Monday 16 June 2008

Friday 13th June 2008 - Horrible Holborn

A dry but cloudy day for today's walk - but BEWARE! If you are of a delicate sensibility be warned that today's walk has some very gruesome moments!

The bandstand in Lincoln's Inn Fields

After meeting outside Holborn Tube Station (another large group today of 62) Aly, our guide, led us off down Kingsway, and then turning left into Remnant Street, we came into Lincoln's Inn Fields. We walked to the centre by the bandstand where we had our first stop. It was here that public executions used to take place, and it was the site of the last public hanging, drawing and quartering that took place in this area. For those of you who want to know exactly what that means, I will tell you. NB Gruesome bits coming up! - Rather than being hung from a scaffold when the person is dropped, breaking their neck, a noose would be placed around the neck and the person would be raised from ground level in order to choke but not kill. A sword would then be used to slice open the prisoner from groin to neck in order to remove internal organs, whilst the prisoner still lived. The executioners were very skilled at their job and could keep their victims alive for some considerable time. Indeed Anthony Babington was still conscious when his penis was removed! Once the disembowelling had taken place, the bodies were then cut into four and posted to the four corners of the city as a warning to anyone who might be considering committing treason. The prisoners in this case were the Babington Plotters, led by the aforementioned Anthony Babington (24 Oct 1561 - 20 Sep 1586). The sentencing of the plotters read:

"From (the Tower of London) you shall be drawn on a hurdle through the open streets to the place of execution, there to be hanged and cut down alive, and your body shall be opened, your heart and bowels plucked out, and your privy members cut off and thrown into the fire before your eyes. Then your head to be stricken off from your body, and your body shall be divided into 4 quarters , to be disposed of at (the Queen's) pleasure. And may God have mercy on your soul." (From Daniel Diehl & Mark P Donnelly, Tales from the Tower of London, Sutton, Gloucestershire, 2006 p.118)

The Babington Plotters are executed

So who were the Babington Plotters? They were a group of men who were plotting to bring Mary Queen of Scots to the throne and assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. At this time there was a great deal of religious tension and paranoia about the prospect of a catholic monarch coming to the throne. Their leader, Anthony Babington, who was only 24 years old when he was executed was born into a wealthy catholic family. He came into contact with Mary Queen of Scots while working as a page boy in the Earl of Shrewsbury's household, who was at that time Mary's jailer. While travelling on the continent around 1580 he met the arch conspirator Thomas Morgan and he was persuaded to courier letters to Mary while she was still being held by the Earl of Shrewsbury. When Mary was moved to Tutbury his role as courier came to an end. On 6 July 1586 he wrote to Mary Stuart telling her he and a group of friends were planning to assassinate Elizabeth and she would succeed her as queen. He wrote seeking her authorisation which he believed she could provide as she was the legitimate heir to the throne. Catholics did not recognize Elizabeth as the rightful heir because they had never recognised HenryVIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother. Mary's reply stressed the need for assistance from abroad but she left it to his conscience regarding the assassination. Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the Queen's security forces had many effective spies and he was informed of all that was going on. Babington and his friends were rounded up and on 18 September 1586 he and his 13 co-conspirators were convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

The Babington Postscript & Cipher
(courtesy The National Archives)

Because there were so many of them, and the manner of execution was a drawn out one, it was decided that the executions would take place over two days. Seven were to be executed watched by the second seven. Because the conspirators had been known to meet in the area of Lincoln's Inn Fields it was decided it would be an appropriate place for them to die. However, their screams of terror were such that the Queen ruled that the second group of seven should be executed in a more straightforward way. Among the first group were Anthony Babington, John Ballard and Chidiock Tichborne.

After this gory story we walked back out of the Fields and on to Whetstone Park. Today this is not much more than an access road for the Chancery Court Hotel and other buildings, but in the 16th and 17th centuries it was notorious as a 'red light' district. In was described by Francis Grose in his 'The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue' as:

"A lane between Holborn and Lincoln's Inn Fields, formerly famed for being the resort of women of the town".

We now took our lives in our hands and walked through Holborn Place to High Holborn. I say this because taxis tend to whizz through here rather more quickly than the 5 miles an hour speed limit! We then turned right towards Chancery Lane and stopped near to the former site of the George and Blue Boar Inn. This was a medieval inn noted for being the stopping off point for prisoners on their way from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn (at Marble Arch). Those unfortunates on the way to their demise would stop for a last drink. Jonathan Swift who wrote Gulliver's Travels penned the following in his 1727 poem "Clever Tom Clinch".

"As clever Tom Clinch, while the rabble was bawling
Rode stately through Holborn to die in his calling.
He stopped at The George for a bottle of sack
And promised to pay for it when he came back"

Waiting at The Blue Boar

We now walked on down and turned right into Chancery Lane itself. It was here at what was the site of No.68 Chancery Lane that a family called Turner lived. They employed a 21 year girl called Eliza Fleming as a cook. One day the Turners had a dinner party, and everyone went down with food poisoning. A doctor was called and he found traces of arsenic in the dish which had held the dumplings. Eliza, who it was said had been involved with another employee Roger Gadsen, and who had been caught in a compromising position with him by Mrs. Turner, was , in an act of revenge by her mistress, implicated and charged with attempted murder.

The site of 68 Chancery Lane today

We now retraced our steps to High Holborn and crossing the road turned left and walked along to Red Lion Street. Turning right here were walked along to Eagle Street. This was where Eliza's family lived. Eliza was engaged to be married, and wrote several letters to her fiance protesting hr innocence. She was sent for trial and found guilty. To her horror she was sentenced to death. It was not until 1861 that there ceased to be a death penalty for attempted murder. On 26th July 1815, by unhappy coincidence the date she had been due to marry, Eliza was executed at Newgate. She went to her death wearing a white muslin gown and white kid boots, and it is assumed these were the clothes she had intended to wear at her wedding.

A week after her execution, her body was taken to St. George the Martyr church. Her funeral attracted thousands of people, and turned into a demonstation, as they believed she had suffered a gross miscarriage of justice. She had been made a scapegoat for the Turner family. It was some years later that a member of that family made a deathbed confession that it was he, angry at being cut out of Mr Turner's will, who had put the arsenic in the dumplings. As only one person heard this confession it is not possible to verify the truth, but it would seem Eliza was unjustly accused and executed.

St. George the Martyr

We now retraced our steps a short distance back up Red Lion Street to stop opposite the Old Red Lion pub. We now come to the Regicides or King killers - those men who were responsible for the death of Charles I. Principal among these of course is Oliver Cromwell, together with Sir Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw.

The Old Red Lion

Oliver Cromwell

Sir Henry Ireton

John Bradshaw
Following the restoration of the monarchy there was a vengeful atmosphere in the city - people demanded restitution and revenge against the men who had committed such a crime. The only problem was a number of them were already dead! Their bodies were exhumed and they were taken to Tyburn so be publicly cut up. The cart carrying the bodies stopped in Holborn over night and the bodies were placed in the cellar. One of the bodies, that of John Bradshaw had not been properly embalmed and was smelling foul. It left a most unpleasant stench in the pub.
There is a plaque outside the pub which highlights these events but unfortunately they have used the wrong date. The bodies stayed here on the night of 28th and 29th January 1661 NOT 1658. There is also a legend that supporters of the Parliamentarians crept in and stole the body of Oliver Cromwell, replacing it with another corpse, and then took it to Red Lion Square where they reburied him in an unmarked grave.

The plaque outside The Old Red Lion showing the WRONG date

We unfortunately didn't have time for the last stop, so our walk ended here. I trust you enjoyed it - until next time.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


I'm sorry to use the public post section, but I can find no way to contact you directly. I wondered if I could talk to you about on of the images used in this post. I am researching the execution of Babington and wanted to know the original source for the image used so I can find out more about it. Please can you let me know the best way to contact you?

My email address is

Many thanks,