Shakespeare in London

In his fascinating new book, Charles Nicholl focuses on the brief period of Shakespeare‘s life when he lodged in the house of the Mountjoys, a French immigrant family in Cripplegate, east London. How – when the street it stood in no longer exists – can we be sure of what it looked like?

  • Shakespeare in London

    East London as shown by the 'Agas' map' of 1561. © Guildhall Library

  • The house where the Mountjoys lived is long gone, but its location can be gauged quite exactly: it stood on the corner of Silver Street and ‘Muggle Street’, more generally called Monkwell Street. Monkwell Street was the boundary between two of the city’s administrative ‘wards’: the west side of the street was in Farringdon Ward, and the east side in Cripplegate Ward.

    You can see the house quite clearly in the woodcut map of Elizabethan London, formerly attributed to the engraver Ralph Agas and still known for convenience as the ‘Agas map’. It has steeply pitched gables, and a projection suggestive of a ‘pentice’ or penthouse above a shop-front, and then those four tantalising windows upstairs; but here the map fails us, for the windows are only little blocks of printer’s ink which the magnifying glass cannot pry into. Of course, what one sees in the map is not actually an image of the Mountjoys’ house, only a stereotypical indication of its existence. It looks much the same as all the others around it: Agas’s London, seen from a hypothetical bird’s-eye viewpoint, tends to the neat uniformity of a modern housing estate, far from the higgledy-piggledy, in-filled, architecturally opportunist reality. It is also not the Mountjoys’ house per se because the map dates from the early 1560s, some 30 years before they are first heard of on Silver Street. But this is the best record we have.

    Importantly, we see the street in its context. Not far to the south is the great commercial thoroughfare of Cheapside, and beyond that St Paul’s cathedral (still shown with its wooden steeple, destroyed by lightning in 1561). Closer in, to the north and west, lie the city walls; the neighbourhood nestles comfortably in the angle. To the east is Wood Street, leading out through the walls at the Cripple (or Creple) Gate which gives the area its name. Legends of healing the lame attach to the gate, but the name merely refers to its lack of headroom – literally, a gate which one has to creep through. Beyond the gate, and across the unsavoury city ditch, you were soon out into the greenery of Moorfields. The map shows market-gardens, hedgerows, archery butts, tenter-yards, and a pleasant prospect north to the windmills of Finsbury Fields. Some of this would already have been lost to development by the time Shakespeare was here, but London remained a city hemmed in by countryside. Nuts were gathered on Notting Hill, sheep grazed at Shepherd’s Bush, hogs were kept at Hoxton, and one went for a day out to Islington to shoot duck and ‘eat a messe of creame’.

    The house Shakespeare knew may have survived for half a century or so after his lifetime, but it cannot have survived the cataclysm of September 1666. Cripplegate was near the northern edge of the area destroyed by the Great Fire, which began at Pudding Lane in Billingsgate, and was fanned generally westwards through the tinder-dry city. It was probably on the third day of the fire, September 4, that Silver Street went up in flames. The former Mountjoy house was one of an estimated 13,000 properties razed in the conflagration.

    The Coopers' Arms, Silver Street, c1910

    A Restoration house arose in its place. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a public house on the site, the Coopers’ Arms. By the end of the century, almost all the houses of Silver Street had been replaced by Victorian warehouses and ‘manufactories’, but the pub remained. There is a photograph of it in around 1910: a tall, grimy-looking building on four floors. A signboard on the corner offers Meux Original London Stout, draught and bottled; handwritten signs at the doorway promise ‘teas and dinners’.

    That the house does not survive is unremarkable. Because of the fire, the centre of London is almost devoid of Elizabethan and Jacobean houses. But we are still further from the physical reality of the house because Silver Street itself no longer exists. It disappeared in the second great cataclysm to hit the area – the London Blitz. A German raid on the night of December 29 1940 reduced the entire area to rubble.

    Many streets rose again from the ashes of the Blitz, but Silver Street did not. It was dealt a final death-blow by redevelopment and traffic-planning; we are at the outer edge of the giant Barbican estate, opened in the early 1960s. All that survives visibly of the previous layout of the area are the old churchyards, which have been left as public open spaces. You can find the churchyard of St Olave’s, watched over by gleaming high-rise offices. No foundations of the church are visible, as they are in some others in the vicinity, but on a low brick wall among the municipal shrubs is a small faded inscription on a block of whitish stone; it looks like part of an old gravestone, and indeed it has a skull and crossbones incised on it. It reads: ‘THIS WAS THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST OLAVE SILVER STREET DESTROYED BY THE DREADFVLL FIRE IN THE YEAR 1666.’ (It is likely the tablet dates from the nineteenth century.)

    The churchyard of St Olave’s stood almost directly opposite the Mountjoys’ house on Silver Street.

    This is an edited extract from ‘The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street’ by Charles Nicholl, published by Allen Lane at £20.

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