Westminster: Introduction

Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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'Westminster: Introduction', in Old and New London: Volume 3, (London, 1878) pp. 5-10. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol3/pp5-10 [accessed 19 April 2024]

In this section



Origin of the Name—Its Early History—Antiquity of the See—Foundation of the Abbey—The Palace at Westminster—Present Size and Importance—Extent of its Boundaries.
"Strange shadows from the midst of death
Are round our being strangely cast:
Thus the great city, tower'd and steepled,
Is doubly peopled,
Haunted by ghosts of the remembered Past."—London Poems.

But before we start off upon our pilgrimage, that we may not stray hither and thither at random, it will be necessary to have before us, if not a map of, at all events some few general notes upon, the district over which we shall wander, together with a brief and general outline of its history as a city.

The origin of the name of Westminster is clear to the veriest child in such matters. The city must have taken its name from the noble Abbey Church of St. Peter's, the "Minster" in the "West," as doubtless it was called by the citizens of London in the days when London ended at the gate of "Lud," or, at the farthest, at Temple Bar. Stow tells us that it obtained this name all the more easily as "there was another Minster eastward of the City, and not far from the Tower, called 'Eastminster;" but the honest old annalist has forgotten to tell us where it stood precisely, though a modern writer places it on Tower Hill. For ourselves we can only say that we have not been able to verify the assertion.

SUFFOLK HOUSE. (After Hollar.)

Westminster appears to have been only a town down to the reign of Henry VIII., who raised it by royal letters patent into an "Honour." The Abbey Church being erected into a bishop's see in 1541, it of course became a "city," and when, ten years later, the bishopric was suppressed, the good people of Westminster did not resign the title, nor did the king reclaim it, so a city has it remained down to the present day. Its "Honour" was raised into a Marquisate by William IV. in 1831, in favour of the then head of the Grosvenor family, whose property, within the limits of its several parishes, fully justified the bestowal of such a dignity; and to the Marquisate was added a Dukedom in the person of the third and present Marquis of Westminster, by Her Majesty, on the retirement of Mr. Gladstone from office in the early part of the year 1874. It is also worthy of note that by an act of Pope Pius IX.—which, however, is not recognised as valid for legal purposes in England—Westminster was created a Roman Catholic Archbishopric, Cardinal Wiseman being appointed to fill it. On his death in 1865, the mitre was bestowed by his Holiness on Dr. Manning as his successor.

As for the early history of the fair city of Westminster, we fear that, like that of Rome under the kings, it is a little mixed up with fable. It owed its first beginning as a place of importance, no doubt, to its Abbey, or Minster, already mentioned. The first historical church was erected here during the Heptarchy, by Sebert, King of the East Saxons, or (according to Camden) of the East and Middle Saxons. Sebert, who, under his uncle Ethelbert, had been Bretwald, or Lord Paramount of the Anglo-Saxons, and like his uncle, had been converted to the Christian faith by the preaching of Melitus, one of the companions of St. Augustine, the Roman missionary, is by some writers said to have destroyed a pagan temple on Thorney Island, and to have erected on its site a church which he dedicated to St. Peter. As Ethelbert died in A.D. 606, and Sebert followed him to the grave soon after, we can fix the date of the foundation of the church with tolerable accuracy, as we read that both Sebert and his wife were buried in the Church of St. Peter in the Island of Thorney. Some writers have sought to carry the antiquity of the church to a much earlier date, and with that object in view have affirmed that St. Peter himself visited Britain, and erected there a small chapel or oratory. Others, contenting themselves with a more moderate draft upon the faith of their readers, ascribe the first sacred building on this spot to King Lucius, who reigned here in the second century, and who is said by tradition to have built here a church out of the ruins of a heathen temple, which had been overthrown by an earthquake. The existence, however, of any church here previous to that built by Sebert, is, to say the least, most doubtful; and at the time when he erected his Minster, the site was so rude and uncultivated, that it was known to the Saxons as "Thorney," that is, the place of thorns. Thorney, it appears, was at that time an island, formed by an arm of the river, called "The Long Ditch," and the brooks which flowed down from Hampstead and Kilburn; and there can be little doubt that it was on the higher and former ground, which rose up slightly in the centre of this marshy spot, that the church was built, which ultimately developed into the noble Abbey or Minster of the West.


In the charter of Edgar, the Minster is alluded to as "The church of St. Peter, said to be built, pursuant to the directions of King Ethelbert, by his nephew Sebert, under whose government London then was, in a certain terrible uncultivated place called 'Thorney,' from the thorns growing there." Sebert is also mentioned as the founder in the charter of Edward the Confessor; and these records, combined with the facts of his burial in the church, and the anniversary of his death being observed, seem to confirm his right to the honour of being considered its founder.

After the Conquest, "our palace at Westminster" continued to be the usual town residence of our Norman kings, and St. Peter's Abbey the usual place of their coronation. The same was the case under the Plantagenet sovereigns, under those of the houses of York and Lancaster, and under the Tudors and their successors, many of whom were not only crowned but buried within its walls. Their palace here adjoined the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. In the reign of Henry VIII. the splendid palace of Whitehall, which had for ages past been an appendage to the see of York, was, on the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, granted as a royal residence to the king, and directed to be called "the King's Palace at Westminster" for ever, because, as the Act of Parliament stated, "the old palace nigh the monastery of St. Peter's was then, and had long before been, in utter ruin and decay." In the same act its limits are defined to be "as well within the soil and places before limited and appointed, as also in all the street or way leading from Charing Cross unto the Sanctuary Gate at Westminster, and to all the houses, buildings, lands, and tenements on both sides of the same street or way from the said cross unto Westminster Hall, situate, lying, and being between the water of the Thames on the east part, and the said park-wall on the west part, and so forth, through all the soil, precincts and limits of the said old palace."

In consequence, as the sun of royalty has shone here almost without interruption for upwards of eight centuries, it is not to be wondered at that the little town which rose on and around the Isle of Thorney should have grown into a population of upwards of 108,000, occupying 15,445 houses (as calculated by the historian Malcolm) in 1734. Rickman, indeed, estimates the population at even a higher figure, at the beginning of the eighteenth century; but as he gives no account of the data on which he bases his calculations, we can hardly accept them as sound. In 1801, however, the census returns show that Westminster numbered 158,210 souls; in 1811 these had increased to 162,085; to 182,085 in 1821; and in 1831, to 202,460, forming 46,004 families, and occupying 21,892 houses. Its population, according to the census of 1871, is no less than 246,606, and now probably may be reckoned at a quarter of a million; but the number of houses has probably not increased in an equal ratio, on account of the erection of several residences on a larger scale than was known to the last generation.

Around this spot, so rich in sacred traditions, if not in actual memories, it was but natural that a town should gradually spring up. The Saxon monarchs, for the most part, loved the chase, and were devout adherents of the faith; for the one reason, they were likely to prefer living outside of their city walls in a time of peace; and for the other reason, they would like to take up their abode under the shadow of the tower of a church where the rites of their religion were daily performed with something of solemn state. Most naturally, therefore, did Westminster, in the Saxon times, come to share with Winchester the honour of being the home of royalty. At all events, long before the reign of Edward the Confessor such was the case; and the statement is corroborated by the fact that the name of Scotland Yard, between Charing Cross and Whitehall, was so called from the Scottish king, who had that place assigned to him as a residence, when he came on a visit to the English court to do homage for his crown. Wherever the king and the court fixed their abode, the courts of law and the meetings of the nobles and chief earls and thanes for the purpose of legislation would be held, at the time when the sovereign took an actual part in such affairs, and did not discharge his functions by deputy. The result of this would of course be the steady growth of residences around for the reception of his courtiers, their families, and dependents. To supply the daily wants of these residents other and smaller tenements would be erected, and in due course a market would be held, and the formation of a town would follow as years rolled on.

It is on record that Edward III., in 1353, imposed certain duties on wool, leather, and other commodities carried either by land or by water to the staple of Westminster, in order to pay for the repairing of the highway along the Strand. The establishment of this staple, or market, it is added, raised the rents of the residents along the road so far, that the latter were ordered to pave the rest of the way at their own cost, while the surplus was to be applied to the erection of a bridge, or pier, near the palace and staple of Westminster. And, doubtless, it was by this conjunction of a monastery, a palace, and a market on the spot, that Westminster gradually became "a place of some consideration."

Such, then, in the main, we may readily believe, was the origin of the City of Westminster, the "Liberties" of which appear, at first, to have been co-extensive with the parish of St. Margaret's. These "Liberties" afterwards comprehended nine parishes more—St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, St. James's, St. Anne's, St. Paul's (Covent Garden), St. Mary-le-Strand, the Precinct of the Savoy, St. Clement's, St. John the Evangelist, and St. George's (Hanover Square). These are divided into twelve several wards, which are subject to a government partly ecclesiastical and partly civil. The former is exercised by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, the latter by lay officers of their choosing. The boundaries of this parish in general, following in the main the line above indicated, are given as far back as A.D. 1222, by Cardinal Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, and other arbitrators, on the occasion of a dispute arising between the Bishop of London and the Abbot and Monks of Westminster, as to whether the Abbey was subject or not to the Bishop's jurisdiction. The judgment itself may be seen in Wharton's "History of the Bishops and Deans of London, &c." The parish, at the time of which we speak, comprised several villæ beyond the actual city limits, such as "Knightebrigge," "Westburne,"and "Padyngtoun," each with its chapel.

As to the exact limits and boundaries of the fair city of which we have so much to say presently in detail, we may state briefly that on the southern side they are fixed by the left bank of the Thames, from which they run up northwards, between Essex Street and the Temple, past Temple Bar, and up Shire Lane, which bounds it on the east. The boundary line then passes off in a north-western direction, keeping along the south side of Lincoln'sinn Fields, till it reaches Drury Lane; thence it follows to the north-west, as far as Castle Street, West Street, and Crown Street, Soho, which brings us to the eastern end of Oxford Street proper. Thence the northern boundary of the city goes due west along Oxford Street, the Bayswater Road, by the north side of Hyde Park—making, in one place, a small détour so as to include St. George's burial-ground—and so to the northern end of the Serpentine. From this point the western boundaryline of the city follows the course of the Serpentine, and of the stream which trickles out of its southeastern extremity, by Wilton Crescent, Lowndes Street, Chesham Street, and the Commercial Road, and so down to the Thames, just to the south of Chelsea Hospital.

The antiquary and statistician may be interested in learning that the limits of the city enclose an area of about 2,500 acres, exclusive of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Chapelry or Precinct of the Savoy, which would include about ten more.

Over this city we shall wander, first exploring the Strand and its tributaries, as far as Lincoln's-inn Fields and Drury Lane on the north, and the new Embankment on the south; then we shall come to Charing Cross and Whitehall, taking St. Martin's Lane in our way; then we shall reconnoitre the Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament, and St. James's Park and Palace; then along the Green Park, Piccadilly, Hyde Park, and Tyburn, and so to Marylebone, where we shall turn back again eastwards, and, crossing Regent Street, or Portland Place, make our way as best we can, to the regions of Soho, and Bloomsbury, and High Holborn. At the end of this our home tour, we purpose, if time and space allow us, to make other tours further abroad, and to take our readers with us on sundry excursions to Kensington, Chelsea, Lambeth, Putney, Southwark, and Fulham, also our walk, perhaps, extending to Hampstead and Highgate.

If we are able to make good these professions, at all events we shall find no lack of matter, "new and old," with which to light up the dull and somewhat musty records of antiquity. If we shall be found to have woke up the past into life, to have made its "dry bones" live once more, we shall have done our duty, and be quite contented. And now, having settled our line of march; and having pledged our faith in our character of cicerone, to clothe the dry bones of facts with all of becoming drapery, in the way of anecdote, tradition, and folk-lore, which we are able to collect, let us, without further preamble, return to our original starting-point, and take up our parable as we turn our faces towards the city of the west.