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Historic London: X marks the spot

Nicholas Best

Welcome to my new blog. It’s about historic London. Rome may be older, Paris more elegant, but London has the most exciting history of any city in the world. Read on and see if you agree.



Postern Gate

This is the postern gate at the Byward Tower, royalty’s private entrance to the Tower of London. In medieval times, the royals arrived by boat and were received by the Lieutenant Governor before being escorted across the wharf to the postern.

On 29 May 1533, a young woman came ashore to be met by a gun salute so loud that it shattered every pane of glass in the Tower. The King himself, Henry VIII, was waiting to greet her. He scandalised the onlookers by kissing her in public, ‘with loving countenaunce at the postern by the waters’ side.’

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 1. Who did Henry VIII kiss here? (scroll down for the answer).

Tennis and the Masai Cover









‘Wickedly funny’ – Daily Mail
‘Funniest book of the year’ – Daily Telegraph
No 3 best-seller, Amazon humorous fiction

Answer 1. Henry VIII kissed Anne Boleyn here, the second of his six queens.

‘Apparelled in rich cloth of gold’, she was six months pregnant, with long dark hair almost down to her waist. Anne stayed at the Tower before proceeding to Westminster Abbey for her coronation.


St James PalaceAnne Boleyn’s daughter later became Queen Elizabeth 1. In August 1588, Elizabeth was at St James’ Palace, masterminding operations against the Spanish Armada. An invasion fleet was advancing up the Channel with the aim of overthrowing the Queen and installing a Roman Catholic in her place.

The Spaniards’ progress was reported every few hours. By Thursday, 8 August, Queen Elizabeth could bear the suspense no longer. Wearing a red wig, a white velvet dress and a silver breastplate in case a Catholic tried to assassinate her, she swept out of St James’ Palace and took a boat downriver from Whitehall steps.

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 2. Where was Queen Elizabeth I going?

Where were you at Waterloo? Cover









‘As sharp as Evelyn Waugh and sometimes better’ – Times Literary Supplement
‘Good, clean fun’ – Daily Telegraph
‘Pure comic pleasure’ – Spectator

Answer 2. Queen Elizabeth went to Tilbury fort, at the mouth of the Thames, where the Spanish were expected to land.

A motley collection of pikemen and ploughboys stood ready to fight them off. Queen Elizabeth rallied the troops with a famous speech: ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.’  A note of the speech still exists.


Horse Guards

Once used for jousting, Horse Guards Parade has more recently been the centre of British Government. The old brown Admiralty building lies in the left hand corner. The white Horse Guards building in the middle used to be the headquarters of the British army. The trees on the right mark the garden of No 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s official residence.

Just before lunchtime on Sunday, 25 November 1781, the duty clerks at the Admiralty were quietly dozing at their desks when a messenger arrived from the port of Falmouth, in Cornwall. He brought terrible news – news so awful that the Prime Minister would have to be told at once.

Nobody wanted to be the one to break it to him. The message travelled halfway around London before someone was at last persuaded to take it across the parade ground to No 10.

As predicted, Prime Minister Lord North received the news very badly, ‘as he would have taken a ball in his breast… He opened his arms, exclaiming wildly, as he paced up and down the apartment during a few minutes, “O God! It is all over!” – words which he repeated many times under emotions of the deepest consternation and distress.’

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 3. What was this terrible news?

Happy Valley: the story of the English in Kenya Cover









‘Immensely entertaining’ – Evening Standard
‘Hilariously funny’ – Melbourne Herald
‘Anyone with experience of Kenya, past or present, will enjoy reading Happy Valley’ – Country Life

Answer 3. British troops in America had surrendered at a place called Yorktown.

The colonies were British no longer.


Mire SquareMire SquareSt James’ Passage (then Church Passage) leads to Mitre Square, off Aldgate. Around 1.45 a.m. on 30 September 1888, a policeman shone his lamp around the square and saw the body of Catherine Eddowes lying near the wall by the school gates. Her throat had been cut and she had been sliced open from groin to breastbone.

Catherine was a prostitute. Her nose had been cut off. One kidney and most of her womb had been removed. Most of her intestines had been pulled out and placed over her right shoulder. A two foot length of intestine had been left between the body and the left arm. All this had been done while the policeman was no more than 30 yards away.

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 4. What was the name of Catherine Eddowes’ killer?

Five Days that shocked the World Cover








Five Days That Shocked the World

‘Riveting’ – Daily Mail
‘Fascinating’ – The Times
‘Outstanding’ – Midwest Book Review
‘Utterly absorbing’ – Macleans

Answer 4. No one knows. The press called him Jack the Ripper.


Wentworth DoorwayCatherine was the second woman Jack had killed that night. As soon as he had finished with her, he headed back into the East End and made his way towards the Wentworth Dwellings, a tenement block on Goulston Street.

In those days, the entrance in the photograph had no door and was open to the public. Anyone could go in and wash their hands at the communal sink just inside. On the night of the murders, someone wrote in chalk on the brickwork just inside the door: ‘The Juwes are The men That Will not be Blamed for nothing.’

Fearing a race riot in what was then a heavily Jewish area, the policeman in charge of the case had the words rubbed out just after 5 a.m., before they could be photographed. The press covering the Ripper murders were quite right when they complained that the police didn’t have a clue. They’d just rubbed it out.

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 5. How did the police know that Jack the Ripper had been there?

Trafalgar Book Cover









‘Marvellous. Compulsively readable.’ – BBC Radio
‘History with a page-turning quality’ – Good Book Guide
‘The battle is grippingly described with a Master and Commander/Patrick O’Brian touch’ – Daily Mail

Answer 5. Jack the Ripper dropped a piece of Catherine’s blood-stained apron at the foot of the staircase inside the door.

Wentworth-DoorwayMore about Jack the Ripper later.


IMG_5022 Henry V

The west face of Westminster Abbey has seen many alterations since 1422. On 7 November of that year, an English king was buried in the abbey after dying suddenly at the age of 35.

All of London lined the streets as the funeral procession arrived. The soldiers wore black and carried their weapons in reverse as a sign of mourning. Among the nobles, ‘an Erle armed complet hys horse trapped and garnysshed whyth the Kyngs armes rode bare hedyd… in hys hande a batylax borne wt the poynte downwarde.’

Flying the banner of St George, the king’s coffin was escorted into the abbey, accompanied by horses bearing his arms. Straw had been laid down to prevent the horses from slipping on the stone floor. Sixty men in black hoods carried torches to light the way as the king’s body was taken to the choir for the funeral service.

‘He was buried with suche solempne ceremonies, such mournyng of lords, such prayer of pryestes, such lamentynge of commons as never was before that daye sene in the Realme of Englande.’

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 6. Who was the king?

Kings and Queens book






Answer 6. Ignore that book ad! The right answer is Henry V, the victor of Agincourt.

Henry V’s grave at the far end of Edward the Confessor’s chapel is marked by a chantry in the shape of a giant H. His son Henry VI used to spend hours there during the Wars of the Roses, a weak son seeking inspiration from a dead but mighty father. William Shakespeare may have stood there too, studying Henry V’s grave and wondering if there was a play in it.


IMG_4725 Ben Franklin

In the 1760s, a famous American lived on the top two floors of this house (second from the left) close to the Houses of Parliament. He was very pleased with his accommodation.

‘I lodge in Craven Street near Charing Cross,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘We have four rooms, furnished, and everything about is pretty genteel.’

The American’s bedroom was the second floor front (two floors above the ground, for American readers). A visitor from the colonies called on him there in 1767, bearing the latest news from home.

The door was slightly ajar. The visitor was shocked to see the American, in a blue-green suit and gilt buttons, energetically kissing the young woman on his knee, who clearly wasn’t his wife.

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 7. Who was this naughty American cheating on his wife?

The Greatest Day in History Book Cover









‘Scintillating’ – Literary Review
‘Sets an example that will be hard to equal’ – Daily Mail
Waterstone’s recommendation of the month

Answer 7. Benjamin Franklin. His unsuspecting wife was in Philadelphia.

Craven StThis is the view of Franklin’s house from the other way. For more about him at Craven Street, see Question 100.


IMG_4883 Jane Grey

This shows the approximate site of the execution scaffold at the Tower of London. Only royalty and special favourites were executed here, in comparative privacy. Everyone else was taken outside the Tower and executed in public on Tower Hill.

On 12 February 1554, a tiny 16-year-old lost her head here, as an eyewitness recorded:

‘Then she stode up and gave her maiden mistris Tilney her gloves and handkercher, and her book to maister Bruges, the lyvetenantes brother; forthwith she untied her gown. The hangman went to her to help her of therewith; then she desired him to let her alone, turning towards her two gentlewomen, who helped her off therwith… giving to her a fayre handkercher to knytte about her eyes.

‘Then the hangman kneeled downe, and asked her forgevenesse, whome she forgave most willingly. Then he willed her to stand upon the strawe: which doing, she sawe the block. Then she sayd, “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” Then she kneeled down, saying, “Wil you take it of me before I lay me downe?” and the hangman answered her, “No, madame.”

‘She tyed the kercher about her eys: then feeling for the blocke, saide, “What shall I do? Where is it?” One of the standers-by guyding her thereunto, she layde her heade down upon the block, and stretched forth her body and said: “Lorde, into thy hands I commende my spirite!” And so she ended.’

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 8. Who was this poor child beheaded on Tower Green?

Five Days that shocked the World Cover








Five Days That Shocked the World

‘Riveting’ – Daily Mail
‘Fascinating’ – The Times
‘Outstanding’ – Midwest Book Review
‘Utterly absorbing’ – Macleans

Answer 8. Lady Jane Grey was beheaded here.

A cousin of King Edward VI, she had been proclaimed Queen after his death in place of the rightful but Roman Catholic Queen Mary. The coup failed and she paid the price.

Unlike modern British athletes, who blub when they lose at tennis or win at the Olympics (and that’s only the men), Jane met her death like a proper Englishwoman, ‘hir countenance nothing abashed, neither hir eyes enything moysted with tears’.


IMG_4977 Notting Hill

Just off the Portobello Road, this house with a blue door featured in a much-loved film from the 1990s. A Welshman emerged from within and capered about in his underpants on the street.

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 9. The film starred Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. What was its name?

Tennis and the Masai Cover









‘Wickedly funny’ – Daily Mail
‘Funniest book of the year’ – Daily Telegraph
No 3 best-seller, Amazon humorous fiction

Answer 9. Notting Hill. As well as Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, the film also starred Hugh Bonneville before Downton Abbey.

And also Rhys Ifans, James Dreyfus, Gina McKee, Emma Chambers and Tim McInnerny. The film was written by Richard Curtis and directed by Roger Michell.

The door in the photo is not the one in the movie. Unable to cope with all the publicity, that one was auctioned off at Christie’s. It now lives in Devon.


IMG_4926 Jane AustenIn September 1813, a countrywoman and her niece came up to London to spend a few days with her brother at his new house in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. No sooner had she arrived than she sat down to write to her sister in the first floor room overlooking the street:

‘Here I am, my dearest Cassandra, seated in the Breakfast, Dining, sitting room… Fanny will join me as soon as she is dressed & begin her Letter…

‘We arrived at a quarter past 4 & were kindly welcomed by the Coachman, & then by his Master, and then by William, & then by Mrs Perigord, who all met us before we reached the foot of the Stairs.

‘Mme de Bigeon was below dressing us a most comfortable dinner of Soup, Fish, Bouillee, Partridges & an apple Tart, which we sat down to soon after 5, after cleaning & dressing ourselves & feeling that we were most commodiously disposed of.’

HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 10. Who was the countrywoman?

Point Lenana









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