Smithfield: London’s execution site

Smithfield

A sombre past

Smithfield remains largely unnoticed by most London enthusiasts, yet it contains some of the few buildings that survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. It also played a significant role in England’s more sombre history – the English Reformation and the years following it.

Norman and Medieval London

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, also known as Great Barts, was founded in 1123 as a monastery. It is one of two churches in close proximity to each other dating back to the Norman era. Great Barts was substantially damaged during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Its western nave was pulled down entirely. In an expression of utter contempt of Roman-Catholic traditions, the former monastery was turned into a blacksmith’s shop and used for other commercial purposes.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Great Barts was made a Parish church and remains so until today with regular services. Thanks to its unique history and awe-inspiring architecture, Great Barts is a popular spot for film productions. It was featured in films including Four Weddings and a Funeral and Amazing Grace.

Outside of the church lies its former gatehouse, now a timber-framed Tudor building dating back to Elizabethan times and featuring a stature of St Bartholomew. It displays a building technique called “Jettying”, which was very common in overcrowded medieval London and contributed to the spread of the fire in 1666.

Religous turmoil

In 1305 William Wallace, the Scottish knight and freedom fighter, was executed in a most brutal manner at Smithfield. Only two centuries later, during the religious turmoil of the 16th and 17th century, many religious dissenters, Catholics, Protestants and Protestant evangelicals alike, were burned at the stake here at Smithfield.

They include well-known reformers such as John Rogers. Rogers was vicar of nearby St-Sepulchres-without-Newgate and publisher of the Matthew Bible, the first English translation of the Bible. He was the first Protestant to be burned at the stake under Mary Tudor. A less known martyr was Anne Askew, a preacher and friend of Catherine Parr, wife of Henry VIII. Her views were deemed too evangelical even for the then already Protestant rulers.

The gruesome details of many of these martyrs’ deaths were compiled by John Foxe in his book “The Actes and Monuments”. A small memorial plaque at Smithfield lists some of their names.

Henry VIII’s statue outside the entrance to St Barts Hospital was set up in 1702. It is London’s only public statue of England’s most notorious king. Carved in stone, Henry VIII seems to look over the spot where during his reign and that of his children Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I those martyrs perished in the flames for their faith.