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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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