Secrets | Medieval Jousting

A trio of lesser known stories from EC1

In medieval times, when Smith field still represented the “smooth field” from which it got its name, open-air events were held there. These events included jousting tournaments, which attracted huge crowds and often lasted for days.

The ground would be evened out, wooden stands would be built and the competitors (sometimes knights from all over Europe) would be escorted there, through the city, in flamboyant processions, led by trumpet fanfares, playing minstrels and noble ladies. One such noble lady was Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III. In 1375, she rode through the streets on the way to the jousting dressed as “The Lady of the Sun”, in glittering, golden clothes. It must have been a jaw-dropping sight.

No subtlety in the message there – she clearly meant to show off her immense wealth and influence. Over the decade they were together, and up until his death, Edward lavished upon her jewels, land – and sway in his decisionmaking. She was even known to interfere in court proceedings to make sure that she and her friends never lost their cases. (This, unsurprisingly, prompted the subsequent banning of all women from law courts.)

Alice started her “career” as a concubine when she was just 15 or 16. The king was in his fifties. Many say she exploited his frailness to get what she wanted but others see her as a shrewd businesswoman who made sure she didn’t lose out. Well, she certainly knew a thing or two about PR.

We all keep secrets, but that doesn’t mean all secrets are the same. Some are so big and so audacious, they’re awe-inspiring.

George Cruikshank, born in 1792, became one of the most famous cartoonists or “caricaturists” of the 19th century. Caricatures played an important role in society at the time; the exaggerated portraits of political and royal figures represented the sharpest satire of their day. Cruikshank became the successor to the celebrated James Gillray, and in the 1820s he was undoubtedly the most famous resident of Clerkenwell’s Amwell Street.

He found even greater fame as Charles Dickens’ illustrator, providing the drawings for Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers. After the death of his first wife, Cruikshank married again in 1850 and moved to a house near Euston station, the picture of respectability. He became a teetotaller and a Christian moralist, a respected member of the Victorian Establishment. He was even buried (when the time came, of course…) in St Paul’s Cathedral.

But not all was as it seemed: on his deathbed, aged 86, Cruikshank cried out, “Oh, what will become of my children!” His secret was out. He had no children by his fi rst or second wives. It turned out that he’d led a double life for almost 25 years – he’d got his servant girl pregnant and installed her in a house three streets away, where he went on to father another 10 children with her. The youngest was conceived when he was 82. Incredible.

Clerkenwell’s Charterhouse will be getting its own museum in autumn 2016 (all things being well – if some extra money and planning permission come through). But until then, much of its intriguing history remains under wraps.

The building started life as a monastery, back in 1371, and was set next to a Black Death burial ground (which was unearthed last year by CrossRail tunnellers). The Carthusian monks who inhabited it hailed from the Chartreuse mountains in France – a name that was anglicised over time to “Charterhouse”. The monastery became a centre for religious learning and Thomas More visited when he was a student.

When the monastery was disbanded, as part of Henry VIII’s great Dissolution in the 1530s, it was turned into a private mansion. It was here that Elizabeth I stayed in 1558 to prepare for her coronation. And it was here that her heir, James I, held his first court in London, in 1603, after gaining the crown and traveling down from Edinburgh.

The house seems to have had its rebellious moments, too. When it was owned by Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, he was put under house arrest in 1571 (after a short spell in the Tower of London…) for plotting with Mary Queen of Scots to depose Elizabeth I. And it later provided sanctuary to Elizabeth Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s widow, at the time of the Restoration.