself St. Bartholomew the Apostle, came to his succour. The saint said that, by common favour and command of the celestial council, he had chosen a place in the suburbs of London where Rayer should found a church in his name. Of the cost he was to doubt nothing; it would be his (St. Bartholomew's) part to provide necessaries.

On Rayer's return to London he told his friends and the barons of London, and by their advice made his request to the king, who at once granted it, and the church was founded early in the twelfth century. It was an unpromising place, though called the King's Market, almost all marsh and dirty fens, and on the only dry part stood the Elms gibbet. Rayer, wise in his generation, now feigned to be halfwitted, drawing children and idlers together, to fill the marsh with stones and rubbish. In spite of his numerous enemies, many miracles attended the building of the new priory. At evensong a light appeared on the new roof; a cripple recovered the use of his limbs at the altar; by a vision Rayer discovered a choral book which a Jew had stolen; a blind boy recovered his sight. In the twelfth year of his prelacy Rayer obtained from King Henry a most ample charter, and leave to institute a three days' fair on the Feast of St. Bartholomew, forbidding any but the prior levying dues on the frequenters of the fair during those three days. Fairs, as Mr. Morley has most learnedly shown, generally originated in the assembling of pilgrims to church festivals, and St. Bartholomew's Fair was no exception to the rule.

Rayer, after witnessing endless miracles, and showing a most creditable invention, and a true knowledge of his old juggler's art, died in 1143, leaving a little flock of thirteen monks, living very well on the oblations of the rich Londoners. The miracles continued very well. The saint became a favourite with seamen, and the sailors of a Flemish ship, saved by prayers to the saint of Smithfield, presented a silver ship at his altar. The saint appeared to a sailor on a wreck, and led a wrecked Flemish merchant to land in safety. He cured madmen, and was famous in cases of fires and possession by devils.

Fragments of the old Norman priory of Rayer still exist in Bartholomew Close, and the dim passage called Middlesex Passage. This latter place is a fragment of the old priory, overhung by the wreck of the great priory hall, now broken up, divided into floors, and turned into a tobaccofactory. On each side of this passage there is access to separated portions of the crypt. In one pickle-store there are pointed Norman arches under a high vaulted ceiling. The entrance to the crypt used to be by a descent of twenty-five feet, until the floor was raised for business convenience. There is a tradition that at the end of this long subterranean hall there used to be a door opening into the church; now the visitor to the shrine will only find, through an alley a door and bit of church wall hemmed in between factories. The present church is the choir of the old priory, and the nave is entirely gone; the last line of the square of cloisters had been turned into a stable, and fell down some thirty years ago. The apse is shorn off, and a base brick wall closes that forlorn space. "Half-way," says Mr. Morley, "between capital and base of the pillars of that oratory of the Virgin which a miracle commended once to reverence, now stands the floor of the vestry of the parish church." The walls and aisles on either side of the church are still nearly as when Rayer's sham miracles and pious trickeries were all over, and he took a last glance at the great work of his singular life, and the house raised to God and the builder's own vanity. The high aspiring columns and solid arches, the zig-zag ornaments of the early Normans, are still as when Rayer eyed them with crafty triumph.


The site of the priory was chosen with a true monkish wisdom. The saint had included in his wishes a piece of the king's Friday Market, and horses, oxen, sheep, and pigs would all bring grist, in one way or another, to the omnivorous monastic mill. Already Smithfield was the great horsemarket of London. as it continued to be for many long centuries. On Shrove Tuesday every schoolboy came here to play football; and it was also the Rotten Row of the horsemen of the Middle Ages. It was the great Campus Martius for shamfights and tilts. It was a ground for bowls and archery; the favourite haunt of jugglers, acrobats, and posture-makers. There were probably, in early times, says Mr. Morley, two Bartholomew Fairs, one held in Smithfield, and one within the priory bounds. The real fair was held within the priory gates, and in the priory churchyard; where, too, on certain festivals, schoolmasters used to bring their boys, to hold in public logical controversies. The churchyard fair seems from the first to have been chiefly a draper's and clothiers' fair; and the gates were locked every night, and guarded, to protect the booths and stands.


The English kings did not forget the hospital. In 1223 we find that King Henry III. gave an old oak from Windsor Forest as fuel for the infirm in the Hospital of St. Bartholomew, the generous grant to be renewed every year. In 1244 (Henry III.) a disgraceful religious brawl occurred at the very gate of the West Smithfield Priory. Boniface, the Provençal Archbishop of Canterbury, came to visit Rayer's friars, and was received with solemn procession. The bishop was rather angry at the state, and told the canons that he passed not for honour, but to visit them as part of the duties of his office. The canons, irritated at his pride, replied that having a learned bishop of their own, they desired no other visitation. The archbishop, furious at this, smote the sub-prior on the face, crying, "Indeed! indeed! doth it become you English traitors so to answer me?" Then, bursting with oaths, this worthy ecclesiastic fell on the unfortunate sub-prior, tore his rich cope to shreds, trampled them under foot, and then thrust the wearer back with such force against a chancel pillar as nearly to kill him. The canons, alarmed at this furious onslaught, pulled the archbishop on his back, and in so doing discovered that he was armed. The archbishop's Provençal attendants, seeing their master down, fell in their turn on the Smithfield canons, beat them, rent their frocks, and trod them under foot. The canons then ran, covered with blood and mire, to the king, at Westminster, but he refused to interfere. The citizens, by this time roused, would have rung the common bell, and torn the foreign archbishop to pieces, had he not fled over the water to Lambeth. They called him a ruffian and a cruel brute, and said he was greedy for money, unlearned and strange, and, moreover, had a wife.

The early miracle plays seem to have been often performed at Smithfield. In 1390 the London parish clerks played interludes in the fields at Skinner's Well, for three consecutive days to Richard II., his queen, and court. In 1409 (Henry IV.) the parish clerks played Matter from the Creation of the World for eight consecutive days; after which followed jousts. In those early times delegates of the merchant tailors, with their silver measure, attended Bartholomew Fair, to try the measures of the drapers and clothiers.

From the earliest times of which there is record, says Mr. Morley, whose wide nets few odd facts escape, the Court of Pie-poudre, which has jurisdiction over offences committed in the fair, was held within the priory gates, the prior being lord of the fair. It was held, indeed, to the last, close by, in Cloth Fair. After 1445 the City claimed to be joint lord of the fair with the prior, and four aldermen were always appointed as keepers of the fair and of the Court of Pie-poudre.