Christopher Wren did not live here

Christopher Wren, 49 Bankside, VisitLondon, SE1And neither did Catherine (or Katherine) of Aragon.  What?!  Let me explain…my London reader may have seen a plaque – not one of the official, blue, ones, but an altogether more elaborate, individual, affair – on the wall of 49 Bankside, London SE1.  And it proudly declares, in fancy script:

“Here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral.”

Not content with this bold assertion, it goes on to claim:

“Here also in 1502 Catherine, Infanta of Castile and Aragon, afterwards first Queen of Henry VIII, took shelter on her first landing in London.”

49 Bankside is parked conveniently between Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre, a pretty little Queen Anne thing with cream render and a red door.  It is passed by hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day.  However, it wasn’t built until around 1710, the year the new St Paul’s was finished – so, probably nothing to do with Chris and about 200 years too late for Cathy. This part of town, Southwark, was a pretty dodgy place in the 16th century anyway; hardly fit for a queen.

Catherine of Aragon, Christopher Wren, visit London, SouthwarkSo both statements are absolute tosh, but 49 Bankside is on the growing list of entries for my long-awaited book, ‘Curious London’.

Allegedly, the plaque (which is of unknown age) was placed there in 1945 by the house’s mildly eccentric owner, soldier and SOE* agent, Malcolm Munthe.  Apparently, Christopher Wren lodged a few doors further west, past the power station (but almost certainly before it was built).  It is rumoured that the plaque was taken at face value by redevelopers working through bomb-damaged London after the Second World War, which might have saved the house from being flattened.

The location is a historic one, though.  The house stands on the site of an old inn called the Cardinal’s Hat, much frequented by the boisterous rowdies that used to indulge their beastly japes on Bankside.  Who knows, Shakespeare himself might have popped in for a swift pint after a show.  Samuel Pepys almost certainly did, no doubt prowling for comely wenches.  The pub has left its legacy in the name Cardinal Wharf and, to the left of No 49 you can see Cardinal Cap Alley – which apparently dates back to the 14th century.

Christopher Wren, Katherine of Aragon, house, LondonThere is a book, “The House by the Thames and the People Who Lived There” by historian Gillian Tyndall that reveals all.  I haven’t read it, but word is that it’s meticulously researched and chronicles the house’s owners almost from its first lick of paint.  The second coat must be due any time soon.  I should stress that the property is in private ownership, not open to the public and you should therefore constrain your gawping.

But, had Sir Christopher Wren resided there, he would have got a smashing view of his creation across the water – particularly after the Millennium Bridge had been built in 2000 (reopening in 2002 after serious wobble correction).

St Paul's, London, Millennium Suspension Bridge

I reckon Chris would’ve liked this view

St Paul's, Cathedral, dome

I think he’d have been quite pleased with this, too

London, skyline, Visit Britain

And I never get tired of looking at this

For the benefit of those who still haven’t a clue what I’m talking about (and I’ve noticed this happening with increasing frequency, particularly in the pub):

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was a renowned architect and scientist.  He was responsible for designing 52 new churches for London, including the great cathedral of St Paul’s, following the Great Fire of 1666.  He also designed, among other things, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the Royal Hospital at Chelsea and Trinity College Library in Cambridge. On his gravestone in St Paul’s is inscribed, ‘If you seek his memorial, look about you.’  I should point out that there is an official Blue Plaque saying, “Sir Christopher Wren lived here” at The Old Court House, Hampton Court Green, East Molesey, London Borough of Richmond, KT8 9BS.

Katherine (or Catherine) of Aragon (1485-1536), daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, married Arthur, the Prince of Wales in Old St Paul’s in 1501. Arthur died shortly afterwards and Catherine was betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, who went on to become King Henry VIII in 1509. They married that year. However, after almost 20 years of marriage and desperate for a male heir, Henry sought to annul his marriage to Catherine in order to marry his latest flame, Anne Boleyn. The Pope’s refusal to grant an annulment resulted in Henry declaring himself head of the church in England and changing the course of history. Cast aside, Catherine remained both Catholic and dignified. She is buried in Peterborough Cathedral.

* SOE, The Special Operations Executive, was a secret British World War II organisation, established to carry out espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in German and Italian occupied Europe, Japanese occupied Southeast Asia and to set up and assist local resistance movements. Few people knew of its existence. It was disbanded after the war.

As I was putting the finishing touches to the above, I came across a fascinating old photograph of 49 Bankside and much more detail about the area on an excellent site, A London Inheritance – go take a look.

Christopher Wren, St Pauls, view, Millennium Bridge

22 thoughts on “Christopher Wren did not live here

  1. Shammy

    I probably walked past number 49 Bankside on my last visit to London (2012) and didn’t notice it! So thank you for opening my eyes, although a few years too late! Fascinating history and I’m so glad it’s there for everyone to read. Funny about the false claims on the plaque!

  2. milliethom

    A superb post, Mike, and about places I knew absolutely nothing about. London is somewhere I’ve visited so rarely, and even on those occasions it was to museums only. It seems I’ve been seriously missing out! A really enjoyable and informative read. Your upcoming book sounds great.

  3. quinn

    How funny that the owner would go to that trouble – was it done initally as a little joke, do you think? Imagine what we would all write if we decided to create a history for our own homes 🙂

  4. saralorayne

    This was fascinating, as was the other blog you linked us to. I enjoyed the comparison of photos old and new as well as the history. I suppose anyone passing by the plaque who was truly interested and wanted to find out more would eventually discover your blog and the other one. These days, information is available so readily with just a few clicks.

  5. Kay G.

    Okay then, bring on the book “Curious London”!
    Malcom Munthe, I did look him up and he sounds fascinating to me!
    By the way, Richard sent me the book “Unexpected London” in the late 1970’s. I wonder how much of that is still left around today?

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