The history of the peasants’ revolt immortalised on the walls of St Barts’ Hospital.
Many assume the Tower of London to be one of the bloodiest locations in the capital due to its history of prisoners and capital punishment. Although famous these days for its meat market, Smithfield‘s history features butchery of a different kind… of humans. The area, located in the ward of Farringdon Without in the north-west corner of the City of London, has played host to many bloody executions over the centuries, most famously Scottish patriot William Wallace (1270-1305).
While Wallace is an iconic figure in Scottish history, the name Wat Tyler doesn’t have the same recognition it deserves. Back in 1381, many Englishmen were unhappy with the state of living. In the 14th century, under the young King Richard II (1367-1400), a new kind of poll tax had been introduced, which was a fixed rate regardless of an individual’s earnings. Peasants were also tiring of the serfdom system of labour, meaning they didn’t have a choice in who they worked for.
In June 1381, thousands of workers from Kent advanced on London, led by Wat Tyler and inspired by radical cleric John Ball (1338-1381), demanding an end to serfdom and fairer taxes. The boy King, who was just a teenager at the time, retreated to the Tower of London for protection as many of his troops were abroad. On 13 June, the rebels entered London and were joined by some locals as they destroyed the Savoy Palace (home to John of Gaunt, who was widely blamed for introducing the poll tax), burned law books and buildings at Temple, killed Royal government associates and opened gaols.
On 14 June, King Richard met with the rebels at Mile End, East London, and agreed to their demands. Meanwhile, a separate group of rebels took over the Tower of London and beheaded several royal figures. Overnight, the King planned to regain control of the City. On 15 June, King Richard and around 200 men gathered in Smithfield outside St Bartholomew’s Priory, while thousands of rebels were on the western end. Tyler stepped forward to talk to the King, who wanted to know why the rebels hadn’t left London. Tyler explained he wanted their agreement drawn up in a charter and was shocked to find the King reneging on his previous promises. An argument then broke out between him and some of King Richard’s associates, with the Mayor of London, William Walworth (d.1385) stabbing Tyler. Royal squire Ralph Standish (1333-1415) then stepped in and repeatedly stabbed Tyler with his sword. resulting in the latter’s death. With the rebels’ leader dead, the King’s men were able to take control of the situation and the men dispersed. Tyler’s head was cut off and displayed on a pole on the southern end of London Bridge. Today, Walworth’s sword is preserved in a display box in Fishmongers’ Hall by London Bridge.
Over 600 years after his death, Wat and his cause have finally been commemorated with a memorial in Smithfield, in the very place he breathed his last breath. Local resident Matthew Bell commissioned a memorial by sculptor Emily Huffnung, which was unveiled by film-maker Ken Loach on 15 July 2015. Made of Caithness stone from Scotland, the triptych is mounted on a blocked window bay of St Barts’ Hospital. A few feet away are older memorials to William Wallace and 60 Protestant martyrs, killed in the 16th century under the reign of Queen Mary I (1516-1558), aka Bloody Mary.
The memorial reads: ‘At this place on 15th June 1381, Wat Tyler, John Ball and other representatives of the Great Rising met King Richard II to finalise terms for ending the Rebellion. The King had agreed to all the political reforms aimed at alleviating the plight of the people. However he and his advisors later reneged on that agreement, after killing Tyler in the process near this spot. John Ball and many others of the Revolt were also later executed.’ John Ball is then quoted: ‘Things cannot go on go on (sic) well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common when there shall be neither vassal nor Lord, and all distinctions levelled.’
- The memorial is located on the south east corner of West Smithfield, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest station: Farringdon. To read about Matthew Bell’s journey to have the revolt memorialised, check out his blog.
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To read about the history of the nearby St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, click here.
The story of how a Tudor façade stayed hidden until World War I.
Thanks to the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, there aren’t many buildings left in the City of London dating back to before the mid 17th century. However, thanks to a stroke of luck – namely a Georgian Londoner who cared little for Tudor architecture – one historic piece of London dating back to the 13th and 16th century still survives today.
Situated on West Smithfield, a stone’s thrown from the historic St Bart’s Hospital, is the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Sandwiched between a French restaurant and a red brick Georgian-style structure, the narrow gatehouse comprises of a 13th century arch, topped by a two-storey, 16th century Tudor building. The name St Bartholomew’s comes from the nearby church St Bartholomew-The-Great, which was formerly an Augustinian Priory, founded by Rahere (d.1134) in 1123 (Rahere is buried in the church). When King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a lot of St Bartholomew’s was demolished in 1539, including the nave, although the Norman crossing and choir still remain today. The original Priory church measured a whopping 300 feet by 86 feet.
Also surviving is part of the west doorway into the southern aisle of the church, an archway dating back to the 13th century. Following the dissolution, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich (1496/7-1567) bought the church and surrounding land in 1546/47, sub-dividing it for housing. In 1595, a Tudor, timber-framed building was added by William or Philip Scudamore. The simple, narrow structure features two-storeys with a small attic above. Under the first floor window is a coat of arms. In between the two windows on the second floor is a statue of St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles, who the Priory and adjoining hospital were named after.
Miraculously, the gatehouse managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 due to the protection of the priory walls. The fire actually ended just a three-minute walk away on Giltspur Street and is commemorated by the Golden Boy of Pye Corner. At some point in the 18th century, whoever owned the gatehouse didn’t care much for its ‘old-fashioned’, Tudor façade so it was given a Georgian makeover and was used as a shop for two centuries. (Check out a London Metropolitan Archive of the building in 1912, with the Georgian façade covering the Tudor building).
Finally, in 1916, it was the destructive act of war that ended up uncovering the building’s original design. A nearby German Zeppelin bomb raid caused damage to the Georgian shop front, revealing the Tudor origins underneath and exposing more of the 13th century stonework from the original nave. Following the end of World War I, it was fully restored by 1932 and is now Grade-II listed. If you walk through the arch and turn right to see the doorway leading into the building, you will see ‘1240’ and ‘1932’ inscribed in the stonework – commemorating the year of the arch’s construction and restoration. The interior of the building includes bolection panelling from around 1700, with original panelling dating back to 1595 in the attic. When the building was restored in the 1930s, it was dedicated the memory of architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), his brother Edward Alfred Webb (former churchwarden of St Bart’s) and Frederick L Dove, ‘who worked together on the restoration of the fabric of the church for over forty years’. A plaque to mark their work and the Webbs’ coat of arms has been erected within the gate.
Today, the gatehouse is a private building, but served as the rectory for the church for many years. Between 1948 and 1979, the then-rector’s wife Phyllis Wallbank MBE (1918-2020) set up and ran the Gatehouse School, an independent Montessori school. Obviously due to the size, the building couldn’t educate too many students and it eventually moved to a larger site in Bethnal Green, east London, in the 1970s. Today, the surviving church of St Bartholomew-The-Great is the oldest Parish church in London.
- St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, West Smithfield, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest stations: Barbican or Farringdon. The Gatehouse is not open to the public, but can be admired from the outside. For more information about St Bartholomew-The-Great church, visit their official website.
Read more about the history of Smithfield
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