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Hidden London : Secrets of Ely Place

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Near Holborn Circus stands two rows of houses known as Ely Place. The road does not lead anywhere but the calm and pleasant nature of the road belies the history of the area which is steeped in over 700 years of change.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The present Ely Place and some of the surrounding area was the site of the town house or mansion of the Bishops of Ely. The story of Ely Place begins with the death in 1290 of John de Kirkeby, Bishop of Ely. He left land and buildings in Holborn to his successors that would be known as the London residence for the Bishops of Ely.

Ely Place – 16th Century

His immediate successor, William de Luda used the land to build the chapel of St. Etheldreda, later bishops built the mansion with a vineyard, kitchen-garden, and orchard. By the 16th century, Ely Place was considered one of the grandest of London’s mansions. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the site was home to many notable people including John of Gaunt who died here in 1399. Other nobles who lived here were Henry Radclyff, Earl of Sussex and the Earl of Warwick.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The gardens that surrounded Ely House were famous for their fruit especially fine strawberries. Shakespeare mentions these strawberries in his play Richard III.

“My lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there;
I do beseech you, send for some of them!

It was in the reign of Elizabeth I that the attractions of Ely Place came to the attention of Sir Christopher Hatton who would become ever associated with the location. Hatton had entered one of the inns of court and studied law, but it was his great ability as a dancer that caught the attention of Queen Elizabeth who promoted him to Lord Chancellor. Although not widely admired, Elizabeth’s obsession with him led to him taking advantage of his royal patron.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

In 1576, to oblige Queen Elizabeth, the Bishop of Ely, allowed Hatton the use of the gate-house of the mansion and parts of the garden. Once Hatton moved in, he borrowed money from his royal patron to rebuild part of the house and garden. Unsatisfied with just part of the premises, he petitioned Queen Elizabeth to allow him to have the whole house and gardens. The Bishop of Ely were desperate to maintain the Church property, but Elizabeth insisted he must hand over the land.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The victory for Hatton was short-lived, it was said his debt to the Queen was around forty thousand pounds. Perhaps she got tired of his dancing because she asked for settlement of the debt. Hatton was horrified because he did not have the funds to pay. He never recovered from this setback and he died in Ely House in 1591, some say from a ‘broken heart’. The Bishops of Ely did eventually regain their land but eventually transferred to the Crown all its right to Ely Place in the 18th century.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The days of the nobility in Ely Place were numbered, in 1642, the palace and church was requisitioned by Parliament for use as a prison and hospital during the English Civil War. During the 17th century, many of the palatial buildings were pulled down and the land and gardens used to build Hatton Garden, Great and Little Kirby Streets, Charles Street, Cross Street, and Hatton Wall.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The present Ely Place was not built till about 1773. But remnants of its former glories remain. Mitre Court, which leads from Ely Place to Hatton Garden is the location of Ye Olde Mitre pub which claims to be the tavern site that goes back to the days of Ely Palace and in the bar is a piece of wood that was allegedly part of a tree that Elizabeth I and Christopher Hatton used to dance around.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Remarkably the chapel of Ely Place dedicated to St. Etheldreda still stands and retains much of its original aspects. The chapel was once used as a school-room before 1874 when was bought by the Roman Catholic Church.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Ely Place is the last privately owned street in London, having been originally an enclave of Cambridgeshire, the location of the medieval abbey at Ely for the Bishops of Ely and the playground for the dancing Lord Chancellor, it is now managed by its own body of commissioners.

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Book Review : Treasures from the Royal Archives ( Royal Collection Trust)

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The famous ‘Round Tower’ of Windsor Castle may be one of the most recognisable Royal Buildings, however less well-known is that it is the home of the Royal Archives. The Royal Archives are one of the most important collections in the United Kingdom containing many thousands of documents and records dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I.

It may be a surprise to many that until the Royal Archives were created in 1914, there was no appointed place for the Royal Family to store their historical records or any person with the responsibility to look after them. In the introduction to the book, it is related that pre 1914, the documents were ‘ kept in tin trunks, boxes, folders and volumes, they were often lodged in cupboards or storerooms in the various royal residences.’ One of the more formal collections was within the Royal Library in Windsor established by William IV in the 1830s. This rather haphazard system did not offer great security and it was not unknown that members of the Royal Family or members of the Royal Household would destroy documents to prevent them falling in the ‘wrong hands’.

Prince Albert showed his organisational skills by developing a filing system for Queen Victoria’s official correspondence, but when Queen Victoria died it was considered her vast collection of private papers were in significant disarray. It was with King George V and Queen Mary that a concerted effort was made to centralise all the documents and begin to log exactly what documents the Royal families had collected over centuries. It soon became clear that some of the documents had a narrow escape, 30 large boxes of George III and George IV documents were found at the Duke of Wellington’s London home,  Apsley House with a note on the top for the documents to be destroyed. Another important collection were documents from the exiled Stuarts bought by George IV. The Royal Archives have an extensive collection of documents but most are from the time of George III and after, before that date most of the official papers of monarchs are found in the National Archives. A notable exception is the records collected by the Dukes of Montagu of the Royal Household covering the years 1660 – 1749. It is also important to remember that the Royal Archives that although in recent years, many of the documents have been made public, it still remains a private family archive.

Within the rest of the book it is this public and private face of the monarchy that offers the most interest and the most surprises, a letter to Queen Victoria from her uncle King Leopold of the Belgians offers advice on the political importance of affirming  her English birth, a transcript from the Lord Chamberlain’s office gives some insight into the onerous task of organising Queen Victoria’s Coronation and finally a rather sweet transcript by the seven-year old Princess Elizabeth describing her parents Coronation.

In the interesting section on palaces and possessions it is intriguing to come across the deed for George III ‘ s purchase of Buckingham Palace and perhaps more mundanely the Balmoral estates work diary.

Nowhere is the role of the Monarchy more clearly defined that in the business of government, the nation has been a constitutional monarchy since the late 17th century and the Sovereign as head of state has a number of symbolic functions but is expected to be up to date on political developments. William Pitt’s letter to  George, Prince of Wales about the problems of George III is a reminder of how the relationship between the two institutions is an important factor for good government.
However the non partisanship expected of the monarchy does not mean that the Royal Family have strong feelings on particular subjects, one of Prince Albert’s first speeches recorded in the book was to denounce slavery.

The role of the monarch is not just related to domestic issues, Queen Victoria at one time was the ruler of a quarter of the world population and often had Indian servants from whom she had lessons in Hindustani. Some examples of her studies are included, other letters from famous world leaders include those from  Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Nicholas. However one of the most unusual letters is the one from the Chinese Emperor in 1793, a letter and gifts were sent to the Emperor to seek permission to send an ambassador to the Chinese capital to encourage trade. The reply was dismissive of the idea and it was clear he thought British monarchs were inferior to the might of China Emperors. The Emperor decreed  ” It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in the future, so that by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter.”

Unfortunately a constant of many monarch’s reigns were war and conflicts, the book offers a wide range of documents in this area. Quite remarkably, the Royal Archives possess papers from the leaders of both sides of the Jacobite Rebellion, correspondence between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale at the time of the Crimean war, documents related to the creation of the Victoria Cross, Prince Albert the future King George VI eyewitness account of the Battle of Jutland and Queen Elizabeth’s description of the bombing of Buckingham Palace in 1940.

For all the responsibility of the monarchy, most Sovereigns find time to pursue their own interests. The Royal families interest in hunting, dogs and racehorses is well documented but other interests have included photography and literature. The book features an excerpt from a list of books read by King George V between 1890 and 1936, in the considerable list is many worthy books but it is noted he did possess an early edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover which was banned in the UK until the 1960s.

The final sections of the book look beyond the public face of the monarchy to consider the private aspects of Royal life. For all the benefits of a privileged background there is many documents that illustrate that Royal Families still had to endure issues common to most people.

A rather sad letter from the future Bonnie Prince Charlies to his father in 1728 , an equally sad self-portrait of Princess Victoria from 1835 after she had recovered from an illness, Queen Mary baby’s souvenir books is slightly more cheerful and more remarkably the household accounts of Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield in 1551-1552 illustrate the more domestic responsibilities of royal residences.

One very private letter with considerable historical interest is a ‘Certificate of Marriage’ from 1785, whilst on the surface it seems to be a marriage certificate of the betrothal of George, Prince of Wales and Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, it is deceptive. Amazingly the certificate was written by the Prince of Wales himself and the illegal service was conducted by an Anglican priest who was let out of Fleet Prison for this singular event. The marriage was illegal due to the facts that  the Prince was not allowed to marry without the King’s permission and Mrs Fitzherbert’s status as a widowed Roman Catholic would have prevented the prince from acceding to the throne. When Mrs Fitzherbert died in 1837, the document was deposited in a London bank until rather ironically it was sent to the Royal Archives in the reign of Edward VIII.

This well written, lavishly illustrated and fascinating book offers considerable insight into a wide range of documents within the Royal Archives, viewing both the private and public aspect of the monarchy  gives the reader a more balanced view of an institution that is known for its secrecy especially in the past. It is a fairly recent development to put some of these documents into the public domain, but as this book illustrates these treasures are of considerable interest and historically of great importance.

This book would appeal to a wide range of people with an interest in all areas of history, the Royal Family was generally at the centre of many world events and the various documents allow some insight into the role they played. Looking at these primary sources it is possible to discover some aspects of the real people behind the myths and legends.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like to find out more about the book or buy a copy, visit the Royal Collection shop here

If you would like to see some of the Treasures from the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, there is an exhibition  from 17 May 2014 to 21 January 2015 , more details here

London Visitors is the official blog for the Visiting London Guide .com website. The website was developed to bring practical advice and latest up to date news and reviews of events in London.
Since our launch in January, we attract thousands of readers each month, the site is constantly updated.
We have sections on Museums and Art Galleries, Transport, Food and Drink, Places to Stay, Security, Music, Sport, Books and many more.
There are also hundreds of links to interesting articles on our blog.
To find out more visit the website
here