Canonbury Tower: Tour guide reveals secret history of borough’s oldest building

Canonbury Tower in Islington. . Tour guide Mary Bond

Canonbury Tower in Islington. . Tour guide Mary Bond - Credit: Archant

Clerkenwell and Islington guide Mary Bond gives the Gazette a sneak preview of her tour of Canonbury Tower, which has only just been reopened to the public

Views from the top of Canonbury Tower

Views from the top of Canonbury Tower - Credit: Archant

Tucked away behind the hustle and bustle of Upper Street stands one of Islington’s best-kept secrets.

Built between 1509 and 1532, the remarkably well-preserved Canonbury Tower has been home to some of the most fascinating figures in English history – including Thomas Cromwell and Francis Bacon.

Now the property of the Marquess of Northampton – whose ancestors have owned it since the 1600s – the Tudor tower has only just been reopened to the public after a two-year gap.

“It’s a rare place because there aren’t any big Tudor domestic houses left – they were either burnt down by the Fire of London or torn down by town planners,” says Clerkenwell and Islington guide Mary Bond, who leads tours around the property.

An engraving listing the kings and queens of England from William the Conqueror and Charles I at the

An engraving listing the kings and queens of England from William the Conqueror and Charles I at the top of Canonbury Tower - Credit: Archant

The building itself was built by Prior Bolton, who was attached to St Bartholomew’s Priory in Smithfield.

“At the time, Smithfield was a very smelly and noisy place with cattle markets, horse races and executions,” says Ms Bond. “So I think it was a retreat for the canons, with its fields, springs and clean air. Plus it was just a short ride from Smithfield.”

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Alas, the peace and tranquility were not to last, thanks to Henry VIII.

Unable to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn, the king made himself head of the Church. He thus destroyed the Pope’s authority over the Catholic Church in England.

As a result, St Bartholomew’s Priory was dissolved and had its properties confiscated – Canonbury Tower among them.

The tower was subsequently passed on to Henry VIII’s loyal servant Thomas Cromwell, who had himself organised the dissolution of all the monasteries, priories, friaries and nunneries. Today, most people know his name through the award-winning novel and TV series, Wolf Hall.

“We know he was at the tower because, in 1535, he wrote a letter from there,” says Ms Bond.

Apparently, no one at the Priory kicked up much of a fuss at the change of ownership.

“When you think that Prior John Houghton down at London Charterhouse was hung, drawn and quartered for refusing to go quietly, you probably would go quietly,” points out Ms Bond.

As it turned out, Cromwell’s tenancy didn’t last that long, as he was executed on the orders of the king in 1541.

“There are all kinds of reasons given for this – the most interesting of which is that he arranged the king’s fourth marriage to [German princess] Anne of Cleaves,” says Ms Bond. “The story goes that Henry rushed down to Southampton to greet her but didn’t like what he saw and didn’t want anything to do with her.

“Nevertheless, he went through with the marriage and later got it annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Apparently, he said she stank like a goat and looked like a Flanders mare, poor woman.”

Angry with his fixer, the king took back Canonbury Tower and gave it to Anne of Cleaves as part of her dowry.

In 1570, however, the estate was bought by one of the richest men of the era – Sir John Spencer, then Lord Mayor of London.

The story goes that he had an illegitimate daughter Eliza who had fallen in love with Lord Compton. Despite owning two great estates, however, her 21-year-old lover had spent all of his father’s money and even borrowed from Sir Spencer himself.

Needless to say, when the Lord Mayor found out about the romance, he was furious – and apparently shut his daughter up in Canonbury Tower.

“Eliza was quite a feisty lady and apparently escaped from the tower down a knotted sheet. Lord Compton was waiting below, disguised as a baker’s boy with a cart and basket,” says Ms Bond.

The Lord Mayor disowned his daughter, but the couple married and Lord Compton later became a courtier to Elizabeth I.

“When the couple had a baby son, Queen Elizabeth felt very sorry for them. She approached the girl’s father, Lord Spencer, and spun a tale that there was a child who had been disowned by its family and was looking for a godfather,” says Ms Bond.

“So Lord Spencer said he would be godfather. He turned up at the christening – and, of course, there was his daughter and a beautiful baby boy. So it was all love and kisses in the end.”

Thanks to this reconciliation, Lord Compton was finally able to get his hands on his wife’s fortune, and Canonbury Tower has been in the family ever since.

In the 1660s, the family was in debt from the Civil War. At that point, they mortgaged the tower and leased it out; they were never to live in it again.

Famous occupants since then have included statesman Francis Bacon, whose tenancy has generated several myths.

“One story regards a list on a Canonbury Tower wall of the Kings and Queens of England – from William the Conqueror to Charles I. Next to Elizabeth I, there’s a word scrubbed out except for the first letter, which the Francis Bacon Society say is an ‘F’ (see inset picture). They claim Francis Bacon was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I by [Robert] Dudley and therefore should have been king.”

Whether true or not, there are few traces of the tower’s famous occupants. Today, only a small number of visitors are allowed in each month to admire the oak-panelled rooms, inscriptions and views of London.

“But it’s really the stories that make it – and the atmosphere,” says Ms Bond.

Many more stories associated with the tower will be revealed on tours led by Clerkenwell and Islington Guides twice a month. Visit the Clerkenwell and Islington Guiding Association website to book.