Bloody Valentine: Clerkenwell guides’ alternative tour through history
09:44 14 February 2016
The course of true love never really did run smooth. Sophie Inge discovers Clerkenwell’s gruesome ‘romantic’ past with a tour guide
To most people, Valentine’s Day probably means a box of chocolates, a bunch of red roses or a special meal out with a partner.
But the origins of the day aren’t quite so romantic – in fact, it’s a memorial to the gruesome beheading of St Valentine. His crimes? Trying to convert the Roman Emperor to Christianity and performing marriages for young soldiers in secret.
So if you’re looking for an authentic Valentine’s experience, then skip the fancy restaurants and consider a trip to Clerkenwell.
Denise Gillard-Parrin of Islington and Clerkenwell Guides has organised a special Valentine’s Day walk through the area with fellow guide Simon Jones. Here, Simon gives three of the highlights of their bloody and dramatic tour.
Just down the road from Farringdon station is historic Smithfield’s Market – where butchers have been flogging their meat for centuries.
Rewind to the 17th century, however, and it was a meat market in more than one sense – feminists, look away now.
With divorce off the cards for all but the wealthiest couples, husbands would instead publicly auction their wives off at the market.
“Men would actually parade them with a halter around their necks so people could have a good look at the women – a bit like a slave auction,” says Mr Jones.
“Five shillings was the going rate for a sale, which was actually probably quite a lot back in the 1600s.”
Not only were the wives flogged off to the highest bidder: husbands also had the right to humiliate “disobedient” or “disorderly” wives. In practice, their misdemeanours could be anything from adultery to “nagging”.
And for that, they’d be tied to a so-called “ducking stool” before being unceremoniously dunked into a foul pond in Smithfield.
Bleeding Heart Yard
Walk on west to Greville Street, and you’d be forgiven for missing a tiny cobbled courtyard with a pub called “Bleeding Heart Yard”.
Today, few couples who meet for dates at the Bleeding Heart Tavern will have any idea about the gruesome story behind its name.
Legend has it that Lady Hatton – wife of Sir Charles Hatton, whose family owned the area around Hatton Garden – had made a pact withthe devil to get wealth, position and a new mansion.
When the mansion was completed, the couple threw a housewarming party. Among their guests was their benefactor – the devil himself, who tore out Lady Hatton’s heart. The following morning, her heart was found in this very yard. It was still beating.
The story is immortalised in a Thomas Ingoldsby poem: Of poor Lady Hatton, it’s needless to say/ No traces have ever been found to this day/ Or the terrible dancer who whisk’d her away/ But out in the court-yard — and just in that part/ Where the pump stands – lay bleeding a LARGE HUMAN HEART!
“That’s just a legend,” says Mr Jones. “But there is in fact another Hatton called Christopher who wanted some land from the Bishop of Ely. He was a favourite of Elizabeth I and they apparently danced around a cherry tree with her and she agreed to give half the land to him.”
This very tree is said to be that showcased at the nearby Ye Old Mitre pub in Ely Place.
St James’ Churchyard
Not scary enough for you? St James’ Churchyard in Clerkenwell Close is the resting place of the tragic Steinberg family.
Apparently, 45-year-old German whip-maker Johan Nicholas Steinberg murdered his wife and children in cold blood at their Islington home in 1834, before slitting his own throat.
An inquest was later held in the Three Kings pub nearby, and Steinberg’s wife and children were buried in St James’ Churchyard.
“Charles Steinberg was actually buried in a pauper’s grave in Ray Street across Harrington road upside down with a stake through his heart – as was customary for a murderer and suicide victim,” says Mr Jones.
And their house? When a new tenant moved in, he purchased some wax models to represent the family and dressed them in their real blood-stained clothes.
“He made a lot of money apparently and would charge members of the public a penny each to go in,” says Mr Jones.
“It was only when the neighbours kicked up a fuss that they had to close it down.”