“London goes beyond any boundary or convention… It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.” Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (2000)
Ironmonger Lane is a narrow street in the City of London running southbound between Gresham Street and Cheapside. This and the adjacent streets were part of the market place of London in the Middle Ages and perpetuate in their names the business in which they specialized. The lane formed in the late 11th century and it was one of only two accesses to the Guildhall until the Great Fire of London in 1666.
At the south end of Ironmonger Lane, at the corner with 90 Cheapside, a figure and a plaque inform us that in 1118 “St Thomas Becket was born in a house near this spot”.
Thomas Becket was both the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1162, he was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral, having clashed with King Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church; Becket was declared a martyr and a saint in 1770. Pilgrims through the ages have visited the site in Ironmonger lane on their way to Canterbury. To commemorate Thomas Becket’s birthplace, in 1227 a hospital and monastery called the Hospital of St Thomas Acon, was founded on the site.The Worshipful Company of Mercers, a trade guild regarded as the most eminent and wealthy, had use of a room in the Hospital of St Thomas, which became known as ‘la salle de mercerie’ (the mercers’ room). In 1538, with ‘the Dissolution of the Monasteries’ by Henry VIII, the Mercers’ took over the Hospital and made the Church their own Chapel. Today, the Mercers’ Chapel is the only one attached to a City Livery Company to survive the Reformation.
Next, it’s St Olave’s Court, a paved alley running through the Old Jewry, which was the medieval ghetto of the city until the end of the 13th century. The existence of the church of St Olave Jewry is documented in a manuscript of c.1130, but excavations made during 1985 uncovered the foundations of a Saxon predecessor, built between the 9th and 11th centuries, with recycled Roman bricks. Destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, St Olave was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, but demolished in 1887, except for the tower and west wall, which remain today converted into offices to solicitors. The churchyard survives as a secluded railed garden, open to the public.
Further north, at n.11, there is a house originally built in 1768 for the line draper Thomas Fletcher. Although the building was modified in the 19th century, the original pedimented doorcase with ionic columns survives. In 1949, a small mosaic pavement from a 3rd century Roman house was discovered during reconstruction works, and it is now preserved beneath the building.
Ironmonger lane is a great example of how layers of history have accumulated for nearly 2000 years and it reflects in a dynamic mixture of the old and new how the City of London has developed from its roman origins to become a modern capital.
If you wish to find out more, join my Highlights tour of the City.