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King Street, Westminster


The following account of an experience on Westminster's King Street (which no longer existes) was published in 'The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain' by John Ingram (1897).

In his Miscellanies, Aubrey cites the singular narrative of Captain Henry Bell, originally given in the Preface to the translation of Luther's Table Talk. Captain Bell begins by declaring that whilst employed beyond the seas in various State affairs for King Charles II. and his successor, James II., he had heard much lamentation made over the great destruction, by burning and otherwise, of Martin Luther's Discourses. This work, which was supposed to have largely promoted the reformation, was condemned by Pope Gregory XIII., and placed under the ban of the Empire by Rudolph III. This latter monarch ordered that all printed copies of the work should be burned, and that any person retaining a copy would be liable to the punishment of death. In consequence of this rigorous edict, and the stringency with which it was enforced, in a little while no copies were obtainable.

A certain Caspar von Sparr, however, according to Captain Bell's account, accidentally discovered a copy, in 1626, which had escaped the wholesale destruction the work had suffered. As the prosecution of Protestantism still continued, this gentleman was afraid to retain possession of the interdicted book, and yet, unwilling to destroy it, thought of Captain Bell. Knowing that he was thoroughly acquainted with German, he forwarded him the wonderfully preserved work, earnestly impressing upon him the utility of translating it into English.

Captain Bell did not appear to he in any great haste to comply with this request, but, nevertheless, took the work in hand, "and many times began to translate the same," as he remarks, "but always I was hindered therein, being called upon about other business, insomuch that by no possible means I could remain by that work." About six weeks after he had received the book from Germany, "it fell out," to cite his own words, "that being in bed with my wife, one night between twelve and one o'clock, she being asleep, but myself yet awake, there appeared unto me an ancient man, standing at my bedside, arrayed in white, having a long and broad white beard hanging down to his girdle, who, taking me by the right ear, spake these words following unto me: 'Sirrah, will not you take time to translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will provide for you both place and time to do it'; and then he vanished out of my sight.

"Whereupon, being much affrighted," Captain Bell continues, "I fell into an extreme sweat, insomuch that, my wife awaking, she asked me what I ailed. I told her what I had seen and heard ; but I never did heed or regard visions nor dreams, and so the same fell soon out
of my mind.

"Then about a fortnight after I had seen the vision, on a Sunday, I went to Whitehall to hear the sermon, after which ended, I returned to my lodging, which was then in King Street, Westminster, and sitting down to dinner with my wife, two messengers were sent from the Council Board to carry me to the keeper of the gate-house at Westminster, there to be safely kept, until further orders from the Lords of the Council."

This was done, avers Bell, without any cause being shown; but his real offence, according to Aubrey, was that he had much importuned the Lord Treasurer for considerable arrears which were due to him, and which that official not being willing to discharge, "clapt him up into prison." Be the cause what it may, Bell was detained in close confinement for ten years, five of which, he states, he spent in translating the work of Luther above referred to. As he quaintly remarks, "I found the words very true which the old man in the aforesaid vision said unto me, 'I will shortly provide you both place and time to translate it.'


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Ian Topham
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Re: King Street, Westminster

'Westminster: King St, Great George St and the Broad Sanctuary', Old and New London: Volume 4 (1878),
 
King Street…was the ancient thoroughfare between the regions of the Court and the Abbey. It runs parallel to its modern sister, Parliament Street, between it and the Park. King Street was formerly extremely, and, it would appear, even dangerously narrow. Pepys thus commemorates it in his "Diary," November 27, 1660:—"To Westminster Hall; and in King Street there being a great stop of coaches, there was a falling out between a drayman and my Lord of Chesterfield's coachman, and one of his footmen killed."
 
At the north end of this street was the Cock-pit Gate; at the south end, the High Gate, which is shown in one of Hollar's etchings. The latter Gate House, which was taken down in 1723, was occupied at one time by the Earl of Rochester. Part of the land in King Street, extending as far southward as the Bars, was conveyed by the Abbot of Westminster to King Henry VIII., when he was bent on enlarging Whitehall. After the burning of Whitehall Palace, it was resolved to make a broader street to the Abbey, and in course of time Parliament Street was formed, as we have already stated in a previous chapter. Although part of King Street still remains, it is as narrow as ever, though somewhat better paved, and latterly its length has been considerably curtailed at the northern end by the erection of the new India and Foreign Offices.
 
Narrow as it was, King Street was the residence of many distinguished personages, doubtless owing to its proximity to the Court and the Parliament House. In it lived Lord Howard of Effingham, the High Admiral who, Roman Catholic as he was, went forth to fight the cause of his country against the Spanish Armada. Here, too, Edmund Spenser, the author of "The Faery Queen," after his escape from the troubles in Ireland, spent the last few weeks of his life, and died in actual penury and even in want of bread. Such was the end of the man who had sung the praises of the great Elizabeth in higher than mere courtly strains. But his sad end is only another example of the fate that too often waits on poetic genius. "The breath had scarcely departed from his body when the great, the titled, and the powerful came forward to do honour to his memory and to shower laurels on his grave. His remains were carried in state from King Street to Westminster Abbey, the expenses of the funeral being defrayed by the great favourite of the Court, the Earl of Essex." "His hearse," writes Camden, "was attended by poets, and mournful elegies, and poems, with the pens that wrote them, were thrown into his tomb." And it may be added that Anne, the Countess of Dorset, erected the monument over his grave. "The armorial shield of the Spencers," justly observes Gibbon, "may be emblazoned with the triumphs of a Marlborough, but I exhort them to look upon the 'Faery Queen' as the brightest jewel in their coronet."
 
In King Street, too, resided that most graceful of the courtier poets of the time of Charles I., Thomas Carew, who wrote the masque of "Cœlum Britannicum" for that prince, and who was the friend and boon-companion of Ben Jonson and Sir John Suckling, and the author of that charming song which begins:—
 
"He that loves a rosy cheek,
Or a coral lip admires."
 
Here, too, lived Charles, Lord Buckhurst, afterwards Earl of Dorset, the witty and accomplished courtier and poet, and the author of the famous song addressed to the gay ladies of Charles II.'s court, the first stanza of which runs thus:—
 
"To all you ladies now on land
We men at sea indite;
But first would have you understand
How hard it is to write;
The Muses now, and Neptune, too,
We must implore to write to you."
 
Here the Lord Protector assigned to his mother a suite of apartments, which she occupied until the day of her death, in 1654: she was buried in Westminster Abbey. She was devotedly fond of her son, and lived in constant fear of hearing of his assassination; indeed it is said, in Ludlow's "Memoirs," that she was quite unhappy if she did not see him twice a day, and never heard the report of a gun without calling out, "My son is shot." Mr. Noble, in his "Memoirs of the Cromwell Family," tells us that "she requested, when dying, to have a private funeral, and that her body might not be deposited in the Abbey; but that, instead of fulfilling her request, the Protector conveyed her remains, with great solemnity, and attended with many hundred torches, though it was daylight, and interred them in the dormitory of our English monarchs, in a manner suitable to those of the mother of a person of his then rank." He adds that, "the needless ceremonies and great expense to which the Protector put the public in thus burying her gave great offence to the Republicans."
 
It would have been well for her if her wish had been granted, for, at the Restoration, Mrs. Cromwell's body was taken up and indecently thrown, with others, into a hole made before the back door of the lodgings of the canons or prebendaries, in St. Margaret's Churchyard. Mrs. Cromwell appears to have been an excellent and amiable person; and it is worthy of note that she is styled "a decent woman" by so strong a royalist as Lord Chancellor Clarendon.
 
The house occupied by Mrs. Cromwell, according to Mr. John Timbs, stood a little to the north of Blue Boar's Head Yard, on the west side of the street. If we may accept the testimony of Mr. G. H. Malone, its identity was ascertained by a search into the parish rate-books, and fixed to the north of the above-mentioned yard, and south of the wall of Ram's Mews. Among the Cole MSS. in the British Museum is a copy of a letter written by Cromwell at Dunbar, and addressed to his wife in this street.
 
One day a strange incident occurred to the Lord Protector as he was passing in his coach through this street, accompanied by Lord Broghill, afterwards better known by his superior title as Earl of Ossory, from whom the story has come down to us through his chaplain and biographer, Morrice:—"It happened that the crowd of people was so great that the coach could not go forward, and the place was so narrow that all the halberdiers were either before the coach or behind it, none of them having room to stand by the side. When they were in this posture, Lord Broghill observed the door of a cobbler's stall to open and shut a little, and at every opening of it his lordship saw something bright, like a drawn sword or a pistol. Upon which my lord drew out his sword with the scabbard on it, and struck upon the stall, asking who was there. This was no sooner done but a tall man burst out with a sword by his side, and Cromwell was so much frightened that he called his guard to seize him, but the man got away in the crowd. My lord thought him to be an officer in the army in Ireland, whom he remembered Cromwell had disgusted, and his lordship apprehended he lay there in wait to kill him. Upon this," adds Morrice, "Cromwell forbore to come any more that way, but a little after sickened and died."
 
And yet there was, at all events, one other occasion on which the Lord Protector passed along this narrow thoroughfare, and that was to his funeral in the Abbey. He died at Whitehall, in September, 1658; and as he died in the midst of his power and state, his obsequies were celebrated with the pomp and magnificence of a king. It would tax the pen of Macaulay to describe the scene: the road prepared for the passage of the hearse by gravel thrown into the ruts; and the sides of the street lined with soldiery, all in mourning, as in solemn state the body was conducted to the great western entrance of the Abbey, where it was received by the clergy with the usual ceremonials.
 
Among the other residents in King Street were Sir Thomas Knevett, or Knyvett, who seized Guy Fawkes; and Dr. Sydenham, on the site of Ram's Mews. Here, too, lived Erasmus Dryden, brother of "glorious" John Dryden, supporting himself by trade before his accession to the baronetcy as head of the family.
 
Dudley, the second Lord North, had a house in this street, about 1646, which was remarkable as being the first brick house in it. His son, Sir Dudley, as we learn in the "Lives of the Norths," was stolen by beggars, and retaken in an alley leading towards Cannon Row, while he was being stripped of his clothes. Bishop Goodman, during the Great Rebellion, lived here in great obscurity, and chiefly in the house of Mrs. Sybilla Aglionby, employing the greater part of his time in frequenting the Cottonian Library.
 
But there are other and more gloomy reminiscences which attach to King Street. Through it Charles I. was carried on his way to Westminster Hall on the first and last days of his trial. "On both these occasions," writes Mr. Jesse, "his conveyance was a sedan chair, by the side of which walked, bare-headed, his faithful follower, Herbert—the only person who was allowed to attend him. As he returned through King Street, after his condemnation, the inhabitants, we are told, not only shed tears, but, unawed by the soldiers who lined the streets, offered up audible prayers for his eternal welfare." Strange to say, among the residents in this street at the time was Oliver Cromwell himself; and it was from his abode here that, some months after the murder of his sovereign, he set forth in state, amid the blare of trumpets, to take upon himself the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland. The house which was traditionally said to have been occupied by the Protector was at the northern end, near Downing Street, and it was not demolished, says Mr. Jesse, until the present century.
 
Owing to its narrowness and want of light and air, and the crowded courts by which it was hemmed in on either side, King Street was among the first parts of Westminster to suffer from the plague in the year 1665. On its appearance so close to the gates of the royal palace, Charles II. and his train of courtiers, male and female, left Whitehall for Oxford. Accordingly, we find gossiping Samuel Pepys writing, under date June 20th:—"This day I informed myself that there died four or five at Westminster of the plague, in several houses, upon Sunday last, in Bell Alley, over against the Palace Gate."
 
Again, on the 21st: "I find all the town going out of town, the coaches and carriages being all full of people going into the country." And, shortly after, on the 28th and 29th:—"In my way to Westminster Hall, I observed several plaguehouses" (that is, houses smitten with the plague) "in King Street and the Palace. … To Whitehall, where the court was full of waggons and people ready to go out of town. This end of the town every day grows very bad of the plague." It appears from contemporary history that the example set by the King and Court was largely followed by the nobility and the "quality;" and that so great was the exodus that the neighbouring towns and villages rose up to oppose their retreat, as likely to sow the seeds of the disease still more widely, and to carry the infection further a-field. It is usually said by historians that the Great Plague in 1665 broke out at the top of Drury Lane, but Dr. Hodges, in his "Letter to a Person of Quality," states it as a fact that the pestilence first broke out in Westminster, and that it was carried eastwards by contagion.
 
King Street would seem to have been at one time noted for its coffee-houses, for in the fifth edition of Izaak Walton's additions to the "Complete Angler," (1676), "Piscator" says:—"When I dress an eel thus, I will he was as long and big as that which was caught in Peterboro' river in the year 1667, which was 3¾ feet long; if you will not believe me, then go and see it at one of the coffee-houses in King Street, Westminster."
 
Among these coffee-houses and hostelries was the "King's Head" Inn, where there was held an "ordinary," as far back as two centuries ago. Here a Mr. Moore told Pepys, in July, 1663, "the great news that my Lady Castlemaine is fallen from Court, and this morning retired;" and the next day, at the same place, the same bit of scandal, he tells us, is confirmed by a "pretty gentleman," who, however, is in ignorance of the cause.
 
At another house in this street—the Bell Tavern—the "October Club" met early in the last century. The club, which consisted of about 150 members, derived its name from being composed of High Church Tory country gentlemen, who when at home drank October ale. The large room in which the club assembled was adorned with a portrait of Queen Anne, by Dâhl. After Her Majesty's death and the break-up of the club, the picture was purchased by the corporation of the loyal city of Salisbury, in whose council-chamber it may still be seen suspended.
 
In this street, also, the beautiful and talented actress, Mrs. Oldfield, earned her livelihood when a girl as a sempstress; and through it she was carried, at the age of forty-seven, to her grave in the Abbey, her pall supported by noblemen and gentlemen, and her body being allowed to lie in state in the Jerusalem Chamber, as stated in a previous chapter. Such is the tide of destiny; and well might it have been written on her hearse, "Voluit fortuna jocari."
 
Mr. John Timbs tells us, in his "Curiosities of London," that near the southern end of King Street, on the west side, was Thieven (Thieves) Lane, so called as being the regular passage along which thieves were led to the Gate House prison, so that they might not escape into the Sanctuary and set the law at defiance.



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