Secrets | The Pocahontas connection

Our regular page revealing a trio of lesser-known stories from EC1: Top 3


American Indians, Disney films and Clerkenwell’s St James’s church. There is a connection. Pocahontas.

Exactly 400 years ago, in Virginia, the legendary Native American heroine married English pilgrim John Rolfe. It was apparently the first recorded inter-racial marriage in North American history.

She was in captivity at the time, having been seized by the English colonists in Jamestown. She was 17; tobacco-farmer Rolfe, 28, and already a widower.

Who knows if it was a love match or not. A (very non-Disney) theory suggests it was a marriage of diplomatic convenience, agreed to by Pocahontas, who had been baptised and given the name Rebecca, in order to be released.

But it was another John who accounts for her huge mythological status. Apparently she laid her head upon that of a settler, John Smith, whom her father was about to execute – thus saving him.

The real Pocahontas story has a sad ending. She came to England and was touted around high society as a political symbol. On the return voyage she became ill and died.

And what about Clerkenwell? Well, Pocahontas and Rolfe’s only child, Thomas, married a woman called Elizabeth Washington at St James’s church in 1632.


Clerkenwell, famed for its printing-industry past, lays claim to the term “Grub Street”. Grub Street was an actual street, which existed in the area where the Barbican stands today.

It was home to a concentration of lowly paid writers and book publishers, renting humble garrets adjacent to coffee shops and brothels. It was most definitely a “grubby” place. (By the way, the term “hack” comes from “Hackney” – another once insalubrious area that used to be known for attracting journalists and writers).

Among the impoverished artists, however, lived a man of fortune, who came to be known as the Hermit of Grub Street. He retreated to live there, in supposed seclusion, in 1592 after his brother tried to shoot him. As you do.

He had servants but he refused to communicate with them, waiting for them to leave a room before entering it. He lived in just three rooms and never went outside. He ate only leaves and herbs in the summer and only gruel in the winter. He didn’t drink wine or spirits. For special occasions, he let himself have some bread (no crust) or an egg yolk.

His family never saw him again. He lived in the house, bearded and bookish, for 44 years, being finally carried out of it in his coffin.


We all know about St Bartholomew the Great. But what about its little sister?

Hidden away in the grounds of St Bart’s hospital is the church of St Bartholomew the Less. As its name suggests, it is small – it was a former chapel, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, and the only one of the hospital’s former five chapels to survive the wrath of Henry VIII.

After the Dissolution, the chapel was refounded and given its current name. It became a parish church for those living within the hospital precincts (St Bart’s is the only hospital in the UK to be a parish in its own right).

The hospital was founded in 1123. All that remains of the church from medieval times, however, is the tower (and a couple of its bells) and the west wall.

It is nonetheless an interesting piece of architecture. In 1793, George Dance the Younger introduced an octagonal interior, which features pointed window bays, creating little triangular chapels along some of the sides.

The architect Inigo Jones was baptised here, in 1573. And Thomas Bodley, the founder of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, was buried here in 1613.