Crosby Hall

Crosby Hall

By the Editor

ew old mansions in the city of London could rival the ancient dwelling-place of the brave old knight, Sir John Crosby. Its architectural beauties and historical associations endeared it to all lovers of old London, and many a groan was heard when its fate was doomed, and the decree went forth that it was to be numbered among the departed glories of the city. Unhappily, the hand of the destroyer could not be stayed, and the earnest hope had to be abandoned that many a generation of Londoners might be permitted to see this relic of ancient civic life, and to realise from this example the kind of dwelling-place wherein the city merchants of olden days made their homes, and the salient features of mediæval domestic architecture. Shorn of its former magnificence, reduced to a fraction of its original size, it retained evidences of its ancient state and grandeur, and every stone and timber told of its departed glories, and of the great events of which Crosby Hall had been the scene. It has been associated with many a name that shines forth in the annals of English history, and imagination could again people the desolate hall with a gay company of courtiers and conspirators, of knights and dames, of city merchants gorgeous in their liveries of "scarlet and green," or "murrey and plunket," when pomp and pageantry, tragedy and death, dark councils and mirth, and gaiety and revellings followed each other through the portals of the mansion in one long and varied procession. It will be our pleasure to recall some of these scenes which were enacted long ago, and to tell of the royal, noble, and important personages who made this house their home.

Many people who live in our great overgrown modern London—who dwell in the West End, and never wander further east than Drury Lane Theatre or St. Pancras Station—have never seen Crosby Hall, and know not where it stood. If you go along Cheapside and to the end of Cornhill, and then turn to the left, up Bishopsgate, the old house stood on the right hand side; or you may approach along Holborn and London Wall. Alas! the pilgrimage is no longer possible. Bishopsgate is historic ground. The name is derived from the ancient gate of the city that was built, according to Stow, by some Bishop of London, "though now unknown when or by whom, for ease of passengers toward the east, and by north, as into Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, &c." Some authorities name Bishop Erkenwald, son of King Offa, as the first builder of Bishopsgate, and state that Bishop William, the Norman, repaired the gate in the time of his namesake, the Conqueror. Henry III. confirmed to the German merchants of the Hanse certain liberties and privileges, which were also confirmed by Edward I. in the tenth year of his reign, when it was discovered that the merchants were bound to repair the gate. Thereupon Gerald Marbod, alderman of the Hanse, and other Hanse merchants, granted 210 marks sterling to the Mayor and citizens, and covenanted that they and their successors should from time to time repair the gate. In 1479, in the reign of Edward IV., it was entirely rebuilt by these merchants, and was a fine structure adorned with the effigies of two bishops, probably those named above, and with two other figures supposed to represent King Alfred and Alred, Earl of Mercia, to whom Alfred entrusted the care of the gate. This repair was probably necessary on account of the assault of the bastard Falconbridge on this and other gates of the city, who shot arrows and guns into London, fired the suburbs, and burnt more than three-score houses. The gate has been frequently repaired and rebuilt, its last appearance being very modern, with a bishop's mitre on the key-stone of the arch, and surmounted by the city arms with guarding griffins. London "improvements" have banished the gate, as they have so many other interesting features of the city.

The neighbourhood is interesting. Foremost among the attractions of Bishopsgate Street is the beautiful church of St. Helen, formerly the church of the Nunnery of St. Helen, the Westminster of the city, where lie so many illustrious merchants and knights and dames, and amongst them the founder of Crosby Hall and other owners of the mansion. The church is closely associated with the hall. There in that fine house they lived. There in the church hard by their bodies sleep, and their gorgeous tombs and inscriptions tell the story of their deeds. St. Helen's Church was one of the few which escaped destruction at the Great Fire of London. There was an early Saxon church here, but the earliest parts of the existing building date back to the thirteenth century. There are some blocked-up lancet windows of the transept, a staircase doorway in the south-east corner, another doorway which led from the nun's choir into the convent, and a lancet window. There is a Renaissance porch, the work of Inigo Jones, erected in 1663. The main part of the structure is Decorated and Perpendicular, the fifteenth century work being due to the builder of Crosby Hall, who left 500 marks for its restoration and improvement. The whole church possesses many interesting features, of which want of space prevents a full description.

Crosby Hall.

Sir John Crosby determined to seek a site for his house close to this church and the Nunnery of St. Helen, and in 1466 obtained a lease from Alice Ashford, prioress of the Nunnery, of some lands and tenements for a period of ninety-nine years for the yearly rent of £11 6s. 8d. Doubtless many good citizens of London in the present day would like to make so good a bargain.

Sir John Crosby, whose honoured name is preserved to this day by the noble house which he built, was a worthy and eminent citizen of London—one of the men who laid the foundations of English trade and commercial pre-eminence. He attained to great wealth, and his actions and his bequests prove that he was a very worthy man. Some idle story stated that, like the famous Dick Whittington, he was of humble origin and unknown parentage. Stow says: "I hold it a fable said of him, to be named Crosby, from his being found by a cross." A very pretty conceit! He was discovered, when an infant, or having attained the age of boyhood, sleeping on the steps of the market cross at Cheapside or Charing; and the sympathetic folk who found him there named him Cross-by! Our ancestors, like ourselves, loved a romance, a nice cheerful story of a poor boy attaining to rank and opulence, marrying his master's daughter and doing brave deeds for his King and country. The notable career of Sir Richard Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London, was so embellished with romantic incident. He was no poor man's son who begged his way to London, accompanied by his favourite cat. Was he not the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, the owner of Pauntley Manor in Gloucestershire, and of Solers Hope, Hereford? and was not his famous cat the name of his ship which brought him wealth and affluence? Or shall we accept the story of the sale of the cat to the King of Barbary? So the legend of the foundling Crosby is equally a fable, woven by the skilful imaginations of our Elizabethan forefathers. Sir John came of goodly parentage. There was a Johan de Crosbie, King's Clerk in Chancery, in the time of Edward II.; a Sir John Crosbie, Knight, and Alderman of London, in the reign of Edward III.; and a John Crosby, Esquire, and servant of King Henry IV., who gave to him the wardship of Joan, daughter and sole heir of John Jordaine, Fishmonger—i.e., a member of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers of the City of London. This John Crosby was, according to Stow, either the father or grandfather of the builder of Crosby Hall.

The family held the manor and advowson of the church of Hanworth-on-the-Thames, not far from Hampton Court. This manor was owned by the Sir John Crosbie who lived in the time of King Edward III., and after his death it was placed in the hands of a certain Thomas Rigby for safe custody until John Crosbie, the son and heir of the knight, should have grown up to man's estate and attained his majority. This estate seems afterwards to have passed into the hands of King Henry VIII., who, on account of its pleasant situation, delighted in it above any other of his houses.

The father of the founder of the Hall was a friend of Henry Lord Scrope, of Masham, the unfortunate nobleman who was beheaded at Southampton for complicity in a plot against the life of Henry V. He bequeathed to his friend, John Crosbie, "a woollen gown without furs and one hundred shillings."

Bene natusbene vestitus, and doubtless modice doctus, the qualifications of an All Souls' Fellow, John Crosby began his career, embarking in trade and commerce, and undertaking the duties of a worthy citizen of London. The palmy days of commercial enterprise inaugurated by King Henry VII. had not yet set in. Before his time the trade between England and the Continent was much more in the hands of foreigners than of English merchants. English trading ships going abroad to sell English goods and bring back cargoes of foreign commodities were few in number. The English merchant usually stayed at home, and sold his wares to the strangers who came each year to London and the other trading ports, or bartered them for the produce of other lands, with which their ships were freighted. The German Hanse merchants, the Flemish traders, the Lombards, and many others, enjoyed great privileges in their commerce with England. But, in spite of this, men like Crosby were able to amass wealth and make large profits. Sir John's dealings extended far into other countries, and he had important connections with the Friscobaldi of Florence, who with the Medici were the great bankers and engrossers of the commerce of Europe.

Of the great merchants who laid the foundations of our English commerce we often know little more than their names, the offices they held, with a meagre catalogue of their most philanthropic labours and their wills. It is possible, however, to gather a little more information concerning the owner of Crosby Place. The records at Guildhall tell us that in 1466, the seventh year of Edward IV., John Crosby, Grocer, was elected with three others a Member of Parliament. He was also elected in the same year one of the auditors of the City and Bridge House. In 1468 we find him elected Alderman of Broad Street Ward, and two years later Sheriff of London. He took a prominent part in the old city life of London, and was a prominent member of two of the old City Companies, the Grocers and the Woolmen. Of the former he twice served the office of warden, and preserved a strong affection for his company, bequeathing to it by his will considerable gifts. The honourable and important post of Mayor of the Staple at Calais was also conferred upon him.

He seems to have been a brave and valiant man, as well as a successful trader and good citizen. During his time the safety of the City of London was endangered owing to the attack of Thomas Nevil, the bastard Lord Falconbridge, to which reference has already been made. Stow tells the story graphically. This filibusterer came with his rebel company and a great navy of ships near to the Tower—

"Whereupon the mayor and aldermen fortified all along the Thames side, from Baynard's Castle to the Tower, with armed men, guns and other instruments of war, to resist the invasion of the mariners, whereby the Thames side was safely preserved and kept by the aldermen and other citizens that assembled thither in great numbers. Whereupon the rebels, being denied passage through the city that way, set upon Aeldgate, Bishopsgate, Criplegate, Aeldersgate, London Bridge, and along the river of Thames, shooting arrows and guns into the city, fired the suburbs, and burnt more than three score houses. And farther, on Sunday, the eleventh of May, five thousand of them assaulting Aeldgate, won the bulwarks, and entered the city; but the portclose being let down, such as had entered were slain, and Robert Basset, portcullis alderman of Aeldgate ward, with the recorder, commanded in the name of God to draw up the portclose; which being done, they issued out, and with sharp shot and fierce fight, put their enemies back so far as St. Bottolph's Church, by which time Earl Rivers, and lieutenant of the Tower, was come with a fresh company, which joining together discomfited the rebels, and put them to flight, whom the said Rober, Basset with the other citizens chased to the Mile's End, and from thence, some to Poplar, some to Stratford, slew many, and took many of them prisoners. In which space the Bastard, having assayed other places on the water side, and little prevailed, fled toward his ships."

In this determined defence of the city against a formidable attack, John Crosbie took a leading part, bravely contending against the forces of the foe and fighting fiercely. Twelve aldermen with the recorder were knighted in the field by King Edward IV., and amongst those so honoured were the Lord Mayor of London, William Taylor, and John Crosby. Our hero was no carpet knight, no poor-spirited tradesman and man of peace. Like many other famous citizens of his age, he could don his armour and fight for his King and country, and proved himself a gallant leader of a citizen army, the best sort of army in the world. He was a devoted adherent of the House of York, and a favourite of Edward IV., who sent him on an important embassage to the Duke of Burgundy, who had married Elizabeth of York, the King's sister. The secret object of the mission was an alliance against Francis I. of France. The embassy was also sent to the Duke of Brittany with the same object, and also to secure the persons of the Earls of Richmond and Pembroke, who had taken refuge in France, and there felt themselves secure. The future Richard III. was nearly persuaded to return to England; his foot was almost on the ship's deck, when, fortunately for him, his voyage was prevented. If he had continued his journey he would never have worn a crown, as he would have lacked a head whereon to place it.

Sir John Crosby not long before his death began to build the beautiful house in Bishopsgate "in the place of certain tenements, with their appurtenances let to him by Alice Ashfield, Prioress of St. Helen's.... This house he built of stone and timber, very large and beautiful, and the highest at that time in London," as Stow records. The whole structure was known as Crosby Place, and rivalled the dimensions of a palace. All that remained of this magnificent building was the Hall, together with the Council Room and an ante-room, forming two sides of a quadrangle. It was built of stone, and measured 54 feet by 27 feet, and was 40 feet in height. The Hall was lighted by a series of eight Perpendicular windows on one side and six on the other, and by a beautifully-constructed octagonal bay window. It had a fine roof of exquisite workmanship richly ornamented, and a wide chimney. Much of the original stone pavement had vanished. The Council Chamber was nearly as large as the hall, being only 14 feet less in length.

Crosby Hall has been the scene of many notable historic scenes. In the play of "Edward IV." by Heywood, Sir John Crosby figures as Lord Mayor of London, a position which he never occupied, and the King dines with him and the Alderman after the defeat of the rebel Falconbridge at Crosby Hall. He had just received the honour of knighthood, and thus muses:—

"Ay, marry, Crosby! this befits thee well.But some will marvel that, with scarlet gown,I wear a gilded rapier by my side."

It is quite possible that the King thus dined with his favourite, but there is no historical account that confirms the poet's play. The builder did not long enjoy his beautiful house, and died in 1475, leaving a second wife and a daughter by his first wife, whom he seemed to have loved with a more ardent affection than his second spouse. Soon after his death the man whom he tried to trap in France, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, came to reside here, and made it the scene of endless plots and conspiracies against his luckless nephews and his many enemies. Crosby Place is frequently alluded to by Shakespeare in his play, "Richard the Third." Gloucester tells Catesby to report to him at Crosby Place the treacherous murder of the Princes in the Tower, and he bids the Lady Anne to "presently repair to Crosby Place."

St. Paul's Cathedral, with Lord Mayor's Show on the water.

Engraved by Pugh, 1804.

The house in 1502 passed into the possession of Sir Bartholomew Reed, Lord Mayor, and then to John Best, Alderman, from whom it was purchased by Sir Thomas More, the famous Lord Chancellor. Doubtless it was in the chambers of Crosby Place that he wrote his Utopia. He sold the lease to his beloved friend, Antonio Bonvisi, an Italian gentleman, who had long lived in England; and when the Dissolution of Monasteries took place, and the possessions of the Priory of St. Helen's were seized by the Crown, the King allowed the Italian to retain possession of Crosby Place. We need not record all its worthy owners. It was frequently used as a fitting place for the lodging of foreign ambassadors, and here Sir John Spencer, having restored the house, kept his mayoralty in 1594. Enormously wealthy, he lived in great splendour and entertained lavishly. He was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth. It was not from Crosby Hall, but from his house at Canonbury, that his only daughter effected her escape in a baker's basket in order to wed the handsome Lord Compton. Terrible was the father's wrath, and everyone knows the charming story of the Queen's tactful intervention, how she induced Sir John to stand as sponsor with her for an unknown boy, whom Sir John declared should be the heir of all his wealth, and how this boy was, of course, Lady Compton's child, and how a full reconciliation was effected. It is a very pretty story. It is not so pleasant to read of the disastrous effect of the possession of so much wealth had on the brain of Lord Compton, when he came into possession of his lady's riches. She was a little vixenish, spoilt and exacting, if she really intended seriously the literal meaning of that well-known letter which she wrote setting forth her needs and requirements. It is too long to quote. Lord Compton was created Earl of Northampton, and that precious child of his when he grew to man's estate was killed fighting for the Royalist cause in the Civil War.

During that disastrous time Crosby became a prison for Royalists, and later on a great part of the house was destroyed by fire, and its ancient glories departed. For a hundred years the Hall was used as a Nonconformist chapel. In 1778 part of the premises was converted into a place of business by Messrs. Holmes and Hall, the rest being used as private dwellings. It provided a model for the banqueting-hall of Arundel Castle, and some of the carved stones of the Council Chamber were removed to Henley-upon-Thames to adorn a dairy. Alien buildings soon covered the site of the destroyed portion of the old house. In 1831 it was left forlorn and untenanted, and in a state of considerable decay. Then arose a considerable excitement, of which the struggle of the present year reminds us. Crosby Hall was doomed. But zealous lovers of the antiquities of the city determined to try to save it. An appeal was made, and a restoration fund started, though, like many other restoration funds, it proved itself inadequate. A benevolent lady, Miss Hackett, gallantly came to the rescue, and practically saved Crosby Hall. Her idea was to convert it into a lecture hall for the Gresham Professors; but this plan came to nothing, though the building was repaired, the south wall of the Throne and Council Chambers being rebuilt. Then a company was formed to take over Miss Hackett's interest, and the Crosby Hall Literary and Scientific Institution was formed, but that scheme came to nothing. Then it was bought by Messrs. F. Gordon & Co., who restored the building, attached to it an annex of half-timbered construction, and converted the premises into a restaurant. Thus it remained for several years. Recently the site was acquired by a banking company, and its demolition was threatened. Immediate action was taken by Sir Vesey Strong, the Lord Mayor, and others, to save the building. The fight was fought strenuously and bravely. Apathy was found in some quarters where it would least have been expected, and all efforts were fruitless. It is deplorable to have to record that the last of the mansions of the old city magnates has been allowed to disappear, and that Crosby Hall is now only a memory.